Friday, December 30, 2011

Interview with a Pastor: Part 1

A few years back I did an interview with a young college student. He was assigned to conduct an in-depth interview with a Baptist pastor and choose me. As the interview was for a Biblical Interpretation class, you'll notice how the conversation focused on exegetical issues. From what I recall, the information below is an accurate representation of my comments, but it looks like he did a lot of condensing and editing. 

Below I'll just list him as CS (College Student), with my responses given as JG (Josh Gelatt). 

PART 1 - PREACHING

CS: What method of preaching do you use?
JG: Expository, almost always. I rarely do topical sermons, and even when I do they are not what most people would call topical.

CS: Can you give me an example of a topical sermon?
JG: Yes, I once did a series through the fruits of the Spirit in Gal 5.

CS: How is that topical? Sounds like an expository sermon to me.
JG: Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by expository.

CS: Isn't expository preaching going through the Bible verse by verse?
JG: Really? So when Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church preached a 66-part series on the books of the Bible, one sermon per book, that wouldn't be considered expository? 

CS: I'm not sure how to answer that.
JG: I think a better definition of expository preaching is preaching in such as way that the thoughts and purposes of the biblical writer in that section of Scripture is made clear to the modern hearer. It doesn't really matter if your preaching a word, a verse, a paragraph, a chapter, or an entire book. The goal is to make the author's message clear.

CS: But analyzing each word is expositional preaching, like you did in your Gal 5 series.
JG: No, that sounds more like a commentary than it does a sermon. Too many people seem to confuse that, even well known preachers.

CS: Like who?
JG: John MacArthur would be a good example, though God has used him mightily. In fact, he is probably one of the greatest preaching influences on my life. But when I read his commentaries and then listen to his sermons I don't see much, if any, difference. Take Calvin for example. His sermons were vastly different from his commentaries. Sure, it had the same theology and the same message, but it was packaged in a way that people in his era could understand. For example, in his sermons Calvin almost never appealed to the original languages. You rarely hear Calvin telling his congregation that "the word 'love' is from the Greek word 'agape' which means....". He didn't do that. He just showed them that Scripture makes it clear that God loves them. That is the difference between commentaries and preaching.

CS: So you don't refer to Greek and Hebrew words when you preach?
JG: Actually I do quite often. In that regard I'm more like MacArthur than Calvin, but I don't think that is a good thing. I do that because I understand the mind of the commentator better than I understand the mind that is sitting in the pew in front of me. That's bad. It means I haven't truly connected with my people. I'm trying to be more like Calvin.

CS: Do you think its wrong to mention Greek and Hebrew?
JG: No, I just think most of the time it is unnecessary. When Paul told Timothy to commit to faithful men the truth he learned from Paul he wasn't talking about passing on knowledge of Greek words. How does it help our congregation to know that the Greek word for "flesh" is "sarx"? It's more Gospel centered simply to teach Jesus' warning from Matthew 26:41 that we should carefully watch our fleshly desires or else we will fall into sin. That is truth that people can take home and apply, which is the entire point of Matthew 26:41. The appeal to the Greek word doesn't really help further the Gospel. Listen, I'm not saying it should never be done. I just think its done too often, and often for reasons that have little to do with the Gospel.

CS: What other reasons would there be?
JG: I can think of three reasons: pride, selfishness, and laziness. We want to demonstrate to the congregation that we are intelligent and the diplomas we have on our office walls were earned. That's pride. We also are simply excited about what we read in commentaries and journal articles, and are fascinated by what we learned as we translated the text in preparation for the Sunday sermon. Exegetical pastors get dizzy with excitement when we learn that a certain Hebrew verb is in the Piel form or that the verb 'living' in Romans 12:1 is a present active participle. Since we are excited about it, we assume everyone who cares about the Bible should be excited about it too. That's self-centered because it completely overlooks the person in the pew who cares little about English grammar, let alone Greek grammar. And it's lazy. Though we spend hours studying the biblical text before us, we don't study our people. What are their needs and concerns? What are they struggling with? How can we best present to them that Paul's point in Romans 12:1 is that we are to wake up every day striving to use our lives to the glory of God? How can the housewife do that or the person who works on the factory line?

CS: So your advice to younger pastors is to stay away from using Greek and Hebrew in sermons?
JG: No, my advice is to be careful. They should use it, but much less than they think is necessary.

CS: OK, so back to your fruit of the Spirit series. If you preached a sermon on each fruit, how was that topical?
JG: Here is perhaps the chief problem with the way many practice expository preaching. We can get so detailed that we leave the intent of the Biblical author. We have to ask ourselves if it was Paul's intent to give a definition of gentleness in Galatians 5. He uses the word, but his point isn't to give a lecture on gentleness. So, when we do a sermon on gentleness what we are really doing is a topical sermon on what the Bible says about gentleness. Have you ever heard of Joseph Caryl?

CS: No. Who is that?
JG: Jospeh Caryl was a puritan pastor. He preached through the book of Job over a 17 year period. I own the 12-volume set of his sermons. I love them, but honestly they are too atomistic. Although he is teaching good stuff, much of it has very little to do with Job. John Macarthur took nearly 10 years to preach through Luke. I know of a pastor who took five years preaching through Philippians. I'm sure the sermons were edifying and Christ-centered, but by being so focused on the leaves and twigs we lose sight of the forest.

CS: I'm not sure I agree. There is nothing wrong with going through the Bible in a detailed way.
JG: I didn't say there was anything wrong with it. In fact, I think it is wonderful. I would have loved to sit under those 10 years of MacArthur preaching through Luke. I am simply saying that much of this is topical preaching packaged under the title of expository preaching. 

CS: How so?
JG: Well, let's look at 1 Peter 1:1. It says "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia." When I preached through 1 Peter one of my first sermons was on the doctrine of election. Peter wrote his letter "to the elect". However, the point of Peter's letter wasn't to discuss election. 1 Peter 5:12 tells us the purpose of the letter is to strengthen believers who are being persecuted with the truth that God has given them His grace. So, for a sermon on any section of 1 Peter to be truly expositional, it has to make this purpose the central focus. When John Piper preached this passage he gave a great sermon on election, but never once put it in the context of the purpose of 1 Peter. John Macarthur preached a 3-part series on this verse covering the doctrine of election in depth, but again completely ignored context. When I preached this passage I tried to present election in light of Peter' purpose of the letter. My main point was that one of the chief reasons we can have confidence that God will not abandon us is because of the great love He has shown to us by electing us to salvation. So, while Piper and Macarthur's sermons were deep, biblical and weighty, they were more topical than expositional. I'm not criticizing, I'm just trying to put their sermons in the correct category. They preached good stuff.

CS: So your saying Piper and MacArthur are topical preachers?
JG: Careful now, that kind of language will get me tared and feathered in some places. But in essence, they can steer towards a more topical style, yes. People who champion expository preaching are often much more topical than they care to admit. But you have to understand that I don't see topical preaching as a bad thing. Topical preaching is perfectly fine if done in a biblical faithful way.

CS: What do you mean?
JG: Let me give you an example. I once heard a dear friend give a sermon on the value of mentoring. He was actually preaching through some book written by a Christian author, and one of the chapters was on mentoring. The 30-minute sermon told us what mentoring was, why it was so important in his life, and the best way to go about practicing it. The problem was he never interacted with Scripture. The only time Scripture was mentioned was when it was used as an illustration. About two-thirds of the way through the sermon he finally mentioned the Bible by saying "I can prove that mentoring is important because it's even found in the Bible. Remember Moses? He mentored Joshua, and because of that Israel had a faithful and competent leader after Moses died." He spent probably about 2 minutes on the Moses/Joshua story. I think he maybe read a few verses. But that's it. Instead of using stories to illustrate what the Bible said about mentoring, which would make a great sermon, the Bible was used to illustrate his views on mentoring. I would suggest that really isn't preaching. It's more of a good-natured and helpful lecture, but it's not God's Word and therefore shouldn't called a sermon. A good topical sermon would be studying what the Bible says about the importance of mentoring. 2 Timothy 2:2 might be a good place to start.

CS: How would you define good topical preaching in a single sentence?
JG: Let me define both types of preaching. Topical preaching, the right kind anyway, is the attempt to teach a biblical topic by combining several passages of Scripture which speak on that topic. It is a systematic, big-view approach to an issue. Expository preaching is not a style, its a commitment. This is important to grasp. When I hear people define expository preaching as "verse by verse" preaching I automatically know I'm dealing with someone who doesn't understand the first thing about expository preaching. That's putting the focus on a form. Expository preaching is a commitment to allow a biblical text to be the boss of what is said in the message. This can be done preaching through an entire book section by section, which is an approach I think is very helpful to God's people, or it can be done preaching a single passage.

CS: That wasn't a single sentence.
JG: I know, I'm a preacher.

CS: I like your definition of expository preaching. But earlier you said Mark Dever preached sermons that were overviews of an entire book of the Bible. He would have had to mention lots of different verses, so he couldn't have let one text be the "boss".
JG: I didn't say "one verse" was the boss. I said "one text" was the boss. The entire book of 1 Peter is one text. So is verse 3-12 in chapter 1, which focuses on salvation. So is verse 3, which focuses on the resurrection of Jesus. If I choose verse 3 as the text I was preaching on, the theme would have to be that God is worthy of praise because according to His great mercy He allowed us to be born again through the saving power of the Cross. If I choose verse 3-12, the sermon would be about the joy and hope we have in the salvation that God has assured to us. If I choose all of 1 Peter, I would focus on the assurance we can have in Christ despite difficulties and trials.

CS: You said that you recommend preaching section by section through a biblical book. Why?
JG: For two reasons. The less important one is because I'm a student of church history. I've seen powerful things happen when God's people understand the books of the Bible. John Calvin reintroduced this kind of preaching, which had not been done for over 1,000 years. It was so important to him that once, when half way through a biblical book, the city officials banished him from the town. He was allowed to return a few years later and when he went back to the pulpit he picked up where he left off. Thousands flocked to hear him. Even during the middle of the week, during the day, his auditoriums were packed with people thirsty for God's word. Revival ensued. The more important reason is because God choose to speak to us through books and letters written by his prophets and apostles. They wrote us a message, and only when we look at the entire document do we understand what that message is.

CS: I know you like Spurgeon. He didn't preach like that.
JG: Your right. He was actually against it. I can't do what Spurgeon did. He was inspiring, clever, and creative. But he was also deeply biblically faithful. He had an immense creative imagination, but was able to allow that imagination and creativity to be controlled by the text. I don't have that ability. Most who are creative pastors today are not nearly as faithful to the Word as Spurgeon was. That is a rare gift. I simply don't have the ability to hold the attention of my audience week after week with creative sermons that are biblically faithful.  I can't be both creative and faithful, so I choose to be faithful. But when Spurgeon did go through an entire book it was exceptional. Because of his sermons in Matthew, he eventually produced wonderful little devotional commentary. He also preached through the Psalms, and gifted the church with the Treasury of David, which is perhaps the single best expositional treatment of the psalms ever put in print. But if your going to go the topical route, Spurgeon is the master model to follow.

CS: Who is the best model for expository preaching?
JG: Oh, I'm not sure I can narrow it down to one. Haddon Robinson, W.A. Criswell, and Warren Weirbse come to mind. All three had the exceptional gift of teaching the heart of the passage in a simple, clear, and memorable way. For a more academic or lecture approach, Tim Keller, John Piper, and John MacArthur are superb models. Personally, I think the best all around model that is living today is a young pastor named Matt Chandler. The greatest of all time would probably be John Calvin from the Reformation, or maybe John Chrysostom from the Early church period.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Rejecting Truth

"The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers,
to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,
who is the image of God." - 2 Corinthians 4:4


I've always loved history, even as a young child. I would spend hours devouring history books, learning about the Civil War, the ancient Roman conquests, or the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire (among other subjects). While the other subjects at school bored me, I found history and geography to be fascinating.

So, then as a 4th grader you can imagine my delight when my teacher began lecturing on Christopher Columbus. When she mentioned that Columbus had discovered North America, my hand immediately shot up. "Ma'am, Columbus actually landed on Hispaniola, an island which is now split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Later he went to Central and South American, but he never discovered North America." 

My moment of scholarly glory was short lived as the rest of the class burst into mocking laughter. The teacher tried to hide her own amusement, and politely dismissed by comment and continued with her myth-riddled lecture.

But facts are facts. Columbus never discovered North American. In fact, he never knew it existed. Even on his deathbed he still insisted that he had landed in Asia. Of course, it's not as if rejecting this truth and following the popular myth causes any real problems. So far, apart from just being bad history, the worst thing thing this myth has produced is another federal holiday, Columbus Day. 

But what if we reject a truth that could save lives? What if, despite the factual evidence, we rejected penicillin as an effective antibiotic or that drinking clean water prevented disease?

The truth that Jesus came and died to give us is far more significant. It saves not millions, but billions. This truth doesn't extend life for years or decades, but for eternity. The truth is that Jesus has paid the penalty of our sin, and that if we make him Lord of our lives he will save us and redeem us. Yet many still laugh and mock this truth and the 'experts' dismiss it as silly nonsense.

But facts are facts. No matter how often we say it, the fact remains that Columbus did not discover North America. Nothing can change that fact, no matter how many people ignore it. The same is true for Jesus.

Once, standing before Pontius Pilate (who also doubted the truth), Jesus told him "for this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world: to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me" (John 18:37).

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Gossip and Innuendo

"A gossip betrays a confidence,
so avoid a man who talks too much."
Proverbs 20:19

The Hebrew word for gossip literally means "one who reveals secrets", a "tale-bearer" and "an informer". He is someone who goes around spreading stories, creating doubts about other people's character, and undermining reputations. Gossipers speak of the faults and failings of others and reveal potentially embarrassing or shameful details regarding the lives of others without their knowledge or approval.

Perhaps the best example of this type of person comes from J.R.R. Tolkien's character Gríma, better known as Wormtongue. Grima, once a faithful servant of King Théoden, fell in league with the evil wizard Saruman. Using the power of his tonque, he eventually enslaved Théoden in a web of deceit, innuendo, and lies.  Tolkien's decision to name this character Gríma was no accident. A master of ancient languages, Tolkien knew this Old English and Icelandic word meant "mask", and Gríma Wormtongue was a master as masking gossip as truth and betrayal as friendship.

The book of Proverbs has a long list of verses that discuss the dangers of gossip and the damage gossip causes. Proverbs 18:8 tells us "the words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inward parts". There is something inside all human beings that loves hearing tasty tidbits of negative news about others. Like a radio dialed into a specific frequency, we naturally focus in on anything that sounds like "tale-bearing".

Yet gossip is perhaps most dangerous when it is subtly delivered. Kent Hughes, in his book Disciplines of a Godly Man, says that gossip is a cousin to innuendo. He goes on to tell the story of a ship's first mate who, after a drunken binge, was written up by the captain in the ship's log: "mate drunk today". Some months later the first mate got his revenge with a subtle entry of his own in the log: "captain sober today". So, with the power of a word unsaid, an awkward silence, a raised eyebrow, or a quizzical look, we can disparage another human being and caste doubt upon their reputation.

Jesus is calling us to live, and speak, differently. Ephesians tells us to "let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but only that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to those who hear it" (4:29). Even more directly, we are commanded to "get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander...." The Apostle James gives this command: "Brothers, do no speak against one another" (James 4:11). Notice that he forbids any speech which intends to run down someone else, even if it is totally true.

The words we choose, and even the innuendo we caste, are powerful things. They either tear down or they encourage and build up.  God hates one and loves the other. Which will you practice?