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Archive for the ‘Preaching’ Category

 

  • 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.
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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?

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Mastered

I was using some discipleship material recently when I came across this introduction:

“Very few Christians have a plan for mastering the Scriptures… We master all sorts of complicated skills and accomplish major personal learning and development programs when needed in our life and work but remain at elementary levels of development in the Word. In this session, we will explore the importance of every believer developing a goal of mastering the Scriptures…”

I appreciate what the author of these notes is driving at but it’s the word ‘mastering’ that I find disturbing. Is the Bible like chartered accounting – a complicated skill or a series of principles to learn and master? If the Word is a hammer and a fire, if it is the very word of God at work in us who believe, if it is living and active, then surely the cry of Martin Luther is more apt:

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”

Surely we need to be mastered by the Word. And specifically by the Christ of the Word. Simon Manchester, speaking somewhat critically of his own Australian conservative evangelical constituency, warned us last year:

“I wonder if you’ve noticed an unedifying tendency… to focus on the Bible at the expense of Jesus… I do urge you to beware this trend. It’s not that we want to separate the text from the author or the text from the subject but if our [preaching], sermon by sermon, is always ‘about the Bible’ we may have missed the purpose of the Bible. And… I think it is more flattering to self to ‘talk Bible’ because we present ourselves as masters of the Bible with the ignorant masses listening to us. But no preacher is ever going to get up and say they’re the master of Jesus. And not only will we teach more reverently if we handle the Bible to see Jesus, we will also, I think, have the blessing of the Holy Spirit whose desire is to see Jesus glorified and not the guru at the front who is showing himself to be so clever. (EMA 2016)

So let’s seek, in our reading and our preaching of the Word to tremble, to find Christ, to be captured and mastered by him, to proclaim him, to see him glorified.

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A lot has been written on the sanctification debate – how do we grow in holiness – and I haven’t got anything to add. My main conclusion is simply that it’s complicated… and yet our temptation is to try and find the silver bullet, the one thing that encapsulates everything that’s important to say about Christian growth and the fight against sin. Many of the books I’ve found most helpful on sanctification have tended to focus on one means or aspect of sanctification – perhaps future-focused faith or gratitude for the finished work of Christ for sinners – and those books are absolutely brilliant… until they start to suggest that this is the heart of the matter, the engine, the one thing you need to know.

DeYoung reminds us that there is not a singular motivation for holiness:

Jesus is the Great Physician… The gospel is always the remedy for the guilt of sin, but when it comes to overcoming the presence of sin, Jesus has many doses at his disposal. He knows that personalities and sins and situations vary… Jesus has many medicines for our motivation. He is not like a high school athletic trainer who tells everyone to “ice it and take a couple ibuprofen.” …The good news is that the Bible is a big, diverse, wise book, and in it you can find a variety of prescriptions to encourage obedience to God’s commands. (The Hole in Our Holiness, p. 56-57 emphasis added)

DeYoung then goes on to list 40 different motivations which, as he says, are not even an exhaustive list. So sanctification is a multifaceted thing. Partly because our sinfulness is horribly complex, partly because the gospel of Christ is beautifully complex.

So how does sanctification work? How does the gospel of grace relate to a life of obedience?

  • It’s about being who we are. Identity.
  • It’s about seeing the vastness of our debt and the costliness of our forgiveness and so forgiving others infinitely smaller debts.
  • It’s about seeing in the Scriptures the beauty of Christ and being captured by that better vision.
  • It’s about understanding and experiencing union with Christ. Growing in a marriage relationship.
  • It’s about wanting to please the Bridegroom.
  • It’s about a fear of the Lord.
  • It’s about godly sorrow.
  • It’s about joy.
  • It’s about submitting to a Kingly Saviour Lord.
  • It’s about knowing the sinfulness sin.
  • It’s about tasting the goodness of the ways of God and the Law of Christ.
  • It’s about waiting for Christ’s return, longing for him, hoping in a better and lasting possession and the work that springs from that eternity-focused faith and hope.
  • It’s about living as a beloved child of God. Adoption.
  • It’s about desperate dependence on the Spirit who alone can change us.
  • It’s about doing all this together, as a community of God’s people, rebuking, correcting, encouraging, urging, praying, preaching, singing.

It’s about all these things and more. It’s complicated.

One suggestion

The more I think about this the more I wonder whether the answer isn’t simply to preach the Word – to go through the chapters of the Bible letting God tell us how to grow in Christlikeness. For example – why not simply preach through Ephesians 4-5? We would find there all sorts of different motivations and means and imperatives and gospel logic (including many of those listed above) that just come straight out of the text and flow and mesh together in a way better than any of us could put it. Or how about preaching a series through Leviticus or Ezekiel or Hebrews where we are taught deep rich truths about sanctification through imagery and language that is extraordinarily powerful. Why don’t we just let our holy (complex) God himself teach us how to become holy as he is holy?

 

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sin

One area where I fear I can reduce the complexity of Scripture into soundbites is in the definition of sin. Certainly there is some value in teaching children some memorable soundbites – e.g. that sin is a three letter word with ‘I’ in the middle. But I’ve been struck recently by how multifaceted the sin problem is in the Bible and how important it is to see something of that complexity.

To go back to basics, look at Genesis 3 and ask the question (as we did with the iServe Africa ministry apprentices a couple of weeks ago) what exactly is this sin; what is at the heart of what is going on here and why is it so bad? And you get a lot of different answers, which are all true:

  • It is disobedience. Transgression of a clear command.
  • It is rebellion against God’s kingly rule and authority.
  • It is unbelief in God’s word, goodness and judgment.
  • It is wrong belief – in the words of the devil and in a false view of God.
  • It is being deceived by the devil and coming under his power.
  • It is (culpable) foolishness.
  • It is turning from the Creator to the created for pleasure, wisdom, truth.
  • It is discontent.
  • It is coveting.
  • It is an ungrateful spit in God’s face, trampling on his grace as a cheap thing.
  • It is abdicating from the responsibility of being vice regent, steward and high priest, allowing a snake into the garden tabernacle.
  • It is grasping at self-rule, self-sufficiency and denial of creaturely dependence.

Go on a chapter into Genesis 4 and there we find sin pictured as a kind of wild animal, crouching at the door, ready to spring and overpower a person.

Similarly, look at a passage like Isaiah 1 and you find a complex description of the sinful state of the nation, using a range of different words and metaphors:

  • Rebellion – especially grateful rebellion against a parent
  • (Culpable) ignorance
  • Forsaking, spurning the LORD
  • Sickness and degradation
  • Hypocritical religiosity
  • Dirt, defilement
  • Evil deeds, bloodshed, injustice
  • Omission – especially of justice
  • Scarlet
  • Resistance against the LORD
  • Prostitution
  • Pollution
  • Loving and chasing after evil and idols

Why is it important that we take account of this complexity?

  1. It stops us getting stuck on a single dimension of sin and stops us getting into needless controversies. Throughout church history and in different schools and traditions up to the present time there has been a tendency to reduce the complexity down to one particular aspect of sin. So for example, some parts of the Reformed tradition tended to emphasise sin as transgression of the law (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q14 (I know that other streams of the tradition were far broader)). In conservative evangelical circles we have tended to focus on rebellion (2 Ways 2 Live, part 2). In recent years many have rediscovered the importance of the categories of worship and idolatry and what is going on with the affections of the heart and how these themes can connect well in a post-modern culture. There has also been a huge renewed interest in defining sin in heavily relational terms – spurning God’s love. Others have returned to Augustine’s idea of sin as man curved in on himself or evil as negation/absence or to Luther’s emphasis on our condition as helplessly under the power of the devil. The problem is that these emphases often get set off against each other. The Reformed tradition (rightly) fears that sin as legal transgression and disobedience is in danger of being lost in what is sometimes rather mushy and man-centred talk of relationship and worship. Others assert (rightly) that the Bible’s strong themes of sin as spiritual adultery are in danger of being frozen out by a rather sterile presentation of sin as law breaking. Perhaps a way forward is to see that (almost) all these definitions have a biblical basis. Sin is pride. Sin is unbelief. Sin is idolatry. Sin is pushing away the grace of God in Christ. Sin is rebellion. Sin is slavery. Sin is a disease. Sin is straightforward law breaking. It’s complex. But let’s try to keep that complexity together and not just get fixed on one narrow definition.
  2. It addresses the whole person and the whole range of the human condition. Looking at all these different aspects of sin helps us to see how the Bible describes the totalness of our depravity – that every part of me is fallen: my affections are disordered and loving the wrong things; my will is unsubmissive; my behaviour is rotten and evil; my thinking is foolish and darkened. Also, seeing (and preaching) the whole range of descriptions of sin makes it more likely that some will stick on the hearers. We are all rebels but some of us know we are rebels more than others. We are all chasing the wrong things but some know that more than others. We are all law breakers. We are all idolators. We are all proud. We are all dirty. We are all deceived. But because of our different personalities and cultures and life histories it may well be that one or two of those descriptions will hit home harder than others. Ultimately, however, we need to know that all of those things describe the natural man and as we build up that biblical picture of who we are outside of Christ we get a true, 3D picture of our true state.
  3. It means being more faithful to the Bible. This is a key one if we want to be expository preachers. Instead of just seeing something about sin in the Bible and pouring in our favourite bit of systematic theology on sin, we need to stop and hear what this particular passage is telling us about sin. It may well be saying a few things (like Isaiah 1). We want to let the Bible speak – let God speak – and tell us what we don’t know and what we have forgotten about the darkness and depravity of sin in all its horrible colours and textures and tendencies and tragedies.
  4. It allows us to see the sinfulness of sin and the greatness of the atonement. Perhaps most importantly, seeing the complexity of sin allows me to see it for all its sinfulness. Each of these aspects of sin is immeasurably weighty – just ponder any one of them in relation to a holy God – but combined they are overwhelming and devastating. I am guilty. And foul. And a fool. I have offended my creator. And my king. And the fountain of life. But, wonderfully, this also makes me appreciate what Christ did on the cross all the more. As Jonathan Edwards and many others have noted, if we have small thoughts of our sin (we might say simple thoughts) we will have small thoughts of our saviour. He dealt with all of this multifaceted sin. He took the guilt and punishment. He cured the incurable. He washed us clean. He overcame the devil. He won back the prostitute and paid her dowry. He smashed our idols and pride and took us for himself. Which makes me think – maybe the atonement is complex too…

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It’s complicated…

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I vividly remember hearing the following warning 13 years ago:

If there is one mnemonic which irritates me more than any other it is the K.I.S.S. mnemonic – Keep It Simple Stupid. I want to say that I think that it is profoundly unhelpful. It has deeply penetrated many churches and their expectation of preaching. What it comes to mean is that everything has to be reduced to soundbite level: a few mantras that can be reassuringly reiterated and chanted in our songs and in our teaching. They tend to reduce the inexhaustible riches of Scripture… There is a cult of simplicity.

Now people will say at this point, “The simple gospel is all we want to hear. We don’t want any complicated stuff. We don’t want doctrine. We don’t want to be stretched in our thinking.” All the teaching has to be kept easy and reassuring so we come out with our egos massaged… And so many of us pastors are tempted to go in that direction to ‘buy customer loyalty’ and keep everyone happy…

Now please don’t mishear me. I’m not asking for complexity and confusion. That is a very easy thing to produce. Lack of preparation won’t produce simplicity of the right sort it will produce complexity and confusion. It’s very easy to be long, confusing and perplexing. Nor am I advocating what people are pleased to call barren intellectualism. You know the adjectives: abstract, cerebral, impersonal. No I’m not advocating that because the Bible is never like that.

But brothers we do have to tackle, graciously, prayerfully but persistently the refusal to mature that is endemic in the evangelical church and characterises so many congregations and parts of our congregations… I wonder if sometimes it begins in the approach to evangelism which focuses on the ‘basic minimum’ idea. How little do you need to believe to be saved?

…But the Bible writers and their inspired manuscripts are not simple in the sense of superficial. They are not grasped without effort… Of course we want to be understandable. We want to be clear and lucid… but there is a cult of simplicity that is actually fatal to the growth and development of the church. (David Jackman, speaking on ‘The Enduring Word’ at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, London, 2004)

Peter Mead talks similarly of the need for preachers to aim for a simplicity on the far side of complexity. So instead of staying with a quick superficial simplicity on the near side (which will be very thin soup to offer God’s people), we need to head into the forests of complexity and explore the depths of Scripture and wrestle with (or rather be wrestled by) that complexity, before hopefully emerging out the other side with something clear and presentable but much more rich and deep and satisfying (like a good Thai dish – fresh, healthy, colourful, arresting, integrated, complex).

No short cut. We need to face up to the complexity and enter the forest.

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Over the last few months I’ve been very struck by a theme in the New Testament that I don’t think I’ve properly recognised before:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:37)

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me (John 8:42)

If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23 cf. 14:15)

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15 cf. v16, v17)

…what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9)

If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. (1 Cor. 16:22)

Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. (Eph. 6:23)

Though you have not seen him, you love him (1 Peter 1:8)

I hold this against you: you have forsaken the love you had at first (Rev. 2:4)

The most wonderful gospel truth is not that we loved God but that God the Father loved us and gave his Son to be burnt up instead of us (1 John 4:10). And wonderfully, not only the Father, but Jesus himself loved us to death (Gal. 2:20) and loves us still (Rev. 1:5). Jesus loves me this I know…

But there is another, secondary truth which I fear I have downplayed in my concern to lift up the great gospel blessing of God’s love for us. That truth is that there must be a love for the Lord Jesus. Not a love for theology or a love for gospel ministry or a love for what Jesus brings with him, but a love for Jesus himself. This love is not mere emotion – there is an extremely common and tight connection drawn in Scripture between love and obedience – but neither can it be evacuated of feeling and affection. There is in love a desire for the presence of the other and a delight in the presence of the other (SoS 2:3,14; 3:1-2; 5:6-8; Psalm 27:4; 42:1-2). When my love has gone cold then there’s a big problem.

So I’m thinking this year…

How can I increase my love for Christ?

 

  1. Consider how far you have fallen (Rev. 2:5) – This will involve first looking through the spiritual wedding album, remembering the “devotion of your youth” (Jer. 2:2) and then acknowledging the slide – “followed worthless idols and became worthless” (Jer. 2:5) – the stupid double sin – “forsaken the spring of living water, and have dug cisterns, broken cisterns” (Jer. 2:13) – and the disgusting spiritual adultery of forgetting the Bridegroom, giving lip service and pretend-repentance while really loving and running after others (Jer. 2:20-3:10). I need to recognise the tragedy and outrage of this fallen and debased state. As Richard Sibbes puts it, I need”to be first sensible of spiritual wants and misery. The passover lamb was eaten with sour herbs; so Christ crucified, relisheth best to a soul affected with the bitterness of sin.” (Third Sermon on the Song of Songs).
  2. Repent (Rev. 2:5) – As Peter Mead has shown, repentance is a relational thing – it is a turn from God-hating and, crucially, a turn to God himself. In Jeremiah, amazingly, after horrific spiritual adultery, the LORD Bridegroom says:

    “‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord,
        ‘I will frown on you no longer,
    for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord,
        ‘I will not be angry forever.
    Only acknowledge your guilt—
        you have rebelled against the Lord your God,
    you have scattered your favors to foreign gods
        under every spreading tree,
        and have not obeyed me,’” declares the Lord.

    “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. (Jer. 3:12-14).
    So repentance will mean acknowledging/confessing my guilt and idolatry and adultery and returning to the incredibly forgiving, faithful-to-his-covenant Bridegroom.

  3. Behold Christ in the Word – “Do the things you did at first” (Rev. 2:5). What are those first things? Well it could include a lot (probably most of the points below) but the very first thing we did was to look to Christ. “Behold the Lamb of God!” To put it another way, the first thing we did was to hear the word of Christ (Eph. 1:13; 4:22; 5:14 Col. 1:6). To hear is to see (Gal. 3:1). “Show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely” (SoS 2:14). I need to search the Scriptures to see the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:6). I need to have that heart burning experience of the Emmaus road disciples as they saw Jesus not physically but in the (OT) Scriptures he opened to them (Luke 24). I need to dwell on awesome portraits of Christ like those in the Book of Revelation. I need to be dazzled by the Scripture pictures of Christ as creator, king, warrior, Holy One, radiance of the glory of God.  Before even considering God’s love towards us, God’s people “first see that God is lovely, and that Christ is excellent and glorious, and their hearts are first captivated with this view” (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections).
  4. Savour his love – “your love is more delightful than wine.” (SoS 1:2). As Sibbes puts it, “love draws love” (First Sermon on the Song of Songs). This unconditional love which embraces the prodigal and the prostitute and the leper. This covenant love which unites me with the Son of God so that “My beloved is mine and I am his” (SoS 2:16). This sacrificial love with sweated in the garden and endured the searing pain of Godforsakenness. This love which actually, amazingly, genuinely desires and delights in the object of salvation (SoS 1:15; 4:1-14; 5:2; 7:1,10); which sees us as ‘lovely,’ ‘flawless,’ ‘overwhelming,’ ‘captivating’ (4:7; 5:2; 6:5; 7:5; 8:10) and actually wants to be with us for eternity (John 17:24). To the extent that we experience this extravagantly loving forgiving embrace, to that extent we love Christ (Luke 7:47). And we best come to experience this love corporately – “together with all the saints” (Eph. 3:18).
  5. Savour his name – “Your name is like perfume poured out. No wonder the young women love you!” (SoS 1:3) Notice the logic. The reason for the love is the fragrance of the Name. You know how you feel when the name of your best friend comes up in conversation. “The very naming of a good man casts a sweet savour” (Sibbes, First Sermon). How much more so of Christ. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds… As John Newton, that hymn’s author, explains, the ‘name’ stands for the whole person (Rev. 3:4,5). “The name of Christ includes the whole revelation concerning him, who he is, what he has done – all that we read of his love, his power and his offices make a part of his great and glorious name. The soul that is taught by the Word and Spirit of God to understand a little of these things receives such a sense of love and joy that the very sound of his name is sweeter than music to the ears, sweeter than honey to the taste.” (Newton, Sermon on SoS 1:3) So I would do well to return regularly, as many Scripture authors do, to the great declaration of the Name in Exodus 34:6-7. I would do well to delight in this character of our God as it is unfolded in the stories of Scripture. I would do well to meditate on the great ‘names’ of Christ in the Scriptures – The One Who Sees Me, The Shepherd, The Bridegroom, The Friend of Sinners, The Banquet, The Light of the World, The Life. And I would do well to listen most to the supreme declaration of the Name at the Cross. Newton again: “The precious vessel that contained this precious ointment was broken upon the Cross – the savour of his name, his love, his blood, poured out from every wound [in] his sacred body. See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down… When we desire a new savour of this ointment, let us turn our eyes, our thoughts to Golgotha. To behold him by faith as he hung bleeding and dying, with outstretched arms inviting our regards and saying, ‘See if any sorrow was like to my sorrow.'”
  6. Sit under Christ-ful preaching – “Everything that bears the name of preaching – if it does not diffuse the knowledge of this good ointment [the fragrance of the name of Christ] – is dry and tedious, unsavoury and unprofitable.” (Newton, Sermon of SoS 1:3). As Sibbes’ says, preachers, as the friend of the Bridegroom (John 3:28), are to “woo for Christ, and open the riches, beauty, honour and all that is lovely in him” (Sibbes, Second Sermon). Often I can’t, on my own, get my heart excited about Christ, but, in the company of God’s people, with a preacher opening the Scriptures and wooing for Christ, jabbing his finger in the Bible and saying “Look at this thing about Jesus; isn’t he amazing?!” – then I get excited about Jesus. And that seems to be the way God wants it to be.
  7. Partake in the Lord’s Supper – This is the other main, regular means of grace alongside the ministry of the Word, whereby I feed on Christ in my heart by faith with thanksgiving. This is where I’m reassured (as I recently read in a reformed confession I think) that as surely as the bread is pressed into my hand, so Christ has been given to me; as surely as I am receiving the wine, so surely Christ’s blood was shed for me and atones for all my sins. As Carl Trueman (if I remember rightly) describes it, just as in our marriage we live together and have a continual love relationship with our spouse but we still make special ‘dates’ where we can meet together and express our love for one another and grow in our love for one another and be reassured of our love for one another, so the Lord’s Supper is the time and place Christ has ordained as our ‘date’ where he promises to specially meet with us and reassure us of his love and inflame our love.
  8. Sing of Christ – As many have noticed through the ages, music and song have a special ability to express and inflame the affections. It is notable that the Song of Songs is… well a song! One of the best things for my soul is to be in the congregation of God’s people as we sing to one another and sing to God true words about Jesus. Let’s make the most of the songs that have been written down the ages and more recently that do what the Song of Songs does – address either ‘the friends’ or the Bridegroom and tell of His goodness. How sweet the name, When I survey, I stand amazed, There’s not a friend, Soon and very soon, Sovereign Grace, Emu
  9. Praise Christ – “We rejoice and delight in you; we praise your love more than wine.” (SoS 1:4) As C.S. Lewis would say, the latter (the praising) completes and increases the former (the rejoicing and delighting). As the beloved enumerates the specific, superlative, wonderful attributes of the Bridegroom (SoS 5:10-16) – her joy and love is increased. This works not only in prayer-praise and in song-praise but also in witnessing-praise to unbelievers. Have you ever had that joy of sharing with someone how wonderful Jesus is and as you do that you start thinking, Yes – this really is true – Jesus really is wonderful! Even if the other person wasn’t helped, I go away with a deeper appreciation of the good things I have in Christ (Philemon 6).
  10. Accept suffering as a means of refining love for Christ – God is sovereignly working to perfect us and the older authors (like Cranmer, Sibbes and Newton) recognise that much of that will be through the painful pruning of difficult circumstances. Through suffering he will work to loosen our grip on and weaken our affections for the passing things of this world that we might reach more for and rejoice more in Christ. What is required of us is an acceptance – a patient endurance (2 Cor. 1:6; Heb. 12:7) rather than an impatient rejection; a trust that this is a means of God inflaming my love for Christ.
  11. Be around people who love Jesus – I find this one of the most helpful ones. You’ll have noticed how the corporate, churchly dimension intersects almost all of the points so far. We grow in love for Christ among others who love Christ. As in the old illustration of a coal placed in the fire with glowing coals – the warmth and burning of others stirs me up to glow. To change the metaphor, the Proverbs speak of one man sharpening another. Often we think of this in terms of critical thinking but it is also true of love for Christ. Sibbes talks of “that which hinders the sharpness of the [spiritual appetite], that dull and flat the edge of it… and take away the savour and desire of heavenly things.” The evil and cold banality of the world and the company of those who have no interest in Christ dampens our love for Christ like a wet blanket. On the other hand the “company… of such as ‘labour for that blessed food that endures to life eternal’ provokes” us to a sharper appetite and greater feasting on Christ. I need this every day (Heb. 3:13) and especially need to make use of the Sabbath pattern to meet with God’s people and delight in him together.
  12. Pray – Perhaps this should be the first point. We need the Spirit of Conviction that we would see how far we have fallen. We need God himself to grant us repentance (Acts 3:26; 11:18). Otherwise, like the people in Jeremiah’s day we will not repent, we cannot repent (Jer. 13:23). We need the Spirit to remove the veil and open our eyes to the glory of God in the face of Christ in the pages of Scripture (2 Cor. 3-4). We need to pray that God would enlarge our hearts, give us new desires and new taste buds to crave and enjoy Christ. Sibbes notes from SoS 4:16 that unless the Spirit of God blows on us we do not even want to pray for more of Christ. So let us pray desperate prayers for greater love for Christ – come to his Word and come to church praying for our love to be inflames – knowing that even that desire to pray is a gracious gift and token of his love.

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