Means of Grace

Sinclair Ferguson on the Preaching of the Word

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315How important is the preaching of the Word of God in the lives of God’s people? How does its importance rank in comparison to things such as personal Bible reading or devotional study? Or small group Bible study?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes the following observation:

“Although set at a discount today by comparison with participation in either personal Bible study or more particularly group Bible study, neither of these, valuable as they may be, can substitute for the transforming power of the preached word.” (p.49)

Now Ferguson is not denying or downplaying the benefits of personal or group Bible studies. Far from it! But he is saying something that seems to go against conventional wisdom in many church circles today. What he is arguing for is the centrality of the preached Word of God in the life of the church.

If you want to grow in grace as a Christian, personal Bible reading and study are very good things. So is small group Bible study. But there is something special about the preaching of the Word of God. This is also the teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 89) which speaks of how the Word of God is made effectual to salvation in the lives of believers:

“The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

Another way of putting it would be to say that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God in the lives of believers. And He certainly uses our own personal reading and study of the Word. But it is “especially the preaching of the Word” that He makes effectual in the lives of God’s people!

So if you are a believer in Christ and desire to see the Holy Spirit at work in your life, making you grow in grace and transforming your life more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ, make it your practice to diligently attend upon the preaching of the Word in public worship. There is simply no substitute for the preached Word in the lives of God’s people!

How to Listen to a Sermon

1710_largeA lot of hard work usually goes into preaching a sermon (if it is done properly). The average  expository sermon that goes for maybe 30-45 minutes might take anywhere from 10-20 hours of preparation time, depending on the pastor and the particular circumstances of his church or situation in a given week. (Many pastors will not be able to allocate 20 hours of study/prep time, of course.)

But what about listening to sermons? Is there anything that goes into that other than simply showing up and listening? The Westminster Larger Catechism addresses this question:

Q. 160. What is required of those that hear the Word preached? A. It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives”

So there are some things that are actually required from the listener (not just the preacher) in order to get the most out of the preaching of God’s Word on the Lord’s day. What are some of those things?

First, we must “attend upon it with diligence.” Show up for worship on Sundays, and do so consistently & regularly. Make it your habit and priority to be there every Lord’s day (morning and evening, if applicable). Show up and listen. Real listening takes some effort. Focus on and pay attention to the sermon, and do not allow yourself to be distracted by other things (e.g. put you cell phone away).

Second, attend upon it with preparation. What would you say if I were to tell you that to a large extent what you ‘get out of the sermon’ (to use a common phrase) depends upon what you do before the sermon ever starts? In fact, the way that you spend your Saturdays will largely influence the quality of your time spent in worship on Sundays. Do you get enough sleep, as much as depends upon you to do so? Or do you stay up or out too late at night? (It is difficult to attend diligently upon the preaching of the Word of God if you are half asleep.)

Do you read through the sermon text prior to worship? Not just five minutes before the service, but during the week, or even the night before the service. This, of course, requires that one actually know what the sermon text will be ahead of time. In many churches, especially in those where the pastor(s) preach expositionally straight through entire books of the Bible, this is not at all difficult to do. So make it a point to spend some time reading the sermon text in advance. Think about what the passage means, and the many ways that it might apply to your life.

Thirdly, do all of this with prayer. Do we prayerfully prepare for worship? Do we prayerfully read through the sermon text ahead of time, asking the Lord to give us understanding? At the end of the day we must pray, because we must be taught by the Lord if we are going to understand His Word rightly, and apply it rightly as well.

The next thing we are instructed to do is to examine what we hear by the Scriptures. This, of course, is based upon Acts 17:11 which says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so“(ESV). They received the Word of God “with all eagerness.” What a great picture of the disposition that God’s people should have toward the preaching of the Word of God! And their eagerness to receive the Word of God led them to examine whatever they heard by the Scriptures! If they could do that when they heard the Apostle Paul himself preaching (and be considered “noble” for doing so!), how much more should we who hear the Word preached today make it a point to examine what we hear by the Scriptures!

And the last thing(s) that Q.160 mentions is that we must then “receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.” In other words, once we have prepared, prayed, carefully listened, examined what was said in the sermon, and found it to be true to the Scriptures, we should receive it as the very Word of God! That means receiving it “with faith” (believing/trusting it), love, and humility. That means meditating or thinking upon it, discussing it, memorizing it or keeping it in mind, and applying or obeying it. After all, James 1:22 tells us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (ESV). Hearing the Word is a good start, but it is only the beginning!

That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? That’s a lot of work for the listener! But that is the right way to approach listening to the faithful preaching of the Word of God. By God’s grace, seek to make this your practice, and you may strangely find your pastor’s preaching inexplicably getting much better (even when his actual preaching has not changed)! Even more importantly, you may find the Word of God bearing much fruit in your life, to the glory of God!

Feeding the Flock With a Slingshot? (Dabney on Polemics in Preaching)

dabney-eeFeeding Christ’s sheep is a common metaphor for the preaching and teaching aspect of pastoral ministry. When the risen Christ told Simon Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17), He certainly intended Peter to understand that if he (Peter) truly loved Him, one of the primary ways that he was to show it was in feeding Christ’s sheep by ministering the Word of God to them faithfully.

The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2), the writer of the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12-14), and even the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:2) likewise all used imagery involving feeding (or eating) to describe the ministry of the Word.

And so a right view of the preaching and teaching ministry in the church will necessarily involve seeing it in some way as (among other things) feeding Christ’s sheep. That should have a profound influence on the way that we approach preaching in the church. True Christian preaching should be done for the glory of Christ, and for the benefit (even the spiritual nourishment) of the flock.

In his book, Evangelical Eloquence, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) offers a number of critiques and cautions about certain kinds of preaching that are not fitting in the church. One of those preaching styles or practices might be described as polemics-centered preaching.

What is polemics? It can be defined as the practice of refuting error by means of dispute or argumentation. It can rightly be thought of as at least one aspect of destroying arguments raised against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Certainly there is a place for that in the preaching and teaching of the church.

Nonetheless, Dabney had the following to say about the kind of preaching that focuses almost entirely on polemics:

“In [other pulpits] the Sabbaths of the people are wholly occupied with those polemics by which the outworks of Christianity should be defended against the foreign assaults of infidel philosophy; as though one would feed the flock within the fold with the bristling missiles which should have been hurled against the wolves without.” (p.39)

Now here he is not condemning any and all polemics in our pulpits – far from it! There is nothing wrong with polemics in the pulpit per se. There is most certainly a use (even a need) for it at times. Without it, the flock will be unprepared for some of the assaults from within or without that might threaten the doctrinal integrity and unity of the church. But not all polemical issues are relevant (or even accessible) to the flock.

Sometimes, as Dabney rightly points out above, polemical preaching can be aimed at the wrong audience. Sometimes the staff (or the “bristling missiles,” as Dabney puts it) that should be used with force against the wolves, ends up being misdirected at the sheep instead. Such preaching is surely no way to feed Christ’s flock.

So let us feed Christ’s sheep in all of our preaching and teaching in the church. And let polemics have their proper place in our preaching and teaching, to be sure, but not the central place, lest we mistakenly try to feed Christ’s sheep a steady diet of stones or “bristling missiles.” Let us be careful not to try to feed Christ’s sheep with a slingshot. It not only fails to keep the wolves away, but it also leads to a malnourished flock.

Becoming “Sermon-Proof” (John Owen on The Dangers of Sin)

mortificationofsinIn his book, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen notes (among other things) the importance and necessity of having “a clear and abiding sense” in our minds and consciences of “the guilt, danger, and evil of sin” (p.65). Without a clear, biblical understanding of sin for what it really is, we will be ill-equipped to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit (Romans 8:13).

There he points out a number of the many dangers that sin poses to us, the first of which is the danger of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). He writes:

“This hardening is so serious that your heart becomes insensitive to moral influence. Sin leads to this. Every sin and lust will make a little progress in this direction. You who at one time were very tender and would melt under the influence of the Word and under trials will grow ‘sermon-proof’ and ‘trial proof.'” (p.68)

Sermon-proof. What a sobering phrase! It is bad enough that so many in our day simply avoid hearing the preaching of the Word in public worship altogether; but how much worse is the condition of those who, though they regularly attend the preaching of the Word, nevertheless have grown immune to its benefits.

Sermon-proof. That is a fitting description of the people of Isaiah’s day:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV)

To be sermon-proof is to continually hear, but not understand, to see, but not perceive. And what is the end result? A refusal to “turn” (or repent) and “be healed.” No wonder the writer of the book of Hebrews warns us of the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13)!

Are you sermon-proof? Do not content yourself with the mere hearing of sermons. Hearing sermons is certainly a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Hearing sermons, even on a regular, weekly basis is no firm evidence that one is not sermon proof. One can hear sermons until the proverbial cows come home, and yet do so with no benefit whatsoever.

Let us learn to attend the preaching of God’s Word in public worship “with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.90).

And, as the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it, let us “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13, ESV).

The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory (The Conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer)

Praying Hands

In this our last study through the Lord’s prayer, we now come to the conclusion of the prayer. The Lord’s Prayer concludes with these words:

“For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:13, KJV).

If you were raised in a church where the Lord’s prayer was a part of the liturgy of the worship service on Sundays (which used to be much more common than it seems to be in our day), no doubt those words are very familiar to you. If so, you may well have uttered these very words in prayer more times than you can even count.

But have you ever stopped to think about what these words mean? What exactly are we saying when we pray, “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory”? And what is the Lord Jesus teaching us about prayer when he concludes this great model prayer with those words?

The very last question (Q.107) of the Westminster Shorter Catechism gives us a very helpful explanation of what Jesus teaches us here in the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer. It says that these words teach us the following:

“to take our encouragement in prayer from God only, and in our prayers to praise Him, ascribing kingdom, power, and glory to Him; and, in testimony of our desire, and assurance to be heard, we say, Amen.

So the first thing we see there is that the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer teaches us “to take our encouragement in prayer from God only.” In other words, it is because we pray to the one true and living God, whose kingdom is over all, whose power is infinite and without limits, and whose glory outshines and outstrips all else, that can and should pray with confidence that He is both willing and able to answer all of the requests that we are taught to pray for in this great pattern prayer.

Secondly, the conclusion of the Lord’s prayer teaches us to praise God in our praying. It is far too easy to neglect to do that in our prayers, isn’t it? How often do we approach God in prayer as if we were presenting a shopping list of sorts? As Psalm 33:1 tells us, “Praise befits the upright” (ESV). We should praise God because it is fitting – it is the right thing to do. And we should remember to praise God in our prayers. In doing so, we remind ourselves of who it is that we are praying to in the first place. What an encouragement that would be to us in prayer!

Last but not least, the conclusion to the Lord’s prayer teaches us to testify to our desire and our assurance to be heard by God in our prayers by adding the simple word “Amen.” That word has the idea of saying “Let it be so.” The better we conform our praying to the Lord’s will as expressed in this model prayer, the more easily we will be able to add our “amen” to it!

I hope (and pray!) that you have found this brief series of studies through the Lord’s prayer to be helpful, and to be an encouragement to you in prayer. May the Lord Jesus teach us more and more to pray in accordance with this great pattern prayer – Amen!

Deliver Us From Evil (The Lord’s Prayer – Part X)

Praying Hands 2In our study through the Lord’s Prayer we now come to the last part of the last request, which is “. . . deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). What are we being taught to pray here? What does it mean for us to ask our heavenly Father to “deliver us from evil”?

First (as always), we need to keep the context in view. This request is very closely-related to what precedes it. In the previous requests the Lord Jesus has just taught us to ask for forgiveness (v.12), and for grace to avoid temptation in the first place, so as to not keep on sinning in the same ways (v.13a); now he teaches us to ask for deliverance from evil (v.13b). There is a clear progression of thought in these verses.

Sometimes we set ourselves up by not avoiding the occasion to temptation and sin. We allow ourselves to go to places or spend time with certain people that we know full well will give us cause to stumble. And yet we often fail to avoid those things. Many times that is our first mistake, isn’t it? We’ve all been there at one time or another, no doubt. Have you ever heard the saying, “Bad company corrupts good morals”? (It is based on 1 Corinthians 15:33.) Is there a place or a person(s) that you know that you need to avoid for this reason? It is not without reason that we are taught to pray not to be led into temptation.

But sometimes there is just no getting around temptation. Have you ever been there? Have you ever found yourself staring temptation right in the face, even if through no fault of your own? What are you to do then? Here’s an idea: pray. It is right here toward the end of the Lord’s prayer. We must pray to be delivered from evil. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way:

“Q.106. What do we pray for in the sixth petition? A. In the sixth petition, which is, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, we pray that God would either keep us from being tempted to sin, or support and deliver us when we are tempted.”

We need to pray for the Lord’s support and deliverance when we are tempted.  We should not just think of “evil” as consisting in things such as suffering or even Satan himself (although it certainly includes those things), but also our own propensity and inclination toward sin. We are to “watch and pray” lest we enter into temptation (Mark 14:38), but when we do enter into temptation, we need to pray for God’s help and deliverance.

And none of us are sufficient for these things on our own. Which is why this request is in the first person plural (as are the others before it in v.11-13). We must pray that the Lord would deliver “us” (not just “me”) from evil. Do you pray for your brothers and sisters in the Lord this way? May the Lord’s prayer teach us to pray not just for ourselves, but others as well, to be delivered from evil.

Forgive Us Our Debts (THE LORD’S PRAYER – PART VII)

Praying Hands 2The fifth request found in the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, KJV). There is so much packed into that one seemingly-simple request, that we will need to unpack its meaning and application over the course of more than one study. (So consider this as part one of a two-part study of this particular request in the Lord’s Prayer.)

Perhaps the first thing that we should learn from this request and its inclusion in the model prayer that the Lord Jesus taught us to pray is that we actually need forgiveness. If we need to ask for forgiveness, that necessarily means that we are sinners, doesn’t it? In fact, Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (KJV). How many have sinned? All. How many have therefore “come short of the glory of God”? All. Every last one of us.

And in this request our sins are referred to as “debts.” Sin puts us in debt to God. Being in debt to another person is bad enough, but being in debt to God should be a sobering thought for anyone! What every person owes to God as his or her Creator is obedience – perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience. But ever since the fall of mankind in Adam’s sin (Genesis chapter 3) we have all failed to obey God, and have transgressed his holy law in more ways and more often than we can even begin to comprehend. Our debt of sin is un-repayable by us. It makes our ever-mounting national debt seem like chump change in comparison. And so we desperately need forgiveness.

What is forgiveness? The word “forgive” in Matthew 6:12 has the idea of sending something away or removing it. It brings to mind the imagery of the “scapegoat” found in Leviticus 16:7-22. There we are told that two goats were to be used as a sin offering – one goat would be killed as a sacrifice to the Lord (v.15), while the other goat (the scapegoat), after having the sins of the people confessed over it, would be sent away into the wilderness (v.21), bearing the sins of the people far, far away, never to return.

Those two goats together picture for us the work of Jesus Christ on the cross in both making atonement for sin, and in carrying our sins far away from us. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (KJV). The reason that we can ask God for forgiveness of our sins is only because the debt of our sin has been paid in full by the only one capable of paying it – through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And forgiveness is not something that we just need to ask for from God at the beginning of the Christian life, but will continue to be an ongoing (even daily!) need in the lives of all believers. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us that in this life we will never outgrow our need to continually ask God for forgiveness. (And so the Lord’s Prayer clearly rules out any idea of perfectionism!)

Praying for the forgiveness of our sins should also be a regular part of both private and corporate prayer (i.e. praying with other believers in groups as well as in public worship). After all, it does say, “forgive us our debts,” not just ‘forgive me my debts.’

I sincerely hope that you know the joy and peace that only come through the forgiveness of sins, and which is freely offered to you through faith in Jesus Christ. There is nothing else in this world that can relieve a troubled conscience like the knowledge that, in Christ, a holy God has freely forgiven all of your sins!