Review: Encountering God through Expository Preaching

Encountering God through Expository Preaching

Encountering God through Expository PreachingJim Scott Orrick, Brian Payne, Ryan Fullerton. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2017.

Summary: An argument for expository preaching as the means by which the people of God encounter the living God through the word of God, and an explication of the practices in preparation that lead to this in experience through the preached word.

The authors of this book both define what preaching is and set out their purpose in an opening statement in answer to the question, “what is preaching.” They respond:

“Preaching occurs when a holy man of God opens the Word of God and says to the people of God, ‘Come and experience God with me in this text.’ Encountering God through Expository Preaching is an explanation of this sentence.”

This book accomplishes what it promises and more. It sets forth the high calling, privilege, and sheer joy of preaching. The writers begin with the “holy man” and assert that godly character, and particularly that one is progressing in one’s own growth is critical to preaching that leads people to experience God. Giftedness is not enough, and often will result both in the cult of the preacher, and disappointment.

Then they turn to the defense of expository preaching, and particularly expository preaching that gives careful attention to the context of the text within the passage, the book, and ultimately the whole Bible. Particular emphasis is given to situating the text within God’s unfolding covenant purposes. This is not mere verse by verse explanation but canonical and biblical theological exposition, where the themes of scripture and the whole of scripture shape the treatment of a particular passage. While preference is given to preaching through books of scripture, they allow that topical preaching is both warranted by scripture itself, and that it may be done expositorily.

The authors conclude the first part with three chapters on the importance of the Holy Spirit in preaching that invites people to experience God. Careful exegesis and good homiletic practice are insufficient to transform our listeners. The Holy Spirit illumines both us and those who hear the Word preached. He emboldens the preacher, particularly in the face of opposing powers, he lights us up, fills us with love and gives us words. Finally, we constantly rely on Him through relying upon His Word, upon the Lord’s gospel, upon God in prayer, and upon the prayers of our people.

They then focus on early preparation. What I found is that this did not concern exegetical practice or turning exegetical outlines into preaching outlines, as so many similar texts do. To some degree they already addressed this in the chapters on context, and will in broad outline in the following chapters. But they begin by focusing on the importance of delivery, and also the reading of the preaching text–itself a form of preaching when done well. One of the most trenchant observations made here is that good teachers are able to anticipate how their words sound in the ears of their hearers.

The next three chapters are built around a little rhyme suggesting four questions each sermon must answer:

How does it fit?

What does it say?

How is it built?

Why does it stay?

“How does it fit?” answers the question of how the text fits into the overall context of the Bible. “What does it say?” focuses on what needs to be said about the message of this particular text to one’s audience. “How is it built?” looks at the way a passage develops its main idea. “Why does it stay?” is about why this passage has lasting relevance and how it may be relevant in the lives of the preacher and the hearers.

The final three chapters weigh the respective advantages and disadvantages of preaching from a manuscript, preaching from an outline, and preaching without notes. While a manuscript provides for precision of utterance, and avoids rabbit trails, and an outline helps with remembering what one wishes to say, the writers come down preferring the practice of preaching without notes. They favor this both in terms of what it requires of the preacher in terms of personal holiness, an outline based on the text, a simple and memorable outline, and reliance on the Holy Spirit. It also allows for better communication with and engagement with one’s audience, including more eye contact, and more natural movement and vocal variety.

What this book does is de-emphasize some of the more technical aspects of sermon preparation to focus on the spirituality of preaching–the character of the preacher, one’s own encounter with God in the text through the ministry of the Spirit, and reliance upon the Spirit in both preparation and proclamation.

While there is much of worth for anyone who aspires to preach, it should be noted that a premise of this book is that the office of preacher is limited to men–evident in references to “a holy man, ” and in the argument for preaching without notes that “it encourages masculinity” and that “for preaching to be effective, the preacher must be a masculine man” (p. 200).

While I do not agree with this premise, I found much of worth in this book, and particularly the strong argument for expository preaching, that this is really to expose God’s word under the power of God’s Spirit, so that the people of God may experience, worship, and obey the living God. It has been my joy to experience the living God under the expository  preaching of both holy men and women of God, and I can’t imagine why those charged with preaching the Word of God would want anything less or else.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Reading Your Life’s Story

Reading Your Life's Story

Reading Your Life’s StoryKeith R. Anderson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: An exploration of the work of spiritual mentoring using the idea of attentive listening to the Holy Spirit and a person to “read” one’s life, with practical instruction on the mentoring process from beginning to ending.

It is not uncommon to speak of one’s life story. The challenge is seeing the story line when you are the one within that story and life appears to be simply a series of relationships and events, and perhaps accomplishments. What Keith R. Anderson proposes is that often it is in the company of another person joining one in listening to the Holy Spirit that the threads of the narrative, or the dots in the picture are connected in a way that makes sense of our lives, and the unique ways in which God may be working in and through them. Anderson calls this “reading.” Here is how he writes about this in his first chapter, “Reading with a Consecrated Purpose”:

“We live in what we have built. The stories of our life become a house we inhabit with its
limitations, eccentricities, mistakes, hidden meanings, and crafted beauty. In this book I hope to offer ways to help us all read the story of our life through the centuries-deep practice of spiritual mentoring. Stories are a way to find coherence and meaning in what seems random, episodic, or even chaotic.”

The first part of this book develops the idea of spiritual mentoring. He differentiates spiritual mentoring from either spiritual direction or spiritual friendship as “an intentional, planned, repeated and focused set of conversations about the life of the mentee in the presence of the Holy Spirit.” After introducing this idea, in successive chapters he writes about God as the author of our stories, about our lives as the text and the different ways we read stories, about mentors as coreaders, and the importance of spiritual friendship in the mentoring process. Finally he speaks of spiritual mentors as imperfect people, and that it is in our authentic vulnerability as great sinners who depend on the mercy of God, that we do our work. He writes, “Effective mentors are honest about their own brokenness and the holes within.”

The second part of the book traces the movements of the spiritual mentoring relationship from beginning to ending. I found the chapter on ending especially helpful, because he focuses on ending well, even if a mentoring relationship hasn’t gone well. It is a bring of closure, and what will happen next. It is not just ending but sending, which he describes as “s/ending.” Other chapters focus on starting well with practical helps on the initial interview for mentor and mentee. He charts what a mentoring session might look like. He talks about the practice of wisdom in helping people begin to understand that the life of faith is a long walk. He talks about the pacing of the mentoring relationship and how mentees can prepare for each session and he addresses accountability.

One of features of this book is that each chapter ends with a brief reflection focused around either a metaphor for spiritual mentoring or some useful resource or concept. Metaphors include hospitality, farming, ecology, prayer, and geography. He describes the “core curriculum” mentoring and the work of spiritual mentoring as “disillusionment,” that is the casting aside of our illusions to embrace truth. These short reflections both stand alone, and round out the framework Anderson gives us in this book and were a highlight of the book for me.

The book concludes with a “Mentor’s Library” and several appendices on lectio divina, how spiritual mentors deal with transference and countertransference, discernment questions for choosing a mentor, and dealing with differences between mentor and mentee. The appendix on transference and countertransference seemed to me especially important in dealing with realities other counselors encounter, and the importance for spiritual mentors to have their own mentors and accountability.

In this book, Anderson gives us an account at once practical and yet not prosaic. He helps us understand this deeply human and yet spiritual relationship, and offers wisdom that comes out of a lifetime of being mentored and mentoring. This is a valuable book both for those who mentor and those who seek mentoring.

Review: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit

cultivating the fruit of the spirit

Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Christopher J. H. Wright. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A study elaborating what it means to grow in Christlikeness looking at each of the nine fruit of the Spirit.

“Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.

Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.

Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

This is a portion of a prayer prayed by the late John R. W. Stott each morning. Perhaps, as author, and Stott’s successor in leading the Langham Partnership, Christopher J. H. Wright notes, it is no surprise that many who met Stott felt he was the most Christlike person they’d ever met.

This is a book about growing to be more like Christ through cultivating in one’s life the nine fruit of the Spirit the apostle Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23. Wright nicknames these the “9-A-Day” through which our character is formed to be like Christ. He begins this study by setting Paul’s list in its Galatian context. Paul argues for the gospel of being reckoned right with God by our faith alone apart from works. Then he addresses what may be a criticism–that in rejecting legalism, haven’t you opened the door to license? Rather, what comes through the Christ who indwells us by the Holy Spirit is freedom from slavery either to law or to licentious sin. This Spirit, as we root our lives to Him each day in prayer, study, and faithful obedience bears the fruit of Christ’s character in us over the course of our lives.

Wright goes on in the next nine chapters to consider each quality in Paul’s list. His approach is not to tell a lot of stories but to focus on the biblical material about each of these qualities, both how we see this quality in the character of God, and what this looks like in the life of a Christ-follower. Much like the teaching of John Stott, Christ gives is clear and memorable outlines to help us reflect on each of these qualities, and concludes with practical application to everyday life. For example, in the chapter on “kindness” his subheadings are “Kindness and the Character of God,” “Kindness as a Quality of Those Who Worship God,” “Kindness and the Example of Jesus,” and “Kindness as a Habit of Life.” He concludes this chapter with two questions that may help us in our practice of kindness:

  • What would I do for people if were the Christ?
  • What would I do for people if they were the Christ?

Wright concludes each chapter with a few reflection and application questions. An additional feature at the end of each chapter is a link to a video of Wright talking about the particular fruit of the Spirit. For a sample, here is a link in which Wright introduces the series.

This is a book I wish I had as a young Christian. I understood that I had become a Christian through the work of Christ. But I found little help in what it meant to be a Christian, to live a life marked increasingly by the character of the Christ I was following. This is such a helpful study that offers hope that God, through his Spirit will indeed work out his character in our lives as we root our lives in Christ, heeding his word, gathering with his people, yielding ourselves in prayer, and faithfully acting on what he says.

I also appreciated the combination of scripturally-based instruction, and thoughtful application throughout. This comment about patience is just one example:

“That kind of patience is sadly needed more than ever in Christian churches–and even (maybe especially) among Christian leaders. In the world of instant blogging and commenting (and comments on comments), patience seems to be a very neglected virtue. Some people simply can’t wait to put their word in, get their point across, speak their mind — however harmful and hurtful it may be. We have become very impatient — in attitudes, communication, and expectations” (p. 79).

This strikes me as a great book that one might use for personal reflection, for discussion with a younger believer, or in a group. In that context, using Wright’s videos to set up discussion of each chapter could work very well.

It also strikes me that this work, unassuming as it may seem, is vital in our day. I observe on one hand Christians bemoaning the flight of millenials from the church and at the same time grasping at power and influence in American culture. Wright’s quote of a Hindu professor points to why the Christlikeness of lives characterized by the fruit of the Spirit is so important:

“If you Christians lived like Jesus, India would be at your feet tomorrow.”

Dare we believe it could be so of our own country?

Going Deeper: Listen to Your Lawyer!

On several occasions, I’ve learned that lawyers can be quite helpful and save one a great deal of grief. We had the benefit of a lawyer walking us through the complexities of probate. In my work, I’ve learned that a lawyer can save a great deal of grief for me and our organization by reviewing a contract. Sadly, I’ve sometimes recommended lawyers to friends who needed someone to represent their interests in a divorce, or to help them navigate their way through our country’s labyrinthine immigration laws.

Our message this past Sunday focused on John 15:26-16:11 and this sometimes mysterious person of the Trinity we call “the Holy Spirit”, or in older times “the Holy Ghost.” Sometimes the language suggests this vague, ethereal being. At other times, we are tempted to view the Holy Spirit as a kind of “spiritual battery pack” who charges us up to serve God.

Instead, Pastor Rich pointed out the word picture of the Holy Spirit as our Advocate. Sometimes paraclete, the word translated in the NIV as “advocate” is translated as “counselor”. Rich pointed out that we can use that language if we think, not of a therapist, but of a legal counselor. In French, the word for lawyer is avocat. The idea is one who stands alongside us when we are on trial, who empowers us by his presence with us rather than some vague spiritual charge. He is also one who advocates on our behalf and does not leave us defenseless.

I can think of all kinds of ways I face “trials” in which I need this kind of counsel, this kind of advocacy:

  • When I face difficult choices and wonder which is the right path to choose
  • When I face a challenging ethical situation and want to do the right thing
  • When I am sharing with a friend and we are talking about faith and my friend raises a difficult objection.
  • When I am overwhelmed by trying circumstances–when everything seems to be going wrong and I alternate between frenzied activity and fearful paralysis.

What Jesus promises is that in this hour of trial, whatever it is, we do not stand alone. There is One who stands alongside us, instructing us as “the Spirit of truth” (15:26). He testifies about Jesus so that we can testify about Jesus and tell and live the truth of who he is.

My greatest challenge is listening to my lawyer! Sometimes, I think the reason I do not listen is because I’m afraid if I do, I won’t hear anything and won’t be helped. So I decide to just do it myself. Yet I can also think of a time when I was facing a great challenge, that had me crying out for the Spirit’s help. And I found that when the need was there, so was the insight of what to do next, step by step. It did not seem that the Holy Spirit showed me the whole game plan, but rather just the next step. And he gave the presence of mind and peace of heart to give calm leadership to others.

What I forget is that the Holy Spirit is not simply my Advocate in extraordinary situations but also in ordinary life. Just as lawyers can help us with the mundane details of a contract or an estate plan, so our Advocate can help us with the “ordinary” matters of our days–caring for children, relating to customers or vendors, devising plans for our work. All of this for the Christian is part of life in the kingdom under Jesus new covenant rule. Everything matters, and it matters so much that our Lord has not left us to stumble about on our own.

One of the ancient prayers of the church is “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, which means “come Holy Spirit”. Maybe one of the simplest steps you and I can take when we are conscious of our need for help is to pray these three words and to invite his counsel. Where do you need to listen to Him today? This week?

Review: Spirit of Life

Spirit of Life
Spirit of Life by Jürgen Moltmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a boy, I grew up hearing about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Later on, the language was modernized to refer to the Holy Spirit but there was still something mysterious about this person of the Trinity. And so it remains for many of us who functionally are “binatarians”. We speak of Father and Son but have only the vaguest notions of the Holy Spirit.

And so it was with some interest that I turned to this work by German theologian Jurgen Moltmann on the Holy Spirit, or in theological terms, “pneumatology.” This volume is actually the fourth volume in Moltmann’s systematic theology.

The title of the book is significant. Moltmann’s key theme in this book is that the Holy Spirit is “the spirit of life.” Moltmann is arguing not for “spirituality” but for “vitality” in our embodied lives, countering what he sees as Gnostic remnants in the theology and language of the church.

Moltmann takes an approach different than some others. He begins with our experience of the Spirit and moves to a theology of the Spirit rather than the other way round. It is through the Holy Spirit that the immanent Triune God is experienced in our lives. He looks at this in our experience, in the Old Testament and in the relationship of Christ and the Spirit. One of the implications of the work of the Spirit is the presence of God in all things and in all of life. There are no divides between “spiritual” and “secular” or material existence.

The second part of this work is titled “Life in the Spirit” and explores the work in the Spirit in what is classically known as the Order of Salvation beginning with giving life to our mortal bodies and to liberating us from sin, in which he also engages Latin liberation theologies. He explores the role of the Spirit in justification, distinguishing victims and perpetrators. He considers the work of the Spirit in regeneration and its relation to justification, in sanctification and in the giving of gifts to the church (which he would extend beyond the typical “gift lists” in scripture to all our talents and skills employed for God’s purposes). Finally, he explores the work of the Spirit in mystical experience.

The third and last section of the book is titled “The Fellowship of the Spirit.” He explores the relations within the Trinity and the implications of that Fellowship for the Spirit’s work in making fellowship possible in the life of the church–including discussions of intergenerational community, fellowship between the genders, and the relation of various action, self help, and other groups that may operate under the auspices of the church. The concluding part of the work contains what one might most classically consider when thinking of the theology of the Holy Spirit. Here Moltmann considers various “metaphors” for the Spirit and comes to his own definition of the Personhood of the Spirit within the Trinity:

The personhood of God the Holy Spirit is the loving, self-communicating, out-fanning, and out-pouring presence of the eternal divine life of the triune God.

He concludes the work with a discussion of the filioque clause added to Western versions of the Creed and a key factor in the schism between East and West. He argues for the East here, that the clause is superfluous at best and unnecessarily subordinates the Spirit within the Trinity and ignores the reciprocity existing between Spirit and Son.

A few comments on this book. I most appreciated Moltmann’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s involvement in all of embodied life. I agree with the need for a corrective to an over-spiritualized, gnostic view of life that denies our bodily, material existence and the goodness in this. At the same time, I wondered if Moltmann had moved from simply the immanence of God to a kind of Christian panentheism, God in all things (language he uses at points).

In addition, I do think it a challenge always in Trinitarian theology to discuss the nature of any of the “persons”, with all of the human associations of this language. I sense this difficulty in Moltmann who moves between “it” and “he” in referencing the Holy Spirit. I’m left wondering, in Moltmann’s definition of the Personhood of the Spirit and his uses of language whether he considers the Holy Spirit a “person” in the same way as Father and Son.

I read this work apart from the preceding three volumes in his systematic theology, or any of Moltmann’s other works, which may place me at a disadvantage. (This is what comes of picking up a book in a bargain section of a used book store!). Still, if I were to make a recommendation, I would start with Basil the Great’s, On the Holy Spirit, which is so helpful in understanding the development of the early church’s understanding of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity.

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