Great Song, But Can you Preach It?

Imagine preaching a prayer.

Sometimes Tim Challies includes prayers from the congregation where he worships (the pattern seems to be using a common text for confession of sin rather than producing a transcript of the pastoral prayer):

Merciful God, we admit we have sinned. We have not nailed it in our spiritual lives. And even if we have not sinned badly, like David, we all stand together in need of Christ — the proof of Your mercy. He is our salvation. Our Rescuer. Our Redeemer. Our only hope to stand before You is to stand in His mercy… secured for us by His cross. So we throw ourselves upon You, God. For you are full of mercy. Amen

Of course, it is much easier to find Christian prayers in the prayer books of liturgical communions. Here is the Prayer of the Church from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod for August 30, 2020:

Knowing the will of God that all would come to the knowledge of Your Son and find salvation in Christ, let us pray on behalf of our parish community and for all people according to their needs.

Brief silence

For our faith and faithfulness, especially for those persecuted for the cause of Christ; and
For our strength in time of trial and for us to persevere in grace in the day of trouble, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For the Church, Jerusalem on high, our mother in Christ until Christ is fully formed in us;
For the pastors who serve us, that they may be faithful stewards of God’s mysteries; and
For those at home and abroad, who bring the message of salvation to those who have not heard, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For Donald, our president; _____________, our governor; and all legislators and civil servants;
For those who must render judgment and impose punishment upon lawbreakers; and
For those who work for peace among the nations, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For favorable weather and for those who tend the soil and harvest its fruits;
For business and industry, service workers and artisans;
For generosity toward those in need; and
For the unemployed and underemployed, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For those married, that they would live in fidelity to their vows and promises;
For parents as they teach their children to know and love the Lord;
For single adults, that they may find fulfillment in their service to others; and
For our lives together showing the love of Christ one to another, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For grace to take up the cross and follow the Lord wherever He leads;
For courage in the face of challenge and adversity; and
For compassion and harmony in our life together, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For holy lives of faith;
For faith to receive the Lord’s gift of His flesh and blood in the Holy Sacrament; and
For this holy assembly, that we may present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For our remembrance of the saints and grace to follow their example of faith;
For God to grant us a place with them in their fellowship; and
For our eternal life in God’s kingdom without end, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy….

Would you, if you were a pastor, preach either of these prayers? That may seem like a silly question. But if pastors preach from the Psalter, which they do, I’ve seen them, then preaching prayers is fairly routine at least among Reformed Protestants.

Take, for instance, Psalm 5:

Give ear to my words, O Lord;
consider my groaning.
2 Give attention to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you do I pray.
3 O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you[a] and watch.

4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
6 You destroy those who speak lies;
the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
in the fear of you.
8 Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.

9 For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
10 Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.

11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
12 For you bless the righteous, O Lord;
you cover him with favor as with a shield.

But just because preaching the Psalms is familiar, the idea of preaching prayers is strange.

That could explain why, aside from how challenging Hebrew poetry can be, sermons on the Psalms can be hard to follow. Or often the three-point sermon treatment of a Psalm can seem artificial. I’m not sure that even H. L. Mencken is any help. He believed the Old Testament contained poetry “so overwhelmingly voluptuous and disarming that no other literature, old or new, can offer a match for it.”

That is high praise, but worship is not a seminar either in aesthetics or poetry.

John Owen Preached Irrelevantly

Speaking of liberalism, Benjamin Rush, a Presbyterian, agreed with Thomas Jefferson, that preachers should stay in their own lane and stop trying to do what politicians do. He even recommended John Owen’s sermons:

I agree with you likewise in your wishes to keep religion and government independant of each Other. Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World. “Cease from your political labors your kingdom is not of this World. Read my Epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan Emperor, or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive Support from human Governments. From this, it derives its preeminence over all the religions that ever have, or ever Shall exist in the World. Human Governments may receive Support from Christianity but it must be only from the love of justice, and peace which it is calculated to produce in the minds of men. By promoting these, and all the Other Christian Virtues by your precepts, and example, you will much sooner overthrow errors of all kind, and establish our pure and holy religion in the World, than by aiming to produce by your preaching, or pamphflets any change in the political state of mankind.”

A certain Dr Owen an eminent minister of the Gospel among the dissenters in England, & a sincere friend to liberty, was once complained of by one of Cromwell’s time serving priests,—that he did not preach to the times. “My business and duty said the disciple of St Paul is to preach—to Eternity— not to the times.” He has left many Volumes of Sermons behind him, that are so wholly religious, that no One from reading them, could tell, in what country,—or age they were preached.

(Thanks for this to a certain Irishman who is known to regard Owen almost as highly as John Nelson Darby.)

Who Sounds Protestant?

Another upgrader to Rome marvels about continuity between the ancient church and contemporary Roman Catholicism (were the church fathers as sexually confused as today?):

I haven’t officially tweeted this yet, but for the last 5-6 months, I’ve been struggling through a very unexpected twist in my Christian life: the Catholic Church. If you knew me before, you would know that this was the farthest thing from my mind for the past 30 years.

I was as anti-Catholic as they come (James White probably had me beat). The problem was, I knew NOTHING about their actually teachings. All I knew came from other anti-Catholic polemicists. Until I started a class on Church History (via a Reformed grad school). I was blown away.

In addition, I started to read the Church Fathers. Not what people say about the Fathers, but their actual letters and writings. This was HUGE in my dealings with the claims of Catholicism. They actually sounded Catholic and not Protestant.

Along with many, many pages of books, debates, and conversion stories, I started to really think that the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded 2000+ years ago. Now I am on the path towards full-communion with the Catholic Church. Crazy!

Have people like this never read Paul? What that apostle recommended to Titus does not sound like Roman Catholicism — eh veh:

1 Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began 3 and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior;

4 To Titus, my true child in a common faith:

Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.

5 This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8 but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. 12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, 14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. 16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

Notice Paul says God reveals himself by preaching. He never mentions the sacraments in his instructions to a man who is planting a church. Odd. Though the shot at Jewish myths might make you want to check what you are doing with an altar and sacrifice in worship.

He also says overseers (bishops or presbyters) should be married to only one wife. So much for clerical celibacy.

In chapter two, Paul goes on to bang the gong for doctrine — the meat and drink of logocentric Protestants.

Then in chapter three, Paul tells Titus to be subject to the ruling authorities and to teach Christians to do the same. Let’s just say that the papacy has had a little trouble thinking such instruction applied to them. Heck, they still have a Vatican jail and mete out temporal justice.

But the church fathers don’t sound Protestant. Whatehveh.

What Happened to Preaching?

For some evangelicals, the options in worship are either the sacraments or the gifts of the Spirit:

This Sunday, thousands of believers will enter a sanctuary in which all eyes are drawn to the table near the front. They will brush past a baptismal font as they find a seat, sing hymns and recite prayers that have sustained believers for centuries, confess that they believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and receive bread and wine. Spiritual gifts, however—with the exception of teaching—are unlikely to make an appearance. An occurrence of prophecy or healing would be very surprising, if not unprecedented. Tongue-speaking would result in either a baffled silence or an embarrassed cough.

Thousands of other believers will enter a very different worship space, in which all eyes are drawn to the stage. They will expect, and frequently experience, a meeting in which people practice the laying on of hands, spontaneous prayer, anointing with oil, prophecy, languages, healing, and any number of the other spiritual gifts described in the New Testament. But there will probably be no corporate confession, no creed, no psalms, and no shared liturgy. If the Lord’s Supper is celebrated at all, it will appear on collapsible tables, transition quickly into the next part of the service, and take no more time than the announcements.

There are, in other words, churches that are eucharistic and churches that are charismatic (as well as a good many churches that are neither). So it is interesting that the New Testament church about whose corporate worship we know the most, namely the church in Corinth, was both. The Corinthians were apparently unaware that those two strands of Christian worship were incompatible, and they happily (if somewhat erratically) pursued sacramental and spiritual gifts at the same time. Neither did Paul regard this as strange or problematic; in fact, he encouraged them to continue celebrating Communion together (1 Cor. 11:23–6) and to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy (14:1). Paul, in that sense, wanted the church to be “eucharismatic”—and that invitation extends to us as well.

Once upon a time, critics accused Protestants of being logocentric because the placed so much emphasis on the Word. In fact, you could blame Paul’s letter to the Corinthians for Protestants’ emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Word:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Charismatics and sacramentalists don’t seem to be drawn to wisdom but are looking for signs, for tangible, visible, physical manifestations of God’s presence. That wasn’t how Paul understood either his ministry or the one he passed on to Timothy.

No matter what you think of Paul, can’t writers for the evangelical magazine of record remember that some Protestants still make a big deal of the Bible in worship?

Putting the Loco in Logocentric

Rod Dreher reflects on the ways that even while denominational brands among Protestants are in free fall (and have been, I might add, since the Second Not-So-Good Awakening), the differences between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox abide:

And yet, some borders still matter — as Berger notes — at the popular level. When you’re a Protestant and you walk into a Catholic church, you know that something very different is going on there, and vice versa (though given the postconciliar Protestantization of Catholic church architecture and interior design, this is much less obvious in some places than in others). Visit an Orthodox church, and the contrast is even more vivid — perhaps surprisingly so for Catholics, who might reasonably have thought that given the strong Marian piety of Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox church was closer to their own faith than it actually is.

The vibe in a Protestant (especially confessional) church would be different in part because services feature, in contrast to the Roman and Eastern churches, the Bible read and preached.

So when you read Paul’s instruction to Timothy, Paul being an apostle and all and an author of an infallible set of books in Scripture, are you thinking of the atmosphere in a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant service?

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Don’t let them fool you. The model for Protestant ministry is as old as the church in Ephesus that Jesus founded by way of Paul.

Nothing Could Possibly Go Wrong

Not only is the magisterium’s teaching infallible, but a Roman Catholic’s salvation is never in doubt:

neither the Catholic or Orthodox speakers accepted the term ‘nominal Christian’. People from a Catholic or Orthodox background do not think about people in this category; it is a very Protestant way of thinking. Because of their sacramental theology, when you are baptized as a Catholic you are Christian from that point on, no matter what. You can be a naughty Catholic or a lapsed Catholic but you are still truly Catholic. Meanwhile, most Protestants believe that you are saved by faith alone and not through a sacramental process, so it is possible for Protestants to call themselves Christian and be baptized—but to have never trusted Jesus as their Lord and therefore be Christian in name alone.

Then why would Jesus explain the parable of the sower this way:

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case va hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matt 13)

In other words, the seed’s effectiveness is not automatic. Mark Gilbert might claim that baptism is different from preaching and that sacraments always trump the word. If so, that’s odd because — well — Paul:

10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?3 And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, w“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

If Roman Catholics want to maintain the view of baptism that Gilbert maintains, it sure would help them if Paul wasn’t so logocentric.

Both Cannot Be True

On the one hand, preaching the Bible is haahht:

According to a new study by Gallup, the hottest thing at church today is not the worship and not the pastor. It’s not the smoke and lights and it’s not the hip and relevant youth programs. It’s not even the organic, fair trade coffee at the cafe. The hottest thing at church today is the preaching. Not only is it the preaching, but a very specific form of it—preaching based on the Bible.

On the other hand, Americans who go to church wouldn’t know a Bible if you threw it at them:

Over half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible, according to findings released Tuesday (April 26) by LifeWay Research.

“Most Americans don’t know first-hand the overall story of the Bible—because they rarely pick it up,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “Even among worship attendees less than half read the Bible daily. The only time most Americans hear from the Bible is when someone else is reading it.”

Only 11 percent of survey respondents said they have read all of the Bible. Even less (9 percent) have read all of the Bible multiple times.

Stop making sense.

Has the Bible Become So Common that People Don’t Go to Church for It?

One of the questions I raised in my review of John Fea’s book on the American Bible Society was whether making the book so widely available, even more common than Wifi, has undermined its uniqueness:

What happens when you take something that is special and make it ubiquitous? In other words, to what degree did ABS operations render a holy book trivial? Hollywood, after all, lost its glamour when Americans could watch movies not only in palatial theaters but also on television in their living rooms. Perhaps, as well, this riddle is connected to the nationalistic dimensions of ABS history. By linking the Bible’s greatness to American exceptionalism, the American Bible Society was attempting to counter how ordinary the Bible would become through over-distribution.

The recent Pew survey on what people look for in going to church underscores this point. Do people go to church to understand God’s word — because it is in Scripture that he reveals himself — or are they looking for ways to be a better Christian that may or may not involve understanding Scripture? They may say that look for a church with good preaching, but the content of that preaching is not in view in the survey:

“Of the country’s largest religious traditions, evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to say they have looked for a new congregation,” Pew wrote. “For Catholics, this may reflect that choosing a new congregation (after a move, for example) can be as straightforward as determining which Catholic parish they reside in, removing the need for a more extensive search. Members of the historically black Protestant tradition move to new communities less often than other Protestants, which may be one reason they also are less likely to have ever looked for a new congregation.”

When evaluating a new church, top-quality sermons are the most important thing both evangelicals (94%) and historically black Protestants (92%) are looking for. They also want to feel welcomed by leaders (82%).

Evangelicals put slightly more emphasis than historically black Protestants in the style of worship services (80% vs. 76%) and location (69% vs. 62%).

Is that preaching or ministering God’s word or merely the pastor’s thought about religious matters in a sermon?

But if Glenn Paauw thinks Christians need to encounter bigger passages of Scripture than the McNuggets they generally read for personal edification, wouldn’t a worship service or two on Sunday with exposition of Scripture be a good place to start?

First of all, I mean it literally; we need to increase the size of our Bible readings. Start reading the words around your cherry-picked passages. Then you’re immediately confronted with context. If you’re reading in Philippians—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—then you’ll start reading about the situation that Paul was in when he wrote those words. You’ll get a better understanding about the kinds of things he may be able to do in this situation. You won’t take it as an absolute promise about any endeavor you can envision, like winning a football game. So read bigger passages. I’m a big fan of reading entire books of the Bible.

We have a diminished view of Scripture in another way, especially in the West. We see the story as this individualistic, go-to-heaven-when-I-die story instead of a restorative story about the renewal of all creation and my place within that larger narrative. That’s the bigger, glorious vision that the Scriptures give us.

Going to church for the word read and preached is a two-fer — worship your maker and hear his word.

Preaching the Great Commission

Even Purgatory:

Today at my parish we had a missionary priest from India. I am happy to say that after years of disappointment, it was refreshing to finally here a missionary actually talking about bring people to Jesus. To talk about salvation. It was wonderful. And he wasn’t a traditional order priest or anything; he was just a Novus Ordo diocesan priest. But he preached about the Great Commission. About the necessity of bringing Christ to people. About baptism. About India’s great Christian traditions, both those begun by St. Thomas as well that brought by St. Francis Xavier and the 16th century Jesuits. He offered actual spiritual insights that were relevant.

I remember recently on one of my travels I heard a priest saying how he was preaching on Purgatory at this parish. And afterward a woman came up to him and said, “I never really thought about it, but I think that was the first sermon I heard on Purgatory in thirty years!” I think the same is true with the necessity of bringing the Gospel to pagans. Maybe intellectually Catholics know the Great Commission is out there, but it is so seldom preached about these days.

This is no surprise. Muslims worship the same God. Jews are no longer in need of conversion. Protestants are brethren. Orthodox are not to be expected to return to unity with Rome. Aberrosexuals are not to be made uncomfortable in any way. Pagans are able to find God in their own rituals and mythologies. Given all this, one wonders who is left that actually needs to hear the Gospel. Mafioso and arms dealers, according to Pope Francis; but they are a lost cause because the pope has already said they are going to Hell.

The point is, you can’t mentally affirm one thing but act in a manner contrary to it for forty years. You can’t affirm the Great Commission is still a mandate while acting as if there is no particular class of people who actually need Christ and His Church.

What hath salvation to do with conversion?

Lord, I Know Already, Help Me Do

What is the purpose of preaching? Is it to increase knowledge or provoke akSHUN? Randy Nabors thinks the latter:

We don’t need more didactic moments that simply tickle the minds of those who thirst for more information; we need the forming of the heart though great sermons powerfully delivered. People need truth that shapes hearts into the obedience that comes through faith so people can be doers of the Word and not just hearers of it.

But what if the average Christian believer is someone who is prone to think either that sin, temptation, the devil, and the flesh have overwhelmed him the previous week? What sort of sermon does that person need? A call to obedience? Maybe. But can such a call make sense to someone who knows how sinful and weak he is? Might the person in the pew need to hear about God’s work in sanctification even if it is a tad didactic?

Or what about the average believer who lives life like a pilgrim, someone in exile, hardly in command of his affairs, but weak, frail, and in need of a reminder that God has saved him and controls all things?

In other words, Nabors seems to think of Christians as people who are in control of life and need simply to be hectored into living Christian lives. He doesn’t seem to allow that Christians come to church thinking that they believe, but are tempted to unbelief precisely when they take life and its duties into their own hands.