Dear James (B)–Medieval Wisdom and Lust

Dear James,

I’m pretty sure I understand your concerns about the lurking Catholicism and implicit medievalism in the practice of fasting and the language of Gluttony. There is, of course, nothing wrong with things that are specifically medieval. For whatever their liabilities, theirs was also an age which seemed to know a great deal more about the interaction of the body and soul. And I hope we’re both sufficiently self-aware to evaluate beliefs on their intrinsic merit, and not on their association with a specific time period. Where the medievals were right we ought to agree with them, learn from them, and utilize their thoughts as a corrective to our own, distorted age. It’s the same with things we might consider more “Catholic” than others. Whatever the liabilities or merits of Roman Catholicism, we would be foolhardy to assume that all Catholics throughout all of history are to be dismissed because of the errors of some Catholics at some points.

In this, it seems to me that our Medieval Catholic friends showed extreme wisdom in highlighting what today we know as the Seven Deadly Sins. Not because there are only seven sins, nor because we ought to rank sins as a way to measure how good we think we are. No, what the medieval mind shows is a kind of comprehensive awareness of those things which have power to keep us from the fullness of life in God—Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Greed, and Pride. Ignorance of the means by which these things can keep us from God is not a strength on our part. Similarly, medievals had a robust conception of the body and the need to mortify it for the sake of our enriched life with God. Just this morning I read in Walter Hilton that “The flesh must be chastised, with discretion, to atone for past sins, and to restrain sinful inclinations, and to make the body obedient and compliant to the soul.” Note the strength of his claim—the body must be chastised. Your faith will remain infantile until some sort of physical mortification has taken shape in your spiritual life. But note the immediate appeal to discretion—we mustn’t go too far, or exceed our body’s capacity to benefit from the activity. And note the ultimate purpose—that we are striving to make our bodies “obedient and compliant to the soul” That, with concision, seems to me precisely what this season of fasting is really about, and illustrates nicely why it is at such places that we must study at the feet of our medieval, Catholic masters.

You are right to observe that by identifying sexual indiscretion as a sin of Gluttony I must therefore mean something much more nuanced by Lust. I still hold the first assertion to be true, if only because a significant part of our growth in faith and awareness of sin is the business of disambiguating the motivations of the heart. Many people who have committed sexual indiscretions may think they’ve committed a sin of Lust, when really they’re in the grip of Gluttony, sinning against both pleasure and time. They would sin less, not by denying their sexuality, but by both building up their temperance and striving to savor those pleasures which are appropriate for the given time. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something intrinsically sexual about Lust, but I think the heart of the sin is placed somewhere different.

For me, the essence of Lust is in the privilege it gives to our animal nature. In Lust, my desires (and, specifically in focus, my most animal, instinctual desire—the desire to procreate) are granted decision-making power over my will. The result is that by privileging my animal nature over my spiritual I begin to deny my humanity. Lust, by fixating on desire, reduces me to nothing more than my desires. Sub-human, then, I am crippled in my capacity for relationships. By privileging personal desire above all else, Lust makes me supremely selfish.

I think it’s interesting that when we look at the creation of human persons in early Genesis we see a kind of recipe for the human creature—dirt, plus the Spirit of God. We are material (earth), and spiritual (God’s breath), at the same time. This is the central thing that sets us apart from the rest of creation. When as human creatures we are operating rightly, then the spiritual is in a position of governance over the material. But when we begin to privilege our animal desires and give them precedence over our spiritual ones, then we break the human creature and death is a necessary consequence. In this very specific sense, the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden was a sin of Lust—of the privileging of animal desire (for fruit, for knowledge) over our spiritual selves (in submission to our maker). In this, it seems of especial note that our Lord’s first temptation centers on food, and that his answer to the devil was that man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fasting, it would appear, is about getting our humanity back in the right place—it’s like a scheduled tune-up for the human machine.

Fasting is therefore extremely useful in addressing Lust. However, we must be careful not to turn it into a kind of cure for Lust—or indeed for any sin. There are two things to say about this. First, we mustn’t think that by engaging in spiritual activity we can merit specific spiritual merits. What I mean is that we can’t bargain with God by saying, “I’ll fast in this way if You’ll fix me with regard to sex.” That’s not the point of fasting, and that’s not how things work with God. (And yet I wonder how often these attitudes creep quietly into our thoughts when we’re fasting!) To be fair, there will always be some spiritual benefit for all intentional acts of spiritual self-discipline, but we don’t get to determine what those will be. The best thing that can happen—especially during a time of fasting from food—is that I might gain a new sense of quiet patience before the Lord, a submissiveness, a prayerfulness. From that quietude, perhaps He will work in me something unexpected, like a desire for greater kindness, or a conviction of a certain unkindness. It can be anything! But better attention to the Word of God seems to me the sole and pure motive of fasting—I starve my belly so that I can open my ears.

Second, while fasting is useful against Lust, when we use fasting to try to “defeat” sin then we open the door to self-pity. Think of it this way. When we make our fasting penance for sin, then in addition to turning it into a bargaining chip with God, we also interrupt the central process of quietude and attentiveness to God. Our focus is upon our selves and upon self-evaluation when we ought instead to have been listening to God. And so long as our attention is self-focused in fasting, the snake of self-pity writhes in our subconscious. Hunger becomes quiet self-acclamation. Sin generates a need for further self-focus. The simple truth is that fasting in itself cannot defeat sin. Fasting opens us to God, and it is God alone who defeats sin. And so long as we are seeking some other thing through fasting, then we are interrupting the very process which might actually change us.

I wonder if the positive virtue which best aligns against Lust isn’t contingency. If, in Lust, there is a temptation to depend upon my own desires as determinative of my identity, then wouldn’t it be answered by an awareness of my true, deeper dependency upon God and God alone? “Man does not live by bread alone.” Fasting seems to me one of the best ways to go about getting that relationship sorted out. Additionally, if this disordering of my desires in Lust creates selfishness, then the other positive area of focus would be intentional relationships and acts of sacrificial service. Anything, in short, that can get me out of the echo-chamber of my own desires.

Please lay aside any concerns about our correspondence. I’ve always looked forward to your letters, and it seems to me that this Lenten season has given us a perfect opportunity for just this kind of discussion about sin, fasting, and goodness. As always, I hope it will continue to be mutually beneficial!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

When Winning is Losing

In one scene of the 1985 classic Real Genius Lazlo Hollyfeld, reclusive genius, encounters Chris Knight in the dormitory and asks him about his final exam. He says, “Well, how’d you do?” Knight, energetic, answers, “How’d I do? I passed! But I failed! Yeah!” And Hollyfeld responds, “Well, then I’m happy and sad for you.”

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It was difficult not to remember these words following the astonishing results of the US election this past week. Certainly (and regardless of outcome) it was going to be a pass that was a fail, a failure that somehow passed. My own summary comment, which I offered on Facebook, was this: “There are victories that are losses, and losses that are victories. The cross is the latter. Very often, politics are the former.” This is a truism that any married person will be able to confirm from experience. There are occasions when winning an argument might well mean losing part of the relationship. Winning, in other words, isn’t everything. Tuesday’s win may well be a real loss for Christians in America.

Underlying this is a conviction, perhaps strange to hear, that a Clinton presidency would have been fundamentally better for our public Christian witness. Why should this be? Because while such a presidency would likely have been grievous to our Christian comfort—creating the potential for loss of liberty and opposition to our cherished beliefs at the highest office of the American nation—in the light of such an opposing power structure our Christian convictions would require clear, solid, and enunciated articulation. The discomfort would force us to stand clearly for our beliefs and to strive to re-articulate them to a culture which views us largely as an antiquated mystery.

This upcoming Trump presidency will likely be more comfortable for Christians, but it will also be summarily more damaging. It is foundationally difficult to maintain a countercultural stance when you represent the dominant power structure. In the cloud of our political comfort our true convictions are likely to be sullied and masked by controversy, distortion, and association. The many people we are called by Christ to reach on the left are in this moment becoming unreachable because of our new ascendance to power and association with Trump. This situation also makes it difficult for us to reach those American Christians on the right who confuse nationalism with faith. It is hard to envision a scenario where this victory is not a defeat for Christian witness in America.

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A further reason why this is so damaging is because we have not sufficiently reflected on the relationship between power and witness. The apostles, of course, married their witness to power—spiritual power. Signs and wonders accompanied their proclamation of the gospel both as a testimony to the living power of God and as tokens of the validity of their message. Those signs proved that their witness was sanctioned by supernatural power structures—i.e., that the Kingdom of God had arrived and Jesus was its Risen King. But we should observe that, while the signs are present for all to see, individuals who witness them remain free to choose their response. This is a hallmark of the divine use of power: God does not force people. Forcing people violates freedom, and violating freedom both invalidates faith and nullifies relationship. God wants us to make a choice to follow Him. Apparently, He wants friends and not slaves.

American Christians are appealing to political structures as a method of social change, when God’s model for social change is proclamation, supernatural power, and personal relationships. We are fixated on the top, when we ought to be aiming at the bottom. Rome fell not because the emperor became a Christian, but because Christianity infiltrated every valence of its political, social, and moral world. The stone in Daniel, if you remember, the one not cut by human hands, strikes at the feet and not the head of the great empire statue. The world does not, and cannot, become more Christian by means of earthly power. What I fear is that Christians, by our use of and association with earthly political power, are in danger of attempting to do something for God in a way fundamentally opposed to how God Himself does things. Our use of power does not look very much like His. In the process, it is poisoning our spoken witness as well. The impression generated by this election is that American Christians, at their core, simply want to tell other people how to live. Rightly or wrongly, that vision of “how to live” is now perceptually linked to racism, sexism, and nationalism. The witness to Christ is thus marred by our aping of political structures.

Trump’s presidency may achieve certain desirable ends and may preserve certain freedoms, but it will make our task as Christians in America much more difficult. May God have mercy upon us, and upon our nation.

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Terry Fontaine, “Against the Flow”

The Imitation Danger

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Look at those robes! If I had robes like that, I’m sure I could preach like him.

I’ve been slowly reading through Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching, which thus far has been an experience both brilliant and enriching. Originally delivered at Yale in 1877, the series of lectures examine the life of the preacher and the construction of the sermon. Whether or not you are a preacher, Brooks’s insights into the ministry and the nature of formation bear fruit in many areas. If you are a preacher, I don’t know that I can recommend it highly enough.

In one chapter on how to construct a sermon, Brooks warns sternly against the danger of imitation in preaching—the unique pitfall of copying the style, mannerisms, and delivery of another preacher. One of the chief criticisms he offers is that, essentially, we are bad at measuring what makes someone successful. He writes, “that which is worst in any man is always the most copiable. And the spirit of the copyist is blind. He cannot discern the real seat of the power that he admires. He fixes on some little thing and repeats that perpetually as if so he could get the essential greatness of his hero” (167). We hear one speaker who tells great stories and conclude, “I ought to include more stories.” We hear another who exposits the text verse-by-verse and think, “I ought to go verse by verse.” One minister reads a manuscript, while another memorizes a manuscript, while yet another preaches extemporaneously. Each model is attempted as an avenue to a certain kind of success. In each case we miss the real point, and in imitation we are perpetually wont to ape secondary, rather than primary, things.

This is as true of church growth models as it is of preachers. Studies are performed which analyze and decode the elements of success which mark churches that grow—the casting of clear vision, administration, the humility of the members, healthy organization, buy-in, etc. Other churches, wanting to succeed, strive to imitate these elements. But in copying, they miss the heart of what brought growth to the church. In essence, all those features are secondary. Churches don’t seek humility as an end in itself, they seek Christ and are made humble in the process. Churches don’t seek good administration in itself, they follow Christ and are forced to learn administration as they follow. Churches don’t invent vision, they seek God’s vision and follow it as it pertains to their particular location, people, and needs. I remember reading about a minister who attended a Willow Creek conference. Returning, and energized, he announced to his church that he knew what they needed to take the church to the next level: they would remove their pews and replace them with Willow Creek style theater seats.

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Brooks admonishes, “if you really reverence a great man, if you look up to and rejoice in his good work, if you truly honor him, you will get at his spirit, and doing that you will cease to imitate his outside ways” (169). If we would truly grow our own ministries, or our own pulpit service, then our imitation must be in seeking the same spirit as those we admire, and not their accidentals. We must become adept at discerning between what C.S. Lewis once called in an essay “First and Second Things.” An application of Augustine’s Ordo Amoris, Lewis observed that we must love in the proper proportion those things which are most worthy of love. If we love second things first—an incidental rather than an essential—then we are on a path to losing out on both the first and the second thing. But if we love the first thing first, then we are likely to get the second thing thrown in as a bonus. Ape the style, and you will miss the soul. Great preachers are great not because they have great style, but because they are marked by a great and convinced love of Jesus. Great churches grow not because they are well organized and manifest all the fruits of the Spirit, but because they have sought and are pursuing a vision of Jesus in their midst.

All in all, you can never put on another preacher’s, or another church’s, success as your own. The clothes will not and cannot fit. At best, they will provide a temporary surge of energy. At worst, in distraction you will lose sight of your true call—which is not to attend to the success of others but rather to obedience to Christ where you are. Brooks has this to say as well, “The temptation of imitation is so insidious that you cannot resist it by the mere determination that you will not imitate. You must bring a real self of your own to meet this intrusive self of another man that is crowding in upon you” (169). The preacher must be true to himself—an individual exhibiting the transforming power of the Gospel as it is filtered through his personality, not the personality of another. In the same way the local church must be true to itself, manifesting the transforming power of grace to its people, in its location, in the flavor and aroma of its city. To do less is to cheat both ourselves and our neighbors of the power of the Gospel.

There will always be shining lights among both preachers and churches. Brooks, of these, says somewhat sardonically that, “There are some preachers who have done noble work, of whom we are often compelled to question whether the work that they have accomplished is after all greater than the harm that they have innocently done by spoiling so many man in doing it” (166). It falls then to individuals and churches alike to ward against the danger of imitation—not by ignoring God’s work done through these bright stars in ministry, but by connecting ourselves with their true source for success: our vine-tapped life into the living work of Jesus Christ.

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Diagnosing Deception—How Can I Know I’m Not Deceived?

At this moment, in the Church, there are large groups of people who are cripplingly, trenchantly, blindingly deceived. This must be the case, because groups who both claim to be Christian claim mutually contradictory positions to be true. Is Jesus the only way to salvation, or are there equally valid alternatives? Does Christ come to make us healthy and wealthy, or is suffering part of his plan for humans? Does our increase in knowledge mean that our approach to sexual ethics must change as well? Does God bless homosexual unions or not? Abraham Lincoln, reflecting on the divided morality of the Civil War, had this to say: “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” Either Jesus is the only way or he is not, either health and wealth is true or it is not, and either God blesses homosexuality or He does not. There can be no middle ground between them.

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As I see it, however, the really troubling factor sits deeper than a disagreement about doctrine (although doctrine does indeed matter). The real question—the real nugget of the problem—is that both sides in each debate claim to be following God’s Spirit. Both sides claim to have the same religiously derived affirmation, the same spiritual sense that they are right. Both sides are reading the same Bible, claim to pray to the same Being, and experience religious feelings that validate their positions accordingly. If God is not a contradiction, then one side must necessarily be deceived.

Last month I read a chapter of Jeremiah each morning and night. I was struck, again and again and again at Jeremiah’s uncompromising rejection of falsehood—false prophets, false teachers, those who mislead Israel. His words, speaking for God in Jeremiah 23:31-32, stood out as a particularly clear example,

31 “Behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the Lord, “who use their tongues and declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ 32 Behold, I am against those who have prophesied false dreams,” declares the Lord, “and related them and led My people astray by their falsehoods and reckless boasting; yet I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit,” declares the Lord.

How can I know that I’m not deceived? If two sides both appeal to the same sets of feelings and data to bolster our mutually contradictory positions, how can we navigate between them? And rather than asking how I can know I’m right, what factors can give me confidence that I’m not a false prophet operating against the Lord?

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The place to begin, if we would have clarity on the issue of deception, is through diagnosing deception itself. In this, I think there might be four components which contribute to deception. The first is that deception is rooted in the corrupted heart. Jeremiah 17:9 states it clearly and simply, The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” Every thought, motive, and action of the human heart is to some degree corrupted by a layer of deception. No human has ever had a perfectly pure motive in his or her life. Even our best motives—to acts of generosity or love or sacrifice—are flavored however momentarily by the lurking desire for rewards and recognition. How much more our middling or base desires? We are sneaky and self-deceiving creatures, eager to make ourselves look good, eager to gloss over our misdeeds and elevate the goods we perceive of ourselves. Solzhenitsyn, writing in his Gulag Archipelago, famously said that “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” G.K. Chesterton, responding to a newspaper inquiry on the topic of “What’s Wrong with the World,” responded, briefly and poignantly: “Dear Sirs,” he wrote, “I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”

Because the heart is deceived, this means that our feelings about whether or not we are right are also deceived. The heart is deceitful above all else, therefore the ratifications of my heart are also subject to this overarching deceptive power. This means that the feeling that I am right about something is in itself insufficient. A couple of examples might clarify this further.

solzhenitsyn_timePreachers (like me) often describe a certain sensation while preaching—it is a strong sense of feeling that rushes to enlarge the preacher and his rhetoric with a sense of divine power. We might call this the “preacher’s spirit,” a rising feeling of being “in the spirit” that comes over us. But the trouble with this feeling is that while I might feel it, and feel that I am really preaching the true gospel, I can listen to another preacher who is also feeling it but preaching the opposite of the gospel! There are very bad preachers—bad in doctrine, bad in rhetorical technique—who nevertheless feel the same rush of the preacher’s spirit. We can only conclude that the preacher’s spirit is an unreliable measure of the teacher’s validity.

Another area of confusion is related to the conscience. Many people appeal to their conscience as indication of their religious orthodoxy—what conscience permits, and doesn’t permit, is considered to be a good indicator of right and wrong. Many Christians even claim that their conscience is virtually the same as the Holy Spirit. The problem is that the conscience, although a genuine moral indicator, is deeply culturally formed. I work in an Asian context, and for my many Asian peers it is unthinkable—indeed unconscionable—to walk into a person’s house wearing your shoes. But this is clearly a trained behaviour, and not a divine mandate. On the opposite side of the matter, there are many things to which my conscience registers no opposition whatsoever, but which the Spirit of God interjects His insistent voice (an unkind thought, an improper look, and so forth). Many Christians have simply neglected the training of the conscience, and in the process have come to believe that they have a relationship with the Holy Spirit when in fact they simply have a relationship with their conscience.

The overarching point remains the same, that our feelings—religious, conscientious, or otherwise—are unreliable guides to truth because of our deceptive heart.

This brings us to the second component, which is that deception originates in the corrupted will. Here I think we can helpfully revisit Eve’s decision in Genesis 3:6, When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Eve’s choice was a choice against God’s plan—a choice for personal desire, a choice that placed the human will in priority over God’s. It was, in essence, the choice to cling to God’s gifts—the garden, the fruit—but in a way that rejected God as the giver of gifts. Eve confused the gift with the giver, and that act of self-deception was the inaugurating moment for all our subsequent self-deceptions.

Eve and Serpent

The act of placing desire in priority over obedience birthed a confusion that continues to plague us at almost every valence of human life. We are confused beings, often incapable of making moral choices because our inflamed desires war against our capacity to will rightly. One particular expression of this corruption in our faulty reasoning is in the way that we regularly conclude that possession of a gift is license to use the gift. We see this expressed vividly in life itself, sex, and the spiritual gifts. God gives us life—it is a gift—but in giving it we are not licensed to use it however we please. God gives us sex—it is His great and good idea!—and yet He does not license us to use it how we please, but specifically limits and proscribes its use. And God gives us spiritual gifts as well—preaching, teaching, prophecy, and so forth—but the presence of the gift is not therefore license to use it. The gifts must be used under the permission of God and in accordance with His will. When we assume that God’s gifts are ours to use apart from His permission—when we assume that the presence of the gift is itself permission—then we repeat the sin of Eve.

A third component in diagnosing deception is to recognize that deception thrives in a validating community. In Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company corrupts good character.” In time, such company, uncritically evaluated, can lead the believer astray on a vector angled far from God. The reason for this is because communities—especially the self-elected community of friendship—give us power and permission for our desires. We all have friends to whom we turn when feeling sad, or friends to whom we look when we want to have fun. But in the same way we are also aware of times we have turned to certain friends because in their company we experience a kind of permission for bad behaviour—friends with whom we can get drunk, or cause trouble, or gossip, or whatever. In this way, good communities bolster good behaviours, but bad communities reinforce bad behaviours. This is more than simply an echo-chamber effect, it is the magnification of the will’s corruption through companionship giving license to the illicit.

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Bad company, like bad conditions, kills life.

I am reminded here of the chilling words from 1 Kings 22:19-23, when King Ahab, knowing that many of his own prophets were unreliable, demanded that Micaiah, a known prophet of the Lord, speak the truth to him.

19 Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of the Lord. I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left. 20 The Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said this while another said that. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 The Lord said to him, ‘How?’ And he said, ‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then He said, ‘You are to entice him and also prevail. Go and do so.’ 23 Now therefore, behold, the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; and the Lord has proclaimed disaster against you.”

Not only was a deceptive spirit at work, but the community of prophets created a validating community which ensured that the deception would remain unexamined and unchecked.

These three factors, then, show the origins of deception—that I choose the thing I want, then validate it with both my emotions and in community. The result of this spiral of deception is the fourth factor in deception—deception bears fruit by redefining God. Psalm 50:21 powerfully describes this attitude, when God saysThese things you have done and I kept silence; You thought that I was just like you. When we give priority to our deceptive hearts, then the end result is that we attempt to form God into our own image, into our own likeness. We shape our theology, our ideas of God, and our interpretations of experiences so that we favor our deceived perspective. We choose our theology over God’s reality, create golden calves to worship and call them Yahweh. Instead of being formed after His likeness, we turn Him into a vile projection of our own wicked desires. He becomes the licensing agent of our own perversions, servant of our lusts, sanctifier of human dissolution and decay.

Golden Calf

To some degree, we each have traveled down all of these deceptive paths—we have listened to our deceptive hearts, we have chosen God’s gifts over God Himself, we have appealed to validating communities to give permission to our choices, and we have redefined God to an image that favors us in the process. Clearly, the first step in preventing self-deception must be to acknowledge my propensity towards deception.

What can be done, then, to prevent further self-deception? Above all else I will require something from outside myself, an outside help. If deception is rooted in the heart, then I require something external to help straighten things out. I am reminded, then, of Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude, that “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is, of course, an impossibility—how can I ever have a pure heart so that I can see God? I cannot—but perhaps the inverse is then true, that those who look to God will be purified in heart. The implication would be that a sustained gaze at God is necessary to purify our sight, our hearts, and our minds—that under the illumination of the vision of God our self-deceptions are in time consumed.

This looking to God is an iconoclasm that takes two forms, and these two forms are two treatments for deception represented in two commitments. The first is a commitment to pursue God as He really is, and not as I want Him to be. This is an attitude of submission to God which permits Him always to define Himself to us, to startle us, to make Himself Lord and master of our perceptions of Him. In this, we reject all our ideas of God in favor of God Himself, all our best thoughts about God are submitted to Him for His own personal review. I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed. Grieving the loss of his wife, Lewis had become frustrated with the fake images of her embedded in his mind. He didn’t want the image of Joy, he wanted Joy; He didn’t want his idea of God, but God. Not our silly and haphazard constructs of divine ideas, wood and paper and tape and paint—but the real thing.

Lewis and Joy Gresham

In this, the Christian who would be undeceived must maintain a sustained gaze at God, seeking Him and nothing less than Him, craving, longing, desperate to see the fullness of His glory, majesty, presence, and being. This will require a commitment to God’s self-revelation in Scripture. After all, if my heart is deceived, then my heart’s idea of God is also likely to be deceived. I need an idea from outside my heart, and that idea is found in Scripture. How God has revealed Himself in time is of greatest importance when we are filtering out our own, broken ideas of who God is. Such a commitment to the whole of God will also mean not choosing one section of Scripture over another, not putting God in a war with God by placing love in contrast with judgment, or holiness in contrast with mercy. Such a commitment over time means that the more we look at God, the more we permit Him to shape our affections, emotions, wants, and desires.

The second form of this iconoclasm is a commitment to pursue reality as it really is, and not as I want it to be. This is a rejection of subjectivism, of projecting on the world my own desires, of permitting reality itself to be iconoclastic. Proverbs 12:22 says that Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal faithfully are His delight. God considers deliberate falsehood an abomination—it is even enshrined in the ninth commandment that we shall not bear false witness. To act as a false witness, in a court of law, is to contribute to the murder of an innocent person. When we bear false witness toward the world, we commit a kind of murder against the truth. It is a lie where we read the world as we want it to be, and not as it really is. It is, again, an extension of the lie of Eve, who chose God’s creation over God’s will, who chose her version of the world over God’s revealed version of the world.

Again, the Christian who would be undeceived must choose a fundamentally iconoclastic posture of approach to the world. In epistemological humility I must refuse to map my own perceptions onto the world, I must reject subjectivism, I must suffer reality to veto and break my initial judgments and perceptions. Against the choice of Eve, I commit to rejecting all gifts in exchange for the giver. St. Augustine’s famous prayer is illuminating here as well, “O Lord, The house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.” Break down my old understanding, my own weak and foolish constructs, and reveal to me the magnificence and fullness of who You really are.

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In the early Church, during the era in which the Nicene Creed was being composed, the Church was very nearly overrun by a grand deception. Followers of Arius argued that Jesus was not actually God, but merely the best of God’s creatures. For a time, it looked as if the Arians would win the day—they had the support of a majority of the Christian world and of the Emperor as well. But by grace Arianism was defeated, made subject in the end to the revealed truth of who God is, and especially to Who He is in Christ. We may face similar deceptions today, and they may sweep across the highest echelons of the Church so that even the elect are deceived and the entire ship of the Church appears to all to be off course. And yet through it all God Himself will never be deceived, cannot be deceived. The truth remains unchanged by human fickleness. In the meantime, both sides may be wrong, and one most certainly is! May God strengthen His people to seek to be undeceived, to settle for nothing less than the fullness of Him and Him alone.

Book Review: C. Stephen Evans on Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense

Evans_Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense_CoverStephen Evans’s recent volume in apologetics, Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense: A Response to Contemporary Challenges (Baker, 2015), is a worthy read for anyone interested in an approachable yet philosophically rich defense of the Christian faith. Evans, a professor of philosophy at Baylor University, is an expert in Kierkegaard and does a remarkable job of rendering many of the complexities of Kierkegaard (as well as other thinkers) into language that is accessible and understandable. This volume, I should be clear at the outset, does not resemble the flashy apologetics which seek to demolish the arguments of its opponents, but rather exhibits sustained, accessible, and careful thinking about the philosophical architecture that lends credibility to Christian belief.

Evans begins his study by highlighting what he thinks is a key claim of the atheist movement at present, namely, that Christianity is both irrational and outright harmful. Setting aside the accusation of harmfulness, Evans turns his attention primarily to the question of Christianity’s reasonability. Evans appeals first to natural theology—a revelation of God through natural means, but situates this quite specifically. “The key is to see natural theology not as providing us with an adequate, positive knowledge of God, but as supporting what I like to call ‘anti-naturalism’” (20). In other words, the suggestion is that if God is the author of all creation, then we ought to expect signs of His presence in the natural world. These signs in turn mitigate against the claims of naturalism, specifically that the natural world is all that exists. Such signs, Evans further suggests, fall under two “Pascalian Constraints”—that they should be widely available (everyone should have the potential to experience them), and that they should be resistible (preserving freedom). If this is the case, then we ought to be able to look to the natural world for “signs” of God’s existence. However, Evans observes, these “are not intended to give us an adequate knowledge of God. They are intended only to give us a sense that there is more to reality than the physical world” (36). Here Evans appeals to the sensus Divinitatis—the humanity-wide (and evolutionarily backed) propensity to seek to apprehend knowledge of God from creation. Next Evans outlines several characteristics that he believes are such signs, for example the experience of cosmic wonder, the sense that the world is a place of inherent order, the human moral capacity, human dignity, and the experience of Joy (a la C.S. Lewis). These signs, widely accessible, easily resistible, do not provide adequate knowledge of God but ought to lead us to hunger for more. At this point Evans pauses to consider the believability of such signs, pausing for a discussion on the nature of how we believe anything, as well as to answer a few classic objections to the Christian faith (God and Science and the problem of evil). How then can we believe the Christian Scriptures? Evans points in part to what he calls the “Revelation-authority principle.” This principle suggests that the Christian witness has a kind of authority simply because human reason is incapable of creating it. In other words, if I could create it, it wouldn’t be otherworldly. Drawing to a close, Evans then identifies three criteria for believing a revelation from God to be genuine. First, the attestation of miracles—otherworldly signs which exist to validate a testimony (and this is a unique claim of the Christian faith). Second, “paradoxicality,” which means that certain doctrines have an opaqueness to human reason that nevertheless resonate true (here he points specifically to the Incarnation as a true mystery). Finally, what Evans calls the “criterion of existential power,” that is, the interior effect of belief working on the individual. To close the book, Evans employs his philosophical logic in laying out an argument for the Christian faith.

C. Stephen Evans

Evans teaches at Baylor

This summary has, of necessity, omitted the vast majority of Evans’s carefully outlined philosophy. Although the book is eminently readable, some readers may struggle with reading patiently. I advise any reader to follow along with a pencil to make notes in the margin. Additionally, there were a few places where Evans might have better defined some terms and explained some concepts. Nevertheless, there are quite a number of lovely moments when Evans neatly addresses some apologetical bugbears (such as observing that, “To generate the problem of evil, we need to know that God is like the God of Christianity”—in other words, the problem is predicated on a Christian understanding of God). Personally, I found the discussions of “Pascalian constraints,” the “Revelation-authority principle,” and the argument about paradoxicality, to be both clarifying and useful. In fact, recently I was asked to give a brief explanation about the Trinity. I gave a first answer, and saw in the face of my friend that he still didn’t understand. Then I started at the beginning again and said, “Look, the Trinity is something that is revealed to us. We couldn’t have come up with it on our own. But once we understand the workings of the Trinity, it makes a great deal of sense. God, invisible, eternal Spirit, needed to solve Himself the puzzle of making things right with His creation, and He did that by becoming part of it in Jesus.” As I spoke, I was aware of Evans’s thoughts providing some fresh architecture to my own work. The Trinity is revealed, and paradoxically, when we accept it, it makes a great deal of sense.

In all, Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense is a solid contribution to any Christian’s library on apologetics. While it is not a book designed to win “battles” or wow large crowds, it nevertheless has potential to illuminate key questions for the honest thinking skeptic. It is also, I can personally testify, pastorally applicable.

What Do We Do with Albert Schweitzer? An Inquiry into Faith.

Albert_Schweitzer_NobelSince my university days I have been familiar with the name of Albert Schweitzer, his work having come up repeatedly during my study of Biblical Higher Criticism. Over the ensuing years his name has come up on several other occasions, and most compellingly in the context of a particular story about his life—that Schweitzer, unable to enter the mission field directly, pursued a medical degree so he could become a medical missionary. This spoke to such a measure of resolve, and to such unusual spiritual devotion in a scholar, that I wanted to know more about the man. The result was a journey through Schweitzer’s autobiography, Out of my Life and Thought (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1949), a book that in the end left me wondering if in fact Schweitzer was a Christian at all.

Schweitzer very nearly defines what it means to be a polymath. Born in 1875 in what was then the Alsace region of Germany, he grew up bilingual, later publishing books in both French and German. Educated in Germany and in the midst of the heyday of German Higher Criticism, his seminal contribution was the book “The Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Having earned a PhD in theology, he became a theological instructor as well as a licensed minister in the German Lutheran church. In addition to his academic pursuits, Schweitzer was also a performance organist, traveling and giving concerts, penning manuals on the proper execution of Bach’s organ pieces, and even writing tracts on organ repair and organ building. To the shock of his friends, family, and peers, at thirty years of age he resigned his post as a theology instructor and curate and entered into medical school so that he could become a missionary. His resolve to do this was formed some years before, and Schweitzer’s own words are worth recounting here,

The plan which I meant now to put into execution had been in my mind for a long time, having been conceived so long ago as my student days. It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life, which I saw so many people around me wrestling with care and suffering… Then one brilliant summer morning at Günsbach, during the Whitsuntide holidays—it was in 1896—there came to me, as I awoke, the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it. Proceeding to think the matter out at once with calm deliberation, while the birds were singing outside, I settled with myself before I got up, that I would consider myself justified in living till I was thirty for science and art, in order to devote myself from that time forward to the direct service of humanity. Many a time already had I tried to settle what meaning lay hidden for me in the saying of Jesus! “Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel shall save it.” (Out of My Life and Thought, 84-85)

Medical degree in hand, he then headed to what is today Gabon in Africa, where he and his wife built a medical clinic from the ground up and served faithfully for a number of years, through the first World War, returning to Europe to raise funds through concert tours, and returning again to Africa to continue his service.

gabon_political_map

Schweitzer’s autobiography ends in the late 1930s, but after the Second World War he was awarded the Nobel Prize for a speech he gave, “The Problem of Peace,” and he later worked with Einstein to advocate for the abolition of nuclear bombs. He died in 1965 at age 90.

Schweitzer was a truly remarkable man—clearly brilliant, gifted, motivated, and compelling. His sacrifice and dedication to his work shines a poor light on our own weak contributions to the benefit of humanity. But one looming question lurks in the background of Schweitzer’s life—was he actually a Christian?

This is a scandalous question. Who am I, after all, to attempt to judge the faith of another professed Christian, and above all one whose service seems so unobjectionably clear? And yet what Schweitzer’s life exhibits is the tension between confessional and ethical Christianity. Is a person made a Christian by his profession of faith, or by his works before the Lord? Romans 10:9 is a passage (among others) that makes it explicit that the confession of Jesus is of paramount importance, while the judgment of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 seems to make it clear that our conduct is the standard of judgment. Which is it, and where does Schweitzer fall, and are we even fit to make these kinds of judgments?

Let’s consider the final concern first—are we fit to make these kinds of judgments? The answer must be yes—for each of us, and especially for me as a member of the clergy, it is doctrinally, pedagogically, and missionally imperative that we outline the proper boundaries of Christian faith. It is doctrinally imperative because when we confess the truth of Christianity we are confessing a specific truth—being a Christian means a specific, bounded thing. Pedagogically it is imperative because we must instruct believers on what it means to be followers of Jesus—uncertainty in the definition of Christian faith means uncertainty for the people of God. Finally, it is missionally imperative because the profession of faith is actually central to our witness—how will we tell others how to become Christians if we are uncertain of what it means to be a Christian at all? And therefore we make judgments—we must make judgments—outlining the boundaries of Christian faith, seeking to faithfully declare what is “in” and what is “out.” We must do this of course with both humility and grace. Humility, because we are not omniscient and therefore don’t know the work the Lord is doing in a person’s heart at a given moment; grace because God is clearly more liberal with His salvation than we would be were we Him.

hadrians-wall-

Clear boundaries create clear expectations.

When it comes to Scripture, then, what do we make of the difference between Romans 10:9 and Matthew 25? Is our salvation based on what we have done, or what we have confessed? The answer is abundantly both. The confession of faith is essential—that we believe Jesus came, died, and rose from the grave on the third day, and is today Lord of all. The essence of Christianity is the confession of the resurrection of the Son of God. But that confession alone is insufficient—it is not enough to say the words, there is also an expectation of conversion—as a consequence of our confession, our way of life must exhibit our belief. James 3:14-17 says it clearly,

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

And yet works themselves are not a substitute for faith, because we cannot purchase God’s favor. If we believe our works earn us good things from God, then we believe that we can effectively buy God, and thereby we make Him a debtor—putting God under our own, human power. This is a line of thinking that Paul in Romans is at pains to eradicate. There is no way to win salvation by our work, but work must be the natural fruit of our salvation.

This has been a point of contention throughout the history of Christianity. Good people are not saved because of their goodness, and sacrificial people are not saved because of their good deeds. People are saved because of their belief in the Christian witness, in their confession of the person of Jesus Christ. But saved people are expected to display that salvation in works.

schweitzer_Time MagazineAnd this brings us back to Schweitzer. Throughout reading his autobiography, I found I was never entirely certain of whether or not he was actually a Christian. There is no recounting of his own conversion, instead he appears to be a product of a kind of nationalistic Lutheranism—a cultural Christianity which is as inherited as his Alsatian heritage and which assumes that he is Christian because he is Lutheran. Furthermore, the thoughts he recounts about faith and Christianity focus on the purely ethical—he appears to envision Christianity as a solution to the ethical dilemmas of his day, but he appears to do this to the exclusion of the traditional Christian witness. Christ, in other words, is a supreme example, but not a resurrected Lord. “Reverence for life,” Schweitzer’s primary ethical formulation, in context appears to be less indicative of studied Christian faith and more of German higher education in the early 20th century. And while it seems abundantly clear that he lived out what he believed to be Christianity in his time and context, it is also clear that Schweitzer would identify as an ethical, rather than a confessional, Christian.

The conflict between these perspectives was most clearly exhibited when Schweitzer applied to enter the mission field as a medical missionary. What follows is his own record of that situation when his application went before the committee:

But the strictly orthodox objected. It was resolved to invite me before the committee and hold an examination into my beliefs. I could not agree to this, and based my refusal on the fact that Jesus, when He called His disciples, required from them nothing beyond the will to follow Him. I also sent a message to the committee that, if we are to follow the saying of Jesus: “He that is not against us is on our part,” a missionary society would be in the wrong if it rejected even a Mohammedan who offered his services for the treatment of their suffering natives. Not long before this the mission had refused to accept a minister who wanted to go out and work for it, because his scientific conviction did not allow him to answer with an unqualified Yes the question whether he regarded the Fourth Gospel as the work of the Apostle John. (Out of My Life and Work, 114-115)

Refusing, then, to meet with the committee, instead he made personal visits to each member. In time, they explained further their theological concerns (that he would confuse the missionaries), and their concern that he would wish to preach. Schweitzer continues,

Thus on the understanding that I would avoid everything that could cause offense to the missionaries and their converts in their belief, my offer was accepted, with the result indeed that one member of the committee sent in his resignation. (Out of My Life and Work, 115-116)

It was clear, even in his own time, that Schweitzer held unorthodox positions, and that he was admitted to the mission field on restricted terms (for the record, he later breaks his commitment and preaches anyway). But his unwillingness to be theologically examined is in itself troubling, and would exclude him today from service in almost any missions organization.

Schweitzer did indeed live out what he believed to be a kind of Christianity in his time and context, and compared to many of his higher theological peers, he shines as a paragon of faith. And yet, Schweitzer’s ethical faith was a thing mostly of his own construction, albeit shaped according to the particular needs of his time. From the perspective of orthodox Christian confession he falls far short, and does not appear to contain either a confession of the Lordship of Jesus or belief in his resurrection (the two components of Romans 10:9). Final judgments, of course, are restricted to us, because the salvation of a man’s soul is ultimately the business of God and God alone, and therefore what work He did and has done in Schweitzer’s heart is unknown to us. And yet, from the evidence we possess, it would appear that Schweitzer’s life and work eschew the confession of Christ as Lord, and uphold a noble, if insufficient ethical practice. Good deeds are great, but can never win salvation, and if good deeds are all that Schweitzer offers, then for all his learning, we must conclude that salvation is not his.

Noteless Preaching and the Preacher’s Task

The following lengthy passage, taken from Charles Merrill Smith’s “How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious,” offers a piercingly satirical vision for the life of an ambitious minister.

Bishop CoverNotes on Noteless Preaching:

Let us now turn our attention to some do’s and don’ts of preaching, little practical suggestions—each by itself a small thing perhaps—but put together adding up to great things for you so far as preferment in your calling is concerned.

At the top of the list of those items which you should do is this: Always preach without manuscript or notes of any kind.

Young clergymen seldom grasp the value of perfecting themselves in the “noteless” style of sermon delivery. Most of us have weak memories and feel horribly insecure without the comforting presence of a manuscript on the podium in front of us. Not one person in a thousand feels naturally inclined to this style of delivery. It is this very scarcity of noteless preachers which works to the advantage of the man who is one.

When you preach without notes, the focus of attention for the congregation is not your sermon but your performance. Since most of your listeners are paralyzed and inarticulate in front of an audience with everything they intend to say written down and before them, they are vastly amazed that anyone can stand up and talk for twenty minutes or so without visible aids to the memory, no matter what he says.

This situation obviates the need for undue concern over the content of your sermon since hardly anyone will be more than casually interested in what you say, thus lightening your preparatory labors and granting you many extra hours every week to do with what you please—hours which your less gifted brethren of the cloth will spend sweating over the manufacture of a manuscript for Sunday morning.

You may have observed already that the possession of a noteless preacher is a genuine status symbol for a church, the ecclesiastical equivalent of a chinchilla coat or recognition by the headwaiter at Le Pavillon. These confer status because they are rare, and rare status symbols cost quite a bit of money. This law operates just as surely in the ecclesiastical world as in the secular world, and a noteless preacher always commands a higher salary than even the most profound of his brethren who encumber themselves with manuscripts.

Those fortunate few congregations blessed with a noteless preacher become inordinately proud of him, and brag about him much as they brag about breaking 80 at golf or being invited to the Governor’s for tea. They never comment that their preacher is learned or witty or forceful or devout or thought-provoking or inspiring. They always say, “You know, he preaches without a single note.”

Also, the noteless style endears you to the extremely pious members of your flock who tend to be suspicious of written sermons on the grounds that excessive advance preparation allows insufficient opportunities for the workings of divine inspiration. The extemporaneous homily seems to them to come from the heart instead of the head, and is thus a sure sign and seal that their preacher is “spiritual.”

~ Charles Merrill Smith, “How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious” 38-39.

As a preacher who has personally made the transition from sermons in full manuscript to preaching with only minimal notes, I read the above passage with no small amount of mirth. There is something strikingly true about the tacit change a listening congregation undergoes when a preacher preaches without notes. People’s faces are more engaged (largely because you are looking at them and making eye contact), they respond with greater emotional resonance to the things you say, and one receives more positive general feedback (of the “I enjoyed your sermon” variety). Regrettably, this transition has made me suspicious of my own congregation. Suspicious, because I know for a fact that my shift into “noteless” preaching has not resulted in an improvement in sermon quality. Quite the opposite, I am confident that the overall quality has in fact decreased.

When I first began writing sermons, now almost thirteen years ago, the writing process was labored. I would brainstorm, reflect, and write out the sermon word for word. A sermon, let us be clear, is not simply a matter of “just speaking to people.” A sermon is a carefully reflected piece of rhetoric, born of devotion, study, prayer, and intentional construction. The preacher who neglects any of these elements has no right to stand before the Church and instruct, because his casual attitude toward the sermon disqualifies him from service. For my part, those first sermons were tinted by some real awkwardness—I hadn’t yet learned how to write for my own voice. There is a real difference between writing to be read, and writing to be spoken, and I think most people only learn this when they try to read what they’ve written out loud. It can be shocking to the reader! In time, I learned and became adept at writing so that the written word matched my spoken voice in cadence.

On average, 1000 written words equates to about ten minutes of spoken sermon, therefore an average 30 minute sermon would then be composed of no less than 3000 words. This means that the preacher, in preparation, is each week researching and producing a 3000+ word presentation for public consumption on Sunday morning. This fact elevates the sheer difficulty of memorization, because only the most exceptional of minds would be able to memorize such a treatise each week. Further, if you as a minister are committed to manuscripting and then memorizing, your sermon each week, the time commitment for such a process will drain you from all the other tasks asked of the professional minister. There simply isn’t time to keep it all up.

Sweating ProfuselyFor five years of full-time ministry, I manuscripted and read my sermons each week. I did not memorize, because I was aware of my own limitations in that area. Additionally, I knew that while the written word was well-crafted and honored all the nuance and depths which the Scriptures called for, whenever I strayed from the manuscript the product was diminished. Speaking on my own meant speaking with less poetry, less craft, less depths, and less overall insight. A manuscripted sermon for me ensured that the depths of teaching were secured.

However, I recognized that there was an element of fear involved in this as well. One of the reasons I didn’t want to stand in front of the congregation and preach without notes is because I had come to trust in the manuscript as a buffer of safety between me and the congregation. I’m not sure if this fear was warranted or not, or if my thoughts were justified or not. At the same time, I began to feel that I had stalled in my development as a preacher. The next option to attempt was to change my style to a noteless—or at least minimally noted—format. This was met by fear, but I also felt that it was something I needed to attempt. Thus, the choice to preach without notes was for me an act of trusting God.

Not having to manuscript and “rehearse” a sermon each week has released an enormous amount of time into my schedule. Consequently, Charles Merrill Smith’s words about the time saved for a noteless preacher struck close to home. I spend less time preparing a sermon, and need less time to practice it. I still study and outline heavily, but there are significant portions of what is said each week that is not prepared. This leads to a number of uncomfortable questions. Am I trusting in God’s Spirit for those utterances, or am I relying too heavily on my own natural gifts at public speaking? Am I lazy in preparation, or am I simply utilizing those assets God has given me in effective ways? There are not clear answers to these questions, however I am confident of two things: first, that the quality of my sermons has diminished, and second, people like my sermons more.

This is where Smith’s criticism comes home most clearly to the congregation, because he identifies neatly the brute fact that noteless preaching draws the attention of the congregation away from the content of the sermon to the virtuosity of the preacher; it can make of congregants spectators at an event rather than hearers of the word, and shifts the heart from evaluating the Word to reflecting on how I felt at the time. Now, every effective sermon ought to touch hearts as well as minds, but something in the noteless sermon weights the experience for the congregation on the “heart” side of the matter and minimizes the mind. This is a dangerous propensity.

Slain in the Spirit

Look Ma, no notes!

To the congregant, then, I say this: the sermon is a moment of weekly instruction, not performance; it is a prepared event of teaching and proclaiming that requires your attentive listening, and is not a passive reception which you either “feel” or don’t. At your weekly church service, you are not, and have never been, a spectator.

To the preacher, however, I want to say something else—or, rather, five somethings else.

1.Let people be people. We must acknowledge that people will be people. They are emotional beings who respond in emotional ways to the things we do in our public service. We ought not to chastise them for responding in accordance with their humanity to a public worship service. However, by means of our own faithful self-offering, we must seek to instruct them well, calling them to deeper reflection and insight into the Word. The sermon is never anti-emotion, but is best when it harmonizes heart and mind.

2. Stand in service to the Word, not the congregation’s desires. The appeal of different styles of preaching is that some appear to connect more readily with the congregation. The preacher must guard his own heart against the allure of adjusting style for the sake of congregational happiness. This doesn’t mean that we preach in a way that is intentionally obtuse, or that we make the sermon difficult on purpose—quite the opposite, it is a critical part of the preacher’s task to know his people and speak to them where they are. But he must also be aware that the people are not always the best judges of what they need or want. People like comfortable things, and the Gospel is a profoundly uncomfortable thing. The wise preacher will unwaveringly apply the discomfort of the Gospel but seek to do this through means that the congregation will be able to hear. In this, the preacher’s loyalty is always to the Word, first, and only to the congregation’s needs as they are met by that Word.

3. Style is an asset, and not a surrogate, to the Main Thing. The Main Thing in a sermon is the preaching of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the good news of God in Christ. Each and every style for each and every preacher is simply an asset to this main thing. When style becomes the surrogate, then our convictions and our content are made to serve our style, rather than our style serving our convictions. My experience is that this happens most often with story-based preachers, whose sermons are flush with humorous and memorable anecdotes and examples. The problem is that, very often, the listener remembers the funny story but not the Scriptural text which gave outline to the story. Thus, style has become the Main Thing instead of the Main Thing being the Main Thing. In the end, there is no such thing as a right “style” to preaching, there are only preachers who have sanctified themselves through dedication to the proclamation of the Word and who are causing their personalities to serve their message.

4. No Preacher can serve as a model for any other. This is a curious area of deception, that young ministers idolize certain preachers and model their ministries after those people. Just recently I had a gentleman ask me which preachers I listen to in order to learn my style, and my answer was, “No-one.” The truth is that nobody can teach you to be an effective preacher, because the primary quality of a great preacher is that the individual knows himself and is confident in who he is. I once had a conversation about preaching with a dear friend and former roommate (who, incidentally, is someone I actually think will one day be a bishop!). He observed that, when we think of it, all the so-called “great” preachers of our time—Tim Keller, John MacArthur, Erwin Lutzer, David Jeremiah, Alistair Begg—the one thing they each have in common (in all their diverse theology!) is that they are strong personalities. This was an eye-opening realization. Great preachers are not great because of their style, they are great because they are themselves. Therefore there is no model who can serve to guide you as a preacher, because none of those people can teach you to be you. The best you can do in the pulpit is to be truly yourself, and proclaim the Gospel as yourself.

5. Notes or no notes, choose the communication style that fits your maturity and capability. There is no sacred style of preaching. There is no single communication style. There is only a preacher with a given maturity, and a given set of capabilities, striving to serve God with the best that God has given him at this time. Consider the Word before you. Examine it carefully. Consider your people. What style of sermon will best communicate the conviction of your study to the people under your care? If you are a lazy individual, then you must consider whether preaching without notes is an extension of laziness. If you are careful individual, you must consider whether preaching with a manuscript is an extension of fear. Whatever style you choose, ensure that the choice is serving the message, and not the other way round.