What We Preach Matters

I am a big advocate of expository preaching.  This style of preaching involves going through the Biblical text verse by verse (or something close to that).  I most often preach straight through a book of the Bible.  Right now I’m preaching through Deuteronomy and I must admit it is occasionally taxing my ingenuity because it is not always easy to make sermon material out of some of the laws.  I started this method some years ago because I believe many people miss too much of God’s Word when we stick solely to the assigned texts for the church year.

I read an article recently which reminded me of the danger of expository preaching–I could miss the proclamation of the Gospel.  For example, if I proclaim God’s Word from Deuteronomy this Sunday but fail to connect what is taught there to Jesus Christ who was crucified and risen for me, then I have debased the pulpit,, for Jesus and Jesus alone is our Savior.  The Old Testament speaks in progressive revelation of the One who would rid us of the stain of our sin, and it is our duty to bring that out in its fullness.  What the Law meant to people in 1800 BC is irrelevant in the light of Christ and I must make sure the people in the pews before me understand what the text means now that the fullness of the revelation of God has been made known to us.

Preaching is a great privilege but it also carries with it great responsibility.  As James points out, those who teach in the Church will be judged by a higher standard.  We who have been given this privilege must remember we have been called to speak of Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Our opinions on most things don’t matter.  Historical information may be interesting, but it is of little purpose if it does not contribute to the proclamation of Christ for us.

Like many other things, preaching styles are subject to fads.  Recently there was this experiment with telling stories rather than preaching sermons.  From reports on sermons I’ve received, it seems to be pretty much a failure because it strays from the Word too easily.  But even the best preaching style can fail miserably if the preacher forgets why we’re really here and Who we really serve.

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Lutheran Pietism

It’s said that when the early German settlers came to this country they often brought two books with them–Luther’s translation of the Bible and Johann Arendt’s book True Christianity.  True Christianity was the opening statement, if you will, in the movement that became known as Pietism.  Since that time this movement has been hailed as a saving force for Reformation theology and demonized as a substitution of personal feelings for Biblical truth.

I’ve been asked to write a little about Pietism and I’ll admit that I think it has overall been a good thing, but like any system established by people, it has its flaws and dangers.

The early Reformers did not spend much time on systematizing their theology–they were too busy dealing with the immediate problems and dangers they were facing.  In the generations after Luther’s death, Lutheran scholars began to work on theology in way Luther had not.  Indeed, some of the most famous ones began to again use the methodologies of the Scholastic scholars Luther so disliked.  That, combined with the increasing Rationalism of the age, led many Lutheran clergy to treat faith as a series of doctrines which, once learned and professed, would lead to salvation for the believer.  There was little discussion of what that should mean for the life of someone who professed Christ as Savior.

Arendt’s work was meant to encourage Christians to do more than simply recite statements, but to allow Christ to change their lives, to alter the way they saw the world and behaved in it.  It was, in effect, a call to sanctification in the life of a believer.

A generation later Philip Spener wrote a new introduction to True Christianity which came to be called the Pia Desideria.  This is often cited as the beginning of the Pietism movement.  It was a powerful movement in Germany and Scandinavia for several centuries.  Many of the Lutherans who came to American brought this as part of their religious understanding.  The great organizer of early American Lutheranism was Henry Melchior Muhlenberg who was trained at the University of Halle, the center of German Pietism at the time.  Later on Scandinavian immigrants brought their version of the movement to the Us.

At its best Pietism was a holistic movement which taught both good doctrine and a life of piety, a faith life that showed itself in good works.  At its worst Pietism could become overly fixated on the importance of a a personal response to  Christ leading them to a semi-Pelagianism that substituted a person’s willful acceptance for Christ’s saving election.  It would therefore be wrong to completely identify piety with Pietism.  One can without a doubt live a pious life without being a Pietist.  Works of piety are not part of a movement, but of a lifestyle.

On the whole Pietism had a lasting impact on Lutheran thought and life, especially in the United States where Lutheranism has remained a dynamic religious movement even as it has shed part of it’s ethnic identity

 

What About Us?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m thinking about the nature and current state of the Church in the 21st century.  Just to let you know up front, I am a committed congregationalist.  I believe, as we say in the AFLC, that the local congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth.

That said, we must now answer what the nature of a true congregation might be.  First and foremost, a true congregation is one which gets the Gospel right.  There is no true Church where the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us is not frequently and properly proclaimed.  One of the worse things that can be done by a preacher is to assume the Gospel is known and remembered among the people in the pews.  Because the Gospel is so contrary to what our sin soaked minds can create, we must be reminded over and again just how we are justified before God.  Our natures want to earn heaven so that we can be like God–the very sin our first parents committed.  But that is impossible and so it is only through grace giving faith that salvation is possible.

If a congregation is to be Church, it must also be a living congregation.  That is, the local congregation will not be Church if it is simply a gathering of friends or a club, or doers of good deeds or a group of people who gather in one place but neither share concern for one another and the trials of our lives.  If a congregation is to be Church it should be a place where people of all sorts gather together for Word and Sacrament, share with one another our walk in this world with all of its joys and trials, and work together to build up the Kingdom of God on earth.  Anything else would be a false “church”.

In my opinion huge congregations can be many things, but they fail at being the Church because they lack the closeness and shared life together that is required to be a free and living congregation.  The former Pope Benedict, when he was a young priest, wrote a book in which he argued that no parish should have more than 300 members.  If there are more than that, there is not a true community because of the inability to know one another in any meaningful sense of the term.  It’s also just about the place where a solo pastor would no longer be able to do his service well.

There is another problem that comes with a large congregation–it is easy for people to hide there and not engage in the life of the Church.  A living congregation, a true Church, has a place for the service of every member.  There is no room for spiritual hitchhikers, every member in service ought always to be a goal of the true Church.  Now some of our members might be physically or mentally unable to serve in most respects.  But prayer is a service; telephone calls to shut ins is a service; buying flowers for the chancel is a service; and the list could go on.  The point is that a living congregation is one in which all  members know that they are a contributing part of the Kingdom of God–they are the Church.

What Is The Church

Our congregation is at the  beginning of a renewal program in which we are seeking to prepare ourselves for ministry in the years ahead.  That and my reading material of late have caused me to spend a good amount of time thinking about the nature of the Church in our world.  With this blog I’m going to begin a series of musings on what the Church is meant to be and where we are failing at that task–because I’ve come to believe that we are indeed failing.

The Reformers of the 16th century had to redefine what was meant by Church when they left the Roman communion.  For centuries the Church meant the physical institution governed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome and its delegates around Europe. [There were, of course, other Christian churches, Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia, etc.  But the Reformers knew little of them and much of what they thought they knew was wrong.  So for today I’ll talk only about Rome and the Reformation]

Accused of splitting the one holy catholic Church, the Reformers redefined the nature of the Church as consisting of the people of God known only to God, wherever they might have been.  Wherever God’s people were, whether in Roman Catholicism, Lutheran polity or Reformed polity, they were part of the Church.  Frankly there is more than a little sense to that because not everyone on the roles of a Church body is a saved saint of God.

That said, though, what of the visible Church, for there must be a visible Church according to the clear teachings of Scripture.  The apostles had no thought of an unaffiliated Christianity, no thought that people would stay in their homes, believing in Christ but not associating in any organized way with other believers.  Indeed, the author of Hebrews admonishes believers telling them they are not to cease to meet together.

Certainly at the very center of the Church Militant is the local congregation where believers gather to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to participate in the Sacraments God has established for His Church.  At no other place do these events regularly happen, so we know that the Church is present where these things occur.  But what about relationships outside the congregation?  What is the role of the Church there?  What are the relationships among Christians that make them the Church together?

In our nation today there are who knows how many “community churches” and para-church organizations and preachers who function under no one’s authority but their own and their personal perception of the will of God.  I have come to believe that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is being harmed in many ways by this sort of “independence”.  That’s what I’m going to be musing about in this space in the weeks ahead.

 

Not Again!

Well, it’s happening again–some people have supposedly figured out that the Lord will come again this Saturday, September 23, 2017.  I’m not sure of their exact calculations, but I’ve been told it’s based on some counting of Jubilee years. Now for all I know these folks could be right–but I’m still going to have a sermon ready for Sunday, just in case.

Repeatedly the Lord’s disciples asked Him when the Day of the Lord would occur, and repeatedly, Jesus told them to mind their own business.  Now it seems to me that, if being faithful involves listening to God’s commands and obeying them, then the folks who keep trying to pick the date when the heavens will roll back and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father, then, the folks who find messages hidden in the Bible text are straight up sinning.

I’m never quite sure why eschatological speculations are so pervasive in American Christianity.  Why can we not be content with the work God has given us to do and allow the hidden things of God’s plan to remain hidden?  Isn’t there something almost demonic about trying to discern those things known only to God?  Doesn’t attempting to know the things God has told us we are not to know seem very much like Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden?  “Go ahead,” the serpent told Eve, “eat it and you will be like God.”  Now the enemy says go ahead, don’t spend your time on teaching and baptizing and things like that, spend it trying to figure out when the Day of the Lord will be.

Now I know there are many good and faithful Christians who have been taught to spend their time thinking about this stuff.  But friends, it’s just plain wrong.  It’s bad Biblical study and it’s a waste of the precious time God has given us to do the work He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

So my advice to anyone who reads this is to stop worrying about the end of time and focus instead on who you’re going to tell about Jesus today.  Because today is the only day we can know for sure.

Worship III

About 20 years ago we heard a lot about “worship wars”,  In other words, whether traditional worship forms and music should be replaced by more “contemporary” types of worship with upbeat “praise music” replacing hymns, bands replacing organs and pastors dressing in Hawaiian shirts and jeans instead of albs or suits.

It was said that non-churched people, also known sometimes as seekers” felt more comfortable in such settings than in traditional churches with their more elaborate settings and music.  “Contemporary” worship was, it was thought, also more appealing to young people.  This was what all the church growth folks pushed and we could see it was working in the American evangelical settings where mega-churches were showing up everywhere.  Chancels were replaced with stages, pews with theater style seats and everything was going to be so cool and new.

The problem with all of that is real worship was too often replaced with entertainment, doctrinally sound hymns with vapid praise songs, and theological depth with something a mile wide and an inch deep.  The focus of way too many services became emotionalism and feelings.  Instead of focusing on God’s self revelation in Christ Jesus, churches began to focus on how to make our lives better in this world.  Instead of preparing us for eternity, people were prepared for dealing with conflict in their daily lives.  Now don’t get me wrong, that’s not unimportant, but the Gospel isn’t about having your best life now, it is about Jesus Christ crucified and risen so that our sins are forgiven and we can have eternal life in presence of God Himself .

One of the country’s first megachurches publicly admitted a year or so ago that they did not do a good job keeping people, they could get them in the door, but once the people had been there for a while, they left because the church never moved from milk to meat in its teachings.

It is God’s desire that His people gather together.  But it is also His desire that people grow in the knowledge  of the Truth revealed to us in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ.  Anything that promotes greater understanding of the Truth of the Gospel is good, but anything that fails to do that should be tossed in the trash bin as the flawed idea that it is.

Worship II

I’ve been thinking a lot about worship lately and this is the second offering in this blog-series (!)  Anyway, I mentioned in my first blog that true Christian worship is not about us doing something for God but about God doing many things for us.  Today I want to think about how He does for us in the worship service.

First, God has chosen to work through what we call the means of grace.  The means of grace are the Word preached and read, and the sacraments.  There are many other things that are good gifts from God, but they are not means of grace.  For example, confession is not a means of grace.  The absolution given after confession is a means, but it is so only because it is drawn directly from God’s revealed Word in Scripture.  An absolution that requires some work to be done, such as found in Roman Catholicism, is not a means of grace because it is not an application of grace but an application of Law.  Neither is prayer a means of grace, but rather a means of communication.  Of course prayer can give us comfort, but the grace of God shown forth in justification comes by the revealed Word only.

We must remember that what we know of God is only what He has chosen to reveal to us.  His method of revealing Himself is in His Word found in Scripture.  And therefore the written and spoken Word must be at the very center of all true worship.  While I see true and God given grace at work in the services of our Reformed brethren, I find it somewhat sad that the only text read in many of their churches on a Sunday is the text the preacher is expounding.  The Word of God from Genesis through Revelation is the means God uses to bring us to faith.  And the Holy Spirit uses the preached Word to bring faith to people. “But how are they to call on Him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching? … So faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of Christ.” (Romans 10: 14, 17)

The Sacraments of Baptism and Communion are also means of grace because they apply the Word of God through external means to enact and strengthen the faith of God’s elect.  “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” (Mark 16:16)   “Baptism … now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21)  The question of why some who are baptized are not saved is always a sticky one until we learn to think about it rightly.  Baptism, the Word and water, saves because it works faith in the heart of the elect through the Holy Spirit.  It does not save those who are not elect.  In the same way Holy Communion strengthens faith in the hearts of those elect who believe, but it also works to the condemnation of those who receive it without faith.  That is why Communion is  only for the baptized.

So God, who has elected those who will be saved, has also chosen those means through which their faith will be birthed and strengthened.  There are no other ways because God has chosen only these.