J.C. Ryle on the Cross of Christ

old-pathsHow important is the cross of Christ? How central is it to the message of the Bible? Here is what J.C. Ryle has to say about that subject:

“Take away the cross of Christ, and the Bible is a dark book. It is like the Egyptian hieroglyphics without the key that interprets their meaning – curious and wonderful, but of no real use.” (Old Paths, p.233)

Indeed the cross is so central to the message of the Bible, so interwoven throughout it’s pages in both the Old and New Testaments, that you would scarcely be able to make any sense of the Scriptures without it. It would be, as Ryle said, a rather “dark book.”

Judging by Satan’s manifold temptations against our Lord in trying to dissuade Him from going to the cross (Matthew 4:1-11; 16:21-23), it is clear that this is precisely the kind of Bible that Satan himself would readily approve of. Cross-less preaching is certainly his preference for much the same reason.

No wonder the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth,: “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23, ESV), and “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2, ESV). He was determined to keep the main thing the main thing, as the saying goes. And the main thing in Scripture is “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

 

Sinclair Ferguson on Union with Christ

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes an “staggering” observation about how often the Apostle Paul used language in his epistles denoting the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ. He writes,

“Contrast Paul’s frequent use of the specific expression ‘in Christ’ (over eighty times), and ‘in the Lord’ (over forty times), not to mention the variations of it such as ‘in him.’ The statistic is staggering. It is the basic way Christians in the Pauline churches were taught to think about themselves. They were ‘in Christ’, united to Christ, and therefore sharing ‘with Christ’ in all that he had accomplished for them. After all, as we have seen, they had been ‘baptized into Christ Jesus.’ (p.114)

Think about that for a moment. By Ferguson’s count, not even including Paul’s frequent use of phrases like “in him” (e.g. Ephesians 1:4, 7, 11), that adds up to no less than 120 times that the Apostle Paul used language related to the believer’s union with Christ!

No wonder John Murray once wrote that, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation not only in its application but also in its once-for-all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p.161). Do we think about our union with Christ in such terms, as being central to the whole doctrine of salvation?  Or do we read through the epistles of Paul and simply pass right over such phrases, either not noticing them in the first place, or not giving them much thought at all?

The next time that you are reading through one of the epistles of Paul, take some time to note (highlight?) the numerous times that you come across such phrases as “in Christ”, “in Him”, and the like. You may be surprised to see that the doctrine of union with Christ, as central as it is to the biblical doctrine of salvation, has been hiding under your nose in plain sight all this time!

“The Master of the Jigsaw Puzzle of Our Lives” (Sinclair Ferguson on the Providence of God)

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson includes a chapter dealing with what Romans 12:1-2 has to say about the doctrine of sanctification.  In v.2 the Apostle Paul says the following:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (ESV)

There Paul describes the will of God as “good and acceptable and perfect.” Now this passage, strictly speaking, primarily refers to what is known as the preceptive will of God. That is, the will of God as it has been revealed in Scripture regarding how we as believers in Christ are to live. We are to seek to discern and do the will of God. And in doing so, we will find His will to be good, acceptable, and perfect.

But, as Ferguson points out, this passage also has application to the will of God in general, and so even to what is known as His secret or decretive will. And so that means that it has application to the providence of God as well. He writes,

” . . .God’s will is ‘perfect’ because his wisdom is flawless. We see this in small things, perhaps sometimes in great things. The Lord is the master of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives. The pieces may be strangely shaped; often we cannot see how they fit together; but eventually when the big picture is complete we will see that each piece was perfectly shaped. He leads us by ways we could not have guessed, into situations we never expected, to fulfil [sic] purposes we never could have imagined.” (p.52)

What a beautiful way to describe the believer’s perception of God’s providential care over his or her life. It is sometimes very difficult for us to understand what God is doing in our lives. But God truly is the “master of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives.” And He knows what He is doing in our lives, even when we do not. It brings to mind the old, classic hymn by William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” One of the verses of that hymn puts it this way:

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”

What a comfort to know that the will of God is indeed perfect, and that behind every frowning providence He hides a smiling face. Our lives may sometimes seem like a jigsaw puzzle to us, but never to God!

R.L. Dabney on the Preacher as Herald

dabney-eeR.L. Dabney’s book on preaching, Evangelical Eloquence, makes a very strong case for the practical of expository preaching. That is, preaching through entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse, with the aim of making known “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) to the people of God.

In a chapter entitled, “Cardinal Requisites of the Sermon,” he deals with “the general qualities which must characterize the structure of every sermon” (p.105). It is telling that the very first one of these qualities that he states as a cardinal requisite of true biblical preaching is that of “textual fidelity” (or sticking to the text, so to speak). There he writes,

The best argument to enforce upon you this virtue is suggested by the same fact – that the preacher is a herald. The first quality of the good herald is the faithful delivery of the very mind of his king. Our conception of our office, and of the revealed word as an infinitely wise rule for man’s salvation, permits us to discuss the text in no other spirit.” (p.105)

A firm persuasion of the truth of the calling of the preacher as a herald of the King ought to lead those of us who have the great privilege and responsibility to be pastors and preachers to stick to the text (to tell the truth of it), to preach through entire books of the Bible (to tell the whole truth of it), and to not mingle it with ideas that are not truly present in the text (to tell nothing but God’s truth).

Only then can the preacher say, with the Apostle Paul, that he is ‘innocent of the blood of all men because he did not shrink back from declaring to them the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:26-27).

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!

“A Most Elegant Book” (The Belgic Confession on General Revelation)

The Belgic Confession (1561) is one of the confessional documents that comprise the “3 Forms of Unity” in the churches of the continental reformed tradition. This confession is the statement of faith, taking the reader through a brief but thorough (at least by today’s standards) treatment of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Article 2 (of a total of 37 articles or heads of doctrine) deals with how God has made Himself known to us. It reads as follows:

“We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.”

According to the Belgic Confession, there are two “books,” so to speak, by which we know God. The first is what is often referred to as “general revelation.” This consists of the universe itself, including (as the Confession puts it) its “creation, preservation, and government.” In a sense, then, the Confession holds that both Creation and Providence (which is often defined as God’s powerful preserving and governing of all things – see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.11). These things testify to God’s “everlasting power and divinity,” as both Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:20 attest.

In his book, With Heart and Mouth (which is an exposition of the Belgic Confession), Daniel Hyde notes the limits of general revelation:

“The Confession follows the apostle in saying that this knowledge of God in creation, providence, and governance is of God as our creator. The content, then, of general revelation is not of God as redeemer but simply as the wise, eternal, powerful, and creative God that he is.” (p.57)

So the knowledge of God that we have in that “most elegant book” of nature is sufficient to render all of mankind without excuse for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. But the gospel is not to be found there. That is where the second book comes in, which is an actual book – the Bible. This is often referred to as “special revelation” (as opposed to or distinct from general revelation).

God reveals Himself “more clearly and fully” in Scripture (“His holy and divine Word”), so the Scriptures are primary. Our reading or understanding of the “book” of nature must be informed or guided by the Scriptures. And, most importantly, it is only in the Scriptures that God makes Himself known to us, not just as Creator, but also as Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

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!