Archive | Writing

Erasing Hell?

I had a funny moment in the office last week that turned into something of a theological odyssey. We’re planning a second campaign based on Tim Keller’s Reason for God. One of those sermons asks “What about Hell?’ The person who is down to preach that sermon really doesn’t want to and I have to say I have some sympathy with them! It makes you realise that, after the dust has settled on the ‘Love Wins’ controversy, Rob Bell really was asking some very important questions.

What does ‘eternal conscious torment’ say about the character of God? Obviously, I appreciate that my own capacity for justice is finite, yet still, as God accommodates himself to me, as he reaches down to me so I can, in some small way, comprehend him, my own sense of justice should at least resonate with the justice of the God who has revealed himself to me. Maybe I have been watching too many episodes of 24, but it does sound a little like torture to me and that’s got to beg the question. Now, Tom Wright, in his book ‘Surprised by Hope’ allows himself a moment of speculation and argues that as all created goodness is stripped away in hell, then those who reject God become less than human, pure evil if you like, so that not only are they without hope, they are without pity. That helps a bit, but as Tom says, it’s speculation.

What does an eternal hell say about the victory of God?  If everything is not summed up in Christ, if the cosmos is not remade, if there are those that resist God’s love forever, does that mean God has been defeated? Origen asked this very question. It’s why he’s not a saint!

What does an eternal hell say about existence? Is hell the absence of God? If it is, then how can those suffering the torments of hell be said to exist at all? Doesn’t existence participate in God? Doesn’t some notion of extinction make more sense of eternal separation from God?

In the end we decided on an approach to the sermon we were both happy with. Go with Calvin and refuse to speculate. What do we know? On what is the bible crystal clear? One can argue about the different metaphors and names we translate hell. Is it the second death or a lake of burning sulphur? What about Hades, Gehenna or Tartarus? Will the worm ever die? But the bible is clear that salvation is found in Jesus alone. The bible is clear that one day we will all be raised from the dead to face the judgement of God. At the end of the day, isn’t that enough?

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Renovating the Heart

I took part in a pastoral care think tank a few weeks ago. It was one of those precious moments where all of us around the table felt we really were talking about the things we ought to be talking about as ministers and pastors in the church.

Two questions stood out for me during the conversation. The first was ‘how does the human heart work?’ We looked at the complex interplay between understanding (cognition), feeling  (affectation), and will  (volition). The discussion was an attempt to articulate the process of change. We were all a little suspicious of Aristotle, even if the Holy Spirit is bolted on, so we wanted to look beyond virtue, Christian habits and practices. They all seem to work from the outside in. We wanted to work from the inside out so we began with the heart.

But how is the human heart transformed or renovated? As far as I am concerned, it has got to begin with desire. As we chatted we wondered whether desire and affectation were the same thing.  I suspect that desire runs deeper than feelings and perhaps drives understanding, feelings and will, but I’m open to persuasion. Either way affectation, fuelled by cognition is the main driver of the will

Of course, if the renovation of the heart begins with it’s desires, how can those desires be shaped or trained. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the ‘pedagogy of desire’ in which the desire of the heart is thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified. But how does this process take place?

As good Charismatics, we soon turned our attention to the question of prayer ministry. This led us to our second question. What do we think we’re doing when we pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’ and what has it got to do with the renovation of the heart? We mapped the process of spiritual transformation from intensity, through intentionality, to intimacy. Intensity has three movements within it; firstly purgation, secondly illumination and, thirdly union. We tentatively concluded that prayer ministry was a moment of intensification that had to be intentionally followed up with the Gospel if we wanted to sustain intimacy with God in the long run.

This means that to move beyond behavioural modification to real heart change, the ministry of the Holy Spirit has to go hand in hand with a gospel-centred theology. Effective pastoral care demands both.

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How to Pray for Revival

The one factor present in every major revival across the world is extraordinary, intense, corporate prayer for God’s kingdom to come and his glory to be revealed.

This is prayer that is sustained, ongoing and intense. It is prayer for God’s Spirit to erupt from our hearts, for God’s presence to be thick amongst his people and for God’s glory to be revealed to the city.

Martyn Lloyd Jones, the great Welsh preacher described it in this way: “Give him no rest, give yourself no rest, keep on, bombard God, bombard heaven until the answer comes.”

Lord, teach me to pray like this, give me a longing to pray like this. Amen.

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The Perfect Sermon

When Jonathan Edwards, the American revivalist and theologian was 18 years old he preached his first sermon. It was called ‘Christian Happiness’ and it was based on Isaiah 3:10. “A good man is a happy man, whatever his outward condition is.”

The thesis of the sermon is simple; Christians should be happy. But the three points of the sermon are profound. Why should Christians be happy?

1. Our bad things turn out for good (Romans 8:28)
2. Our good things can’t be taken away from us

  • The light of his countenance
  • Pardon for sin
  • Assurance of grace
  • Inheritance of eternal life

3. Our best things are yet to come

Tim Keller said this outline is “the perfect sermon outline, it’s hard to beat something like that” and demonstrates, even at 18, Edwards was a “budding genius.”

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What I Believe

If you were asked ‘what do you believe?’, what would you say?

I have just finished reading Scott McKnight’s book ‘The King Jesus Gospel‘. Scott is keen to recover what he calls ‘a Gospel culture’ which moves beyond the plan of salvation and the method of persuasion we use to convince listeners they need to adopt the plan of salvation. He wants to recapture the Gospel of King Jesus, Jesus as Lord. Articulated in its earliest form by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. He argues that evangelicals have lost sight of the Gospel and have become Soterians, interested only in salvation.

It’s a fascinating thesis, which I suspect is probably true of the more pragmatic, moralistic and therapeutic evangelicalism that exists in the US. But he seems to be shooting in the wrong direction. He targets the New Calvinists, the Young Restless and Reformed. But one of the things I appreciate about the New Calvinists is that they do precisely what Scott calls for. They are creating a ‘Gospel Culture’ as they tap into the covenant theology of the Reformed tradition which emphasises that the Gospel is the story of Israel that reaches it’s climax, it’s fulfilment in Jesus. This is exactly how Scott defines his Gospel! Of course, they bemoan the state of evangelicalism too and so have re-emphasised grace, justification by faith alone and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, but, in almost all of the books I have read these emphases sit in the context of the story of the people of Israel. Don Carson in his book ‘The God Who Is There‘ does it, Michael Horton in his books ‘Introducing Covenant Theology‘ and ‘The Gospel-Driven Life‘ does it too and they are both hugely influential amongst the Reformed.

Having said all of that, the book is a timely reminder that grace has a face, it is a person, not a mechanism or a doctrine, and that person is Jesus. That is why the Gospel can be found in the four accounts of Jesus life, that is why Peter’s preaching is all about Jesus and why Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 recounts the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I am sure the New Calvinists would say ‘Amen’ to that. After all, as Mark Driscoll is fond of saying, ‘it’s all about Jesus.’

So, back to the question. If you were asked, ‘what do you believe?’ what would you say. Here is something I wrote to answer that question.

In the beginning God created a world of beauty and grandeur, a world in harmony with itself and with God, held together in his sovereign arms. Into this good world God placed humanity, created to cultivate the world on his behalf. Yet humanity chose its own destiny, fracturing its relationship with God and rupturing the harmony of creation.

But God did not abandon his creation to destruction and decay. Instead he made a promise: a promise to renew it all, to make it right. So he chose one man and his family, and through them, a people, and through this people, a king, to represent him to the world.

This King, Jesus; God himself made flesh; born of a virgin, preached good news to the poor and proclaimed the arrival of the kingdom of God as he healed the sick and forgave sins. He confronted the oppression of religion and political tyranny and was eventually tortured and executed.

In the face of such violence and opposition he remained faithful to God, offering up his humanity as a sacrifice of obedience, while simultaneously, and mysteriously, also bearing in his own body God’s judgement upon a rebellious humanity. Three days later he returned to life having pushed through death and come out the other side.

Those who trust Jesus as their king share this resurrection life, a life reconciled with God. They are empowered to live new lives, forgiven and free from the addiction of sin and the allure of idols, bound together into new relationships forged by God’s Spirit as they are called into a new life of worship, prayer and discipleship as they await the return of their king and the renewal of everything that is.

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What has Freedom got to do with Idolatry?

We had a great time during this week’s creative meeting looking at how the Gospel sets you free. What does that mean? What is freedom as far as the New Testament is concerned? It seems to me there are a number of different emphases. The question is; is there one overall idea that holds them all together?
In John chapter 8 Jesus debates with some Jewish leaders who believed he was the Messiah but still defined the Messiah in terms of politics. The Messiah was the political leader, the rebel leader who would one day defeat the Roman occupiers after a guerrilla campaign that wore them down and eventually drove them out, much as a the Mujahedeen drove the Russians out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. For these Jews, freedom meant freedom from political oppression, freedom from occupation.
In contrast Jesus speaks about freedom from sin. It is their very nationalism that blinds them to who Jesus really is and what the Gospel really is. They had forgotten that God had chosen them as a nation of priests to intercede for the world. Instead they had become proud of their own heritage, proud of the Law itself, and disdainful of others. In so doing they had lost sight of God’s grace and become slaves to sin. Jesus offers them freedom.
Paul echoes this in Galatians chapter 5 where he declares “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” But for Paul, the issue is slightly different. Paul has preached the Gospel of free grace to pagan Galatians and they have responded, only for Jewish Christians to come and confuse the Galatians by telling them they need to get circumcised and keep Torah, the Jewish Law. Paul is incandescent. It is tantamount to being released from prison, only to willingly return to your cell and lock the door behind you again. For Paul in Galatians, slavery is not to sin, it is to the Law and freedom is freedom from the Law because we have died to the Law.
It seems to me that freedom from the Law is one particular example of freedom from sin. Not that the Law is sin, but that we are slaves to the Law because of sin. The underlying idea that ties together slavery to the Law and slavery to sin is idolatry. For the Jews debating with Jesus, as well as for the Jewish Christians leading the Galatians astray, the Law had become an idol. In the words of Tim Keller, the Law had become a ‘functional saviour’. It defined who they were, it gave them worth and value, it provided meaning and purpose. Again, to quote Keller, the Law, a good thing, had become an ultimate thing – an idol.
It’s profoundly ironic, that the first commandment is a ban on idols, yet the Jewish leaders had made an idol of the Law itself. It demonstrates powerfully that Calvin was right when he said human beings are “idol factories”, we can make idols out of anything, however good they might be. It makes sense too of why that other great Reformer, Martin Luther said that unbelief was essentially idolatry. Unbelievers trust something or someone else rather than Jesus. So, for these Jewish leaders debating with Jesus, their functional saviour was their Jewish heritage. God had given them the Law and they found their identity in keeping the Law rather than in the grace of God.
Now, I have to say, I find this a very practical way of talking about what freedom actually means. It is easy to declare freedom over someone when we are preaching or praying for them, but it is much more difficult to work out that freedom in practice. It seems to me that idolatry explains how we can find real day-to-day freedom through the Gospel.
Idols enslave us because they always let us down. They never satisfy us and so, having believed the lie that our particular idol really can be our functional saviour, we pursue it with greater intensity and passion until our desire for the idol consumes our lives. This had happened to the Jewish scribes and teachers in 1st century Judea who had added increasingly complex laws in their quest to keep Torah, the goal they believed would satisfy the desires of their hearts. Today, we wrestle with many different things, but they are all idols. For example, some of us belief that wealth or success will satisfy us, now both of these things are good things, but when they become ultimate things we quickly sacrifice family, children, even our health on the altar of these particular idols. Idols always oversell and under deliver.
It is only the unconditional acceptance of God’s gracious love for us through the cross of Christ that can set us free from the idols all of us worship. It is only when we realise only he can truly satisfy our restless hearts, only he is worthy of our trust and faith that we learn what freedom really means. That is why, whether we hear it from the lips of Paul or Jesus himself, it is the Son, and only the Son, who sets us free, and when the Son sets us free, we topple our idols, turn to the living God and know true liberation and deliverance.

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Script, Notes or Nothing?

I have always worried about being too dependent on my notes. When I first started preaching, I used bullet points, then I stopped for a few years due to the pressures of work before beginning to preach more regularly again. When I started preaching the second time, I found myself using a full script. I write in a fairly chatty style anyway so it never sounded too formal, but something inside me always wanted to be completely free of notes. Now I use 16 point, double spaced bullet points so there’s something there in case I get lost but I have to translate it into words on the spot which I hope gives it more immediacy and power.

I’ve just read Andy Stanley’s book ‘Communicating for a Change’ which is brilliant, but one of the challenges he makes is for the preacher to internalise the message, that’s a euphemism for memorising the message! I find this incredibly difficult on a weekly basis and I’m not convinced it’s really necessary. I have seen preachers without notes ramble on without shape or structure for a very long time, I have seen one preacher who had clearly written his sermon verbatim and then memorised it. When he preached it looked above the congregation as if he was reading from an autocue at the back!

So, I was relieved to be reminded by Josh Harris in the second round of his ‘Preaching Notes’ that there really is no right way to do it. It’s a great series of posts. He has a pdf of the actual notes as well as a podcast of the sermon itself from a wider variety of preachers. Every preacher he showcases familiarises themselves with their message. None of them are dependent on their notes, so in that sense, they’ve all internalised the message, but apart from Mark Driscoll’s post-it notes everyone uses notes of one kind or another. The other amazing thing about these preaching notes is that most of them look unwieldy and almost impossible to use. Some are in tiny script, some densely packed or condensed. Some have been scribbled over time and again!

I have found it hugely reassuring that even some of the best preachers, at least from the US, don’t follow the rules when it comes to preparing sermons and writing notes. How do you do it? Let me know.

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21st Century Preaching

I read this helpful article by Krish Kandiah this week on the impossibility of preaching. I had the privilege of being at vicar factory whilst Krish was on staff. I still remember his stand out carol service talk one Christmas. So, he’s a practitioner, but he’s also a thinker and his blog is certainly worth a read.

His point about the way the Internet and social media are changing the way we think and rewiring our brains is profoundly significant. Increasingly we know where to access knowledge rather than how to think for ourselves. He’s right to say that this is bound to affect the way we learn and process information. Preachers need to be aware of these wider cultural developments. We can’t bury our heads in the sand.

He’s right too when he challenges preachers to continue to learn, adapt and develop in the same way that the medical profession has to keep up to speed with the latest developments in medicine. At St Paul’s all our preachers spend some time together in a discussing ideas and thoughts and collectively creating the sermon together. This is a new discipline for all of us, but one I think we are all benefitting from. I certainly think the congregation is!

Of course, preaching isn’t purely pragmatic and responsive to the cultural trends it emerges from. We need to be constantly asking ourselves theological questions. Preaching is a distinctively Christian art form with it’s own history and theological integrity. For example, a sermon is not a lecture, neither it is a presentation. So we at least need to ask ourselves, and settle in our own minds whether, for example, Power Point or Keynote slides change the talk from a sermon into a presentation. In this technological age we need to ask other questions too. What is the relation of the sermon to the speaker? Is the sermon embodied, physical communication? If it is, does the multi site model of church, where the speaker is projected onto a screen at different venues change the form of communication or is it merely a helpful tool? What about the podcast? Martyn Lloyd Jones for years refused to allow his sermons to be recorded for this very reason. Shane Hipps in his book Flickering Pixels reiterates the well known point that the medium is the message, and its true to say that a seventeen foot tall head projected onto a screen is likely to carry more weight that the six foot preacher live on stage! For me, these are as much theological as pragmatic questions.

So, it’s right to experiment. We make regular use of props now during talks, which on the whole have proved to be memorable for the congregation and a helpful focus for the preacher. But we must be rigorously theological as we reflect on what works and what doesn’t. I’m not convinced by the idea of interactive sermons with questions before, during and after because I think there remains a sense in which the sermon is a word from the Lord that needs to be heard, but further discussion and life application through midweek small groups, has in my view got to enhance learning, transformation and discipleship.

If you have any other ideas or suggestions, or experiments you’ve seen work well, post a comment and let me know.

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Text or Passage?

I have a confession. I am something of an old fashioned preacher. I’m not very good at the modern therapeutic motivational talk. If I can’t start with the Scriptures then I have no idea where to start! That means, I am by default an expository preacher. Now, outside certain circles that doesn’t win you an audience and, to be fair, I’ve heard some terrible expository sermons in which the preacher did little more than read the passage back to the congregation line by line as if we couldn’t read it for ourselves! Having said that, I’ve also heard too many sermons where after 30 minutes the preacher remembers they haven’t read the Bible, reads out a passage that has no relation to the rest of the talk and then carries on without another reference to the passage. They might deliver a great talk, but in my book at least, you can’t call that a sermon!

I say that because I’m an expository preacher out of theological conviction! I believe that Jesus Christ as attested to by Holy Scripture is the Word of God and therefore people don’t want to hear my thoughts they want to hear what God is saying to them through the Scriptures. But what does that look like in practice?

One thing I find interesting is this: modern expository preaching is quite different from traditional expository preaching. Today, what is considered a good expository sermon will be shaped by the structure, flow, and argument of the passage. The emphases of the sermon will be the emphases of the passage and the application of the sermon will be the application of the passage. This modern approach was made popular in the UK and the US by two great British preachers. John Stott at All Souls Langham Place and Dick Lucas at St Helen’s Bishopsgate were both incredible preachers who defined a movement and continue to exert a huge influence today. Tim Keller, for example often acknowledges the influence of Lucas on his own preaching.

But this approach is something of a departure from the older evangelical tradition of preaching from a text; a single verse. Read any sermon by some of the great preachers of the past such as George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd Jones and you find they tend to preach verses rather than passages of Scripture. Now, obviously this has both pros and cons.

Preaching from a passage ensures your own thoughts and ideas, your hobby horses and hidden agendas are all held in check. It is often said that preachers all have one talk in them. Modern expository preaching extends the range just a little bit! I do wonder though whether the modern expository sermon asks too much of both the preacher and their congregation. Pulling together the flow of a complex passage into a compelling whole is extremely difficult and I have heard enough awkward, unwieldy wooden sermons to know not everyone can do what Stott and Lucas did, or what Keller does. There can be such a determination to faithfully expound the text that the congregation hear a flat, dry exposition of the passage rather than a sermon, with so many points that no one remembers any of them even if all of them are alliterated! This sort of preaching can be overly dependent on the delivery and personality of the preacher.

In contrast, preaching from a verse simplifies matter significantly both for the preacher and the congregation. I realise there is a risk the preacher hangs all their theology onto every verse, but that is not what Spurgeon did. He still did the hard exegetical graft but he boiled his sermon down until it was sweetly concentrated in one simple point from one verse that everyone could take home. If you’re a preacher who finds it difficult to wrestle a whole passage of Scripture to the ground, try preaching from a text or verse for a change. See how it effects your preparation.

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not saying stop preaching passages and start preaching verses. For me, the issue is not whether we preach from a passage or from a verse. I enjoy preaching through passages and preaching on verses. I enjoy listening to both types of expository preaching too. I suspect a mixed economy is the way forward. We do both at St Paul’s. The real issue is how many points we make in the sermon. I am increasingly convinced that the three point sermon has had it’s day. It is just too much to ask of the congregation. A good sermon should have only one point that is driven home throughout the sermon, whether the preacher is preaching a verse or a passage.

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My Favourite Art Form

I love preaching, I’ll be honest with you. I love listening to great sermons. Live, or via podcast, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll listen to great preachers whichever side of the pond they come from and whatever wing of the church they call home. I listen to Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll. I listen to Tim Keller and Francis Chan. I even listen to a few Brits like Joel Virgo, Nicky Gumbel and the Bishop of London!

There is nothing like listening to a well crafted talk full of beautiful language, memorable phrases, powerful ideas, evocative metaphors, compelling stories, and new perspectives. I love painting, poetry and sculpture, but the sermon is undoubtedly my favourite art form.

Of course it is so much more than that. A sermon like that, takes hold of your heart, fuels your imagination, forms and shapes your desires and affections even as you listen, and sets you on a new path for the week ahead. I am sure Tim Keller is absolutely right; a sermon can change you in your seat. Great preachers don’t guarantee church growth, but there is no doubt in my mind they remain a key factor. Sermons really do matter.

I love thinking about preaching too. Each week I preach I am conscious of the new things I learn and discover. The ideas that work, those that don’t. I am hungry for feedback from those who’ve heard the sermon and I always listen to the podcast of my talk in order to see where improvements can be made for the future. There are podcasts of my own sermons on this site so do have a listen and let me know what you think.

I am still on a learning curve and I do my best to keep it as steep as I can. I read books about preaching. I go to conferences about preaching, I listen to talks about preaching. I’ve recently joined the staff team of St Paul’s Shadwell, a fantastic church in East London. One of my priorities here is to oversee the teaching, and strengthen and deepen the preaching at the church, so a lot of fresh thinking is taking place. Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be posting different articles looking at some of the issues I’m wrestling with. Do let me know what you think whether you are a preacher yourself or on the receiving end of a sermon every weekend.

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