Preach the Manuscript: Ten Ways to Improve Sermon Delivery

jesusA few years ago I led an online class on the subject of preaching. As expected, we discussed all sorts of questions pertaining to preaching—sermon length, the use of illustrations, the necessity of expositional preaching, as well as how to preach Christ from the whole Bible. Among these conversations, we discussed the place for manuscripts over against using or not using notes.

In seminary, I learned from two gifted preachers who both taught that manuscripts were not helpful for preaching. For the first few years of pastoring, I followed their advice and brought into the pulpit four to five half-sheets of notes. This taught me how to preach to people and not just read notes. But a few years in, I deviated from their counsel and now manuscript all my sermons.

That said, I strive to preach the manuscript and not just read it. In using a manuscript, I value the clarity and forethought I can put into the message. And ultimately, that is why I change to a manuscript somewhere around 2011. At the same time, manuscripting does lend itself to a dry delivery. Still, I believe the benefits of manuscripting outweigh the costs, so long as preachers learn to do more than read their notes. To that end, here are ten things I’ve learned in preaching a manuscript that might help others who use a manuscript. Continue reading

A Secular Sacrament: Why Mandates Violate Liberty of Conscience and Enforce a New Religion

pexels-photo-3671145.jpeg

Since the Biden Administration mandated soldiers and federal workers to be fully vaccinated, while also requiring private businesses larger than 100 employees to require vaccines, chaos has ensued. Defending the freedoms of Americans, many have begun to address the constitutional problems this mandate creates.[1] Others have begun seeking a religious exemption for this mandate based upon the fetal cells used in the research and production of these vaccines.[2] Still others object to the mandates because they have already contracted Covid, have natural immunity, and believe (with a long history immunology supporting them) that taking a vaccine is unnecessary and may be potentially harmful to their body.[3]

At the same time, other Americans, and many Christians among them, have opted to get the vaccine, even arguing for its morality. Add to this the difference between seeking a vaccine exemption on medical grounds versus moral and religious grounds, and the complexity multiplies.[4] Not surprisingly, with all of these arguments out there, people of faith are led to ask: What should I do?

To answer that question, I am putting myself in the shoes of the men and women in the military and federal government who are now ordered to get vaccinated. Some of them have willingly received the vaccine, and done so in faith. Many others, however, are not able to receive the vaccine in faith. As I have spoken to church members and other Christians about this, many are crushed in spirit at the thought of injecting a serum that has come about by the use of stem cell lines that ultimately trace back to cells derived from aborted babies. Others are not bound in conscience by the use of fetal cell lines, but are nevertheless are unable to take the vaccine in good faith. It is for this latter category, I am writing. 

In what follows, I offer a twofold argument for why this vaccine mandate should lead some men andfauci women to seek a religious exemption (not just a medical exemption). These two arguments are based upon a genuinely held religious belief that this mandate (1) eliminates the free exercise of their faith and (2) forces upon them the faith another religion. Along the way, I will show why this vaccine and its accompanying mandate is different in nature than previous vaccines. Unlike previous vaccines, like Jonathan Salk’s polio vaccine or the more recent anthrax vaccine, the Covid vaccine comes with a moral imperative that is downright religious, complete with Fauci prayer candles and vaccine jewelry.

At the outset, I admit that this argument may not resonate with everyone, and that is fine. I am not writing to persuade everyone to seek a religious exemption. Seeking a religious exemption is deeply personal and should be based on one’s genuinely held beliefs. So, I am not seeking to bind anyone’s conscience regarding the vaccine. At our church, we have labored hard to stress the liberty Christians have to receive or reject the vaccine, because we really believe that one’s health care decisions are matters of personal responsibility and liberty, not public morality and coercion.

That said, as a pastor with many members seeking religious exemptions, I am writing to Christians to offer biblical rationale for why Christians can—and in many cases should—seek a religious exemption. So, to the text of Scripture we go. Continue reading

It Is Finished: Beholding the Cross of Christ from All of Scripture

Have you ever watched a new movie, where you started 10 minutes before the end?

Many years ago, when big hair was still in style, I was introduced to Back to the Future in this way. My friends were watching this movie and I joined them at point where Doc Brown crashed through garbage cans, warned Marty and his girlfriend about their future children, and drove to a place where “we don’t need roads.”

If you only know the last ten minutes of Back to the Future, however, you won’t understand the significance of the DeLorean, the date (November 5, 1955), the speed (88 miles per hour), or the electricity (1.21 Gigawatts) that makes time travel possible. Nor will you understand the flux capacitor and its cruciform power to rewrite history. All of these details are revealed over the course of the movie and only in watching the movie from beginning to end, can you make sense of its ending. 

Something similar happens when we open our Bibles and behold the man hung upon a Roman cross. While many well-intentioned evangelists point to Christ’s cross as the center piece of our Christian faith and the way of our salvation, it is an event in history that only makes sense when you begin in the beginning. That Christ was buried in a garden tomb does more than give us an historical referent; it tells the significance of Christ’s death as the way of God’s new creation, because after all it was in a garden where Adam sinned and brought death to the world. Now, raised from a garden tomb, Jesus as the new Adam has introduced a new way of life.

In this vein, the biblical storyline is necessary for understanding why the Son of God had to die on a tree, be buried in a tomb, and raised to life on the third day. Indeed, even if we know that Christ did not stay dead—that he rose from the grave, walked the earth teaching his disciples for forty days, and ascended to heaven, where he now sits in glory—we cannot make sense of the cross. Or at least, our interest in Christ’s death and resurrection leads us to ask: But what does it mean?

Indeed, the way to understand Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is to place those events in the timeline of God’s redemptive history. That timeline begins in creation, proceeds through the fall of mankind into sin, and picks up countless promises of grace and types of salvation throughout the Old Testament. In fact, to be most precise, God’s plan for Christ’s cross did not begin in space and time; it began before God spoke light into the darkness (Gen. 1:3). As Peter says in his first sermon (Acts 2:23) and his first epistle (1 Peter 1:20), the cross of Christ was the centerpiece of God’s eternal plan for the salvation of his people.

In Scripture, therefore, the cross is the climactic work of God to redeem sinners and rescue the dying. Indeed, while Jesus now reigns in glory, and his victorious resurrection gives assurance that all those who trust in him will have eternal life, it is vital to understand what Christ did on the cross and what it means when Christ said on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Continue reading

On Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and Policy Changes: A Pastoral Rationale for Speaking Out Loud and In Public

patrick-fore-5YU0uZh43Bk-unsplashPhoto by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Over the last five years, Critical Race Theory has become a hot button issue in our country and among Christians. Concerning the latter, local churches are breaking apart, as pastors are—or are perceived to be—adding elements of social justice to the message of the gospel. Larger organizations too—seminaries, denominations, etc.—have had to debate the issue of social justice and Critical Race Theory. And to date, the results have not born the peaceful fruit of righteousness.

Part of the reason for this division is that those advocating CRT—in part or in whole—are imbibing a way of thinking that is intended to divide and deconstruct. Conversely, many who respond to CRT do so with the same spirit of anger and division. Hence, the dumpster fire that is the current state of evangelicalism. We will save comment on the church for another day, but suffice it to say, the division caused by CRT is significant and growing.

Outside the church, CRT continues to be just as divisive. For instance, local school board meetings have become battle grounds for what will be taught about America and the history racism. Companies large and small are virtual signaling their wokeness by celebrating equity and inclusion and canceling those who will not join them. And more to the point of this post, federal, state, and local agencies are introducing policies that champion the ideas of CRT and the tools of Intersectionality.

Our county is one of those places where the tenets and tools of CRT are trying to be implemented. And recently, our Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) invited public comment on their new 10-page Equity and Inclusion Policy. As a resident interested in this subject and its impact on the church and its freedom to live and move and have its being in our increasingly secular age, I took time to read the proposed document and comment on it. What follows on this post is my letter to the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.

I share this as a model of what it might look like to speak up for truth in the public square. As a resident whose convictions lead him to have massive concerns with the proposal, and a Christian who is called to seek the welfare of the city (Jer. 29:7), it leads me to speak. I also encouraged other church members to do the same. Maybe I’ll share more of my biblical rationale for that later, but here’s my pastoral rationale. Continue reading

“But He Just Gets Me”: Three Responses to Pragmatic Arguments for Plagiarism (pt. 2)

sean-foster-jrazH5W7niA-unsplashYesterday, I responded to two pragmatic arguments that are being offered in defense of preaching the sermons of another pastor. Today, I’m adding a third response to the pragmatic defense of ‘borrowing’ sermons. 

3. The Spirit of holiness cannot bless lawbreaking

In the Ten Commandments, the final three are these (Exod. 20:15–17)

“You shall not steal.

 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s [sermon]; . . . anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Okay, “sermon” is not in the original, but sermons would fit under the category of “anything that is your neighbors.” Written by Spirit-led men who study the Scriptures, the sermon is a gift that pastors give to their congregations. In this way, a sermon should not be understood as “his own.” Possessiveness is never a healthy habit for pastors.

That being said, sermons are the intellectual property of the preacher, and should be treated as such. Thus, to preach someone else’s sermon breaks either the eighth, ninth, or tenth commandments, if not all of them. To see this, let’s consider each in order. Continue reading

The Sermon Begins in *Your* Study: Why ‘Apt to Teach’ Means More Than ‘Apt to Speak’

alexander-michl-g8PFVtzzkYA-unsplashFor Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord,
and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.
— Ezra 7:10 —

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,
sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, . . .
— 1 Timothy 3:2 —

Earlier this week, I sat in a room full of pastors talking about preaching, plagiarism, and what it means to be “apt to teach,” the qualification for elders in 1 Timothy 3:2. And I made the point that being “apt to teach” and “apt to speak” are not the same thing. And I made the point because it seems as though there is a great confusion about what it takes to be a pastor today.

Can someone be a pastor if they are a good communicator? Or should someone be a pastor because they are biblically qualified? And what do the biblical qualifications entail, anyways? 

In some circles, being a good communicator seems to be the sine qua non of the pastoral office. If someone can communicate well, then they have what it takes to be a preacher. Never mind their other weaknesses, if they can communicate in a way that really connects, then they are a great cornerstone to building a vibrant church. (Please compare Ephesians 2:20 and note the irony!)

By contrast, Scripture gives a different and more complete picture. For instance, when defending his apostolic ministry, Paul testifies to his weakness in preaching. Addressing the super-apostles, whose speaking may have exceeded his own, Paul says of his critics, “For they say [of Paul], ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account’ (2 Cor. 10:10). Aware of his weakness(es), Paul defended his qualifications not by his charisma, but by his faithfulness to the truth and his suffering for that truth.

Today, such a perspective is under threat. For since the news broke concerning J.D. Greear and Ed Litton, I have heard much anecdotal testimony from various pastors that many large church leaders see themselves as communicators of the truth, more than shepherds of the flock or students of the Book. That’s my way of phrasing it, and it certainly doesn’t fit everyone. But with the popularity of groups like the Docent Research Group and Ministry Pass, as well as LifeWay’s large selection of manuscripts free for the taking, it seems that one reason why so little concern has been raised by Ed Litton’s use of J.D. Greear’s sermons is that pastors preaching the work of others is something of an evangelical cottage industry. (If I’m wrong, please show me).

For me, I’m not interested in doing the investigative reporting on this subject. I’ll leave that up to the Julie Roys and Warren Throckmorton’s of the evangelical world. What I am interested in is asking is this: Is it ever appropriate for a pastor to preach someone else’s sermon? Or, biblically speaking, is it a requisite qualification  to preach what one has learned from the personal study of his Word. Such a personal study of the Word,  where the minister of the Word encounters the God of the Word, is my personal conviction, and it was the conviction of all the pastors with whom I spoke this week.

But what does Scripture say? What does it mean to be “apt to teach”? And does teaching necessarily require the personal study of the Bible? Thankfully, Scripture is not silent about these questions, and by returning to the Pastoral Epistles we can find a solid answers to these questions.

Continue reading

On Plagiarism and Preachers: Why Plagiarizing Sermons is Popular, But Biblically Indefensible

nycholas-benaia-2wGjjX8Qb-g-unsplashIt seems, frankly, utterly unthinkable to me that authentic preaching would be the echo of another person’s encounter with God’s word rather than a trumpet blast of my own encounter with God’s word. Now to be sure, my sermon should be an echo. It should be an echo of the voice of God. But not an echo of an echo of the voice of God. So that is my conviction.
John Piper  —

When it comes to light that a pastor has been borrowing the work on another—what we might call plagiarism in the pulpit, sermon borrowing, retweeting, or any other euphemism for violating the seventh commandment—it is deeply troubling. But if that pastor has any influence on the life and ministry of other pastors, it is even worse, because it says to younger men, who are finding their way in the wilderness of pulpit ministry, that it is acceptable to use the work of others. 

To date, I can think of two pastors I knew personally who were fired for preaching someone else’s sermons. And I have heard many reports of the same. I can also think of many others whose ministries I have written off as unfaithful after learning that they were reheating the meals of others. And most recently, I have watched the unbelieving world make sport of God’s people because of plagiarism in the pulpit.

In recent days, it has come to light that the president of the SBC, Ed Litton, has been found retweeting sermon material from J.D. Greear. You can watch his expositions of Romans 1 and Romans 8, both of which demonstrate word-for-word dependence on Greear’s work. Both men have released statements explaining the matter (see here and here), but with 140+ sermons pulled from the Internet, more explanations are needed.

Without addressing the specifics of the Litton situation, I want to step back and ask the question: Is it wrong for a pastor to borrow material from another? What does it mean to plagiarize in the pulpit? Why is this such a common practice? And what does Scripture say?

To start with, I am not first to tackle this subject. Albert Mohler has discussed it, so have D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Justin Taylor and Andy Naselli (who lists many others). Letting Carson speak for the bunch, he expresses the severity of the problem.

Taking over another sermon and preaching it as if it were yours is always and unequivocally wrong, and if you do it you should resign or be fired immediately. The wickedness is along at least three axes: (1) You are stealing. (2) You are deceiving the people to whom you are preaching. (3) Perhaps worst, you are not devoting yourself to the study of the Bible to the end that God’s truth captures you, molds you, makes you a man of God and equips you to speak for him.

Carson’s words are severe. And they are matched by the severity of others listed above. Yet, the consensus of these evangelical leaders does not mean there is consensus on the issue. For on the trusty Internet, you will find James Merritt’s permission for plagiarism, websites selling pre-packaged sermons, and encouragement for pastors to partake in the practice of using the work of others.  Thus, in what follows, we need to answer three questions.

  1. What is Plagiarism? And does it apply to borrowing the work of another when permission is received and attribution given?
  2. Why is Plagiarism so prevalent today? Who is championing it?
  3. Is Plagiarism Biblically Defensible? (My answer: No, it is not!)

Answering these three questions, we can define our terms and evaluate from Scripture the practice of retweeting sermons. Continue reading

We Don’t Like Theology, Do We? Three Reflections from the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention

2021 Nashville-1500 x 500-Final BWe destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
— 2 Corinthians 10:5–6 —

It has been six years since I attended a Southern Baptist Convention, and seven since I wrote about it. But re-reading my reflections on the 2014 convention, I can only begin to describe the difference between those comparatively halcyon conventions and this one. While some reports may focus on the unifying leadership, the conventional conservatism, or the most diverse convention stage to date, as a pastor and theologian I find a host of reasons for concern. These concerns swirl around the refusal to engage theology for the sake of the gospel and the church. To be brief (and Baptist), let me make three points. Continue reading

One Assembly: A Biblical View of Gathering

worms eye view of spiral stained glass decors through the roof

This Sunday our church is making plans to go outside to hold one service in our parking lot. Last year, from May until November, we took up this practice in order to meet under Covid guidelines. Along the way, a strange (read: providential) thing happened: We saw in practice what we held to be true in theory, namely that the single gathering of God’s church is God’s good design for his local church.

Since our church entered its building in 2005, we have had two Sunday services. But over the last year, we have grown dissatisfied with this practice. We believe Scripture calls the church to assemble as one body, and we are now planning (in the present) and praying (for the future) for ways to assemble as one.

On our church blog, I explain some of the history that resulted in multiple services, but for this post, I want to consider a biblical argument for gathering as one assembly. In particular, I want to offer three reasons for a local church to hold one service, not multiple services, on the Lord’s Day—one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, and one from our contemporary non-application of Scripture. These three arguments do not exhaust the subject, but they do give us a place to begin thinking about how our decisions about assembling the church are not inconsequential. Just the opposite, how we gather says something about what we believe about God and his purposes in the world. To that end, let’s consider three reasons for gathering as one.

Continue reading

Obeying God and Obeying God’s Servants: Five Truths from 1 Peter 2:13–17 (pt. 2)

IMG_9704

In obedience to God, we gather and sing and testify to the risen Lord.

Yesterday, I began a two-part series on 1 Peter 2:13–17. I am trying to answer the question, What does submitting to governing authorities looks like? Especially, what does submitting to governing authorities look like when they are ruling in ways that oppose God and God’s Word? Previously, I have tackled this subject in Romans 13 (see herehere, and here),, but now I am considering the text of 1 Peter 2.

Yesterday, I began by parsing out the fact that submitting to governors means putting God first and obeying earthly rulers as an application of obeying God. Conversely, we do not define doing good as obedience to our governors (full stop). Rather, we are called to consider what the good is from the unchanging and ever-authoritative Word of God. Then, in obedience to God, we promote the good by obeying good laws. And lest it go unsaid, the goodness of the law is decided by God’s standards, not my personal preferences. I am not advocating a hedonistic approach to ethics: “Just do what feels good.” No, we must obey laws that pinch our desires. That being said, to do the good we will at times need to resist tyrants when they enforce laws, rules, and regulations that directly defy the commands of Scripture or lead us to violate our conscience in following God.

That’s where this argument started yesterday. We must put God first. Today, I will flesh out the idea of God’s preeminence by looking in more detail at 1 Peter 2:13–17. In his letter to the elect exiles of Asia Minor, Peter has much to say about obeying the emperor and governors. And when we read his words in the context of his whole letter, and apply them to our own situations, we will gain much wisdom for walking well with the Lord. To that end, let’s look at five truths about obeying God and obeying God’s servants. Continue reading