On preaching the Psalms

On preaching the Psalms

Here’s an excerpt from Kenneth Langley, How to Preach the Psalms (Dallas: Fontes Press, 2021), p. 20:

… most of us intuitively bring this genre sensitivity to our reading of Scripture. We do not read Proverbs the same way we read the Decalogue. We do not expect narrators to argue like the book of Hebrews, or Hebrews to tell a story like Ruth. We do not interpret apocalyptic the way we do Acts, or read psalms the way we read parables. When we encounter the words, “you shall not,” or “the kingdom of God is like,” or “the word of the Lord came to me,” or “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,” we recognize cues that what follows is to be read as legal material, parable, oracle, and epistle. And it’s a good thing, too. We could never understand what God says in the Bible unless we had learned to read different kinds of literature differently. Genre-sensitivity is an essential part of reading competence.

Unfortunately, we do not always preach Scripture the way we read Scripture. The genre-sensitivity with which we approach the varied forms of biblical literature is shelved when we craft sermons on those forms. We make the sophomoric mistake of thinking that when you paraphrase a poem you have said the same thing in different words. What we read in the study is, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” What we say in the pulpit is, “God can be counted on to provide for his people.” And we do not realize that the sermon has not said what the text says. The affective, imaginative, and aesthetic appeal of the original line is forgotten, down the hall in our study.

What has probably happened is that we have learned to preach just one genre of sermon. We have grown comfortable with a preaching form that works well with, say, epistolary material, and then tried to make that form work for every genre of Scripture. Sermons on proverbs sound like sermons on Philippians; sermons on psalms sound like sermons on Luke. Every week it’s three main points, or problem/solution, or perhaps even a narrative structure—a welcome alternative to the older propositional preaching, but one which can all too easily become a new rut. Sunday after Sunday we cram parables and proverbs, laments and lyrics into our homiletical grinders and out comes something that tastes just like last week’s sausage. Preachers will never do justice to the psalms until we put to rest the notion that a single sermon form will fit the varied forms of biblical literature.

Peter and the echo chamber

Peter and the echo chamber

Acts 10 is a bit of a puzzle, because God gives us a beautiful missionary story … and a missionary who isn’t very enthusiastic! Peter does not want to be at Cornelius’ home―he makes that clear in the rudest way possible. What’s the deal? We can begin to understand if we begin a little closer to home, in a galaxy not so far away, where we have a similar problem but a different date.

At mid-century, Brown v. Board of Education was the lightening rod that oriented most Christian responses to racial integration. There have always been crude fighters like, say, Billy James Hargis―loud, racist braggarts who courted controversy. But, there have also always been more “sophisticated” versions of the same―polished sweetness camouflaging a “kinder, gentler” form of racism.

At mid-century, the “freedom of association” plea was the argument de jour among the more cosmopolitan racists.[1] Briefly, this argument claimed the Supreme Court could not force individuals to associate (i.e. integrate) against their will. Nelson Bell gives us a good example of this “freedom of association” pitch. Bell was a Virginia-born medical missionary to China, along with his wife, for 35 years. He was Billy Graham’s father-in-law. For years, he had a regular column in Christianity Today, that bastion of sophisticated, northern evangelicalism.  

In 1955, Bell published an article in his denomination’s periodical, Southern Presbyterian Journal, titled “Christian Race Relations Must be Natural, Not Forced.” He declared “… it is un-Christian, unrealistic and utterly foolish to force those barriers of race which have been established by God and which when destroyed by man are destroyed to his own loss.”[2] He said race distinctions were “God ordained,” no matter what Brown v. Board of Education said,[3] and integration has “nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity.”[4] Indeed, Bell proclaimed that by way of unnatural, forced integration, “the right of the individual is violated.”[5]

What on earth is happening, here? How could a conservative, God-fearing man who gave the best years of his life to serving Christ in China write these words? How could he think them? Believe them? How could Bell’s denomination (also R.L. Dabney’s denomination, arch-racist that he was[6]) advertise a segregated “negro” ladies synod meeting in 1954,[7] and just below it include a poem that gushed:[8]

O, Word of God! Oh, blessed Book! Into that store of wealth I look, To seek, with awe and fearful care, To learn of Wisdom written there

How could a local pastor, in the same periodical, pen an article on Amos that same month and declare “[o]ur economic and social life must be permeated by the principles of Christ …”?[9] In short, why do we do things like this, which people “removed” from the time can see is totally opposed to the Gospel of Christ?

Our look at Peter and Cornelius will tell us the answer, because while we have different dates, we have the same problem.

The Two Visions

God presents us with two complementary visions, each intended to force a meeting between two very different men. First, we meet Cornelius. He’s the archetype of a Gentile convert. He’s a Roman soldier. From Italy. He gives alms. He prays continuously. He’s devout. God sends an angel to speak to him, who explains God has noted his prayer and good works. Cornelius must send men to Joppa, south along the coast, fetch Peter and ask him return with them.

Meanwhile, Peter receives a vision of his own. As he waits for lunch, he falls into a trance. God opens the heavens. A white sheet descends slowly, held as it were from the four corners so Peter cannot see what it contains. It touches the ground and, behold!―unclean animals! Lunch is served! God commands him to eat. Peter, perhaps suspecting a divine test, demurs. The voice from above responds forcefully, “what God has cleansed, don’t ever call unclean!”[10] The sheet returns and lowers twice more, then God takes the whole kaboodle back into heaven. Clearly, He doesn’t have any ritual purity issues with the animals!

Peter is confused. What does this mean? Let me ask you―is this really just about Old Covenant food laws? Jesus already declared dietary laws obsolete,[11] and while Peter may be a bit thick (just like the rest of us!), is this dramatic vision really necessary to get that point across? Why is this the divine revelation God gives to Peter, just as Cornelius’ messengers arrive? Or, does it really stand for something else?

The Summons

At that moment, Cornelius’ messengers obey their GPS and pull to the curb outside. God speaks to Peter, ordering him to go with the men “without hesitation, for I have sent them.” He lumbers down the outside stairway to hail the men at the gate, and they all agree to hit the road for Caesarea on the morrow.

When morning comes, Peter does something unusual. He takes some believers from Joppa with him. Peter has traveled alone, until now. He’s gone to Samaria to inaugurate the Samaritan Pentecost after Phillip evangelized the area. He’s gone hither and thon throughout Judea and Galilee, visiting established congregations. But, he’s not yet gone to see an arch Gentile like Cornelius. He didn’t care about traveling alone before, but now he feels compelled to drag witnesses along. Strange …

After a stop at the Wendy’s drive thru for a tasty breakfast, they hit the road and arrive at Cornelius’ home late the same day. The soldier is waiting. Not only that, he’s gathered his relatives and close friends. After an embarrassing greeting from Cornelius they’re both eager to put behind them, they walk into the house … and Peter stops dead.

He sees “many persons gathered.” He’s horrified, nervous, on edge. He then blurts out one of the rudest, most cruel things we see in the New Covenant scriptures. He tells them “it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” That is a lie. You will search the Old Covenant in vain for this command, or even its implication. Peter then tepidly declares he now understands that vision from God wasn’t about animals at all―it was about Gentiles. Nevertheless, he isn’t a happy camper. Tersely, he states, “so when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” He basically asks, “what do you want?”

Shocking! It’s hard to imagine a missionary so reluctant to evangelize. He wants to leave. He wants to run. He’s uncomfortable. Why? Because Peter is the product of a culture that regards Gentiles as contaminated, impure, ceremonially dirty. The Mishnah is full of detailed laws about how to disinfect your spoon, your plate, your home, yourself … if a Gentile so much as came near any of it. Gentiles were like COVID-19. You didn’t like them. You didn’t want them around. You wanted to disinfect anything they came near. They soiled you. The air they breathed polluted you and your home.[12] You wanted them OUT.

And so Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ and a genuine product of his time, tells this eager audience, “I can’t talk to you. It’s against God’s law. But, you already knew that. Still, God told me I could talk to you now. So, here I am. What do you want from me?”

Horrifying. He doesn’t like Gentiles. Nor does the hardline faction in Jerusalem―they’ll call him on the carpet as soon as he returns. What made Peter respond this way?

The Echo-chamber

It’s the same reason Nelson Bell penned his little essay. Peter’s problem was that he lived in an interpretive echo-chamber and, like Nelson Bell, he used scripture as a blackjack to reinforce cultural prejudices. He didn’t see it, of course. God had to confront Peter, as forcefully and emphatically as possible short of a direct order. Instead, he dropped very obvious breadcrumbs and left Peter to follow the trail to the obvious conclusion.

You see, we’re all catechized into some degree of conformity based on our “social bubble.” There’s a reluctance to use language like “systemic” or “structural” today, because we fear appropriating culture war rhetoric. But, people believe in all sorts of systemic “injustices” that go beyond the level of the individual to the “system” itself. You might believe “the system is rigged” in the media world to suppress conservative political ideology. You might believe “the fix is in” on college campuses to coddle students who cower at the realities of real life. You may believe America is a “Christian nation” which “they” (whoever they are) are trying to destroy. And so it goes. We don’t have a problem with the concept of “systemic” or “structural” forces. We acknowledge them all the time, but rarely recognize when we’re the one’s caught up in the echo-chamber.

Peter didn’t. It’s why God arranged this meeting. It’s the same with Nelson Bell. What God is doing in this passage is showing us that anyone who fears him and obeys Gospel is accepted. There is no partiality. There is no elite caste in the Christian world. The Gospel is for everybody.

And, of course, God demonstrated that in the most vivid way imaginable by orchestrating a Gentile Pentecost that evening in Caesarea. The witnesses Peter dragged along are shocked―the Holy Spirit is for Gentiles, too? Mind. Blown.

Takeaways

Here are three red flags to spot echo-chambers in your spiritual community. They don’t stand on their own but, together, they form a grid that is pretty reliable.

The more removed it is from the plain meaning of scripture it is, the worse it is. If the teaching is not explicit or implicit in the text, be very careful. Can you read the scriptures and really walk away with the idea that Israelites could never speak to someone who wasn’t a Jew? Absurd!

If most Christians throughout history have never heard of it, it’s bad. The Spirit guides the Church into all truth. A broader historical sweep helps us spot interpretive weirdness in our own age.

If a scripture passage’s original audience wouldn’t have understood what you’re doing with the text, it’s probably bad. Moses married a black woman from Cush (Num 12:1). Do you think he agreed with Peter about Gentile defilement? Would Ruth? Would Isaiah (Isa 56:1-8) agree with Peter? Would Ebed-Melech (Jer 39:16-18)?

Nelson Bell’s article produced an avalanche of positive responses.[13] Two months after it ran, the editor proclaimed that it had nearly exhausted two separate print runs of 10,000 copies. He summed up readers comments as saying “it is the nearest to a truly Christian statement of what race relations should be than anything which has appeared anywhere in print.”

Yet, two years after Brown, 90% of the white population in South Carolina still opposed desegregation in schools. Most Baptist pastors in the state tried to keep quiet on the issue rather than risk alienating their congregations[14]―just like Peter in Galatians 2.

One South Carolina pastor, angry about pro-integration SBC literature, wrote that his congregation was asking: “Are the leaders of our denomination intimating, suggesting, or projecting the idea that we as Baptist Churches should open our doors to our colored brother and invite him to come and worship with us?”[15] We naturally respond with, “yes, what color is the sky in your world?” Yet, this is akin to Peter’s companion’s stunned reaction to the Gentile Pentecost in our passage!

What’s so evil about Nelson Bell’s editorial is that it puts culture into the driver’s seat of interpreting scripture. It uses the bible to banish people to the segregated margins of God’s coming kingdom community, which is exactly what Peter was pressured to do in Antioch, and what he wanted to do here. God orchestrated this entire encounter to show Peter how wrong he was … and to show us, too!

Peter realized this when Cornelius ignored his insulting greeting and explained his own vision. I wonder if Nelson Bell ever did.


[1] See especially “Here’s Text of Majority Report by Sibley Committee,” Atlanta Constitution, 29 April 1960, pp. 12-13. See also Barry Goldwater’s comments along this line in the context of criticizing forced busing in “Right ‘Not to Associate,’” New York Times, 27 October 1964, p. 30. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2ZCmLmH.

For historical context, see James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 380-406. See also Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), ch. 6.

[2] Nelson Bell, “Christian Race Relations Must Be Natural, Not Forced,” in Southern Presbyterian Journal, 17 August 1955, p. 3. https://archive.org/details/southernpresbyte14dend/page/n280/mode/1up?view=theater.

[3] Bell, “Christian Race Relations,”p. 4.

[4] Bell, “Christian Race Relations,”p. 4. 

[5] Bell, “Christian Race Relations,”pp. 4-5.

[6] See R. L. Dabney, “Ecclesiastical Relation of Negroes,” (Richmond, 1868). https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ecclesiastical_Relation_of_Negroes.  

[7] Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 May 1954, p. 15. https://archive.org/details/southernpresbyte13dend/page/n20/mode/1up?view=theater  

[8] Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 May 1954, p. 15. 

[9] Rev. J. Kenton Parker, “Amos Condemns Social Injustice,” § “The Terrible Social Sins of Israel: 8:4-7,” in Southern Presbyterian Journal, 26 May 1954, p. 13.

[10] v.15 is my own translation. The strong, emphatic negation is missing from the ESV. 

[11] See Mark 7:19 and consider the broader implications of the New Covenant for moral and ritual impurity.  

[12] On this tradition, which has no basis in the Hebrew scriptures, see especially Gary Gilbert, “Gentiles, Jewish Attitudes Towards,” at § Gentiles and Ritual Purity, in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, ed(s). John Collins and Daniel Harlow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 672. See also the relevant tractates in the Mishnah. See especially Emil Shurer and Alfred Edersheim.  

[13] Southern Presbyterian Journal, 05 October 1955, p. 21. See also Ibid, 16 November 1955, p. 3.

[14] J. Russell Hawkins, The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy (New York: OUP, 2021), p. 22.

[15] Hawkins, Bible Told Them, p. 23. 

Preaching a new way

Preaching a new way

In this article, I’ll include excerpts from a recent sermon and share some thoughts about sermon preparation and delivery. Every pastor prepares sermons differently. My goal here is a combination of mechanics and approach―how to best capture and communicate what God is doing with what He’s saying, and to deliver shorter, more effective sermons.

All the examples which follow are from a sermon on Acts 8:2-25, titled “Peter and the Magician.”

Introductions

The introduction and conclusion are now the only portions of my sermons I script. Here is the introduction:

I use Abraham Kuruvilla’s acrostic “INTRO method,” which takes strong discipline but is well worth it (A Manual for Preaching: The Journey from Text to Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), ch. 7). I leave it to the reader to seek out his text and read the approach for yourself, but you can see it in my outline.

You begin with a striking image that grabs people’s attention, to get them to commit to listen to the sermon in those first crucial minutes. I never use books of illustrations or scour the internet. I read quite a bit and my illustrations usually come from (1) news stories I read, (2) historical anecdotes, or less often (3) stories from my law enforcement and investigations career. You must be able to make some kind of tangible leap from the illustration to the substance of the sermon.

You then pivot to ask probing questions, to get the congregation to see why they ought to listen―why they must listen. You should never tell people the application or reveal “what God is doing with what He’s saying” in the introduction. Do. Not. Do. It. You are not a lawyer, making an argument. Don’t lay out a precis of your “case,” then spend the sermon “proving” it to a jury. Just ask questions that provoke introspection, related to the application move that is implicit in the text. In this case (see above), you can see where I go with my questions.

I then switch to a general statement of the topic, usually in the form of a question to be answered. Again, do not unveil your application or the force of the passage.

Then, state the passage text and lay out a “contract” of sorts by providing the structure of the sermon―the “moves” you’ll be making, so the congregation can follow your progress. Kuruvilla sums it up well (Manual, p. 191):

The Image says: Get ready to hear this sermon.

The Need says: This is why you should hear this sermon.

The Topic says: This is what you are going to hear.

The Reference says: This is from where you are going to hear it.

The Organization says: This is how you are going to hear it.

I try to keep my introductions to four minutes. I made it with this sermon. However, this past Sunday (16 October 2021), it ran to 5:30. You can’t win them all … I did this introduction in about four and a half minutes:

Move 1―The Scattering

Here is where my newer method for preparing my notes takes form. I include virtually no notes at all. I simply highlight key things I wish to emphasize, and insert terse comments on things I want to be sure I don’t blank out on as I’m speaking:

This is where my choices for emphasis might raise some eyebrows. As I said in a previous article, I don’t think “audiobook commentary” preaching is real preaching at all. So, I don’t comment on everything in the text. I leave a lot out. I only highlight the key points that I believe God would have us “see” in the text, in light of what I believe He’s “doing with what He’s saying.”

So, this means I do not dwell on the nature or extent of the persecution. I basically let the text float me along and only make a few comments. I note Luke’s interesting word choice to describe Paul’s fanaticism, but move quickly. I cover vv.1-3 in perhaps two minutes. I believe it is a mistake to park here and chat about persecution. That is a worthy topic, but it isn’t Luke’s point in this passage. It is an appropriate topic for the confrontations with the Council at Acts 3-4.

Acts 8:4-8 present another challenge, and another opportunity to resist audiobook preaching. How many of us are tempted to stop with Acts 8:2-8? The problem is that this is only setting the stage for the real point of the passage―Simon’s conversion and his confrontation with the Apostle Peter.

Don’t get me wrong―you can do something with Acts 8:2-8. I just don’t believe you’d be sensitive to the “connectedness” of the passage if you did. This section sets the stage; it isn’t meant to stand on its own. Don’t cut it here and make a sermon about persecution + evangelism, then conclude with a flourish with something like “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!” What are your people supposed to do with that information? They’ll have heard a lecture, not a message aimed at transformation.

So:

  • I resisted the urge to speak on the apostolic sign gifts. I mentioned them, but didn’t park there. I emphasized they were markers of God’s kingdom power breaking into a black and white world with brilliant colors.
  • I spent more time emphasizing the “paid attention to” remark, which Luke repeats several more times. It’s critical to understanding Simon’s mindset, and his actions.

I covered vv. 4-8 in four minutes. The entire sermon is 11 minutes long, as I finish v. 8.

Move 2―The Magician Joins the Family!

Now we move to the heart of the passage, and this is where I spend most of my time:

My notes speak for themselves, so I won’t belabor the point. Notice that I have no “notes,” in the traditional sense. I’m working entirely from highlights, with some occasional cryptic notes that I want to be sure I remember to emphasize. My hermeneutical aim is to focus on the way Luke juxtaposes the allegiance shift from Simon to Phillip. This is critical. You cannot miss this in favor of speculation about the genuineness of Simon’s faith. Commentators will do this. Ignore them. It’s irrelevant to Luke, it’s irrelevant to you, and it’s irrelevant to your congregation. Luke is not interested in Simon’s salvation―he’s interested in his reaction to Peter and John when they mediate the gift of the Spirit!

It’s the allegiance shift that’s important, because it sets up Simon’s reaction at the forthcoming “Samaritan Pentecost.” Notice that the Samaritans previously “paid attention” to Simon, but now they’ve “paid attention” to Philip. Notice also how Simon encouraged people to give him quasi-worship. This should be your focus. But, again, it cannot end here. Don’t cut your sermon and tell folks to return next week―that would be awful! Move quickly to the confrontation.

I covered vv. 9-13 in five minutes:

Move 3―The Confrontation (Pentecost 2.0)

I’m still not quite at the crucial part of the sermon. Rather, we have here the final piece of the puzzle that sets up the event:

I spend little time on this―I want to hasten on. My focus is not on the theological implications of the Samaritan Pentecost, though I do mention it. Instead, my focus is on the fact that Simon, the magician who had used dark arts to deceive many, literally sees something more powerful, more awesome than anything he’s ever seen before. What would a man like Simon do, in this circumstance? He’s an immature professing believer―what will he do?

My short notes reveal I don’t tarry long, here. I do something unusual and script a list of rhetorical questions to ask the congregation, because I want to get this right. I cover vv. 14-17 in less than two minutes:

Move 4―The Confrontation (Simon and Peter)

Now, we get to it:

This is the heart of the sermon. This is where Simon’s request to Peter can be seen in a holistic light. The guy is reverting back to type; he sees a chance to obtain some of the notoriety he once had while still serving God. He’s bitter, envious, chained up by his own sin. Simon wants his social position back, and he sees a “good” way to get it.

This is more “real” than viewing Simon like a Looney Tunes character and declaring he was a heretic, or “immature.” That’s no good. He was a real person. We’re real people. We do things for the wrong reasons. We lie to ourselves. We “know better,” but we do it anyway.

Again, I script a few particularly important notes, but I basically survive with highlights and terse comments in the margin. I covered vv. 18-24 in just over seven minutes, by far the longest time I parked during the sermon:

Exhortation

I again follow Kuruvilla’s formatting, here, and use a “Tell + Show + Image + Challenge” approach. In this sermon, I ditched the last “image” and only used three elements. Again, I fully script the conclusion because it’s important to land this plane well:

Some final thoughts

My burden here is to share my new method for sermon preparation: no manuscripting, highlights for important things, terse comments in the margin for very important things, and scripted comments only for the most critical items.

This style requires a certain comfort with extemporaneous speaking, within limits. It also takes ruthless message discipline―a quest to go beyond exegesis to synthesis, a sensitivity for genre, an eye for natural thought-units, and an ability to sift the considerable chaff out of the commentaries. It also demands a relentless focus on application―on practical sanctification. How will God’s implicit movement to action in this passage make our congregation more like Christ, corporately and individually? What does God want us to do with what He’s saying? Concretely, exactly, not abstractly?

I’ve found this new style is working for me. The sermons are shorter, tighter, more focused, more direct, more helpful. They take much less time to prepare. It may not work for you. But, then again, perhaps my thoughts here can be helpful to you.

Thoughts on preaching

Thoughts on preaching

I’ve been intentionally experimenting with my preaching over the past few years. I am grateful for the expository preaching model I was handed at seminary. It’s a good model. It’s the best model. But, there are different flavors within that broad framework. The past few Sundays, I’ve tried something radical for my sermon preparation. It is radical for me, but perhaps not for you. I shall share it, anon.

But, first some observations about expository preaching, as it is sometimes practiced―as I used to practice it!

Against audiobook commentary preaching

I have grown increasingly disappointed with a style of preaching I shall call “audiobook commentary.” This is where the pastor is basically an Audible version of an introductory bible commentary. Abraham Kuruvilla, whom I consider to be the ablest preaching teacher working in North America today, summarizes this pretty well:

This I call the hermeneutic of excavation—the exegetical turning over of tons of earth, debris, rock, boulders, and gravel: a style of interpretation that yields an overload of biblical and Bible-related information, most of it unfortunately not of any particular use for one seeking to preach a relevant message from a specific text.

Abraham Kuruvilla, A Vision for Preaching: Understanding the Heart of Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), p. 13.

Last year, my wife and I attended a conference where we were subjected to this very approach. During a time while we waiting to be “refreshed,” I dutifully listened to a pastor (with both an earned DMin and a PhD) explain the alleged Latin etymology for the English word “sword.” This pastor was a disciple of John MacArthur, and preached just like him. Indeed, MacArthur personifies this audiobook commentary style of preaching. He is a faithful expositor and a steadfast shepherd, but I don’t believe he is the best preacher. This observation is heretical in some circles, but here I stand. I understand if you disagree.

Exegesis is not preaching. It’s a waypoint on the road to preaching.

You don’t need more commentaries

You don’t need another commentary. There is nothing new to say. I promise. I swear. I just read C.K. Barrett’s remarks on John 4:23 (The Gospel According to St. John (London: SPCK, 1958), pp. 198-199), then cracked open D.A. Carson (The Gospel According to John, in PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 224). He appears to have copied Barrett, down to the choice of specific phrases, without citing him. At the very least, Carson echoes Barrett to an eyebrow-raising degree. I’ve no idea if he did it deliberately, nor do I care. My point is there is likely nothing new to be said.

You want an exegetical commentary? The language work has been done. It really has. You hopefully had language training yourself, too. Barrett will do you fine. So will Calvin. If you get yourself a small, trustworthy stock of exegetical commentaries, you won’t need to buy anymore.

Most commentaries have little value for preachers, because they specialize in hermeneutical excavation. They don’t help you understand the passage as a passage. As literature. As a composition. As a pericope that God is doing something with. Instead, they often major on grammatical observations, syntactical nuances. They summarize oodles of scholarly literature, then sometimes forget to make observations of their own. They’re good for technical reference, perhaps, but you probably have enough of those.

Their interpretive filters are too often cardboard. I just read R.C.H. Lenski declare Peter uttered an imprecatory curse at Acts 8:20. This is unlikely. Maybe … (and call me crazy) … just maybe Peter utters an angry exclamation! Maybe there’s no theological weight behind his short statement, which I translate colloquially as “you and your money can go to hell!” (cf. Phillips’ translation).

Here’s another example.

If you’re preaching on Stephen’s sermon before the Council (Acts 6:8 – 8:1), a discussion on whether Stephen properly applied Amos at Acts 7:42-43 is useless to you. It means nothing. It does not help you communicate God’s message to your congregation. It might interest you. It might intrigue you. It might pique your interest for an article. It does nothing to help you preach the passage. That’s why most commentaries are unhelpful homiletical aids.

You probably don’t need more commentaries.

Preach by passage, not by verse

How many sermons would you use to preach Stephen’s speech before the Council (Acts 6:8 – 8:1)? Six years ago, I did it in four sermons. A few weeks ago, I did it in one sermon that totaled 50 minutes … and I think it was 10 minutes too long.

I almost titled this section “read the bible as literature,” but thought better of it. However, it’s true. You should try to capture the bible’s flow of thought pericope by pericope, or passage by passage. We express thoughts in paragraphs, in sections. We don’t do it in sentences. Sentences are pieces of a whole. But, that’s too often the way we preach. I just saw a pastor announce on social media that he planned to wrap up his series on Jude, by preaching vv. 20-25. This means he cut his last sermon at v. 19. Why would you do that?

We’ll do one sermon covering Stephen’s false arrest (Acts 6:8-15). Another on God’s promises to Abraham (Acts 7:1-16), where we bring in some Genesis tidbits and wax eloquent about the Abrahamic Covenant. Then, we’ll discuss Moses’ origin story, praise the Hebrew midwives who refused to bow to Pharaoh, etc. (Acts 7:17-23). If we’re adventurous, we’ll fold Moses’ flight to the desert into that sermon (Acts 7:23-29). And so it goes, until we finally dispatch Stephen into Jesus arms by mercifully concluding the miniseries at Acts 8:1.

The problem is that’s not what Stephen did. He selected and deliberately framed (and re-framed) key incidents from Israel’s past in order to make a powerful accusation to the Council. The shape of his sermon should be ours. It was one sermon. One message. It had rhetorical force because of that shape.

“But,” we object, “it would take two hours to preach Acts 6:8 – 8:1 verse by verse!” Yes, it would. That’s why you don’t preach it verse by verse. You preach the passage. You hit key points paragraph by paragraph, discerning and following the shape of Stephen’s argument.

To borrow another insight from Kuruvilla, scripture isn’t a window we point through towards an object inside. It’s a stained-glass window we point at, like a curator at a museum. We show it to people. We describe it. We explain it. Then, we show them what this beautiful picture has to do with their lives, so they can be more like Christ.

It would be criminal to cut Stephen off, to atomize his speech into a miniseries. To turn his denunciation into a sermon about Moses in Egypt. To spend five minutes explaining why Stephen correctly applied Amos 5:25-27. Leave that bit to MacArthur.

Shorter sermons

I believe that if you go over 40 minutes, you’re going on too long. I know the objections. I understand that, if people consume all sorts of awful content the other six days of the week, they ought to be able to listen to a 50 or 60 minute sermon. I agree. But …

I suspect that, like me, you really don’t have 50 minutes of content. I think you could have made your point better by cutting some stuff out. I’m willing to bet 10-15 minutes of your sermon was unnecessary; the debris from all that excavating. I suspect you “feel” your sermons are better when they’re shorter. If that’s your experience, I don’t believe it’s an accident you feel that way. It’s because they are better when they’re shorter.

Maybe this is all just me. Maybe I’m not gifted enough to fill 50 minutes with dynamic content. Maybe you are. Maybe your pastor is. Maybe you’re awesome, and I’m just ordinary. It’s possible. But, maybe we’re both just ordinary people, and neither of us should really be preaching for 50 minutes?

My goal is 35 minutes. I rarely make it. But for the past three weeks, driven by a quest to be more efficient with my time as a bi-vocational pastor, I’ve changed my approach to sermon prep. This approach has yielded shorter, better sermons (31, 38, and 35 minutes, respectively). They’re tighter, more focused, and more direct. I ruthlessly ditch rabbit-trails that are unnecessary to the author’s point in that passage. In the latest sermon, on 10 October 2021, my notes ran to a mere 866 words―506 of which were the scripted introduction + conclusion. My notes for the body of the sermon ran to 360 words (this is not an outline, but notes regarding the text). I also finished my prep on Thursday, which is unusual for me because I’m bi-vocational.

In the next article, I’ll share a sermon manuscript and how I now prepare my notes. I’ll also embed the video of a sermon.

For now, I’ll leave you with this sermonic gem from Abraham Kuruvilla from a recent chapel session at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he lately took up residence as Professor of Christian Preaching. The content is good, but note particularly the homiletical technique he uses. I’ll explain more, later. For now, behold his sermon:

Religious exemptions and the COVID vaccine

Religious exemptions and the COVID vaccine

Vaccine mandates have arrived, and so have questions about religious exemptions. What should Christians think about them? I’ll provide one over-arching principle, then briefly discuss some common religious justifications we see offered up.

A warning

The Third Commandment tells us we must not misuse God’s name (Ex 20:7; Deut 5:11). One way we do this is when we invoke God as an authority to justify something we want to do. I want to do something, so I use God as a blank check, and I get my free pass. But … did God really say that?

People misuse God’s name for all sorts of sins. To justify divorce in unwarranted circumstances, sexual immorality, sexual confusion, gender identity, and the like. Look anywhere, and you’ll find professing Christians using God as justification for their unholy ways. This is a violation of the Third Commandment.

Now we come to religious exemptions for vaccines. You must think carefully, very carefully, about why you object to the vaccine. If you’re using God as a free pass to escape a vaccine mandate, then you’re violating the Third Commandment.

You may object and cite an abortion connection, freedom of conscience, and the like. Fair enough―we’ll get there. But ask yourself, “Is [insert religious justification] really why I don’t want the vaccine, or is [insert religious justification] a convenient pass for me to avoid something I just don’t want to do?” If the answer is yes, then you’re in danger of violating the Third Commandment.

As a well-known news anchor once said, that’s “kind of a big deal.” You don’t want to do that. Now, to the religious justifications themselves.

The Abortion Objection

This is perhaps the strongest religious exemption of the lot. Some Christians claim the various COVID vaccines have a connection to abortion. Various news outlets explain this connection is distant and far removed, and that the vaccines themselves don’t contain fetal tissue. Still, some Christians find this horrifying. Here is a representative example from a professing Christian, quoted in the New York Times:  

My freedom and my children’s freedom and children’s children’s freedom are at stake,” said Ms. Holmes, who lives in Indiana. In August, she submitted an exemption request she wrote herself, bolstered by her own Bible study and language from sources online. Some vaccines were developed using fetal cell lines from aborted fetuses, she wrote, citing a remote connection to a practice she finds abhorrent. She quoted a passage from the New Testament: “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit.”[1]

The Louisiana Attorney General provides a sample exemption letter with an identical objection.[2] Back to the New York Times article―note that this woman fronts her remarks with a discussion of “freedom.” Also, notice that she apparently didn’t consult her faith community about the veracity of her religious objection. Instead, she did independent study and looked up “sources online.” She then quotes 2 Corinthians 7 out of context and assumes a vaccine will “contaminate” her. As Michael Bird would say, “sweet mother of Melchisedec!”  

But, this woman isn’t you. Perhaps you have a more sophisticated form of this objection. Fair enough.

Back to the Third Commandment.

I want to ask you to re-ask that same question again―does this distant abortion connection really outrage you, or is it just a “get out of jail free” card you’re willing to use? Please think very carefully before answering this question. One way to be introspective here is to consider whether you were already against the vaccine before you learned about the abortion nexus.

Body as a temple

Proponents cite the Apostle Paul’s well-known remarks at 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19. One organization, called Health Freedom Idaho, published a sample exemption letter on its website that used this objection and cited these passages. It read, in part:

Accordingly I believe, pursuant to my Christian faith, that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is a God-given responsibility and requirement for me to protect the physical integrity of my Body against unclean food and injections.[3]

Again, this does violence to the text. First, Paul’s remarks about the body as a temple were directed to the Corinthian church as a body, as a whole―the “you are God’s temple” is plural! So, he is not referring to you as an individual at all. Some may quibble about 1 Corinthians 6:19, but the best one could say there is that Paul is addressing the community as a whole with an aim to individual application. The references are still plural, as follows:

ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε (“do you all [plural] not know”) ὅτι ⸂τὸ σῶμα⸃ ὑμῶν (“that your collective [plural] body [singular]“) ναὸς (“is a temple [singular]“) τοῦ ἐν ὑμῖν ἁγίου πνεύματός (“of the Holy Spirit, within you all [plural]?”).

If one still wishes to lodge an objection and lasso this citation to a COVID vaccine, one must deal with the interpretive problem. The sample exemption letter mistakenly interprets the temple motif to refer to physical pollution to one’s body, when Paul is in fact interjecting a rhetorical question (an accusation, really) about sins that may destroy their community (“the temple”), among which Christ resides (1 Cor 3). In the 1 Corinthians 6:19 reference, Paul refers to moral impurity “contaminating” the temple that is the Christian community. He says nothing about a vaccine. He’s talking about sin, about evil, about lawlessness (cf. 1 Jn 3:4).

This objection has no interpretive merit.

It’s a sin to do what I don’t want to do

The Liberty Counsel is a Christian legal ministry. It also provides a sample religious exemption letter on its website. This letter manages to encapsulate peak narcissism with its interpretive method:

It is against my faith and my conscience to commit sin. Sin is anything that violates the will of God, as set forth in the Bible, and as impressed upon the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit. In order to keep myself from sin, and receive God’s direction in life, I pray and ask God for wisdom and direction daily. As part of my prayers, I have asked God for direction regarding the current COVID shot requirement. As I have prayed about what I should do, the Holy Spirit has moved on my heart and conscience that I must not accept the COVID shot. If I were to go against the moving of the Holy Spirit, I would be sinning and jeopardizing my relationship with God and violating my conscience.[4]

According to this letter, if the Spirit “has moved” you then you have a free pass―presumably about anything. This is absurd. Christianity is not a subjective religion with scripture that shape-shifts according to taste, like an Etch-a-Sketch. God gave us His word. That word has content. That content has meaning that can be known and understood in community with the brotherhood of faith in your local congregation, and in consultation with the Great Tradition of brothers and sisters who have gone before.

This definition of sin is also specious. Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4); doing what God’s Word forbids. The author wishes to make sin Play-Dough; it’s anything the Holy Spirit “impresses upon” him to be wrong. Sin isn’t concrete anymore, it’s subjective.

This kind of bible interpretation can justify anything, and it’s dangerous.

Freedom of conscience

This objection has a strong siren song, but is harder to justify than it seems. A Christian must have a rational basis for claiming a conscience objection. If food is sacrificed to demons, then that’s a pretty good reason to avoid eating it (1 Cor 8). You get it. You can “see” the problem.

What is the conscience issue with the vaccine? It isn’t enough to hold to some form of, “I don’t like it, so it violates my conscience, so I don’t have to do it.” That’s never been how responsible Christians have interacted with society. Health Freedom Idaho offers this attempt:

… the New Testament requires of Christians that we, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17). When it comes to consuming things into our own bodies, as opposed to make payments to government, compliance with God’s law is required. The mandated vaccine, with its numerous additives and its mechanism for altering my body, is the equivalent of a prohibited “unclean food” that causes harm to my conscience. Vaccines to me are unclean. I believe in and follow God and the principles laid out in His Word and I have a deeply held belief that vaccines violate them.[5]

This objection says very little. It is scarcely believable that unclean foods under the Old Covenant are a parallel to a COVID vaccine. As just a preliminary step to justify this argument one would have to establish a basis for the division of clean and unclean foods, and I wish you luck as you survey the literature on that topic! The author provides no justification about why the vaccine violates his conscience. He just asserts it as a “deeply held belief.” That isn’t good enough. Some people have a “deeply held belief” that Arbys makes good roast beef sandwiches. That don’t make it so …

God doesn’t require it

This is a novel interpretation. The New York Times reports the following:

In rural Hudson, Iowa, Sam Jones has informed his small congregation at Faith Baptist Church that he is willing to provide them with a four-paragraph letter stating that “a Christian has no responsibility to obey any government outside of the scope that has been designated by God.”[6]

This argument is a non-starter. God hasn’t mandated seatbelts, either. Nor the Bill of Rights. The pastor owes it to his congregation to provide a more robust argument than this. If the pastor has one, it didn’t make it into the news article.

Christians shouldn’t be afraid

This is a well-meaning but sad argument. Its logical end is to eschew all medical aid in toto. The New York Times related the following:

Threatened with a formal reprimand if she skipped work in protest, Ms. Holmes woke up in the middle of the night with a Bible verse from the book of 2 Timothy in her mind: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”[7]

The Liberty Counsel also rallied to the cause by declaring Christians have a religious exemption because they have “… a reliance upon God’s protection consistent with Psalm 91.”[8]

2 Timothy 1:7 has nothing to do with rejecting all medical aid, nor does Psalm 91. It’s a symptom of what Scot McKnight has described as a puzzle piece hermeneutic rather than a contextual reading of the bible as a story. If a man cheats on his wife, can he cite 2 Timothy 1:12 (“I am not ashamed …”) and declare he has nothing to apologize for? Why not? It’s in the bible!

Final words

There may well be valid religious exemptions out there from a Christian perspective. Those cited here are largely specious; arguments in search of proof-texts. The abortion connection has the most merit, but I again caution believers to avoid misusing God’s name and violating the Third Commandment.

One Christian named Curtis Chang, who is a former pastor, wrote what Yosemite Sam would consider to be fightin’ words:

Christians who request religious exemptions rarely even try to offer substantive biblical and theological reasoning. Rather, the drivers for evangelical resistance are nonreligious and are rooted in deep-seated suspicion of government and vulnerability to misinformation.

Perhaps this goes too far. But, it is true for too many Christians. Maybe that isn’t you. Maybe you do have objective religious grounds―what are they? What have your pastors said? What has your faith community said? What has the global church said? Are your objections really grounded in the scripture, or are they a prop for some very non-religious reasons?

Only you know the answer.


[1] Ruth Graham, “Vaccine Resisters Seek Religious Exemptions. But What Counts as Religious?” New York Times, 11 September 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/11/us/covid-vaccine-religion-exemption.html?smid=url-share.  

[2] Retrieved from http://ladoj.ag.state.la.us/Article/10941.

[3] Health Freedom Idaho, “Sample Letter for Religious Vaccine Exemption,” https://healthfreedomidaho.org/sample-letter-for-religious-vaccine-exemption/.

[4] Liberty Counsel, “Sample Religious Exemption Requests For COVID Shot Mandates,” 26 July 2021, p. 3. https://lc.org/Site%20Images/Resources/Memo-SampleCOVID-ReligiousExemptionRequests-07262021.pdf.

[5] Health Freedom Idaho, “Sample Letter.”  

[6] Graham, “Religious Exemptions.”

[7] Ibid.  

[8] Liberty Counsel, “Sample Exemption” p. 1.

How we worshiped one Sunday in September

How we worshiped one Sunday in September

I’d like to share the way our congregation structures its worship service. I have nothing special to offer―only my own reflections on where our congregation is, and perhaps where we’ll go. What we do on Sunday mornings, and how we do it, is important. Perhaps my comments here will be useful.

The Missing Link

Many Christians don’t think critically about what happens on Sundays. This isn’t a rebuke, just an observation. Over 40 years ago, Robert G. Rayburn shared similar misgivings:

… having personally visited in a large number of churches in recent months and years, sometimes as a guest preacher, I have been amazed at the carelessness and insincerity that were evident in the services. The people were going through the motions of worship singing the words of the hymns and maintaining quiet when prayers were being uttered, but with no apparent sincere worship of God. The pastors who conducted the services were also careless in a number of services, for example there was nothing to remind the congregation that it is only the pure in heart who shall see God and it is only those whose lives have been cleansed from evil who are able to pray with the confidence that the Lord will hear them.1

How many of us plan worship services without much thought? By rote? We have a template, and we plug the components in. We have four songs to fill. Maybe we pick them ourselves, maybe we delegate. Maybe they follow a theme keyed to the sermon. Maybe they’re just random songs. Maybe the prayers are deliberate, or maybe they’re extemporaneous―with lots of “umm …” and “just ….”. Maybe we begin with announcements. Maybe we have a call to worship. Maybe we don’t know what a “call to worship” even is! Maybe we suspect it’s a Catholic thing … and we can’t have that, can we?

I say “we,” because that was me until a few years ago. I inherited a liturgy (sorry, an “order of service”), and I copied it. I only knew what I saw modeled. I didn’t think introspectively about what happens on a Sunday morning. I do remember an embarrassing moment during my ordination. I sat in Victory Baptist Church, in Pleasant Prairie, WI. The questioning had been going on for about two hours. Somebody, I forget who, asked “what are the components of a worship service?”

I muttered something like “preaching, singing, reading the scripture … and … umm …” I trailed off. My mind had blanked. Then, Marty Marriot, the President of Maranatha Baptist Bible College, rescued me. He stared at me until I “felt” his gaze, then he bowed his head and made an exaggerated steeple with his hands. “Prayer!” I shouted. The questioning moved on.

My point is that some of us don’t think very hard about why and how we do what we do on Sundays. For a long time, I didn’t. My focus was the sermon. The rest of the service was like previews at the movie theater. Sure, it was all important stuff. But, my focus was the sermon. I’m not alone.

Why do we only post the sermons on our websites? What about the rest of the service? Why is the barometer for a “healthy church” almost always the sermon? We all took several homiletics classes at seminary―how many on a theology of worship?

What We Do on Sundays

I’ve gotten older since then, and a tiny bit wiser. Here is what we do on Sunday mornings, along with some brief comments.

Announcements

I really don’t like them, but I can’t get rid of them. I’ve tried and failed. I have given up. But, when should we do them? I’ve seen some guys do them at the end, but that’s just weird, in my opinion. It’s a letdown. It ruins the whole impact of the service.

I do them at the beginning,2 because it’s the best bad option. I rationalize this by telling myself the service doesn’t really begin until the Call to Worship, which immediately follows.

1: Call to Worship

Many worship theologians remark that worship is a dialogue where God speaks, and we respond. The Call to Worship is a proclamation from God about what He has done, which provokes a response from us. It can be a scripture reading, a creed recitation, a song of praise―many things.3 But, it should actually call people to worship; it shouldn’t be a random verse that sounds nice.4 Yesterday, we used Isaiah 54:6-8.

1a: Gospel Connection

I stole this idea from my friend, Pastor Ted Clarke, at Radisson Road Baptist Church in Ham Lake, MN. I take two minutes and frame some Gospel remarks to accompany the Call to Worship text I just read. Sometimes it’s an explicit call for a decision, other times it’s more of a “look at God’s grace!” thing. This is what I said yesterday, keyed to Isaiah 54:6-8:

God meant for His people to find comfort in these words. The analogies of the grieving spouse. God as the loving, compassionate husband―our Lord, the Rescuer, who buys us back from the slave market. In the Christian story, this slave market is Satan’s orphanage.

Jesus’ death was the payoff to Satan that bought our freedom. His resurrection was the bait and switch where Jesus took that ransom back and defeated Satan by trickery.

That story of the strong man, from Mark 3, is when Jesus tells us He’s beaten Satan down, gone into his house and is plundering everything Satan has … and that’s us! Jesus rescues everyone who comes to Him.

When we worship, we give Him thanks, and encourage one another to pursue a total-life commitment to Him―to be living sacrifices!

In the event you raised your eyebrows when I presented the resurrection using the Christus Victor model, see my article on the subject. I believe both penal substitution and Christus Victor are valid facets of the same diamond.

1b: Prayer

God has spoken to us, and now we respond to Him.

My public prayers are now very short.5 I’m convinced long prayers are a waste of time because people zone out and start thinking about lunch. I have been writing my prayers out beforehand for some time. But now, following Rayburn’s suggestion, I structure them as collects. This means they’re very short and follow a five-step pattern:

  • Address: I address the Father to open.
  • Acknowledgment. I mention an attribute that is keyed to the need I’m addressing.
  • Petition. What I’m asking for, on behalf of the people.
  • Aspiration. Why I’m asking―why the petition matters.
  • Pleading. We only have access to pray because of Jesus.

The prayer to end the call to worship looked like this, yesterday:

2: Reading

God speaks to us again. We alternate between responsive and solo readings, and the content is either scripture or creeds and confessions. Yesterday we read a scripture selection from the hymnal about God’s comfort.  

3: Songs

We praise God in response to His declaration from the reading. The songs are keyed to the sermon theme, as are the reading and the remaining prayers. Yesterday, in this set, we sang “Because He Lives” and “The Solid Rock.”

4: Prayer of Intercession

Here, we respond to God after praising Him in song. This is also known as the “pastoral prayer.” Again, the prayer is in the form of a collect. Yesterday, the sermon was on Acts 5:12-42 and the prayer was keyed to my exhortation from that text:

5: Offering

We do no prayer for the offering; the Prayer of Intercession swallows it up.

6: Song

Now, in our dialogue, we address God again. We have two more songs, both keyed to the sermon theme. Yesterday, these two songs were “Amen” (by I am They) and “In Your Hands” (by Unspoken).

7: Sermon

God now speaks to us. My sermon was on Acts 5:12-42. The focus was how Luke shows us a picture of a God-honoring Jesus community and a realistic idea about the reception we can expect from the world―a mixture of hatred and admiration, depending on the audience.

7a: Prayer for Illumination

This is otherwise known as “the prayer the pastor does after the sermon introduction.” I’m including these collects because I think they’re important:

7b: Prayer of Confession

I explicitly have a time to confess our sins, keyed to the exhortation from the sermon. I don’t yet have congregation participation, but I’ll likely tiptoe that way. This kind of prayer is a radical departure for many evangelical churches, and I’m treading carefully, here:

8: Charge and Blessing

The service should end with a charge and an assurance of God’s blessing. This isn’t a time to re-preach your sermon. It’s simply a very brief charge to do the thing the entire service was about. This can be done by a scripture reading, a song, or a responsive reading of some sort. Yesterday, we sang one stanza from “Because He Lives,” to center our perspective on God’s grace and our real mission as a congregation.

Resources

I’ve found these very helpful, and perhaps you will, too. There are other good helps, but these are my favorites:

  1. Christ-Centered Worship, by Bryan Chapell. The best overview.
  2. O Come, Let us Worship, by Robert G. Rayburn. Penetrating analysis of worship and outstanding practical suggestions.
  3. Engaging with God, by David Peterson. Brilliant theology of worship that takes us beyond the tired regulative v. normative worship wars.
  4. The Worship Sourcebook (2nd), ed. Carrie Steenwyk and John Witvliet. The best sourcebook available. Period.
  5. Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth. A very valuable well of model prayers and orders of service for all occasions.
  6. Book of Common Prayer. Does anything need to be said?
  7. Book of Common Worship (PCA). A very valuable sourcebook.
  8. The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration, Tom Fettke. An older hymnal (1986), but it has the best worship helps I’ve seen―especially the selection of scripture readings. I love this hymnal, and our church uses it.
  9. The Book of Psalms for Worship. Beautiful arrangement of hymns set to music.

1 Robert G. Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship: Corporate Worship in the Evangelical Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 19.  

2 Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, p. 170.  

3 Variety is important. There are many ways to invite people to worship God. Bryan Chapell has some excellent charts and resources about how to achieve a result by employing varying methods, week in and week out, so the liturgy doesn’t grow stale (Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009) pp. 147f).   

4 Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, pp. 176-177.  

5 See especially Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship, pp. 197-203.  

Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

Against fear as a prism for Christian reality

In American Christianity, fear has long been a popular way to frame reality. The real enemy is Satan, of course, but the form of the threat has changed throughout the decades. It’s difficult to discuss this with sufficient nuance, because Satan is the real enemy, and he is a crafty one, and his tactics do change with the times.

And yet … some flavors of American evangelicalism seem to frame reality by way of fear a bit too much. Or, a lot too much. A good deal of this is tied up with various flavors of conservative politics. This is not always religion as a cloak for crude nationalist impulses. It’s also because, as historian Jason Bivens notes, political activism by conservative evangelicals also arises “from specific religious convictions as these have been shaped by their tradition’s understandings of social and political change, understandings that they aim to transmit and promote,” (Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism [New York: OUP, 2008], p. 14).

John Fea, a Christian historian at Messiah College, discussed the phenomenon of “evangelical fear” in his 2018 book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Some may frown at that title, but I beg you to stay with me. Fea is describing a real phenomenon–the same one I have in mind. This phenomenon is that, for some American evangelicals, fear really is a vehicle for framing reality.

… this short history of evangelical fear is actually pretty long—going back to the very establishment of European settlement in America. The various fears that combined to drive white evangelical Christians into the arms of Donald Trump have deep roots in American history. Evangelicals’ fears that Barack Obama was a Muslim, and that as president he would violate the Second Amendment and take their guns away, echo—and are about as well founded as—early American evangelicals’ fears that Thomas Jefferson was going to seize believers’ Bibles. The Christian Right’s worries in the 1960s and 1970s that they might lose their segregated academies should take us back to the worries of white evangelicals who lived in the antebellum South. Contemporary efforts to declare America a Christian nation should remind us of similar attempts by fundamentalists a century ago.

Believe Me (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 97.

This fear informs how they view the world, how they interpret the news, what they think of folks with different politics than their own. It impacts evangelism and a local church’s public face. Too often, that public face is one of outrage or bitter sullenness–sentiments incongruous with the joy the Gospel ought to bring, and the optimism it should foster in one’s heart.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can be firm, but not angry. Realistic, but not afraid.

In this excerpt from a recent sermon, I chat a bit about this. I’m commenting specifically on the Acts 2:47: “they praised God and had favor with all the people.”

The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

The regulative principle (again) and worship on Sundays

In a previous article, I outlined a brief case for why the regulative principle of worship (“RP”) wasn’t a label worth owning. I still believe that. Here is a modified version of the argument I presented there:

  1. The basic premise of the RP is sound. The elements, or building blocks, of worship must be regulated by scripture.1
  2. This ship runs aground in discussion of the circumstances of worship―what it looks like, how it is done.
  3. Thus, application of the RP varies widely because its interpretation is subjective. Some would argue historical creeds, confessions and scripture support the RP. But, these often say less than advocates want them to say. Evidence from creeds and confessions is generally weak. Citation support is almost always out of context and inapplicable to the document’s argument―and to the RP beyond the impetus to define the elements. The scriptural appeals are either out of context or do not provide direct help in solving disputes about the circumstances of worship.
  4. Because of this subjectivity, the RP has no meaningful role as an interpretive grid to structure worship beyond defining the elements.

I don’t like the RP label because it communicates little. It’s about as informative as saying, “I believe the bible!” I don’t like the RP label for the same reason I don’t like the term “fundamentalist.” Central Seminary, Maranatha Seminary and Fairhaven Baptist Bible College are fundamentalist institutions―but that label is pretty elastic. So it is with the RP.

One preacher declares that to conceive of worship (the entire service, not simply the music) as an “experience” is to surrender to mysticism out of a mercenary desire to escape the “banality” of Reformed worship.2 Another states that advent wreaths are sinful,3 claims the bible’s silence on an issue is as much a prohibition as a direct condemnation,4 yet the author is on session in a congregation which boasts a livestream service.5 Still another theologian reasons, “only the most self-absorbed congregation would say that it does not need to be concerned about making its worship relevant to the present generation.”6

Each one of these men agree with the RP. Each disagrees with the other.

So, I am unsatisfied with the label, even as I own its basic ethos. I don’t like the paradigm. I’ll own it when I have to use insider language, but (like “Calvinism”) it isn’t a t-shirt I’ll wear to Wal-Mart.

Rather than claim a label that communicates little, I prefer to say “scripture regulates how we do things on Sunday.” To identify the circumstances (the style and form of these elements), I prefer to use a rubric Dr. Larry Oats taught us (in a context I forget!):

  • Is there an explicit warrant for it? Go for it.
  • Is there an implicit warrant for it? It’s likely ok, if the interpretation is legitimate.
  • Is there a principle that guides us, here? Likely ok, but get confirmation from some trusted Christians.

To get down to brass tacks, I’ll present the “liturgy” from our service on 25 July 2021. I believe this will generate some helpful discussion. Though my headings here do not explicitly echo the standard Protestant liturgies,7 they contain the same ingredients:

Call to Worship

This opens the service. It’s meant to set our hearts and minds and ask God to bless our worship. If you have a good hymnal, it will have an index of suggested calls to worship in scripture or song that will be invaluable for your service planning. I have several resources at my desk for this purpose.8

Read Psalm 100

I recently began making a “Gospel connection” to each call to worship, so I know I’ve given the Gospel each and every service. This lasts no more than two minutes and is always keyed to the call to worship reference I just read:

Whoever you are, God’s loyal love endures forever. His faithfulness, His promises, are eternal―not like ours.

Serve Him with gladness. Come in from the cold and join His family. Jesus is the Revealer who tells about this world and ourselves, the Reconciler who came to heal our alienation from God, and the Ruler of the coming kingdom.

Jesus is the hinge of the Christian story. He explains this world and ourselves, and He calls us to repent and worship Him. In exchange, He offers us a place in His coming kingdom community―which is what He made us for!

I then offer a short prayer:

Dear Lord:

Comfort us. Strengthen us. Rebuke us. Encourage us. Accept our worship this morning. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen!

Scripture Reading

This reading is always keyed to the sermon. We alternate between solo readings, and response readings with the congregation participating. Every six weeks we recite a creed. This week was a solo reading, which any church member (man, woman, boy, girl) can do. This reading was done by a mentally handicapped woman. She struggles mightily to read aloud coherently, and I often help her. I feel her participation in worship outweighs the aesthetic “loss” of not having a “smooth” reader. I select all the readings in advance.

Read 1 Corinthians 13.

Worship in Song

We typically do a blended selection of songs. We have a song leader, with either a piano or guitar accompaniment. We rotate two song leaders (one boy, one woman), and two pianists (one boy, one woman). One of the pianists (the boy) also sometimes plays guitar in lieu of piano.

The songs, like the scripture reading, echo the sermon theme―in this case, brotherly love and community.

Sing “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”

Sing “Brethren We Have Met to Worship”

Sing “Come Thou Fount (I Will Sing).” This is a Chris Tomlin remix.

I do not select the songs. We have a living document with the sermon passage, the assigned reading, and the sermon “theme.” The song leaders choose songs based on the theme.

Pastoral Prayer

We don’t do a “prayer for the offering.” The pastoral prayer has subsumed that. Like the reading and the songs, this prayer is keyed to the sermon theme. I script every prayer, and almost never do extemporaneous prayer. This one is patterned after the scripture reading.

Lord:

All our gifts are nothing without love for one another. We may have knowledge, but without brotherly love we are nothing. We may give up our property and even our lives, but if we don’t have love, we gain nothing.

Lead us to bear all things, to believe the best about our brothers and sisters, and to hope that we can have the community you want us to have.

The offering then follows.

Worship in Song

Sing “Oh, the Deep, Deep Love” (Bob Kauflin)

Sing “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” (Peter Scholtes)

Here is one of the songs:

Worship by the Word

My sermon was on Acts 2:42-47:

Prayer of Confession and Petition

We don’t yet have a dedicated time for confession in the worship service. But, I have been using the “closing prayer” of the sermon as the prayer of confession, keyed to the sermon theme. Again, this is always pre-scripted. Today, I was supposed to lead into the prayer with the following preamble. But, for reasons even I don’t understand, I skipped it. But I’ll re-produce it here anyway:

God tells us that the sacrifice He most desires is a broken and contrite heart. Honest sorrow for sin and resolve to love Him more, rather than dead ritual

As we think of our community, of our church, of what it could be, and what it is, of what God wants it to be, and the distance we still have to go … let’s bring Him that sacrifice in our prayers now, and in our actions this coming week.

Now, the prayer of confession begins. The prayers are often paraphrases of scripture, with my own bridges as transitions. You saw that in the pastoral prayer, and the method continues here:

Lord, your word tells us that if you love us, then we also ought to love one another. That if we love one another, then we can know you abide in us. And your love is completed and perfected when we reflect it to one another in your family.

Forgive us for our bitterness, for our anger, for our “busyness,” for our self-centeredness, for our misplaced priorities.

Forgive us for the things our hearts are set and eyes are fixed on that so often have little to do with your Gospel and your community.

Lead us to find new ways, better ways, good ways, wholesome ways to reflect you in our community here.

Charge and Blessing

This is often a stanza from a relevant hymn, or the standard doxology, or perhaps a scripture reading (again, see the index in your hymnal for help, here). Today, the song leader was balancing another member’s toddler on her lap and motioned that the “last stanza” thing wasn’t going to happen.

So, I improvised with this:

Jesus loves us, and gave His life so that we might be free. Go and love Him and spirit and in truth, and let’s love one another, too. God bless.

That was the worship service. It took 77 minutes. The proper elements were there. It accords with the RP. We can quibble about what it looked like―the circumstances. But, I believe most congregations with a self-consciously conservative philosophy of worship would accept it. I hope our own small example is a blessing to you as you consider worship in your own context.  


1 Scripture shows us five elements: (1) we see the scripture in the ordinances, (2) we read the word, (3) we preach the word, (4) we sing the word, and (5) we pray the word.  

2 Jonathan Cruse, What Happens When We Worship? (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020), p. 6.

3 D.G. Hart and John Meuther, With Reverence and Awe (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2002), p. 84.  

4 Hart and Meuther, With Reverence and Awe, pp. 78-79. “The only proper ground for doing anything in worship is a command from God in his Word.”

5 See https://www.calvaryglenside.org/. Hart’s blog (https://oldlife.org/about-2/) identifies him as a member of the Session at the Calvary Glenside OPC.

6 Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), p. 137.  

7 Adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition and intercession, instruction, communion/fellowship, charge and blessing.  

8 These include, (1) The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration, ed. Tom Fettke (Waco: Word, 1986), (2) Baptist Union of Great Britain, Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for the Community of Disciples, ed. Christopher Ellis and Myra Blyth (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005), (3) Book of Common Prayer from the Episcopal Church (Feb. 2007), (4) Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Lifeway, 2008), (5) Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections, 2017).

The first church

The first church

Here is my translation of Acts 2:36-47. I’m doing a preaching series through the Book of Acts, and I try to translate the passages as I go. Sometimes that isn’t possible! But, for what it’s worth, here is my rendering of Acts 2:36-47, with some technical notes. I don’t claim to be a Greek ninja, but this is a representative effort from me …

Therefore, let the whole house of Israel know without a doubt that God has declared[1] Him to be both Lord and Messiah―this Jesus whom you all crucified. Now,[2] when they heard this[3] they were cut right to the heart[4] and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Men! Brothers! What should we do!?”

And Peter said to them, “Change your ways and your heart―each of you!― and be immersed in the name[5] of Jesus Christ[6] in order to have[7] forgiveness of sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, because this promise is for you,[8] and for your children, and for those who are far away―as many as the Lord our God calls to Himself.”

And with many other words he urged and pleaded with them, saying, “Save yourselves from this wicked[9] age!” So, then, those who believed and trusted his message were immersed in water. And about 3,000 souls were added [to God’s family] in those days.

They regularly gave[10] themselves[11] to the apostles’[12] teaching and to the community[13]―the breaking of bread[14] and prayer. Fear was coming upon every soul, because[15] many wonders and signs kept being done[16] by[17] the apostles.

All the believers were together,[18] and shared everything they had. They were selling their property and possessions and distributing it all to anyone who had need.[19]

Every day, by mutual agreement, they were meeting at the temple, breaking bread in their various homes[20] and sharing food together with joy and heartfelt sincerity. They praised God and had favor[21] with all the people. And each day the Lord was adding to the congregation[22] those who were being rescued.

Here are some of my friends who helped me with the translation:


[1] I can’t agree that ἐποίησεν here implies God “making” something (e.g. Louw-Nida, 42.29). The sense seems to be that God appointed Jesus to be both Lord and Christ (Louw-Nida, 37.106). The tense-form has a culminative flavor, where Christ’s ascension is the declarative event wherein Jesus assumes His throne (cf. Acts 13:32-33 and the preceding context). It could also be a gnomic aorist, in which case Peter would be emphasizing that Jesus has always been both Lord and Christ.

[2] The conjunction signifies a transition. 

[3] Ἀκούσαντες is an adverbial, temporal participle modifying κατενύγησαν.

[4] τὴν καρδίαν is an adverbial accusative of reference.

[5] The preposition expresses reference; they must each be baptized with reference to Jesus’ name.

[6] Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ is a subjective genitive, but I kept this construction (rather than “Jesus Christ’s name”) because it just sounds … weird … to have it any other way.

[7] The preposition in μετανοήσατε … καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν expresses purpose.

It likely isn’t causal (“because of”), because this use of the preposition is debated. Richard Young (Intermediate Grammar, p. 93) and Dan Wallace (GGBB, pp. 369-371) caution against adopting its usage here. Dana and Mantey argue forcefully for the causal approach (Manual Grammar, pp. 103-104), but Young and Wallace specifically mention Mantey and state he is incorrect. Moulton and Turner (Grammar: Syntax, p. 266) also argue for causal. Even A.T. Robertson warns against hastily imputing a causal flavor to the preposition at Acts 2:38 (Grammar, p. 595). I greatly fear to tread where Young, Wallace and Robertson bid me not to go! I must take a rabbit-trail and point out that Eckhard Schnabel bizarrely claims Wallace is in favor of the causal construction (Acts, in ZECNT, p. 165, n. 22). This is insanity. Schnabel’s research assistant must have been sleep-deprived. Wallace was against it. 

One could argue it expresses reference; that is, they must repent and be baptized concerning the forgiveness of sins. This is odd; it would work with baptism but not with forgiveness. You would have to sever repentance and baptism, and make the “with reference to forgiveness of sins” be strictly about the baptism. You could justify this because the baptism is singular, whereas the demand for repentance is plural. I suppose you could make all this work, but it’s an awful lot of tap-dancing.

It’s simpler to see the preposition express purpose. Repentance + baptism is a unified act―action and symbol. Peter is not saying baptism is an instrument of salvation; he just couples the visible symbol of salvation with the act of repentance (GGBB, pp. 370-371). “Acts 2:38 is saying very little about the specific theological relationship between the symbol and the reality, only that historically they were viewed together. One must look in other places for a theological analysis,” (NET Bible Full Notes Edition, p. 2075, n. Y). See also BDAG, s.v. εἰς, p. 290 4.f.

[8] A dative of benefaction. 

[9] The literal meaning is “crooked,” and this figurative extension of the concept yields something like “wicked” or corrupt.”

[10] Ἦσαν is an iterative imperfect. 

[11] προσκαρτεροῦντες is a periphrastic present participle, and the subjects are the 3000 who just became believers. The word means to “attend constantly” (Abbott-Smith, p. 385), to “continue in, persevere in” something (BDAG, p. 811, §2b). Mounce says it means “to persist in adherence to a thing” (Expository Dictionary, p. 1258). The two datives are objects of the participle.

[12] τῶν ἀποστόλων is a subjective genitive. 

[13] We often think of “fellowship” as eating together. The real idea is much broader. Mounce declares it means, in this context, a “mutual interest and sharing of members in the community of faith,” (Expository Dictionary, p. 247). BDAG says much the same thing (p. 552, §1). Louw-Nida adds a very good twist when it says “an association involving close mutual relations and involvement,” (34.5; emphasis added).

So, I went with “community” as my translation. I think it’s best to emphasize the “involved” aspect of real community in the exposition, rather than the translation. The sense here is the “oneness” of the group, based on their shared brotherhood based on faith in Christ. Henry Alford also prefers the rendering “community” in his translation and commentary (The New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:42).

[14] An objective genitive. This last bit is epexegetical to further define “fellowship,” chiefly because there is no coordinating conjunction. There is dispute over whether this is simply a shared fellowship meal, or the Lord’s Supper. As A.T. Robertson puts it, “Perhaps there is no way to settle the point conclusively here,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:42).

[15] ἐγίνετο could be a descriptive imperfect which, in A.T. Robertson’s words, presents “a sort of divine panorama, a ‘moving-picture show,’” (Grammar, p. 883). But, it may well be iterative in the sense of “fear kept on coming upon every soul because signs and wonder kept being done,” (Robertson, Word Pictures, Acts 2:43). It’s a cycle. I split the difference by keeping the first verb descriptive, making the conjunction καὶ explanatory, and rendering the second ἐγίνετο as iterative.

[16] For the translation, see Abbott-Smith, s.v. “γίνομαι,” §3, p. 92. This is another descriptive imperfect.

[17] The preposition expresses personal agency.  

[18] The pronoun is reflexive, and the preposition expression space or association.  

[19] This was likely an ad hoc response to a situation in Jerusalem. A.T. Robbsertsson remarks, “It was not actual communism, but they held all their property ready for use for the common good as it was needed (4:32). This situation appears nowhere else except in Jerusalem and was evidently due to special conditions there which did not survive permanently. Later Paul will take a special collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem,” (Word Pictures, Acts 2:44).

Henry Alford adds, “No trace of its existence is discoverable any where else: on the contrary. St. Paul speaks constantly of the rich and the poor, see 1 Tim. 6:17; Gal. 2:10; 2 Cor. 8:13, 15; 9:6, 7; 1 Cor. 16:2: also St. James, 2:1–5; 4:13.—And from the practice having at first prevailed at Jerusalem, we may partly perhaps explain the great and constant poverty of that church, Rom. 15:25, 26; 1 Cor. 16:1–3; 2 Cor. 8:9; also ch. 11:30; 24:17.—The non-establishment of this community elsewhere may have arisen from the inconveniences which were found to attend it in Jerusalem: see ch. 6:1,” (New Testament for English Readers, Acts 2:44).

[20] I believe this refers to fellowship meals, not the Lord’s Supper. I also take the preposition in κατʼ οἶκον to be distributive of space (Bock [Acts, in BECNT, KL 4177],and Barrett [Acts, in ICC, p. 170) rather than an idiom suggesting they held circuit meals of some sort.  

[21] The phrase means “favor” or “goodwill,” (Abbott-Smith, s.v. “χάρις,” §2a, p. 479; Louw-Nida 25.89). It basically means the people respected them (cf. Phillips translation).  

[22] The personal pronoun is functioning as a switch-reference device, referring back to the company of believers Luke mentioned at 2:44. The “believers” there were plural, but now Luke refers to them as a singular group, to which new folks are being added.