He’s Got It Right

John Angell James (1785–1859) was the pastor of Carrs Lane Congregational Church in Birmingham, England for fifty-five years. In 1847, he published An Earnest Ministry: The Want of The Times. Oh, how I wish I could require every pastor to read it.

James’ heart burns for passion in the pulpit. He’s on point with what’s necessary for heralding Christ. He knows that it’s not until the preacher’s heart is right that his sermon will cut straight. Listen to what he says is “the essential qualification” for earnestness in the ministry:

I trust our churches will ever consider piety as the first and most essential qualification in their pastors, for which talents, genius, learning, and eloquence, would and could be no substitutes. It will be a dark and evil day when personal godliness shall be considered as secondary to any other quality in those who serve at the altar of God.

But still there is something else needed in addition to natural talent, to academic training, and even to the most fervent evangelical piety, and that is, intense devotedness. This is the one thing, more than any or all other things, that is lacking in the modern pulpit, and that has been lacking in most ages of the Christian church. The following sentence occurs in a valuable article in a late number of the British Quarterly Review—“No ministry will be really effective, whatever may be its education, which is not a ministry of strong faith, true spirituality, and deep earnestness.” I wish this golden sentence could be inscribed in characters of light over every professor’s chair, over every student’s desk, and over every preacher’s pulpit.

Let us pray for and pursue such devotion.

Preachers as Parents

I’ve been meditating on the various word pictures used of preachers in the Bible. One of my favorites is probably the most-neglected portrait: the preacher as a parent. We know from Paul’s writings that gospel ministers function in a fatherly and motherly way to the congregation. Consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:14–21:

I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?

A text that has often encouraged me through the trials of pastoring has been Galatians 4:19, which says, “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” The pains of spiritual childbirth plague the ministry—at least they should. Our aim is to present every member mature in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:28). Spiritual grow is a marathon, not a sprint. And so, we agonize (see Col. 1:29) as a mother bears children.

Another text we should often remember is Paul’s word in 1 Thessalonians 2:5–12:

For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.  For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

Preachers are spiritual parents to the flock. We are to bring up God’s children in the Lord’s discipline and instruction. Christ has delegated authority to us that we might mold His people into His image.

As with the other word pictures for preaching, there are many sound implications we can make from this reality of the preacher as a parent. Let us focus on the one Paul emphasized: because the preacher is a parent, he must be gentle. Tenderness is the sanctified tone of a gospel ministry.

George Bethune, a preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church in New York, wrote in 1839, “Perhaps no grace is less prayed for, or cultivated less than gentleness. Indeed it is considered rather as belonging to natural disposition or external matters, than as a Christian virtue; and seldom; do we reflect that not to be gentle is sin.” Bethune’s words still ring true one hundred and eighty years later. Let us yearn for God to give us more gentleness in the ministry!

We should also consider Christ on this point (2 Tim. 2:8; Heb. 3:1); . We find Jesus occasionally burst out in rebuke or cry out in correction. His harshest words were always for professing believers full of pride and self-righteousness. But the air in which his ministry moved was that of gentleness. A bruised reed he did not break, a flickering flame he did not quench. It’s why Paul can command in the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 10:1 Paul exhorts them by “the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” This is even what Jesus said of Himself in Matthew 11:29, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.”

Paul is telling us it matters not only that the Lord’s servant proclaims the truth, but also how he preaches the the True One. Will anyone profit long-term from a ministry that tends to be angry and hard? It’s doubtful. We at least have no biblical reason to expect such a ministry will sustain spiritual fruit. But a ministry of gentleness and tenderness has great reason for hope.

A Syllabus for Preaching

The kind leaders at Reformed Theological Seminary—Dallas have asked me to teach Communication 1 this fall. It’s my first run at a practical theology class, and I can’t wait. The homiletical festivities begin tomorrow morning.

The class covers the bare necessities of Christ-exalting preaching. If you’d like a sense of where the course goes, check out the syllabus below.

Here’s a little clip of how we’ll start:

“It is, perhaps, an overbold beginning, but I will venture to say that with its preaching Christianity stands or falls.” So began P.T. Forsyth when he delivered the Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale University in 1907. Trepidation may have constrained Forsyth as he stood in the throes of New England modernity, but we can confidently acquit the Scottish theologian from being “overbold.” He simply read his Bible well.

God’s word tells us the Christian life is, this side of heaven, is lived “by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). In other places, we are told, “Faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17) and “anything that does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Because faith is central, we can declare preaching lies at the center.

Preaching is the ordinary means by which God awakens cold, crusty, and callous hearts to breathe in the grace of faith (Ezek. 37:1–10). Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ to sinners’ bosoms and breasts (Col. 1:28). It is the spiritual sword God uses to assault hell’s gates and ruin Satan’s strongholds (Matt. 16:18). The Sun of Righteousness dawns upon the earth in His heralded word to harden clay hearts and melt icy souls (Mal. 4:2). Preaching convicts, illuminates, rebukes, encourages, and enlivens the soul.

We are thus engaged, over this semester, with the greatest of the great things, the deepest of the deeps, and the highest of the heights: preaching Jesus Christ.

The First Thing to Study

Thomas Murphy (1823–1900) was an Irish-American Presbyterian who pastored Frankford Presbyterian Church from 1848–1885. He trained for the ministry under the brilliant men at Princeton Theological Seminary. The professor that left an indelible mark on Murphy was Archibald Alexander. Murphy especially loved Alexander’s lectures on Pastoral Theology. Murphy took “copious notes” of almost everything he heard Alexander say about “the character, duties and responsibilities of the pastoral office.” Eventually, Murphy turned them into an excellent, yet all-too-neglected 1877 book Pastoral Theology: The Pastor in the Various Duties of His Office.

If you’re in ministry and haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to work through Murphy’s manual. You don’t even have to spend a penny for his thoughts!

A Significant Silence Today

Maybe I’m cynical. Or maybe I’m not listening to the right voices. But I keep asking, “Who today calls for pastoral holiness with the earnestness of Christ and his apostles?” You need only turn to John 15:4–5, 1 Timothy 4:7–16, and 2 Timothy 2:20–21 to see how holiness is the central concern for Christ’s ambassadors.

I assume one reason is that we’ve overemphasized contextualization, entrepreneurial skills, and worldly rhetoric in recent decades. Wondering if God’s word is sufficient God’s word, we’ve baptized cultural practices and imported them into the ministry.

You can also pay attention to the popular platforms of the most popular ministers. Each one has “their thing”: healthy churches, radical missions, confessional theology, and racial reconciliation. These are all good and necessary. But who is the person that is relentlessly and winsomely calling gospel ministers back to the things of first importance: knowing the love of Christ and returning love to Christ?

Perhaps we can’t name such a person because there’s little interest in the priority of piety. Could it be that we’ve cultivated churches that are skeptical about passionate pleas for Christ-centered, Spirit-powered godliness? Perhaps many church members—and church leaders—are more excited about becoming a huge, growing congregation than about hearing Christ from a holy, maturing minister. Yet it’s the latter reality that God has decreed an ordinary means of saving sinners and sanctifying saints (see Rom. 10:17; 1 Tim. 4:15–16).

Let us together begin to trod on the ancient paths.

It Used to Matter

YHWH spoke in Jeremiah 6:16, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’” Give us, I say, the ancient directions that lead to life. Show us, I plead, the old paths that point us to Christ.

Thomas Murphy knows the way. And we should listen carefully.

Chapter two of his Pastoral Theology is titled, “The Pastor in the Closet: The Piety Which is Needful for the Pastoral Office.” His opening salvo about spirituality is tremendous—and needed. Here’s what he says:

It should be laid down as our first principle that eminent piety is the indispensable qualification for the ministry of the gospel. By this is not meant simply a piety the genuineness of which is unquestionable, but a piety the degree of which is above that of ordinary believers. It is meant that there should be a more thorough baptism of the Holy Ghost, a more absolute consecration of all the powers and faculties to the service of God, a more complete conformity to the likeness of the Lord Jesus, a greater familiarity with the mind of the Spirit, a nearer approach to the perfect man in Christ Jesus, in those who take upon them the privileges and the responsibilities of the pastor, than are commonly expected even in true Christians. The pastor should not be satisfied with reaching the general standard of spirituality. He has devoted himself to a high and holy office to which he believes himself called, and hence he has need of a very high tone of piety. As a minister appointed to serve in the sanctuary and wait upon souls, how deep should be his humility. His great aim is to save men, and it will not therefore suffice for him to have merely the ordinary sympathy with the suffering and the lost. He is to be a leader in the spiritual host of God; must he not go before others in spiritual attainments?

Do you think he’s too earnest? Does he demand too much? I think he’s got it quite right.

14 Reasons for Pastoral Piety

This semester, I’m teaching a course on preaching at RTS-Dallas. One of the required textbooks is James Garretson’s Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and The Christian Ministry. The original Princeton men didn’t get everything right, but they got most things right—especially the accent on “vital piety” in ministry. The mandate for personal holiness is all but absent from popular, pastoral discourse these days. If the trend goes unchecked, a ministry of power will be hard to find. I pray the Lord would revive us in ministerial godliness being a chief delight and ambition. It’s why my class begins with a few hours worth of attention to the need for Christ’s preacher to be “a man of God.”

A Nursey of Vital Piety

Samuel Miller famously declared that Princeton Seminary must be “a nursery of vital piety as well as of sound theological learning, and to train up persons for the ministry who shall be lovers as well as defenders of truth as it is in Jesus, friends of revivals of religion, and a blessing to the Church of God.” It was not enough to train students in original languages. Yes, they needed to know Francis Turretin’s definitive and distinctive work. And it surely wasn’t a bad thing that your average student knew how to exegete Scripture in any season. But the founders knew that the Presbyterian church would suffer if her students didn’t expand their hearts’ love for Christ.

So, they pled for personal holiness.

14 Reasons Why It’s Needed

You need only scan the essential writing from the Princeton professors to see how universal was this concern. In one of his pastoral lectures, Archibald Alexander gave fourteen reasons why students should train themselves for godliness.

  1. Some degree of eminence is requisite for our own satisfaction.
  2. The work is so great and sacred, and the consequences so awful, that none will duly feel and act under the responsibilities of the office, but one whose heart is warmed with fervent love to Christ and the souls of men.
  3. The duties of the ministry will never be faithfully performed by any one but he who is deeply under the influence of divine truth. He will become indolent and careless or will sink into discouragement—or will become entangled with worldly engagements.
  4. He will not be able to converse with edification to the people without this.
  5. It is necessary to preserve the minister from ambition and vain glory.
  6. Necessary to make him to speak with confidence of the excellency and comforts of true piety.
  7. Eminent piety is requisite to enable a minister to compose sermons induced with the right spirit. To feed the devotions of the people, etc.
  8. Without a good degree of eminence in piety, the minister’s example will not be savory and consistent. It is necessary to preserve him from sin. He should be higher than all the people in spiritual attainments.
  9. It will greatly increase his influenc.e
  10. Will enable him to bear with patience the persecution of enemies.
  11. It will be better than all rules of rhetoric in the delivery of sermons.
  12. It will make the work of ministry delightful.
  13. Will prepare for sickness and death.
  14. Eminent piety will diffuse a solemn seriousness, over the manners. Gravity, composure of countenance—dignity of demeanor—propriety in every word, look and gesture.

Essential for Faithfulness

As Garretson comments, “Christian graces were essential if men were to prove to be faithful servants of Christ. Fidelity, humility, self-denial, diligence, temperance, and a ‘habitual concern for the welfare of the Church’—these were among the marks of ministerial godliness that would result in a ministry owned and blessed by God.”

A Learned Servant

At last year’s Shepherds’ Conference, Mark Jones preached from Isaiah 50 on the third Servant Song. It’s a model of Christ-exalting exposition. It also throws several (appropriate) punches at pastors. Case in point: “Woe to that man who knows his theological books, but is ignorant of the word of God.”

The Spirit stirred my mind and convicted my heart through Jones’ preaching. May He do the same to yours.

Condemnation is Easier than Consolation

“A sustaining ministry, a gospel ministry, requires more thought more study, more insight than a condemning ministry. A finger-pointing ministry is easy. Moralism is the default setting of our minds. But it takes divine wisdom to understand God’s grace in a new way, so we can sustain weary people. Jesus gave himself fully to that ministry.”

— Ray Ortlund, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, 355.

Publishing Update: A Legacy of Preaching

Hot off the press today is volume two of Zondervan’s A Legacy of Preaching, which is subtitled, “Enlightenment to the Present Day: The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers.”

I wrote the chapter on Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s preaching. My primary editor, Benjamin Forrest, was a joy to work with; I’m pleased with the chapter’s final form. I hope you’ll grab a copy! All the other chapters I’ve seen are edifying and informative.

Publisher’s Description

A Legacy of Preaching, Volume Two–Enlightenment to the Present Day explores the history and development of preaching through a biographical and theological examination of its most important preachers. Instead of teaching the history of preaching from the perspective of movements and eras, each contributor tells the story of a particular preacher in history, allowing these preachers from the past to come alive and instruct us through their lives, theologies, and methods of preaching.

Each chapter introduces readers to a key figure in the history of preaching, followed by an analysis of the theological views that shaped their preaching, their methodology of sermon preparation and delivery, and an appraisal of the significant contributions they have made to the history of preaching. This diverse collection of familiar and lesser-known individuals provides a detailed and fascinating look at what it has meant to communicate the gospel over the past two thousand years. By looking at how the gospel has been communicated over time and across different cultures, pastors, scholars, and homiletics students can enrich their own understanding and practice of preaching for application today.

Volume Two covers the period from the Enlightenment to the present day and profiles thirty-one preachers including Charles Haddon Spurgeon, D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Karl Barth, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Martin Luther King Jr., Billy Graham, and more.

Volume One, available separately, covers the period from the apostles to the Puritans and profiles thirty preachers including Paul, Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield, and more.

Covering a broad range of preaching over the centuries, the two-volume A Legacy of Preaching reference set is the definitive reference for experienced preachers who wish to deeper their own preaching as well as aspiring students who want to learn from the masters of the past.

Ferguson Lectures on Preaching

Dr. Sinclair Ferguson recently gave the John Reed Miller Lectures on Preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. His theme was “Preaching Like Paul?”

I listened to every minute last week while I lay sick in bed. There’s a lifetime of homiletical wisdom for everyone who has ears to hear.

Lecture 1: How It All Came About

Lecture 2: Him We Proclaim

Lecture 3: We Preach Christ Crucified

Lecture 4: On Not Preaching Ourselves

Drs. Ferguson and Keller

Earlier this year, Westminster Theological Seminary awarded Sinclair Ferguson and Tim Keller honorary doctorates. As part of the ceremonies, Peter Lillback hosted a conversation with Ferguson and Keller. The panel is edifying in every way.