Preaching to the Late Modern Mind: Five Cultural Narratives to Know

preachingIn his book Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller addresses how Christianity confronts culture. Wisely he speaks of the way we must (1) affirm truth in culture, (2) confront idols in culture, and (3) show how truth in culture is derived from and only satisfied by the Christ who reigns supreme over all cultures. Thus, instead of just being for or against culture, Keller describes a “Yes, but no, but yes” approach for preaching Christ to culture.

Approaching culture in this nuanced way means understanding the modern world in which we live. In a chapter entitled “Preaching and the (Late) Modern Mind,” he describes the difference between the pagan, pre-Christian world and the way in which Christianity brought dignity and personal value to the West. In other words, before Christianity emerged in the West, the pagan world with its philosophers conceived of the world as an impersonal universe. Belief in a tri-personal God, sovereignly directing history and seeking to redeem humanity changed all of that. And the bounty of the Western world, therefore, is a byproduct of Christianity’s influence.

In one place, Keller nicely summarizes five differences between the pre-Christian world with the Christian West. He then goes on to explain how secularism has taken Christian values to the extreme, making them idolatrous falsehoods. But in explaining how Christian values have gone rogue, he doesn’t include them in his compact table. On page 128, there is one column missing (that would help flesh out his argument on pp. 128–33).

So, I added the third column to the table below to help show the way in which the West has left Christianity behind and distorted many of the values it provided. By seeing in our culture post-Christian culture the traces of Christian thought, we can as Keller points out, begin to lead people back to the source of the values (e.g., science, individualism, personal choice) they embrace today. Indeed, if you value and enjoy science, justice, or personal choice today, it is worth noting where those cultural gifts derive. Keller’s chapter on preaching Christ to culture is an excellent place to begin thinking about that relationship.

Five Chief Narratives of Western Thought[1]

Before Christianity Emerged [in the West] After Christianity Came to the West After Christianity ‘Left’ the West
The body and material world are less important and real than the realm of ideas The body and material world are good. Improving them is important. Science is possible. Science is absolute. Materialism is absolute. Technology is sufficient to solve our problems.
History is cyclical, with no direction. History is making progress. Progress means history is unimportant. Everything novel is superior to the past.
Individuals are unimportant. Only the clan and tribe matter. All individuals are important, have dignity, and deserve our help and respect. Individuals are supremely important. Individualistic expression should never be questioned, even when detrimental to the group.
Human choices don’t matter; we are fated. Human choices matter and we are responsible for our actions. Choice is sancrosanct and must be guarded and guaranteed at all costs.
Emotions and feelings should not be explored, only overcome. Emotions and feelings are good and important. They should be understood and directed. Emotions and feelings are determinative. To feel authentic I must express my desires and never suppress them.

In sum, these “five axes,” which Keller adapts from Charles Taylor (The Secular Age), help diagnose some of the challenges in front of us. Together these five narratives can be classified as follows:

  • rationality (and an explanation of where the world came from and what we can know about it),
  • history (and the meaning of life),
  • society (and the relationship of individuals to groups),
  • morality (and who gets to determine right and wrong), and
  • identity (and where we get our sense of value and purpose).

To be sure, these realities do not drive our exegesis of the biblical text, but in communicating that text to others we must be aware of these ideas. Knowing these cultural baselines helps us affirm and deny the beliefs we find in individuals and in our surrounding culture. Preachers must be aware of these realities to wisely apply God’s Word.

Indeed, all Christians should have a growing awareness of cultural presuppositions. Why? So that we will not be ensnared by them, and so we can communicate the gospel by rightly affirming some cultural desires as finding their telos in Christ and by confronting others cultural idols as errant promises that ultimately lead to death (Prov. 14:12).

In short, Keller’s sections on preaching Christ in a post-Christian culture are worth considering. They challenge the faithful witness to love his neighbor(s) by knowing what his neighbor believes and loves. Therefore, while planting ourselves in God’s unchanging Word, we must also learn how to share Christ with others who embrace various aspects of the aforementioned narratives.

To that end, let us continue to give ourselves the Word and the world, so that we can take the good news of the former to meet the dire needs of the latter.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

_________________

[1] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 128. First two columns are verbatim; the last column summaries Keller’s prose.

The Horizontal and Vertical Gospel

When I share the gospel at our Discover OBC Class—our new members class—I usually talk about the gospel from two angles. One follows the contours of the ‘horizontal’ storyline of Scripture (Creation — Fall — Redemption — New Creation); the other focuses on the ‘vertical’ relationship with God (Holy God — Man Dead in Sin — Christ — Response). For me, this has been a helpful way to present the gospel, as it sets the person and work of Jesus into the storyline of the Bible.

Typically, I draw these two aspects of the gospel on a whiteboard or a napkin. But this week one of our elders put those presentations into two graphic designs—far better than any napkin I’ve drawn. Here they are. I think they speak for themselves, but feel free to ask questions or suggest enhancements. But even better, go share the gospel with someone—from the whole storyline of the Bible and its centerpiece the person and work of Jesus Christ.

horizontal02vertical01

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Playing Your Part in the Gospel (pt. 1): Planning, Giving, Going, Hosting, Helping (1 Corinthians 16:1–11)

sermon photo

Playing Your Part in the Gospel (pt. 1): Planning, Giving, Going, Hosting, and Helping (1 Corinthians 16:1–11)

When Paul finishes his doctrinal defense of the resurrection, he says, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (15:58). Clearly, in his mind the resurrection is not an esoteric point of doctrine; rather, it fuels ministry and missions. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 16 we find a flurry of gospel activity that prompts us to consider how we are living in light of the resurrection.

In this Sunday’s message, I suggested that we play our part in (proclaiming) the gospel through planning, going, giving, hosting, and helping. You can listen to this call to action or read the sermon notes. Discussion questions are below, as are a cadre of resources on these actions of ministry. Continue reading

The Resurrection: Historical, Necessary, and More Than Sufficient (1 Corinthians 15:12–20)

obc-1 corinthiansThe Resurrection: Historical, Necessary, and More Than Sufficient (1 Corinthians 15:12–20)

Is the resurrection necessary? Evangelicals Christians say, “Absolutely. Undoubtedly. No question.” Other “Christians,” Protestant Liberals, are less committed. Who’s right? 

Thankfully, the Bible is not indifferent or ambiguous to the question. In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul spends an entire chapter arguing for the centrality of the resurrection. Last week, we saw how verses 1–11 articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified, buried, risen, and reigning. This week,  we examined how verses 12–19 address the question of the resurrection’s historicity, necessity, and sufficiency.  In particular, we find in the historical necessity of the resurrection a sufficient foundation for our hope and a word of life to anyone facing death.

You can listen to sermon online or read the sermon here. Below there are discussion questions and resources for further study. Continue reading

Framing the Gospel: Four Biblical Truths For Rightly Proclaiming and Protecting the Gospel

framesFor the gospel of God to remain in focus it needs a frame. That is to say, if we are going to proclaim Christ clearly and consistently, we must understand the biblical presuppositions necessary to preserve and protect the gospel. In particular, the gospel needs at least four truths to guard it from distortion. These truths do not add anything to the gospel, but they do ensure that nothing is taken away from the gospel.

What are these ‘framing’ truths?

From 1 Corinthians 15, I believe Paul explains the gospel as needing to be kept (1) central, (2), external, (3) Scriptural, and (4) historical. Without these four frames the gospel will be put in jeopardy. Therefore, to better understand the biblical presuppositions with undergird the gospel, let’s consider each of these truths briefly and then what happens when they are lost. Continue reading

No Other Gospel: Reflections from The Gospel Coalition

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
— Galatians 6:14 —

For three days this week, ten of us from Occoquan Bible Church traveled to Indianapolis to join 8,500 other followers of Christ at The Gospel Coalition’s bi-annual gathering. This year we celebrated the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and its recovery of the gospel. The theme of this week’s conference was “No Other Gospel” and in less than 72 hours we heard six messages from Galatians and three messages on the historical figures of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformation heroes, including the women who contributed to the Reformation. We also sat in on countless breakout sessions related to church history and practical ministry. In all it was a much needed time of refreshment and recalibration.

In all, our trip to Indy was an encouraging time of worship, fellowship, and learning. I benefitted most from John Piper’s opening message on Galatians 1 and Tim Keller’s closing message on Galatians 6. In particular, Keller’s connection between boasting in the cross (Galatians 6:14) and spiritual transformation was powerful.

His point was this: It is not enough to know about Christ and his cross. If one wants to be changed—i.e., freed from sin and full on grace—he or she must boast in the cross. This means verbal praise but even more, it is a confidence in life that taunts all other competitors and presses deeper into Christ. There is nothing more glorious than Christ and his cross, the message of the gospel. As we cling to that truth and boast about that reality above all others, God will change us.

With that in mind, let me share a few more observations from the men who went to Indy. Hear them boast in Christ, his cross, and the chance to devote three days to worshiping. Let it spur you on and encourage you to listen to the sessions online or to join us next year. Continue reading

‘Power’ in Paul’s Letters: How Apostolic Miracles Magnify the Gospel Message

powerWhat does Paul think of power? How does he define it? When he speaks of “the working of miracles” (1 Corinthians 12:10), does he have modern charismatic signs in mind or something else? When Paul speaks of power, what is he talking about?

These are just a few questions we need to ask when we consider the word dunamis in Paul’s letters. And fortunatley, it is not too difficult to find what Paul thinks about this word, for he uses it often. However, if we come with preconceived ideas about “power evangelism” or “charismatic gifts” we might be less able to see what he originally meant. So lets consider what he says.

Power in Romans: The Gospel Defines Paul’s Understanding of Power

In Romans Paul begins with the gospel. Romans 1:1–7 defines Paul’s apostleship in terms of the gospel and Romans 1–-11 give us the fullest explanation of the gospel in Scripture. First, in Romans 1:4 Paul speaks of the power of the Holy Spirit to raise Christ from the dead, a reality that will shape Paul’s understanding of the gospel (and its effects) through all his letters. Then second, he defines the gospel as a matter of power in Romans 1:16–17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For Paul the gospel is the way in which God’s power brings salvation to sinners. The power of God raises the dead to life, beginning with Christ, and does the unthinkable: it declares the guilty “innocent” and the dead “alive.” Because righteousness and life are related in Paul’s thinking (see e.g., Romans 5:18–19), it is not surprising that justification requires the very power that raised Jesus from the dead. Continue reading

Learning to See the Beauty of a Gospel-Centered Church

churchThis Sunday we start up a new cycle of membership classes at our church, what we call Discover OBC. And in our first part we look at the Gospel and the Church. I love teaching about these two subjects, because they are at the core of Christianity. The gospel is the message which brings hope to a sinful world; the church is the community created by that gospel and commissioned to protect and proclaim that gospel so that the whole world might hear of King Jesus.

I love the gospel and the church, and I can’t wait to teach about them Sunday. But it wasn’t always that way.

How Do You See the Church?

Admittedly, for me, I was slow to understand and appreciate the importance and beauty of the local church. In high school and college, I came to faith, began sharing the gospel, and learning how the Word of God impacted all of life. In this time, church was important, but only as an extension of my individual Christianity.

For me church was an a la carte affair. I was committed to worshiping on Sunday, but not to any particular church. As long as I heard the Bible somewhere, that was enough. I was committed to evangelism and discipleship, but I did not see them as necessarily connected to the local church. As long as the gospel was going forward, surely that was enough. Right? What did the local church matter?

Well, near the end of college I “sensed the need” to join a church. I didn’t have any biblical reasons for the desire; it was just something I felt. (N.B. I am glad for this decision, but I don’t think it is the way the Bible teaches us to make decisions). After five years of walking with Jesus, I moved across the country to join a Bible-teaching, elder-led local church. And “attach” is probably the right term, because I still conceived of the church as the place individuals attach themselves to one another, more than a covenant community created by Jesus and bound by his Spirit.

As I look back, I realize how much I conceived of the church and Christianity in radically individualistic ways. I had come to believe the gospel, but the operating system of my life was still the expressive individualism I inherited from my culture. Not surprisingly, this is how I approached church. Even after joining the church, I still approached church this way. It wasn’t until I began to study the Scriptures on the matter, that I began to see that the Bible was and is at odds with the individualistic Christianity that I first adopted.

Four Metaphors for the Church

Most helpful to me in understanding what the Bible says about church were the many metaphors Scripture gives to us about the church. For instance, 1 Timothy 3:15 says we are God’s household; 1 Corinthians 12 calls us the body of Christ; Ephesians 5 likens us to Christ’s bride; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19 describes us as God’s temple; Ephesians 2:19–22 says the same thing; and 1 Peter 2:5, 9 adds that each of us are living stones in that temple. I have written about these things before and will cover them in our new members class, but today I want to suggest four others word-pictures that might help you and I think about what church is and isn’t.

  • First, the church is a family home not a spiritual hotel. That is, the church is not an amenity-filled temporary residence; it is meant to be a long-term, family-filled gathering place where we do life together. While our culture teaches us to be consumers, a church based on God’s Word teaches us to be brothers and sisters.
  • Second, the church is a military outpost, not an earthly resort. While there is a place for retreat and rest, the church is a royal embassy engaged in spiritual warfare. Therefore, we come to church not just to escape, but to be equipped and to work together to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom to a hostile world.
  • Third, the church is a heavenly practice, not an earthly pit-stop. On a long journey, rest is needed. But if we treat church as merely the rest on our journey, we miss that church is actually the goal, not the pit stop we take on the way to something else. More accurately, gathering to worship and fellowship is the way we practice our everlasting life. It is not given to merely assist us in earthly labors; it is meant to subvert earthly labors as it teaches us to store up treasures in heaven. In this vein, God may be calling you to use your gifts to build up the body of Christ, imperfect as it is, rather than using your GPS to find the service that best meets all our needs. But to embrace that we must remember the church is not yet perfect.
  • Fourth, the local church is a temporary shadow, not the full and final substance. How often do we complain (if only in our hearts) that church is not like we want it? In truth, this is how it will always be. Until all of God’s people, from all ages and all places, are gathered around the throne room, we will experience the thorns and thistles of this age—even in the church. Therefore, it may help to remember that our local assemblies are but grace-filled shadows of God’s ultimate goal—a new creation filled with resurrected saints.

Indeed, these kinds of word-pictures have helped me think more clearly about the biblical picture of the church. Based on the metaphors of Scripture, they have enlarged my heart for the church—in all of its grace and grit. A gospel-centered church is truly a beautiful creation. I pray these images will help you see its beauty and mission as well.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

What Death Steals, the Lord Can Restore: Remembering Easter at Christmas (Matthew 2:16–18)

advent03Few passages of Scripture are heavier than Matthew 2:16–18, the historical account of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children in Bethlehem. But few passages are also able to reach the depths of human loss and comfort the grieving in their deepest pain.

When read in conjunction with Jeremiah 31:15, which Matthew quotes in verse 18, we find in Matthew’s Gospel a promise of resurrection—even at Christmas time. In other words, God promises that what death steals, the Lord has recover through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And all who trust in him can experience his resurrection life.

If you are feeling the soul-crushing effects of sin and death, I pray this message might bring you encouragement. You can listen to or read the sermon notes online. Discussion questions are below, along with some further resources. But first, let me encourage you to take eleven minutes to watch this video by John Piper. In it Piper the theologian-poet reads from his story of the Innkeeper, a fictitious but faithful story of the effects of Herod’s rage on the residents of Bethlehem.

As much as we want to turn away from such pain, we need to embrace the power of the resurrection to heal us and help us in our loss. May God be pleased to use these resources to bring comfort to you.

Continue reading

The Law and the Gospel: What God Has Joined Together, Let No Man Separate

john

In an effort to emphasize grace, many gospel preachers have fallen into the trap of denying the law. Formally, this is called antinomianism, a condition that has often plagued Reformed preachers of grace. While popularly, antinomianism often arises as preachers or believers eschew the shackles of legalism, it is more fundamentally a case where grace itself is misunderstood.

Recently, in reading Sinclair Ferguson’s historical, theological, and pastoral book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, I have been reminded of the importance of making this point. Antinomianism is not so much the opposite of legalism (nor the reverse). Rather, legalism and antinomianism are both fundamental misunderstandings the gospel, the way the law leads to the gospel (see Romans 3:21; 1 Timothy 1:8–11), and the way in which the gospel fulfills the need created by the law—namely, a righteousness that comes by faith (not works of the law), but which also esteems the law as it is written on the heart of those who believe the gospel.

I hope you can see that the relationship between law and gospel is more complex than simple supersession or discontinuity. In what follows, I will draw from The Whole Christ to help show how law leads to gospel and gospel pardons from legal guilt and empowers to obey the law. Continue reading