Category Archives: Preaching
Moralism vs. Christ-Centered Exposition
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.
Personal Notes from a Tim Keller Lecture
As people adore Christ they will apply Christ.
The best way to lead people to worship is to worship Christ yourself during the sermon.
George Whitefield agreed to having his sermons printed but said ‘you’ll never get the thunder’.
The sermon is what you write
Preaching is the active delivery of the preaching
The spiritual quality and character of the person shines through during preaching more than the sermon itself.
Keep in your mind the differences between graces and gifts. You can be using gifts without being godly.
The fruit of the Spirit is character change. The gifts of the Spirit are skills or abilities.
People often assume that skill or gifts indicates Spiritual gifts with spiritual fruit is like a tire without air.
When you’re far from God
Sacramental: meeting God in the sacraments and traditions
Evangelical: meeting God in your quiet times
Charismatic: emphasis on meeting God in corporate worship
The Puritans were bigger on experiencing God compared with other reformed evangelicals today.
MLJ (Martyn Lloyd-Jones) was on a farm trying to pray and couldn’t pray. Looked at the word glory in an AW Pink book and felt God’s glory for a couple of hours. He then looked back at the Puritans and saw these themes were present in there writings.
Meditation is the overlap between prayer and Bible study. Read and meditate on scripture until your heart gets hot, then move on to pray.
Bible reading should be a slow and careful reading of scripture. Give yourself time to meditate on truths you haven’t enjoyed before. Listen to God’s voice and enjoy the truth.
In meditation you take parts that have impressed you from the Bible reading and think about how this helps you to:
1) adore God
2) confess sin
3) petition to grace
Good structure for quiet times:
Listen to God through the Word
Reflect on what He is saying
Respond by speaking to Him
Sense and enjoy His grace
Meditation is truth with you left in it. What is this truth saying to me? What would happen if I were living in light of this?
The minds must descend into the heart. To hunger for God and not eat is better than not to be hungry.
Contemplation is the witness of the Spirit telling us that we are children of God.
Mini sermon on John 2
The first of Christ’s miraculous signs is featured in John 2 when he turns water into wine. When you go to a web page you want the content of that page to get straight to the point, you want to find out the essence of that page straight away. Christ shows hi heart and essence in the performance of His first miracle.
What is Christ doing? He’s not healing anyone. He’s taking a party and restoring it.
a) What did He come to bring?
Christ came to be lord of the feast. Verse 10 is talking about the master of the banquet. His job was to make sure that the party went well. Christ kept the party going by making 150 gallons of the best wine. Christ is saying I’m the real master of the banquet. I can bring taste and experience and fullness of life.
Why does the Bible talk about tasting? Psalm 34: ‘taste and see’. God wants you to experience Him- He wants your senses. There’s a difference between knowing God’s holiness and feeling His holiness. Jesus Christ wants you to know the sweetness of God.
He is the master of the banquet. He wants to come into your life and bring sweetness.
b) How does He bring this?
Mary says ‘We’ve run out of wine?’ Jesus responds: ‘Woman, why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come.’ He is not referring to his time of miracles. He is referring to the hour of His death. Jesus is thinking of His wedding. He is thinking of His wedding feast.
How is Christ going to give you incredible sensation? He dies to give you Himself. To purchase the wedding feast He had to be slaughtered.
Christ adores His bride. Jesus feel ravished when He sees us. He came to give us festival joy by dieing so that we would be His bride.
Applied to non-Christians:
1) Admit you’re out- admit you’re empty, devoid of goodness.
2) Take the credit for what He’s done- love me and praise me because Jesus is lovely and praiseworthy
Applied to prayer:
1) Pray for small things – Christ was willing to use divine time for small things
2) Learn patience prayer – pray yourself patient
3) Get perspective on Christ’s wedding day. There’s only one spouse that awaits you and He will fulfill you- He’s waiting for you if you believe in Him.
4) Presence prayer- He wants to come into your life and give you wine. Don’t settle for bread and water- you’re missing the feast!
Personal Notes from a Lecture by Dr. Tim Keller
The goal of the sermon is to get people to worship Jesus.
A sermon isn’t a sermon until you call people to adore Christ. A sermon is a lecture when Christ is not adored.
Willow Creek approach: ‘You can evangelize non-Christians or edify Christians’
Conservative approach: ‘All people need to worship through the same material’
If you preach Christ you’ll be evangelizing and edifying at the same time.
Post-modern people like to know how Christianity works.
PM people try on Christianity as a dress. They’ll try it out to see if it works.
You can only change a person’s life by changing what they worship and how they worship.
Text, Context and Subtext
Be clear about the text, context and subtext
1) The text: know what the text is saying. Be clear on theology
2) The context: know how to present the text to the people
3) The subtext: have the right heart for the text (Christ) and the right heart for the context (people)
4 types of subtext
1) Social Reinforcement
The purpose of the sermon is to say: ‘Aren’t we great’
The preacher builds community and belonging by using familiar language and over endorsing the goodness of the church
‘We’re here to remind ourselves that we are unique people’
Promotion the products of the church
‘Don’t you feel that this is a great church’?
‘See how worthy I am of your respect’
The sermon is trying to give teaching to win people over to the individual church
The purpose of my sermon is to teach people things they don’t know
‘I want to inform you of things you don’t know’
This subtext points to Christ and says ‘Isn’t He great?’
‘Don’t you see that your problems are rooted in that you don’t worship Christ?’
Spiritual Reality and Edwards
Religious Affections by Jonathon Edwards:
We have always done what we wanted to do.
Edwards argued that there is no ultimate opposition between head and heart. The heart always leads the will to act. Actions are grounded in emotions- always!
‘I know God cares for me but I can’t help but feel unloved.’ Edwards would say ‘You clearly don’t know that God cares for you. You haven’t felt that reality. Once you feel that God cares you’ll act as if God cares.’
Acting directly on the will doesn’t really work. We need to aim for the heart.
If someone is not being generous it’s due to sinful emotions. It’s because their hearts find something more attractive than Christ. Once people really see and feel 2 Cor 8:9 giving becomes frequent and a happy experience!
Sensing Christ only way to motivate the will. The task of the preacher is to present the beauty of Christ so that He becomes the object of our hearts greatest affection. Presenting Christ as more excellent than everything will weaken the Christians love for things other than Christ.
‘Excellency is that which is appreciated and rested in for its own sake.’- Edwards
The nominal Christian is someone who finds grace useful to get the things that the heart finds excellent and beautiful. Christ should not be the means to the end. He is the end!
Spiritual reality is more than rational conviction.
TWO-fold knowledge of good according to Edwards:
1) That which is notional- understanding something rationally
2) That which is pleasing to the heart- delighting in Him
You can rationally know that honey is sweet without feeling it. You can’t feel that honey is sweet unless you rationally know it’s sweet.
5 tips for heart preaching
1) Use reason- be clear and logical
2) Use analogical illustrations- relate the truth to another discourse. Doing this engages the senses
3) Use narrative- use stories
4) Transfer the affections of the people from sin to Christ- show that sin is not satisfying- show people that Christ’s beauty satisfies
5) Worship as you preach- show the people that you are sensing Christ – taste the food that you’re feeding to the children
Our problem: we forget spiritual knowledge.
2 Peter 1:8-9 is not talking about someone who has forget that they are saved. Rather the Christian here is not being continuously refreshed with Christ.
Video is more attractive than audio. The Bible sometimes can go straight to audio- it is heard and not fully experienced. We need to see Christ on video – this is to experience Him.
We worship when we treasure God- when we find Him more beautiful than anything else.
GETTING DOWN TO EARTH: PART II
METHODS FOR CHRIST CENTERED APPLICATION – DR. TIM KELLER
In the last session we laid out three broad strategies for doing application in sermons. What follows is a series of more specific methods for the actual designing and executing of application in a sermon.
A. THE DISCIPLINE OF WHO YOU TALK TO.
1. Your people-context always shapes your sermons.
When we study the Bible, we only extract answers to the questions that we implicitly or explicitly have on our hearts as we read it. If all revelation is covenantal, and we don’t understand a passage of the Scripture unless we know how to “use” it (see Session 1-B), then there is no such thing as a “view from nowhere”. We have certain questions, problems, and issues on our mind, and as we read the Bible, we mainly “hear” what it teaches us about those questions, problems, and issues.
Therefore, there is a “vicious” cycle in preaching. You will tend to preach to the people you listen to most during the week. Why? The people you are most engaged with fill your mind with their questions, which act as something of a “grid” as you read the Bible. Their issues will be on your mind as you read and you will especially notice biblical truth that speaks to them. Thus your sermons will tend to aim at the people who you already have most on your heart. They will then be the people that are most interested and satisfied by your preaching. They will come and bring others like themselves. Because they are coming, you will meet more of them, speak more to them, and thus (semi-consciously) tailor your sermons more to them. The more you listen to them, the more they pull the sermon toward them—the more you direct the sermon to them, the more they come to church—the more they come to church, the more you listen to them.
At the very worst, evangelical preachers read and engage other evangelical preachers and writers. They read (and speak to) almost exclusively those thinkers that support their own views. Then the sermons are really only helpful for other seminary students and graduates (of your particular stripe)! It is not really true that some sermons are too academic and thus lack application. Rather, the preacher is applying the text to the people’s questions that he most understands—other academics.
At the best, evangelical preachers read and engage other evangelical Christians. Then their sermons are really only helpful for other Christians. Christians may love the messages and feel they are being “fed”, but they know instinctively that they cannot bring non-Christian friends to church. They never think, “I wish my non-Christian neighbor could be here to hear this.”
There is then no abstract, academic way to preach relevant, applicatory sermons. They will arise from who you will listen to. If you spend most of your time reading, instead of out with people, you will apply the Bible text to the authors of the books you read. If you spend most of your time in Christian meetings or in the evangelical sub-culture, your sermons will apply the Bible text to the needs of evangelicals. The only way out of this is to deliberately diversify your people context.
2. Deliberately diversify your people-context.
How? The first approach is easiest—vary what you read. Read lots of material by people who differ wildly from you theologically. The fastest way to do this is not to read books, but magazines. For happy middle class liberal/New Age culture, read The Utne Reader. For angry liberal/atheistic culture, read The Nation. For sophisticated, upscale liberal culture read The New Yorker. For cutting edge GenX liberal culture, try Wired. There are quite a few other periodicals that would do just as well. This is just an idea.
The second approach is harder—vary who you talk to. Pastors find this difficult, because most people won’t be themselves with us. Nevertheless, through being very careful with your appointment schedule, and through being creative with your community and neighborhood involvement, be sure to spend time with people from a variety of spiritual conditions. Here is a partial list. Be sure that you do not find you only spend time with one kind of person.
B. DISCIPLINE WHO YOU ‘PICTURE’.
Now when you both read the Bible text and write the sermon, think especially of individuals you know with various spiritual conditions (non-Christian, weak Christian, strong Christian), with various besetting sins (pride, lust, worry, greed, prejudice, resentment, self-consciousness, depression, fear, guilt), and in various circumstances (loneliness, persecution, weariness, grief, sickness, failure, indecision, confusion, physical handicaps, old age, disillusionment, boredom). Now, remembering specific faces, look at the biblical truth you are applying and ask: “how would this text apply to this or that person?” Imagine yourself personally counseling the person with the text. Write down what you would say. The effect of this exercise is to be sure that your application is specific, practical, and personal.
At the very least, ask yourself: “What does this text say to a) Mature Christians, b) non-Christians, c) newer or very immature Christians?
A second list to keep in your head easily is to ask yourself: “What does this text say to the ‘four soils’, the four groups of the Mark 4 parable?” a) Conscious skeptics and rejecters of the faith, b) Nominal Christians whose commitment is extremely shallow, c) Christians who are divided in their loyalties and messed up in their priorities, d) Mature, committed Christians.
2. Warning Will Robinson!
Important safety tip. If the person(s) you are visualizing are actually going to be in the audience which hears the sermon you are preparing, be sure not to use details that would make it appear that you are using the pulpit to publicly rebuke an individual. That is an unbiblical thing to do! (Matthew 18 and 5 tells us to go to a person privately if we have something against them). You want your sermon to apply to large numbers of people, not just one. Use the thought of individuals to stimulate specific applications, but don’t write them out in such a way to cause the audience to play a “guessing game” about the parties you are referring to.
3. Longer Lists (to get you thinking)
Here are the kinds of different people you may be speaking to. Does the text speak to any of them?
Conscious Unbeliever – aware he is not a Christian.
Immoral pagan – Living a blatantly immoral/illegal lifestyle.
Intellectual pagan – Claiming the faith is untenable or unreasonable.
Imitative pagan – Is fashionably skeptical, but not profound.
Genuine thinker – Has serious, well-conceived objections.
Religious Non-Christian – Belonging to organized religions, cults, or denominations with seriously mistaken doctrine.
Non-churched Nominal Christian – Has belief in basic Christian doctrines, but with no or remote church connection.
Churched Nominal Christian – Participates in church but is not regenerated.
Semi-active moralist – Respectably moral whose religion is without assurance and is all a matter of duty.
Active self-righteous – Very committed and involved in the church, with assurance of salvation based on good works.
Awakened Sinner – Stirred and convicted over his sin but without gospel peace yet.
Curious – Stirred up mainly in an intellectual way, full of questions and diligent in study.
Convicted with false peace – Without understanding the gospel, has been told that by walking an aisle, praying a prayer, or doing something, he is now right with God.
Comfortless – Extremely aware of sins but not accepting or understanding the gospel of grace.
Apostate – Once active in the church but who has repudiated the faith without regrets.
New Believer – Recently converted.
Doubtful – Has many fears and hesitancies about his new faith.
Eager – Beginning with joy and confidence and a zeal to learn and serve.
Overzealous – Has become somewhat proud and judgmental of others, and is overconfident of his own abilities.
Mature/growing – Passes through nearly all of the basic conditions named below, but progresses through them because he responds quickly to pastoral treatment or he knows how to treat himself.
Afflicted – Lives under a burden or trouble that saps spiritual strength. (Generally, we call a person afflicted who has not brought the trouble on himself).
Physically afflicted – Experiencing bodily decay (the sick, the elderly, the disabled)
Bereaved – Has lost a loved one or experienced some other major loss (a home through a fire, etc.)
Desertion – Spiritually dry through the action of God who removes a sense of His nearness despite the use of the means of grace.
Tempted – Struggling with a sin or sins which are remaining attractive and strong.
Overtaken – Tempted largely in the realm of thoughts and desires.
Taken over – A sin has become addictive behavior.
Immature – A spiritual baby, who should be growing, but who is not.
Undisciplined – Simply lazy in using the means of grace and in using gifts for ministry.
Self-satisfied – Pride has choked growth, complacency and he has become perhaps cynical and scornful of many other Christians.
Unbalanced – Has had either the intellectual, the emotional, or the volitional aspect of his faith become overemphasized.
Devotees of eccentric doctrines – Has become absorbed in a distorted teaching that hurts spiritual growth.
Depressed – is not only experiencing negative feelings, but is also shirking Christian duties and being disobedient. (Note: If a person is a new believer, or tempted, or afflicted, or immature, and does not get proper treatment, he will become spiritually depressed. Besides these conditions, the following problems can lead to depression).
Anxious – Through worry or fear handled improperly is depressed.
Weary – Has become listless and dry through overwork.
Angry – Through bitterness or uncontrolled anger handled improperly is depressed.
Introspective – Dwells on failures and feelings and lacks assurance.
Guilty – A conscience which is wounded and repentance has not been reached.
Backslidden – Has gone beyond depression to a withdrawal from fellowship with God and with the church.
Tender – Is still easily convicted of his sins, and susceptible to calls for repentance.
Hardening – Has become cynical, scornful, and difficult to convict.
C. WEAVE APPLICATION THROUGHOUT THE SERMON.
1. Use both “running” and “collected” application.
Application is not appended to the end of a sermon—it runs throughout. Nevertheless, a sermon as it progresses, should move to more and more direct and specific application. “Running application” refers to the fact that every biblical principle must be stated immediately in its “practical bearings”. But as the sermon winds to a close, it is important for the preacher to “collect” the applications, recap them, and then drive it home by moving at least one step closer in specifics.
2. Ask direct questions.
The best preachers speak to each listener very personally. That can be done by posing direct questions to the audience, posing inquiries which call for a response in the heart. Ask, “how many of you know that this past week you have twisted the truth or omitted part of the truth in order to look good?” and follow it with a pause. This is far more personal and attention-riveting than a mere statement, “many people twist the truth or tell half-truths to reach their own ends.” Talk to the people; ask direct quotations. Be ready for the occasional person who really will answer you back! But the goal is to have people answer in their minds/hearts—carrying on a dialogue with you.
Anticipate objections and questions.
If you know the people to whom you speak, you will know the kind of objections or questions they will be posing in their hearts in response to your points. So identify those questions and express them. This keeps up the personal dialogue and lends great power to the sermon. For example:
“Now some of you are likely saying, “Yes, that’s great for you, but you have faith. I wish I could believe in God, I have tried, but I just can’t develop faith’! But friend, your real problem is not that you can’t believe in God, but that you are refusing to doubt yourself. You are committed to the “doctrine” of your own competence to run your life. And you believe in it against all the evidence! Come! Admit what you know down deep, that you are not wise and able enough to run your own life. Doubt yourself, and you will begin to move toward faith in God.”
Look at the Puritans for models of this. They were excellent at posing “common objections” and answering them within the body of the sermon.
4. Provide tests for self-examination.
Do not underestimate the sinner’s ability to avoid conviction of sin! Every heart has scores of time-tested subterfuges and excuses by which it can somehow rationalize away any direct confrontation with its own wickedness. As you preach, these are the kinds of thoughts going on in the minds of the listeners:
“Well, that’s easy to say—you don’t have my husband!”
“I suppose that may be true of others, but not of me.”
“I sure wish Sally was here to hear this—she really needs that.”
Therefore, it is important to provide brief “tests” for the listeners. For example:
“Well, perhaps you agree with me—you agree that pride is bad and humility is good, but you think ‘but I don’t have much of a problem with pride.’ Well look at yourself. Are you too shy to witness? Are you too self-conscious to tell people the truth? What is that, but a kind of pride, a fear of looking bad?”
The “tests” of course, are simply “example illustrations”, of the sort that John the Baptist gave his audience in Luke 3.
Don’t pass by the “pliable” moment.
Often there come points in the sermon when it is evident that the audience’s attention is riveted and they are getting something of what Adams calls an “experience” of the truth. Often you can sense that people are coming under conviction. One sign is usually the lack of fidgeting, foot shuffling, and throat clearing. The audience gets more silent and still.
This is a “pliable” or a teachable moment. Don’t let it go past! Don’t be so tied to your outline or notes that you fail to take time to drive home the truth directly and specifically. Perhaps you could pause, and look the people in the eye as they swallow the food you have just fed them.
6. Be affectionate as well as forceful.
Be sure, when you deal very specifically with the behavior and thoughts of people, that you combine an evident love for them with your straight talk about sin. Be both warm and forceful when dealing with personal questions—never ridiculing! If you ridicule a listener for a question he or she has just posed (perhaps) in the heart, you will make yourself appear haughty and unapproachable (and maybe you are!).
7. Use a balance of the many forms of application.
Application includes, at least, a) warning and admonishing, b) encouraging and renewing, c) comforting and soothing, d) urging, pleading, and “stirring up”. There is a dangerous tendency for a preacher to specialize in just one of these. Often this comes because of a bent in temperament or personality. That is, some preachers are temperamentally gentle and reserved, others are light-hearted and optimistic, while others are serious and intense. These temperaments can distort our application of the biblical truth so that we are always majoring in one kind. But over the long haul, that weakens our persuasiveness. People get used to same tone or tenor of voice. It is far more effective when a speaker can move from sweetness and sunshine to clouds and thunder! Let the biblical text control you, not your temperament. “Loud” truth should be communicated as loud, “hard” truth should be communicated as hard, “sweet” truth should be communicated sweetly.
D. CHALLENGE WITH THE COMFORT OF THE GOSPEL
1. What does it take to repent?
a. You need a sense of God’s grace to repent.
To truly repent, a person certainly needs humility—“emotional poverty”. You must feel and acknowledge the guilt of what you have done and your inability to make it right by your own efforts. But full and true repentance also requires emotional ‘wealth’. You need to have a hope and assurance of God’s commitment to you, his love and mercy toward you. Anyone who simply despairs under sin, who says, “I’m too bad, too terrible for God or anyone to forgive me” is (ironically) guilty of unbelief. In some ways, to be either proud or despondent is to refuse to see Christ as Savior and to insist on being your own Savior. John Newton once wrote to a depressed man:
“You say you feel overwhelmed with guilt and a sense of unworthiness…You say it is hard to understand how a holy God could accept such an awful person as yourself. You then express not only a low opinion of yourself, but also too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer…You complain about your sin, but when we examine your complaints, they are so full of self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience that they are little better than the worst evils you complain of” (letters, Vol II).
Notice that Newton says that to despair of God’s grace (i.e. that it is unable to forgive and receive someone as bad as you are) is really a form of self-righteousness. How so? It is a refusal to accept God’s favor on the basis of mercy. A heart that says, “if I haven’t earned it, I won’t take it as a gift!” (or that says, “if I flagellate myself for a long time, then it will atone for what I’ve done) is as deeply self-righteous as the heart of a proud Pharisee. It wants Jesus to be an example and a Rewarder of the Righteous, but not to be a gracious Savior.
b. You need a sense of God’s grace even to become convicted.
Not only that, but it is not really possible to be honest about how sinful you are unless you have confidence that God loves you. If you base your self-image on your record and performance, it will be traumatic to admit the extent of your sinfulness. You will be in denial, rationalizing and ‘screening out’ evidence of deep character flaws. Unless you believe that “the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds” you, you will not be able to repent. It takes the good news of the gospel as much as the bad news to lead our hearts to admit what we really are.
c. The “joyful fear” of repentance.
In Psalm 130:4 we read the remarkable verse: “but with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.” This is one of the most striking verses in the Bible. The Psalmist says that forgiveness, pardon, and grace leads to an increase in the “fear” of the Lord. What does this mean? “Servile fear [being scared] would have been diminished, not increased, by forgiveness…The true sense of the ‘fear of the Lord’ in the Old Testament…implies relationship” (Kidner, p. 446). So this term “fear” would best be defined as: “Joyful awe and wonder before the transcendent greatness of who God is”. And here in Psalm 130, it is the prospect of grace and mercy that leads the author into joyful and humble submission. This “fear” then is paradoxical. The more we experience grace and forgiveness and love, the more we get out of ourselves, the more we bow to Him in amazed, wondering submission to His greatness. When we really understand that we are forgiven, it does not lead to ‘loose living’ or independence, but to respectful surrender to His sovereignty. If we had earned our salvation, our lives would still be our own! He’d owe us something. But since our salvation is by free grace, due totally to his love, then there is nothing He cannot ask of us. We are not our own. It is the joy that brings about this submission.
2. The joyful fear of preaching.
Since a) we can’t really even psychologically admit the magnitude of our sin if we don’t know there is hope of salvation, and since b) self-hatred is basically a form of self-righteousness—how does that effect preaching? When we preach, we need to challenge with the comfort of the gospel. Put another way—the thing that most comfort us (the free, unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus) should be the thing that most convicts us. The language of preaching should not be: “unless you clean up your act, you will never get the love of God” but “how on earth can you treat this loving God like this?” The first approach is: “repent or God will drop you!” The second approach is: “repent for spurning the God whose Son died so you would never lose Him!”
The first approach actually encourages self-righteousness. It tries to convict us by increasing self-centeredness, by saying, “the sinfulness of your sin is that it is going to make you unhappy! Better get rid of it or you won’t be blessed.” Ironically, this only gets you to hate yourself (for being a failure) and to hate the consequences of the sin (“this is going to ruin me!”) rather than the sin itself for what it is in itself, a violation of God.
The second approach increases Christ-centeredness, saying, “the sinfulness of your sin is that it rejects the sacrificial love of Christ. He died so you wouldn’t do this sin!” While the first approach tends toward hating myself rather than the sin, this approach tends to help be hate the sin rather than myself. If the focus is on the death of Christ for me, and of His unconditional commitment to me, then I see my own value to Him, and that makes the sin worse! It is trampling on His unconditional love. It is savaging the heart of the one who loved me unconditionally.
The preacher who convicts out of the comfort, who goes for ‘joyful fear’ instead of ‘servile fear’ will find that he can be extremely strong and forceful in his admonitions. This is not a ‘therapeutic’ approach. Paul said, “Do you not realize…that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)
SOURCE: Personal Notes from Lecture #6 By Dr. Tim Keller at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. i the early 2000’s.