The Whole Counsel of God

The Whole Counsel of God: Why and how to preach the entire Bible
Tim Patrick and Andrew Reid
Crossway, 2020

Someone posted a quote from Lloyd-Jones recently saying that Christians should be ashamed if they don’t read the whole Bible every year. I have a number of problems with such an assertion, but I think the authors of this book would respond by saying that Lloyd-Jones shouldn’t expect his congregation to value the entire Bible if he didn’t model that in his preaching ministry. The ML-J recordings trust lists 366 sermons on Romans, 262 on John, 232 on Ephesians, 120 on Acts and only 133 on the whole Old Testament (taken from just 15 books). And of course examples like that could be multiplied.

The authors of this book are concerned that in most evangelical churches, perhaps the majority of the Bible is never preached to the people of God, resulting in ‘the church being underfed and the Lord being only partly honoured’. They ask how can God’s people know God without knowing his word – and how can they know the fullness of God’s word unless it is systematically explained to them. It’s not just the Old Testament in view – the authors assert that many churches have never heard one of the gospels preached right through in living memory.

Their argument is based on more than simply all Scripture being God-breathed; examples of God’s entire word shaping God’s people are cited from Deut 17:18-19; 31:9-13; Josh 8:34-35; 2 Kings 23:1-3 and Nehemiah 8:1-8. They ask ‘How can it be that sincerely committed Bible-believing Christians who now have mostly unhindered access to the Scriptures – and whose spiritual forebears saw no greater priority than providing that access to the Scriptures – can still have relatively thin biblical knowledge?…Perhaps their piecemeal reading and studying of Scripture is just a reflection of what they have seen modelled by their ministers of the word’. And what does it say about about our doctrine of Scripture? If your church has never heard an expository sermon from the book of Jeremiah, ‘might that indicate that for some reason your church does not think that God has anything particularly important or relevant to say through his words inscripturated in that biblical book?’.

Their solution to all this is to call pastors to aim to preach through the entire Bible over the course of 35 years (ideally in the same congregation if possible), without resorting to ‘overview series’ or ‘highlights packages’. They have a helpful diagram where they show that the Bible divides fairly evenly into Torah (17%), Former Prophets (22%), Latter Prophets (22%), Writings (15%), Gospels (10%) and Other NT Books (13%). In light of that they would advocate that the preaching ministry in a local congregation should reflect that split, ideally over a 2 or 3 year period and certainly over the long term.

In general it’s a position I’m already convinced by, and they make it well, even if there’s much to quibble with in terms of how to actually go about it. My main criticism is they don’t envisage the minister preaching more than one sermon a week. As well as being historically adrift, they seem to be really shooting themselves in the foot in trying to achieve their goal, and means they have to outlaw preaching on any chapter you’ve ever preached on before, and restrict all topical series to church weekends etc. It also means that while not averse to preaching on single verses, they also suggest one sermon on the Ten Commandments (or I guess two if you preach Deuteronomy as well as Exodus) and one on, for example, Ezekiel 40-48 and Psalm 119 (Struthers style). If something unexpected happens in the life of the congregation, you are allowed to preach something different but the preaching programme is still so rigid that you should preach the ‘missing’ sermon separately by video. There’s also a fair smattering of crazy suggestions, like vary your sermon length depending on the passage, so five minutes for Psalm 117, twenty-two for Psalm 118 and an hour for Psalm 119!

The book could really have been improved with real-life examples of people who have actually preached through the Bible. Examples that come to my mind are Stuart Olyott (who gives his rationale and ten-year plan here) or David Silversides – and I’m sure they could have found others by asking around. That would also have let them show how different preachers have achieved the goal in different ways and at different speeds; as it is, the impression you’re left with is that their way is the only approach.

Overall though I’m hugely excited to see this book in print, and think that ministers need to wrestle with its core message. I would set it as a core text for training preachers if I had the opportunity.

May we not have the same regrets as one RPCS minister who said at an ordination in Stranraer in 1932:

“Give them the whole Bible. After more than forty years of attempts to preach I regret to have to confess that there still remain large and fertile tracts of Bible material which I have never tried to expound. I have, of course, taken many texts from the great Prophets of Israel, but I have not yet tried to travel right through Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and Daniel, to bring to my hearers some of the rich and luscious fruit of the linked thoughts of those grand, inspired men with their living and creative messages.”

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

‘In 55 years preaching, I’ve hardly ever been asked to preach about God’ – Sinclair Ferguson

Sinclair Ferguson’s introduction to this sermon, summarised as part of an intro to my sermon on Sunday night:

‘I’ve been preaching for 55 years, and I have never once in those 55 years ever, ever, been asking to preach on the goodness of God. Behind that, you might think, rather puzzling phenomenon, lies this. I’ve hardly ever been asked to preach about God. And that should tell us something about the Christian church. That actually deep down we’re more interested in man than we are in God. And even for Christians, it’s far easier to speak about ourselves and our own spiritual experience than it is to speak about God’.

Ferguson said that when J. I. Packer’s classic book Knowing God was first published in 1973, the editor told him that even though the book would go on to sell millions, they only initially published 2,000 copies because they weren’t sure they could find 2,000 evangelical Christians who were really interested in knowing God.

Ferguson said: ‘If you are a preacher, it is 100 times more difficult to talk about God, than to talk about man. 100 times more difficult to exalt the glory of God than it is to speak about anything else’.

Great start to a book

“Many Christians perceive that we live in what the prophet Zechariah called “the day of small things” (Zech 4:10). In reality, we also live in a day of great things since Christ has come and poured out his Spirit on his church. Christians today experience far greater advantages than the Jews who lived before Christ’s birth.”

Ryan McGraw, How do preaching and corporate prayer work together? (Grand Rapids, 2014)

(The booklet is adapted from this sermon and part of it features as the Reformation 21 article: ‘Everyone Plays a Part in Preaching’)

Reformed Preaching (book review)

Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People
Joel R. Beeke
Crossway, 2018

reformed preaching

Joel Beeke has called this the most important book he’s ever written. It’s also not quite the book you might expect – in terms of page count it’s more church history / historical theology (254 pages) than homiletical instruction (165 pages). As a lover of historical theology I enjoy that aspect of it, but others might not. While the majority of the historical content deals with how those of the past (Reformers, Puritans, Dutch Reformed and a few more recent) preached and wrote about preaching, some of it leaves you scratching your head as to its relevance to the book’s topic – eg much of the chapter on Calvin, or the section where he summarises Richard Rogers’s book on the Christian life and private means of grace. This is perhaps due to the fact that various sections of the book have previously appeared in other books and articles – it’s not all written from scratch with an emphasis on preaching.

Beeke says that he would have preferred to call the book Reformed ‘Experiential’ Preaching. And though the word experiential was dropped for the sake of simplicity, he does spend a fair amount of time defending not just the concepts behind ‘experiential’ and ‘experimental’, but the words themselves. In a similar vein, while unsurprising, it’s a pity to see a modern book from the publishers of the ESV using the archaic KJV. Some parts of the book also seem overly prescriptive. For example ‘The Christian life…continues and deepens with…reading published sermons’. At times you wonder if the emphasis on piety drifts into pietism. (In fact, Beeke speaks positively of ‘pietistic and mystical tendencies’, even though one of the endorsements says the book tries to separate experiential preaching from pietism and mysticism).

Overall though, this is a great resource. At the risk of being simplistic, American Reformed Christianity particularly needs reminded that ‘too often preaching aims at educating big brains while neglecting withered hearts’ while British Reformed Christianity particularly needs reminded that our forefathers ‘had a profound sense that God builds his church primarily by the instrument of preaching’.

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.

Three potentially life-changing talks

I really try not to overhype things – I would rarely call a book a must-read.

But I think these three talks would revolutionise the views of many reformed presbyterians (and Reformed Presbyterians) – even a fair few ministers – on three vital subjects: preaching, the great commission and the church.

They’re the 3 best things I listened to in 2017. If you can just listen to one, go for the one on preaching.

They are by Simon Arscott and available on the IPC website, but it goes a bit weird when you try to download them, so I’ve re-uploaded them here:

1. Finding the church – the lost keys
2. Finding the church – the lost preacher
3. Finding the church – your lost mother

Brothers, we are not professionals (book review)

Brothers, we are not professionals: a plea to pastors for radical ministry (updated and expanded edition)
John Piper
B&H Publishing Group, 2013

brothers-we-are-not-professionals

Despite not having read it before, I’ve held this book on a pedestal for quite a while. This was thanks mostly to excerpts I’d heard from it, especially an impassioned reading from ‘Brothers, Bitzer was a Banker’ which was one of the highlights of Hebrew class. As a result, it has been on my to-read list for a while, but I wanted to wait until the updated edition came out (with 6 extra chapters) before I finally got round to reading it.
Those looking for a coherent whole will be disappointed. The book is a hodge-podge of chapters relating (to a greater or lesser extent) to pastoral ministry. A number of the early chapters are summaries of Piper’s other books, here focused on the pastor’s work. At least one chapter is originally a website article and chapters are given to issues such as racism and abortion.

Within that mix there’s much to benefit from (I marked 15 out of the 36 chapters as particularly helpful). The chapter I’ve heard cited most is probably ‘Brothers, fight for your life’ (ML-J’s take on reading), and it’s definitely a highlight. Piper quotes Stott that an hour a day ‘is an absolute minimum for time for study which even the busiest pastors should be able to manage’ – and suggests three twenty minute segments. Elsewhere he searchingly asks why we don’t weep over the lost and says: ‘without those tears we may shuffle members from church to church, but few people will pass from darkness to light’. While unbroken seriousness is a sign of a sick soul, we must be in earnest.

In terms of preaching, chapters 13 and 19 (‘Brothers, save the saints’ [not the lost]) are very helpful on the necessity of preaching for the spiritual survival of those who are already Christians. ‘There is not an earnest sermon for evangelism…and a less critical message for the saints to simply add a few starts in their crown’. Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preach doctrinally – in fact: ‘A steady diet of gospel messages that do not help the saints grow out of infancy not only stunts their character but also jeopardizes their final salvation’.

One of Piper’s most convicting calls, for pastor and people alike, is ‘Brothers, tell them copper will do’. Elsewhere Piper warns that we’re living in a day which has seen the hijacking of the word arrogance to refer to conviction and the word humility to refer to uncertainty – a day when we’re even further down the road which Chesterton prophesied would produce a man ‘too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table’.

My overwhelming sense while reading the book however was that it could have done with being reduced rather than expanded. 36 disparate chapters makes it a bit of a desperate read, and some could easily have been cut. These include a mild-mannered attack on infant baptism and a chapter with a potentially helpful title (‘Brothers, focus on the essence of worship, not the form’) which ends up trying to quote Calvin and the Puritans to say that the form of worship doesn’t matter. A number of typos also make their way into the text (‘entrancwe’, ‘S’o’, ‘the affections of our people have for God himself’). At least one footnote hasn’t been updated to point to the correct chapter number in the new edition, and it’s strange in 2013 to find another referring to ‘cassettes’ which have long since been digitised.

There’s much that’s helpful and challenging here, but 36 chapters is a tough slog in one go, over a month if you try and read one a day, and too many to try and study in a fraternal. Piper notes that Thomas Jefferson trimmed the gospels with scissors; the reader may have to do the same with this.

Thanks to B&H for providing a review copy.