Regarding preaching Christ


The beginning of the end: a polemic of the sort I haven’t done before, in tonight’s case against deficient views of preaching.

I have a number of polemical posts lined up from the last few weeks. I’m drawing to the end of three years’ friendship with a load of people at Peterhouse, where very soon, realistically, I will not be seeing them often again. In many cases, three years of desperately sharing more of my life than they wanted to get; gentle persuasion and exhortation for which at an evangelical church I might be rebuked for short-selling God’s word; direct and strong persuasion and exhortation when friends were unwilling to budge of listen to less; poor and faulty personal witness in my patchy attention to their lives and times when I wasn’t there to be with them and do friendly things together, and just took myself away for other people’s company;—in many cases, three years of friendship have had next to no impact. My theology is not private, nor my disagreements discussed behind anyone’s back, so there is nothing wrong in principle in writing publicly about these things. My burden is that I care deeply for the people I have seen flopping from one absurd, reductionistic, life-quenching lie to another; or roll in the same mud over and over again, in every conversation. I have sometimes shared my longing for joy and fullness of heart, and shown how my heart is behind these friends; other times, I have kept quiet about things, knowing they already think I’m a batty loon and want to retain outward appearances for the sake of acting like them externally to make them more comfortable. Did my friends even guess the terms when I went home to room from choir every week to cry in distress?

For all my faults and failures, I wonder each time how Paul would conduct himself with these friends long-distance, after he had to leave them. He would pour out his concern and love for them, convince them of his goodwill, and yearn and strive for their every joy and blessing with open letters if he had to. I have a few more weeks to go, but if I want to ever communicate remotely, I’d better try it out first. I’m making a break, and, like Paul, my blog may contain content specifically directed against certain errors from now on.

[Before reading on, please, may I make a special request. Set aside a few minutes either to read to the end (it’s not long), or if you won’t commit to that, to watch the clips at the end first. I know by ¶2 half of the people I am addressing are grumbling, switching off and thinking of a thousand reasons for rejecting this out of hand. Stop and engage your hearts and brains, and if you have any belief in God, I challenge you to give the least sign you are engaging with this by urging you not to ignore this plea to pray a quickie asking for an understanding of the truth. Read the whole scribble or watch the clips first.]

This post is a jumble, a combination of ideas. I want to put down, for the record, the nature of preaching, the call to new lives of sanctification, the lordship of Christ over our minds and epistemology, our call to repentance, the ethical implications of the gospel, the belief that our hearts can change for the better, our call to humility not self-justification, the involvement of unbelievers with chapels, and other conversations I have had this term. I can only throw out a few ideas tonight on my free day before bed, and won’t be able to tidy anything up before next month in any case, but behind each of these things, there is only one injunction, one truth: that Jesus rules as lord, truly and certainly, as ruler of all, and exercises his power in nothing less than taking the punishment for our sins and giving us new lives with him, while giving us the promise of fresh hearts and minds, clean lives, new hopes, a right direction in all our activities directed towards his glory. That is the overwhelming and overpowering truth of the bible: God’s grace, to we who in no way deserve it, to hear and act in our lives for such good. There is nothing greater, nothing better, more healing, more fulfilling, more true, more loving, than the vast package made available to us through the cross, and my polemic is never, ever petty. Each issue is of value to me, dear to me, because God’s immense love is at stake, and each issue connects on our lives at a primary level.

I only have time to scribble one short remark, based on a silly conversation at dinner about preaching. I am, without dissimulation, sick and tired of what goes on in these arguments. I love preaching, treasure it, and eagerly long to see it happen in chapel. I look at these friends’ lives and see their emaciated bones, parched lips, and withered bodies, shrivelled by the pouring away of each cup, and famine of teaching and nourishment in their hearts. Where is the love for Christ and urgent need to see that love grow in our hearts, ignited by zealous fervour, seeking the supreme joy of submitting every day in every way to his lordship, holding back nothing for ourselves? Where do we see a hunger and thirst which hopes to slake itself and gorge on God’s very own words to us, and hurry to listen and be challenged in our deepest parts to make that message true? If our hearts do not seek after God, can anyone even call himself a Christian if he refuses so much as to check the box ‘I recognise this is a problem and want my hopes, dreams, values, thinking, to be changed to his way’? What about those who do not follow Christ’s basic, first-things-first instruction on sexual relationships? How much does such a heart need and require to be challenged by the true God’s very own offer of what is right and best? What about those who refuse, ever, not once to anyone in three years, to admit that seek change on anything other than their own terms? What about those chapel officers, who, seeing unbelievers speaking truths as lies and confusing the witness of the chapel, nonetheless argue that these very same people should have some control over the extent to which the chapel preaches the very same Christian message they reject?

If I indulge in polemic on a seemingly trivial issue of different ways of conducting a service, the truth must surely be plain to everyone that my heart is in because I value the supremacy of Jesus over our hearts, the fundamental and irreversible goodness of what he draws us into? This, this is what preaching is for: to quicken my dull spirits, to brighten our hearts with the penetrating and cutting exposition of our sin and hard-heartedness in responding to Jesus, to set our eyes on what we do not yet even dare or will to hope for to happen in us, by his grace. You are thirsty, stunted, not because you like sermons of one sort while I happen to prefer another style of talking, but because we are arguing over the place of the life-changing action of God’s word confronting us and dragging us on. I love preaching; I love it deeply, fervently, because God’s word promises to change you as it has changed me and all believers everywhere who fall under its power through the faithful ministry of God’s servants. This is preaching: the public, regular, communal submission to that process by which God renews our hope in salvation and a new, pure and glorious life, and directs us towards it. Do you not want preaching?

I type because I have nothing better, when I have reached a dead-end in conversations. You know my heart on these things: Cambridge students aren’t morons. You don’t suppose I just like things done my way and pass my dinners arguing over things which don’t really concern us. This is real, and so important, but I can’t talk about these things with some people, those at dinner, and those not, because they have stopped listening or never did. Tonight, as each night, as I begin, before barely getting the chance to explain what is on my mind, some stupid, illogical, thoughtless, reductionistic, or evasive question or counter-argument cuts in. I am being brutal, but why pretend otherwise? I write because I must, because there’s no other way of getting things out when people won’t listen. Couldn’t you stop and think for fifteen seconds and ask yourself what sort of a church I choose to attend, what sort of preaching I am starting to describe, before launching in and disagreeing? Sometimes I sound angry, a few rare times because I am, but sometimes as now, I am just frustrated and ready to hang my head weeping at the stubbornness that holds us back from running towards Jesus’ open arms and glorifying him with our hearts and lives.

You know my desires, and if preaching is to be the topic out of tonight’s conversations which I babble on about, so be it. You know my hopes that each of us be filled to the measure with the fullness of grace, as we are now in no way close to being, and this is my motivation. If I am harsh, and put in writing such strong criticism, it is because I so rarely seem to be able to get to what I want to say in conversation without being stopped. Please, I urge, exhort, and declare that every reader take the time to find out what the bible really says about preaching in so far as it is a lifeline to changing our hearts and growing in joy and fresh life. As I pour out my prayers for each friend in Peterhouse, may God firstly grant that expend myself well in my the final weeks, embedding a recollection of the truth of God’s radical, passionate love in each person’s heart, and may grant that in doing that I don’t by error destroy what friendship he has given us to share; and for each of these dear people to have all knowledge and discernment, all wisdom to recognise and grasp what is good, approving it, and to know what is the length and depth and breadth and width of God’s love for us.

I can do no better than close by offering John Piper’s comments on this issue. His passion is greater than I could muster, his love less tainted, and his expression clearer. Grant me the indulgence to watch to the end of these clips before disagreeing with any faulty expression I may give things.