06 October 2015

Lament of the pathetic preacher — and what we all must learn from it

by Dan Phillips

What mediocre preacher said this?
It is a long time since I preached a sermon that I was satisfied with. I scarcely recollect ever having done so.
If you didn't suspect a trick-question, you might speculate, "You, DJP?" — a fair and appropriate guess. But no, the mediocre preacher was Charles Haddon Spurgeon, in a sermon titled "Good Earnests of Great Success," preached in 1868 (thanks to Dave Harvey, whose post brought this to my attention).

Spurgeon goes on:
You do not know, for you cannot hear my groanings when I go home, Sunday after Sunday, and wish that I could learn to preach somehow or other; wish that I could discover the way to touch your hearts and your consciences, for I seem to myself to be just like the fire when it wants stirring; the coals have got black when I want them to flame forth.
If I could but say in the pulpit what I feel in my study, or if I could but get out of
my mouth what I have tried to get into my own soul, then I should preach indeed, and move your souls, I think. Yet perhaps God will use our weakness, and we may use it with ourselves, to stir us up to greater strength. You know the difference between slow motion and rapidity. If there were a cannon ball rolled slowly down these aisles, it might not hurt anybody; it might be very large, very huge, but it might be so rolled along that you might not rise from your seats in fear. But if somebody would give me a rifle, and ever so small a ball, I reckon that if the ball flew along the Tabernacle, some of you might find it very difficult to stand in its way. It is the force that does the thing. 
So, it is not the great man who is loaded with learning that will achieve work for God; it is the man, who, however small his ability, is filled with force and fire, and who rushes forward in the energy which heaven has given him, that will accomplish the work—the man who has the most intense spiritual life, who has real vitality at its highest point of tension, and living, while he lives, with all the force of his nature for the glory of God. Put these three or four things together, and I think you have the means of prosperity. [Paragraph breaks added]
Were I interviewed on truths that loom larger and larger over the decades, particularly regarding preaching, I know what would come near the top. It is this: the centrality and native impotence of preaching.

No reader of Pyromaniacs will need convincing of the former. It is the "preacher" who brings the word that saving faith requires (Romans 10:14, 17), and through the folly of what we preach that God saves sinners (1 Corinthians 1:21). Our paramount and awesome imperative, as pastors, is to "Preach the Word" regardless of opposition (2 Timothy 4:2, with context).

How, then, can I speak of the impotence of preaching?

My readiest answer is "From experience!" But let me back up. As a young Christian man and a beginning preacher, so high was my estimate of the Word of God that I virtually saw it as a magic book. Here's what I mean: Hebrews 4:12 was a central verse, with its declaration that "The word of God is living and effective and sharp beyond any two-edged sword," piercing where nothing else can reach. There it is. That book is full of divine power.

I still utterly believe that, more than ever. But the way I rather expected it to work was virtually ex opere operato. That is, you preach the Word, and wonderful things happen. Every time. Kazingo. Just by doing it. Because the Word is so inherently powerful.

As with all error, there is truth in all of that. Something does happen. Both preacher and hearer now stand under the testimony of God. It counts. Whether we repent or reject, whether we mourn or mock, whatever our response, God has spoken. He is on record; and His speaking to us is on our record.

But what was not prominent enough in my thinking was the absolutely and constantly essential ministry of the Triune God, whether the hearers are saved or unsaved. The work of conversion, of blessing, of edification, completely and utterly depends on God attending, using, and applying His word with power (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:5; 2:13).

Consider this: Paul preached Christ. Lydia believed. Yay, there you have it, Hebrews 4:12! Yes indeed — but other ladies present did not believe. Uh-oh. Why not? Because "the Lord opened [Lydia's] heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul" (Acts 16:14b), and He did not do that for the others who heard the exact same preaching.

Was the fault Paul's? Had he done a better job, given a better altar-call, furnished a glossier Anxious Bench, could he have produced more responses? Well, maybe so; but he couldn't have opened more hearts.

This is the vital and indispensable element: the work of God behind, in, with, above, through, and often despite our preaching. It is the vital element, and it is the element we cannot control or produce by formula. We can only plead and beseech Heaven, that God would move His hand, and work to His glory.

Until and unless that happens, we are like Elijah on Mt. Carmel. By the very best of our preparation and passion, we can lay plenty of wood. And by our innumerable flaws and idiocies and patheticalities, we will surely drench the wood with abundant water.

But the fire?

That must come from Heaven, or it will not come at all.

This is a truth that Charles Spurgeon, probably the greatest preacher ever to use the English language, grasped and believed. John Stott (no slouch as a preacher) relates the story that Spurgeon, as he climbed the steps to his pulpit, regularly repeated over and over "I believe in the Holy Ghost, I believe in the Holy Ghost."

So must we, consciously and in great, pleading, abject dependence.

How? I'll close with a few specific exhortations:
  1. The pastor himself must pray as he works on his sermon. I knew a preacher who would not prepare at all, because he felt that the Holy Spirit needed to give him the word on the spot. I wondered, "Couldn't the Holy Spirit have helped you on Monday, and Tuesday, as you worked on a message?" Of course He can, and does.
  2. The pastor himself should pray for the work of God before, during, and after the delivery of the sermon. I confess I am still learning this...along with everything else worth learning.
  3. But the congregation must also join in. Paul often pled for his converts' and readers' prayers for his ministry of the Word (cf. Colossians 4:3-4; 2 Thessalonians 3:1). So attend your church's midweek prayer meeting, and join your brothers and sisters in opening your mouth in prayers for conversions, for conviction, for instruction, for transformation through the ministry of the Gospel and Word. Then on Sunday, take time before the service starts to find your seat and begin praying for yourself and others, for your pastor, and for the effective ministry of the Word.
I stress this last, because my mistake as a pastor can fall to others in the congregation as well. You may feel you have a good and faithful pastor who preaches the Word. If so, praise God. And then perhaps you think that'll do 'er. He preaches, and presto! magic happens. If it doesn't, well then, the pastor must not be preaching well enough. He must not be working the formula. Cancel Pastor Appreciation Day/Month until he figures it out.

But no, think again. Do not imagine that even the very best preacher's sermon will accomplish any more than a snowball in the Sahara, apart from the hand of God on it. And that's where you are called to come in, and wrestle alongside  him in your prayers (Romans 15:30; 2 Corinthians 1:11).

Paul knew it, Spurgeon knew it. Let us know it as well.

Dan Phillips's signature

04 October 2015


Your weekly Dose of Spurgeon
The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from Till He Come, pages 286-87, Pilgrim Publications. 
"If you have been washed, you are even to that highest and purest degree clean before the Lord, and clean now."

Your cleanness is not a thing of degrees, it is not a variable or vanishing quantity, it is present, abiding, perfect, you are clean through the Word, through the application of the blood of sprinkling to the conscience, and through the imputation of the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Then lift up your head, and sing for joy of heart, seeing that your transgression is pardoned, your sin is covered, and in you Jehovah seeth not iniquity. Dear friends, let not another moment pass till by faith in Jesus you have grasped this privilege. Be not content to believe that the priceless boon may be had, but lay hold upon it for yourself. You will find the song of substitution a choice song if you are able to sing it.

"In my Surety I am free,
His dear hands were pierced for me;
With his spotless vesture on
Holy as the Holy One."

Much of the force of the sentence before us lies in the Person praising. To be certified as clean by the blind priests of Rome, would be small comfort to a true Christian. To receive the approving verdict of our fellow-men is consoling, but it is after all of small consequence. 

The human standard of purity is itself grossly incorrect, and therefore to be judged by it is but a poor trial, and to be acquitted a slender comfort; but the Lord Jesus judges no man after the flesh, He came forth from God, and is Himself God, infinitely just and good, hence His tests are accurate, and His verdict is absolute. 

I wot whom He pronounces clean is clean indeed. Our Lord was omniscient, He would have at once detected the least evil in His disciples; if there had remained upon the man unpardoned sin, He must have seen it; if any relic of condemnation had lingered upon them, He must have detected it at once, no speck could have escaped His all-discerning eye; yet did He say without hesitation of all but Judas, "Ye are clean."

We stand in the righteousness of Another. No measure of personal weakness, spiritual anxiety, soul conflict, or mental agony can mar our acceptance in the Beloved. We may be weak infants, or wandering sheep in ourselves, and for both reasons we may be very far from what we wish to be; but, as God sees us, we are viewed as washed in the blood of Jesus, and we, even we, are clean every whit.

What a forcible expression, "clean every whit;" every inch, from every point of view, in all respects, and to the uttermost degree! Dear friend, if a believer, this fact is true to you, even to YOU. 

02 October 2015

The existence-of-evil dodge (NEXT! #44)

by Dan Phillips

Challenge: I see so much evil in the world, I just can't be a Christian.

Response: Did you mean to say that's why you can't be a Christian Scientist? Only Biblical Christianity can make sense of the evil in the world.

(Proverbs 21:22)

Dan Phillips's signature

01 October 2015

Pastoral "call"? Not in the Bible...

by Dan Phillips

From 2006 to 2012, PyroManiacs turned out almost-daily updates from the Post-Evangelical wasteland -- usually to the fear and loathing of more-polite and more-irenic bloggers and readers. The results lurk in the archives of this blog in spite of the hope of many that Google will "accidentally" swallow these words and pictures whole.

This feature enters the murky depths of the archives to fish out the classic hits from the golden age of internet drubbings.

The following excerpt was written by Dan back in October 2012. Dan addressed the popular but unscriptural idea of a "call to preach."

As usual, the comments are closed.
There it was again. Listening to one pastor interview another, "the call" came up.

They were chuckling and sharing the story of how one of them felt, as a (young!) teenager and a brand-new convert, that he "had the call," meaning "the call" to preach. So he announced his call one week, and got up to preach the next. Period. No training, no apprenticeship, no evidence, no clue as to what it meant Biblically to preach (let alone be a pastor). He attributes this to a move of the Lord at that time in that location, as He reportedly grabbed up a lot of young men and "called" them to preach.

The brothers clarified that in their culture, all one need to is announce that he has "the call," and he is to preach. Like, right away.

Later, the brothers alluded to the fact that a pastor should understand "the call" in terms of that of Samuel, of Jeremiah, and of Amos. They call it an "unction" as in King James language, though I'm aware of no such verse relating specifically to the office of elder.

I single this out only because I just heard it. I've heard or read elements of this conversation many times. Surely you too have heard similar, many times. Maybe you've said it. Maybe you believe it.

The concept of a call to pastoral ministry or a call to preach is deeply ingrained, and deeply traditional. It is down there at the point of men wearing pants when they preach. You don't question it, you just do it. Actually, it's deeper, since it is believed to be a Divine necessity, a movement of the Holy Spirit. I've heard of "the call" looming as a critical facet of ordination committee meetings. The candidate has to relate his sense of calling. If he can't, his "call" is suspect at best.

So I'll just ask one question. It should be a really obvious question. In fact, it should be the first question, shouldn't it? You regular readers know what the question is, already.

What verse in the Bible talks about a pastor's "call"?

The answer, of course, is no verse. Not one.

 "But what about Jeremiah, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Amos, and all the rest?" What about them? We must at least say this: they all have the same two things in common --

  1. They all are prophets.
  2. They all are not pastors of Christian churches.
I mean, here we are yet again, aren't we? The only "call" the Bible talks about in this sense is a revelational and verbal call to prophetic ministry. Then there is the Christian's call to salvation (1 Cor. 1:26) and to live a holy life (Eph. 4:1), which is found in so many words in Scripture.

A pastor is not a prophet. A prophet is a prophet, a pastor is a pastor. (I'm having that surreal feeling I get when I have to say things that shouldn't even need to be said, and yet are points of actual contention.)

So a newcomer to this blog will, at this point, be fairly bursting with the question, "Then how does a man know whether he's ca... whether he's supposed to be a pastor?"

Well, you tell me.

Do you believe in the sufficiency of Scripture? Really? Then it should have an in-context, sufficient answer, shouldn't it?

What does it say? When you closely study and reflect on passages that expressly address the issue of pastoral qualification (1 Tim. 3:1ff.; Titus 1:6ff.), what do you see? Can you discern anything that is better expressed in terms of a "call"? Do they overwhelm you with internal, mystical, privately-revelatory elements? Or are they not rather almost shocking in their relative matter-of-factness?

29 September 2015

Is agapē a mystical magical word that means God's sacrificial gracious love?

by Dan Phillips

Over a month ago, I Tweeted this little hyperbolic jab:

At the time, some folks asked for me to expand on the serious, chewy center. And now, I will. Ahem.

Anyone and everyone who's tried to get serious Bible teaching has heard it. It goes something like this:
There are four Greek words for love: erōs, storgē, phileō, and agapē. They have very different meanings. Erōs means sexual love, storgē means family love, phileō means the love of friendship, and agapē means God's love, a gracious, sacrificial love. Only the Holy Spirit can give agapē.
Sometimes the folks who say these things are very dogmatic and categorical, saying things like "when reference is made to God’s LOVE, the word used is always agape" [Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angeles, CA: L.I.F.E. Bible College, 1983), 78].

You could probably supply your own; we've all heard them. But are they true?

First, I'll say as I've said before, if you don't know Greek, I'd encourage you — in as friendly and brotherly way as possible — not to talk about what "the Greek" says, unless you're directly quoting someone who does. I don't mean to be snotty or insulting about it, or to hurt any feelings; it's just the safest way to proceed. "A man's got to know his limitations," as a sage once observed.

For instance, someone who's studied Greek will wince at the statement that there are four words for "love." There may be four Greek words that have been translated by the English word "love," but there are more than four Greek words that mean "love." Or even just staying with the list, it's a mildly fingernails-on-the-blackboard experience to hear the list erōs (a noun), storgē (also a noun), phileō (hey, wait — the noun is philiaphileō is a verb)and agapē (oh, now we're back to nouns). The speaker might as well say "I don't actually know Greek, but this is a traditional list someone started at some point."

All that may seem like inside-baseball stuff, so let's just get down to this: does it hold true that "when reference is made to God’s LOVE, the word used is always agape," and that agapē means "God's love"?

Well no, not at all. For instance, John 3:35 says "the Father loves the Son, and has given all things in His hand." The verb is a form of the verb agapaō. So far, so good. But wait a minute, look at 5:20 — "the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things which He Himself is doing," and so forth. There, the verb is phileō. What? Two things: (1) it simply isn't true to say that "agape" is "always" used of God's love — unless you want to say that the related noun and the verb are unrelated (?!); and (2) agapaō and phileō are not like two distant continents, utterly dissimilar from each other in meaning.

While it is true that agapē and agapaō are the words characteristically used of God's love, it is not true that the terms themselves have as their own inherent meaning "God's love," or even "God's kind of love." For instance, if we consult uses in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which was current in our Lord's day, we find the verb used of Shechem's "love" for Dinah (Gen. 34:2). Ew. It also describes Samson's "love" for Delilah (Judges 16:4), Amnon's "love" for Tamar (2 Sam. 13:1, 4; again, ew), and Solomon's "love" for the pagan women who led him away from Yahweh (1 Kings 11:2). That's just a sampler.

Then in the NT, the verb is used of tax collectors' love for those who love them (Mt. 5:46; cf. Lk. 6:32), Pharisees' "love" for the first seats (Lk. 11:43), the "love" of the lost for darkness rather than light (Jn. 3:19), the Jewish leaders' "love" for human praise over God's glory (Jn. 12:43), Demas' "love" for the present age (2 Tim. 4:10), forbidden "love" for the world (1 Jn. 2:15), and so forth.

That's just the verb. The noun is also used of Amnon's sick infatuation with Tamar (2 Sam. 13:15). In the NT, however, the noun is used more exclusively of God's love or ours. But so are forms of phileō, alone or in combination. The verb phileō is used of the love we must have for Jesus in 1 Cor. 16:22. God's saving love for man is called philanthrōpia in Titus 3:4, shortly after which Paul refers to those who "love" him and his coworkers in the faith (3:15, using a form of phileō). Jesus' love for Lazarus is described with phileō in John 11:3 and 36; but His love for Lazarus and Mary and Martha is described with agapaō in v. 5.

I could go on, but I hope I've established: the verb agapaō is not a magic word used exclusively to describe God's love. It does not, all by itself, mean God's love, nor is it the only word used to describe God's love, nor does it necessarily describe God's kind of gracious, chaste, sacrificial love.

Having said that, I will say this, which may for a brief second seem contradictory, so stay with me: the agapē-words are the ones the Greek writers most readily reach for to describe God's love (shown and mandated), and they best serve those uses.

Let me illustrate by a question: Does the word "devotion" mean "a mother's committed, dogged, tireless, self-sacrificial love for her child"?

No, of course it doesn't. We could also speak of a drunk's devotion to the bottle, or a druggie's devotion to his crack-pipe, or a terrorist's devotion to his jihad, or a pagan's devotion to his false god (—did I just say the same thing, twice?). The word does not inherently mean "a mother's committed, dogged, tireless, self-sacrificial love for her child."

However, if you want to describe that kind of love, you may well reach for the word "devotion." Because it serves well in that use. You'll just have to check the context.

And so it is with the Greek words translated love. I don't think any two of them are completely synonymous in the sense that they are completely interchangeable. But you really get the meaning by examining the use.

So with agapē and (please!) philia. We know about God's love, not by reading a study bible or a word-study or a lexicon, but by studying passages using and illustrating the term's meaning, such as Romans 5:6-8 or Ephesians 2:4.

Dan Phillips's signature

27 September 2015

The “vicar" of Christ? Never!

Your weekly Dose of Spurgeon

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from the lifetime of works from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  The following excerpt is from Morning and Evening, May 29, MacDonald Publishing.

"The thick pollutions of thine abominable church forbid the idea of descent from any apostle but the traitor Judas."

Since he was cursed who rebuilt Jericho, much more the man who labours to restore Popery among us. In our fathers' days the gigantic walls of Popery fell by the power of their faith, the perseverance of their efforts, and the blast of their gospel trumpets; and now there are some who would rebuild that accursed system upon its old foundation.

O Lord, be pleased to thwart their unrighteous endeavours, and pull down every stone which they build. It should be a serious business with us to be thoroughly purged of every error which may have a tendency to foster the spirit of Popery, and when we have made a clean sweep at home we should seek in every way to oppose its all too rapid spread abroad in the church and in the world.

This last can be done in secret by fervent prayer, and in public by decided testimony. We must warn with judicious boldness those who are inclined towards the errors of Rome; we must instruct the young in gospel truth, and tell them of the black doings of Popery in the olden times. We must aid in spreading the light more thoroughly through the land, for priests, like owls, hate daylight.

Are we doing all we can for Jesus and the gospel? If not, our negligence plays into the hands of priestcraft. What are we doing to spread the Bible, which is the Pope's bane and poison? Are we casting abroad good, sound gospel writings? Luther once said, "The devil hates goose quills," and, doubtless, he has good reason, for ready writers, by the Holy Spirit's blessing, have done his kingdom much damage.

If the thousands who will read this short word this night will do all they can to hinder the rebuilding of this accursed Jericho, the Lord's glory shall speed among the sons of men. Reader, what can you do? What will you do?

24 September 2015

Not smarter than Paul

by Frank Turk

From 2006 to 2012, PyroManiacs turned out almost-daily updates from the Post-Evangelical wasteland -- usually to the fear and loathing of more-polite and more-irenic bloggers and readers. The results lurk in the archives of this blog in spite of the hope of many that Google will "accidentally" swallow these words and pictures whole.

This feature enters the murky depths of the archives to fish out the classic hits from the golden age of internet drubbings.

The following excerpt was written by Frank back in June 2007.  This was the last of a series of posts in which Frank addressed the issue of when and why leaving a church is justified.

As usual, the comments are closed.
We are not smarter than Paul. We are beggars before the wisdom which Paul was given – we do not grasp what he wrote and taught, so we do not do the things Paul (or Peter, or the Evangels, or James, or the others) was exhorting the believers to do.

If we think Paul didn’t know all the errors we face, maybe we ought to go back and look at who and what Paul was talking about as he wrote his letters to the various churches.

In Romans, Paul decries legalism, libertinism, pride, racism, and anarchy – and he was writing to people whom he longed to see, and thought highly of in terms of the faith.

In 1 & 2 Corinthians, Paul decries exalting teachers, intellectual and spiritual pride, lax church discipline, sexual immorality, material squabbling, seeking recourse in secular venues outside of the church, false views of marriage, both idolatry and being a slave to the fear of idolatry, false views about Christian liberty, abuse of the Lord's Table, abuse of common worship in the demonstration of spiritual gifts, false views of the Gospel, church discipline which does not aim to redeem but seeks only to punish, the fear of death, stingy giving, and interestingly those who think they know more than the Apostles do about the Gospel, Christ and the church. His view of what to do about false teachers is especially useful if you care to review it in 2Cor 10 & 11. And these were people whom he himself established in the faith – people who literally got it from the bondservant's mouth.

In Galatians, Paul decries adding works to the Gospel, and showing partiality based on observances, and rejects circumcision as necessary, and underscores the necessity of unity under truth in the church – in spite of the fact that he had to defy Peter to his face to do it! He didn’t say, "and I never set foot in any house with Peter ever again." You know: Peter who got the vision from God, "take and eat"? Nobody abandoning the Galatian church in spite of that.

In Ephesians, Paul expresses the fully-orbed Gospel and uses it to say, "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." And leaps off from there to exhort to personal holiness, submission to each other, the true nature of marriage and the roles of husband and wife, the roles in family and society, and the method by which we are girded up against the temptations of the world.

Listen: that's not even all of the letters Paul wrote, and almost all of the problems in the modern church are actively and openly addressed. If you're worried that he doesn't list Joseph Smith or Benny Hinn by name, maybe what you ought to do is see if he mentions you by name and wonder if there are any logical implications to that.

See: the foundational premise of Scripture is not that we should read it. The foundational premise of Scripture is that it is sufficient for our equipping; reading is a consequence of sufficiency. And the equipment in Scripture says that the church is necessary and that this is the place where we first and foremost stand for the truth of the Gospel, and in standing for truth we stand together.

If you are holed up in your study in your robe reading and writing blogs, but you can't find a church that suits you, you are not standing on the sufficiency of Scripture: you are sitting in your robe. If Scripture is sufficient to tell you that Your Best Life Now is a fraud and that no pastor should emulate it to his congregation, it is also sufficient to tell you – and let me make it clear that I mean you personally, you the one who is unable to find one believer whom you do not have parental authority over with which to fellowship -- that you belong joined together with other believers in a visible and social way which demonstrates the glory of God to the world.