Archive for May, 2007


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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)


Introduction to Interpretation
Mark Aldetron / February 2, 2007

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

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

Interpreting Narratives
Mark Aldetron / February 3, 2007

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


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.


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.



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.


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.


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?


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.”


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


The Reformation Preacher

May 25, 2007

Perhaps its because I’m currently reading a wonderful book “The Expository Genius of John Calvin.” Or maybe its because last evening (courtesy of Conventicle’s Chris Ross) I enjoyed a lecture on the life of Martin Luther. But this week I’ve been reflecting on the benefits of preaching in the shadow of the Reformation.


What struck me last night was the great privilege we have. We don’t live in a day when the great Reformation truths (ie. faith alone, grace alone, Scripture alone, through Christ alone, to the glory of God alone) are unknown or unheralded. There remains much ignorance and confusion about many of these articles, to be sure. But we don’t live in an age without any clear articulation of these great doctrines.

Luther did. And he put his neck on the line to leave us a legacy.

Yet how often today are the redefining truths and realigning events of the Reformation taken for granted? How frequently are the great gospel truths assumed. And how increasingly common is the idea that the Reformation – even if of value back then – is now well and truly “over”?

Honest answers to these questions are sobering. So, we would do well to hear those voices which proclaim the ongoing significance of the Reformation today. Kirsten Burkitt, in her excellent study “The Essence of the Reformation”, makes one such clarion call:

“The Reformation was more than an alteration of liturgical and ceremonial practice; it was a new way of looking at the world, which invaded the parish church and the daily life of every parishioner. There was more than a change in ‘religion’; it was a change in thought, in life, and what it meant to be a human being in God’s World.

It was a world in which we can have confidence in God and hope for the future, based on his grace to us in the Christ of the Scriptures, which we receive through faith alone.

Too often since then, these certainties have been attacked and eroded, and continue to be attacked today. Indeed, many Christians are ignorant of the issues, and do not realise that the truths for which the Reformers fought and died are as much under threat now as they were then. Many errors of Roman Catholicism remain uncorrected. Mystical, magical and superstitious versions of Christianity keep re-emerging in different forms.

We do not need to copy the Reformers out of love for history or tradition. Yet we need to learn the lessons of the Reformation, and be reminded that the truth that inspired that generation to protest, and to reform, is still true today.”


What is the Gospel?

May 24, 2007

Justin Buzzard has been blogging the Gospel Coalition Conference, and I’ve really appreciated his notes on the sessions. Reading over the notes on Tim Keller’s talk was typically refreshing. The points that especially struck home to me were point 1 – the Gospel is historical (“the gospel is good news, not good advice”) and point 6 – the Gospel is cultural (the idea that the good news is not just about my personal salvation, but has ongoing community implications).


I hope Justin doesn’t mind my quoting the rest of the notes in full.

Here’s my slim notes from Tim Keller’s session on Gospel-Centered Ministry in which Tim used 1 Peter 1&2 to answer the question, “What does ministry profoundly shaped by the gospel look like?”

Seven features of the Gospel we have to tease out in ministry & seven corresponding ministry implications:

#1 The Gospel is Historical. The gospel is good news, not good advice. Advice is council about something to do that hasn’t happened yet. News is a report about something that has already happened. The gospel is good news that calls for a joyful response. Every other religion sends advice that brings fear, but Christianity sends messengers of good news who bring joy

Ministry Implication: Declarative preaching is irreplaceable to Christian ministry.

#2 The Gospel is Doxological.
The purpose of the gospel is to bring people to glorious worship. Failure to worship God is the basis of all sin. The only way anyone ever gets changed is through worship. The gospel needs to be on “video” not merely “audio,” capturing the whole of our attention and appreciation.

Ministry Implication: The purpose of preaching isn’t just to make truth clear, but to make truth real. This was Jonathan Edwards’ practice.

#3 The Gospel is Christo-centrical. If you don’t get to Jesus in your sermons, you’ll simply be beating on people’s wills. The Bible isn’t chiefly about me and what I must do, but about Jesus and what he has done.

Ministry Implication: Our hermeneutics and preaching must be governed by the centrality of Christ in the Scriptures.

#4 The Gospel is Personal. The gospel transforms people by showing us the size of the debt we owe to God (our sin) and the magnitude of the payment God made to take care of our debt. The gospel doesn’t teach just that Jesus died the death we should’ve died or just that Jesus lived the life we couldn’t live. No, the gospel teaches BOTH that Jesus lived the sinless life we couldn’t live and died the death we deserve to die.

Ministry Implication: Unless we proclaim both sides of Jesus’ substitution in our place, his perfect life and atoning death, people will not be transformed by the gospel because they won’t be hearing the full gospel.

#5 The Gospel is Cultural. The gospel creates a culture, a church. Those of us who are strong on the personal aspects of the gospel often miss the communal aspects of the gospel.

Ministry Implication: The gospel needs to impact everything we do.

#6 The Gospel is Massively Transformational. (no notes)

Ministry Implication: (no notes)

#7 The Gospel is Wonderful. 1 Peter says that angels long to look into the gospel, they never get tired of it. This is amazing, angels have been around forever and yet they’re never tired of the gospel.

Ministry Implication: Our adoration and implementation of the gospel ought to be forever interesting and creative.


Workman’s Toolbox Update

May 23, 2007

Thanks to my helpful friend David Reimer, Workman’s Toolbox has now moved to my sidebar at the top right of the page. Hopefully this will make it easier for you all to access.



Struggling to Begin

May 23, 2007

I wrestle with sermon introductions – I really do. Whenever the spiritual gifts were being handed out, the gift of “Sermon Opener” was not bestowed upon me! While the senior pastor in my church is consummate at “striking oil in the first five minutes”, I cannot say the same. To the contrary, I write and rewrite. I scrap and start again. I spend a hugely disproportionate amount of time on the first two sermon pages alone.


I also vacillate between extremes in terms of content. Sometimes I use a very crafted introduction, pulling upon a contemporary event or a personal story which leads me to my main point. On other occasions I may open straightforwardly and simply. Frustratingly, I’m often not sure which works best or why. And even when I do ‘get it right’ a similar approach may not work the next time!

So what have I become sure of with regards the sermon introduction?

1. Sermon introductions need to wake up the listener and keep their attention. A sermon intro should function rather like your alarm clock: it should wake people up and make sure they don’t go back to sleep! I find that sometimes the theme is already so gripping that there is no need to raise interest. Given the subject, “the theme of the message today is that God hates divorce” may suffice. At other times, a passage is so familiar to the congregation that it almost begs for a more provocative opening. Last Sunday evening I proceeded with: “Preaching is an ineffective and outdated form of communication.” There was a collective sigh when I added, “At least that’s what some people say.” I could then explain that some people write-off preaching by deeming it a ‘monologue’, and then challenge the assumption with the parable of the sower (i.e. the interface between the preached word – “seed” – and the listener’s heart “soil”).

2. Sermon introductions need to clearly lead to the main point. The most common reason why I need to scrap a given sermon intro is not because it isn’t gripping; it is rather because it isn’t leading unswervingly to the main point. An illustration on a general theme (eg. love) won’t do; I need to find the specific nuance and bring that out in my intro (eg. love for Jesus always leads to obedient action)

3. Sermon introductions need to be brief. One of my favourites quotes about this is from John Broadus. He once said that listeners don’t want “a porch on a porch.” They want to fairly quickly move into the warmth of the house! If I find my opening illustration building yet another extension, I need to check myself and cut things back to the bare minimum. If I’ve already gained attention and surfaced the main point or question, any further introduction is but stealing time from the main body of the sermon.


The Grave and Glad Preacher

May 22, 2007

For today’s Classic Materials we return to one of my favourite books: “The Supremacy of God in Preaching” by John Piper. One of the great challenges I find in the act of preaching is both to enjoy God and be earnest on his behalf, to be satisfied in truths about God but handle them seriously. How do I preach with gladness and gravitas?


As you might suspect, John Piper has some suggestions. Find seven of them below, complete with one Piper quote from the subsequent paragraph.

1. Strive for practical, earnest, glad-hearted holiness in every area of your life.
“One of the reasons is that you can’t be something in the pulpit that you aren’t during the week – at least not for long.”

2. Make your life – especially the life of study – a life of constant communion with God in prayer
“Cotton Mather’s rule was to stop at the end of every paragraph as he wrote his sermon to pray and examine himself and try to fix on his heart some holy impression of his subject.”

3. Read books written by those who bleed Bible when you prick them and who are blood earnest about the truths they discuss.
“Jonathan Edwards….Calvin, Luther, Bunyan, Burroughs, Bridges, Flavel, Owen, Charnock, Gurnall, Watson, Sibbes and Ryle!”

4. Direct your mind often to the contemplation of death
“Death and sickness have an amazing way of blowing the haze of triviality out of life and replacing it with the wisdom of gravity and gladness in the hope of resurrection joy.”

5. Consider the biblical teaching that as a preacehr you will be judged with greater strictness
“Paul puts it most ominously in Acts 20 when he says to the people that he has been teaching in Ephesus, ‘I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.’ (Acts 20:26-27) Evidently, not to teach God’s counsel with fulness and faithfulness can leave the blood of people on our hands.”

6. Consider the example of Jesus.
“…the crowds heard him gladly, the children sat in his lap, the women were honoured. Yet no one in the Bible spoke of hell more often or in more horrible terms.”

7. Strive with all your might to know God and to humble yourself under his mighty hand.
“Don’t be content to guide your people among the foothills of God’s glory. Become a mountain climber on the cliffs of God’s majesty, and let the truth begin to overwhelm you so that you will never exhaust the heights of God.”

Workman’s Toolbox
* No doubt this will be interest to busy pastors: how to crank through emails more quickly (HT: JT)
* A stimulating post about how one preacher incorporates prayer into his sermon prep
*Martin Luther on 9 essential qualities of good preachers
* I’m all for future planning, but I’m going to have a word with this preacher planning his advent series in May!