The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Sibbes

Review: “Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers”

with 23 comments

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Dane C. Ortlund
Crossway, 2020
224pp., hardback, $19.99

ISBN 978-1-4335-6613-4

Some assured me that it was the greatest book they had read in years. Others warned me that it was profoundly dangerous. Reviewers have largely fallen over themselves to commend it. It is a topic which I need to grasp personally and pastorally. So I took it up and read it. The book is from Dane Ortlund, is called Gentle and Lowly, and is—more or less—an attempt to rework Goodwin on the heart of Christ (available as a Puritan Paperback from the Banner of Truth) for a modern audience, with primary assistance from Sibbes, Owen, Flavel, and Bunyan, and occasional contributions from Edwards, Warfield, and one or two others.

In style, it is interesting, at times combining Blairite sentence fragments with complex and lengthy sentences that would make a Puritan blush. It is generally accessible, but some of those heavier sentences are like steamrollers. I wonder if people are so persuaded that the seventeenth-century authors are unreadable that they never bother finding out if they are at least as clear as some of our more modern writers? That is true, not just of Ortlund’s style, but also in his substance.

So what of the substance? ‘This book,’ says the author, ‘is written for the discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty.’ Its message is ‘that we tend to project our natural expectations about who God is onto [sic] him instead of fighting to let the Bible surprise us into what God himself says’ (13, 155). If the message so stated seems to fall a little short of the target audience, then we need to dig a little deeper.

Ortlund is addressing a genuine and proper pastoral concern, and one which may well be more pressing in his circles than in those of some readers. Most pastors will recognise the malady when he writes that ‘many of us tend to believe [that God’s love in Christ] is a love infected with disappointment’ (189). Ministers wrestle with men and women, believers and otherwise, persuaded that they are utterly unloveable and entirely beyond love. In part, like Ortlund, I am persuaded that this probably reflects a failure properly to appreciate and appropriate the incomparable depths of God’s love toward us in Christ Jesus, and—perhaps, therefore—further reflects a fear of preaching the heart of Christ in all its fulness of love. After all, what if people got the wrong impression and thought that they could sin and get away with it? But, on the other hand, what if people concluded that, because they had sinned, they were helplessly and hopelessly done for, because Christ would quickly become frustrated with us and leave us to our own wretched devices? It may be that Ortlund is conscious of an excessive intellectualism in his own circles, a technical grasp of what Christ is and does without an experimental acquaintance with our Lord’s heart toward us that spills over in our lives and from our lips. Whatever the case, he is quite right to quote Jeremiah 31:20 about the yearning of God’s heart, and challenge us, ‘Does your doctrine of God have room for him speaking like that?’ (164).

In the course of the book there are moments of penetrating insight into the Scriptures (such as the developed parallel between God’s self-revelation to Moses on the mountain and the actions of our Lord Jesus with his disciples), or points at which his apposite quotation of the Puritans, or communication of their sense, leaves the heart singing.

The book as a whole consists of twenty-three reasonably brief chapters, with an introduction and an epilogue. It concentrates more on the character of Christ, although his nature as the God-man is used to elaborate on the depths and demonstrations of his heart toward us. While the first chapter picks up the language of Matthew 11:29, which supplies the title, every chapter takes a verse, or more often a phrase, as its point of departure. The author wants us to understand the depths of Christ’s sympathy for and with sinners, his readiness to receive the penitent wanderer returning home, his patience and gentleness with his erring people, his intercession and advocacy for us in his glory, his perfect emotions in his dealings with us, his persevering affection, and the way in which his heart beats in time with the Father and the Spirit, revealing the Father’s heart and exemplified in the Spirit’s presence and operations. Ortlund labours constantly to overcome our sinful suspicions of the Lord, the twisted pride that assumes we are actually too bad to be saved, or the fear that we have messed up and have put ourselves if not beyond the power then perhaps beyond the patience of a loving Saviour. Some chapters rely more heavily on his source material. Goodwin ties the whole together, but specific chapters owe more or less to other authors, and one or two—such as the chapter on the emotional life of our Lord—are largely summaries of longer pieces by older authors.

As a whole, the theme is wonderfully sweet and absolutely vital. Ortlund’s emphases are sadly missing in too many churches. (It is worth remembering that not everything that he sees as missing has been or is being missed in every church and by every preacher.) For many a battered and bruised soul, either wondering if God could ever love them or keep loving them, there is much truth here to instruct and to comfort, truth presented with a necessarily emphatic edge. Sinners coming to Christ for the first time need not only to be persuaded of their own emptiness and weakness, but also persuaded that the Redeemer is not only absolutely able but eminently willing to save them—he delights to glorify God in receiving the most wretched of sinners. Further, saints need to enter ever more fully into the depths of Christ’s love, never despairing of him and therefore over themselves, but confident (without carelessness) that this fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness will ever be accessible to them, that their Lord and Saviour is more willing to forgive their sins than they might be to come to him for forgiveness. It is a truth that is intended to draw us to Christ and keep us near Christ, and should we ever drift away from him, to bring us back, more fully persuaded of his abounding and enduring love.

So persuaded am I of the need for more such preaching and teaching that I am borderline desperate to be able to commend this book without reservation as a remedy for some of the spiritual ills that afflict far too many doctrinally-sound but experientially-shrivelled Christians and congregations.

I cannot do that. I cannot commend it without reservation, despite my appreciation of the overarching thrust and intent, because I have three particular areas of significant concern. The first has to do with the overstatements that unbalance the book, including some false absolutes and false dichotomies; the second has to do with what seem to be certain subtle misrepresentations or reworkings of the Puritans and their emphases; the third has to do with a lack of clarity in theology proper and Christology.

With regard to overstatement, I mean a tendency—all too frequent both in books and pulpits—to make a point by absolutising one’s statement, or by seeking to throw truth into sharpest relief by setting it in contrast to other statements. This is proper when the other statements are false, but when it leads to the presentation of false absolutes or false dichotomies it undoes itself. I fundamentally agree with Dr Ortlund when he asserts that ‘it is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be overcelebrated, made too much of, exaggerated’ (29, original emphasis). That does not in itself remove the danger of subtly misrepresenting Christ and his heart, even with the best of intentions. I am not sufficiently familiar with Dr Ortlund’s writings to know whether or not other books or articles offer further perspectives that together provide a more complete and balanced presentation of the points he makes here. Neither am I demanding a constant stream of deadening nuance, in which every writer or preacher must identify the seventeen things he does not mean before he says what he does. If we deal every absolute statement the death of a thousand qualifying cuts we are likely to undo our usefulness. That does not, though, suspend the duty for careful precision in the statements themselves. I would not try to cripple any communicator of truth, but we are most free when truly precise, working within the carefully-defined limits of our whole theology and the analogy of Scripture. There are moments at which I think Dr Ortlund either goes beyond himself in his understandable enthusiasm, or fails to be as careful as he might need to be when dealing with some details. Virtuosity is still jarring when in the wrong key.

Lest I seem to tilt at windmills, let me offer a concrete example from the opening lines of Chapter 20: “There are two ways to live the Christian life. You can live it either for the heart of Christ or from the heart of Christ. You can live for the smile of God or from it. For a new identity as a son or daughter of God or from it. For your union with Christ or from it.” On the surface it reads well, and sounds deeply ‘spiritual.’ But put those phrases in parallel and there are some category confusions: are the heart of Christ, the smile of God, a new identity, and union with Christ all precisely identical under all circumstances? What do the prepositions ‘for’ and ‘from’ mean in connection with those particular phrases? Does it make any difference if you are already a believer or not? Ortlund makes clear he is talking about the Christian life. So, for example, if you had asked the apostle Paul whether or not he first obtains union with Christ and a new life by his own efforts, he would have denied it from his soul. However, had you asked Paul if, as a Christian, he lived for the smile of God or from it, he would cheerfully have answered, “Yes!” (based on 2 Corinthians 5:9–11, Galatians 2:17–21, and Philippians 3:7–14, to take three prominent examples). Paul might also have insisted, using careful language, that—having begun in the Spirit, but not now being made perfect by the flesh (Gal 3:3)—we nevertheless go on demonstrating our union with Christ and enjoying the smile of our heavenly Father by way of a life of principled obedience.

On another occasion, in order to make a point, Ortlund insists that “justification is largely a doctrine about what Christ has done in the past, rooted centrally in his death and resurrection” (78), quoting the first half of Romans 5:1, emphasising thus: “we have been justified” (ESV). However, the whole verse reads tells us that since we have been justified by faith, we have a thoroughly present and enduring peace with God as justified men and women, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Ortlund’s characterisation of justification allows him then to insist that ‘intercession is the constant hitting “refresh” of our justification in the court of heaven’ (80). It is not that all this is entirely wrong; it is, though, unbalanced or incomplete in its presentation. Such overstatements can become unhelpful. Should we insist that ‘the Christian life is simply the process of bringing my sense of self … into alignment with the more fundamental truth’ of how Christ feels about us (187)? If I make that my working definition of the Christian life I think I am likely to leave people confused and misdirected.

This isolation of justification comes out in another curious way, and in another direction. Anyone who reads the mainstream Puritans will appreciate their emphasis on the application of truth to the heart. There is distinction but no distance, let alone divorce, between the elements of their soteriology. But, in his epilogue, Ortlund hammers home that his book is about the heart of Christ and of God, and then asks and answers the question, ‘But what are we to do with this? The main answer is, nothing.’ According to Ortlund, to ask, ‘Now how do I apply this to my life?’ would be ‘a trivialization of the point of this study. If an Eskimo wins a vacation to a sunny place, he doesn’t arrive in his hotel room, step out onto the balcony, and wonder how to apply that to his life. He just enjoys it. He just basks.’ The only thing we need to do is go to Jesus, and ‘all that means is, open yourself up to him. Let him love you. The Christian life boils down to two steps: 1. Go to Jesus. 2. See #1.’ All of this is supported with a quotation from Goodwin that, slightly disingenuously, does not actually come from the book, The Heart of Christ. What Ortlund does not say is that Goodwin actually finishes his work on Christ’s heart with four uses (the Puritan language of application). I acknowledge that this is slightly shoddy from Goodwin; if he were on form, we might expect a good forty or so! Also, taking into account the applications and exhortations sown by Goodwin throughout the whole, let us note that it is not just unlike the Puritans, but unlike Goodwin himself, to suggest that our only response is to bask in this truth. Goodwin, in keeping with the emphasis of the best of Puritanism, includes stirring exhortations alongside sweet encouragements. His third use is that, ‘As the doctrine delivered is a comfort, so the greatest motive against sin and persuasive unto obedience, to consider that Christ’s heart, if it be not afflicted with—and how far it may suffer with us we know not—yet for certain hath less joy in us, as we are more or less sinful, or obedient’ (Goodwin, 4:150). At this point you might appreciate why Ortlund sometimes paraphrases Goodwin, so let me do the same. Goodwin is simply pressing home the fact that Christ grieves over our sin and rejoices over our obedience, and that should make a difference to our pursuit of godliness. ‘Take this,’ says Goodwin, ‘as one incentive to obedience, that if he retained the same heart and mind for mercy towards you which he had here on earth, then to answer his love, endeavour you to have the same heart towards him on earth which you hope to have in heaven.’ The proper response to Christ’s heart is not simply basking in his love, but also responding to it with a love of our own that manifests itself in cheerful obedience.

Sometimes, Ortlund simply needs to be more careful with his language. For example, he asks, ‘Do you know what Jesus does with those who squander his mercy? He pours out more mercy. God is rich in mercy. That’s the whole point’ (179). One understands what he is trying to say, but there will be many on the day of judgment who are cast into the Pit precisely because they have squandered (recklessly wasted and cast away) the real and offered mercies of the Lord Jesus. Such imprecision opens the door to potentially dangerous misunderstandings.

Such examples could be repeated several times over. Many such sweeping statements sound clever and are catchy. Digging deeper, though, one finds that they are not properly compelling, and some effectively downplay other necessary or complementary emphases. All this is fine when we are carried along on the wave, less satisfying should we be only temporarily lifted up by the froth. While we do want people to grasp the heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers, that must be a well-grounded and accurate grasp. Overstatement for effect will ultimately hinder or even cripple our efforts to communicate the truth.

This concern bleeds, second, into the way in which Ortlund handles and riffs off the Puritans and others. To be fair, his selection of their quotations is typically judicious, and there are several moments at which one reads a few lines from Goodwin or Bunyan and wants to shout, ‘Nailed it!’ When our author gets it right, he often gets it delightfully right (aspects of his treatment of Warfield on the emotional life of our Lord, for example). However, as we have said, he is making a selection, and selection is often, by definition, interpretation. Sometimes Ortlund takes it upon himself to explain or develop what these other authors have said. In doing so, he seems sometimes to leave out important elements, or to go beyond his sources, or to rephrase them to say something slightly more, less or different. What you have here is essentially Goodwin mediated by Ortlund, not unlike the way in which many read Edwards as mediated by Piper. There is a selective emphasis that necessarily reflects the convictions and priorities of the mediator, and may—inadvertently or otherwise—skew the force of the original to some extent. As so often, it is important to listen to what is not being said, as well as the things that are being said. See, for example, the comments above about the way in which Goodwin applies these truths to God’s people, which is largely missing from Ortlund’s treatment.

Some of this is a matter of vocabulary. Ortlund tends to default to the language of love for the disposition of Christ toward us. It becomes a catch-all cognate for the disposition and all the affections of Christ as they are manifested towards us. While that is sometimes equally true of the Puritans he quotes, they are typically a little more precise. For example, even in the quotations he selects, the Puritans upon whom he relies often use the notions of pity or mercy not as simple synonyms for love, but as functions of love, love responding in certain ways to certain situations. Would it be better, rather than simply to say that Christ loves us all the more, the more we sin, to say that—because of the great love with which he loves us—our sin only draws out the more pity and mercy from his loving heart? Ortlund often hits that sweet spot, as when he assures us that ‘as [God’s] love rises, mercy descends. Great love fills his heart; rich mercy flows out of his heart’ (174). On other occasions, one wonders if a more careful definition of love and its manifestations might have been helpful, rather than assuming that we all instinctively grasp what love is and ought to be, and how it ought to act.

This leaves us sometimes reading Ortlund’s elucidation of Puritan teaching and finding it less clear or crisp than the Puritans themselves. At one or two points he lacks the happy ruthlessness of Puritan logic or precision of language, and, on occasion, the consistent and comprehensive grasp of truth that keeps them from going too far or not far enough in making a certain point. To be fair, there are times when Goodwin and company make assertions that take the breath away, and leave you feeling as if you are teetering on the edge of heresy, so bold are their declarations of the readiness of Christ to receive and go on receiving sinners. However, I do not recall reading the men and works that Ortlund quotes with quite so many questions or niggles. Again, I am not pushing for endless qualification (if that were so, this book would be three times as long as the weightiest Puritan tome!), but for precision and carefulness in the foundational statements. Perhaps I am just more conscious of the issues of the modern day, better attuned to the current issues and the way they are framed, but I don’t recall raising these issues with Goodwin, Owen, Sibbes, or Bunyan. These men seemed better able to address the ‘yes, buts’ or pre-empt the ‘what ifs’ of their magisterial declarations. Some of that breadth and balance is missing in Ortlund’s recapitulation of Goodwin.

Finally, there is the concern of his theology proper and his Christology. I do not envy Ortlund here, and I am deeply conscious that I am picking holes in a game effort to accomplish something at which I constantly fail. He is sailing deep waters, and makes a good fist of seeking to take account of the fact that he cannot deal with the incarnate Son without addressing the persons of the Father and the Spirit, and that the incarnate Son himself is indeed the God-man, two distinct natures in one person forever. I applaud the preacher or writer who manages a lifetime of addressing such things without a moment’s deviation or confusion!

Ortlund is himself deeply aware of that danger. He reminds us that J. I. Packer ‘once wrote that “a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” This is an especially sensitive point when we are talking about the Bible’s revelation of Christ’ (28). Shortly after, he warns that ‘we should beware a one-dimensional portrait of Christ that elevates one [dimension] to the neglect of others’ (35). Awareness of the trap does not prevent one slipping into it, if not quite becoming entirely caught up in it. Again, some of this may be a function of Ortlund’s enthusiasm, his working assumption that some things cannot be over-exaggerated. He is also trying to push back at some common misconceptions, such as the sense of some believers that ‘the Son of God came down from heaven in incarnate form, spent three decades or so as a human, and then returned to heaven to revert back to his preincarnate state’ (103). To be fair, across the book there are attempts to ensure that a properly scriptural balance is maintained, but balance is not necessarily the same as correctness and correction.

As the book’s own title makes plain, the focus is on the heart of Christ. There are, then, particular dangers in setting, or seeming to set, the heart of the person of the Son apart from the other persons of the Godhead, and so potentially disrupting the Trinity, or the heart of Christ-as-God apart from the heart of Christ-as-man, and so potentially disrupting the person of Messiah. There are challenges both in positively presenting all that, and in preventing or countering potential confusion about it.

For some, the difficulty might lie in the fact that Ortlund appears to go quite readily down Rob Lister’s route on anthropopathism (God’s ascription of human affection or emotion to himself as a way of accommodating himself to our understanding in making himself known). Ortlund seems quite dismissive of any attempt to discern between emotions or affections in our speaking of God, and perhaps feels that this book is not the proper place to explore fully the ways in which the God-man has sinless human emotions as well as divine affections (his chapter on Warfield is good in this respect). Again, the book is not a contribution to recent debates on divine impassibility (which Ortlund refers to, in connection with Lister as a helpful resource to ‘explore the way God is both impassible and yet capable of emotion’, in a substantial footnote on page 73). However, it is obviously not an issue that can be side-stepped when dealing with the heart of our Lord. Ortlund takes pains later in the book to make clear that Christ’s heart is not apart from the Father’s, still less against it, in his disposition toward us; this can feel more of a balancing act than a correction. We are still left with a danger at earlier points of not so much dividing as isolating the heart of Christ from the heart of the Father. Confusion on impassibility may lie behind statements such as the assertion that God ‘is—if I can put it this way without questioning his divine perfections—conflicted within himself when he sends affliction into our lives’ (138). Is that the safest way of putting it? Does that qualification keep us clear about whether or not the God of all the earth can be self-conflicted?

Again, Ortlund himself warns against the danger of being carried too far in seeking to go far enough. No preacher would begrudge him a proper enthusiasm, but not at the price of necessary precision. In an attempt to show us something great in Christ, there is that constant danger of presenting a one-dimensional Christ. I am not sure that he always stayed on the right side of that line. There are nuances and qualifications, for example, about Christ’s holy hatred of sin, but perhaps not sufficient, or sufficiently clear, to keep some from concluding that we are free to squander present mercies with the confidence that more mercies will come. In Sinclair Ferguson’s language, we need to preach a whole Christ. We cannot always (ever!) say everything, but we might need to say enough, in context or over time, manifestly to keep from preaching less or other than a whole Christ.

Anyone who raise such concerns needs to be aware of at least two dangers for themselves. The first is that, in attempting to keep from error, we will not state the whole truth with the fulness and freeness of the Scriptures themselves. So fearful might we be of legalism that we become antinomians, so fearful of antinomianism that we become legalists, or seek to counter the one with a dash of the other. In the same vein, men constantly on the lookout for even the most minute error in speaking of divine affections might find themselves unable or even unwilling to give free rein to Scriptural language or proper vent to their own souls in seeking to communicate the sweet wonders of the heart of God in Christ toward his beloved people. We cannot afford to be ashamed of or to draw back from biblical truth presented in biblical language.

To conclude, and without wishing to overstate it myself, I am persuaded that this theme is often and tragically overlooked or undercooked. For whatever reasons, the heart of Christ is too often clouded to us and by us. Lost sinners need to be confident that a saving Christ will receive them with infinite readiness and tenderness. Christians need to know Christ’s disposition of love toward us, and to feel it, and to understand the ways in which it is manifested toward us. Because of my delight in the topic, I wanted to love this book, and at points I did. Nevertheless, I too often felt I needed subtly, internally, to rework a phrase, to introduce a nuance, to press further a point, or to adjust an assertion. I still think that for some whose spiritual diet has been lacking this emphasis, Gentle and Lowly could be like a cup of cold water to the soul. For some who preach a known Christ competently, this book might help to preach a felt one earnestly. We need all that is true in this book. Even so, I think there is a danger that it might not so much correct certain imbalances as introduce different ones. I understand why some recommended it with almost no reserve, while some were so reserved they felt that they could not recommend it. That might depend on their circumstances and the people to whom they minister. I am quite confident that, if I preached Christ in all his fulness, I might eventually be accused both of antinomianism and legalism, depending on which truth I happen to be emphasising. That is why a bit more Puritan precision without any loss of Puritan passion (emotion? affection?) would be welcome. That carefulness needs to become second nature to the theologian, so that our language more instinctively, regularly and carefully reflects the whole truth of the whole Christ. I write all this not to be wilfully contrarian, or simply pernickety, but because I think that there are not so much flaws in the diamond itself, but rather genuine concerns about its presentation.

Much good will have been done if this book drives us back to the Puritans. In many modern editions, the Puritans are at least as accessible as this book, or become so for those willing to put in a little effort. Those Puritans also tend to be, I think, more complete and careful. For many, one of the better responses to this book will be to read Goodwin for themselves. However, more will have been done if Gentle and Lowly, with the men upon whose shoulders it stands, drive us back to our Bibles to search out and see these things in Christ for ourselves. If nothing else, it should remind us of the need to grasp these truths in our souls, and to tell them to others, even if we believe that we could and should tell them better. The great tragedy would be to conclude that we have nothing to learn in this matter. If so, it might either be because we have advanced beyond many of our contemporaries in our exceeding zeal for the honour of Christ and the good of his people, or—more likely—because we have not grasped the greatness of this theme, the glory of God revealed in it, or the good that comes to God’s people from a firmer grasp on the loving heart of the Altogether Lovely One.

The sweet work of effectual calling

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As the minister speaks to the ear, Christ speaks, opens, and unlocks the heart at the same time; and gives it power to open, not from itself, but from Christ…. The manner of working of the reasonable creature, is to work freely by a sweet inclination, not by violence. Therefore when he works the work of conversion, he doth it in a sweet manner, though it be mighty for the efficaciousness of it.

Richard Sibbes, “Bowels Opened,” in The Works of Richard Sibbes (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), 2:63.

HT: The Old Guys.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 19 November 2012 at 13:02

The sweet-dropper

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I had a great day yesterday. I headed off to Richmond, dropping off some things and picking up others with the aim of eventually meeting up with Paul Levy, pastor of the International Presbyterian Church in Ealing. It was great to spend an hour or so with Paul catching up with him on life and work. Paul knows almost everyone, it seems, and is, by his own admission, the world’s least discreet man. Actually, what that means is that he is refreshingly and cheerfully honest and straightforward, dismissing me blithely as “one of those mad Independents who actually believes what he says” when the discussion touched on ecclesiology, and giving a forthright opinion on anyone and anything mentioned. Paul blogs with the same bracing lack of forethought and disregard for consequence – with the added bonus of watching a man twirl a nonchalant moustache and pirouette away with cavalier insouciance whenever accosted by the forces of grammar, spelling and punctuation – at Reformation21. He is worth following. I should also point out that – while I cannot say that Paul doesn’t want to look like this – the picture is not of Paul, but of Richard Sibbes, which brings me to my point.

The main reason for heading to Richmond is because Paul had invited me to hear Mike Reeves (Head of Theology at UCCF). I had only read some of Mike’s books (see review), which I thoroughly enjoyed while being slightly peturbed at a couple of points. I was therefore keen to hear Mike in person to get a better sense of his particular approach and emphases. What a joy that was! Mike was speaking at a West London Ministry Afternoon on “The Love of Christ.” Expecting something helpful if slightly generic, I pitched up only to discover that Mike intended to introduce us to a book by Richard Sibbes. Sibbes was highly-regarded among his contemporaries for his gracious and wise counsel, receiving the nickname “the sweet-dropper” for his ability to leave behind a little gospel honey wherever he went and to whomever he spoke.

We learned that the Banner of Truth is shortly to publish a volume of Sibbes entitled The Love of Christ (a Puritan Paperback), a title a little more accessible and less open to misinterpretation than the original, Bowels Opened, which is found in volume two of the excellent Works of Richard Sibbes. Taking this as his starting point, Mike gave us a helpful introduction to Sibbes on the Song of Solomon, pointing us back toward a more Christocentric reading, and inviting much helpful discussion along the way. Apart from the moment when a large spider ran up Mike’s shirt and clustered round him, which was marginally distracting for the hearers and a tad disconcerting for the spider-clad gent, it held our attention and gripped our hearts. I would thoroughly recommend getting The Love of Christ when it is available, and then diving into Sibbes en masse, as it were.

The day ended well, and I headed home, wondering if Levy would succeed in his avowed attempt to turn Reeves away from the errors of Anglicanism, and hoping that both of them would see the light and complete their reformations by becoming Baptists.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 29 September 2011 at 09:16

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

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