Archive for May, 2007

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Review: The Expository Genius of John Calvin

May 31, 2007

I love receiving books. But when someone sends me a book entitled “The Expository Genius of John Calvin” I’m verging on cartwheels. I am glad to say that having now read the book, I am no less enthusiastic.

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So what has me so enthused about Steve Lawson’s latest offering? For the full answer, I’ll organize my reflections into four sections: i) the content, ii) the book’s commendable aspects, iii) some minor criticisms, before finally iv) my recommendation.

i) Content
The book itself is the first installment of the proposed series: “A Long Line of Godly Men.” In due course, the plan is to cover other Christian worthies such as Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards and Charles H. Spurgeon. But here the focus is John Calvin.

While we associate this Reformer most closely with the city of Geneva and his massive tome “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”, here the spotlight falls upon Calvin’s preaching. Lawson’s goal is to consider “the distinguishing marks of his [Calvin’s] pulpit ministry… the core presuppositions that undergirded his biblical preaching, and …his personal preparation for preaching. In short, we will explore the distinguishing marks of Calvin’s expository genius.” (xiii)

In order to do this, Lawson begins with a helpful historical sketch of Calvin’s life and ministry. Next, he covers six broad sections that describe the Reformer’s preaching: Approaching the Pulpit (ch 2) deals with Calvin’s key theological pre-commitments, whilst Preparing the Preacher (ch 3) touches on his broader spiritual development, which inevitably enriched his preaching. The chapters Launching the Sermon (ch 4), Expounding the Text (ch 5), Crafting the Delivery (ch 6), Applying the Truth (ch7) and Concluding the Exposition (ch 8), then walk us chronologically through some specific aspects of Calvin’s preaching style.

Within these six chapters, Lawson pulls out thirty two distinctives of Calvin’s preaching. To give but a few examples: Calvin’s “sequential exposition” (#4), “direct beginnings” (#8), “literal interpretation” (#14), “provocative questions” (#20), and “succinct summation” (#30). Coverage of these distinctives vary somewhat in length, but are all relatively short summaries. Helpfully, they are replete with specific illustrations of the given point, drawn from Calvin’s sermons.

The closing chapter is both a passionate call to the church and a prayerful plea to God. May preachers of the Calvin variety once again arise in our day. No preacher could read these three short pages without getting tingles down their spine!

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ii) Commendable Aspects
There are many positives about this book, but I’ll limit myself to three. First, Lawson’s style will be an easy read for historians, pastors and layman alike. Lawson has aimed for an eminently readable treatment of the subject and he has certainly achieved it. Added to this, the brevity of the book (136 pages) means that it can be easily read at two or three sittings.

Second, the book balances well both the presuppositions that underpinned Calvin’s preaching (eg. his commitment to the sole authority of Scripture), and the methodology of his preaching method. It is quite common to read a book on preaching full of practical insights into sermon prep, with nothing said about the preacher’s view of the bible. But if the latter is wrong, arguably the former is inconsequential. On the other hand, it is possible to deal with a preachers theological pre-commitments, to the virtual exclusion of discussing his practical method. Lawson steers a middle course. Calvin’s preaching is presented in practical terms, but not as a shallow pragmatism rooted in the thin topsoil of theological error.

Thirdly, the very nature of the book (with 32 distinctives) means that it can easily be used as regularly consulted text book. One thought I had for future use was that this could read by a preaching pastor – or his team -over 32 weeks. What value there would be in considering one distinctive every week as a spur to discussing one’s own preaching.

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iii) Criticism.
There’s very little about this book of which one could speak critically. In fact, any minor quibble that I have relates only to the chosen genre, and so can hardly be classed as a legitimate gripe. For example, one could suggest that the book has something of an ‘introductory feel’, that it covers many aspects of Calvin’s preaching but to a fairly shallow degree. But Lawson’s work was never intended to be such a penetrating volume. This does mean however that there are places where you wish more had been said than the one tantalizing page before you!

In a similar fashion, there were places were I longed for a more critical interaction with some of Calvin’s methods, but didn’t find it forthcoming. One instance of this is the author’s treatment of Distinctive No.23: Unspoken outline. This made the point that Calvin did not fashion his sermons according to a logical outline .i.e. he did not use first, second, third points, nor alliterative headings. Knowing that Lawson himself uses a very structured approach when preaching (including alliterative headings!) I expected some comment on the relative merits of this. But Lawson simply comments that despite his lack of obvious structure Calvin was “hardly unprepared” and his “message was organized with great detail in his brilliant mind.” Probably, however, such engagement was beyond the scope of this short volume.

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iv) Recommendation.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give to this book is that by the end of it, I understood a great deal more of Calvin’s preaching style, and was left hungry to learn more. I think this was precisely Lawson’s intention.

However, this book achieves much more than introducing us to Calvin’s preaching. In many ways, it commends the expository approach to preaching which we should all broadly welcome. Moreover, through John Calvin, Lawson displays a living, breathing embodiment of the approach that we should aspire to, even if we will not reach always reach it.

It is Lawson’s passionate intention to promote expository preaching today that transforms this historical study into an inspiring contemporary call to modern preachers. The book’s final sentences convey that passion:

“We do want Calvin’s again. We must have Calvin’s again. And, by God’s grace, we shall see them raised up again in this hour. May the head of the church give us again an army of biblical expositors, men of God sold out for new Reformation. Soli Deo Gloria.”

Amen, we say.

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We Want Again Luthers, Calvins, Bunyans…

May 31, 2007

Later today I’m hoping to post a book review on Steve Lawson’s “The Expository Genius of John Calvin.” For those who can’t wait till then, a wonderful quote that helps conclude the book, coming from the pen of Charles H. Spurgeon:

“We want again Luthers, Calvins, Bunyans, Whitefields, men fit to mark eras, whose names breathe terror in our foemen’s ears. We have dire need of such. Whence will they come to us? They are the gifts of Jesus Christ to the church, and they will come in due time. He has power to give us back again a golden age of preachers, and when the good old truth is once more preached by men whose lips are touched as with a live coal from off the altar, this shall be the instrument in the hand of the Spirit for bringing about a great and thorough revival of religion in the land…

I do not look for any other means of converting men beyond the simple preaching of the gospel and the opening of men’s ears to hear it. The moment the church shall despise the pulpit, God will despise her. It has been through the ministry that the Lord has always been pleased to revive and bless His churches.”

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Feasting on the Word

May 30, 2007

I’m too busy sermon-writing to post anything substantial today. However, a special link to a series of seminars that I’m loading onto my i-pod even as I type. Feasting on the Word by Mark Alderton (Sovereign Grace Fellowship, Bloomington MN) is a series of talks on biblical interpretation that sounds well worth a listen. (HT: Faithbyhearing)

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Introduction to Interpretation
download
Mark Aldetron / February 2, 2007

Basic Principles of Interpretation Part One
download
Mark Aldetron / February 2, 2007

Basic Principles of Interpretation Part Two
download
Mark Aldetron / February 2, 2007

Interpreting Narratives
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Mark Aldetron / February 3, 2007

Interpreting the Gospels/Interpreting the Parables
download
Mark Aldetron / February 3, 2007

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Ordination Sermon

May 30, 2007

The sermon preached at my ordination by Rev Peter Grainger (pic below) is now available: “True and False Prophets” – an exposition of Jeremiah 23. I also preached in the evening.

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Lord, Inspire the Preacher’s Heart

May 29, 2007

The briefest of Classic Materials today. A lesser known hymn written by John Newton: Hymn 90 – “Now Lord inspire the Preacher’s Heart.” I doubt it will take off as a congregational favourite, but perhaps we preachers should learn to sing it ‘by heart.’

Now, LORD, inspire the preacher’s heart,
And teach his tongue to speak;
Food to the hungry soul impart,
And cordials to the weak.
Furnish us all with light and pow’rs
To walk in Wisdom’s ways;
So shall the benefit be ours,
And thou shalt have the praise.

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Wrestling with Reading

May 28, 2007

One fortunate fact about me is that I enjoy reading. I say fortunate, because as we all know, pastors have lots of it to do. But I do frequently wrestle with what to read. I often struggle with getting my ‘extra reading’ right (that is, reading beyond sermon prep) both in terms of quantity and quality.

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So here are two main questions that I wrestle with:

i) How much time should I give to extra reading? I sometimes feel guilty and paralyzed by some suggestions that pastors should give two hours every day to extra reading! John Stott suggests an hour, which for me is still a hefty challenge.

I’ve appreciated John Piper’s advice to read in 20 minute slots. By this method I find that I can accumulate reading time gradually. So I try to read for 30 minutes every afternoon, 20 minutes on the bus and for another 20 or 30 minutes at bed time. In this way I get through a reasonable amount.

Holiday times are best since I have long stretched of uninterrupted time to read. Often I get through several books in a week’s break, and since I’ve been uninterrupted in my focus these books usually have the biggest impact. I’m logging the books I read this year to see (out of interest) how many I get through. Steve Weaver reaches for 52.

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2) What books should I read? This is the perennially tough question. My own choice has been governed by a few commitments – which are not set in stone – but have helped me to narrow the wide range of choices.

i) To mainly read solid, biblical, evangelically orientated works. This is not because I don’t see the value in reading opinions which differ from my own. It is rather because my time is so limited, and that reading books with considerable truth packed into them makes me more adept at sniffing out error in any case. That said, I read the odd book that I almost totally disagree with, just to keep me sharp.

ii) To read a balance of books. My personal approach is to read a blend of books including straight theology, biography, biblical studies, and works on preaching. (I’m sorry, but I don’t do novels, except the occasional CS Lewis!). At the moment, for instance, I’m reading through Charles Hodge – Systematic Theology, Steve Lawson – The Expository Genius of John Calvin and Kirsten Burkitt – The Essence of the Reformation. I don’t always get the balance right, however.

iii) To read books relevant to things I’m thinking about. This seems obvious, but if I’m doing an extra lecture (as I was two months ago) on the issue of miraculous gifts in the church today, I will often select a book on that topic for my extra reading. For future reading, I’m sizing up a good book on humanity being made in God’s image, since I’m speaking on that later this year.

Yet even with these three criteria, I still wrestle. There is so much worthy of reading. I wonder what processes you go through in terms of book selection?

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Featured Toolbox: The Gospel Coalition

May 26, 2007

The Gospel Coalition, the brainchild of Don Carson and Tim Keller, may well be the most significant evangelical conference in decades. According to Mark Driscoll: “The hope was to redefine a clear center for evangelicalism more akin to that previously articulated by men such as Francis Schaeffer, John Stott, and Billy Graham.”

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This week I’ve linked to several bits and pieces from the inaugural GC in Deerfield Illinois. For today’s “Featured Toolbox” I thought I should give you a more comprehensive list of what’s online regarding this significant event. In no particular order, here are some of the best links:

Colossians 3:16
* What is the Gospel Coalition?
* Day one
* Day two
* Personal reflections

Justin Taylor
* session one (Carson)
* session two (Keller)
* session three (Lorritts)
* Wilson: Christ and Culture in the Light of the Gospel
* final session (Piper)

Justin Buzzard
* Getting started
* Session one notes, Don Carson
* Session two notes, Tim Keller
* Session three notes, Crawford Loritts
* Highlights from day 1
* Carson on What is the Gospel Coalition?
* Driscoll and Lawrence: Mentoring Younger Pastors
* Final session notes, John Piper
* Paul’s Church Planting Practice
* Gospel Coalition Foundational Documents

Irish Calvinist
* The Gospel Coalition Conference
* The Gospel Coalition: Carson

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