Monday, August 29, 2016

What is Experiential Preaching?

This excerpt is taken from Joel Beeke’s contribution in Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching. Lord willing, Dr. Beeke will be one of my professors next year when I begin further graduate work at PRTS.
Experiential (or “experimental”) preaching addresses the vital matter of how a Christian experiences the truth of Christian doctrine in his life. The term experimental comes from the Latin experimentum, meaning trial. It is derived from the verb experior, meaning “to try, prove, or put to the test.” That same verb can also mean “to find or know by experience,” thus leading to the word experientia, meaning knowledge gained by experiment. John Calvin used the terms experiential and experimental interchangeably, since both words in biblical preaching indicate the need for measuring experienced knowledge against the touchstone of Scripture.
Experiential preaching stresses the need to know by experience the great truths of the Word of God. A working definition of experiential preaching might be: “Preaching that seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth how matters ought to go, how they do go, and the goal of the Christian life.” Such preaching aims to apply divine truth to the whole range of the believer’s personal experience, including his relationships with family, the church, and the world around him.
Paul Helm writes about such preaching:
The situation [today] calls for preaching that will cover the full range of Christian experience, and a developed experimental theology. The preaching must give guidance and instruction to Christians in terms of their actual experience. It must not deal in unrealities or treat congregations as if they lived in a different century or in wholly different circumstances. This involves taking the full measure of our modern situation and entering with full sympathy into the actual experiences, the hopes and fears, of Christian people.
Experiential preaching is discriminatory. It clearly defines the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, opening the kingdom of heaven to one and shutting it against the other. Discriminatory preaching offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who by a true faith embrace Christ as Savior and Lord, but it also proclaims the wrath of God and His eternal condemnation upon those who are unbelieving, unrepentant, and unconverted. Such preaching teaches that unless our religion is experiential, we will perish—not because experience itself saves, but because the Christ who saves sinners must be experienced personally as the foundation upon which our lives are built (Matt. 7:22–27; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2:2).
Experiential preaching is applicatory. It applies the text to every aspect of a listener’s life, promoting a religion that is truly a power and not a mere form (2 Tim. 3:5). Robert Burns defined such religion as “Christianity brought home to men’s business and bosoms,” and said the principle on which it rests is “that Christianity should not only be known, and understood, and believed, but also felt, and enjoyed, and practically applied.”
Experiential preaching, then, teaches that the Christian faith must be experienced, tasted, and lived through the saving power of the Holy Spirit. It stresses the knowledge of scriptural truth that is able “to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).3 Specifically, such preaching teaches that Christ, who is the living Word (John 1:1) and the very embodiment of the truth, must be experientially known and embraced. It proclaims the need for sinners to experience who God is in His Son. As John 17:3 says, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” The word know in this text, as well as in other biblical usages, does not indicate casual acquaintance, but a deep, abiding relationship. For example, Genesis 4:1a uses the word know to suggest marital intimacy: “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.” Experiential preaching stresses the intimate, personal knowledge of God in Christ.”
Such knowledge is never divorced from Scripture. According to Isaiah 8:20, all of our beliefs, including our experiences, must be tested against the Bible. That is really what the word experimental, derived from experiment, intends to convey. Just as a scientific experiment involves testing a hypothesis against a body of evidence, so experimental preaching involves examining experience in the light of the teaching of the Word of God.
Reformed experiential preaching, grounded in the Word of God, is theocentric rather than anthropocentric. Some people accuse the Puritans of being man-centered in their passion for godly experience. But as J. I. Packer argues, the Puritans were not interested in tracing the experience of the Spirit’s work in their souls to promote their own experience, but to be driven out of themselves into Christ, in whom they could then enter into fellowship with the triune God.
This passion for fellowship with the triune God means that experiential preaching not only addresses the believer’s conscience, but also his relationship with others in the church and the world. If experiential preaching led me only to examine my experiences and my relationship with God, it would fall short of affecting my interaction with family, church members, and society. It would remain self-centered. True experiential preaching brings a believer into the realm of vital Christian experience, prompting a love for God and His glory as well as a burning passion to declare and display that love to others around him. A believer so instructed cannot help but be evangelistic, since vital experience and a heart for missions are inseparable.
In sum, Reformed experiential preaching addresses the entire range of Christian living. With the Spirit’s blessing, its mission is to transform the believer in all that he is and does so that he becomes more and more like the Savior.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Land Flowing With...Porn and Heroin?

Being a minister means being an observer of culture. Kind of like "people watching" at the airport, but in a more comprehensive (think societal) and spiritual way. Which is why I am interested in two cultural insights making the rounds right now. 

The first is the announcement of a Barna Group research project called The Porn Phenomenon, (you can read a summary of the 150-page report here) -- a new nationwide study about pornography. It is a massive research project examining teenagers, young adults, and Americans in general as well as ministers and youth ministers – more than 3,000 interviews in total across a range of questions. The results of the study are sobering and support what many of us already suspected...that pornography is a HUGE problem. Do read the summary here to get up to speed. Take home for ministers is that we have a problem with porn, as do our church members, and there needs to be biblical, helpful teaching on biblical sexuality which takes into account the prevalence of porn in the sexual lives of our people. We have to help people beat this addiction and understand that pornography use is sin.

The second item of note is our country's HUGE (there's that word again) heroin (and opiate) addiction. The faces of heroin include the young, middle-to-upper class and suburban. It is THE major drug problem in the United States. What was once thought of as an inner-city problem is now a national epidemic and heroin use is showing up everywhere, including high schools. The reasons for the rise of the epidemic are very interesting, and are chronicled in a significant newer book titled Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones. To get a flavor for what Dreamland records, you can watch the most recent 60 Minutes segment which focused on heroin use in small-town America. They focused mostly on Ohio. What's so striking about it all is how pervasive the problem is and how many folks around us are likely affected by it. Case in point, one of the young women interviewed - a fresh-faced young suburban Ohio woman and recovering heroin addict who told 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker about shooting up in the high school bathroom. Her name is Hannah Morris. It started with pot, then went to pills, then to smoking heroin, then shooting it up:
Bill Whitaker: So you were what, 15?
Hannah Morris: Yeah. And I was like, oh my gosh that was amazing.
Bill Whitaker: You remember it even now?
Hannah Morris: Oh yeah. Let’s say I’ve never done a drug in my life. I would normally be happiness at a six or a seven, at a scale out of 10, you know. And then you take heroin and you’re automatically at a 26. And you’re like, I want that again.
Hannah says the heroin was so addictive that rather quickly she and several other students went from smoking it at parties to shooting it up at high school.
Hannah Morris: Like, doing it at school in the bathroom.
Bill Whitaker: A syringe?
Hannah Morris: A syringe. I would have it in my purse, all ready to go.
Why the interest on my part? Because I want to reach our culture with the gospel, to see the captives set free in Jesus Christ. And this is us. A land flowing with milk and honey but also porn and heroin. And not only are these medical and addiction problems, they are ultimately spiritual problems. If this is the country we've become, what will the Church do?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Is Preaching Still Important?

Let me cut to the chase - is preaching still important? - yes, of course it is! And yet, in many congregations, preaching has fallen on hard times.

It was not always this way. If you were to go to Europe and visit many of the churches which were grown or influenced by the Protestant Reformation, you would be struck by the large, ornate pulpits that are centrally located and which dominate their sanctuaries. The placement of these pulpits spoke eloquently of the centrality and indispensability of the preaching of the Word to communicate Christ and his saving work to his people. 

The Reformation’s restoration of preaching to the center of Christian worship and life could not have been more dramatically illustrated. If the worship of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church was focused upon the altar and the sacrament of the mass, the worship of the churches of the Reformation was focused upon the pulpit. Christ’s dwelling in the midst of his people was understood to be primarily mediated through the proclamation of the gospel, and only secondarily through the administration of the sacrament.

But we face challenging times in Protestant churches today. We are witnessing the final demise of theological liberalism, the rise of Pentecostalism, the quick rise and fall of the emerging church movement, the breakdown of evangelicalism, and an utter discombobulation about how the church is to conduct its life and ministry in an increasing “post-Christian” culture. All around us, in the name of reaching the culture with the gospel, we see evangelical churches compromising (usually without intending to) in both message and methods. This has affected preaching dramatically. The fundamental assumption underlying these new approaches is that “everything has changed,” and so our methods must change.

The Reformation’s view of preaching has been seriously challenged in recent years. On the one hand, there is a spirit of democratization and egalitarianism that chafes at the notion of an ordained ministry whose administration of the Word of God in preaching has a place of pre-eminence in the church. When this spirit captivates the churches, all of the members alike become equally “ministers” of the Word of God, the ministers of the Word being only a specialized expression of a more general activity. And on the other hand, there is a growing prejudice that preaching no longer serves as an effective means of communicating the gospel. This prejudice can give birth to an almost endless proliferation of new devices or strategies for preaching the gospel—alternatives to preaching in drama, music and other, sometimes esoteric, worship practices. The only common thread holding these devices together is that they constitute an alternative to preaching. The sorry image of preaching today can easily be illustrated by noting that the expression, “to preach to (at) someone,” is generally thought to be objectionable.

And yet, more than ever, we need to re-affirm a commitment to an “ordinary means” approach to church life and ministry which says the gospel "works" and God has given us both the method and the message. This is vitally important in a time where one of the dominant storylines in churches has been that of alternative methods unwittingly, unhelpfully, and unbiblically altering both the message and the ministry.

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry is ministry that focuses on doing the things God, in the Bible, says are central to the spiritual health and growth of His people, and which aims to see the qualities and priorities of the church reflect biblical norms. Hence, God has given us both the message of salvation and the means of gathering and building the church, in His Word. 

However important understanding our context or the times may be, the ordinary means approach to ministry is first and foremost concerned with biblical fidelity. Because faithfulness is relevance. The gospel is the message and the local church is the plan. God has given to his church spiritual weapons for the bringing down of strongholds. These ordinary means of grace are the Word, sacraments (the Lord's Supper and Baptism), and prayer. 

Ordinary means ministry believes that the key things that the church can do in order to help people know God and grow in their knowledge of God are: First, emphasize the public reading and preaching of the Word; second, emphasize the confirming, sanctifying and assuring efficacy of the Lord's Supper and Baptism, publicly administered; and third, emphasize a life of prayer, especially expressed corporately in the church. These things are central and vital but sadly often under-emphasized, under-appreciated, and undermined.

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry believes that God means what He says in the Bible about the central importance of these public, outward instruments for spiritual life and growth, and rather than church growth fads and marketing strategies, we will be dedicated to those things. 

God explicitly instructs ministers and churches to do the following things: “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13); “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2); “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19); “take, eat; this is my body. …which is for you…drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins; …do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (Matt. 26:26–28; 1 Cor. 11:25–26); “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made…. I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands” (1 Tim. 2:1, 8).

All of which means, preaching is a vital component of ordinary means of grace ministry and we must affirm its central place in Christian worship. Preaching is foundational even where it does not seem to be so.  The preaching office undergirds and nourishes all the work of the church and of Christians.  Abraham Kuyper expressed well this point: 
“And through this office the call goes forth from the pulpit, in the catechetical class, in family, in writing, and by personal exhortation.  However, not always to every sinner directly through the office… For the instruments of the call whether they were persons or printed books, proceeded from the office.”
Preaching stands behind the family and friends and small group Bible studies that influence so many people today. One of the central acts of worship is hearing the Word preached. Where the Word is not preached and heard, there is no church. To be the Body of Christ and to worship God, we need preaching. That is how important it is. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Jesus as the "Son of Man"

The "Son of Man" discussion is one of the more vigorous in the whole of New Testament studies.  No small amount of literature on the phrase “son of man” [Hebrew ben ʾādām (בֶּן אָדָם); Aramaic bar ʾĕnāš (בַּר אֱנָשׁ); Greek (ho) huios (tou) anthrōpou (ὁ υἱος του ἁνθρωπου)]  was produced over the course of the twentieth century. The twenty-first century is continuing this trend and will likely produce many more journal articles, monographs, and book chapters.

Essentially, "Son of Man" was Jesus’ favorite self-designation in the Synoptic Gospels. As noted, the denoted name arises from the Hebrew ben-˒āḏām and Aramaic bar ˒enāš “son of man,” a Semitic idiom for an individual human being or for mankind in general, particularly as distinguished from God (e.g., Num. 23:19; Ps. 8:4; Ezek. 2:1).

At Dan. 7:13, the phrase “son of man” occurs and is likely a title for the people of Israel considered corporately or for their angelic representative in the heavenly court (cf. “the saints of the Most High,” v. 18). The Similitudes of Enoch (1 En. 37–71) and 2 Esdras 13 both draw on Daniel’s use of the title, viewing it as an expression for a specific eschatological redeemer figure. Whereas the influence of Dan. 7:13 on New Testament use of the expression is unquestioned, 2 Esdras 13 and probably the Similitudes of Enoch are too late to have had any such influence. Jesus’ use of the term may have arisen from its use in Aramaic as an oblique substitute for the first person singular pronoun as much as from the use of the term in Daniel. Discussions on this are vigorous.

Indeed, the variety in Jesus’ use of the term suggests that no single influence was dominant in the meaning of the term as he used it, that his own creativity played a significant role, and that part of this creativity was to bring ideas from the Servant Songs of Isaiah (esp. Isa. 52:13–53:12) into the “son of man” concept. The uses of the term in the Synoptic Gospels fall into three broad categories. 

Jesus uses it with respect to himself in describing his activity and the exercise of his authority on earth (Matt. 13:37; Mark 2:10, 28; 10:45; Luke 7:34; 9:58; 12:10; 19:10). 

He uses it in predicting his suffering and death (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). He uses it when speaking of his eschatological return and rule (e.g., Matt. 10:23; 19:28; 25:31; Mark 8:38; 14:62; Luke 17:22–30; 21:36).

All three categories of “son of man” sayings originated with Jesus and are plausible within the framework of his own anticipation of his rejection, suffering, and vindication.

The gospel of John uses “the Son of man” for Jesus in relation to John’s christology of the descending and ascending redeemer (John 3:13; 6:62; cf. 1:51; 5:27; 6:27) and in relation to the death of Jesus, viewed as his glorification (3:14; 12:23, 34; 13:31). In the end, evidence suggests that “the Son of man” functions as a self-designation of some kind for Jesus Christ; though it never became a way for other people to refer to Jesus, and it thus played no part in the confessional and doctrinal statements of the early church, unlike “Christ,” “Lord” and “Son of God.”

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Dead In Your Transgressions

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1–10).
"You were dead in your transgressions" is a Jewish way of speech; its force is nicely illustrated by a midrash (Jewish commentary) on Ecclesiastes 9:5 which speaks of ‘the wicked who even in their lifetime are called dead’. Those bound in sin are doomed to death, and so already belong to its realm; the very thing they think of as ‘life’ is but a foretaste of death, because it is without God (cf. Jn. 5:24; 1 Jn. 3:14). 

While Paul elsewhere teaches that this state of affairs is the result of sin, that is not the point here; rather the state in your transgressions and sins is what characterized their former existence. These things were the corrupt fruit of their ‘death’. In verse 2 Paul attributes this life marked by sins chiefly to two related factors—the influence of this world (i.e. the present fallen creation and the forces it generates in society, seen as standing in rebellion against God and in contrast to the ‘new age’ or ‘new creation’ awaited), and the influence of Satan, described here as the ruler of the kingdom of the air. The air denoted the lower heavens, closest to the earth, and was often thought to be the abode of the evil spiritual beings. 

The idea of Satan being at work in those who are disobedient could all sound like a determinism to evil for which we are not responsible, but verse 3 puts the blame equally fairly on our own rebellious nature with its corrupt desires and thinking. All this made us what Paul calls ‘children of wrath’ (NRSV); that is, those condemned to suffer God’s holy anger directed against sin.

What God in his love and mercy has actually done for us, then, comes as a stark and breathtaking contrast to the doom verse 3 envisages, and so dramatically reveals the nature of the power of God at work in us. Verse 5 portrays it as a resurrection power that transfers us from ‘death’ to ‘life’.