Thursday, 21 June 2012

Common Grace and Evangelism (4): A Gracious God and Evangelism

In the previous posts in this series we’ve spent some time thinking about what God’s common grace is. In this final post, I shall explore how understanding common grace can help us in one particular area: In the area of evangelism. I want to apply what we've previously seen about common grace, to how we speak with our non-Christian family members and friends.

Recognising that God is gracious to all will give us confidence in speaking the gospel to non-Christians. There are two main ways that common grace gives us confidence in evangelism:

1) The non-Christian has a constant testimony to God’s grace
We live in a world where God restrains sin and enables good. This means that the non-Christian is constantly experiencing God’s grace. They are surrounded by pointers to the fact that God is a gracious God. They cannot escape the

Think about it. Without realising it, the non-Christian is completely dependent upon God’s common grace. All that is good and beautiful in this world, all that they enjoy, all their favoirite hobbies and activities, they would never experience without God’s common grace. Further, without his grace restraining their sin, the non-Christian would completely destroy themselves and others. What is more, if God had not held back the day of judgement, they would be in hell right now. However, in His grace He is holding back that day, so that people have opportunity to repent and turn to Jesus before it is too late.

The non-Christian, even though he refuses to submit to God's rule and wants to live life without Him, it completely dependent upon Him for life, and everything they enjoy (This is why one writer has described the non-Christian as being like a child sitting in his fathers lap and slapping him in the face!). They daily experience God's common grace. They live in a universe that is constantly testifying to the grace of God.

All of this means that no conversation is ever far from the gospel. This is because no conversation is never far from a gracious God. This world is constantly testifying to God's grace.

2) The non-Christian will be inconsistent at some point
This is because God is restraining their sinful nature from being worked out to the full in their life. If they were completely consistent with who they are they would be as wicked as they could be. But they are not. God restrains sin in them, which makes them inconsistent (as we saw in our previous post).

Because the non-Christian is inconsistent it is possible to have conversations with them. It means that we are able to talk with non-Christians about the gospel. Their opposition to God is not fully worked out in this life, making gospel conversations possible.

More than this, when we do speak with our non-Christian friends or family members, their inconsistency makes it possible for us to challenge them to repent and turn to Jesus. Because God graciously makes them inconsistent there will be things that they do, beliefs they hold or desires that they have that they will not be able to explain without the God of the Bible.

Let me give an example: Suppose you have an work collegue who is a strong atheist, they constantly remind you that they believe in the survival of the fittest. Well, there will be some things that they will not be able to explain. An atheist cannot explain hospitals without God. They will never be able to give a reason why they think medical care is a good idea, unless they believe in God. It would be a very rare thing to find an atheist who does not think medical care is a good thing. Almost any atheist you speak to will agree that hospitals are good. However, he cannot hold this view and be consistent with his view of the world. Why should they care about something that provides for and cares for the weak? Huge amounts of money that is spent to care for babies who are born with defects and for those who are chronically ill. Why should your atheist friend care about this if he believes in the survival of the fittest? This provides an opening for us to challenge their view of the world, and to call them to look at the gospel, which alone makes sense of reality.

The fact that the non-Christian is inconsistent at some point gives us opportunities to challenge them on where they stand, and to share the gospel of grace with them.

Now, you don’t need to be super-clever to be able to discover these inconsistencies. All you need to do is to take a genuine interest in people, and ask them questions about what they believe. The more you do this the more obvious their inconsistencies will become.

It is in this way that God’s common grace serves his special grace. Because God, in his common grace holds back people’s sinfulness,making them inconsistent, people will be able to hear the gospel, which gives life.

God is a gracious God. He is good to all that he has made. He is gracious to both the Christian and the non-Christian, and shows this common grace by restraining sin and enabling people to do good.
The more we recognise this,the more confidence we will have in evangelism. The more we recognise that God is a gracious God, the more bold we will be in challenging false ideas of the world, and calling people to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus.

Previous posts in this series

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Tuesday Teaching| Acts (3)

Over the last while we have been in the book of Acts with David Cook. This week we come to the third and final talk in his series on preaching Acts.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Interview with Christopher Ash

Over at the Unashamed Workman they have been running a series of interviews with preachers entitled 10 Questions for Expositors. This week they interviewed Christopher Ash, the director of the Cornhill training course in London, about his preaching. There are some very helpful insights here for anyone involved in Bible teaching ministry, especially those who preach regularly. Here is the interview in full (you can read it in it's original context by clicking here):
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
I feel so strongly about this that I’ve written a short book on it (The Priority of Preaching). If I give a short answer you won’t read the book…
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I’m not sure that I did, but I guess other people might have done. The first time I gave a talk at a summer camp, the man who started the camps asked me afterwards if I had toothache. I was very nervous! Gradually it seems my talks got less bad, and then I was asked to preach from time to time in church. It was very hard work, but people encouraged me to keep at it and in due course to get some training and go into pastoral ministry. So in the end I did.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
In one sense, each sermon takes me all my life, since all my understanding of the bible and such knowledge as I have of God and human nature feed into each sermon. But in a more immediate sense, it depends on how familiar I am with the bible book or passage. If it’s an unfamiliar text, I might spend three to six hours working at the text and then a further three to six hours thinking about structure and application, and then writing the sermon. I find I need to start early, as mulling over it slowly, while going to sleep, while on a bus or going for a walk, often leads to insights that I never got when sitting at my desk. So it’s more like ten or so hours spread over at least a week.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallise it?
Robin Weekes has answered this for me. It’s not that a passage necessarily has only one main or driving idea (although many do), but that a sermon that tries to pick up and convey too many of the motifs in a passage ends up conveying very little to normal hearers, who are bemused and uncertain what the preacher has been saying. Even if my ‘theme sentence’ is provisional (as it always is) I find that a provisional one (my best shot at the big idea) is better than no coherent theme at all.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
We want to speak with a genuine, unforced style, which expresses the bible’s truth through the medium of our personality. It is such a help when a preacher speaks naturally, not in a ‘churchy’ manner, not in a high-falutin’ intellectual style, but in a down-to-earth way that communicates with all sorts of people. When J.C.Ryle found himself ministering to simple country folk, he wrote that, ‘I crucified my style’, by which he meant that he simplified it and made it straightforward.
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I usually have a full script but do not read it. I find preparing a full script, in sentences rather than just headlines or bullet points, disciplines me to think clearly. With notes or bullet points, I may think I have understood it; but it is only when I put it in English that I realize I haven’t yet got it clear and logical! I go through it with a highlighter and then speak more freely.
7. What are the greatest perils that preacher must avoid?
(a) The more competent we become at exegesis, sermon construction, illustration, etc, the easier it is to produce a ‘correct’ sermon where the text has not impacted my own heart. This is a particular danger when we are under time pressure. I find that it is when I have prayed the truth into my own heart, so that my mind, my affections and my will have been gripped by it, that I can preach with conviction.
(b) It is so easy to slip back from the grace of God in the gospel of Christ, to a moralism that simply exhorts. We think that proper ‘application’ must mean telling our hearers to do something, when in fact it is wonderful application to be gripped by the wonder of the gospel of grace.
(c) In particular, the Old Testament must be preached through the lens of Jesus Christ. It makes no sense without him.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (eg. pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)
With great difficulty. I try to make sure I do some bible preparation early in the day if I can. Even if the day is then swamped with other responsibilities, the fact that I have started helps me begin to get to grips with the text. Sometimes I manage to get away for sustained preparation in a different place; that is a wonderful blessing. But even then I have to fight the addictive power of e-mails, reading interesting blogs (like this one), dipping in and out of social networks etc etc.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
John Stott’s I believe in Preaching was a tremendous stimulus to me some years ago. The essays in When God’s Voice is Heard (eds C.Green and D.Jackman) did me good, especially Jim Packer’s superb essay on the value of systematic theology for preaching. I love dipping into the sermons of John Chrysostom – so courageous and with such wonderfully vigorous illustrations! Spurgeon’sLectures to my Students – full of practical wisdom and great humour. I trained in ministry under Mark Ashton in Cambridge and learned much from him about application that challenges and gets under the radar defences of the hearers.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I guess this is my job at PT Cornhill. I spend most of my life trying to do this and am glad to be doing so

Friday, 1 June 2012

Sitting Exams to the Glory of God

This week I sat my last exams at theological college. This has prompted me to think back over some of the key Bible truths that have sustained me through exams over the last 4 years of my time at college. Over a year ago I wrote a short piece called The Gospel and The Exam Hall, as a reminder of these important truths. Since it is again the season for exams, I thought I would post it again as an encouragement to others still in the midst of exams. Here is the article in full:
One of the experiences that comes with being at theological college is that of learning to sit exams all over again. The experience of sitting in the exam room is something I've not had since I've left school. Therefore, one of the challenges that this has given me is the opportunity to wrestle with the question: 'How do I sit exams to the glory of God?' What does it look like to sit exams as a Christian, and how ought the gospel shape the way we prepare for and participate in exams?

The following is not a 'How To...' guide for sitting exams. Rather, it is a reminder of some Bible truths that we need to remember as exams approach, either for those of us who are sitting exams, or for those of us seeking to encourage and minister to those preparing to sit exams (such as parents, youth workers, student workers etc.). They are truths that we ought to allow to shape us as we prepare to sit exams as a Christian.

Here are four truths for the Christian to remember in the exam hall:

1) Remember that the only exam that matters has already been passed for us
One of the great dangers the Christian faces in sitting exams is the temptation to seek acceptance from exam grades. We can be tempted to see good exam grades as the grounds for our standing before God and before others. In short we can be tempted to seek justification by exam grades.

However, the gospel reminds us that the only exam that truly matters has already been passed for us in our place. If we are a Christian, then we have full acceptance before God. This is not because of anything in ourselves, or anything that we have done. It is only because if the work of Christ on our behalf. He has lived the perfect life and died the perfect death, taking the punishment for our sin in our place, in obedience to the Father. It is through faith in Him that we are counted as perfectly righteous before God. (Romans 3:28). Everything needed for our acceptance before God has been accomplished in Christ. If we are trusting in Jesus alone we cannot be more accepted by God than we already are.

In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says this: "For our sake [God] made made him [ie. Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Jesus is the only one ever who "knew no sin", that is he never sinned. He perfectly obeyed His Father, even to the point of the most humiliating death, death on a cross taking upon Himself the just anger of God in the place of sinners (Philippians 2:8). Yet, at the cross our sin was counted as His and He took the punishment our sins deserve. This is why Paul says that God "made him to be sin". He was counted as the worst sinner as he bore our sins in our place on the cross. he did this "so that in him we might become the righteousness of God". That is, so that we might be counted as perfect before God. Our guilty record has been counted to Him, and His perfect record has been counted to us if we are "in him", if we are those who are united to Him by faith.

This means that, as we walk into the exam hall, we already have ultimate acceptance if we are a Christian. The ultimate exam has already been passed for us by Jesus. Therefore, it ultimately does not matter how well or how badly we do in the exam. We already have ultimate acceptance, and nothing that happens in the exam room (or in absolutely any other context) can change that.

This helps guard against two dangers for us in sitting exams: pride and despair. It guards against pride because the fact that all, regardless of their background, are justified by God's grace alone through faith in Christ alone puts us all on a level playing field. All are equally sinners and deserving of God's wrath (Romans 3:23), and all are declared to be in the right before God, not by anything we have done, but by coming to Jesus with empty hands and trusting in Him alone. It guards against despair because whatever happens in the exam, even if we fail miserably, we still have ultimate acceptance. That acceptance does not depend on anything in ourselves, in our performance or skills, but on God alone. It depends on the perfect finished work of Jesus. 

2) Remember that hard work glorifies God
Because we have been accepted by God through Jesus, this frees us up to work hard for His glory. We do not work in order to be accpted by Him, but precisely because we have been accepted by Him. We have been saved by Jesus in order to do good works, which He has prepared in advance for us to walk in (Ephesians 2:10).

This means that wherever we find God has placed us in life we are to work hard for His glory. Paul calls the slaves in Colosse in whatever they do to "work heartily, as for the Lord and not to men." This is true of whatever work we find ourselves in (it obviously rules us out from certain jobs, since there are some occupations which we cannot do to God's glory, since they are inescapably sinful).

This means that when it comes to working for exams we are to be those who "work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men." (Colossians 3:23). We are to give ourselves to working dilligently. This is not in order to look good in front of others, to please men. Rather, it is on order to bring glory to God. When we find ourselves tempted to cut corners or to take that easy route out, let us remind ourselves that hard work glorifies God. Therefore we are give ourselves to dilligent work in the position in life that God has placed us, and to do so in a way that brings glory and honour to God and not to ourselves.

3) Remember that taking time to rest glorifies God
As we saw above, hard work glorifies God. However, it is just as important to recognise that we also glorify God by resting. Our hard work can become an ungodly trusting in ourselves if we do not take the time to rest.

We need to recognise the truth that God is God and we are not. He is the one who is in absolute control of absolutely everything, not us. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is sustaining the universe by His word (Hebrews 1:3). The only reason that the universe is still in existence is because He is sustaining it. The only reason that our heart is still beating is because He is sustaining it. Everything in this universe is fully under God's control from the largest to the smallest thing; from the revolving of the planets in the solar system, to the slightest stroke of a pen on the exam paper. Nothing is outside His control.

We need to acknowledge this. One of the ways in which we acknowledge this is by taking time out to rest. When we rest we are saying: "You are God and I am not, you are ultimately in control and I am not." The Psalm 127:1-2 tells us: 
Unless the LORD builds the house, 
those who build it labour in vain. 
Unless the LORD watches over the city, 
the watchman stays awake in vain. 
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, 
eating the bread of anxious toil; 
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
We can spend days doing "all-nighters", yet all this will make no difference unless God prospers what we do. He is in control we are not. Excessive hard work can be a sign that we are not trusting God, that we think that what we do relies solely on our strength. When we clock off to make sure we get a full nights sleep, or when we set aside that day off once a week, it is a way of reminding ourselves that He is in control and that we are trusting Him. He can be trusted. Whatever happens in our exams is under His sovereign control, and He is working all things for the good of His people to make them more like Jesus (Romans 8:28).

Therefore, we glorify Him, not by spending time worrying and fretting over our exams and working endlessly through the night. No, we glorify Him by trusting Him. Trusting Him that He has given us the time and resources for what we need. Inded He has given us all we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). One of the ways that we show we trust Him is by taking time to rest (and to allow others to rest), showing that we recognise that He is in control not us.

4) Remember that exams are not an excuse to neglect godliness
In light of the abundant mercy that God has shown us in Christ, we are called present ourselves to God as living sacrifices, set apart for His service and pleasing to Him (Romans 12:1). This call to be living sacrifices is something that is to shape every area of our lives, and to do so all the time.

However, we still want to make excuses for neglecting to do this, and our sinful nature loves to take any opportunity to keep us from godliness. So often the exam season can be seen as a legitimate excuse for doing this. Instead of taking time to nourish ourselves by feeding from the Bible, we find ourselves thinking, "It doesn't really matter if I leave that to one side for a couple of weeks, I can survive without it." Instead of recognising that we are utterly dependant upon God for all things by pouring ourselves out before Him in prayer, we plough on in self-confidence thinking "I don't have time for that right now." Instead of giving ourselves to sacraficially serve others, we think that because I'm doing exams others are there to serve me. This is sin.

We must recognise that it is precisely during such pressured times that we need to be working hard at godliness. We need the word of God more than we need our food (Matthew 4:4), and we wouldn't stop eating for two weeks just because we're busy with study. We need to be constantly coming to God's throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16), to "recieve mercy and find grace" to persevere in the Christian life, and live in such a way that exalts Jesus. We ought to be daily shaped by the gospel so that we are constantly laying down our lives in the service of others, which brings glory to Jesus as it reflects His unique and ultimate sacrifice at the cross (Philippians 2:1-11). As those who belong to Christ, we are called to have the same mindset as our King (Philippians 2:5), and therefore gladly lay down our lives in the service of others, seeking their good (Philippians 2:3-4; 1 John 3:16).

Therefore, when the pressure of exams starts to build, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to neglect godliness, we ought to be on our guard all the more. It is a time when neglecting godliness becomes much more attractive, and we might even find others encouraging us to do so. Thus, we need to work all the more at loving Jesus and loving others, of making godliness a priority and not letting it get lost among the revision notes.

Keeping these four truths in mind let us be those who use the exam hall as a place to magnify the supreme worth of the Lord Jesus. Whatever we do let us do it "all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).