Three Reflections on Pastoral Ministry

Three Reflections on Pastoral Ministry

Note: Today I have Ian Macleod as my guest contributor. Born and raised in Scotland, Ian is a Th.M. graduate of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. In 2015 he was ordained to the ministry at Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church where he continues to serve as a pastor and teacher. Here are his three reflections, reflecting on almost three (quick) years of his pastoral ministry:

1. Privilege

I count it an enormous privilege to minister to God’s people as a pastor and teacher in my local congregation here in Grand Rapids. Because we serve in a seminary community, our congregation is blessed with a steady flow of students and families that come to us and go from us from all over the world. It’s really a little foretaste of heaven. And yet for all the enriching diversity we have, the basic need of each person, and the great answer to that need, is the same – the Savior who was dead and is alive forever (Rev. 1:18)! There’s not a different gospel for the American, the Egyptian, the Dutchman, the Malawian, the South Korean, the Scot, or anyone else. “There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him” (Rom. 10:12). It’s the greatest wonder and at the same time the greatest privilege to me that the Lord has called me to preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

2. Personal Holiness

Alongside the great privilege of pastoring and preaching, there is also the sense of great responsibility. I must give an account for the souls of my people (Heb. 13:17), I must rightly divide the word and preach the word (2 Tim. 2:15), I must “reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine,” and I must do this “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). It’s no wonder Paul said, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). And yet, behind all these things, there is the greatest and most convicting need – my own personal holiness. John Owen said, “If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.” Along similar lines, Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “The greatest need of my people is my own holiness.” This is very convicting.

I remember, as I contemplated a call to the ministry, telling my minister back in Scotland that one of my great concerns was this: “What do I do if I am spiritually cold?” There are so many great and glorious texts in Scripture – “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16), “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it” (Eph. 5:25) – but how do I enter a pulpit and preach from these texts if I am spiritually cold? My late minister knew what I was speaking about: “Often I feel that the earthenness of the vessel will take away from the excellence of the treasure, but it is often in these moments when we feel we have nothing that the Lord comes in a special way with His grace.” I’ve often found that to be true. But equally true is this: the gospel ministry does not allow for spiritual coasting. The most important way I watch out for the souls of others is to watch out for my own.

3. Priorities

In working through a series on Philippians, it has struck me again how Paul’s priorities are Christ- and gospel- and church-centered. Some have used the acronym JOY to describe these priorities: Jesus first, Others second, You last. Of course, Paul is pointing us to Christ Jesus himself, the one who prioritized the interests of others before his own, and though “being in the form of God,” humbled himself to the very death of the cross (Phil. 2:5-8). The searching question I have often been confronted with, as I have walked beside Paul in these verses, is this: Do I have the same priorities he does? I want them. “Lord, the beautiful, mutual, Christian love between Paul and the Philippians, give that love more and more to me and my congregation.” “Lord, the love and zeal Paul has for the gospel, even while maligned in a Roman prison, give that love and zeal to me.” “Lord, give me, and give the precious people I serve, the same Jesus-first, Others-second, Me-last priorities more and more and more.”

Sometimes I have felt that with our busy, hustle-bustle world, our priorities have become somewhat skewed. We all have a tendency to think that activity is good, and more activity is better, and relentless activity is best. Activity is certainly good. However, my own increasing conviction is that our activity needs some realignment (which will probably require some decluttering of our schedules). There is a beautiful simplicity to what the apostolic church prioritized. They were certainly active, but after decades of observation, Luke could sum up their activity in the following simple way. Literally, he says in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to (i.e., they gave priority to) the apostles’ doctrine and to the fellowship, and to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). “Lord, give us these priorities too.”

John Owen

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Ministry Pastor

My Father-in-law’s Advice to Me

My Father-in-law_s Advice to Me (pic)

I’m blessed to have a godly and wise father-in-law, Rev. Bartel Elshout, who is known for his translation of Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service. I so much value his wisdom in that whenever I need to make an important decision I always seek his counsel. Recently, I asked him if there’s any advice that he could give to me as a father of now four children. He said (and I’m sharing his advice with his permission),

“Make sure you spend enough time with your children! Life is a one-way street, and you get to spend each day with your children only once. Time not spent with your children can never be relived. When I was a young father, I was a very busy man. I was the principal of a Christian school and also served as elder in the church. In hindsight, I should not have had this double commitment. Even though I did my utmost to spend time with my oldest son David (now 43), he still vividly remembers that often I was too busy for him. Once he called me in the not too distant past, and at that particular moment I could not talk to him. He responded, ‘Dad, are you too busy for me again?’ What a painful moment this was for me! My son still remembered that 30 plus years ago I was too busy for him. Therefore, young fathers, do not make the mistake I made by overcommitting yourself. Each day in the lives of your children is a day that cannot be relived!”

Indeed, one of the most common things that fathers regret before they die is this: “I worked too much and did not spend enough time with my family.” God wants us to work diligently to provide for our family. But when we work at the expense of our relationship with our family, our work becomes harmful rather than helpful. In his 2011 Father’s Day message, former President Barack Obama expressed his regret for not spending enough time with his children when they were younger. Listen to what he said:

“When Malia and Sasha were younger, work kept me away from home more than it should have. At times, the burden of raising our two daughters has fallen too heavily on Michelle. During the campaign, not a day went by that I didn’t wish I could spend more time with the family I love more than anything else in the world. But through my own experiences, and my continued efforts to be a better father, I have learned something over the years about what children need most from their parents. They need our time, measured not only in the number of hours we spend with them each day, but what we do with those hours.”

The late American evangelist Billy Graham expressed a similar regret. When interviewed by Christianity Today about anything he could have done differently, Billy Graham said:

“I’d spend more time at home with my family, and I’d study more and preach less. I wouldn’t have taken so many speaking engagements, including some of the things I did over the years that I probably didn’t really need to do—weddings and funerals and building dedications, things like that. Whenever I counsel someone who feels called to be an evangelist, I always urge them to guard their time and not feel like they have to do everything.”

Fathers, before it is too late, let’s spend quality time with our children. Some fathers think that their duty is only to provide for their children’s material and physical needs. That’s only part of our duty as fathers. We are also called to provide for our children’s spiritual and emotional needs. Interestingly, when our children develop sinful habits or patterns of life, we quickly ask, “Why is my son or daughter behaving this way? What’s wrong with my child?” But perhaps, we could also ask ourselves: “Am I taking time to also provide spiritually and emotionally for my children? Do I spend time with them? Do I play with them? Do I read God’s Word and pray with them? Do I discipline them when necessary? Do I encourage them? Do I assure them of my love?”

Fathers, our children need our presence not just our pockets. I remember this touching story: “A little boy who had been begging his father for favors all day came once into his daddy’s office. ‘What do you want this time?’ asked the weary parent. ‘I don’t want anything,’ was the astonishing reply, ‘I just want to be with you.’”

Fathers, if we are honest with ourselves, we all fail to spend time with our children as we should. That’s why we need to pray earnestly to God for his grace to be able to properly balance our work and family responsibilities. We also need to pray daily that we may be able to model God’s fatherly character to our children, always pointing them to him, who, for Christ’s sake, will never leave us, nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5). And when we do fail in our calling as fathers, let us not despair. There is always forgiveness in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9).

 

Note: To read the article in Spanish, click here.

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How Should We View Our Children?

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I cannot recall how many times I met people who honestly told me that they did not want to have children because children would just interfere with their lives. They viewed children as a burden, rather than a blessing. In fact, a certain woman frankly told me that she was too selfish to have a child. She did not want to have a child, because she knew it would mean an inconvenient life.

Do you know how many babies are aborted per day in the U. S.? The answer is heart breaking—approximately 3,700 babies per day. And 93 % of all abortions happen generally because of inconvenience.  Listen to the following statistics:

1% of all abortions occur because of rape or incest; 6% of abortions occur because of potential health problems regarding either the mother or child, and 93% of all abortions occur for social reasons (i.e. the child is unwanted or inconvenient).

In other words, if you were to ask 100 mothers who aborted their children, “Why did you abort your child?” A large number of them would probably say something like this: “Well, because that baby in my womb would just interfere with my education or career.” Or, “I don’t want to have an inconvenient life.”

What?! You aborted your unborn baby simply because you didn’t want to have an inconvenient life?! Of course, it can be inconvenient to have a baby. You will experience sleepless nights as you nurse your baby in the middle of the night or rock your sick baby to sleep. You will have additional expenses, messes to clean up; and, your days will not always go according to your schedule. Children can indeed “interfere” with some of our plans.

Of course, it is difficult to raise a child. Being a parent comes with great responsibilities (you provide for your children, take care of them, train them in the way they should go, correct and discipline them, and the list goes on and on). Such responsibilities are not always easy to do, especially if a child has a physical or mental disability.

And, of course, it can be stressful to have children. Kids can sometimes be annoying. They can test your patience. Having children requires sacrifice. You need to sacrifice your time, your comfort, and sometimes your dreams. Oh, but the joy of parenting surpasses its stress and sacrifice. The blessing of parenthood outweighs its discomfort.

My wife and I have four little children. Yes, I don’t deny the difficulty of parenting. But, with God’s help, I can say that the delight of parenting exceeds its difficulty. Money cannot buy the joy of hearing your child’s heartbeat for the first time, the joy of hearing your child say “Mama” or “Dada” for the first time, the joy of feeling your child’s arms wrap around your neck, the joy of watching your children grow and learn, and, the Lord willing, the joy of hearing them confess with their mouths that Jesus is their Lord and Savior (Rom. 10:9).

Some of you may say, “That’s wonderful, but what if I will have a child who will never be able to do any of those things due to a physical or mental disability?” I cannot begin to imagine the heartache of parents whose child is physically or mentally disabled. However, one thing I do know is that there can be comfort and joy in knowing that our children are created for God’s glory and for our good (Rom. 8:28).

Let me share this story that I once heard from my mother-in-law.

There was a God-fearing woman in the Netherlands who had a child born to her that was totally disabled. The child could not walk, could not talk, and could not respond. The child lay this way for 18 years. One day, as the mother stood, looking at her child, she felt rebellion and despair in her heart, and said out loud, “Why were you ever created? Why were you ever born?” All of a sudden, this child who never spoke, said, “To glorify God forever.” And then, the child died.

So, if you are one of those who don’t want to have children because of fear that your children might just interfere with your life, I encourage you to rethink your view of children. Children are not a burden but a blessing, created for God’s glory. As the Bible says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD” (Ps. 127:3). In Hebrew the word heritage (also translated as inheritance) indicates that ultimately our children are not a result of our work. When you receive an inheritance from your parents (a sum of money), you receive it as a gift from them. You did not work for it; they did! They simply gave it to you out of their own good pleasure. Likewise, ultimately it is our God who makes children. And he gives them to us as a gift out of his own good pleasure. Children are one of the ways that God chooses to bless us and to glorify himself.

Therefore, to those of you who do not want to have children because you think they will just be a burden and inconvenience, may you repent of your unbiblical view of children and may you begin to see God’s grand and glorious design in blessing parents with children.

Now, to those of us who already have children, may I lovingly ask you: How do view your children? A burden or a blessing? When Esau asked his brother Jacob, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant” (Gen. 33:5). Here, Jacob viewed his children as a gracious gift from God. Truly, our children are an undeserved gift from God. God could have chosen others to become parents of your children. Instead, God chose you to be a parent of your children. Let us then thank and praise God for our children. May we never regard them as a burden but as a blessing from God—from whom all blessings flow. And may God grant us grace, as we train up our children in the way they should go, so that when they are old they will not depart from it (Prov. 22:6).

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Parenting Parents

Working Prayerfully: A Lesson from Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan_EdwardsOne of my favorite writers is Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), often considered to be the last Puritan. Through his writings, Edwards taught me a lot, especially with regard to prayer. For instance, he taught me to work or study prayerfully. As a pastor, I learned from Edwards to prepare for my sermons prayerfully. As a PhD student, I also learned from him to do a research paper prayerfully. As an author, I learned to write a book or article prayerfully. Indeed, Edwards himself did this. As he was studying, approximately 13 hours a day, he was doing so prayerfully, so that prayer and study intertwined with each other. Iain Murray, in his masterful biography of Edwards, illustrates this point well:

“Edwards maintained daily set times for prayer, when it was probably his custom to speak aloud. He also had…particular days which he set aside for solitude, meditation and fasting. But prayer was not a compartment in his daily routine, an exercise which possessed little connection with the remainder of his hours alone. Rather he sought to make his study itself a sanctuary, and whether wrestling with Scripture, preparing sermons or writing in his notebooks, he worked as a worshipper. Thought, prayer and writing were all woven together” (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 143).

Donald Whitney’s observation is similar: “Edwards was so devoted to prayer that it is hard to find a daily routine for him that wasn’t permeated with it…. He prayed over his studies, and he prayed as he walked in the evening. Prayer was both a discipline and a part of his leisure” (“Pursuing A Passion For God Through Spiritual Disciples: Learning From Jonathan Edwards, in A God Entranced Vision of All Things: The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, 114).

Even Edwards’ physical exercise was permeated with prayer. Many people comment that one of Edwards’ weaknesses was that he was a workaholic at the cost of his health. While this comment has an element of truth, he was not altogether neglectful of his health. In fact, number twenty of his Resolutions, written when he was nineteen years old, shows his concern for his whole-being: “Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.” Moreover, he himself makes a record in his Personal Narrative that he would ride out into woods for his health: “I rode out into the woods for my health…having alighted from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer.” What is noteworthy here is that even his physical exercise was interfused with a spirit of prayer.

Oh, may the Lord teach us to pray. May we turn our workplace into a sanctuary where we work as a worshipper of God. And even if we go to the gym to exercise, may we do so prayerfully. Truly, may our entire life be permeated with prayer. After all, we are to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

Do you work prayerfully?

Prayer-seemed-to-be quote on Edwards

To learn more about Edwards’ prayer life, see my book Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of & Devotion to Prayer.

 

 

 

 

 

Jonathan Edwards Prayer Puritan

Three Ways Adult Children Can Honor Their Mothers

3 ways children honor

Every second Sunday of May Americans, Canadians, Filipinos, and countless others around the globe celebrate Mother’s Day. This celebration centers on honoring mothers. Although this tradition originated in ancient pagan festivals, the motive embedded in this tradition is biblical. In fact, God in His fifth commandment demands that we honor our mothers: “Honor your father and your mother…” (Exod. 20:12).

Unfortunately, many children only remember to honor their mothers on Mother’s Day. They forget that honoring their mothers is their daily duty to God. Of course, our mothers are not perfect; they commit mistakes. Yet, we must still respect them in the Lord. If we ever disagree with them, let us do so using respectful language and gestures. Remember that when we disrespect our parents we sin not only against them but also against God, for God has commanded us to honor them.

Do you honor your mother? Here are three ways you can honor them.

Firstprize them. To honor our parents means to place a high value upon them. Our mothers, despite all their shortcomings, are precious gifts from God; and thus, we must treasure and love them. Remember, our mothers will not always be around with us. Most likely they will die first before we do; so while they are still alive, let’s tell them how much we appreciate them. Let’s show them our love in word and in deed. Sadly, it is when they are gone that we begin to realize how precious they were to us. Don’t wait until their funeral to say words of appreciation.

When was the last time you thanked and appreciated your mom? Again, she may have many flaws, but she is still your mom.

Secondprovide for them. In Matthew 15:4, Jesus understands the fifth commandment as referring to both submission to and provision for our parents. As God enables us, we should help our mothers (especially our widowed mothers) in their physical, material, or financial needs. If you grew up with a caring and responsible mom, just think of what she had done for you from the time you were born until you became an adult. For several months she carried you in her womb; she fed you, changed your diaper, rocked you to sleep in the middle of the night, took care of you when you were sick, and the list goes on and on. The least thing that we can do in return for our mothers’ loving care for us is help them in their time of need. The truth is we cannot pay them back for all the many good things that they have done and continue to do for us, even in our adulthood.

Are you concerned with your mother’s welfare?

Thirdpray for them, especially for their spiritual life. And pray for them regularly. Do not underestimate the power of prayer. If your mother is not yet saved, ask God to grant her faith in His Son, for the Bible says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). If you have a godly mother, thank God for that tremendous blessing. And as Abraham Lincoln once declared, “No man is poor who has a godly mother.” Indeed, the “mother is the central sun of the child’s early life, and without her it is a poor home.” I personally thank and praise God for giving me such a loving and God-fearing mother. Part of what I am today, I owe to my dear mother.

Conclusion

Now, if we are honest with ourselves, we all have failed to honor our mothers as we should. There’s only one person who honored His mother as He should. His name is Jesus. Born under the law (Gal. 4:4), Jesus honored Mary (His earthly mother) and Joseph (His foster father). Jesus indeed kept the fifth commandment perfectly, so that through His perfect obedience to the law, we who are sinners may be justified through faith in Him.

And here’s our comfort: Yes, we are all guilty of not honoring our mothers as we should. But we can always come to God for forgiveness. We can borrow the words of the prodigal son in Luke 15:21 and apply it to our mothers, “‘Mother, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” Our heavenly Father delights to forgive repentant sinners (1 John 1:9). We trust, too, that our mothers will pardon us: “forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).

The command to honor our mothers should humble us before God, because it makes us realize that apart from God’s help we cannot honor them according to God’s standard.

Happy Mother’s Day to all moms!

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Mother

Four Lessons I’ve Learned From the Puritans

Note: Today I have Dave Arnold as my guest blogger. He is a pastor and writer living in the Monroe-area of Michigan. He has authored five books and contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. You can contact him at davejarnold16@gmail.com

Four-Lessons-Ive-Learned

Although I was exposed to a few of the Puritans when I was in college – namely, in my preaching classes – it wasn’t until 2014 that God, by His grace, opened my eyes to these spiritual giants of the seventeenth century and forever changed my life.

I remember the morning clearly. It was early and my daughter (who was only a few months old), was sitting on my lap contently. I reached over to grab my Kindle and scrolled through the “free books” section. It was then my eyes fell upon a title Samuel Rutherford and Some of His Correspondents by Alexander Whyte. I knew of Whyte and had read some of his sermons, so I thought I’d download it. And I’m so glad I did!

Whyte had me at the introduction, as he beautifully portrayed the life of Rutherford, the great Scottish divine of Anwoth, his exile in Aberdeen, his involvement in the Westminster Assembly, and most importantly, his ardent love for Christ.

Not only did I read Whyte’s classic work on Rutherford’s letters, but then went on to read the Letters myself, which drastically impacted the trajectory of my life. Moreover, through Whyte, and then incidentally, Rutherford, their writing opened my eyes to other Puritans; and thus, my journey to understand the Puritans began.

With that said, I’d like to share with you four lessons on how the Puritans have impacted me personally.

1. Personal Holiness

The first lesson I learned from the Puritans was the importance (and urgency!) of personal holiness, both within the believer and the church. To be honest, my Christian life prior to reading Whyte’s book on Rutherford was lacking in holiness. I believed in the Lord, was involved in ministry, had regular time with Him, but I had grown apathetic.

Shortly after I read Rutherford, I dusted off an old copy of a Jonathan Edwards book I had and read his Personal Narrative (the story of Edwards’ conversion and growth in Christ). I was struck with how serious Edwards took holiness. He writes, “I had vehement longings of soul after God and Christ, and after more holiness, wherewith my heart seemed to be full, and ready to break.” Oh how my heart soared when I read those words, and how I too had a greater longing for more holiness.

The Puritans saw holiness as both experiential and holistic; that is, holiness should be in every part of our lives.

2. The Ugliness of Sin

Not only did the Puritans help me understand the importance of personal holiness, but also of the ugliness of sin. “Sin is likened to the rot,” says Puritan Ralph Venning, “to the filth and corruption of the foulest disease, which is so foul and rotten that one would not touch it with a pair of tongs.” The Puritans took the doctrine of sin very serious, much more than we tend to in our modern day. In our culture of excessive hedonism, the Puritan seriousness of sin is a much-needed reminder. Indeed, we cannot understand the sweetness of grace unless we know the bitterness of sin.

3. The Importance of Reverence

Another vital lesson I have learned from the Puritans is the importance of the fear of the Lord, a theme we don’t hear preached too often from the pulpit. And yet, one cannot understand the love of God without the fear of God.

The Puritans reminded me of how crucial it is to have a holy reverence toward the Lord. In fact, in my recent book In This Manner: Six Essential Truths on How to Live Out the Lord’s Prayer, I touch on this subject in great detail.

4. Delighting in the Lord’s Day

My first pastorate position was as a youth and associate pastor of a church in Romulus, Michigan, a few miles away from Detroit Metropolitan Airport. And in that church, we had two services: a morning service and an evening service. Sunday was the Lord’s Day… the whole day. Therefore, I spent the majority of that day at church and within fellowship with the congregation. I loved it!

But when my wife and I moved to Ohio, the church I worked at had two morning services and no evening service. And I noticed something: once church was over, people rushed to get out, go out to eat, watch football, or play golf (depending on the weather). It was as if they said, “Well, church is done; I can check that off my list… now it’s football time!”

This is a sad reality for many of our churches today. We have lost the sanctity of the Lord’s Day.

Thankfully, when I began to read the Puritans regarding the Lord’s Day, it breathed new life into my week as I began to anticipate Sunday – the “market day of the soul,” as the Puritans called it. Thomas Watson said “you cannot love the Lord unless you love His day.”

I am eternally indebted to the Puritans and to the many lessons I’ve learned from them. In fact, studying Puritan theology has become a passion of mine, and one I plan to continue throughout the rest of my life.

Note: Here are three books on the Puritans that you may be interested in:

  1.  Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer
  2. The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality
  3. Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of & Devotion to Prayer 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two Extremes to be Avoided in Preaching

Two Extremes to be Avoided in Preaching (new)

Extreme # 1: Preaching as if everyone in the congregation is saved.

Years ago I received an email from a member of a certain congregation. This person, whom I did not know personally at the time I received the email, was wondering why their pastor preached as if everyone in their church was saved. And because their pastor viewed everyone in the pews as regenerate, he did not see the need to call his congregation to self-examination. In other words, since in this preacher’s mind everyone in his local church was saved, he only delivered messages that address the believers.  In his sermons, there was no direct call for the unbelievers to repent of their sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for their salvation.

I have some problems with this kind of preaching. First of all, a preacher who preaches as if everyone in the congregation is saved has an idealistic view of a local church. The truth is there is no perfectly pure local church composed of only true believers. A visible church will always have both goats and sheep—a sad and painful reality for the ministers. And both the goats and the sheep need the gospel: the goats for their salvation; the sheep for their sanctification. Until Christ returns the congregations that we serve will remain impure (Matt. 25:31–46). Therefore, a pastor should keep in mind that as he proclaims God’s Word, there might be at least one unbeliever present during the preaching. Furthermore, a pastor, who does not see the need to call his congregation to self-examination on the basis of his assumption that everyone is saved, might create a false sense of assurance of salvation among the unbelievers.

We need to realize, too, that self-examination is not only for the unbelievers but for the believers as well. Writing to the Corinthian church, Paul says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Cor. 13:5). Here Paul is particularly addressing his fellow believers. That self-examination is also for the believers is seen in our “Liturgical Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” in which we are exhorted to examine ourselves before partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

That we may now celebrate the supper of the Lord to our comfort, it is necessary, before all things, rightly to examine ourselves….Let every one examine his heart whether he also believes this sure promise of God that all his sins are forgiven him only for the sake of the passion and death of Jesus Christ, and that the complete righteousness of Christ is imputed and freely given him as his own – yea, so completely as if he himself, in his own person, had satisfied for all his sins and fulfilled all righteousness.

Here’s my point: Believers in Christ also need to examine themselves whether they truly believe in Jesus or not. And the purpose of this examination is not to make them doubt but to drive them even closer to Christ.

Extreme # 2: Preaching as if no one in the congregation is saved.

Some pastors preach as if no one in their congregations is saved (they do the exact opposite of what the previous pastors do). Or more accurately, these pastors assume that most of their hearers are unsaved and that there are only a minority among their audience who are truly saved. As a result, many members of their congregations—who are genuine believers—suffer severely from a lack of assurance of salvation. Imagine sitting under such preaching. Eventually, you (as a believer) will begin to question the genuineness of your salvation in an unhealthy way, and then fall into despair.

I remember several years ago, I met an old man who sat under this kind of preaching. This man was in his 90’s and had been a member of their congregation for over 50 years. And yet, sadly he did not know whether he was saved or not. This man went to church twice every Sunday for many years and served as an elder several times, but he had no assurance of salvation. Ironically, for this man the more you doubt the more pious you become. Thus, in his mind, doubt is a form of virtue.

Well, such thinking contradicts what Peter says, “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Pet. 1:10). Here, Peter is commanding his fellow believers to make sure of their calling and election. And yes, it is possible for Christians to experience and enjoy assurance of salvation. As Canons of Dort says, “Of this preservation of the elect to salvation and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith…” Charles Spurgeon once observed, “Many a believer lives in the cottage of doubt when he might live in the mansion of faith.”

Pastors who commit the extreme # 2 in preaching should realize the damage they do to their members, namely, they foster a spirit of doubt and despair among those who are sincerely saved.

Conclusion

How can we then avoid these two extremes in preaching? There are many ways but for the sake of time, let me just give you one, that is, be faithful to your text. Don’t just read your text and leave it. Use it. Expound it. Preach from it. And don’t force your text to say something that it does not say. As a preacher, you are to tell your congregation what your text says. Suppose your text is Romans 8:28–29: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…”

Obviously this text is for the believers, so use this text to address the believers in your sermon. However, in that same sermon, (even just in a few words) you can also warn the unbelievers by saying that all things are not working together for their eternal good, because the glorious promise found in this passage is only for those who love God.

Now, if your text is Revelation 21:8, then address the unbelievers in your sermon: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” With this passage, don’t hesitate to challenge the unbelievers to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. And as you do so, in passing you can comfort and assure your fellow believers that their portion will not be in the lake of fire but in the new heaven and new earth.

Now, of course you can also preach from a passage that naturally addresses both the believers and the unbelievers. Some of the parables of Jesus do this (e.g., Wise & Foolish Builders [Matt. 7:24–27]; Wise & Foolish Virgins [Matt. 25:1–13]; and Sheep & Goats [Matt. 25:31–46]). These passages allow the pastor to address both the righteous and the wicked in his sermon in a natural and balanced way.

Nevertheless, let me issue a word of caution here for those who listen to a sermon: you cannot expect your pastor to deliver a well balanced sermon that 50% deals with the godly and 50% deals with the ungodly. Depending on the text, sometimes the message can be geared more towards the believers and sometimes more towards the unbelievers. Therefore, if you want to evaluate your pastor, do so based on his faithfulness to his text. The question should not be whether he addressed the unbelievers or not in his message, or whether he addressed the believers or not. No! Instead, did he faithfully preach and apply his text to his congregation?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preaching