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.
I suppose you could say that this is kind of a rant. I frequently receive catalogs from a major seller of Christian books and Bibles. Over the years I’ve bought quite a few things from them and I appreciate their work. But the latest catalog sort of set my teeth on edge–and it wasn’t about the number of Amish romance books on display–although I may rant about those sometime soon. No this rant is about the Bibles they’re selling.
The Bible is the Bible and while there are competing translations–ESV, NKJ, NASB, NRSV, etc.–there shouldn’t be much else separating them. The Word is the Word, after all. But you can never underestimate the ability of marketers to differentiate their product from their competitors product. With the Bible we not only find study Bibles with notes by people of differing theological positions, we also find Bibles prepared especially for children, teens, women, men, people in recovery, people who like horses (really I can’t make this stuff up), and just about every other subgroup of Americans you can find.
I’ve begun to find all of this really irritating. The focus of Bible readers should be on the Word of God proclaimed therein–not on anything else. If you like horses and want to read about them–read Black Beauty. The purpose of the Bible is to reveal God’s nature and His salvific work through Christ’s substitutionary atonement for our sins at Calvary. It is to bring people to faith in Christ. Every time we add something alien to that task to the pages of Scripture we diminish that purpose and obscure the Word.
Unfortunately the Church today is far too willing to accept the marketing of trinkets and trash in the name of living a Christian life, when what is really needed is not a mimicking of the culture around us but a turning toward the unadorned Word. Had God wanted additions to His Word, I dare say He would have had the writers of Scripture add them in the original autographs.