I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life and I’ve preached a lot of sermons too. Any preacher who is serious about his calling spends a lot of time each week preparing for those 20 or so minutes on Sunday morning. Sometimes we get feedback on how we did, sometimes we don’t. So we don’t always know if the words of our mouths or the meditations of our hearts have been pleasing either to God or to the congregation. We can only pray that something good will result from our efforts.
The question that always stands out, though, is what makes a good preacher. Some people have honed the art of public speaking to such a sharpness that they are bound to surpass your average run of the mill speaker. I’ve read that Patrick Henry was such a talented public speaker that people would often lose track of time during his orations, thinking only a few minutes had passed when it was actually over an hour. Must a good preacher have such a skill? Or maybe a good preacher is a man whose knowledge of Scripture astounds even other pastors and who fills his message with a list of supporting passages almost too long to follow. Or maybe a good preacher is a man who can, in the pulpit, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Well, in my opinion, there is only one way to measure whether or not a preacher was good on any given Sunday—did he proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you? I don’t care how clever the argument, how well delivered the sermon, how sonorous the tone of his voice–if a preacher doesn’t tell you that you, yes you, are a sinner deserving of eternity in hell but that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, bore your punishment on the cross at Calvary, rose from the dead on the third day and promises salvation to all who confess with their mouth that He is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead–if you don’t hear that the preacher wasted 20 minutes of your life.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he came among them determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That is what matters in the pulpit. It is a message so profound, so filled with meaning that every preacher ought to be able to find 60 different ways to express it every year of his ministry. I pray God shows each of us who dare to speak to His assembled people in any congregation how to do this small but immeasurably great service.
I am working now to refocus my ministry. I’m doing a number of things to help me in that–rereading my ordination vows, reading books on pastoral theology, focusing my prayer life on this effort and reading what Scripture has to say about the work of those called to pastoral ministry. Paul’s second letter to Timothy is of particular importance in understanding what a pastor’s role is to be. It was most likely Paul’s last writing and in it he encourages his protege Timothy and all the others who have followed him in ministry.
There’s a lot in the short letter but I want to write today about an encouragement that isn’t meant just for pastors, but for everyone who serves in ministry in the Church–in other words to every Christian. It’s the 15th verse of the second chapter. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth.”
Paul wrote elsewhere that he was not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). And his encouragement to Timothy and to us also carries this message. Don’t be ashamed of being a Christian in a pagan world. The Gospel is the only true good news in this present darkness and we are called to witness to it everywhere we go. Sometimes this will be uncomfortable, for us and could lead to difficult situations in our lives. Indeed Paul writes a bit later in 2nd Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” But that doesn’t change the charge Christ has given to all His elect people.
Another aspect of this charge not to be ashamed relates to what we will experience on the Day of Judgment. On the day of the Lord’s return everyone will be judged–even those who are destined for salvation. We will see and know all that we have thought, said or done that is contrary to God’s will. We will know in a extraordinarily powerful way just how great our Lord’s atoning sacrifice was for us, how much we deserved eternal separation from the Holy God. I am sure that shame will fill our consciousness as we look back on our sins. But Paul tells us that one thing that should not cause us shame is the work we do in handling the Word of Truth.
I read recently that only 17% of self identified Christians in this country actually live out a Biblical worldview. The influence of our secular culture seeps into our lives and teaches us to deny the plain teachings of Scripture about so many things. Everything from divorce–a violation of the 6th Commandment–to the common desire of Americans for more and more material things–violating the 9th and 10th Commandments–to even qualified approval of abortion–violating the 5th Commandment–to whatever else you want to list–all such opinions represent a failure to rightly handle the Word of Truth and will cause us shame on the last day.
If the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God it is our responsibility as His witnesses in the world to proclaim what it teaches, even though it’s teaching is an offense to the world. Just because the world around us doesn’t live a Christian life–that is no reason why Christians ought not live as true followers of the eternal Word–Jesus Christ our Lord.
In my last post I spoke of sin, the evil that clings to us, that deforms us, that makes us unacceptable to God. Sin is always our attempt to be a god and to put ourselves in the place of the true God.
Now many people don’t think of themselves as sinners anymore. In fact, many people seem not to even believe in sin because they don’t believe there is any standard or rule that is valid at all times and in all places. It’s a terrible situation because no one can come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ without realizing first that they are sinners and second, that they can do nothing about that situation on their own, but must have a Savior to bring them back from the rim of hell.
When someone becomes aware of their sinfulness they will do one of two things–they will revel in it, or they will repent of their condition. This post isn’t about the first group, but about the second. What really is repentance and what place does it hold in the life of a saved saint of God?
First we have to consider whether or not we have the capacity to repent on our own. The answer is no, we don’t. We will not, indeed we cannot truly repent unless the Holy Spirit has worked that repentance in our hearts. When we are confronted by God’s perfect Law, the Holy Spirit will pierce our hearts with the certainty that we have not kept it. So without the work of the Spirit we cannot know ourselves to be sinners. And since not everyone knows themselves to be a sinner, then we can know that the Spirit does not touch the hearts of all people.
Yet even when we come to know ourselves to be sinners we cannot be said to have repented. Only after we have stopped trying to play at god-ness can that be true. In other words, if we continue to try to make things right with God on our own, then we have yet to repent. If we try to work really, really hard at keeping all of the Commandments, trusting in our own power and will, then repentance is not yet in us. It is only after we fail in our attempts to be holy and righteous and turn instead to Christ that we can be said to have truly repented. Only when we recognize that righteousness is not ours but His and that it is imputed to us, only then can we be said to be repentant sinners, saved by the blood of the Lamb.
When we are told to repent we are told nothing except to place our full and complete trust in Christ and in His substitutionary work on our behalf. Even repentance is not about us–it is, as all good things are, only about Him.
First I want to apologize. It’s been some time since I posted any thoughts on this blog. I could make up all sorts of excuses–some of them might even be true. But that won’t change anything and it won’t edify anyone, so I’ll just be content to say I’m sorry.
Now it’s not a sin to fail to post a blog entry–I don’t find any mention of such things in Scripture. Still, we too often respond to our sins in much the same way. “I’m sorry, but is that really a sin?” “I wasn’t thinking.” “Everyone else does it so I don’t see why I can’t do it.” And the ever popular, “I made a mistake” followed by its brother–“I won’t do it again.”
Yes we can come up with all sorts of excuses for our sins, but that doesn’t make them any the less sin. And I don’t care what your excuse is, God isn’t buying it. You see sin isn’t just a bad decision or a misstep which can be overlooked. Sin is an affront to God and His Holiness. Few of us would ever think of wearing muddy boots in the house, soiling the carpets and the floors. Nor would we wear those boots under the sheets in our beds. But we think nothing of walking about with our bodies reeking with the smell of sin. My mother used a phrase when I would get too full of myself–she’d say “self praise stinks.” Well self praise might stink a bit but sin has an odor utterly disgusting to God. And He will not tolerate sinner in His holy presence
Over the years many people have tried to overcome the sin in their lives. Every one of them has failed and they’ve failed because we can’t overcome sin, it is too much a part of our being. We don’t just commit sins–we are sinful because we are human. And the harder we work to please God and erase the stink of sin, the worse our sin gets because our very efforts are based on the sinful idea that we can become holy on our own. And we can’t do that.
God, however, is not simply holy and just, He is also gracious and loving. And so from the very beginning of time He began the process of bringing sinners back into His fold. We could not bear the punishment which would erase our sins, so Jesus, the Son of God, very God of very God, came amongst us and bore our punishment for us. As St. Paul says it, He became sin for us. And so now those who follow the Lord Jesus can be at peace because our sins are forgiven and when God forgives, He forgets. Not only are we not punished for our sins, He has willed Himself to forget them all for the sake of His Son.
I just have to say–that’s really good news!