Putting the Cookies on the Lowest Shelf

I recently met with about 80 contractors who will be working on a new building for the church I serve as pastor. I introduced myself and the 200-year history of our church, told them about our mission to glorify God by proclaiming Jesus Christ and serving others, and then I turned it over to our architect. From that point on, I might as well have been in Uzbekistan at a goatherders’ convention because I had no clue what they were saying. 

    The lingo that the architect and the contractors spoke was completely foreign to this seminary professor and pastor. Every now and then someone would use words and concepts that I understood, but soon they would leave me with a sense of isolation, completely out of my element once again, while they shared a camaraderie and enjoyed a fellowship from which I felt impossibly excluded.

    Preaching and worship can leave a new Christian or a visitor overwhelmed by that same perception of being an outsider and not a little unwelcome. Some pastors and churches have attempted to solve this problem by removing any insider lingo or theological terms, but they run the risk of losing the gospel itself since the good news of Jesus relies on concepts of sin, alienation from God, repentance, justification, propitiation, substitution, and sanctification. How can one’s preaching be true to the gospel but also accessible to anyone?


1) Don’t dumb it down, explain it.

    Murky enlightenment, vague clarification, and partial explanation are oxymorons! Preachers often underestimate their congregation’s intelligence and willingness to learn and consequently tend to reduce deep theological truths to something they can say in 140 characters. Twitterworthy and pithy sayings rarely go deep or far enough to elucidate robust biblical truth.  Followers of Jesus are indwelled by the Spirit and have a propensity toward learning spiritual things. Don’t assume their disinterest or inability to appreciate theological truth. Take the time to explain carefully and clearly.

2) Don’t avoid difficult theology, illustrate it.

Nothing puts a handle on theological truth like a narrative. Use vivid biblical, personal, or cultural stories that connect the intellectual content of revealed truth with the emotional experience of an appropriate enlightening illustration. To be sure, illustrating a sermon well is hard work and requires a lot of searching. Preachers may consider a hundred possible illustrations to find that one gem, but the congregation will be grateful for the effort of one who illustrates well. Remember the SHARP acronym: stories, humor, analogies, references, and pictures can serve well to make doctrinal truth memorable.

3) Don’t merely explain it, reword it and repeat it.

Preachers need to develop their vocabularies, not in the sense of using big words, but for the purpose of saying the same truth in multiple ways. The concept of justification, for example, might be defined, then pictured in a story, then reworded and restated in a more earthy way. Within the congregation are different kinds of learners. Preachers who connect well learn to restate, reword, and repeat in diverse ways in order to engage the entire audience.

4) Don’t preach to your church like you would to a group of seminary students.

After three or four years of sitting in classes with other students, listening to preachers in chapel preach to seminary students, and learning from professors who spend most of their time communicating with seminary students, young pastors may naturally expect that what nourishes them will also work with their congregation.  Preaching to the average church requires a slightly different approach, however. The preacher must not only convey truth, but also make it accessible. The congregation is not dumb, by any measure, but they live and think in different categories. A wise preacher puts the cookies on the lowest shelf, finding a way to teach deep biblical truth in such a way that the simplest believer and the educated church member can both feed on the richness of God’s Word.

Two Readings of Scripture, Two Views of Jesus

(Note: the following is a guest editorial written for the Frankfort State-Journal for July 5, 2015)

The Supreme Court may settle disputes of American law, but cannot establish right and wrong. A bitterly divided Court can, by the slimmest possible margin, dictate what is legal but cannot determine what is moral. 

    Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. The same institution that once justified slavery and defined African-Americans as less than human, that has bestowed personhood on corporations but denied it to unborn babies, that vacillates—and will again—on whether or not capital punishment is acceptable has found a way to read the constitution innovatively and differently than any previous generation of citizens or legal scholars. The majority has found something there that none of its authors intended or even thought about.

The heart of the argument is about hermeneutics, how a document is read and understood. Liberal justices contend that the Constitution changes meaning with the culture, while conservatives insist that the meaning is fixed and that the amendment process should be used as society evolves or modifies its views.

Within Christianity the same debate rages about the Bible and stands at the epicenter of the current impasse about homosexuality and gay marriage. Some of us believe the Bible is God’s Word, a special and perfect revelation of himself, written by humans inspired by the Spirit who wrote what God led them to record. We believe that the proper way to read the Bible is the same way we want our pharmacist to read our doctor’s prescription, discerning the author’s original intent rather than imposing any foreign meaning on the text. 

Furthermore, we believe that the sixty-six books of the Bible together form one book with one grand narrative, the story of God’s redemption. That story of creation, fall, anticipation, the gospel, the church, and Christ’s return to reign is a single story. Though many human activities and practices within that story are shameful and highlight the need for redemption, God’s moral will and standard of holiness revealed in Scripture does not change through time and is not subject to the vicissitudes of culture. At the beginning of that story is the marriage of a perfect man and a perfect woman. At the end of that story is the marriage of a glorified man, the Lord Jesus, and his sanctified bride, his church. 

Other Christians, however, see the Bible as stained by human frailty and riddled with error, requiring more enlightened thinking to discern the good parts from the bad. These Christians are embarrassed by and denounce parts of the same book that they read in weddings and funerals, sermons and Sunday school classes as a model for faith and life. They see no contradiction in quoting Paul’s lyrical description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 while at the same time denouncing his instruction on gender roles in 1 Corinthians 11. They fear no inconsistency quoting Jesus when he says “Judge not” in Matthew 7:1, though simultaneously judging Jesus calling people “pigs” and “dogs” in Matthew 7:6. Scavenging Scripture selectively like a picky eater at a smorgasbord, they consume only what appeals to their taste and what they have already learned to like. 

Ultimately, that approach to Scripture inevitably leads to the same understanding of Jesus. How can one claim that Jesus is Lord and yet insist that Jesus needed to be corrected for his insensitivity when he spoke to the Gentile woman in Matthew 15:21-28?

To be candid, I can accept that many people do not agree with historic Christianity that homosexuality is a sin. I understand when people not guided by a biblical worldview adopt a simple live-and-let-live mentality because they do not think in categories of God’s design and purpose. 

I cannot comprehend, however, how people who claim that the Bible is God’s Word and Jesus is their Lord can either ignore or pervert the clear meaning of Jesus’ endorsement of God’s purpose for marriage. When asked about the lawfulness of divorce, Jesus answered by going back to creation and looking at God’s design. What was God’s intent? Jesus answered the question about divorce by saying much more about marriage than merely its duration. “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4,5). 

Jesus could have answered the question about divorce by simply explaining that marriage is for a lifetime, but he went beyond that. He defined marriage by the number of people in that relationship as well as the sex of those in that relationship. Some may voice honest disagreement with Jesus’ words, but I cannot respect the kind of intellectual dishonesty that denies the plain and natural reading of his words. When someone says they take the Bible seriously but not literally, I take their words literally but not seriously.

Two thousand years of church history render a virtually unanimous opinion about the definition of marriage. It seems the epitome of arrogance for a Christian to hear Jesus’ words and the church’s verdict from antiquity only to say, “But I know better.” The Bible is not an instrument by which we justify the opinions of Christians, but the revelation of God in which we discover our justification in Christ.

The Only Decision that Matters

I am excited. While I would not choose this direction for our country or our culture, and though I lament the very real harm that this Supreme Court decision will do in millions of lives, I also believe that a sovereign God rules supreme in human affairs and He is at work making of the nations a heritage for His Son.  The Triune God has not called an emergency session and will not be announcing a strategy of response to the latest development. He is working all things—even and especially this—to His glory for our good.
Because of this Supreme Court ruling Christians who have contented themselves with a nebulous theology and a generic commitment to the parts of the Bible they deem palatable will now be pressed to probe the Scriptures and their own presuppositions like never before. Congregations who have survived on a cultural predisposition toward churches are about to discover what it means to thrive on Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. Believers who have worked to keep their faith separate from the rest of their lives will discover that they can no longer be secret disciples because they are going to be asked bluntly and sometimes with great hostility.
    Two exhilarating possibilities emerge: revival among believers and a greater gospel impact beyond our walls. Think about it like this: has the church in the United States ever had a more advantageous time to stand in stark contrast to the world, to distinguish itself from the prevailing understanding of morality, to present a true counter-culture, to model the gospel? When we had greater numbers and political influence the world thought our great concern was with numbers and political influence. If we profess Christ and stand on the Word when it costs us dearly, however, then even our detractors and persecutors will see that it’s not about us, but about our Savior.
    I anticipate that the churches who stand firmly and lovingly on the Word of God, who focus on the gospel of Christ and preach the necessity of genuine faith and repentance for salvation, are about to experience an indisputable and authentic movement of God’s Spirit. The Christ-modeled balance between an unyielding commitment to the Word and a lavish love of people will offer the world something that they desperately need but cannot find anywhere else.
    People are no more lost now than they have ever been, and Jesus is no less Lord now than He will ever be. We dare not cower in our churches as though God has lost anything. The only decision handed down that matters is that the gates of hell cannot prevail against His church!
    The first marriage was between a perfect man and a perfect woman. The last marriage will be between a glorified man, the Lord Jesus, and his sanctified bride, the church. Between those two weddings, humanity has marred and defaced the institution of marriage in many ways, including this new way. But the Lord Jesus will have the last say. Until then, I am doing all I can to make my marriage reflect the love of Christ for his church and to share the gospel of grace with everyone. No handwringing, no fear, no hatred, no bitterness. Just love of the Lord Jesus, of the truth, of my wife, of the Lord's church, and of my neighbor--ALL of my neighbors. Though something in our culture has definitely changed, everything in the Word of God remained the same. I rest in that.
    It may seem like we’ve hit the bottom. By God’s grace, we are about to discover there’s a Rock down there.

Choosing the Right Lens

Last year, while far away from home in Manaus, Brazil, I made the mistake of trying to run across the busiest street in that city of 2 million people. While dashing wildly across five lanes of traffic to reach a tiny concrete median and pause before sprinting the opposite five lanes, I recognized I had joined a real-life game of Frogger (to date myself) and that I faced the distinct possibility of being squished.

When I finally made it across, the heart-pounding terror turned into triumphant exhilaration. As I entered the door of my destination and took off my sunglasses, I felt my shirt pocket for my very expensive no-line progressive trifocal prescription glasses so I could see indoors, but to no avail. They were gone. The short-lived elation gave way to the despair of realizing they had jostled out of my pocket and by now had been ground to dust under the weight of a hundred speeding cars.

A Brazilian friend, realizing my plight, offered to get me a pair of glasses that would suffice temporarily, but he only had three lens thicknesses from which to choose. He randomly chose the prescription that corrected my distant vision, so until I got home a week later, I felt handicapped. If someone waved to me from across the room, I could recognize them, but I couldn't recognize people 4 or 5 feet away; and when I preached, I constantly was taking glasses off or putting them on, sometimes alternating between reading glasses, my new stop-gap glasses and none at all. I only could see one distance, but life required more than that.

The congregation who only sees Scripture through one type of lens is missing something, too. Some pastors always look at Scripture with a wide-angle lens. They show their people the big picture of the book they're preaching, or perhaps the grand narrative of redemption history, yet fail to get the nuances, the warp and the woof, the grain of Scripture up close. On the other hand, some pastors are so oriented to a magnifying lens or microscope that their congregations never see the big picture.

Part of pastoral preaching not only is alternating texts between Old and New Testaments, between law and gospel, between different genres, but also switching lenses. While pastors should have a careful strategy to preach the whole counsel of God, that strategy should include different depths and fields of vision.

First, the Bible itself does this. God chose to reveal truth in different doses. Some passages such as Romans 8 are saturated with gospel content and require a closer look, a more deliberate pace. Others such as Joshua 13—21 (the allotment of the land to the tribes) don't require as much time and legitimately can be taken together without doing injustice to the text.

Similarly, congregations need to know the overall argument and application of entire sections or books, as well as the exegetical peculiarities and distinctions of individual verses or small passages. In other words, they need gospel trifocals. Pastors need to plan preaching that sometimes looks from a distance so it catches sight of the whole, other times from mid-range to grasp a smaller section, still other times exposing the text thoroughly and closely to provide an intimate look at an author's intended meaning.

So change the lens. Preach 12 overview sermons of the Minor Prophets that give the gist and application of each with a clear explanation of its place in the story of redemption. Follow that with a lengthy series in an epistle, carefully laying bare the meaning of each verse. Then preach a series of sermons in an extended Old Testament narrative such as the life of David, taking representative chapters of the great king's life to preach the story of redemption and to make your congregants long for the greater King.

If sameness and predictability are enemies of being interesting and engaging, changing the focal length of the lens through which we look at Scripture not only will make preaching more effective, but also more interesting.

Lead & Feed

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Very few books on preaching say anything about its relationship to leadership, yet every pastor knows that what happens in the pulpit is crucially interwoven with every other aspect of his ministry. Teaching the Word is the currency of pastoral leadership. This single lesson on leading and feeding was delivered at the 2014 Expositors Summit at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is the audio recording of the session as well as the graphic presentation that accompanied it.

David Platt Is the New President of the IMB (and that's a good thing!)

I am happy to share that the Trustees of the International Mission Board just elected Dr. David Platt as our 12th President. We did this for one very stark, simple reason: this man is anointed by God and has a passion for missions like no one else. He is a gifted leader and a brilliant strategist, but the purity and humility of his heart sets him apart as unique. I am encouraged beyond words and convinced that under the leadership of Kevin Ezell at the North American Mission Board and David Platt at the IMB, the greatest days of Southern Baptist missions lie ahead.

            Many have taken to their blogs and social media to object to him based on two things: his Calvinistic soteriology and his church’s low giving to the Cooperative Program. Though many others will write a lot about Dr. Platt and about these two things that they find objectionable, I hope my perspective as a trustee might shed a little light and provide the rationale that the majority of other board members and I used in support of his election.

            First, David Platt’s supposed Calvinism is really a balanced and biblical understanding of what salvation is. He unequivocally affirms that God loves everyone and desires everyone to be saved, that believers are commanded by Christ to preach the gospel to every person, that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for anyone who will repent and believe to be saved, and that men and women are responsible before God for their sin, for natural revelation, and for their response to God’s command to repent and believe. At the same time, he affirms that the Bible also speaks specifically of Christ’s death for his people, for the church. His belief about salvation is completely and comfortably within the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and in line with many other contemporary and historical Baptists.

            No brother who can clearly affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 should be treated as though his beliefs are unwelcome, unacceptable, or out of the mainstream. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 was written intentionally broad enough to accommodate different nuances of soteriology, so no one should be shocked when different streams of thought run through our SBC institutions. It would have been improper for me to oppose Dr. Frank Page’s election as President of the Executive Committee, for example, because he’s not as reformed in his view as I am. He is clearly within the Baptist Faith and Message, and that should be enough. I don’t even make it a litmus test to be on my church staff, so the venom with which some commentators attack brothers who are confessionally within the BFM2K always dismays me. It’s not right.

            Furthermore, isn’t the most common objection to a high view of election that it undermines missions? Can anyone reasonably cast that stone at David Platt? The man breathes missions. No one I have ever known is more passionate or strategic about reaching the lost than he. Forgive my historical reference, but I say of his Calvinism what Lincoln said when Grant was accused of imbibing whiskey: “Find what he’s drinking and send it to the rest of my generals!” If Platt’s soteriology drives him to reach the nations with the gospel for the glory of Christ, then may we all get a dose of it! In all seriousness, whatever fear anyone might have about reformed theology undermining missions is laughable in Platt’s life. I don’t rejoice that a supposed Calvinist is president of the International Mission Board. I rejoice that a man who seethes and churns because the enemy keeps much of the world in darkness and who will stop at nothing to send them the light is president. I really don’t care if he’s a Calvinist or not, but rather that he is saturated with Christ and his gospel.

            The second issue that troubles many is that the church Platt pastored did not give significantly to the Cooperative Program. I want to be clear. I love the Cooperative Program. Even in the midst of a multi-million dollar relocation project, Buck Run and I are committed to not cutting back on our Cooperative Program or missions giving. The Cooperative Program is largely the reason I became a Southern Baptist. But missions going and giving is bigger and more expansive than the Cooperative Program.

            Going through this process has been healthy for David Platt. By his own admission he now sees the beauty and the usefulness of the Cooperative Program as a missions dynamo for a large denomination and would certainly do things differently. That’s not enough for some, but that is the truth. In his zeal to be intimately involved in going and giving, he led his church to give nearly one third of their budget to missions causes--most of them Southern Baptist causes--directly. This year their budget sends over $700,000 directly to the International Mission Board, for instance. Simply put, when we stand before Christ, he’s not going to question us about which fund we used, but about what we did to reach the world with the gospel for His glory. David Platt and his church can certainly answer for that more confidently than the majority of churches.

I love and will fight for the Cooperative Program, but I don’t idolize it or equate it with God Himself. While not supporting the CP significantly, David Platt and his church have clearly made Christ and His mission the priority, and that should not disqualify him from leading, not even an institution that is funded and fueled by the Cooperative Program. All analogies break down, I know, but if we were choosing the CEO of a big soft drink company in Atlanta (avoiding trademark issues here!), would our biggest concern be how much of the product a candidate drank or how much of it the candidate could lead the company to sell? I am convinced that no one will excite and energize a young generation for missions and, by extension, the Cooperative Program like David Platt. Perhaps instead of fussing and fuming about the young Southern Baptists who don't support the Cooperative Program we should ask why they aren't excited about it and have not bought into it. I do not mean to be unkind, but I can't help but notice that many of the ones whose recriminations ring loudest are the very ones who have presided over our precipitous decline in giving, missions, and baptisms. David Platt was 5 years old the last time Cooperative Program giving went up! Maybe it's time we allow some of the disenchanted, disaffected but deeply devoted young leaders to share the burden of leadership.

I’ve been in ministry all of my adult life. I’ve known Adrian Rogers, W. A. Criswell, Stephen Olford, John Stott, and many truly great men of God. I say this carefully and reverently: I have never met anyone on whom the anointing of God rests as powerfully and comfortably as David Platt. A few months or years from now, people will grow tired of talking about how much his church gave to the Cooperative Program, and his relentless drive to reach the nations will swamp and drown those driving the chariots of anti-Calvinism in a sea of irrelevance. The anointing of God on his life will be what matters. His ability to capture the imagination and harness the passion of new and succeeding generations for the Great Commission will still be relevant when all the current objections seem silly in our memories.

I am gloriously optimistic and joyful about the future of Southern Baptists. While the culture around us is growing increasingly hostile to biblical truth, Southern Baptists are doubling down with the gospel! We are getting more focused and more intentional. We have greater tools and opportunities to reach the world than at any time in history. Our King is returning soon! What a day to be a Southern Baptist.

We trustees made our decision. We have our man. And if you are a Southern Baptist, he's your man, too. Now let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice, and get behind him with prayer and encouragement for the sake of the gospel. A lost world hangs in the balance.