power and mercy

Why are these two joined together – power and mercy – by Moses, as well as by Daniel, Nehemiah and Jeremiah? Why does he join strength, and greatness, and dreadfulness with mercy?

I say, to exalt mercy the more.

It sets forth and aggrandises mercy the more, that a God so great, so dreadful, should yet be merciful. The lion in Christ commends the lamb that is in him (Revelation 5:5-6) – that he that is so great, and strong, and terrible, should be a lamb.

Look – as the unworthiness and sinfulness of us, whom God loves and shows mercy to, commends his love (as you have it in Romans 5:8), so the greatness and terribleness of the person that loves, advances and magnifies his goodness and mercy, that he who is so great and terrible, and has such power, should yet be so merciful.

Mercy in the 1st verse of Psalm 89 meets in this God who, in the 7th and 8th verses, is so great a God, so fearful to all that are round about him. They who are nearest to him know him best: they say this of him – that this God is a God of mercy.

This begets a stupor, an amazement, that he who is able to rebuke all, and destroy all with a nod, should yet have so much love and mercy. This exalts and sets out his mercy, and makes it a wonder.

[This is my summary of Thomas Goodwin’s argument in Justifying Faith (Works, Vol 8, p48)]

infinite wisdom and power

Psalm 147 says, ‘Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.’

Plumer says, ‘There must be something exceedingly drivelling in the tendency of the human mind respecting divine things to have made it necessary for inspired writers so often to teach us that God is great, supreme, infinite.’ (p1200)

‘There is none above him, none with him, none like him, in power, or in any of his perfections. To the mind of God no subject is knotty, no truth mysterious. His mind embraces with infinite ease all the propositions which constitute universal truth.’ (p1198)

WS Plumer, Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks. First published 1867. Reprinted Banner of Truth 2016.

Glory in the Shorter Catechism

This is Robert Reymond’s analysis of the answer to, ‘What is God?’

The Shorter Catechism begins by employing the phrase ‘a spirit’ to describe God – he is ‘a spirit.’ This phrase is then qualified by three adjectives – ‘infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.’ A prepositional phrase introduced by ‘in’ then modifies the three adjectives; its seven nouns are in turn each qualified by the three adjectives. What this representation intends to show is this: that God is a personal (see the ‘his’) noncorporeal Being who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his wisdom; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his power; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his holiness; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his justice; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his goodness; and infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his truth. This may be depicted as:

Three observations are necessary: First, it is important to note that it is not the first noun per se that distinguishes God absolutely from the creature; angels too are noncorporeal personal beings (Heb 1:14). Nor is it the last seven nouns that distinguish God from the angels or from the human creature; again, they have, or can have, these same characteristics to a certain degree. It is the three adjectives ‘infinite, eternal, and unchangeable’ that distinguish God in the absolute sense from the angels and from the human creature who bears his image; only God possesses these several characteristics in the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable sense.

Second, it is important to underscore the truth that when we speak of God’s ‘infinite, eternal, unchangeable’ being, etc., we are speaking of those attributes that comprise what the Scriptures intend when thy speak of God’s glory. That is to say, God’s glory is the sum total of all his attributes as well as any one of his attributes. For the creature to deny him any one of his attributes is to attack the very glory of God and to deny him that without which he would no longer be God. Or to ascribe to him any attribute which he himself does not expressly claim to have, which ascription can only cancel out some attribute which he does claim to have, is again to represent him as something less than he is and thus is to attack his glory. For this reason it is imperative to listen carefully to God’s description of himself in Scripture.

Third, it should be continually borne in mind that what we affirm here about God we are affirming not only about God the Father but also and equally about God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Shorter Catechism definition of God should be viewed as a description of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not just a description of God the Father.

when MaHlabangana saw the sea

MaHlabangana2MaHlabangana had to travel from her home inland to the coast, some years before her death in 1943.

“I went to see her after her return. ‘What was the most wonderful thing you saw, MaHlabangana, when you were so far away?’ She did not speak of street cars or tall buildings as many did. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘the sea, the wonderful sea, which I never saw before. It stretched so far away, so far, and yet it was always running towards me. It was like the mercy of God, always without measure, and always running towards me. I felt how little of it I could carry away in these little arms.'”

Here is her obituary.

MaHlabangana

The photo is from Jean Nicolson, John Boyana Radasi: Missionary to Zimbabwe, Free Presbyterian Publications, 1996 (p24)

 

the value of tradition

“Tradition, viewed as the past teaching of the church in its confessions, creeds, and representative theologians, effectively represents the sum total of the accumulated biblical exegesis of the Christian church. It is not on a par with Scripture – some of it may even mislead us – but we neglect it at our peril and use it to our great advantage. …

This is where the common misunderstanding of the post-Reformation slogan sola Scriptura can be confusing. When the slogan was devised, it was never intended to exclude the tradition of the church. Instead, it asserted that the Bible is the supreme authority. Adherence to the idea that the Bible is the only source to be followed was the mistake of the anti-Nicenes in the fourth century, the Socinians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nineteenth century, and many other sects and heretics. Effectively, it says that my understanding of the Bible is superior to the accumulated wisdom of every generation of Christians that has ever lived. Enough said.”

Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (2019), p33-34

How shall they hear?

McGraw HowShallTheyHear

Here is a book on preaching which non-preachers are invited to read. Ryan McGraw’s recent book, How Shall They Hear? is subtitled, ‘Why non-preachers need to know what preaching is.’

This is an important topic, and yet I’ve come away faintly dissatisfied.

Overview of the book

The explanation of preaching itself is not unsatisfying. McGraw opens by showing from 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 what the task of preaching is: “Preaching is a public, authoritative proclamation of the gospel, through ordained ambassadors of Christ…” (p3). Then using Romans 10:14-17 he shows why preaching is necessary: “preaching is the ordinary means by which we must learn Christ and hear his voice” (p13). From 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 he shows that preachers must preach Christ crucified, in the power of the Spirit. Then from Colossians 1:28-29 he shows that preaching is hard work, because its aim is nothing lower than the salvation (justification and sanctification) of the hearers (p31). And from John 16:8-11, 14-15 he shows that the preacher’s aims in preaching must reflect what Christ has sent the Spirit to do through preaching – bringing people to Christ by convicting them (of sin, righteousness, and judgment) in relation to Christ (p42).

These five points take up the first five chapters, and so far these basic principles are clearly and persuasively laid out. This is a straightforward, comprehensive view of preaching and the preacher’s task and the preacher’s hope of success. If more preachers were more familiar with these principles and more consistently putting them into practice, without doubt we would all be happier and spiritually healthier hearers.

There is also certainly great value for hearers in having this clear a statement of what preaching is meant to be like, and what it’s meant to achieve. As McGraw says, although preaching is the primary means of grace, hearers often sit under preaching every week with only very little understanding of why it is the primary means of grace and what we can expect from it (p ix). But when this is left unspoken, and as it becomes forgotten, preachers lose heart (and confidence and authority) and hearers come and go mystified and unimpressed (and wither and weaken in their spiritual liveliness).

But for the next several chapters, the book seems to lose its focus slightly. Not so much its focus on preaching, but on what preaching means for the non-preacher. Chapters 6 to 12 are on topics like ‘proper methods for preaching Christ’ and ‘what should sermon application look like.’ It’s good material, there is plenty to think about, but it is geared for the preacher, with the applications for non-preachers having the distinct flavour of the afterthought.

It is only in the final two chapters that the non-preacher comes back into the picture again. In Chapter 13 McGraw argues that all Christians have a role in participating in sermons. He advises non-preachers to pray for preachers as they study and prepare. ‘Do we pray that the Spirit would increase love for Christ in our ministers so that they would preach him devotionally? … Do we pray that Christ would give them the ability to apply their sermons wisely…?’ (p104). He also reminds us to take diligent heed during the service to what we hear and how we hear. After the sermon is over, we can discuss it in conversation, ‘ready to highlight what is good in the sermon and to overlook any faults in the preacher’ (p105), and put it into practice in our lives. Overall, he comments that ‘the purposes of preaching should set the tone for our prayers for the preached Word,’ and for our aim in listening to sermons (p107). This is all good advice, because often you get out of a sermon (by way of spiritual profit) only as much as you put in (by way of self-preparation and believing expectation during and after).

Finally, in Chapter 14, McGraw tackles the question, ‘What if I sit under preaching that does not match the biblical model?’ This is perhaps the trickiest question in the book. The advice in response is necessarily given in broad outlines. If the preaching denies or neglects cardinal doctrines, it is time to find a new church (p110). But when preaching is doctrinally adequate but feels like watching a train wreck (p110) then hearers should have a charitable attitude which looks for what is good in the sermon, and they should be patient with the preacher, ‘looking to the Lord to develop them as preachers’ (p112). In general, we should pray always (p113): ‘first pray for the preacher, then talk to him about his preaching if necessary, and then talk to the elders of the church’ (p113).

The stated aim of this book is to be helpful to all believers, preachers or not. “It is only indirectly a homiletical manual for pastors; directly, it is a guide to believers” (p xi). In my view this should have been phrased the other way round. It is more directly addressed to preachers, and although it does perhaps have listeners more prominently in view than other homiletical manuals do, it is not geared towards them (us) directly. The book is not necessarily unsatisfying for its content but because it does not match its own sales pitch.

Reflections

My disappointment with this book arises from the fact that for some time now I have been on the lookout for a book that would be helpful for non-preachers. In denominations which have a high regard for the Word and its truths and the preaching of it, there is a noticeable famine of the Word. For every person who says they love their pastor’s preaching and continually get spiritual benefit from it, there is at least one other person who loves their pastor and wouldn’t countenance leaving their church, but whose soul is not being fed by the preaching they hear.

I used to assume that if you didn’t get benefit from a sermon preached by a faithful minister, the problem was on your side. This is more or less the implication arising from McGraw’s book and others like it. Ministers quite rightly don’t want to blame the Holy Spirit for lack of appreciation of and/or fruit from their ministry, but this means that the next obvious place to put the blame is on the hearers. And there are after all plenty reasons why the problem could genuinely be on the hearer’s side. No doubt if we aren’t acting on the advice McGraw gives in Chapter 13 on praying and preparing to hear and receive the preached word, some portion of the blame does belong to us as poor hearers. We’re not spiritually hungry enough, we’re not expectant enough, we’re too distracted by other problems (in everyday life, or our wriggly children in the pew), we’re too critical of the preacher, we’re too easily tricked by the devil’s temptations.

But there are also poor sermons, and poor preachers. There are worship services where, however well prepared and expectantly you come, the likelihood of spiritual nourishment is small because the content of the sermon is the equivalent of spiritual cardboard rather than the feast of fat things the hearer longs for. You wonder whether these preachers themselves get anything out of their sermons – whether they would really be satisfied if they were in the pew listening to someone else saying these same things from the pulpit.

When a hearer is disappointed over a period of time by the sermons of their faithful pastor, what can they do?

McGraw is offering basically the same advice as Christopher Ash gives in his booklet, ‘Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons’ – pray, be patient, be charitable. Of course this advice is sound. It is however very difficult to put into practice, especially when someone’s problem with the preaching they hear has been ongoing for a long time. Little recognition is given to how demoralising and spiritually debilitating it is to sit under inadequate preaching long term.

Simply because preaching is the primary means of grace, it’s those who sit under disappointing preaching who are least well placed to pray and be patient and charitable. Easy enough for writers of homiletics manuals, who presumably preach fairly decent sermons to fairly appreciative congregations, to urge those less favoured to sit tight and exercise more of the graces of patience and charity. Much harder when the feeding you should be getting from the preaching is starvation rations and you’re resorting to dietary supplements in the form of your own reading and your own listening (with all the associated limitations and risks) in order to sustain spiritual life in your soul.

Hard too when you love your pastor and it feels like a betrayal to acknowledge that his sermons are not bringing any benefit. Or it’s a series of supply preachers because you don’t have a pastor, and none of them could preach their way out of a paper bag, but you feel guilty even thinking that because all of them are lovely Christians and gracious saints and they pray so beautifully. Or the sermons are always preached from such lovely texts, so surely it must be your fault for not getting something out of it.

What can you do? How can you keep turning up? What coping strategies are there? How can you turn a poor sermon to some benefit?

I suppose we could pray again. It’s the Lord’s day, it’s the Lord’s truth, it’s the Lord’s ambassador – it makes sense to ask for the Lord’s blessing.

And there are tough-love truths we could try to take in – the possibility that some people may be benefiting from the preaching even if we’re personally not, and the fact that there is more to being a believer and a member of the congregation/church than consciously benefiting from all of the services all of the time.

Sometimes it might help during a sermon to think your own thoughts on the text and whatever aspects of its meaning and implications the sermon would ideally be bringing out (although when does this become a disrespectful refusal to engage with the sermon the Lord has arguably given this preacher to preach to this congregation including you at this time?).

Or there are sanity-check measures we could take, like educating ourselves on what it is and isn’t realistic to expect from preaching, so that we can evaluate sermons on objective criteria rather than simply failing to profit from personal failings or prejudice, or continually doubting our own judgment. (For this, I would recommend How Sermons Work by David Murray, as exceptionally helpful – it equips you with concepts and a vocabulary to understand what’s going on in a sermon, so that when things go wrong, you can at least identify it to yourself.)

At institution level, those who are responsible for arranging supply preachers should perhaps do a more careful cost-benefit analysis of having poor preaching supply versus no preaching supply, in the light of what kind of preaching the congregation appreciates and needs more than simply who might be available to fill gaps in the rota. Churches perhaps need to be more rigorous in assessing who they accept as preachers, not just in terms of the clearness of the call they feel but also in terms of whether they have any gifts for preaching. Perhaps a case could be made of reviving the old practice of ministers meeting to preach to other ministers specifically for the purpose of getting brotherly feedback on their preaching.

But these are only partial answers (and at institution level virtually impossible for the average hearer to do anything at all to implement). Why does the Lord provide preaching as the main means of growth for his people and then let the preaching be dull, ineffective and wearisome even when you really want to benefit from it? To me this is still a conundrum, and I’m still waiting to find someone to explain.