It is not the work of the pastor to say whatever seems relevant or whatever seems noncontroversial or whatever is especially interesting to itching ears. Our responsibility, before God and for the sake of God’s people, is to declare the whole counsel of God (Acts 10:27).
The teachers of the church must disclose all of the glorious parts in Scripture and all the hard parts, all the promises and all the warnings, all the blessings and all the curses, all the parts that make us smile and all the parts that make us wince.
While we do not like to upset people and we do not wish to be thought uncouth, we answer to a higher authority. It is the solemn task of the preacher–weak and failing though he may be–to stand fast as a watchman on the walls. We cannot shrink back from the uncomfortable bits in the Bible (Acts 20: 20-21, 25-32). If we see the sword coming upon the land and refuse to blow the trumpet, the blood of the perishing will be upon our hands (Ezekiel 33:1-6).
It should make us shudder to think about some churches and pastors and what sort of judgment they might fall under when all they did was give people what they wanted to hear, instead of speaking to them of righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment (Acts 24:25).
“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” is what the Good Shepherd and most loving man who ever lived once said (Luke 13:3).
People may not want to hear hellfire and brimstone sermons. But as a pastor, I don’t want to face hellfire and brimstone for failing to preach as a dying man to dying men.
For the watchman on the walls must give a warning; he must speak of this judgment which is to come; he must herald the glorious salvation found in Christ alone; he must share the glad tidings of peace on earth and good will toward men; he must tell the hard news that we need a Savior, the unpopular news that there is only one Savior, and the unimaginably good news that there is one who actually saves.
O shepherds, may it never be that someone sitting under your preaching or someone subject to your elder care could stand before God on the Day of Judgment and say, “No one ever told me I needed a Savior.”
John Witherspoon, in his Lectures on Eloquence, with wise words on the importance of preaching with simplicity:
Another character which should distinguish pulpit eloquence is simplicity.
Simplicity is beautiful everywhere; it is of importance that young persons should be formed to a taste for it and more disposed to exceed here than in the opposite extreme, but if I am not mistaken it is more beautiful and the transgressions of it more offensive in the pulpit than any where else. If I heard a lawyer pleading in such a style and manner, as was more adapted to display his own talents than to carry his client’s cause, it would considerably lessen him in my esteem, but if I heard a minister acting the same part I should not be satisfied with contempt, but hold him in detestation.
There are several obvious reasons why simplicity is more especially necessary to a minister than any other.
(1) Many of his audience are poor ignorant creatures.
If he means to do them any service he must keep to what they understand, and that requires more simplicity than persons without experience can easily imagine. It is remarkable that at the first publication it was a character of the gospel that it was preached to the poor. In this our blessed master was distinguished both from the heathen philosophers and Jewish teachers, who confined their instructions in a great measure to their schools, and imparted what they esteemed their most important discourses to only a few chosen disciples.
(2) Simplicity is necessary to preserve the speaker’s character for sincerity.
You heard before how necessary piety is, which is proper parent of sincerity, in the pulpit. Now it is not easy to preserve the opinion of piety and sincerity in the pulpit when there is much ornament. Besides the danger of much affected pomp or foppery of style, a discourse very highly polished even in the truest taste is apt to suggest to the audience that a man is preaching himself and not the cross of Christ.
So nice a matter is this in all public speaking that some critics say that Demosthenes put on purpose some errors in grammar in his discourses that the hearers might be induced to take them for the immediate effusions of the heart, without art, and with little premeditation. I doubt much the solidity of this remark or the certainty of the fact, but however it be, there is no occasion for it in the case of a minister, because preparation and premeditation are expected from him, and in that case he may make his discourses abundantly plain and simple without any affected blunders.
(3) Simplicity is also necessary as suited to the gospel itself, the subject of a minister’s discourses.
Nothing (is) more humbling to the pride of man than the doctrine of the cross; nothing (is) more unbecoming that doctrine than too much finery of language. The apostle Paul chose to preach “not with the words which man’s wisdom teaches” (1 Cor. 2:13)—and again, “not with excellency of speech or of wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1), which though I admit that it does not condemn study and sound knowledge, yet it certainly shows that the style of the pulpit should be the most simple and self-denied of any other.
If the choice is preaching in such a way as to be thought intellectually and rhetorically impressive or preaching in a manner as to be understood, we must always choose the latter over the former. In preaching, clarity is king, and simplicity is his servant.
David Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Crossway, 2014). This little book is simply outstanding. It’s the best short book on preaching I’ve read. Helm’s advice is unfailingly wise, theologically informed, and extremely practical. If there is a theme running throughout the book is it Helm’s salutary warning against “blind adherence to contextualization.” Read the book and find out what he means. Preachers new and old will learn much from this quick read.
Charles Murray, The Curmedgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead (Crown Business, 2014). In this engaging book by the renowned, much cited, sometimes controversial sociologist, we get frank advice on everything from writing to workplace etiquette to the emptiness of fame. As an agnostic, Murray’s exhortations do not always square with Christianity (e.g., “Don’t ruin the love affair with yourself”), but the author’s unbelief also makes his insistence on taking religion seriously all the more intriguing. For a Christian well-grounded in the faith, this can be a fun book with a lot of common sense, common grace good advice.
Kevin D. Williamson, What Doomed Detroit (Encounter Books, 2013). Whether you agree with this book will likely depend on the political instincts you bring to the book. Williamson argues that Detroit failed because it embraced a model of government predicated on the assumption that that post-war industrial boom of the 1950s and 1960s would last forever. Conservatives will agree with Williamson’s summation. It would be interesting to see some kind of debate between a good faith liberal and a good faith conservative on “what doomed Detroit.” Surely there are important lessons to learn.
R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Reformation Trust, 2014). I haven’t read the whole book, but what I’ve seen is, not surprisingly, robust and readable. I’m always on the look out for introductory text books in systematic theology from a Reformed perspective. This is a most welcome find.
Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre, True Beauty (Crossway, 2014). My wife and I both read this book and found it refreshing, the kind of book we would recommend to women of all ages. Here’s our blurb: “This book is a wonderful example of combining the eminently practical with the deeply theological. Carolyn and Nicole have give us a work that is both terrifically up to date and rooted in God’s unchanging Word.”
Paul Lake, The Republic of Virtue (University of Evansville Press, 2013). I’m not sure I’ve ever purchased a book of new poems before, but I heard good things about this collection so I did. I was not disappointed. I’m not adequate to judge the poetry as poetry, but I found the substance of what Lake was saying to be alternately touching, humorous, and provocative. Lake likes to tweak academia with his poetry, especially the strand of academic life that is sure about political correctness and unsure about the meaning of words. In this short book, there is a wide variety of topics, from death and aging to Wile E. Coyote to Jesus with a feminist woman at the well. Worth a look, even if you don’t normally look at poems.
After last week’s post on gluttony, a host of similar comments bubbled up about divorce. Isn’t it hypocritical of Christians to protest so loudly about homosexuality when the real marital problem in our churches is divorce? Over many years debating these issues in my own denomination, I’ve often encountered the divorce retort: “It’s easy for you to pick on homosexuality because that’s the issue in your church. But you don’t follow the letter of your own law. If you did, you would be talking about divorce, since that’s the bigger problem in conservative churches.”
When it comes to debating homosexuality among Christians, the issue of divorce is both a smokescreen and a fire. It is a smokescreen because the two issues-divorce and homosexuality-are far from identical.
For starters, there are no groups in our denominations whose raison d’etre is the celebration of divorce. People are not advocating new policies in our churches that affirm the intrinsic goodness of divorce. Conservatives, in the culture and in the church, keep talking about homosexuality because that is the fault line right now. We’d love to talk (and do) about how to have a healthy marriage. We’d love for that matter to spend all our time talking about the glory of the Trinity, but the battle right now (at least one of them) is over homosexuality. So we cannot be silent on this issue.
Just as importantly, the biblical prohibition against divorce explicitly allows for exceptions; the prohibition against homosexuality does not. The traditional Protestant position, as stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith for example, maintains that divorce is permissible on grounds of marital infidelity or desertion by an unbelieving spouse (WCF 24.5-6). Granted, the application of these principles is difficult and the question of remarriage after divorce gets even trickier, but almost all Protestants have always held that divorce is sometimes acceptable. Simply put, homosexuality and divorce are different issues because according to the Bible and Christian tradition the former is always wrong, while the latter is not.
Finally, the “what about divorce?” argument is not as good as it sounds because many of our churches do take divorce seriously. I realize that many churches don’t (more on that in a minute). But a lot of the same churches that speak out against homosexuality also speak out against illegitimate divorce. I’ve preached on divorce a number of times, including a sermon a few years ago entitled, “What Did Jesus Think of Divorce and Remarriage?” I’ve said more about homosexuality in the blogosphere because there’s a controversy around the issue in the culture in the wider church. But I’ve never shied away from talking about divorce. I take seriously everything the Westminster Confession of Faith says about marriage. Marriage is to be between one man and one woman (WCF 24.1). It is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord (WCF 24.3). Only adultery and willful desertion are grounds for divorce (WCF 24.6).
As a board of elders, we treat these matters with the seriousness they deserve. We ask new members who have been divorced to explain the nature of their divorce and (if applicable) their remarriage. This has resulted on occasion in potential new members leaving our church. Most of the discipline cases we’ve encountered as elders have been about divorce. The majority of pastoral care crises we have been involved in have dealt with failed or failing marriages. Our church, like many others, takes seriously all kinds of sins, including illegitimate divorce. We don’t always know how to handle every situation, but I can say with a completely clear conscience that we never turn a blind eye to divorce.
And Undoubtedly Some Fire
Having said all that, it’s undoubtedly the case that many evangelicals have been negligent in dealing with illegitimate divorce and remarriage. Pastors have not preached on the issue for fear of offending scores of their members. Elder boards have not practiced church discipline on those who sin in this area because, well, they don’t practice discipline for much of anything. Counselors, friends, and small groups have not gotten involved early enough to make a difference in pre-divorce situations. Christian attorneys have not thought enough about their responsibility in encouraging marital reconciliation. Church leaders have not helped their people understand God’s teaching about the sanctity of marriage, and we have not helped those already wrongly remarried to experience forgiveness for their past mistakes.
So yes, there are plank-eyed Christians among us. The evangelical church, in many places, gave up and caved in on divorce and remarriage. But the remedy to this negligence is not more negligence. The slow, painful cure is more biblical exposition, more active pastoral care, more faithful use of discipline, more word-saturated counseling, and more prayer–for illegitimate divorce, for same-sex behavior, and for all the other sins that are more easily condoned than confronted.
Why do conservative Christians make such a fuss about homosexuality and give everyone a free pass—most notably themselves—when it comes to gluttony?
That’s a question you hear a lot of us these days and one you should expect to hear again and again, posed in a hundred different ways, in the years ahead.
Why are we asking about gays in heaven when we should be asking if there will be fat people in heaven? How can we say “their” sin of homosexuality is terrible while “our” sin of gluttony is no big deal? Everyone’s a biblical literalist until you bring up gluttony. Besides, the Bible contains three times as many exhortations against gluttony than against homosexuality.
How should Christians think about these claims? Well, the operative word in that question is “think.” We can’t settle for gotcha headlines and arguments that are more slogan than substance. We have to be open to reason, open our Bibles, and think this through.
1. Do we really want to suggest that one sin is no biggie because we’ve been pretty lax about a different sin? If it’s the case that Christians are wrongly intolerant of unrepentant gluttony–or any unrepentant sin–then shame us. Sins separate us from God. When we choose to embrace sins, celebrate sins, and not repentant of sins, we keep ourselves away from God and away from heaven.
2. Is it really wise to equate gluttony with being fat? People are overweight, underweight, or fit as a fiddle for all sorts of reasons. Can we be sure that those with a few pounds to shed are worse sinners than the fried-food loving bean pole blessed with an amazing metabolism? If we want to draw a ramrod straight line between gluttony and corpulence, Job has three “friends” we can hang out with.
3. It bears repeating, the reason Christians are talking about homosexuality is because everyone else is talking about homosexuality. Strange coincidence that evangelicals did not become “obsessed” with homosexuality until about 40-50 years ago when the culture became obsessed with sexual freedom. If the Supreme Court finds a constitutional right to jab people in the kidneys with poison-tipped spears, we’ll get worked about that too.
4. Gluttony is a favorite vice to throw into the rhetorical mix because it is one of the so-called Seven Deadly Sins. As Will Willimon explains, the earliest formation of the list of seven comes from Evagrius of Pontus, a desert monk and follower of Origen (who was later condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in A.D. 553). It’s not surprising that an ascetic who lived in a commune separated from the world might consider the temptation for food one of his chief maladies. One can detect more than a little monkish asceticism and some Stoic disdain for the body in the Fathers’ abhorrence to gluttony.
Throughout church history, theologians have understood the sin of gluttony in different ways. For some, immoderate desire is the issue. For others, eating more than we need is the problem. According to Augustine, food was not the problem but how we sought it and for what reason.
The Catholic Catechism does not call them seven “deadly sins,” but “capital sins,” because they engender other sins and other vices (art. 1866).
C.S. Lewis, with typical insight, has the devil Screwtape note how persnickety old ladies–the kind who always turn aside whatever is offered and always insist on a tiny cup of tea–are just as guilty of gluttony because they put their wants first, no matter how troublesome they may be to others. Health conscious foodies beware: the problem of gluttony, according to Lewis, was not too much food, but too much attention to food. We might say, in the broadest ethical sense, gluttony is using food in a way that dulls us from the spiritual and distracts us from God. That’s certainly a danger for most of us, but it’s not the same as enjoying a meal, feeling stuffed, or being overweight.
5. And what does the Bible say? Some will be surprised to learn that “gluttony” appears in none of the New Testament vice lists. In fact, most of the Bible is overwhelmingly positive about food. There are Old Testament feasts and visions of heavenly feasts. Jesus finished his ministry with a meal and instituted a supper for his remembrance in the church. If the New Testament has an overriding concern with food, it is that God’s people not be overly concerned about it. Food does not commend us to God (1 Cor. 8:8), and the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink (Rom. 14:17). No honest reader of the New Testament can deny that Jesus and the apostles were much more concerned about what we do sexually with our bodies than with the food we eat (Mark 7:21-23; 1 Cor. 6:12-20; cf. 1 Tim. 4:1-5).
In the English Standard Version, the word “glutton” appears four times and in every instance is paired with the word “drunkard” (Deut. 21:20; Prov. 23:21; and in a slander against Jesus Matt. 11:19; Luke 7:34). The word “gluttonous” shows up once, again alongside a reference to “drunkards” (Prov. 23:20). Two other times we have “gluttons,” once in a quotation from a poet speaking of lazy Cretans (Titus 1:12) and the other time in reference to the company a shameful son keeps (Proverbs 28:7).
The other passages often associated with gluttony are much less than meets the eye. For example, the point of Proverbs 23:2 (“put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite”) is about not being ensnared by the deceptive hospitality of rich hosts. And the saying in Philippians 3:19 (“their god is their belly”) is either a euphemism for sexual sin (see the next phrase, “they glory in their shame”) or a reference to the Judaizer’s legalistic demands regarding Mosaic dietary restrictions.
So what does the sin of gluttony look like? When we take time to open our Bibles and read the relevant passages, we find that gluttony is much more than eating a McRib sandwich, and that partaking in food is much less of a concern than partaking in sexual sin. The composite picture from these verses suggests that a glutton is a loafer, a partyer, and a profligate. He’s the prodigal son wasting his life on riotous living. She’s the girl on spring break who thinks the pinnacle of human existence is to eat, drink, and hook up. A waistral living for the weekend. A big city high flyer who cares for nothing except for indulging in high society. A ne’er do well who takes lifestyle cues from the Hangover franchise.
So, absolutely, the church should speak against the sin of gluttony. But once we understand what the sin entails, I’m guessing most people would say they have a good idea where the church already stands on these issues.
If you haven’t looked into Books At a Glance, you should. It’s not just another blog or website. It’s not a sermon research service. It’s a time effective, cost-effective way to get the low down on new books. While Books At a Glance does author interviews and traditional book reviews, their bread and butter–and what makes them unique–is the book summary:
First, what is the difference between a Book Summary and a Book Review? The easy way to say it is that a Book Review is evaluative in nature and interactive, whereas a Summary is simply a condensed re-presentation of the book’s contents. In a Review our staff will tell you generally what a book is about and then offer comments assessing the work, commending or criticizing this or that about its contents, and so on. But in our Summaries we “crunch” the book into 7-10 pages, condensing the argument(s) of each chapter into a paragraph or two.
Book summaries are the heart of what we do here. They are designed to help you keep up to date and informed regarding new and significant publications. After reading a given summary you will know what that book is about and how it develops its thoughts. From there you can decide if that is all you need or if you should purchase the book yourself to study the matter further.
“Executive summaries” like these have a long and proven value in the business world, and we are excited to bring the same to Christian readers and students of biblical studies.
The aim of this venture is to provide top notch book summaries from trustworthy evangelical scholars. There is a subscription fee for the summaries, but the small cost may be well worth it for many pastors and interested church members.
Today is Earth Day, the 44th anniversary of the original Earth Day 1970, which “capitalized on the emerging consciousness [in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring], channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns front and center.” Today we will hear about Earth Day in the news, online, and in our public schools.
It’s hard for me to be excited.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible for Christians to celebrate Earth Day in the right way. I’m sure many do. We can thank God for the physical world, enjoy the beauty of creation, and think through ways to steward the earth God has put under our dominion.
But the official Earth Day movement is full of stock phrases about “the ravages of climate change,” “well-funded oil lobbyists,” and “climate change deniers.” More to the point, there are deep assumptions–usually unspoken assumptions–that provide a wobbly foundation for thinking realistically and humanely about the environment. Not to mention biblically.
I’m going to assume that Christians reading this blog understand the Creator-creation distinction, that they aren’t worshiping the earth or divinizing the creation. I imagine most Christians celebrating Earth Day do so because they believe God gave us the world as a gift and we should take good care of it. I don’t think any Christian would disagree with this motivation.
But there are a few other bricks to lay in the foundation of wise environmental stewardship. Let me mention three.
Brick #1: We must distinguish between theological principles and prudential judgments.
Consider this wise counsel from Jay Richards in the Introduction to Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition:
With respect to the environment, the theological principles are easily stated and uncontroversial. The biblical picture is that human beings, as image bearers of God, are placed as stewards over the created order. We bear a responsibility for how we treat and use it. We are part of the creation, as well as its crowning achievement. God intends for us to use and transform the natural world around us for good purposes. Proper use is not misuse. But as fallen creatures, we can mess things up. No serious thinker in the Judeo-Christian tradition questions these basic principles.
Prudential judgments are another thing entirely. They require careful analysis of the relevant scientific, economic, and political aspects of an issue. They require us to weigh costs and benefits, and to discern where facts leave off and fashion begins. (3)
Richards goes on to use global warming (er, climate change) as an example. Before we make definitive pronouncement about the “Christian position” on global warming we should consider a number of questions: 1) Is the planet warming? 2) If so, are humans causing it? 3) If we are, is this warming bad? 4) If it is bad, what are costs and benefits of the proposed solutions? There is legitimate debate about all four questions. But if often feels like to be taken seriously as a person who wants to steward God’s creation you must quickly answer yes, yes, yes to the first three questions and then be in favor of cap and trade, Kyoto, or some other government initiative. Earth Day is steeped in politics, advocacy, and a host of assumed solutions so that it becomes difficult for Christians of a different ideological bent to appreciate what may be good about the modern environmental movement.
Brick #2: People matter most.
I know it’s not the point of the Legion story in the gospels, but I think it is a reasonable conclusion: the life of one man is worth more than 2,000 pigs. Does this mean every desire of men and women should be put before every consideration of the plant and animal world? Of course not. The Bible wants us to care for animals too (Exod. 20:10; Jon. 4:11; Deut. 22:4, 10; 25:4). But human life is more valuable than animal or plant life (see, for example, the priestly sacrificial system). Christians should not be intimidated by the charges of speciesism. The Bible plainly teaches that man is the crown of God’s creation with dominion over it (Gen. 1:26-28; 9:3).
Similarly, we in the West who, after centuries of increasing affluence, have the time, energy, and resources to pursue new environmental goals should not impose those same sensibilities on people in the developing world still struggling to survive. As Environmental Stewardship puts it:
[F]urther advances in human welfare for the poor are not often threatened by a belief in the West that human enterprise and development are fundamentally incompatible with environmental protection…This false choice not only threatens to prolong widespread poverty, disease, and early death in the developing world, but also undermines the very conditions essential to achieving genuine environmental stewardship. (68)
Brick #3: People are producers, not just polluters.
If there is one biblical insight missing from the modern environmental movement, it is this one. Too often a model is assumed where the earth is a healthy organism and humans are cancerous cells. All we do is pillage, pollute, and destroy. The world would be better off without us. Our goal then is to minimize our “footprint” at all costs. All we do, it is implied, is consume the planet’s valuable resources. The nightmares of the Malthusians still haunt us.
But the Bible also teaches that we are (sub)creators. We are capable of spilling 11 millions of gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska. But we are also capable of turning virtually worthless sand into silicon chips. We can create beauty as well as despoil it. We can actually make a harsh planet more inhabitable, more conducive for human flourishing. Would anyone but the most ardent environmentalists rather live on Earth now or 4000 years ago? By God’s grace, humans have learned to feed more people and help those people live longer, healthier, easier lives.
The Noah movie notwithstanding, we must resist the temptation to think of humans as intruders from another world wrecking carnage in a pristine environment. Instead we must see ourselves as stewards, called to subdue, enjoy, protect, use, develop, and make more humane God’s fallen creation. I would argue that Christians should not be seeking a romantic ideal where the earth is untouched by human hands. Rather, we want to think carefully about how we can use our hands to make the earth more hospitable for more people, so that we might enjoy the beauty, grandeur, creativity, and productivity of our Father’s world.