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.

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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.

Could Christ Have Preached Christ and Him Crucified?

Rick Phillips introduces a tension — though that was not his intention — between Jesus’ preaching and Paul’s. We have the old was-Paul-the-second-founder-of-Christianity problem.

Here‘s is what Christ preached according to Phillips:

I noted 4 main types of ministry emphases highlighted by Jesus in Mark:

1. Jesus declaring his deity as Messiah, together with his teaching about God and salvation (i.e. theology and redemptive history).

2. Jesus preaching the gospel: pointing out his hearers’ need to be forgiven and God’s wonderful remedy through his saving work. Included here would be calls to prospective disciples to believe and follow Jesus.

3. Jesus training and reproving his disciples, including ethical and spiritual instruction and his call to evangelistic labor.

4. Jesus exposing false teachers and religious opposition. This includes the confronting and correcting of false doctrine.

And here is how Paul described his preaching:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:1-2)

Again, I don’t think Phillips is trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul, but the way he frames the question does lead in that direction — one that contrasts the way Jesus preached with the way his disciples did (think of Peter in Acts 2). Why isn’t it the case that Jesus is NOT a model for post-ascension preaching — nor is John the Baptist. Until the main event of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the preaching of biblical prophets is going to be types and shadows. Think Geerhardus Vos.

And also think Marilyn Robinson. This is what can happen if you use Jesus as your model for preaching and leave out Paul:

Since these folk claim to be defenders of embattled Christianity (under siege by liberalism, as they would have it), they might be struck by the passage in Matthew 25 in which Jesus says, identifying himself with the poorest, “I was hungry, and ye fed me not.” This is the parable in hallowed be your name which Jesus portrays himself as eschatological judge and in which he separates “the nations.” It should surely be noted that he does not apply any standard of creed – of purity or of orthodoxy – in deciding whom to save and whom to damn. This seems to me a valuable insight into what Jesus himself might consider fundamental. To those who have not recognized him in the hungry and the naked, he says, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels.” Neofundamentalists seem to crave this sort of language – more than they might if they were to consider its context here. It is the teaching of the Bible passim that God has confided us very largely to one another’s care, but that in doing so he has in no degree detached himself from us. Indeed, in this parable Jesus would seem to push beyond the image of God as final judge to describe an immanence of God in humankind that makes judgment present and continuous, and that in effect makes our victim our judge. Neither here nor anywhere else in the Bible is there the slightest suggestion that our judge/victim would find a plea of economic rationalism extenuating. This supposed new Awakening is to the first two Awakenings, and this neofundamentalism is to the first fundamentalism, as the New Right is to the New Deal, or as matter is to antimatter’.

When Allies Impersonate the Axis

I was surfing around the Internet last weekend, hoping to find a paper by a certain academic theologian, when I came across The Gospel Coalition’s Resources page, which includes a gargantuan list of sermonizers. Much to my surprise I found that I am one of the listed preachers at TGC. @#$%#^&%@!!!

The reasons for taking offense are several. First, I am a four-office fellow, which means that as a rule I don’t preach. And TGC, confused as the allies are liturgically and ecclesiologically, has take the liberty of listing talks and interviews as sermons. Heck, I objected when John Frame likened preaching to a “dramatic” “liturgical” skit. I think we have a case of bait-and-switch.

Second, I am not a member of TGC and have not supported its programs. I believe I have been fairly candid and steady about that opposition. So in the name promoting the programs and aims of TGC, you would think their web masters would not want to list one of their critics as a “resource.”

It reminds me of Ron Wells old line about evangelicalism: I’d give up my membership if I knew where to send in my card. In the crazy world of parachurch evangelicalism, no cards, no membership, just right.

Are Protestants Logocentric? Proudly (in a humble way)

From Luther’s comments on John 3:

What should Christ do, and of what use is the Messiah? What kind of Messiah is He? . . . What does He do? He testifies. If He walks in such weakness and holds on His kingdship no more fimrly than that He testified, is there nothing else that He can do but preach and talk? If He is no soldier, possesses no land (not even the width of His palm) and no people, what does He do? Preach. Yes, such a Messiah are we bidden to accept.

How if it be God’s will that the Messiah should not come like a Caesar? Such an honour He will not grants unto them, that He should come arrayed with power like theirs. But that He comes so unadorned and does nothing but preach, that is unspeakable wisdom and strength, yes, the treasure of wisdom and knowledge, for whosoever believes in Him shall live eternally. But who sees this? You are not meant to see it. His reign and His preaching are a testimony. It is a preaching which testifies to things which no man can hear, see, or read in books of the law or anywhere else in the world. To witness means to speak of what the hearer has not seen. A judge does not judge what he sees. He must hear witnesses. But here He must preach and witness to something which men do not see, and that is how the Lord Christ is a witness to the Father in heaven, high uplifted above all men. He shall do nothing but preach, and His preaching shall be His testimony to the Father, how He is inclined, how He desires to make men blessed and to redeem them from their sins, and from the power of death and the devil. That is His testimony.

Luther might explain why Protestants have stressed sermons as the center piece of worship.

This would explain why Roman Catholics emphasize the Mass:

The Tridentine Decree on Justification is one of the most impressive achievements of the council. The leaders of the council had reported to Rome that “the significance of this council in the theological sphere lies chiefly in the article on justification, in fact this is the most important item the council has to deal with.” But reading it can give one a false impression of the significance of justification within Roman Catholicism. The decree was needed, and the doctrine received the attention that it did, because of the Protestant challenge. For the inner life of the Roman Catholic Church, however, the doctrine was not very important. In 1564 Pope Pius IV promulgated the Creed of the Council of Trent. Justification is mentioned just once in passing: “I embrace and accept each and every article on original sin and justification declared and defined in the most holy Council of Trent.” Shortly afterward, his successor, Pope Pius V, promulgated a Catechismus ex Decreto Concilii Tridentini, the so-called Roman Catechism. This contains only scattered passing references to justification, mostly in the context of teaching on the sacraments. The sacramental system is as central to the catechism as the doctrine of justification is peripheral, and the need to offer satisfaction for sins receives the sustained exposition denied to justification. Justification needed to be treated in response to the Protestant threat, but at the heart of the Christian life in Roman Catholicism is not justification but the sacramental system. The Council fathers turned from justification to the sacraments, and the Decree on the sacraments begins with the observation that all true righteousness begins with the sacraments; having been begun, increases through them; and, if lost, is restored through them. (Anthony Lane, “A Tale of Two Imperial Cities,” in Bruce L. McCormack, Justification in Perspective, 141-42)

Two paradigms, indeed, (but not much reform in the Counter-Reformation).

Ben Franklin: Patron Saint of Applicatory Preaching?

I came across the follow excerpt while teaching a few weeks ago and it was striking that the self-made man and pursuer of virtue, Ben Franklin, was no fan of doctrinal preaching. I suspect that his objections to the preaching of Jedediah Andrews, the pastor at First Presbyterian in Philadelphia, would have also applied to redemptive historical sermons. Here is what Franklin observed:

Tho’ I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia. He us’d to visit me sometimes as a friend, and admonish me to attend his administrations, and I was now and then prevail’d on to do so, once for five Sundays successively. Had he been in my opinion a good preacher, perhaps I might have continued, notwithstanding the occasion I had for the Sunday’s leisure in my course of study; but his discourses were chiefly either polemic arguments, or explications of the peculiar doctrines of our sect, and were all to me very dry, uninteresting, and unedifying, since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens.

At length he took for his text that verse of the fourth chapter of Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report, if there be any virtue, or any praise, think on these things.” And I imagin’d, in a sermon on such a text, we could not miss of having some morality. But he confin’d himself to five points only, as meant by the apostle, viz.: 1. Keeping holy the Sabbath day. 2. Being diligent in reading the holy Scriptures. 3. Attending duly the publick worship. 4. Partaking of the Sacrament. 5. Paying a due respect to God’s ministers. These might be all good things; but, as they were not the kind of good things that I expected from that text, I despaired of ever meeting with them from any other, was disgusted, and attended his preaching no more. I had some years before compos’d a little Liturgy, or form of prayer, for my own private use (viz., in 1728), entitled, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion. I return’d to the use of this, and went no more to the public assemblies. My conduct might be blameable, but I leave it, without attempting further to excuse it; my present purpose being to relate facts, and not to make apologies for them.

This is not meant to be an expression of guilt by association, as if those who want application in preaching share Franklin’s views about religion more generally. I personally continue to be impressed by Franklin in a host of ways — his industry, his humor and style, his remarkable literary interests, and his statesmanship. But he wasn’t right about everything. People are complicated. That likely includes preaching and revivals (he was a fan, after all, of Whitefield).

Missing the Forest for the Pericopes

I have yet to read T. David Gordon’s book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, but I’m tempted to wonder if part of the reason for Johnny’s homiletical ineptness is that he feels constrained to preach one paragraph at a time. Mind you, I have nothing against the lectio continuo, that is, preaching and reading through entire books of Scripture rather than building homilies out of the three or four different lessons assigned by the lectionary. The former invites expository preaching while the latter encourages pious thoughts on biblical themes (with lots if illustrations from television series). At the same time, when you hear stories of men spending three years in Romans and think that an average Christian in a lectionary church has heard the entirety of Scripture read during the same time, you begin to wonder about the side effects of devotion to bite-sized texts.

One sign of problems with such preaching is to consider whether a pastor loses sight of the original reason for the book of Scripture through which he is sermonizing. During the first two or so chapters into one of Paul’s letters, for instance, the pastor is generally attentive to the context and the particular problems that vexed the Corinthians. But come chapter thirteen, a minister may have grown weary of reminding the congregation of Paul’s original context and so begin to treat the later passages in isolation from the actual situation in Corinth.

This problem leads to another, at least associated with epistles, which is, are letters meant to be read a paragraph at a time? Maybe some lovers will savor each graph of their beloved’s letter, like the last chocolate in the box. But generally speaking, whether for business or personal communication, we read letters from beginning to end. Why, many New Testament experts have said that Hebrews was regularly read in one sitting to the early church. So how much does expository preaching slow down a natural approach to texts?

Is there a solution? Probably not. But I do wonder if ministers might mix their approach to books of the Bible in the same way that they may vary the genres the choose to preach. Why not every third sermon series decide to preach an entire book – and I mean a longer one like a Gospel or Romans – in six sermons? If a pastor did this and was forced to preach through the entire book only six times, how would that organize his thoughts and presentation? Would he miss a lot? Yes. And given the way that some ministers do word analysis in their sermons, covering a pericope at a time is a sprint through Scripture. So the size of sermon texts is relative, just as speed and exposition are in the eye of the behold. But a six sermon allotment would help the congregation to see the entire book and its main points. If the pastor were so inclined, he could come back to certain passages that deserve greater attention. But again, in order to keep before the congregation the overarching point of a specific book, is a seventy-six week series the way to go?

And if we could preach entire books in greater speed, maybe we could also introduce catechetical preaching, which would give a summary of the entire Bible’s teaching – if you’re following Heidelberg – in one year.

I also wonder if giving more attention to the high points of the Bible and its books would be a way to prevent some of the balkanization that goes on in conservative Reformed circles when pastors take on pet doctrines or harbor beloved themes. If preachers had to look more to Paul or God to organize their thoughts than to their own abilities to find three or four points in a paragraph, maybe conservative Presbyterians would get along. As it stands, our manner of preaching splits up texts in ways that seldom bring unity to the very words we revere.