Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Practical and Powerful Preaching

The dudes at the White Horse Inn have done it again with another peach of a podcast. This week worldly wisdom was compared with the folly of God in the gospel. Horton and co. were again discussing the Corinthian church and the problems faced there. Horton mentioned that Corinthian culture was invading the church and doing violence to the gospel.

In Corinth, oratory skills were prized. Motivational speakers would pack out arenas where they would wow the crowds with their eloquence. Much of the time, it wasn't the substance of what they said that was important as opposed to the way in which it was said. Many of the messages focused on getting ahead in life and advancing in finance, work, etc.

This cultural baggage had found its way into the Corinthian church where sexy-speakers were wowing the congregation with their 'life skills' talks and engaging style. They spoke a message of worldly wisdom. Paul contrasts their message with his in chapter 2 where he describes his gospel as the 'message of the cross'. 'Jews look for signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but for those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.'

So we have to ask ourselves, what message are we cleaving to? I trust that readers of this blog aren't clinging to the charismental Benny Hinn-style sign seeking approach. I would guess that we are more susceptible to looking for a 'wise' message by this world's standards.

How often do you hear in church, 'I just want a practical message' or 'I prefer practical preaching'. Too many of us want life skills taught from the pulpit. We want relationship advice or love makin' tips or child rearing advice. In contrast, the message of the Scriptures is simply, as Machen put it, a grand indicative.

This indicative is the message of Christ, crucified, buried and raised for his people. To be honest, you get very little 'practical' teaching in the NT. Sure you get general principles like, 'husbands love your wives' etc, but even these are only issued in the light of the gospel 'e.g. as Christ loved the church'. We want law, we want principles, we want purpose driven lives. We want to know how to find the equilibrium and stay there. We want to know how much money to give to the church, how much time we should pray each day, blah blah blah.

Sorry, but this is the last thing we need. The history of Israel should tell us that life skills will only condemn us when we fail to practice them. 'Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law to do them' (Gal 3). Whenever we hear our hearts moan for law lite, we need to preach Christ to ourselves. He was justified by his works so we could be justified by grace. Our living should be an overflow of the grace we've received in Christ. The only imperative you get in the NT is, as Augustine affirmed, 'love God and live how you like'.

11 comments:

Brenden said...

I like this, but I have a question. Where do ethics come in? Do "indicatives alone" account for all that God would have us put our mind to when the word is preached. I know that's not what you're saying, and I entirely agree we must be grounded upon the indicatives - as the foundation and root from which all other fruit gets their bearing and nourishment. However, I'm concerned that perhaps a certain focus on indicatives unrealistically overlooks the still necessity of preaching imperatives.

I really appreciate your blog by the way.

Michael said...

My thoughts concur with Brenden. While we are not under the curse of the law, we are under the law as a rule of life. This seems to be denied (or underemphasized) in some of these blogs (and many of the writings in contemporary reformed thought). We shouldn't strive for law light - our aim should be much higher- "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" knowing that it is God who works in us". I somehow get the idea that what is implied is that we are saved from sin's guilt but not its power. heaven forbid this kind of antinomian gospel. Does the admonition to perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord no longer ring true for the new covenant saint? I agree with all the indicative preaching, writing, and teaching, but let's not stop there. How can we who died to sin live any longer in it? We must avoid the implication of both legalism and antinomianism, and stop being reactionary to false teaching.
Gospel and Law Blessings,
Michael

Nick Mackison said...

Brenden,
Ethics come in through the gospel. The imperative is an overflow of the indicative. Look, for instance, 2 Corinthians 8:7,8 says: "since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you —see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others." (TNIV)

I'm not commanding you says Paul but testing the sincerity of your love. Why? He goes on in verse 9, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." (TNIV)

If we take the gospel into the core of our being, it should motivate right living.

Thanks for the questions!

Nick Mackison said...

Michael,
You said: "I somehow get the idea that what is implied is that we are saved from sin's guilt but not its power. heaven forbid this kind of antinomian gospel."

You get the idea? Where from exactly? Not from anything I wrote I hope!;) Anyway, charges of antinomianism always follow the right preaching of the gospel. When that charge is made, it's Romans 6 time.

(BTW If you look at my focus, I was reacting against legalism in the pew by stressing God's work in Christ.)

I do agree that a focus on holiness is necessary, but ONLY in relation to what God has done in Christ. I think it was John Murray who coined the term "Definite Sanctification" to describe traditional Reformed teaching in this matter.

Christ didn't only provide forensic righteousness, he also provided deliverance from the domain of sin to the sphere of the life giving Spirit (Romans 6, 8:1-3) So we stress holiness in the light of Christ's work for us in the duplex gratia of forensic righteousness and definite sanctification. As I said, charges of antinomianism always follow a right preaching of the gospel.

God bless

Michael said...

Nick,
The Augustine quote sounds pithy and has a relative shock effect, but where does Jesus or any of the apostles use this kind of language in instructing disciples? We have a church culture today that is practicing this maxim, and the results are disastrous: we are indistinguishable from the world in word and deed, we don't honor the Lord's Day, dad's have become spiritual wimps and egalitarian zombies, there is no fear of the Lord before us, and yet we speak "peace, peace, and there is no peace"! Moses leads us to Christ, who is the end of the law, and Christ leads us to this same moral law as a rule of life. Sanctification is not some appendage that is optional in the Christian life. I'm exhorted to run, fight, work out my salvation, perfect holiness, perserve in the faith, while resting in the finished work of Christ for me. How about a post on "Perfecting holiness in the fear of God?"

Nick Mackison said...

Michael
You said: "where does Jesus or any of the apostles use this kind of language in instructing disciples?"

How about verses stating that the entire law is fulfilled by love? The point of the Augustine statement is that if you're walking in love, your desires/actions will be a natural out-working of God's law.

Sorry Michael, but preaching the law isn't going to help Christians who are living wrong. They need more gospel. Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians (who were in a royal mess) by reminding them that they are sanctified in Christ Jesus. The law kills, the gospel gives life.

The motive for holiness should be that Christ has, as well as providing forensic righteousness, provided freedom from sin's dominion. I would agree that this is integral to the gospel.

Maybe you're in a Reformed church which preaches antinomianism, but I'm not. My context has stressed try harder, etc. I'm writing from that perspective.

I do plan a post on sanctification though.

Michael said...

Nick,
Keep reading; Paul concludes that text with an exhortation, "so then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies, drunkeness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarreling, and jealousy". Warnings, exhortations, and the Law of God are a means to our perseverance. I would humbly recommend a good dose of Owen, Calvin, and Bolton. Coddling sinner-saints in indicatives alone does not lead to spiritual maturity, in fact, in stunts our growth. Paul understood the Gospel - grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone- but he also could write I Cor 6 and 10 - knowing that this side of heaven, we still must fight against sin and "take head lest we fall".
SDG,
Michael

Nick Mackison said...

Michael,
I really don't think you're reading me fairly. I've nowhere denied that in the gospel we uphold the law or that through the warnings we avoid apostasy. My article came out against those who want to reduce preaching to law lite, that's it.

Affirming the priority of Christ's work in the gospel as the indicative that motivates the imperative is not antinomianism. If it freaks you out in a law-withdrawal sweat, which it seems to, you need to ask why?

Michael said...

"Sorry Michael, but preaching the law isn't going to help Christians who are living wrong. They need more gospel. Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians (who were in a royal mess) by reminding them that they are sanctified in Christ Jesus. The law kills, the gospel gives life."

Nick
Misunderstanding you is a possibility; if I have, please forgive me. My humble assessment is that you have overemphasized the indicative to the neglect of the imperative. As you know, union with Christ, entails the double benefit of righteousness imputed and imparted. Faith is passive in the former, but very active (even synergistic) in the latter.
Teachable in Christ,
Titus 3:3-8

Nick Mackison said...

Michael,
The irony is, I think we're both on the same page theologically. The context in which I was writing (bland legalistic preaching) demanded I stress free grace. If I was using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, I still don't regret it.

And there's no hard feelings by the way. If there's anything you don't like about my posts, you're free to have a go; heck, I do it enough! I'm just grateful guys like you take the time to read my drivel.

Anyway, God bless you. Next post on sanctification will be dedicated to you.

Brenden said...

Yes, I do believe much confusion arises because of different contexts.

Arguing against moralistic will-worship in one case can sound like antinomianism in another.

I've been attempting of late to rid myself of all clinging forms of semi-pelegian Pharisaicalism and in the process have found myself sounding more hyper-Calvinistic then I'm comfortable with.

In the case of sanctification (I'm glad you're posting on this next), I believe there is a real sense (perhaps a greater sense) in which it should always be viewed as synergistic. However, is there not another sense in which it is also monergistic? And powerfully so? And isn't this monergism (the Spirits working with power and the flesh profiting nothing) something we should be privy of? That when we "work out" our salvation we actually find reason to practice "fear and trembling?"

I feel as though the "fear and trembling" (because of God's sovereignty -- even in our sanctification) is overlooked in favor of putting all the emphasis on "work out your salvation" (because this puts in back in our court where we feel we have more control over things). But doesn't this go contrary to James intent... If he's wanting to get us to a position of fear and trembling, I think a high view of God's sovereignty is probably nearer his intent than any form of moralism.

Just a thought.