Why this tough but life-giving command can change your entire outlook.
Reading the Bible isn’t always easy.
If you’ve ever thought those words but were embarrassed to speak them, you’re not alone. Sure, there’s plenty within Scripture that we comprehend without much difficulty. But at times we come across a passage that baffles us—or worse, makes us feel angry or annoyed. Sometimes it’s because we simply don’t understand what the Lord is saying through the text. But often the reason for our discomfort is that we don’t like what we’re reading. It’s easier to ignore those verses and move on to more appealing topics than to hash it out with God and do what He says. Reading the Bible is hard because, in the end, it challenges us to change.
1 Thessalonians 5:18 is one of those verses that can really get under your skin: “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” But what about those difficult and painful situations? Being grateful for suffering seems to make no sense.
If I were writing Scripture, I would say, “In most things give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” It’s easy to be grateful for the good things in life—a newborn baby, a raise, a new house, or encouraging news from the doctor. But what if you lose your job, discover your child is on drugs, or are told by the doctor that you have only have six months to live? How can God expect you to be grateful then?
I faced this dilemma some time ago when I hurt my shoulder and experienced excruciating pain. I read this verse and told the Lord, “I know You said this, but it’s not reasonable when I’m hurting so badly. I just don’t feel thankful.” But then I noticed that it didn’t say, In everything give thanks when you feel like it. This command has nothing to do with feelings. It’s a choice to do what God says. Whenever He gives us a command in the Bible, it’s for our benefit.
Gratitude impacts every area of our lives.
By giving us the command to always give thanks, God is not rubbing salt in a wound or calling us to set aside reason. He knows that being thankful in all circumstances has a powerful impact on every area of our Christian life. Here are ten lessons I’ve learned:
1. Gratitude keeps us continually aware that the Lord is close by.Even though gratefulness doesn’t come naturally in difficult circumstances, a decision to thank God for walking with us through life makes us more sensitive to His comforting presence.
2. It motivates us to look for His purpose in our circumstance. Knowing that the Lord allows hurt and trouble for His good purposes takes the edge off the pain. Even if we don’t understand why we’re going through suffering, we can thank God because we know that in His time, He’ll work it all for good. In the meantime, we can rest in the knowledge that He’s using every hardship to transform us into the image of His Son (Rom. 8:28-29).
3. Thanksgiving helps bring our will into submission to God.When the situation we’re experiencing is the last thing we’d ever want, thanking the Lord is a giant step toward being able to follow Christ’s example and say, “Not my will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Gratitude helps us acknowledge that God’s will is best, even if it’s hard; in that way, we are able to release our hold on what we want. Although the circumstances may remain the same, submission changes our heart.
4. It reminds us of our continual dependence upon the Lord. Pride, adequacy, and independence evaporate whenever we’re trapped in a situation that leaves us helpless and hopeless. If there’s no way out, thanking God for His control over all things reminds us that He alone is our strength.
5. Thankfulness is an essential ingredient for joy.There’s no way to “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16) without giving thanks in everything (v. 18). That’s why ungrateful people are so grumpy. Joy is an inner sense of contentment, which flows from a deep assurance that all God’s purposes are good and He’s in complete control of every situation. With that kind of supernatural joy, it’s easy to be thankful.
6. A grateful attitude strengthens our witness to unbelievers.The world is filled with people who are angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed with the difficulties of life. But a believer with a grateful attitude is like a light shining in a dark place. The people around you will want to know why you don’t grumble and complain the way everyone else does. Then you can tell them about your amazing Savior.
7. Thanking God focuses our attention on Him rather than our circumstances. The key to a grateful heart begins with understanding the Lord’s character because knowing His awesome attributes motivates trust and gratitude. He knows exactly what you’re going through, loves you unconditionally, and understands you perfectly. When you thank Him in tough times, He gets bigger, and the circumstances become smaller.
8. Gratitude gives us eternal perspective. The apostle Paul is an amazing example of a man who suffered extreme hardship yet remained thankful. That’s because he was able to see life from God’s perspective. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, he says our present suffering is “momentary light affliction.” If you’re going through a really hard time, those words may sound ridiculous. Maybe you’ve been dealing with pain your entire life, or a difficult trial has dragged on for decades. It hardly seems momentary or light.
But Paul is comparing our situations here on earth with what’s awaiting us in eternity. For him, a 40-year stretch of pain and hardship was no match for the “eternal weight of glory” awaiting him (2 Cor. 4:17). What an amazing thought—your present pain has the potential to produce incomparable glory for you in heaven. Now that’s a big reason to thank God!
9. When we’re wearied by our circumstances, thanksgiving energizes us. Most of us can handle short trials, but if they continue for a long period of time, the emotional and physical strain is exhausting. Should ongoing illness, unresolved relational problems, or continued financial pressures become more than we can bear, it’s time to start thanking God because He has promised to give strength to the weary (Isaiah 40:29). He’ll release His supernatural energy within us so we can patiently endure the trial and come out victorious on the other side.
10. Gratitude transforms anxiety into peace, which passes all understanding(Phil. 4:6-7). I learned this principle through a very difficult experience. When I was feeling anxious about the situation, I discovered that complaining, getting angry, and arguing with God didn’t change my circumstances. Finally, in desperation, I began thanking Him. Only then did I receive His incomprehensible peace. My situation didn’t change for quite a while, but God’s peace guarded my heart all the way through that trying time.
What will you choose?
The choice isn’t always easy. Most of the time, we’d rather get out of difficulties than thank God through them. But have you ever considered that He may actually want you to stay in a painful situation for a time? I know this may not sound like something a loving God would ever do, but remember, His goal is to do what is best for you, not what’s comfortable, convenient, and enjoyable.
The Lord’s purposes for your life extend beyond your days on earth. He’s working for your eternal good. Begin thanking God today, in whatever circumstance you find yourself. After all, what’s the alternative—bitterness, resentment, and grumbling? God made you for something far better: eternal, sustaining joy. The transformation starts with two simple, small words offered from the heart: thank You.
Say them over and over. And then say them again. Your joy will be radiant—a light shining in a dark and desperate world.
8 Advantages of Heart-Changing Expository Preaching
(1) Does justice to the biblical material which makes it clear that God works through His Word to change people’s lives–as it ‘uncaged the lion’ and allows God’s Word to speak.
(2) Acknowledges that it is God alone, through the Spirit, who works in people’s lives, and that it is not our job to change people through clever or inspiring communication.
(3) Minimizes the danger of manipulating people, because the text itself controls what we say and how we say it. The Bible leaves little room for us to return repeatedly to our current bugbears and hobbyhorses.
(4) Minimizes the danger of abusing power, because a sermon driven by the text creates an instant safeguard against using the Bible to bludgeon (or caress) people into doing or thinking what we want them to do or think.
(5) Removes the need to rely on our personality. While we all feel the weight, at times of having little ‘inspiration’, energy or creativity, if our focus is on allowing the immense richness of Scripture to speak in all its color and variety, the pressure is well and truly off.
(6) Encourages humility to those teaching. While it can be a temptation to think that we are somehow special because we are standing at the front doing most of the talking (and, on a good day, receiving the encouragement), getting it straight that the key to preaching to the heart is simply uncovering the power and freshness of God’s words helps to keep us in our place.
(7) Helps us to avoid simple pragmatism. If our focus is on working consistently to enable people to encounter God who speaks through the text, we will not feel under pressure to address every single issue and topic as it comes up in the life of the church. Conversely, working through the Bible week by week will force us to cover subjects that we wouldn’t choose to address in a million years. In other words, expository preaching is the simplest, longest-lasting antidote we have to pragmatism.
(8) Drives us to preaching the gospel. Expository preaching persistently drives us to the Lord Jesus Christ (wherever we are in the Bible) and so ‘forces’ us to preach the gospel–that is, to spell out what God has already done for us in the death and resurrection of His Son, and then to move from that grace to what God asks and enables us to do. When we preach the gospel we are not simply telling people how to be good or leaving them to wallow in the overwhelming sense that they are irredeemably bad.
Christian workers must clearly understand the role God plays in evangelism, discipleship and other aspects of ministry. Unless we consciously operate out of a God-centered model of ministry, we will automatically default to a human-centered model, and all the defeat that comes with it.
A moment’s reflection tells us that what we propose to accomplish in Christian ministry is supernatural. To reach people’s hearts with conviction of their need for Christ, to train them up in the faith, to impart the deep things of God in a life-changing way, to oppose and defeat powerful evil spirits—these are acts that no human can hope to accomplish, no matter how intelligent and competent that person may be. The key to ministry success is always the same: That God moves through us “leading us in his triumph.” (2 Cor. 2:14) Spiritual failure in ministry is predictable when leaders try to supplant the power of God with human charisma, ingenuity, marketing skill, force of will, or social manipulation, even when these are supplied from the best of motives.
Although no real ministry will go forward without the power of God, we should not deny the human part in this process, which would be “super-spirituality.” Paul declares that he and the other apostles are “God’s fellow workers.”(1 Cor. 3:9) Yes, “neither he who plants nor he who reaps are anything but God who causes the growth.”(vs. 7) But this is a figure of speech meaning that compared to God, the planter and reaper are nothing. We should not understand this hyperbole literalistically. Do we really think that everything would have come out the same even if Paul had never gone to Corinth to plant? We hold that his planting did make a difference, and Paul argues this as well, as the whole point of 1Corinthians 3 is that every Christian leader should “take care how he builds.” (vs.10) An honest reading of the Bible reveals a strong doctrine of human agency in ministry. God has elected to work though human beings, and therefore our actions are important.
What, then, should we anticipate God will do from his side in our ministry?
In the first place, God directs our ministries. Leaders are to come to the scriptures, and to the Lord in prayer, seeking to know his will for our ministry. Ministry that departs from the direction God wants may bear some kind of fruit, but becomes “wood hay and stubble” the further we depart from the leading of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, God seems willing to continue using ministries that are off-target, apparently because he places a higher value on reaching the lost than on complete fidelity to his leading. Paul observed this phenomenon in Rome. (Phil. 1:15-18) This is probably the meaning of Mark 9:38-40 as well. Even in 1 Corinthians 3, the “wood hay and stubble” may be used by God, but it will not be rewarded. In fact, the Bible abounds with examples where God continued to use leaders who went astray, sometimes very badly. What are we to conclude?
On one hand, since it is God’s will to direct our ministries, we should seek that leading often and earnestly. Even though God may continue to use off-target ministries, we assume that we will bear more spiritual fruit the closer we are to God’s ideal. This is increasingly obvious as time goes on. In the short term, human-based ministry may look good, but it tends to deteriorate over time or bring disgrace upon the Lord’s name. On the other hand, we should never become paralyzed by the notion that “Unless I know exactly what God wants in each situation, I can’t move forward.” We can move forward based on the general knowledge of what God wants, and in areas we are unsure, we can remain open to any correction in our course that God may want to show us, knowing that he will not let us come to irreversible harm (Phil. 3:15).
The direction of God extends not only to major issues like whether to preach the word or to practice church discipline, but to more subjective areas like when someone is ready for leadership, or with whom to invest our discipling time and effort. Teachers have to consult God on what slant to take when teaching a particular text. Evangelists must ask when to make a more direct call on the lost. Leaders must plead for insight as to how much to expect from a particular disciple. All believers need discernment as to Satan’s next move. In all, there are thousands of decisions in ministry requiring divine guidance.
Secondly, God empowers our ministries. Jesus’ declaration that “apart from me you can do nothing,” is again a figure of speech. He doesn’t mean we can do nothing at all, but that we can do nothing of spiritual value apart from him. As Christian leaders, we realize that we depend absolutely on God for things like:
Evangelism. While a warm demeanor, patience, good arguments, and heartfelt pleas matter in evangelism, only the Holy Spirit can finally convict a person of their need for Christ and bring them to repentance. (John 6:65)
Conviction. We can preach truth, but we depend on God to convict people’s hearts to follow the truth. Apart from spiritual conviction, people will listen to the truth with passive curiosity. This is likely the power Paul referred to in 1 Cor. 4:19,20.
Development of Christian character. No amount of blustering and Bible thumping will transform human lives, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)
Overthrowing demons. How could any human hope to impact a spiritual being like Satan apart from the power of God? (Rom. 16:20)
Filling Christian meetings with spiritual power. Paul asks his friends to pray that he be “given utterance”when preaching. (Eph. 6:19) He knew that preaching must be anointed by the Holy Spirit in order to be effective.
Failure to understand or believe in God’s role in ministry will always have negative results. These results include arrogance during “in season” times, as well as panic, pushiness and discouragement during “out of season” times. On the other hand, reliance on God’s role in ministry will promote thankful humility during “in season” times, and stable perseverance during “out of season” times. Those who depend on God’s part have confidence in God’s adequacy through us.
The effect of a God-Centered Perspective on our Attitude
Consider the likely effect that a proper outlook in the area of God’s role will have in each of the following areas. On a three column grid, describe the outlook and actions of the human effort minister on the left, the God-centered minister in the middle, and the reason for the difference on the right.
1. Less fear of rejection because we know they are not rejecting us, but God. Unlike the man-centered witnesser, we realize God must quicken people’s hearts, and if they don’t respond, there is nothing we can do about it.
2. Less tendency to push because human or social pressure would not result in conversion anyway. The God-centered minister learns to wait on the power of God.
3. More likely to use the Word. God-centered ministers know that God works through his word. While using the Bible with one who doesn’t believe the Bible may seem absurd to the natural mind, God says his word “will not return void.”
1. No fear of sin. Instead of reacting out of fear that sin will ruin our church, the God-centered minister has a settled confidence that Christ will build his church. We become free to discipline sin for the good of the sinner.
2. No doubting of God’s ability to change lives. Man-centered ministers are tempted to become fatalistic about those in chronic sin, thinking “they’ll never change.” The God-centered minister knows God’s power is great.
3. Less apt to try to force people. Again, human pressure is not an adequate motivation for permanent and real spiritual change. While the Bible does prescribe pressure in certain extreme situations, God-centered leaders are less prone to jumping to this conclusion.
4. More patience. Human-based ministers lose patience because they are waiting on fallen humans to change, rather than waiting on God to bring change.
C. Teaching and preaching
1. More boldness and confidence. God-centered teachers and preachers know that God infuses our utterances with power, and that it is his will to bless the church. Instead of relying on self-confidence, which often withers, these rely on God-confidence which is reliable.
2. More tendency to pray against the Devil. The God-centered speaker knows that each talk is a spiritual battle that must be fought with the weapons of righteousness.
1. The God-centered discipler tries to get in line with what God wants to do with particular lives. They realize that God’s gifting of individuals is an indication of his will for their lives.
2. More emphasis on discernment, and less on program. The key becomes recognizing what God is doing, rather than having the ultimate method that can’t fail.
3. More relaxation, leading to more trust from disciples. Since the God-centered minister sees himself as a facilitator of God’s development of another’s life, people sense that they aren’t being made to follow the discipler’s will, but that both are trying to follow God’s will.
4. More willingness to teach in-depth Bible study. Those who conceive of discipleship in sociological terms see little reason to waste large amounts of time learning God’s word. They prefer to teach techniques and formulas and consider deep critical issues in Scripture a waste of time. The God-centered leader knows that people are sanctified through the word of God.
5. Less likelihood of bossing. God-centered disciplers know that convictions to follow the Lord must come from within disciples as they respond to the Holy Spirit. Change that results from external pressure would be pseudo-change.
1. Easier to admit problems in the church. Unlike the human-based leader, who is ego involved with the well-being of the church, the God-centered ministry has no reason to avoid looking at bad news.
2. Easier to avoid pessimism. At the same time, God-centered leaders don’t become negative, because they know God has the power to handle even severe problems.
3. More inclination to raise up others– less need to “hog the ball.” Human-centered leaders secretly think their own competence is the key to the success of the church. Since they interpret the growth of the church in terms of cause and effect on the natural level, it makes no sense to have a less-experienced, less competent new leader speak and lead. The result is a man-centered ministry, where the significant public roles are always filled by the great man.
4. More time and effort devoted to prayer. The God-centered minister knows that only God can build the church, and that every advance requires his power.
Many more examples could be cited. This perspective affects every area of ministry. As in personal sanctification, learning to rely on God’s power instead of our own power is a process which takes time. No leader can claim to have this area down completely.
One of the main ways we learn to depend on God is by experiencing failure (see II Cor. 11:30-33; 12:9,10). As we respond properly to these failures, we gradually learn to minister in dependence upon God’s power.
We have said that you must preach the gospel every week–to edify and grow Christians and to convert non-Christians. But if that is the case, you cannot simply ‘instruct in Biblical principles.’ You have to ‘get to Jesus’ every week.
For example, look at the story of David and Goliath. What is the meaning of that narrative for us? Without reference to Christ, the story may be (usually is!) preached as: “The bigger they come, the harder they’ll fall, if you just go into your battles with faith in the Lord. You may not be real big and powerful in yourself, but with God on your side, you can overcome giants.” But as soon as we ask: “how is David foreshadowing the work of his greater Son”? We begin to see the same features of the story in a different light. The story is telling us that the Israelites can not go up against Goliath. They can’t do it. They need a substitute. When David goes in on their behalf, he is not a full-grown man, but a vulnerable and weak figure, a mere boy. He goes virtually as a sacrificial lamb. But God uses his apparent weakness as the means to destroy the giant, and David becomes Israel’s champion-redeemer, so that his victory will be imputed to them. They get all the fruit of having fought the battle themselves.
This is a fundamentally different meaning than the one that arises from the non-Christocentric reading. There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done? If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship). For example how can I ever fight the “giant” of failure, unless I have a deep security that God will not abandon me? If I see David as my example, the story will never help me fight the failure/giant. But if I see David/Jesus as my substitute, whose victory is imputed to me, then I can stand before the failure/giant. As another example, how can I ever fight the “giant” of persecution or criticism? Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others. Unless I see him as forgiving me for falling asleep on him (Matt.27:45) I won’t be able to stay awake for him.
In the Old Testament we are continually told that our good works are not enough, that God has made a provision. This provision is pointed to at every place in the Old Testament. We see it in the clothes God makes Adam and Eve in Genesis, to the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Tabernacle and the whole sacrificial system, to the innumerable references to a Messiah, a suffering servant, and so on. Therefore, to say that the Bible is about Christ is to say that the main theme of the Bible is the gospel–Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9).
So reading the Old Testament Christocentrically is not just a “additional” dimension. It is not something you can just tack on – to the end of a study and sermon. (“Oh, and by the way, this also points us to Christ”.) Rather, the Christocentric reading provides a fundamentally different application and meaning to the text. Without relating it to Christ, the story of Abraham and Isaac means: “You must be willing to even kill your own son for him.” Without relating it to Christ, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel means: “You have to wrestle with God, even when he is inexplicable-even when he is crippling you. You must never give up.” These ‘morals-of-the-story’ are crushing because they essentially are read as being about us and what we must do.
A BASIC OUTLINE FOR CHRIST-CENTERED, GOSPEL-MOTIVATED SERMONS
The following may actually be four points in a presentation, or they may be treated very quickly as the last point of a sermon. But more generally, this is a foundational outline for the basic moral reasoning and argument that lies at the heart of the application.
The Plot winds up: WHAT YOU MUST DO.
“This is what you have to do! Here is what the text/narrative tells us that we must do or what we must be.”
The Plot thickens: WHY YOU CAN’T DO IT.
“But you can’t do it! Here are all the reasons that you will never become like this just by trying very hard.”
The Plot resolves: HOW HE DID IT.
“But there’s One who did. Perfectly. Wholly. Jesus the—. He has done this for us, in our place.”
The Plot winds down: HOW, THROUGH HIM, YOU CAN DO IT.
“Our failure to do it is due to our functional rejection of what he did. Remembering him frees our heart so we can change like this…”
a) In every text of the Scripture there is somehow a moral principle. It may grow out of because of what it shows us about the character of God or Christ, or out of either the good or bad example of characters in the text, or because of explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle must be distilled clearly.
b) But then a crisis is created in the hearers as the preacher shows that his moral principle creates insurmountable problems. The sermon shows how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end.
c) Then a hidden door opens and light comes in. The sermon moves both into worship and into Christ-application when it shows how only Jesus Christ has fulfilled this. If the text is a narrative, you can show how Christ is the ultimate example of a particular character. If the text is didactic, you can show how Christ is the ultimate embodiment of the principle.
d) Finally, we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our rejection of Christ as the Way, Truth, and Life (or whatever the theme is). The sermon points out how to repent and rejoice in Christ in such a way that we can live as we ought.
It’s been my experience that most churches are way off base in their leadership structures. In light of what the New Testament says about leadership in the churches this is difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless Phil Newton has done a great service to the 21st Century church by providing an introductory guide to developing a biblical infrastructure for churches that take being biblically based and effective seriously.
Newton divides his helpful book into three sections:
Part One is composed of answering the question: Why Churches Should have Elders. In Part Two Newton exposits three key texts on how Elders functioned in the New Testament: Acts 20:17-31; Hebrews 13:17-19; and 1 Peter 5:1-15. In giving a thorough exposition of each passage he demonstrates how Elders are models for their congregations; how Elders and the congregation work together in harmony; and how their primary calling is to be spiritual leaders for the good of the congregation and God’s greater glory.
In my opinion the most helpful section of the book is in part three. In this section Newton shows how a leadership team can transition into a fully functioning Elder Leadership in the Church with Deacons as well. All four examples are of large Baptist churches going from a Diaconate Board to two separate functioning boards of Elders and another of Deacons.
Giving a step-by-step process Newton shares from personal experience [South Woods Baptist Church] and from the experience of other well-known ministries (Mark Dever’s [Capital Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C.], Jeff Noblit [First Baptist Church of Muscle Shoals, Alabama], and John Piper’s [Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN.] transitions from Deacon Board structures to adding Elders into the mix). The process is slow, methodical, and takes into consideration traditions, a thorough study of biblical passages on leadership, and how the principles are studied and bandied about in teams. The process for the four cases studied is very helpful to keep in mind no matter what background your church has, and where it’s at in the transitional process.
I think this is an excellent book for leadership teams to study and for pastors, staffs, deacons, and elders to use in seeking to become as biblically effective as possible in seeking to develop a healthy infrastructure for the good of the Church and the glory of God. What I especially like about Newton’s book in particular is that he doesn’t impose any particular church government upon a church, but allows the Bible to speak for itself. He encourages a thorough study of the biblical evidence in arriving at one’s model of church government. I highly recommend this book as an extremely helpful guide in leading one toward a more biblical model of church government.
Tabeltalk (TT): How did you become a Christian, and how were you called to ministry?
Steven J. Lawson: I grew up in a Christian home and was brought to faith as a young boy through the consistent witness of my father and mother. Specifically, it was through the reading of the Bible by my father each night that the seed of the gospel was planted, which God caused to germinate in my heart. Regarding my call to the ministry, I actually began preaching and teaching while in college in various ministries and churches. Upon graduating, I sat under the strong preaching of Adrian Rogers at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., and strongly felt God summoning me into full-time ministry. His bold preaching electrified my heart and served as the catalyst that launched me to seminary, where I would be prepared for a lifetime of ministry.
TT: What are the biggest challenges you have faced during your ministry? How have you faced these challenges?
SL: In my earlier years, the greatest challenges I faced were preaching the doctrines of grace to congregations that were theologically untaught. To say the least, it was difficult and demanding to try to establish God-centered truth and a biblical philosophy of ministry where there had previously been a stronghold of man-centered thinking concerning the work of God in salvation. Though it was obviously a painful process, the only way to meet such an obstacle was head-on, unashamedly preaching the full counsel of God. This required much prayer, pastoral discretion, patience, and perseverance, which God honored. Over time, God established His truth in the minds and hearts of many, though it came at a high price personally.
TT: What advice would you give to a young man who aspires to be a pastor?
SL: First, any man aspiring to the pastorate needs to be sitting under strong expository preaching. He needs a role model who exemplifies what is in his heart to do. Second, he needs a personal ministry whereby he can use what he is learning, test his giftedness, and cultivate what has been entrusted to him. Third, he should surround himself with a small circle of spiritually mature men who can provide wise counsel in helping steer his life and ministry as important decisions arise. Fourth, he must begin to inquire of various seminaries regarding his future theological education. He needs to contact some institutions, visit their campuses, and talk to some of the faculty. Fifth, he needs to become an avid reader of important Christian books, including the spiritual biographies of noted men who have been mightily used by God.
TT: How does a pastor remain faithful to his calling over the long haul?
SL: In order to persevere in ministry, a pastor needs to be, first and foremost, deeply rooted and anchored in God’s Word. The more he studies, learns, teaches, and preaches God’s Word, the greater will be his staying power in ministry. Further, reading Christian biographies of men who have faced great adversity in their ministries provides greater drive and endurance. Reading the heroic accounts of martyrs and missionaries who have faced great persecution should be at the top of his reading list. Likewise, being surrounded by a small group of laymen who will encourage him in God’s work is a necessity. Pastors can be vulnerable to severe bouts of discouragement. Having the edifying feedback of trusted individuals helps him remain steadfast in doing God’s work.
TT: Who has most influenced your preaching?
SL: There have been multiple influences upon my preaching—Adrian Rogers,W.A. Criswell, James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and S. Lewis Johnson. Each of these men has contributed something vitally important to my preaching ministry. Over many decades, John MacArthur has most shaped my approach to biblical exposition. He has influenced me in preaching through entire books of the Bible sequentially. I have learned from him the need for sound exegesis, word studies, historical background, crossreferences, theological precision, sermon outline, and manuscript writing. Moreover, Dr. MacArthur has demonstrated the need for guarding the gospel and teaching sound doctrine.
TT: Why have you focused so much of your attention to the practice of expository preaching and to helping both preachers and laypeople see its importance?
SL: I strongly believe that no church can rise any higher than its pulpit. As the pulpit goes, so goes the church. The deeper the preacher takes his flock into the Word of God, the higher they will rise in worship. The stronger they are in the Scripture, the stronger they will be in the pursuit of holiness. Likewise, strong preaching leads to sacrificial service in the Lord’s work. Strong exposition kindles hearts for the work of evangelism and the cause of worldwide missions. Every great movement of God in church history has been ushered in by a renewed commitment to solid preaching of the Word. If we are to see a spiritual awakening in our day, the church must recover the primacy of preaching. I desire to be used by God to help equip a new generation of preachers and laypeople in recognizing the importance of this primary means of grace.
TT: Can you describe for us what your sermon preparation looks like?
SL: I begin each week by photocopying everything that I need to read in order to prepare my sermon. This includes study Bibles, commentaries, expository sermons, linguistic and historical tools, and the like. I first read the passage and discover its literary unit, determining what verse or verses I will preach. After writing a block diagram and reading the passage in the original language, I identify the central theme of these verses. I then read all of my photocopied information, thoroughly marking it up. I draft the beginnings of a working outline for the sermon. I will start writing the sermon—with a fountain pen, I might add—beginning with the first homiletical point. I then move systematically through the text, creating a manuscript that explains and applies each successive part of the passage. I will then add transitions, illustrations, and quotations as needed. The final step is to write the introduction and conclusion. I will compose this manuscript as though I can hear myself preaching it. At last, I will review my manuscript for length, balance, and quality, praying over its truths.
TT: What is the purpose of OnePassion Ministries and how does it seek to accomplish its goals?
SL: OnePassion Ministries was created to help bring about a new reformation in this day. It has a website in which most all of my preaching and writing resources are found (www.onepassionministries.org). We are hosting conferences both nationally and internationally in order to train preachers, teachers, prospective pastors, and interested laypeople in the art and science of expository preaching and teaching. I want to define what it is, what it is not, and show how to effectively carry out this divine calling. I desire to help take people to the next level in their skills of handling and ministering God’s Word. Also, I want to motivate those who attend our conferences to be fully committed to preaching the Word expositionally. Moreover, we want to host conferences for all people in order to introduce them to Christ and encourage them in their Christian walk. Finally, we will be hosting church history tours in which I will take people to important historical sites around the world.
TT: Why did you decide to establish the book series A Long Line of Godly Men, and what other men do you hope to profile individually in this series?
SL: The Long Line series was birthed in my teaching ministry at the church that I pastor. As I was teaching the men of my church sound doctrine from Scripture, I wanted them to see that what we believe in the doctrines of sovereign grace has been the mainline position by great men and movements down through the centuries. Out of this Friday morning teaching series has arisen these books so that these essential truths may be made available to a wider audience around the world. There is much instruction and inspiration to be drawn from this profile study. In the future, I need to write volume three of the larger books, which will move from John Knox to this present hour. In the smaller books, there are other key figures who I want to address such as William Tyndale, John Wycliffe, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and, yes, R.C. Sproul.
Steven J. Lawson is founder and president of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to bring about biblical reformation in the church today, and former senior pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala. He has served as a pastor in Arkansas and Alabama for twenty-five years and is author of many books, including The Evangelistic Zeal of George Whitefield and In It to Win It: Pursuing Victory in the One Race That Really Counts. He is a teaching fellow for and serves on the board of Ligonier Ministries and the Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies, and is professor of preaching at The Master’s Seminary.
In great faith, I have written to a number of better-known preachers on both sides of the Atlantic. Each of them has been sent ten questions on the subject of preaching. The following is Tim Keller’s response. For those of you who don’t know, “Timothy J. Keller is an author, a speaker, and the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, New York.”
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
It is central, but not alone at the center. Pastoral ministry is as important as preaching ministry, and lay “every-member” ministry is as crucial as ordained ministry. I wouldn’t make a hierarchy out of these things—they are interdependent. But pastoral ministry and lay ministry are not substitutes for strong preaching.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I preached about 200 different expositions a year for the first nine years of my ministry (when I was age 24 through 33). During that time I was considered interesting and good but I never got a lot of feedback that I was anything special. I’ve grown a lot through lots of practice.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I pastor a large church and have a large staff, and so I give special prominence to preparing the sermon. I give it 15–20 hours a week. I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time, however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work—that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh and blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff, I put in six to eight hours on a sermon.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallize it?
I don’t know that I’d be so rigid as to say there has to be just one Big Idea every time. That is a good discipline for preachers in general, because it helps with clarity. Most texts have too much in them for the preacher to cover in one address. You must be selective. But sometimes a preaching-size text simply has two or three major ideas that are too good to pass up.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
He should combine warmth and authority/force. That is hard to do, since temperamentally we incline one way or the other. (And many, many of us show neither warmth nor force in preaching.)
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use a very detailed outline, with many key phrases in each sub-point written out word for word.
7. What are the greatest perils that a preacher must avoid?
This seems to me too big a question to tackle here. Virtually everything a preacher ought to do has a corresponding peril-to-avoid. For examples, preaching should be Biblical, clear (for the mind), practical (for the will), vivid (for the heart,) warm, forceful, and Christo-centric. You should avoid the opposites of all these things.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (e.g., pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)?
See my remarks on #3 above. It is a very great mistake to pit pastoral care and leadership against preaching preparation. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be—someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership are to some degree sermon prep. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Prayer also prepares the preacher, not just the sermon.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
British preachers have had a much greater impact on me than American preachers (Dick Lucas, Alec Motyer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones). And the American preachers who have been most influential (e.g., Jonathan Edwards) were essentially British anyway.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I haven’t done much on that front at all, and I’m not happy about that. Currently I meet with two other younger preachers on my staff who also preach regularly. We talk specifically about their preaching and sermon prep.
Colin Adams is the pastor of Ballymoney Baptist Church, Northern Ireland. For six years he had the privilege of serving as an Associate Pastor with Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh. Before coming to Edinburgh he studied theology for four years at International Christian College in Glasgow.