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We’ve been reading through the letter of James in staff devotions at iServe Africa and a particular cluster of questions has arisen in our minds a number of times – How does this relate to the Reformation? Didn’t Luther hate James? Isn’t the great rallying call of the Reformation – ‘Justification by Faith Alone’ – against what James is talking about? Did the Reformation neglect the big New Testament emphasis on good works?

Three fairly brief thoughts on this and then a more extended quote:

  1. This was precisely the accusation at the time – by those from within the Roman church – that the Reformers were against good works. And it was answered numerous times by the Reformers, just as Paul had needed to answer the accusations against him that claimed that he was against the Law and good works (Romans 6-7). To give one example, in the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Lutheran theologians begin Article 20 (On Good Works), “Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works” and close the article, “Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine [faith] is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. For without faith human nature can in no wise… call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing.”
  2. Luther did indeed dislike the letter of James. But a large part of the reason for that was that he thought it flatly contradicted Paul on justification. He could see no way that ‘faith justifies’ and ‘faith does not justify’ could be harmonised (Table Talk, 1532). Behind this seems to be an overly simplistic logical-grammatical-literal view of language. While Luther’s straightforward approach to the words of the Bible was brilliant for dismantling the linguistic gymnastics, subversions and allegories with which the scholastic Roman church had been torturing Scripture (see particularly Luther’s devastating On The Bondage of the Will), the same approach sometimes made him somewhat insensitive to the subtlety and variety of human language took him to some strange positions (e.g. his refusal to accept that ‘This is my body” could mean anything other than that the bread was Jesus’ body). In the case of James and Paul, Luther seems to assume that ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ have identical meanings across all Scripture rather than exploring whether James and Paul might mean rather different things by both ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ (cf. the use of ‘flesh’ by John and Paul).
  3. In fact Luther had a strong place for good works in his understanding of the life of faith. In one place, which I can’t locate, he speaks of the gospel taking the Law from being a stick to beat us to being a staff in our hand to help us walk along the way. In his commentaries and lectures Luther tracks the New Testament pattern of looking first to Christ as our substitute and then as our example; first gospel doctrine as the foundation, then good works built on top as the beautiful superstructure. Read for example his commentary on Galatians 5 or his Preface to Romans. In the latter, speaking of Romans 6, he says: “it is a freedom only to do good with eagerness and to live a good life without the coercion of the law. This freedom is, therefore, a spiritual freedom which does not suspend the law but which supplies what the law demands, namely eagerness and love.” And on Romans 12: “These are the works that a Christian does, for, as I have said, faith is not idle.” Sounds quite a lot like James.

Some Luther historians have noted a shift in Luther’s emphasis from an early tight focus on faith alone and sovereign grace to a later concern to address the antinomianism tangent of some of his followers and to assert more strongly the need for holiness. Perhaps that is true, but it should be noted that even his early works often had a strong (and beautiful) doctrine of good works. Here is a passage from a very helpful article in the Grace Theological Journal by church historian James McGoldrick:

“In his treatise The Freedom of a Christian (1520) Luther stated, “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” At first glance the above propositions may appear to be irreconcilable, but Luther found them fully harmonious-correlative truths. He explained by citing the dictum of St. Paul, “though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone” (1 Cor 9: 19 NIV). Luther held that genuine Christian faith always produces love, for faith must be active in love. Faith ascends to God, and Christian love descends to one’s neighbor and renders service to him as a fulfillment of the believer’s calling. The Christian does not need to work for his salvation, as the Romanists contended, so he is free to invest his life in the service of his fellow men. In the ultimate sense, one can do nothing for God, for he is utterly self-sufficient. Man, however, who has been created in the image of God, is constantly in need of spiritual and material assistance.

Luther stated it beautifully, “Faith is truly active through love. That is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with’ which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fulness and wealth of his faith.” Good works performed in faith do not bring benefit to God or to one’s self. They bring benefits to one’s neighbor. Although believers and unbelievers may perform exactly the same outward deeds, the works of the latter are not truly good.

In Luther’s understanding of the Christian life the believer’s self image as a servant is a fundamental motif. In the reformer’s words, “a Christian lives not in himself but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love” (Freedom of a Christian). To those who claimed to possess saving faith but failed to demonstrate an active concern for their neighbors’ needs Luther issued a warning about the “illusion of faith.” He insisted that emotional responses to the gospel are not necessarily evidences of genuine faith. Active love, expressing itself in good works, is the only reliable external index of faith. Such love, Luther held, would extend to sharing one’s earthly goods with a neighbor in need. Just as Christ emptied himself when he left heaven to become man (Phil 2:5), believers should sacrifice their possessions for the benefit of those in need. When illness strikes Christians should aid the sick, even at the risk of contagion to themselves. Luther did so himself by remaining in Wittenberg to minister to the sick and dying during an epidemic of bubonic plague.” (McGoldrick, Luther on Life Without Dichotomy)

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When there is so much work to be done ‘at home’ should we be sending out missionaries abroad? When our national churches – in Kenya or the UK or wherever we are – are struggling so much with false teaching and lukewarmness and have so few faithful Bible teachers and servant leaders, can we afford to be sending well-trained Christian workers to other countries? In an age of mass migration and refugee flows, when the world is coming to our doorstep (praise God) is there any need to send out missionaries? When sending people across borders is so costly and difficult and when there are still many neglected, functionally-unreached people in our own lands shouldn’t we just concentrate on shedding gospel light into dark corners close to home and de-emphasise ‘going’?

There is a lot of truth and wisdom and gospel-heartedness behind those questions. Undoubtedly there are huge needs and opportunities ‘at home’ and it will be right for many to stay and address those. It is also perfectly true, as many have said, that getting on a plane doesn’t make you a missionary; every follower of Christ is called to Great Commission obedience wherever they are and wherever they go (Mat. 28). And we also need to come to terms with the ways in which global demographics and dynamics are changing – mission from everywhere to everywhere – and root out the deep down ugly prejudice which sometimes makes us (me) anxious about that. And yes, it is often better and more cost effective to send funds to support gospel workers in their own countries rather than sending someone over there.

But here are four suggestions of why, while we want to be doing all those things, we still need to be sending out high quality gospel workers across borders:

These are the days of Elijah

In pastor Joshua D Jones’ strangely titled but extremely good book Elijah Men Eat Meat he draws multiple insightful parallels between our current post-post-modern age and the days of Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel. In one chapter he focuses on mission and notes the phenomenon of sound biblical churches with a good grip on the primacy of word ministry and a clear understanding of the mission of the church “to preach the gospel and make obedient disciples of Jesus throughout the nations…” who nonetheless

“…lose foreign mission as a focus because ‘we have so many problems here at home.’ Given all the spiritual darkness that we see in Israel, it would be easy to assume that God might put foreign mission on hold. Elijah has no shortage of work to do within his national boundaries. After all, there are plenty of fake prophets to combat and plenty of seduced hearts to turn. Yet, God sends Elijah to another nation to spend two years of his life witnessing to one pagan woman and her son. How does one even begin to evaluate whether that was a wise use of time and resources?”

It seems that the LORD is less concerned about strategy and efficiency and cost-benefit analysis than we are. He is driving an outgoing, expansive, generous, nation-reaching mission even in the worst of times. And he uses that mission to shame and rebuke and incite Israel and make them jealous (cf. Luke 4:26-29; 10:10-15; 20:16; 13:46-51; 28:28).

Whoever refreshes others will be refreshed (Proverbs 11:25)

John Paton, the great nineteenth century Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) gives testimonies of this in his classic autobiography. Before he went to the New Hebrides he was a much loved and much used pastor in the Scottish Reformed Presbyterian Church. Many in the church, including elders, tried to persuade him that he was far too valuable to the church in Scotland to risk throwing his life away in a mission to pagans who would probably eat him within hours of arrival (not an unfounded fear since the previous missions to the islands had ended in that way). As it was he was eventually used, after many many trials, to bring pretty much the whole island of Aniwa to the feet of Christ. But perhaps even more significant was the way that he galvanised the Presbyterian churches in Australia and Scotland for a long-term missionary concern for New Hebrides. A very large amount of money was raised from not particularly well off churches and tens if not hundreds of pastors left Scotland and Australia to join the missionary efforts in the South Pacific islands. And what went along with those sacrificial efforts towards foreign missions was a revival in the churches that were giving:

Nor did the dear old Church [Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland] thus cripple herself; on the contrary, her zeal for Missions accompanied, if not caused, unwonted prosperity at home. New waves of liberality passed over the heart of her people. Debts that had burdened many of the Churches and Manses were swept away. Additional Congregations were organized…

For it is a fixed point in the faith of every Missionary, that the more any Church or Congregation interests itself in the Heathen, the more will it be blessed and prospered at Home.

“One of the surest signs of life,” wrote the V.C.R. [an Australian Presbyterian periodical], “is the effort of a Church to spread the Gospel beyond its own bounds, and especially to send the knowledge of Jesus amongst the Heathen. The Missions to the Aborigines, to the Chinese in this Colony, and to the New Hebrides, came to this Church [Presbyterian Church in Australia] from God. In a great crisis of the New Hebrides, they sent one of their number to Australia for help, and his appeal was largely owned by the Head of the Church. The Children, and especially the Sabbath Scholars of the Presbyterian Churches, became alive with Missionary enthusiasm. Large sums were raised for a Mission Ship. The Congregations were roused to see their duty to God and their fellow-men beyond these Colonies, and a new Missionary Spirit took possession of the whole Church. …the Presbyterian Church in Victoria is largely blessed in her own spirit through the Missionary zeal awakened in her midst. Thus, there is that scattereth and yet increaseth; bringing out anew the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

That is paradoxical gospel logic. Foreign missions sending is not a zero sum game. There is a great blessing for sending churches.

Foreign missions can be a powerful means of personal growth for the missionary

God uses many means to grow his people – the primary means of grace of word and sacrament in the local church, the local community of God’s people, the nurture of a Christian parent (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15), marriage and parenting, affliction (2 Cor. 1:9) – but one other that he can use is cross-border mission. An African mission leader in a particular West African country told me that all the guys he knows who are continuing faithfully long term in gospel ministry have one thing in common – they have all been out of the country. That is what has grown in them the spiritual strength and godliness and perseverance for the long haul. This can work on a number of levels – here are six:

  • There is a particular challenge in leaving your home country and people group which forces the missionary to reassess the whole idea of ‘home’ and come to a greater experiential understanding of being an alien and stranger in this world.
  • There is a particular challenge in going into a foreign culture where you are reduced to the understanding and status of a child – unable to express yourself clearly, unable to do simple things without help, constantly making mistakes, unknown and un-respected. A humbling experience that can lead to a greater experiential understanding of being simply a little child in the kingdom of God.
  • There is a particular increase in risk and uncertainty which (hopefully) forces the missionary to rely on the Lord. In some countries the threat level and insecurity is far higher than the missionary’s birth country. I think of two Kenyan brothers who spent last year in countries with very high levels of persecution and threat towards Christians – they testify to how they had to learn new level of trust of God in life and in death. Even if the destination country is quite safe and secure by any objective measure, the missionary almost certainly doesn’t feel as safe and secure as in their homeland – they don’t know which streets are safe to walk, what the noises in the dark mean, who can be trusted, where to get help. And there is a particular vulnerability of legal status as a foreign national – you can always be deported. New battles with fear will need to be fought.
  • There is a particular exposure of sin. This happens in many crucibles that the Lord puts us in – workplace, marriage, parenting – but it is certainly true of cross-border mission that all the unique stresses and insecurities tend to be particularly effective means of revealing the depths of your own heart. A critical spirit or impatience or selfishness that might not have reared its head ‘at home’ comes out strongly in moments of transition and culture clash. We are exposed more clearly as the sinners we are.
  • There is a particular encounter with other ways of thinking and living, other expressions of Christian faith. You are forced to re-examine your own thinking and living and what is genuine Christianity. While living in your own culture your own culture is hard to see largely invisible to you. In some ways, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, reading old books from different times and worldviews can help but there is nothing quite like crossing borders and living in a different place that works to different rules and assumptions to help you see the things you thought were ‘obvious’. You are forced to do some hard thinking about whether you don’t like something because it is wrong or just because it is different. You are given the privilege of having a bit of distance on your own culture as well as a view into a different one and you can start (although you will still be trapped and blind in many ways) to appreciate and critique things in both. In this way your convictions about the really core, trans-cultural, vital things in your faith hopefully get clearer and firmer.
  • There is particular encounter with need. We can read of the unreached millions in Operation World but hearts are stirred by meeting actual people, no longer statistics but precious human souls, people with lives and families and desires and fears. Certainly, wherever we are there are needs all around us – physical and spiritual. But we get so used to the environment we grow up with that we start to filter them out. When we go to somewhere very different from our home country we often see the needs more strikingly and sometimes our very definition of need starts to be challenged. Things we thought we needed, we realise are not needs. Places we thought very needy in one way we realise, through going there, are actually very needy in a different way. I think of a Kenyan who went to the UK and realised that there were extremely spiritually needy people in a wealthy nation. I think of an American who came to Kenya and realised after some time that there was a bigger need than agricultural engineering.

Perhaps this is not the most important reason for foreign missions (all this focus on personal growth can get a bit me-centred) and neither is it an invariable rule (there are plenty of counter-cases of crossing cultures leading to personal hardening and de-sanctification – mission can lead to pride as much as to humility) but it is a genuine positive effect. As Peter found in Acts 10, missions can be just as much, if not more, about the change of the missionary’s heart as anyone else’s.

We need each other

The ideal for the global church is not independency but interdependeny. There will always need to be movement of Christians around the world. Like the circulation of the blood in the body – it is healthy for there to be a circulation of Christians around the body of the church. The weaker parts will need the help of the stronger parts and each part of the body will be simultaneously strong and weak in different ways – in courage, in carefulness, in theological resources, in financial resources, in mission-heartedness, in sacrificial love. The goal is mutual encouragement (Rom. 1:12).

And in the theological endeavour itself, as Amos Yong has observed, the global church has a lot of “resources… to contribute to the conversation” which are currently largely ignored. This is not to romanticise ‘minority theologies’ or to suggest that the Western tradition is always wrong or to go for a relativistic reader-centred view of truth. In fact the majority world will continue to have a huge amount to learn from the Reformation tradition for a long time to come. It’s simply to suggest that God doesn’t give any one part of the global church a monopoly on truth and insight, that the Spirit distributes his gifts across the whole church, across borders, and that we can learn a lot from the way different people in different cultures may be able to see certain aspects of the Word more clearly than we do.

Some mutual learning can happen at a distance (even online) but there is nothing like actually being with and alongside and living and working together in gospel ministry. Much glory goes to God and much growth occurs and much learning happens as people of different cultures interact together and serve churches together and go on mission teams together (BTW multi-cultural leadership and mission teams are an old idea – Acts 13:1-3; 16:1-5; Romans 16).

At the end of the day we will all have blindspots – moral, cultural, theological. We will need to remove our own logs and each other’s specs. And both seeing the logs and the specs can be greatly helped by crossing borders.

A danger was pointed out to me recently that simply being gospel-centred is not enough – for an individual, church or ministry.

Let me try to illustrate with a few diagrams.

  1. Gospel-centred but gospel-assumed rather than gospel-explicit

Gospel assumed

With gospel-assumed there is a lot of talk about gospel but we never quite get around to defining and spelling out exactly what we mean by the gospel. So very quickly not only are we not actually preaching the gospel to others (so no-one is being converted or built up), we start to forget it ourselves.

The solution: We go back to the Bible every day to remind ourselves of the good news from all over Scripture. We need to fill in the word with Bible detail.

For example in my Bible reading this morning I saw in 1 Chronicles 11 a little vignette of the gospel – one man standing against a whole army of Philistines ‘and the LORD saved’ (v14). And I see a tiny picture of the One Man who stood instead of us and triumphed over all our enemies – Satan, death, hell. And I’m reminded that the LORD saves – the most succinct summary of the gospel – salvation belongs to the LORD. His is the victory we will praise for all eternity (Rev. 7:10). I did not save myself. I was not one of David’s mighty men, I was more like a faithless Israelite or a hostile Philistine. I didn’t do a thing to move towards God. But he saved me. The Father chose me, the Son took my place on the cross, the Spirit grabbed me and united me to Christ. Sovereign grace grabbed me.

  1. Gospel-centred but gospel-small rather than gospel-big

Gospel small

With gospel-small there may be explicit regular mention of the gospel but it is a bit formulaic and anemic. I make sure I get into every sermon ‘Jesus died on the cross for us’ but that’s about it. So before long it loses its impact on our hearers or even on our own hearts. It starts to seem like a small thing and (if we’re honest) a rather boring message. So it doesn’t change lives.

The solution: we go back again and again to the Bible – all different parts of the Bible – Psalms, prophecy, letters, stories – to see the richness and depth and vastness and complexity and multi-faceted, multi-coloured beauty of the gospel from the detail of specific Bible texts.

For example in my morning devotion in 1 Chronicles 11 I see David finally acknowledged as king by his people. I see that he is of the same bone and flesh as his people (v1), that he is the shepherd of his people (v2), that he binds himself in covenant to his people (v3). I am reminded by the mention of Uriah the Hittite (v41) that this was not the perfect King. And my eyes are drawn to the Son of God who took bone and flesh that he could be the Second Adam united to his bride and the Second David, Goliath-slaying king over his people, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11, 15) and makes incredible promises binding himself to his people (John 10:27-28; 11:25-26; 12:26; 14:3, 23; 15:7-8).

If I had longer I could try to explore the significance of the King winning Jerusalem for his people (1 Chron. 11:4-9), the pattern of taking advantage of something won for you at great cost (1 Chron. 11:15-10 cf. John 6:53), the need for a hero (1 Chron. 11:20-25. And this is all from one chapter. If we keep doing this from text after text we start to build up a rich, beautiful, big heart-capturing gospel picture.

It’s the difference between a little stick man picture and a 6” by 6” Klimt portrait.

Gospel small - pictures

  1. Gospel-centred but floating rather than rooted

Gospel floating

Gospel-floating is where we do a decent job of explaining the heart of the gospel but it is not rooted into the rest of the Bible text and systematic theology. The gospel is floating unmoored, unanchored, untethered. This is a subtle danger. We can appear to be ‘just wanting to preach the gospel’ and ‘just wanting to preach Bible’ but by failing to tie the gospel into broader biblical themes and doctrinal structures we can drift off into something less than orthodox and biblical. In times of increasing biblical illiteracy this is going to be a serious issue – we can’t take for granted the doctrine of God, doctrine of creation, doctrine of man.

Solution: We go back to the Bible and seek to do exposition which avoids both the danger of eisegesis (where we pour our systematic framework into every verse – a rather boring and dangerous form of exposition) but also the danger of preaching things from one Scripture that assume or are even deny the truths of other Scriptures. We need to go to the Scriptures with a view that it is one story with a consistent theology that we need to seek to learn as well as we’re able (though humbly accepting that no one of us will never see it perfectly).

For example, 1 Corinthians 15:1-10 – that great gospel summary – is actually leaning on a whole lot of stuff. That’s why it says ‘according to the Scriptures’ twice. The idea of ‘dying for our sins’ only makes sense if you know a) what sin is and b) how it is possible for one to die for sins. To really understand this gospel summary I’m going to need to dig into the Old Testament for a complex biblical understanding of sin, including particularly the fact that it is first and foremost against God and calls down the wrath of God. Then I’m going to need to unpack the sacrificial system and the whole idea of a substitute being burnt up in the wrath of God instead of me. And the same is true of ‘rising on the third day according to the Scriptures.’ I’m going to need to look at what resurrection really means – the end time, the judgment day, the need for this creation to be swallowed up in an imperishable holy new creation. Without a lot of biblical undergirding the language of ‘Christ died for you and rose again’ is almost completely meaningless.

Another example: When I look at 1 Chronicles 11:1 and think through the way in which Christ shared our human nature (bone and flesh) I need to connect it all the way back to Genesis 3:16 and the promise of one born of woman who would crush the serpent. I would also need to look forward to what the New Testament says about the human nature of Christ. I would want to be guided in that by the ancient creeds and historic confessions where the church has thought long and hard and come up with very carefully considered words to express the completeness of Christ’s humanity and the wonder of two natures in one person without confusion or separation. I might also want to think of Athanasius and Irenaeus and the huge importance of the incarnation, God becoming man that we might share in his divine nature. Then I might want to think about the ascension and the importance of Christ retaining his human nature there, right now calling me his brother.

One more example: When we read in the prophets of the LORD’s yearning for his beloved people, his heart being moved, his inmost parts (KJV: bowels) being disturbed (e.g. Jeremiah 31:20) then surely we are seeing the very spring of the gospel – the passionate love of God. I’m definitely going to want to preach that to myself and others. But at the same time I’m going to have to be careful I don’t deny the orthodox definition of God. I’ll want to give full force to the biblical language of affections but also keep respectfully in mind the ancient understanding that God is immutable, ‘without parts or passions’ and the biblical material that says that God is wholly other and ‘not like a man.’ Not to say that all this has to come into a pulpit. Most of it will stay in the study, but if I ignore this theology I run the risk of teaching fluff or heresy.

  1. Gospel-centred but DIY implications rather than Bible implications

DIY implications

Here we have a good, rich, well-rooted biblical understanding of the gospel, but when it comes to working out the implications of the gospel (for my own life or for church life) then I sort of ‘wing it’ – DIY – Do It Yourself. I assume a) that God is not particularly prescriptive about exactly how I should lead my life or how the church should be ordered and b) I assume that I am able work out for myself, from the internal logic of the gospel, how if should be applied in different areas of life.

For example I see that the gospel springs from the consistent other-person-centred love of God and so I think the implication of the gospel is ‘any stable, loving, other-person-centred relationship’. Or I see that the gospel is the salvation not only of our souls but also of our bodies and indeed the renewing of the whole creation and so I think an implication is that the church’s mission is, with equal emphasis, to a) care for souls and b) to care for people’s bodies, transform society and fight for the natural environment.

I was reading a good Christian book the other day by a fine author who knows and explains the gospel extremely well. Much of the book was excellent. But, as I read one chapter where he described the implications of the gospel for church life, I started to feel something was a little bit off. And then I realised that he hadn’t quoted Scripture for several pages. We were moving into deductions from deductions from deductions – DIY implications.

The solution: We go back to the Bible and find the implications of the gospel from the Bible itself. This is particularly clear in the Apostle Paul’s letters. Most of them (roughly speaking) start with a couple of chapters of gospel doctrine then move to a concluding couple of chapters spelling out the implications of the gospel in some detail.

Ephesians, for example, lays out the great gospel of sovereign grace – the Trinitarian God grabbing a people for himself – by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed in the Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone (Eph. 1-3) – then Paul starts talking about the implications of that for how we live as this new community of God’s people (Eph. 4:1-5:21). Loads of detailed instructions about the role of church leaders, every member ministry, speech, sex, work, reconciliation. But even this is not specific enough. People could take ‘submit to one another’ (5:21) to mean that there is no longer such a thing as differentiation of roles or authority or respect. So then there is a section laying out how exactly different relationships should work – wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters (Eph. 5:22-6:9). In each of these relationships we can see that it is the gospel which is shaping the structure and manner of that relationship (in a beautiful way) but the point here is that God doesn’t leave us to guess how the gospel shapes these relationships he tells us.

The same could be said for the ordering of the local church (1 Timothy). Not that everything is spelled out – of course not. In loads of things we are free – it doesn’t matter what colour the curtains are. And yes there will still be lots of things where we will have to make gospel-hearted decisions about what is wisest for the advance of the gospel – how long will the sermon be? But in a lot of things – in fact all the important things – we’re actually given a lot of guidance by the Holy Spirit.

Why the detail? Because I cannot be trusted to work out all the implications of the gospel for myself. I will naturally use the right doctrine in the wrong way. Like people in Paul’s day I will take the grace of God and make it a license for sin (Rom. 6:1) rather than a spring of good works (Rom. 6:2-23). I need to be taught the right out-working of the gospel and the specific good deeds I need to do. I need both the gospel at the centre of everything that teaches me to say know to ungodliness (Titus 2:11-14) and I need someone (God) to draw the lines out from that centre to show me what true godliness looks like in detail (Titus 2:2-10).

 

Maybe this is all just another way of saying, let’s be expository. Let’s be gospel-centred and Bible-rich – getting our gospel from the Bible – a beautiful, big, detailed, rooted, worked-out gospel of Christ Jesus who came into the world to save sinners of who I am the worst.

 

  • The Word sets the agenda-  rather than being relegated to the backseat, the Word of God is in the driving seat. The preacher opens up what is in the Word as opposed to opening up what is his own and using the Word of God as a back-up. Since June, we’ve been doing a series #WhoIsThisMan from Mark’s gospel and it’s been enriching to see the wonderful truths from the Word. You can never lack what to preach if you are doing expository preaching. Also, you can never speak your own things if you are doing expository preaching, you only open up and faithfully apply what the word is saying. Without the word setting and being the agenda, then politics and economics become the agenda.
  • It is really relevant- on the preacher’s mind is the need for relevance. Is what am preaching relevant? Does it really apply to my congregation? Our words may not be relevant but God’s Word is relevant every time everywhere. Sometimes, it’s easy to think that what is relevant to the congregation is fashion, music, politics, money et cetera but actually that’s not the truth. People want to hear how you address the fundamental questions of life & death, justice, living with neighbors, what works practically, how do I deal with my broken/breaking marriage, is there God and what is He doing, why is there suffering and how can I overcome it and many others. They don’t care to know where I went on holiday or where I do my shopping. Last Sunday at GracePoint Church we did Mark 13 and what Jesus says is as relevant today as it was then. Wars & rumours of war, political crises- that’s what Kenya is experiencing right now, persecution, family members rising up against another- you don’t need to go far to see this happening, false teachers on the lose- so rampant! This is the reality of the world we are living in and thus the urgency of Jesus’ call to be alert, be on guard, and to watch as we earnestly await his second coming.
  • You can’t run away from difficult passages- this is one thing I’ve come to appreciate about expository preaching. At iServe Africa, there was a time we did a series through the book of Revelation. It would have been easier to stop at end of chapter 4 with the letters to the 7 churches and avoid all the other stuff that is hard to understand and controversial but no, we soldiered on to the end of chapter 22 and oh how rich and edifying it is! Mark 13 is a controversial passage (even hard preaching it in a family service where children are seated in) but it was wonderful to hear the truth of that passage simply explained and applied in our service on Sunday.
  • Congregation builds trust in God’s Word- as preachers, one of the tasks we can accomplish is to see a congregation that trusts God’s Word. This can happen well when we faithfully open God’s Word and letting it do the work. Our work is not to be clever but clear, not to be fanciful but faithful, not to entertain but to exhort from the Word. Expository preaching achieves this. As we open up the Word faithfully, the congregation sees how you are arriving at your points, what it means and how that applies to them and the need then for them to live in light of the word. As they go out at the end of the service, what they have on their minds is “yes, this makes some sense” and slowly they build confidence in the Word.

Grounding

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  • Your head is spinning with a thousand thoughts and fears.
  • You are in transition, experiencing cultural jet lag, unsure what is right and wrong or up and down.
  • You are at a crossroads of decision without a signpost.
  • You are overwhelmed with emotions and hormones.
  • You are tired and weary but restless and tense.
  • Do you know that feeling? That slightly dizzy feeling? You can’t think clearly. The world is spinning (or maybe it is your head that is spinning) and you just want to get off.

Grounding

When you are travel sick (in a bus or a boat), they tell you to look at the horizon. Look at something fixed and stable. When you are having a panic attack or you are feeling faint they tell you to get down on the ground or hold onto something solid. Look into the eyes of someone you trust and keep eye contact with them.

I think there is a Christian version of grounding. Sometimes it is a simple as one precious verse repeated until it gets from our mouth into our heart:

I have set the LORD always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. (Psalm 16:8)

A more elaborate grounding exercise is to rehearse to ourselves the Apostles’ Creed, the 10 Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the ancient pattern of Christian catechisms. Evidence from the early church (50-250 AD) suggests that catechesis involved teaching the 10 commandments and the Lord’s Prayer (Weinrich). The bulk of Cyril’s Catechetical Sermons delivered in Jerusalem in 348 AD are expositions of successive lines of the Apostles’ Creed. Luther’s Small Catechism (1529) unpacks the 10 commandments then the Apostles’ Creed then the Lord’s Prayer. The much longer Heidelberg (1563) goes through the creed (Q23-58), the commandments (Q92-113) and the prayer (Q118-129) while the later Westminster basically follows the same pattern. [For more on the development and value of catechesis see ‘Considering catechism for suspicious Protestants’ by Daniel Williams.]

Catechesis was obviously developed for children and enquirers to get them ready for baptism or a public profession of faith. But in the Christian life the way in is the way on. There is a tremendous stabilising effect in going over the foundations and essentials of our faith again. [This is presumably why Cranmer designed the regular order of Morning Prayer (1552) to include the public declaration of the Apostles’ Creed and the corporate praying of the Lord’s Prayer while the Communion Order includes the 10 Commandments, the Nicaean Creed and the corporate Lord’s Prayer.]

So try this is as a grounding exercise:

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

Notice first this is about faith not works. There is nothing of me here. Nothing about my emotional or mental or spiritual or moral state, only that I believe; I look outside myself and openhanded grasp what is True. I take my eyes off myself and look to God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I shift my weight from the unstable confused little mess that is me and onto the great Rock and the rock solid unchangeable truths about Him.

Though my head (and life) might seem to be spinning out of control there is an almighty Creator God. He has everything in his hand.

Then there are the historical facts of the gospel – Christ came, suffered, died, was buried, rose, ascended. That happened. Long before I was born. Historical fact. It doesn’t depend on me. And yet he went through hell instead of me.

There is the presence of God with me right now in this moment. I believe in the Holy Spirit. There is the communion of the saints. Even if all other family desert me there is the rich fellowship of the new family. There is the forgiveness of sins. Oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin – not in part but the whole, Is nailed to His cross and I bear it no more; Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul.

And wonderfully I can know the future. Perhaps the short term future is very uncertain but the ultimate future is very clear: Christ will come to judge the living and the dead, we will all be raised bodily, we will truly live eternally with him who is Life.

Whatever is happening right now, these things are true.
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The 10 Commandments

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.

  2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

  4. Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

  5. Honour your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

  6. You shall not murder.

  7. You shall not commit adultery.

  8. You shall not steal.

  9. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

  10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbour’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

First and foremost these are commands to convict us, to cut us down, to show us that we are helpless foul sinners in desperate need of saving by and from a holy God. And that will probably be a key part of our grounding. We need to be like Job on the ground in the dust and ashes to truly see things rightly. This is where the gospel hits me afresh as the greatest news in the world.

And then, as Luther said, the gospel takes the Law from being a stick to beat us and gives it to us as a staff to lean on. We get up from the ground and the Law becomes the royal law of Christ, our guide to grateful living along the way.

I think it was the late Elizabeth Elliot who used to say, “Trust in God, obey him, and do the next thing.” Her point was that when you are in the midst of confusion and/or busyness and/or romantic turmoil and/or competing demands, the thing you need to do is simply to obey what God has set before you: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God; to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbour as yourself.

Matt Perman says a similar thing in What’s Best Next: if you lose all your complex productivity tools and calendars and lists and planners then all is not lost; you can move forward just asking What is the best thing to do next? And the key to answering that question is God’s commands.

So amid the confusion of an endless email inbox or multiple to-do lists there are actually only 10 things to do today (Trust, Listen, Hallow, Rest, Honour, Love, Cherish, Give, Witness, Rejoice) that all hang on 2 (love the Lord and your neighbour) which are really one. We can get up and put one foot in front of the other.

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who is in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
now and forever. Amen.

Just remember – you have a Father who is in heaven. A Father who has sent his Son to die for you and the Spirit of sonship that you can call him Abba. A Father who is high and holy and yet dwells with the contrite and lowly (Isa. 57:15). A Father who controls the universe and yet is intimately concerned with every detail of your life. A Father far more keen to give than we are to ask. A Father so keen to bless us and commune with us that he has given us this prayer template so we would know what he would love us to ask him for and that we might have confidence to approach him.

As we pray the Lord’s Prayer we’re re-centred on the things that are most important – your kingdom come, your will be done – and we ask for what we will need as pilgrims on our way to the celestial city – manna, armour, leading.

We come as sinners to a holy Father and find forgiveness while simultaneously acknowledging there is a horizontal outworking of grace – as we forgive those who sin against us – a turn of the heart to peace and reconciliation (that may be a key part of our grounding).

And finally we acknowledge that the power, the kingdom and the glory belong to Him (cf. Rev. 4:11; 12:10). The power is not ultimately with us, with politicians or persecutors. There is only One who says, ‘I make known the end from the beginning… my purpose will stand and I will do all that I please’ (Isa. 46:10). He can and will work out all things for the glory of the Father and Son.

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“who has destroyed death” (2 Tim. 1:10)

valley-of-vision-resurrection

We were looking at Hebrews 2:5-18 about the Lord God becoming fully man, sharing our flesh, being family, so that he might taste death for us, disarm the jailer of the dungeon and free us from the bondage of the fear of death. It reminded me of the classic Easter sermons by Pastor Dev Menon on death [Part 1, Part 2] and of my two favourite movie illustrations of Jesus entering into death and blowing up the monster from the inside. Apologies for some rough language at the beginning of the first one:

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A pastor pointed out to me some time ago a rising trend in the pulpit of preaching that puts the hearer ‘on the couch’. The tone is cool, reflective, sophisticated, non-confrontational. The content is psychological and analytical, a diagnosis of the workings of your heart and mind.

I want to suggest some concerns with this approach but also an insight worth holding onto and a way to do it which might mitigate many of the dangers.

Some concerns

  • Individual rather than corporate. Preaching should normally be inclined towards a corporate address. The preacher is speaking to the whole church as a church. Like most of the NT epistles, there should be far more plural (“Sisi” na “Nyinyi”) than singular (“Mimi” na “Wewe”). It is so easy to slip into making all the applications to the individual rather than thinking how a particular Bible text should move us as a church. The ‘on the couch’ style of preaching tends to be directed to the individual.
  • Therapy culture rather than repentance call. The seated/recumbent posture just looks wrong. Preaching is supposed to be a heralding of salvation, beseeching sinners to come to Christ, a publishing of the command of God to all men to repent (Acts 17:30). There is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching loses entirely that tone of urgency, boldness and ‘speaking the very words of God’ and instead buys into a consumerist, me-centred, victim culture that wants God only so far as he affirms and soothes and helps me feel better about myself.
  • Knowing rather than doing. The theme of obedience is massive in the Bible (I don’t know how I never noticed it till recently!). Adam and Eve failed to obey. In Genesis 22 we are told nothing of Abraham’s psychology as he climbs Mt Moriah but what is emphasised is that he did it. Gospel ministry aims at bringing the nations to the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), ‘to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20). James tells us not to deceive ourselves that listening to the Word is a substitute for doing it (James 1:22). Of course we need to avoid moralistic ‘just do it’ exhortations but there is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching is descriptive without being prescriptive; giving us the intellectual stimulation and catharsis of knowing ourselves better without ever getting to the confrontational gospel imperatives.
  • Looking within rather than looking to Christ. The great news of the gospel is of salvation coming from outside, an alien righteousness, wisdom we would never have guessed, a God who stoops down, breaks in, rescues us. The call of the NT is “Behold the Lamb!” “Fix your eyes on Christ.” The danger with ‘on the couch’ preaching is that it can pander to an overly introspective, obsessive, narcissistic navel gazing. Even if it doesn’t do that it can start to make us think that just as the problem lies in us (idolatry, disordered loves) so the solution lies in us (rooting out idols, purifying worship) rather than looking to Jesus.

An insight worth holding onto

Having said all this, the practitioners of ‘on the couch’ preaching have got something very right and alerted us to something very important. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. We are passion-driven more than purpose-driven. Idolatry and the waywardness of the human heart is an enormous issue in the Bible. And it is helpful to think through how exactly sin and idolatry and sanctification work at the level of our heads and hearts. Rather than simply knowing what we must do and having a very vague idea that ‘God changes us’, perhaps it is rather important to see how exactly ‘the grace of God teaches us to say No to ungodliness.’ How do we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ? How does a good thing become a god-thing in our lives? How best can we counsel people going through the complexities of grief? How do we best motivate ourselves to obedience? How do our hearts work? We do we preach in a way that opens and engages hearts? The puritans, at their best, were masters of this kind of care of souls.

A way forward: let the Bible speak

How can we take that major insight of heart focus and heart analysis without slipping into the dangers mentioned above? I wonder whether, as it often the case, the best way forward is simply to preach the Word. Preach through the Bible. Preach what is in the passage you have this week. Preach with the tone of the passage. With the balance of the passage. With the cutting edge of the passage.

This sort of preaching will keep us from hobby horses, keep us from being dull, keep us from getting locked into a particular style or structure or mood or approach. We take our cue each time from the Bible passage itself. And, most importantly, preaching through the Bible, feeling the changing atmosphere, staying very close to the detail and flow of the texts will keep us from getting me-centred because we’ll be constantly pushed back up against the Lord of Glory himself.

By way of example here are some rough study notes on Isaiah 57:8-13.

Verse 8 – deserting me you have uncovered your bed… Forsaking the LORD leads to opening our hearts wide to any other lovers (idols) that will have us. We are beings desperate for love and yet we perversely, bizarrely, run from the love of our soul. you have looked on… We are visual beings and our hearts are captured by what we see.

Verse 10 – You wearied yourself by such going about… The pursuit of idols is a lengthy, stressful, strenuous, tiring pursuit. But you would not say, “It is hopeless.” Despite the high physical, emotional and financial costs of running after idols, we refuse to give up the chase. Idolators may be without true hope but they are not necessarily hopeless, depressed individuals. They may actually be very hopeful people, constantly expecting their idol to come through for them or to find a better world round the corner. You found renewal of your strength… We know that the LORD renews the strength of those who hope in him (Isa. 40:31), He revives the contrite (Isa. 57:15), but it is possible for idolators to find renewal of strength in their idolatry. Idolatry is hope-creating and energising. Look at the world without Christ and you see a huge amount of energy and industry.

Verse 11 – Whom have you so dreaded and feared do not fear me? One of the drivers of spiritual unfaithfulness is a fear of things and people greater than our fear of the LORD. Such fears are often vague and unconscious, we don’t face them directly, but we are challenged here to identify them.

Verse 12 – your righteousness and your deedswill not profit you… The answer does not come from within us. We cannot work our own salvation. Our religiosity is filthy rags. We tend to think like the ancient Egyptians that our good will outweigh our bad and save us but we are wrong.

Verse 13 – let your collection of idols save you… We gather not just one or two idols but a collection, putting our eggs in many baskets. But the strategy will not work, idols cannot save. As we mock the LORD (v4) he will mock us (v13a). But he who takes refuge in me… There is salvation outside of us. There is refuge in the very One we have forsaken and insulted. In Him we are safe on the day of judgment and are (astonishingly) turned from sons of the sorceress (v3) into heirs of the living God (v13b).

What we see in these verses is that there is quite a lot about the workings of the human heart but it is not a cool discourse – it is a passionate, confrontational declaration. It is a prophetic condemnation so there is quite a lot about ‘You’ (N.B. plural), describing the ways in which God’s people have forsaken him and analyzing the reasons for their betrayal. But it is not leading us to an introspective dead end. We are given the big gospel truth that there is no salvation in us and we need instead to run to hide ourselves in the LORD himself.

  • Have you heard good examples recently of preaching which brings out the heart analysis of the passage while turning us as a people to the Lord? How can we get better at this?