Preachers, Know When to Quit!

There are few things more disheartening as a congregant than hearing a forty minute preacher preach for fifty minutes, a thirty minute preacher preach for forty minutes, or a twenty minute preacher preach for thirty minutes.  Somehow, that last ten minutes can weaken and even destroy the impact of all that has been said in the sermon to that point.  There is no virtue in length for the sake of it.  I think I’ve heard two preachers in my entire life who could preach for an hour; and most preachers I know would be much better if they shaved at least five or ten minutes off their typical length.  Get up there, say what you’ve got to say as clearly as you can, and then sit down again.  That’s all that’s necessary.   As Luther says elsewhere in Table Talk (2643a), `I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.’   And, as usual, Luther got it right.

Carl Trueman, “Luther on the Marks of a Good Preacher, II”

Is Thanksgiving Just Another Day?

Is Thanksgiving “just another day” at your house?

If it’s not, it should be.

I know. That sounds backwards. Thanksgiving shouldn’t just be like every other day, you might be thinking. It should be a day of purposeful expressions of gratitude to God for all His blessings to us. Shouldn’t it?

Well, that’s my point. Our prayers should be filled with gratitude on Thanksgiving Day, of course – just like every other day of the year. That is, for God’s people every other day ought to be just like Thanksgiving Day! Do we need a reminder?

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”(1 Thess 5:18, ESV)

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”(Phil 4:6, ESV)

“Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” (Heb 13:15. NKJV)

I don’t know about you, but I need regular (almost daily) reminders that when I open my mouth – God is listening for gratitude, not griping. In fact, growth in the grace of gratitude is one of the clearest evidences that God is changing me to be more like His Son Jesus.

Happy Thanksgiving to you!! And by God’s grace, may your Thanksgiving Day be just like every other day this year – an opportunity to tell God, in the hearing of others, just how thankful you are.

One thing is for sure – I’ll make sure to mention to the Lord just how thankful I am for you. We appreciate your partnership in our ministry!

The Value of Systematic Theology for Defending the Faith

Many people believe that the basis and source of defending the faith is different than that of knowing the faith. That is, they believe that we do systematic theology by appealing to the Scriptures, and we defend our faith by appealing to reason or philosophy (since unbelievers don’t accept the Bible as the Word of God).

The distinctive of the presuppositional (or transcendental) approach to apologetics developed most extensively by Cornelius Van Til is its demand that Scripture be the starting point for all human knowledge, and that it be maintained as such in a believer’s defense of the faith against attacks by unbelievers.

The best apologetic defense will invariably be made by him who knows the system of truth of Scripture best. The fight between Christianity and non-Christianity is, in modern times, no piece-meal affair. It is the life-and-death struggle between two mutually opposed life-and-world views…He who has not been trained in systematic theology will often be at a loss as to how to meet these attacks. He may be quite proficient in warding off the attack as far as details are concerned, but he will forever have to be afraid of new attacks as long as he has never removed the foundation from the enemy’s position.

It should not be forgotten in this connection that the minister’s duty is increasingly that of an apologist for Christianity. The general level of education is higher than it has ever been…If the minister would be able to help his young people, he must be a good apologete, and he cannot be a good apologete unless he is a good systematic theologian.

In conclusion, we should observe that just as a thorough knowledge of the system of truth in the Scripture is the best defense against heresy, so it is also the best help for the propagation of the truth…

And then Van Til starts stepping on toes:

The church will have to return to its erstwhile emphasis upon its teaching function if it is to fulfill its God-given task of bringing the gospel to all men. Its present recourse to jerky evangelism as almost the only method of propaganda is itself an admission of paupery…Revivalists ought to make themselves unnecessary as quickly as possible.

On this last point, Van Til is contrasting the modern evangelical and fundamental church’s tendency to reduce its purpose simply to training for evangelism, and jerky evangelism at that. I believe what he meant by “jerky evangelism” is an approach to evangelism where the message is divorced entirely from the rest of Christian doctrine and is reduced to a “get saved” message, followed by a “here’s how to get people saved” view of the Christian life. He was pleading for a return to a comprehensive instruction in sound doctrine that would provide the foundation for both a deep and strong faith, and a solid foundation for a robust defense of the faith against attacks. As a result, he calls for the swift elimination of revivalists who preach a denuded gospel that is insufficient for apologetics.

The Value of Systematic Theology to Pastors

Pastors are busy. I know; I was one. They hardly have time to prepare their sermons every week while at the same time visiting, counseling, planning, fixing, etc. Ask most pastors what good theology books they’ve read recently and you’ll be greeted by blank stares. Been there, done that. I often felt that I hardly had time to read my Bible most days, let alone anything else.

Yet, looking back now, I realize I was a bit short-sighted. Most of my agony over the text I was going to preach each week came from a lack of input from great minds of the past and present. I was trying to reinvent the wheel with every sermon. Sure, I was reading commentaries, but I wasn’t reading much theology that would provide the substance and nourishment of better preaching. By not reading theology, I was making my sermon prep more difficult.

I am not advocating the reading of just any theology to nourish spiritual life and preaching. There is no virtue in reading dull or poorly-written theologies. Rather, directed reading of good theologies will provide fodder for thought, clarify difficulties in the text, and sometimes even offer a pertinent illustration of the truth the preacher is trying to communicate.

Cornelius Van Til recognized the value of a pastor reading theology:

What is beneficial for the individual believer [studying systematic theology] is also beneficial for the minister and in consequence for the church as a whole. It is sometimes contended that ministers need not be trained in systematic theology if only they know their Bibles. But “Bible-trained” instead of systematically trained preachers frequently preach error. They may mean ever so well and be ever so true to the gospel on certain points; nevertheless, they often preach error…

If we carry this idea one step further, we note that a study of systematic theology will help men to preach theologically. It will help to make men proclaim the whole counsel of God. Many ministers never touch the greater part of the wealth of the revelation of God to man contained in Scripture. But systematics helps ministers to preach the whole counsel of God, and thus to make God central in their work.

The history of the church bears out the claim that God-centered preaching is most valuable to the church of Christ. When the minister has most truly proclaimed the whole counsel of God, the church has flourished spiritually.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. Edited by William Edgar (P&R, 2007), 22-23.

Pastors who study theology do their congregation a great service. Generally their preaching has more substance, and their ideas are drawn from a larger pool of knowledge and exposure than one who does not read. Pastors who do not study theology tend to preach atheological sermons. They may be able to atomistically expound a text, but they will have difficulty connecting the text to the grand redemptive truths that give the texts weighty significance.

Van Til saw a definite connection between the study of systematic theology and the ability to preach the whole counsel of God. If a pastor is not well-versed in theology, he may shy away from Scriptures that his flock needs for growth in grace. Or worse, he may shy away from Scriptures his flock needs for spiritual and doctrinal protection.

The Spiritual Value of Systematic Theology

I’ll never forget the off-hand remark of a long-time member of my home church the first time I returned for a visit after taking the teaching position I now hold. He hadn’t seen me for awhile and didn’t know that I had recently left the pastorate to teach systematic theology in seminary. When I told him that I was now teaching systematic theology, his rather smug reply was, “I didn’t know there was a system to that.”

His reply was not unusual in those church circles. Theology was seen as a positive obstacle to evangelistic fervor and Bible comprehension. Better to just read your Bible, hand out tracts and try to keep all the rules. No need to understand God or Scripture as a unified, comprehensive message revealing God’s glory.

Cornelius Van Til, who was primarily an apologist, understood the tremendous value of theology, not only to the study of the Scriptures, but also to the spiritual vitality of the believer:

If we do not pay attention to the whole of biblical truth as a system, we become doctrinally one-sided, and doctrinal one-sidedness is bound to issue in spiritual one-sidedness. As human beings, we are naturally inclined to be one-sided…

A study of systematic theology will help us to keep and develop our spiritual balance. It enables us to avoid paying attention only to that which, by virtue of our temperament, appeals to us.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. Edited by William Edgar (P&R, 2007), 22.

All Christians ought to be reading systematic theology for their own spiritual growth and sanctification. This won’t happen until pastors model sound theology in their preaching. That is the subject of the next post.

The Importance of 1 Peter 3:15-16 for Apologetics

The text of Scripture that most clearly teaches us about every believer’s responsibility to be involved in apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15-16. In this passage, every believer is commanded to be prepared to “give and answer,” lit. “make a defense” (Greek: apologia) for what he believes. This defense is made through appeal to a “reason,” (Greek: logos) or a logical, rational argument. And the content of the argument is the hope within us (essentially our belief in Christ’s resurrection and return). The rest of the passage proceeds to tell us how to do so: gently, with respect, and supported by a pure life and conscience.

Many believers find such an injunction daunting. Yet, this passage also contains the seeds of encouragement by what it does not command us to do. Greg Bahnsen summarizes the encouragement:

1. This text does not say that believers are supposed to take the initiative to start arrogant arguments with unbelievers, telling them we have all the answers. We do not have to go looking for a fight. Rather, we offer a reasonable defense in answer to those who ask for such from us, whether they do so as an opening challenge to the integrity of God’s Word or as the natural response to our evangelistic witness.

2. This text does not say that believers are responsible to persuade anybody who challenges or questions our faith. We can offer sound reasons to the unbeliever, but we cannot make him subjectively believe those reasons. We can refute the poor argumentation of the unbeliever, but still not persuade him. We can close the mouth of the critic, but only God can open the heart. Only God can regenerate a dead heart and give sight to the blind. This is why apologists should not evaluate their success or adjust their message on the basis of whether the unbeliever finally comes to agree with them or not.

3. This text does not say that defending the faith has a different ultimate authority than does the task of expounding the faith. It is a common  mistake to think that the Scriptures are an adequate basis for our theology, but inadequate or inappropriate for defending our faith. Believers are often misled into thinking that whatever they take as the ultimate standard in apologetic thinking must be neutral and agreed upon by believer and unbeliever alike; and from here they go on to make the second mistake of thinking that something like “reason” is such a commonly understood and accepted standard.

1 Peter 3:15 teaches us that the precondition of presenting a defense of the faith (apologetics) is the same as doing theology—setting apart Christ as Lord in our hearts. It would be a mistake to think that Peter is speaking of the heart here as though it is our center of emotions over against the mind with which we think.

Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith (Covenant Media Press, 1996), 111-12.

These observations relieve much of my anxiety about sharing the gospel. The burden is not on me to convince anyone or convert anyone (although that is my desire). My responsibility is simply to prepare myself to answer those who ask me why I believe the gospel. God does the convicting, convincing and converting. I can’t persuade people, but I can prepare myself.

For those interested in getting started in the basics of preparation for apologetics, I recommend two books. Although there are many websites that contain helpful information, I have found these two books to be the best introduction:

Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith by Greg Bahnsen

and

The Battle Belongs to the Lord: The Power of Scripture for Defending Our Faith by K. Scott Oliphint

The Natural World Has God’s Name Written All Over It

The whole of created reality, including therefore the fields of research with which the various sciences deal, reveals the same God of which Scripture speaks. The very essence of created reality is its revelational character. Scientists deal with that which has the imprint of God’s face upon it. Created reality may be compared to a great estate. The owner has his name plainly and indelibly written at unavoidable places. How then would it be possible for some stranger to enter this estate, make researches in it, and then fairly say that in these researches he need not and cannot be confronted with the question of ownership? Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics (P&R, 2004), 125.

Van Til’s point and illustration are in full agreement with Psalm 19:1-6 which remind us that every day the natural world is shouting, recounting, bubbling forth and advertising (the basic meanings of the Hebrew verbs in v. 1-2) the glory of God. As Van Til further says, “man is without excuse if he does not discover God in nature.” By this he does not mean that nature is God or that any god can be found in nature. Rather, he means that everything in creation is essentially revelational. And that revelation is clear. This means that the Christian holds to the perspicuity (clear and understandable nature) of both natural revelation and biblical revelation. This is exactly Paul’s point in Romans 1:18-20. The end result is that man is without excuse for his unbelief. No one will be able to say, as atheist Bertrand Russell once claimed he would say if he saw God after death, “Not enough evidence God, not enough evidence!”

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