The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘Holy Spirit

The invisible congregation

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Yesterday evening, I sent out a brief and innocent tweet: “Preaching to an invisible congregation is more exhausting than I thought.” I was surprised by the tide of earnest response that it garnered from tired pastor-preachers.

Why should that be? What can we—pastors and preachers, and congregations—do about it? Answering that question will tell us a lot about our theology of preaching and our theology of the church, for better or for worse.

We must first take account of the limitations of pre-recorded or even livestreamed preaching. Perhaps the best way to communicate this is to give a précis of what I said at the beginning of our video recordings yesterday. It went something like this:

We are grateful to all who are joining us (from our own congregation and others) but we need to issue a necessary reminder.

While some means are better than others, because they have more dimensions of communication, recorded videos, livestreams, and the like are not a substitution for the gathering of the church, but reflect an interruption of it.

Genuine biblical preaching is a living man among living men before the living God: it involves a supernatural reality along appointed channels—both preacher and congregation subject to the immediate operations of the Holy Spirit and both communicating with each another under his influence.

In the absence of a congregation, those dimensions of real preaching are stripped away; the livestream or recording further diminishes that reality because of the extra distancing involved.

We are not, therefore, trying to accomplish what cannot be done. We are not setting out to replicate, by electronic means, the vital spiritual reality of the gathered people of God in the presence of our God under the Word of God.

These efforts are not a replacement for the gathered church but a supplement for the scattered church.

The situation we face keeps us spiritually hungry; this temporary and limited provision stops us spiritually starving.

These scraps will, with the blessing of God, keep you going, but they should also make us long for the restoration of the weekly feast and the laying of the eternal banquet.

That gives something of the backdrop to the challenges we face. Without denying the care of our Heavenly Father, or the goodness of the Good Shepherd, or the might and mercy of the Holy Spirit, the simple fact is that this situation robs us of the normal means and channels by which this act of preaching is normally conducted. That dynamic preaching triangle—in which the Holy Spirit is operating along three planes, involving God and the preacher, God and the congregation, and the preacher and the congregation, each operating upon each other with or under the Spirit’s superintendence—is missing one of its corners.

For the congregation, the mentality of ‘going to worship’ is reduced. Under these lock-down and shut-in circumstances, we are being encouraged to maintain a routine for home-working, to get into the groove of labour despite being not in the normal place of labour. In a similar fashion, getting up, getting ready, and getting out for worship, going to a particular place for that particular activity, helps to put us in mind of what we are about.

Add to that the fact that the congregation is now typically in a different and potentially distracting environment. One of the advantages of Dissenting chapel architecture is its deliberately clean minimalism, removing many of the elements which might otherwise take our hearts off the preaching and hearing of the Word of God. Now, the inventive or unfocused mind will find and have a hundred ways still to do that … the animal outside the window … the number of panels in the ceiling or wall … the play of the sunlight … the preacher’s verbal tic … the agitation of the family with the young children … the reflection of light from a watch face. Been there, done all that! But, the fact remains that many church buildings are uncluttered spaces designed to focus the attention on the preaching. Our homes are not the same. There are all the things that we are accustomed to do, all the things that we would not have to worry or think about if at home. We lack the gracious pressure of a whole congregation helping to establish a reverent and attentive atmosphere. We can get up and brew up, we can pause the preacher, we can relax in our comfortable chair and drift away. There is also the novelty factor, especially for those who have children. The fact that it isn’t ‘church’ can make it harder for our children to adapt.

And then, the preacher himself is not there to engage with them, to pick up on the ebbs and flows of a congregation and its listening. This is no longer a mutually responsive environment. Perhaps they are tuning in to someone else who is not even their pastor and usual preacher, so he is not even preaching with them in mind. The reality of this particular under-shepherd feeding this particular flock which he knows and for which he is, under God, responsible, is gone.

The preacher is, perhaps, aware of much of this. It may be that he has some very similar challenges for himself, for many were attempting broadcasts from a study or living room or kitchen. He is not in his typical environment for preaching. Perhaps he is sitting when usually he is standing, behind a desk when usually behind a pulpit. Distractions which are usually absent (barring those of the congregation!) are now painfully present.

Or perhaps he is preaching from a church building, and he has only before him rows of empty seats (perhaps a few family members), or just a camera (perhaps not even an operator). (Our recording involves a quick jog to press a button and back to the pulpit.) Now he is missing all the cues which, under God, normally stir his soul. The regular rhythms of gathered worship which so often generate spiritual momentum are absent. Worse, there are no people, no faces, no responses. And he is, or should be, conscious that—whether livestreamed or recorded—he has to overcome, under God, some of the congregation’s disadvantages, wherever they may be and under whatever circumstances they might be listening. And so he begins to preach … except it’s barely preaching. His normal thinking and feeling are all undermined by the absence of that natural and spiritual give-and-take which characterises real public ministry. He never was a mere automaton, spouting religious words. He struggles to concentrate, to maintain intensity, he has no external cues for the ebb and flow of the sermon, no external prompts for getting, keeping, or recovering the attention of a body of people. He is not so much leading the flock to the green pastures as pinging vitamin pellets at them with a catapult. Perhaps he is not sure where to look—at the camera, at the seats, out the windows. He does not want merely to read, but he struggles to do more than speak. Everything feels flat, and there is a possibility that he will over-compensate, and try to do what—under the circumstances—is nigh-on impossible to be done, and end up not with a flat mess but with a hot one.

And, then, perhaps worst of all for him, he may have an opportunity down the line to watch or hear a recording of himself, which—as most preachers know—leaves us ready to crawl into a deep dark hole of mourning and regret (or maybe just a real deep, dark hole), taking perpetual vows never to preach again, let alone in front of a camera, for his own sake, and the sake of all whom he loves and whose sanity he cherishes.

And that leaves us with the last point of that dynamic triangle: God. This is a good place to be left! If it were not for our Lord’s blessing upon regular ministry, it would be at least as bad as that usually, if not worse. It is he who, by his Spirit, establishes all those connections and makes them lively with heavenly forcefulness. The usual means he has appointed are no longer in place. The usual channels of blessing are dry or blocked. But, as a well-established Confession of Faith puts it, “God in his ordinary providence makes use of means, but he is free to work without, above, and against them as he pleases.” Praise God that it is so! What we are doing is just not church, and it is not quite preaching, but that does not stop the Lord blessing the usual means under unusual circumstances, using unusual means to usual ends, or even using unusual means to unusual ends. After all, there are many saints in many churches who are genuinely unable to attend regular services, and the Lord in his mercy makes what would normally be limited means sufficient not just to survive but even to thrive. Why should be not be able to do the same, even under these circumstances, for all of us?

With all that in mind, let me offer some practical suggestions. Members of congregations might plan to meet at a regular time (if livestreaming, this may be already in place). Whether individually, or as a family, prepare to be in a certain place at the appointed time, with everything set up and, if possible, tested. Do not go full slob: wash and dress as you would for church. Minimise distractions where possible—no food or drink, silence your phones, do not be preparing a meal or worrying about other responsibilities. Pray before you press play. Focus on the preaching of God’s Word. You may not be worshipping with the church, but you are and still can be worshipping God. Some technologies allow for commenting and interacting. Perhaps it is worth leaving that alone, and focusing on the listening? Pray afterward, alone or with others, for a blessing on what you have heard. Use what technology is available to interact with others afterward: pick up the preaching with family or friends, maybe send the preacher a message of encouragement to remind him that someone human was engaged and engaging. Be thankful to God for the wonderful means that are available for you to obtain something. And do pray for your pastor. He is trying to feed your soul from a distance. He is like a shepherd looking out over distant fields, seeing his sheep from afar, chained up and only able to lob something good in their general direction.

Pastors, too, should perhaps seek to maintain, as much as possible, their usual routines, even if their sermons are necessarily adapted to the present crisis and its particular circumstances. It is no bad thing to wash and dress as if you were ‘going to church.’ If you can, sing and pray, even if alone, so that your soul is stimulated and enlivened by those spiritual exercises. Whether at home or in a church building, it may help not so much to imagine as to visualise the congregation. Remember the faces to which and the lives into which you are normally preaching. In the same way as you normally preach to the people who are or who you wish be be in front of you, and not the people who might listen later, on this occasion speak as if to the people who are normally in front of you, regardless of who might hear it otherwise.Do not so much speak to a camera as through it. You may need to speak more briefly and pointedly, both to help you stay engaged and focused, and to help those hearing or watching to do the same. And then, when you have finished, do what you usually do—go to God with all your failings and feebleness, and ask him to bless what will lie dry and dusty on the surface of the soul without his gracious ploughing to carry it home and his refreshing mercies to cause it to spring up into life. Expect to be drained, perhaps in different ways or in different aspects of your humanity to the usual. Make sure you rest, and think about your labours, and learn how better to communicate truth under these circumstances, for as long as they may last. How thankful we should be that, though we may be physically far from the flock of Christ, we can still bear them up in our hearts, knowing that the Good Shepherd has promised that he will be with them always, even to the end of the age!

When all is said and done, do not expect it to be real church and do not expect it to be real preaching. Even with the blessing of the triune God, it cannot and will not be that. And so, let preacher and hearer alike be stirred up to eager anticipation for the day when we can once again see each other face to face, so that your joy may be full (2Jn 12), and when we—together in the presence of God—hear the word of life once more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 23 March 2020 at 16:34

The Spirit and the Word

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I mentioned this principle on Sunday, but nothing like as beautifully as Calvin does here:

The Holy Spirit so inheres in his truth, which he expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth his power…. For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely, in the Word. So indeed it is. God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display, intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it. Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word.

Calvin, Institutes, 1.9.3

via The Old Guys.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 9 January 2013 at 19:07

When deepness goes deep

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Herman Bavinck on the witness of the Holy Spirit, in a way that makes most of us realise that we actually don’t think that much:

This threefold testimony is one and from the same Spirit. From Scripture, through the church, it penetrates the heart of the individual believer. Still, in each of these three forms, it has a meaning of its own. The testimony of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is “the primary motive toward faith or the principle by which, or the argument on account of which, Scripture become regulative (κανονικον) and non-apodictic (άναποδεικτον).” The testimony of the Holy Spirit in the church is “the other motive or instrument though which we believe. It is introductory (εισαγωγικον) and supportive (ύπουπγικον).” The witness of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer is the “efficient cause of faith, the principle by which or through which we believe. It is originating (άπχηγικον) and effecting (ένεργητικον).”

Given these distinctions, also the charge of circular reasoning usually advanced against the testimony of the Holy Spirit is invalidated. For, strictly speaking, the testimony of the Holy Spirit is not the final ground but the means of faith. The ground of faith is, and can only be, Scripture, or rather, the authority of God, which comes upon the believer materially in the content as well as formally in the witness of Scripture. Hence the ground of faith is identical with its content and cannot, as Herrman believes, be detached from it. Scripture as the word of God is simultaneously the material and the formal object of faith. But the testimony of the Holy Spirit is the “efficient cause,” “the principle by which,” of faith. We believe Scripture, not because of, but by means of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit relate to each other as object truth and subjective assurance, as the first principles and their self-evidence, as the light and the human eye. Once it has been recognized in its divinity, Scripture is incontrovertibly certain to the faith of the believing community, so that it is both the principle and the norm of faith and life.

Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1: Prolegomena (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic; 2003), 597-598.

via The Old Guys.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 8 December 2012 at 23:36

Posted in Pneumatology

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Fit for anything

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Matthew Henry:

Those that are full of the Holy Spirit are fit for any thing, either to act for Christ or to suffer for him. And those whom God calls out to difficult services for his name he will qualify for those services, and carry comfortably through them, by filling them with the Holy Spirit, that, as their afflictions for Christ abound, their consolation in him may yet more abound, and then none of these things move them.

via The Old Guys.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 7 December 2012 at 20:05

The humility and jealousy of the Holy Spirit

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Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 3 September 2012 at 09:10

A withering work

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Many are inclined to say that we long for a revival, but I often wonder if we know what we are asking. I do not say that we should not pray for more profound and intense operations of the Holy Spirit, but let us not forget that – given where so many of us are as churches – if the Holy Spirit does draw near, there is likely to be much weeping before there is rejoicing:

But mark, wherever the Spirit of God comes, He destroys the goodliness and flower of the flesh. That is to say, our righteousness withers as our sinfulness. Before the Spirit comes we think ourselves as good as the best. We say, “All these commandments have I kept from my youth up,” and we superciliously ask, “What do I lack?” Have we not been moral? No, have we not even been religious? We confess that we may have committed faults, but we think them very venial, and we venture, in our wicked pride, to imagine that, after all, we are not so vile as the Word of God would lead us to think.

Ah, my dear hearer, when the Spirit of God blows on the comeliness of your flesh, its beauty will fade as a leaf, and you will have quite another idea of yourself. You will then find no language too severe in which to describe your past character. Searching deep into your motives, and investigating that which moved you to your actions, you will see so much of evil that you will cry with the publican, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”

via Charles Spurgeon @ The Old Guys.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 1 June 2012 at 16:20

“Is there a Holy Spirit?”

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“Is there a Holy Spirit?” I can think of few better questions to ask in order to assess whether our ministry strategies are faithful to Scripture.

Find out why in this excellent post.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 15 March 2012 at 22:51

Posted in While wandering . . .

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Fire in the dry sticks

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We cannot afford to go through the motions when we preach. We must reach the point at which we look at the words on the page or the screen, or review the things that are stirring in our minds and hearts, consider whatever notes that we have made to enable us to communicate the truth as it is in Jesus, and acknowledge that they will be as dry as a stick without heavenly influence. And that should drive us to our knees before God crying out to make his words effective in the hearts and lives of men, to do that thing which beggars human expectation and to make his word to prosper in the thing for which he sent it (Is 55.11), to bring the holy hammer of truth down with divine might on the stones of human hearts (Jer 23.29), and to glorify his name in salvation in its most complete sense.

And so we should gather up those dry sticks of our intended discourse, and pile them before God, and ask for fire from heaven.

Thoughts on preaching at Reformation21.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 10 March 2012 at 19:00

Posted in Pastoral theology

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Review: “Preaching in the Holy Spirit”

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Preaching in the Holy Spirit

Albert N. Martin

Reformation Heritage Books, 2011, 67pp., paperback, $8 / £6.99

ISBN 978-1-60178-119-2

If you have heard Al Martin preach at least twice, then – even without knowing the author beforehand – you would be able to identify him after reading the first paragraph of this book, not to mention the rest of it. The material – the substance of two sermons to pastors – addresses the agency and operations of the Holy Spirit, his indispensable necessity, his specific manifestations, and the restrained or diminished measure of his operations, all focusing on the act of preaching. The author brings the fruit of his study, observations and experience to bear on this topic, giving the reader an appetite for the reality he sketches. It is stirring and necessary stuff, and a powerful corrective to dry, dull, predictable sermonising. Preachers should read this.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 22 November 2011 at 10:51

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Spirit-wrought prayer

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Here is John Bunyan’s allegorical reckoning of prayer drawn from The Holy War. The town of Mansoul, backslidden and besieged and now indwelt by an army of Doubters under Diabolus, is in a terrible condition. Only the castle of the heart stands out, battered daily by the enemy. Petitions to the Prince Emmanuel have so far failed to obtain the needed relief, but now Mansoul is directed to the Lord Secretary (the Holy Spirit) to assist in their prayers:

After the town of Mansoul had been in this sad and lamentable condition for so long a time as I have told you, and no petitions that they presented their Prince with, all this while, could prevail, the inhabitants of the town, namely, the elders and chief of Mansoul, gathered together, and, after some time spent in condoling their miserable state and this miserable judgment coming upon them, they agreed together to draw up yet another petition, and to send it away to Emmanuel for relief. But Mr. Godly-Fear stood up and answered, that he knew that his Lord the Prince never did nor ever would receive a petition for these matters, from the hand of any whoever, unless the Lord Secretary’s hand was to it; ‘and this,’ quoth he, ‘is the reason that you prevailed not all this while.’ Then they said they would draw up one, and get the Lord Secretary’s hand unto it. But Mr. Godly-Fear answered again, that he knew also that the Lord Secretary would not set his hand to any petition that himself had not an hand in composing and drawing up. ‘And besides,’said he, ‘the Prince doth know my Lord Secretary’s hand from all the hands in the world; wherefore he cannot be deceived by any pretence whatever. Wherefore my advice is that you go to my Lord, and implore him to lend you his aid.'(Now he did yet abide in the castle, where all the captains and men-at-arms were.)

So they heartily thanked Mr. Godly-Fear, took his counsel, and did as he had bidden them. So they went and came to my Lord, and made known the cause of their coming to him; namely, that since Mansoul was in so deplorable a condition, his Highness would be pleased to undertake to draw up a petition for them to Emmanuel, the Son of the mighty Shaddai, and to their King and his Father by him.

Then said the Secretary to them, ‘What petition is it that you would have me draw up for you?’But they said, ‘Our Lord knows best the state and condition of the town of Mansoul; and how we are backslidden and degenerated from the Prince: thou also knowest who is come up to war against us, and how Mansoul is now the seat of war. My Lord knows, moreover, what barbarous usages our men, women, and children have suffered at their hands; and how our home-bred Diabolonians do walk now with more boldness than dare the townsmen in the streets of Mansoul. Let our Lord therefore, according to the wisdom of God that is in him, draw up a petition for his poor servants to our Prince Emmanuel.’ ‘Well,’ said the Lord Secretary, ‘I will draw up a petition for you, and will also set my hand thereto. ‘Then said they, ‘But when shall we call for it at the hands of our Lord?’ But he answered, ‘Yourselves must be present at the doing of it; yea, you must put your desires to it. True, the hand and pen shall be mine, but the ink and paper must be yours; else how can you say it is your petition? Nor have I need to petition for myself, because I have not offended.’ He also added as followeth: ‘No petition goes from me in my name to the Prince, and so to his Father by him, but when the people that are chiefly concerned therein do join in heart and soul in the matter, for that must be inserted therein.’

So they did heartily agree with the sentence of the Lord, and a petition was forthwith drawn up for them. But now, who should carry it? that was next. But the Secretary advised that Captain Credence should carry it; for he was a well-spoken man. They therefore called for him, and propounded to him the business. ‘Well,’ said the captain, ‘I gladly accept of the motion; and though I am lame, I will do this business for you with as much speed and as well as I can.’

When we pray, the hand and pen must be the Spirit’s, but the ink and paper must be ours, and faith – however lame – must carry the request to the throne of grace.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 18 October 2011 at 10:22

Principles for preaching

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I have a fair bit of preaching and teaching ahead of me in the coming weeks. I was thinking of some of the challenges that lie before me, and I was reminded of the counsels that follow, things that I should do well to bear in mind. Most of them should never be forgotten.

Alexander Somerville (1813-1889) was a man of God. A friend of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, he studied with him formally and informally, and they spurred one another on and stirred one another up to love and good works. After spending much of his pastoral life in Scotland, in his latter years he took up a sort of roving ministry in India, Australasia, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Greece and Western Asia. One of his concerns was always to train and encourage men to preach. The following is the guidance he provided for such men.

Rules for sermon writing

  1. Pray without ceasing for clear views of your subject, for help in composition, in committing to memory, and in delivery.
  2. Pray without ceasing for the people you are to address.
  3. Remember you are to speak to souls who must either be impressed or hardened by the sermon you deliver.
  4. Write for Christ and of Christ.
  5. Remember that the Holy Spirit not merely can alone show to the heart the things that are Christ’s, but that He must be recognised as doing so by us. Keep the Spirit’s peculiar office and work continually in view.
  6. Remember that what you write must have eternal consequences.
  7. Write as one who must give an account to Christ for so doing.
  8. Write for a people who must give an account to Christ for the manner in which they hear.
  9. Never write for the sake of magnifying yourself.
  10. Remember the flock of Christ must not be fed with ingenuities, but with the bread of life.
  11. Write from the heart with simplicity, plainness (so that a little child may comprehend), and godly sincerity.
  12. Pray for other congregations … for your own companions in the work of preaching.
  13. Never write without this before you – and read at least three times in the composition of each discourse.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 23 June 2011 at 22:04

Spiritual drought

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Sometimes, Mr Spurgeon gets to the nub of things magnificently. The Resurgence has reproduced sermon notes on Isaiah 5.6, “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” The illustration he offers gives you a sense of the whole, but it really is worth reading and pondering.

In a newspaper we met with the following:

“There was an old turnpike-man, on a quiet country road, whose habit was to shut his gate at night, and take his nap. One dark, wet midnight I knocked at his door, calling, ‘Gate, gate!’ ‘Coming,’ said the voice of the old man. Then I knocked again, and once more the voice replied, ‘Coming.’ This went on for some time, till at length I grew quite angry, and jumping off my horse, opened the door, and demanded why he cried ‘Coming’ for twenty minutes, and never came. ‘Who is there?’ said the old man, in a quiet, sleepy voice, rubbing his eyes. ‘What d’ye want, sir?’ Then awakening, ‘Bless yer, sir, and ax yer pardon, I was asleep; I gets so used to hearing ’em knock, that I answer “coming” in my sleep, and take no more notice about it.'”

Thus may the ministry accomplish nothing because the habitual hearer remains in a deep sleep, out of which the Spirit of God alone can awaken him. When the secret influence from heaven ceases to speak to the heart, the best speaking to the ear avails little.

Read it all.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 19 January 2011 at 19:06

Now . . . here . . . us

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Unbelief says: Some other time, but not now; some other place, but not here; some other people, but not us. Faith says: Anything He did anywhere else He will do here; anything He did any other time He is willing to do now; anything He ever did for other people He is willing to do for us! With our feet on the ground, and our head cool, but with our heart ablaze with the love of God, we walk out in this fullness of the Spirit, if we will yield and obey. God wants to work through you!

A. W. Tozer, The Counselor (Camp Hill, 1993), page 116.

via Ray Ortlund.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 19 January 2011 at 18:13

You will be misunderstood

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“You will be misunderstood,” preachers are told. Thanks, Seth, for that cheering thought on the eve of the Lord’s day!

Seth’s good counsel is “Plan on being misunderstood. Repeat yourself. When in doubt, repeat yourself.”

David Murray (to whom we tip the hat) reminds us:

How much more prayerful should we be in preparing and delivering sermons.

How much more dependent we should be on the Holy Spirit.

How much more thankful we should be when anyone does understand.

To which I would add this prayer.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 11 December 2010 at 21:27

Spurgeon warns against academic hubris

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The ever-punchy Spurgeon is channelled by the Pyromaniacs on the dangers of idolising academia. Spurgeon never denigrated learning, but he afforded it its proper place in the scheme of things.

In the Christian church there is, I am afraid, at this moment too much exaltation of talent and dependence upon education, I mean especially in reference to ministers.

I do not believe that a man of God who is called constantly to preach to the same people can be too thoroughly educated, neither do I believe that the highest degree of mental culture should be any injury to the Christian minister, but rather should be very helpful to him. By all means let the religious teacher intermeddle with all knowledge, let him give himself unto reading and be able mentally as well as spiritually to take the lead, but, O church of God, never set thou up human learning in the place of the Eternal Spirit, for “it is not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.”

The great wonders of apostolic times were mainly wrought by men who were illiterate in the world’s judgment; they had been taught of Christ and so had received the noblest education, but in classical studies and in philosophical speculations they were but little versed, with the exception of the apostle Paul, and he came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom. Yet the apostles and their followers preached with such power, that the world soon felt their presence.

On the slabs of stone which mark the burial places of the early Christians in the catacombs of Rome, the inscriptions are nearly all ill spelt, many of them have here a letter in Greek and there a letter in Latin, grammar is forgotten, and orthography is violated, a proof that the early Christians who thus commemorated the martyred dead were many of them uneducated persons: but for all that they crushed the wisdom of the sages and smote the gods of classic lands. They smote Jupiter and Saturn, until they were broken in pieces, and Venus and Diana fell from their seats of power. Their conquests were not by the, learning of the schools; that hindered them—the Gnostic heresy, the heresy of pretended knowledge hindered but never helped the church of God.

Even thus at this hour the culture so much vaunted in certain places is opposed to the simplicity of the gospel. Therefore I say we do not despise true learning, but we dare not depend upon it. We believe that God can bless and does bless thousands by very simple and humble testimonies; we are none of us to hold our tongues for Christ, because we cannot speak as the learned; we are none of us to refuse the Lord’s message to ourselves because it is spoken by an unlettered messenger.

We are not to select our pastors simply because of their talents and acquirements; we must regard their unction, we must look at their call, and see whether the Spirit of God is with them; if not, we shall make learning to be our brazen serpent, and it will need to be broken in pieces.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 29 November 2010 at 12:00

Ministerial magpies

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The magpie (at least, the one I have in mind) is a striking European bird of black and white plumage (as Jeeves might say, “The species pica pica of the family corvidae, sir”) – a sort of jazzed up crow, if you will, although I imagine many magpies would be thoroughly offended by the description. An even worse sobriquet attaches to this unfortunate bird: “the thieving magpie,” a reference to its alleged and rather unfortunate habit of flying away with anything shiny that takes its fancy and is not firmly tied down.

It is the sort of heist of which preachers are often accused, a connection all the more unfortunate if you also go in for monochrome livery. But is it a legitimate accusation?

Preachers are easily criticised, and sometimes rightly so, for taking short cuts with preparation. Many years ago a peer sent me a sermon he was intending to preach on the opening verses of a certain book of Scripture. I noticed two very distinct styles, one almost unintelligible, and one far more prominent than the other, and disturbingly familiar. Sure enough, he had drawn almost the entirety of this sermon from a low-level, devotional commentary, without acknowledgement, and clearly without having done any thoughtful work for himself. His contribution had been to throw in a few incoherent sentences of introduction and one or two linking lines between chunks of the commentary.

I recall another, older friend complaining of how he heard a man preach at a fairly significant conference. He just happened to have read a few days beforehand the very sermon of Charles Spurgeon which the man in the pulpit proceeded to deliver as his own.

Today, you can type in a few searches and come up with sermon outlines and illustrations, even complete sermons. Modern ministerial tools put entire libraries of commentaries, sermons and other works at our very fingertips, all just waiting to be cut and pasted with little ado. Audio and video streaming and posting of sermons means that there are well-known preachers you can hear many times, one Sunday from their own pulpit, during the week as downloads and streams, and the following Sunday from any number of other pulpits where his unthinking acolytes hold sway – not the natural, unconscious emulation born of appreciation and esteem, with echoes of tone and style and organisation and gesture, but a slavish reproduction of the sermon and sometimes the preachers’ very mannerisms. Whether online or not, some resources are even designed, at least in part, to provide specific helps: think of those volumes of sermon outlines, or the suggestions for preachers at the back end of every psalm in Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, or the dusty but rich old tomes of anecdotes and illustrations.

But are you sitting through the disquisitions of a man who has become nothing more than a channel for other men? If a preacher, have you become casual, even lazy, quite happy to go through the motions of preparation and then merely discharge another man’s words? To do this is merely to be an actor, not a preacher, to mouth as a talking head what any semi-competent researcher and reader could produce with the same resources.

But it can be a challenge when a preacher sits down to do his work. How do we ensure that we preach our own sermons, and not the sermons of men past or present? Why are we tempted to preach another man’s sermon?

Do we doubt the richness of Scripture? Perhaps we fear whether or not we shall be able to find a suitable text, or that the next portion of the Word of God, if we are following a sequence of exposition, will not yield sufficient substance for us to preach?

Do we doubt our grace and gifts? Are we, perhaps, not readily able to say that by grace of God I am what I am? Perhaps a lack of confidence makes us want to preach the sermon we imagine a better man would preach. We come to a passage of Scripture and think, “I wonder how Mr So-and-so preached this? That’s what I want to bring.”

Do we doubt the relationship between pastor and people? Perhaps we are not confident that that relationship can suffuse the sermon with enough common ground and shared experience for it to be profitable, or fear that it cannot sustain the pressure of the explanations and applications that must be made.

Do we doubt, ultimately, the person and work of the Holy Spirit? Do we imagine that we cannot enjoy in preparation or in preaching the same gracious operations by means of which men past and present were or are being equipped for the powerful proclamation of divine truth? Do we not think that he can fire our hearts and our minds and our imaginations, enabling us to discern truth, recognise issues, make connections, develop applications, and make known the glory of God? Is he so weak or we so incompetent that we are beyond his help? Does Christ not give gifts to his church? Does the Spirit not enable us to reveal God in Christ? Or do we effectively think that it is, in fact, all down to us? To be sure, we may not do it as we would, and we may weep repenting tears after every sermon, but – even taking into account our obligations and duties – it is not our power or wisdom that will accomplish anything in the sermons that we preach.

What is the answer? To simply sit and wait, even prayerfully, and hope that the lightning will strike? What if it does not? I remember one man who clearly had not read those pastoral theologies on what extempore preaching is not, and announced that he would preach in reliance on the Holy Spirit, having made it a point not to do any preparation beforehand. Let us just say that it showed, as the man delivered a discordant, discombobulated and in every sense pointless monologue that bore less and less relation to the text that was announced at the beginning of the address, and, indeed, less and less relevance to any of the people who were hearing it.

The answer to laziness and doubt is not to test God. Of course, there are times at which and circumstances in which we are cast entirely upon him apart from the regular use of the appointed means. At those times, we can and should expect less usual demonstrations of his equipping and enabling.

But what of the norm? How do we use the resources available to us?

At some point in my preparation, I will usually pull down the appropriate commentaries from my shelves. There may be resources online that I check. I readily admit that, if I have a sermon in my library on a text from which I hope to preach, I will read it. I may well borrow or adapt parts of it. I may even begin to do that in the act of preaching without being conscious of the fact that I am not inventing but repeating, producing something that memory has simply lobbed into the forefront of the mind at an opportune moment, I trust under the influence of the Spirit of God. There have been times when a certain structure was so compelling (but is it not strange how Spurgeon’s structure, or Warfield’s, or whomever’s it might be, can be so compelling on such a regular basis?) that I abandoned my own and simply followed it. I recall one occasion when I was wrestling with headings for a sermon, although the material was beginning to take form, and upon turning to Matthew Henry, discovered a series of words so magnificent in their fitness for the occasion that I immediately capitulated and adopted them, with an appropriate nod in the direction of the esteemed Mr Henry. On another occasion, pressed into action at exceedingly short notice, I could think of nothing better than to lift the complete outline of a sermon that I had read earlier that week; I then studied material into that scrounged outline before preaching it with full confession of my shameless borrowing. At yet another time, a splendid outline seemed to fall into my lap from on high, but the more I worked with it and the more thought about it, the more I was forced to the conclusion that my brain simply did not work the way the originator of that outline did – if not too good to be true, it was certainly too good to be mine. My suspicions were proved sadly accurate when I searched through some likely candidates and discovered that it was John Owen’s outline: I had read his address several months before, and something had dragged it from the murky recesses of the Walker mind as I pondered the same passage of Scripture. With a sigh, realising that once again I would need to acknowledge that I am stupid enough to construct a sermon around someone else’s outline without even realising it, I continued my labours.

Of course, none of this makes a blind bit of difference to you, because no-one models their style on me, not unless they are candidates for an unusually restrictive waistcoat and a lengthy sojourn in the kind of hotel with locks on the doors and bars on the windows. But what of great preachers of the past and present?

I recollect hearing a magnificent sermon by a pastor-preacher of the present day whom I esteem most highly. It was stunning. It did not stop being stunning when, upon later reading several commentaries on the same book of Scripture in preparation for my own sermons, I discovered all the points he had been making, some of them in very similar language.

I recently prepared a sermon on a certain text, and happened to read both Spurgeon and Sibbes on the same portion. I was not so much struck by the similarity as by the uniformity at points, as Mr Spurgeon reproduced – sometimes point for point and example for example – the excellent insights and applications of Mr Sibbes.

Read Whitefield and Matthew Henry and you will be struck by the likenesses, remembering that Whitefield often relied entirely upon Matthew Henry for his exegetical help. I do not think I do any disservice to Stuart Olyott when I report that I have heard him say more than once, when his preaching has been praised, that he has made his reputation by doing nothing more than rendering Matthew Henry in modern English. Those who know Mr Olyott will understand that he is underselling himself, but neither is he lying.

So, what is the deal? We do not want to be mere performers who go on to a stage to read another man’s lines, without any engagement with the truth. We might be sincere, but that truth – even if it really is truth – is likely to flow out of us lukewarm rather than hissing hot if it is second-hand truth, if we are merely passive conduits for the fruits of another man’s labours. So then, do we simply turn our back upon the studies and sermons of men who have gone before?

I would suggest that there is some holy ground between the extremes.

We must never simply run through another man’s sermons as if they were our own. Simple honesty forbids that. But, when opportunity permits and as duty requires, let us make our way into the vineyards of our bookshelves and e-resources, and glean the best of the fruit; spend time around those vines that have produced the sweetest and juiciest fruit of past years. Press down the grapes and soak prayerfully in the best of the past, and let it seep into us.

There may be times when we must stand up and say that we have been compelled – and not by casual laxity – to adopt a certain framework or reproduce a certain structure or employ a certain illustration, and we might unashamedly do so. There may be times when nothing written before seems to help us, either because no one else is working the way we are, or because we are trying to prepare a sermon, not write a book or lecture, and we tread even more carefully and prayerfully as find ourselves more alone than usual. There may be times when something nestling in the back of our mind conditions us in the labour of preparation or springs to life in the act of preaching, and we may never be aware that we were replicating some giant (or, indeed, pygmy) of the past. There may be times when we make mistakes and rely overmuch on other men and not enough upon the God of salvation, and there may be times when – out of a misguided zeal – we ignore the means that God has provided and wonder why God does not simply fill our minds with good things on the spot.

If we are wise, we will be ministerial magpies, quick to pluck the brightest treasures from the hoards available to us and take them into our own homes and make them our own. Then when we preach, each of us must be the man that God has made us, in dependence on the Spirit of God, preaching the Christ of God, our minds well-stocked with exegetical and applicatory cream, our hearts full of good matter, our words pouring out of our own full souls under the influence of the Holy Spirit into the souls of the people who are sitting in front of us, whose hearts we have prayed would also know those gracious heavenly influences, men and women facing challenges that we know and have come to understand, needing encouragements and exhortations and rebukes that a man from another place or time simply cannot provide, needing to be shepherded by the particular under-shepherd that the Great Shepherd of the sheep has appointed for this particular time and place. Yes, God has brought you into the kingdom for such a time as this, and for such a place as this. Therefore, be like a scribe instructed concerning the kingdom, able like a householder to bring out of his treasure things new and old (Mt 13.52).

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 3 November 2010 at 10:51

Take up your cross

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Tim Challies gives us a piece by George D. Watson, a Wesleyan minister who did the bulk of his ministry in the early 20th century. There is a wealth of wisdom in what he writes:

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

If God has called you to be truly like Jesus in all your spirit, He will draw you into a life of crucifixion and humility. He will put on you such demands of obedience that you will not be allowed to follow other Christians. In many ways, He seems to let other good people do things which He will not let you do.

Others who seem to be very religious and useful may push themselves, pull wires, and scheme to carry out their plans, but you cannot. If you attempt it, you will meet with such failure and rebuke from the Lord as to make you sorely penitent.

Others can brag about themselves, their work, their successes, their writings, but the Holy Spirit will not allow you to do any such thing. If you begin to do so, He will lead you into some deep mortification that will make you despise yourself and all your good works.

Others will be allowed to succeed in making great sums of money, or having a legacy left to them, or in having luxuries, but God may supply you only on a day-to-day basis, because He wants you to have something far better than gold, a helpless dependence on Him and His unseen treasury.

The Lord may let others be honored and put forward while keeping you hidden in obscurity because He wants to produce some choice, fragrant fruit for His coming glory, which can only be produced in the shade.

God may let others be great, but keep you small. He will let others do a work for Him and get the credit, but He will make you work and toil without knowing how much you are doing. Then, to make your work still more precious, He will let others get the credit for the work which you have done; this to teach you the message of the Cross, humility, and something of the value of being cloaked with His nature.

The Holy Spirit will put a strict watch on you, and with a jealous love rebuke you for careless words and feelings, or for wasting your time, which other Christians never seem distressed over.

So make up your mind that God is an infinite Sovereign and has a right to do as He pleases with His own, and that He may not explain to you a thousand things which may puzzle your reason in His dealings with you.

God will take you at your word. If you absolutely sell yourself to be His slave, He will wrap you up in a jealous love and let other people say and do many things that you cannot. Settle it forever; you are to deal directly with the Holy Spirit, He is to have the privilege of tying your tongue or chaining your hand or closing your eyes in ways which others are not dealt with. However, know this great secret of the Kingdom: When you are so completely possessed with the Living God that you are, in your secret heart, pleased and delighted over this peculiar, personal, private, jealous guardianship and management of the Holy Spirit over your life, you will have found the vestibule of heaven, the high calling of God.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 18 October 2010 at 06:00

Curator or creator?

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David Murray draws on a helpful blogging distinction to challenge preachers to be creators rather than curators.  His comments remind me of an etching I once saw of John Knox’s study.  There was a table in the room with an open Bible on it.  In front of the table was a chair.  There was room to kneel.  I know that Knox’s training had given him a prodigious and well-stocked memory, but this was how he prepared to preach during at least one period of his life.  Says Murray:

The next time you prepare a sermon, see how far you can get with just a Bible, prayer and the Holy Spirit. Keep resisting the temptation to open Logos, Accordance, Hendriksen or Henry. Keep searching the Scriptures, asking for light, meditating deeply, and writing out your thoughts on the text. And only when you are truly “dry,” open other resources to check, clarify, and contribute to your sermon. And see if your hearers detect a new life and freshness in your sermons.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 25 May 2010 at 09:43

“O touch my heart with grace divine”

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Lledrod L.M.

O touch my heart with grace divine,
The Father, Spirit, Son combine;
Save me through merit not my own:
Great Saviour, touch a heart of stone.

Touch me with mercy sweet, divine,
A sinner by my sins entwined,
My weakness great, my heart untrue,
Only the blood can make me new.

O touch me now with truth sublime,
The truth that conquers space and time,
And do what you alone can do:
Make me to know salvation true.

Touch now my heart with peace divine,
Safe knowing that the Lord is mine,
Each day show me undying love:
Show me anew, O heavenly Dove.

O touch my heart with love divine,
And let it through my being shine;
Sing out, my soul, to tell his praise,
To bless my God through endless days.

©JRW

See all hymns and psalms.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 24 April 2010 at 11:52

Sermons and the Spirit

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I say, my brother, it won’t do to be content with giving first-rate sermons without being endowed with power from on high.  The world will give its applause and hurrahs, and foolish preachers may be pleased with the honour; but it will go out like a falling star.

Isaac Marsden (1807-1882), quoted by Paul Cook, Fire From Heaven (70)

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 19 April 2010 at 17:14

“O Lord, the way is hard and long”

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Angel’s Song  L.M.

O Lord, the way is hard and long
And fellow travellers are few;
I am not wise, I am not strong,
I fear I shall not make it through.

On every side a sinking mire;
Down every path a mocker’s glee;
In every way a burning fire;
On either hand a roaring sea.

But you, O Lord, my portion are,
The rock in which my soul can hide:
Better, my God, and better far
Than all and everything beside.

Men will betray, and friends will fail,
Each day a newfound enemy;
Yet through the storm I safely sail
With you, O God, to comfort me.

My flesh, my God, is poor and weak,
My heart and faith so often low;
But I will find you when I seek,
And you will guide me where to go.

Lord God, reveal your gracious way,
Your Spirit deep within me dwell,
And guide me on to glorious day
In Jesus Christ, who loves me well.

©JRW

See all hymns and psalms.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 27 January 2010 at 23:41

Stuart Olyott on Luther’s mistake

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Stuart Olyott has an excellent short article in the December 2009 issue of the Banner of Truth Magazine (information and subscription here – warmly recommended), reflecting on Luther’s retrospective on the progress of the Reformation. Luther said:

I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble . . . I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.

Stuart is dealing with the error of ‘mediate regeneration’, an error which he perceives gripping a vast swathe of British evangelicalism. (Incidentally, my interest in this article was piqued because I was thinking of preaching on the Spirit’s illuminating work this Lord’s day – I may not, but I should like to soon.) Stuart describes this error in this way:

Mediate regeneration teaches that when the Holy Spirit transforms somebody into a new creature in Christ, he uses an instrument to bring this about. That instrument is the Word—the Holy Scriptures. The work of the Spirit is so intimately connected to his instrument, that we can say that the Word of God actually contains the converting power of the Holy Spirit. If you let the Word loose, you are letting the Holy Spirit loose.

To put it another way: the Spirit, or the principle of new life, is shut up in the Word, just as the life-giving germ is shut up in the dry seed. Just sow the seed and people will get converted! If they don’t, it will be because they have persistently resisted the appeals of God’s Spirit coming to them through that Word. His power is resident in the Word, but that power has been resisted. Where the gospel has little success, there is a human explanation.

So Luther should not have baldly said, “I left it to the Word” because the Word, apart from the Spirit (who is not bound to the word in the way wrongly suggested) accomplishes nothing.

Stuart’s point is that the Spirit works with the word (cum verbo) and not simply through the word (per verbo). While it is and always remains the true Word of the living God, yet without the operation of the Spirit on the heart of the man reading it, it remains as dry as a stick to him. Regeneration is an immediate operation of the Spirit of Christ on the heart of a man making him spiritually alive and aware, and therefore able to comprehend the truth. But the Spirit does not use the truth to accomplish that regeneration; the effect of regeneration is spiritual comprehension of the truth.

Isn’t this splitting hairs? No, says Mr Olyott:

A biblical mind-set ticks completely differently. It goes like this:

  • Although the Word can bring a new spiritual life to birth and visibility, it can never bring about the generation of that new life. God himself must do that, by a direct action of his Spirit within the human soul.
  • We can preach, teach, persuade and print until we are blue in the face, but nothing will get done unless the Lord himself accompanies the Word. All men and women are spiritually dead, and will remain so for ever, unless the Lord brings them to life.
  • It is not enough then to sow the Word, making its meaning plain while we do so. We must have dealings with God, pleading with him to do what only he can do, that is, to work by direct action within people’s souls.

What will be the effect of such a Biblical state of mind?

Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find preachers who ‘pray through’—men who strive and agonise and prevail in prayer, until the Lord accompanies their preaching in an obvious way.

  • Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find crowded prayer meetings filled with believers who storm the throne of grace, determined that by sheer importunity they will persuade God to accompany the word to be preached.
  • Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find gatherings of Christians beseeching the Lord to pour out his Spirit in awakening power. Of course you will! They understand all too well that no spiritual work will get done anywhere, however much sowing takes place, unless the Lord himself changes rebellious hearts and gives to them spiritual life and appetite.
  • But the biblical mind-set does not rule. Most British preachers study more than they pray. Countless believers do not go regularly to church prayer-meetings, or, if they do, fail to plead with God for his blessing upon the preaching. Prayer for revival has almost left us. The error of mediate regeneration is slowly but surely strangling us, and things will go from bad to worse unless we repent.

Stuart is not saying anything new. The 1689 Confession of Faith contains a chapter on the gospel and its gracious extent. The fourth paragraph, in its usual pithy and dense fashion, makes the same point as Stuart, which I give in a slightly modernised format:

The gospel is the only outward [external] means of revealing Christ and saving grace, and, as such, is fully sufficient for this purpose. However, in order that men who are dead in trespasses may be born again, quickened or regenerated, there is also necessary an effectual, insuperable [irresistible] work of the Holy Spirit upon the whole soul to produce in them a new spiritual life.8 Without this, no other means will accomplish their conversion unto God.9

8 Ps 110.3; 1Cor 2.14; Eph 1.19-20  9 Jn 6.44; 2Cor 4.4, 6

I feel the charge of spending more time bending over a commentary than bending my knees in prayer. I see all around me men and women who have heard and are hearing the truth as it is in Jesus without any spiritual comprehension of that truth, and I see the desperate necessity of a direct work of God’s Spirit upon their hearts if they are to believe. They are, many of them, competent, intelligent professionals, some eminent in their spheres, but they cannot see the truth. They never will, unless the Holy Spirit opens their blind eyes.

The story is told of how William Wilberforce once took William Pitt, Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister, a man of intellectual penetration and brilliance, to hear Richard Cecil, an evangelical minister of the gospel with a reputation for sweetness and clarity. As the brilliant Pitt came out of the church, having heard the gospel plainly and powerfully declared, he blinked in the sunlight. “You know, Wilberforce,” he said, “I have not the slightest idea what that man has been talking about.” What was missing? The blessing of spiritual enlightenment for which Wilberforce had been praying, a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit enabling even the most humanly brilliant of men to grasp the simple truth of the good news in Jesus Christ. Truly, the kingdom advances “’Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zec 4.6).

Let us not, then, fall into the sterilising error of mediate regeneration, but pray for the Spirit powerfully and savingly to accompany the Word preached.

Continuation, cessation, and completion again

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Phil Johnson, with his usual plainness of speech, responds to a recent surge in contacts wanting to argue about the present work of the Spirit of Christ.  He sits where the rubber meets the road and watches to see just how much wheel makes contact with the tarmac with regard to some of the claims made, especially with regard to the alleged readiness and capacity of churches in ‘the East’ to enjoy miracles beyond the ken of ‘the West.’  Good, robust stuff.

Update: There’s more.  Someone took issue with Phil’s call for discernment and he has answered them.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 4 August 2009 at 09:43

“Critiquing” the sermon

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I am reminded by this story of the burden upon parents when speaking of the sermons they have heard in the presence of their children (referring both to the sermon and the speaking):

A pious lady once left a church…in company with her husband, who was not [a believer]. She was a woman of unusual vivacity, with a keen perception of the ludicrous, and often playfully sarcastic. As they walked along toward home she began to make some amusing and spicy comments on the sermon, which a stranger, a man of very ordinary talents and awkward manner, had preached that morning in the absence of their pastor. After running on in…sportive criticism for some time, surprised at the profound silence of her husband, she turned and looked up in his face. He was in tears. That sermon had sent an arrow of conviction to his heart! What must have been the anguish of conscience-stricken wife, thus arrested in the act of ridiculing a discourse which had been the means of awakening the anxiety of her unconverted husband.  (Quoted from “The Central Presbyterian” in William James Hoge’s Blind Bartimaeus and His Great Physician [London: T. Woolmer, 1881] pp. 79-80)

I have read or heard several preachers employ such illustrations, and they never fail to bite into my soul, both as a preacher who longs to do good, and as one who has himself been guilty of such an attitude, sometimes employing the smoke-cloud of pretended sanctity to silence the voice of conscience.

The fact is, the most stylistically-rotten sermon in human terms, if it contains the truth of God’s gospel, can be employed by the Holy Spirit to awaken, convict, and convert a sinner.  I mourn over how many of the Spirit’s arrows of truth have been drawn out of the souls of men, women, and children, by sarcastic, disaffected, angry hearers, many of whom, in all sincerity, earnestly desire the salvation of those from whose hearts they are brushing off the gospel seed.

HT: Cal.vini.st.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 6 July 2009 at 16:49

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Grieving the Holy Spirit

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charles-haddon-spurgeon-12-preachingThere are few more important questions for a Christian to answer than this: “How may we grieve the Spirit?”  Charles Spurgeon answers the question with his usual penetrating insight into the mind of God and his regular piercing application to the heart of man.

I come now to the third part of my discourse, namely, THE GRIEVING OF THE SPIRIT, How may we grieve him, – what will be the sad result of grieving him – if we have grieved him, how may we bring him back again? How may we grieve the Spirit? I am now, mark you, speaking of those who love the Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God is in your heart, and it is very, very easy indeed to grieve him. Sin is as easy as it is wicked. You may grieve him by impure thoughts. He cannot bear sin. If you indulge in lascivious expressions, or if even you allow imagination to doat upon any lascivious act, or if your heart goes after covetousness, if you set your heart upon anything that is evil, the Spirit of God will be grieved, for thus I hear him speaking of himself. “I love this man, I want to have his heart, and yet he is entertaining these filthy lusts. His thoughts, instead of running after me, and after Christ, and after the Father, are running after the temptations that are in the world through lust.” And then his Spirit is grieved. He sorrows in his soul because he knows what sorrow these things must bring to our souls. We grieve him yet more if we indulge in outward acts of sin. Then is he sometimes so grieved that he takes his flight for a season, for the dove will not dwell in our hearts if we take loathsome carrion in there. A cleanly being is the dove, and we must not strew the place which the dove frequents with filth and mire, if we do he will fly elsewhere. If we commit sin, if we openly bring disgrace upon our religion, if we tempt others to go into iniquity by our evil example, it is not long before the Holy Spirit will begin to grieve. Again, if we neglect prayer, if our closet door is cob-webbed, if we forget to read the Scriptures, if the leaves of our Bible are almost stuck together by neglect, if we never seek to do any good in the world, if we live merely for ourselves and not to Christ, then the Holy Spirit will be grieved, for thus he saith, “They have forsaken me, they have left the fountain of waters, they have hewn unto themselves broken cisterns.” I think I now see the Spirit of God grieving, when you are sitting down to read a novel and there is your Bible unread. Perhaps you take down some book of travels, and you forget that you have got a more precious book of travels in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the story of your blessed Lord and Master. You have no time for prayer, but the Spirit sees you very active about worldly things, and having many hours to spare for relaxation and amusement. And then he is grieved because he sees that you love worldly things better than you love him. His spirit is grieved within him; take care that he does not go away from you, for it will be a pitiful thing for you if he leaves you to yourself. Again, ingratitude tends to grieve him. Nothing cuts a man to the heart more, than after having done his utmost for another, he turns round and repays him with ingratitude or insult. If we do not want to be thanked, at least we do love to know that there is thankfulness in the heart upon which we have conferred a boon, and when the Holy Spirit looks into our soul and sees little love to Christ, no gratitude to him for all he has done for us, then is he grieved.

Again, the Holy Spirit is exceedingly grieved by our unbelief. When we distrust the promise he bath given and applied, when we doubt the power or the affection of our blessed Lord. then the Spirit saith within himself – “They doubt my fidelity, they distrust my power, they say Jesus is not able to save unto the uttermost;” thus again is the Spirit grieved. Oh, I wish the Spirit had an advocate here this morning, that could speak in better terms than I can. I have a theme that overmasters me, I seem to grieve for him; but I cannot make you grieve, nor tell out the grief I feel. In my own soul I keep saying, “Oh, this is just what you have done – you have grieved him.” Let me make a full and frank confession even before you all. I know that too often, I as well as you have grieved the Holy Spirit. Much within us has made that sacred dove to mourn, and my marvel is, that he has not taken his flight from us and left us utterly to ourselves.

Now suppose the Holy Spirit is grieved, what is the effect produced upon us? When the Spirit is grieved first, he bears with us. He is grieved again and again, and again and again, and still he bears with it all. But at last, his grief becomes so excessive, that he says, “I will suspend my operations; I will begone; I will leave life behind me, but my own actual presence I will take away.” And when the Spirit of God goes away from the soul and suspends all his operations what a miserable state we are in. He suspends his instructions; we read the word, we cannot understand it; we go to our commentaries, they cannot tell us the meaning; we fall on our knees and ask to be taught, but we get no answer, we learn nothing. He suspends his comfort; we used to dance, like David before the ark, and now we sit like Job in the ash-pit, and scrape our ulcers with a potsherd. There was a time when his candle shone round about us, but now he is gone; he has left us in the blackness of darkness. Now, he takes from us all spiritual power. Once we could do all things; now we can do nothing. We could slay the Philistines, and lay them heaps upon heaps, but now Delilah can deceive us, and our eyes are put out and we are made to grind in the mill. We go preaching, and there is no pleasure in preaching, and no good follows it. We go to our tract distributing, and our Sunday-school, we might almost as well be at home. There is the machinery there, but there is no love. There is the intention to do good, or perhaps not even that, but alas! there is no power to accomplish the intention. The Lord has withdrawn himself, his light, his joy, his comfort, his spiritual power, all are gone. And then all our graces flag. Our graces are much like the flower called the Hydrangia, when it has plenty of water it blooms, but as soon as moisture fails, the leaves drop down at once. And so when the Spirit goes away, faith shuts up its flowers; no perfume is exhaled. Then the fruit of our love begins to rot and drops from the tree; then the sweet buds of our hope become frostbitten, and they die. Oh, what a sad thing it is to lose the Spirit. Have you never, my brethren, been on your knees and have been conscious that the Spirit of God was not with you, and what awful work it has been to groan, and cry, and sigh, and yet go away again, and no light to shine upon the promises, not so much as a ray of light through the chink of the dungeon. All forsaken, forgotten, and forlorn, you are almost driven to despair. You sing with Cowper:-

“What peaceful hours I once enjoyed,
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.

Return, thou sacred dove, return,
Sweet messenger of rest,
I hate the sins that made thee mourn,
And drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from its throne,
And worship only thee.”

Ah! sad enough it is to have the Spirit drawn from us. But, my brethren, I am about to say something with the utmost charity, which, perhaps, may look severe, but, nevertheless, I must say it. The churches of the present day are very much in the position of those who have grieved the Spirit of God; for the Spirit deals with churches just as it does with individuals. Of these late years how little has God wrought in the midst of his churches. Throughout England, at least some four or five years ago, an almost universal torpor had fallen upon the visible body of Christ. There was a little action, but it was spasmodic; there was no real vitality. Oh! how few sinners were brought to Christ, how empty had our places of worship become; our prayer-meetings were dwindling away to nothing, and our church meetings were mere matters of farce. You know right well that this is the case with many London churches to this day; and there be some that do not mourn about it. They go up to their accustomed place, and the minister prays, and the people either sleep with their eyes or else with their hearts, and they go out, and there is never a soul saved. The pool of baptism is seldom stirred; but the saddest part of all is this, the churches are willing to have it so. They are not earnest to get a revival of religion. We have been doing something, the church at large has been doing something. I will not just now put my finger upon what the sin is, but there has been something done which has driven the Spirit of God from us. He is grieved, and he is gone. He is present with us here, I thank his name, he is still visible in our midst. He has not left us. Though we have been as unworthy as others, yet has he given us a long outpouring of his presence. These five years or more, we have had a revival which is not to be exceeded by any revival upon the face of the earth. Without cries or shoutings, without fallings down or swooning, steadily God adds to this church numbers upon numbers, so that your minister’s heart is ready to break with very joy when he thinks how manifestly the Spirit of God is with us. But brethren, we must not be content with this, we want to see the Spirit poured out on all churches. Look at the great gatherings that there were in St. Paul’s, and Westminster Abbey, and Exeter Hall, and other places, how was it that no good was done, or so very little? I have watched with anxious eye, and I have never from that day forth heard but of one conversion, and that in St. James’ Hall, from all these cervices. Strange it seems. The blessing may have come in larger measure than we know, but not in so large a measure as we might have expected, if the Spirit of God had been present with all the ministers. Oh would that we may live to see greater things than we have ever seen yet. Go home to your houses, humble yourselves before God, ye members of Christ’s church, and cry aloud that he will visit his church, and that he would open the windows of heaven and pour out his grace upon his thirsty hill of Zion, that nations may be born in a day, that sinners may be saved by thousands – that Zion may travail and may bring forth children. Oh! there are signs and tokens of a coming revival. We have heard but lately of a good work among the Ragged School boys of St. Giles’s, and our soul has been glad on account of that; and the news from Ireland comes to us like good tidings, not from a far country, but from a sister province of the kingdom. Let us cry aloud to the Holy Spirit, who is certainly grieved with his church, and let us purge our churches of everything that is contrary to his Word and to sound doctrine, and then the Spirit will return, and his power shall be manifest.

And now, in conclusion, there may be some of you here who have lost the visible presence of Christ with you; who have in fact so grieved the Spirit that he has gone. It is a mercy for you to know that the Spirit of God never leaves his people finally; he leaves them for chastisement, but not for damnation. He sometimes leaves them that they may get good by knowing their own weakness, but he will not leave them finally to perish. Are you in a state of backsliding, declension, and coldness? Hearken to me for a moment, and God bless the words. Brother, stay not a moment in a condition so perilous; be not easy for a single second in the absence of the Holy Ghost. I beseech you use every means by which that Spirit may be brought back to you. Once more, let me tell you distinctly what the means are. Search out for the sin that has grieved the Spirit, give it up, slay that sin upon the spot; repent with tears and sighs; continue in prayer, and never rest satisfied until the Holy Ghost comes back to you. Frequent an earnest ministry, get much with earnest saints, but above all, be much in prayer to God, and let your daily cry be, “Return, return, O Holy Spirit return, and dwell in my soul.” Oh, I beseech you be not content till that prayer is heard, for you have become weak as water, and faint and empty while the Spirit has been away from you. Oh! it may be there are same here this morning with whom the Spirit has been striving during the past week. Oh yield to him, resist him not; grieve him not, but yield to him. Is he saying to you now “Turn to Christ?” Listen to him, obey him, he moves you. Oh I beseech you do not despise him. Have you resisted him many a time, then take care you do not again, for there may come a last time when the Spirit may say, “I will go unto my rest, I will not return unto him, the ground is accursed, it shall be given up to barrenness.” Oh! hear the word of the gospel, ere ye separate, for the Spirit speaketh effectually to you now in this short sentence – “Repent and be converted everyone of you, that your sins may be blotted out when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord,’’ and hear this solemn sentence, “He that believeth in the Lord Jesus and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” May the Lord grant that we may not grieve the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 29 June 2009 at 20:11

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