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 While the majority of the historical content deals with how those of the past (Reformers, Puritans, Dutch Reformed and a few more recent) preached and wrote about preaching, some of it leaves you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


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.

Problems with Reformed preaching today

Andrew Webb gives his take on the problems with both Reformed and non-Reformed preaching today. Here’s his Reformed list:

1. There is far too little emphasis on connecting with the hearers.
2. Too many of our sermons are actually theological lectures, and our aim is usually to inform the mind rather than melt the heart.
3. Instead of an emphasis on impressing the audience with our personality via entertainment, our emphasis is on impressing the audience with our erudition via teaching. We want them to go away thinking, “Wow! I never knew that word had such an amazing semantic range in the original Greek. What a teacher our pastor is!”
4. We tend to make our hearers do too much of the work, and far too many of our sermons are actually unintelligible to non-Christians
5. We often forget that our preaching should have the same end as John’s telic note in John 20:31 – ” but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
6. We eschew Finney’s idea that conversion is the result of “the right use of means” but are sometimes stunningly unsupernatural in our own view of preaching. Instead of conversion being a supernatural work of the Spirit that must be fervently prayed for, we make it the result of the right understanding of information correctly imparted and received. Small wonder that so many of our listeners can explain theological doctrines but have no clue what Christ was really asking Peter in John 21:15-17.
7. We often act as though it doesn’t matter how good a communicator the pastor is and don’t see being stunningly boring as a problem. Sometimes we even view being uninteresting as a badge of honor, as though boring was the opposite of ear tickling. [For more on this see David Murray’s review of John Piper’s recent book]
8. Secretly, we also don’t want to upset our hearers, so the majority of our convicting fire is directed towards the sins found outside the church rather than within it.
9. Often the majority of our preaching follows the via negativa, we spend our time telling people what we are against, but not what we are for.
10. As a result what we too often create is “Fortress Church” – a dwindling and unapproachable bastion of the saints – and then wonder why no one from the world is coming to visit us.

Coming at it from another angle, Paul Levy recently sought to answer to answer the question ‘What’s wrong with preaching today?’ with a quote about Daniel Rowland:

‘The main difference between Rowlands and the preachers of our day is, we should say, fervent prayer and deep absorption of mind. The preachers of the present day have a thousand things to attend to. Their energies are scattered over a wide field, while the energies of our fathers were concentrated upon one thing. We need to do everything, they tried but one thing. We have our time battered down, and broken into fragments, while they had their time for their great work. We often turn our attention to the light literature of the day, and the new books that appear; we read the articles in the reviews, and we take the daily papers, and are, many of us, well versed in the politics of the day. And hence our preaching suffers. We want absorption with the great themes we preach. The deeper we go into our own spirits, the deeper we may expect to go into the spirits of our hearers. Daniel Rowland was a man of deep absorption and intense concentration. He was a man of one thing – one thing and one thing only – and that one thing was preaching. Hence his wonderful success. He plunged into the depth of his spirit, and meditated deeply and abstractedly upon the great themes of the Gospel; and thus his preaching probed the lower depth of the spirits of others. There is nothing to prevent the same powerful effects in our own day but ourselves. God is exactly the same; His love and mercy look upon a lost world with as sweet a smile now as they did in the times of Whitefield and Rowland; the Spirit of God is as full of power as in the times of Elijah, John the Baptist, and the Apostles, and is as willing to come down from heaven upon us as upon them. We hear the people often asking, ”Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” The question, however, is easily answered. The Lord God of Elijah is where he was before, and as He was before. That is not the question now more that it was of yore; but ”Where is Elijah?” Let Elijah be at his work; let Elijah concentrate all his powers upon his duties, we need not be very anxious about the Lord God of Elijah” (p.74,75)

That quote is from Owen Jones’ Great Preachers of Wales from 1885. Levy adds: ‘Goodness knows what Jones would have made of blogs, church staff and admin but his point is a fair and a convicting one. The big difference with preachers today – fervent prayer and absorption of mind!’

Trueman on ditching the Evening Service

Carl Trueman spoke in Stranmillis EPC a few weeks ago on the subject ‘The reformation – this stupid and pernicious tragedy?’, a title which was ‘borrowed’ from a recent lecture in Belfast by Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch.

In light of his comments during the lecture on Luther coming to the belief that God is primarily present through the proclamation of his Word, he was asked for his views on talk of scrapping – or not starting with – two services, for reasons such as freeing the minister up for evangelism.

Trueman gave another lecture the following morning and then preached on the Lord’s Day morning:

‘Whither Calvinism-challenges facing the reformed church today’

2 Kings 2 v15-25 ‘Surprising grace, surprising judgement’

The audio of the 8 lectures he gave in Dublin on the following two days is also available here.