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Dante on Preaching

In The Divine Comedy, Dante gives scathing rebukes to the corrupt church leaders of his day. In many ways he seems to foreshadow Luther.  In the following excerpt from Paradise Dante’s critique of preaching which relies on man-made ideas rather than the Word of God is relevant to us today.

You mortals do not keep to one true path
philosophizing: so carried away
you are by putting on a show of wits!

Yet even this provokes the wrath of Heaven
far less than when the Holy Word of God
is set aside or misconstrued by you.

Men do not care what blood it cost to sow
the Word throughout the land, nor how pleasing
he is who humbly takes Scripture to heart.

To make a good impression they contrive
their own unfounded truths which then are furbished
by preachers—of the Gospel not a word!

Dante then mentions man made ideas which were proclaimed as truth as an example of the “fables” which “are shouted right and left, pouring from pulpits.” He then describes the result of this sort of fable-laden preaching.

So the poor sheep, who know no better, come
from pasture fed on air— the fact that they
are ignorant does not excuse their guilt.

Christ did not say to his first company:
’Go forth and preach garbage unto the world, ’
but gave them, rather, truth to build upon.

With only His word sounding on their lips
they went to war to keep the faith aflame;
the Gospel was their only sword and shield.

Now men go forth to preach wisecracks and jokes,
and just so long as they can get a laugh
to puff their cowls with pride— that’s all they want;[1]

As much as things change, they stay the same. We ought to heed this warning today. Let us not preach the “garbage” of mere human reasoning but instead preach the clear Word of God that the sheep might be properly fed, aiming at the glory of God and the edification of his people, not our own exaltation.

 

 

[1] Dante Alighieri (2003-07-29). The Portable Dante (Penguin Classics) (pp. 560-561). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition

Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals

Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of Death, by Brian Croft & Phil Newton is a very helpful, practical little book on ministering well in the significant setting of a funeral. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of such a time in the life of anyone and the significance of the pastoral ministry given at that time.

And now, for a limited time, this book is available on Kindle for just $0.99. This is a great resource at an incredible price.

“If we suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him”- Polycarp

Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ, “who bore our sins in His own body on the tree,” “who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth,” but endured all things for us, that we might live in Him.

Let us then be imitators of His patience; and if we suffer for His name’s sake, let us glorify Him. For He has set us this example s in Himself, and we have believed that such is the case.

-         Polycarp to the Philippians

“Second Adam from Above, Reinstate Us in Thy Love”

One of the best things about classic Christmas hymns is how good they are at biblical theology, of grasping how the incarnation fits in the story of the whole Bible. Many of these songs are filled with allusions to Old Testament texts which people today often miss, and these songs often connect Christ’s coming with the ultimate consummation of all things. They also contain profound doctrinal reflection on the incarnation, salvation and other themes. Singing these songs with your church and your family is a great way to help people catch this overall picture of the storyline of the Bible.

Charles Wesley was particularly good at this as can be seen in his song, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” We typically sing the first three verses which are rich and profound. However, the next two verses, which are often skipped, continue this richness tying in the promise of Gen 3:15 and Pauline Second Adam Christology. Wow!

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Refrain

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

Refrain

These hymns are a rich treasure of the church. Let us make use of them for ourselves, our families and our churches to help us contemplate fully and faithfully the marvelous saving work of God in Christ this Christmas.

“The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns”

As we begin the Advent season, here is a hymn from an anonymous Greek original which captures well our longing for Christ’s return.

 

“The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns”

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light triumphant breaks;
When beauty gilds the eastern hills,
And life to joy awakes.

Not as of old a little child
To bear, and fight, and die,
But crowned with glory like the sun
That lights the morning sky.

O brighter than the rising morn
When He, victorious, rose,
And left the lonesome place of death,
Despite the rage of foes.

O brighter than that glorious morn
Shall this fair morning be,
When Christ, our King, in beauty comes,
And we His face shall see.

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And earth’s dark night is past;
O haste the rising of that morn,
The day that aye shall last.

And let the endless bliss begin,
By weary saints foretold,
When right shall triumph over wrong,
And truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light and beauty brings:
Hail, Christ the Lord! Thy people pray,
Come quickly, King of kings.

-         Unknown au­thor; trans­lat­ed from Greek to Eng­lish by John Brownlie in Hymns of the Russ­ian Church, 1907

Targeting Trendy- Not Cool

Christian Today recently ran an article titled, “Which kind of church appeals to Millennials? It’s not as trendy and modern as you think.”

I welcome almost anything that says “trendy isn’t as cool as you think.” That said, the article (unintentionally it seems) illustrates the problem with shaping ourselves based on the perceived desires or interests of a target group. If we “hit it right” we’ll just have to change again, soon, when the target group changes. There is an inherent problem with shaping our space, worship or presentation based on the preferences of people who do not come. We should be mindful of potential unnecessary stumbling blocks, but in the end the people of God should just be who they are. Otherwise we end up seeming like the people in high school who change their appearance each week trying to fit in with the “popular kids.” We might pity such kids, but they certainly don’t attract or elicit respect.

Tim Keller on Praying the Psalms

The Desiring God blog recently posted the transcript of an interview with Tim Keller about his new book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. I have not yet read the book, but the second question in the interview and Keller’s response captured my attention. I am delighted that Keller is highlighting the value of praying the Psalms. What he describes is similar to my experience over the last several years of working through the Psalms in order to pray them and be shaped by them in praying. Here is an excerpt:

Question 2: Praying the Psalms

Your new book is clear: a profitable prayer life is impossible without solitude, but it’s also impossible without God’s word. You explain a time in your life when you were driven by desperation to pray, and so you opened the Psalms and prayed through them. Explain how you did this and what you learned from this season.

I am glad to talk about that. I came to see that the Psalms are extremely important for prayer. Perhaps that is because I read a book some years ago by Eugene Peterson called Answering God. He makes a strong case that we only pray well if we are immersed in Scripture. We learn our prayer vocabulary the way children learn their vocabulary — that is, by getting immersed in language and then speaking it back. And he said the prayer book of the Bible is the Psalms, and our prayer life would be immeasurably enriched if we were immersed in the Psalms. So that was the first step. I realized I needed to do that, but I didn’t know how.

Then I spent a couple of years studying the Psalms. …

I worked through all 150 Psalms and wrote a small outline and a small description of what I thought the Psalm was basically about, and key verses that I thought were useful for prayer. Using nine-point font, I basically broke out all 150 Psalms on about 20 pages, which I now use in the morning when I pray.

 

Pastors, Believe!

This column by Peter Leithart is a powerful call for pastors to believe in the effectiveness of God’s word, to be reminded of the spiritual realities at work in what they do. Leithart specifically is saying pastors need not entering the realm of politics in order to impact the world. This is true, but don’t miss the deeper point: too often the secular spirit of the age has so stunted our souls that we are tone deaf to the spiritual realities at work around us.

Pastors look for alternatives when they lose confidence in the tools of their trade. How many pastors believe they are stewards of the mysteries of God? Do we act as if our preaching participates by the Spirit in the creating and re-creating eternal Word? Do we believe that the Word is a weapon of the Spirit, as Hebrews says it is? Are we persuaded that the water we pour does wonders, or that a little ritual meal forms the social body of the incarnate Son of God, the assembly of God among the nations? Do we believe that the God with ears to hear is judge of the nations?

We need to ponder anew the true and lasting impact of word and sacrament.

In order to train pastors more effectively along these lines Leithart makes several provocative proposals including, “Don’t let anyone graduate unless he knows the Psalms—all of them.” I am still pondering all that he has said here, and as a Baptist I would tweak some of his water language (let’s not pour but plunge!), but we need to hear and consider this challenge. The Bible is clear that preaching, baptism and communion have real impact. We need to be reminded (perhaps re-enchanted) concerning the work which goes on these acts.

 

Reformation Day 2014

Happy Reformation Day! This is always a day celebrated in the Van Neste household as we acknowledge the blessings that have come down to us because of this great movement: e.g., having the scriptures in our own language, having our own copies of the Bible, understanding that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, enjoying truly corporate worship, understanding the value of all work in God’s sight, and the fact that although I’m an ordained minister I am married!

Rehearsing some of these with my kids this morning, one of them said, “That’s why you love Reformation Day, Dad, because you like being married to Mom!” I heartily said, “Absolutely! That is certainly a great reason!”

There are plenty of reasons to celebrate this past work of God, and plenty of need to continue the work of returning to the Scriptures to bring our lives and practice in conformity with it.

Here are some recent items that further reflect on the Reformation.

Timothy George, has a brief column on Luther and his value to the whole church

Carl Trueman’s lecture on “Martin Luther, the troubled prophet”. Carl has a book titled Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom due out in February.

Trueman also has a great recent column titled The Wonder of Luther’s Catechisms where he holds up the value of solid, foundational teaching over the glitzy, hip discussions.

Regent audio has made three Reformation-related lectures available for free to download through the end of the day.

Then, Gerald Bray’s article from several years ago, “Was the Reformation a Tragedy?” is well worth returning to.

Lastly, since last Reformation Day my article on the pastoral impulse of the Reformation has appeared in print.

“Your souls, more precious than thousands of worlds”

How should a pastor think of the members of the church he serves? Too often today church members are thought of as customers or potential workers. This is not the scriptural pattern; nor is it the practice of our forebears.

Just today I came back to “The Glory and Ornament of a True Gospel‐constituted Church” written by Elias Keach in London in 1697. The work has historical significance for various reasons, but his opening words to his church reveal the heart of a pastor and the awareness of one who knows he is a steward who will one day have to give an account (Heb 13:17).

Dearly Beloved,
Your Souls, more precious than thousands of Worlds, being committed to my Care, as an Overseer under the great Shepherd of the Sheep, the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom ere long I must be accountable, &c. I could do no less in order to the full discharge of my Duty, than let you know your Places, Order and Work in that Church of which you are members, it being part (and that not the least part) of the Counsel of God, which I am in Duty bound to make known unto you according to my Ability.