Preaching is not Magical

Article by Dan Phillips: Original source here.

Christian worship is a supernatural event – but it is not a magic show.

In pagan worship, forms and rituals are thought to be inherently effective. The Latin phrase is ex opere operato, “from the work worked.” It is the idea that we can do things that in turn will make God do things. This is the essence of paganism and of magic: that forms of worship or manipulation produce supernatural effects simply by our performing them correctly.

In Harry Potter, it’s saying the right gibberish-Latin words (“Wingardium leviosa!”). In other literature, it’s gestures, or words-plus-gestures. In some lands, it’s sacrifice and incantation.

My fear is that some evangelicals – despite our call to reject all paganism – unwittingly entertain a faux-baptized form of the same sorts of expectations and beliefs.

How so?

We (correctly) affirm that the Bible is not just a book, not a mere collection of human musings. It is the word of God, “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). It is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), and communicates the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:12-13). It is the means of saving faith (Romans 10:17), and of growth in holiness (John 17:17). It is truly a marvel, a gift from God.

So we (again correctly) make the preaching of the Word the center of our corporate worship. This reflects the stated priorities of Christ (John 8:31-32) and His apostles (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:2). So far, so good.

But here comes the disconnect: sometimes both preacher and hearers get the idea that, if we do that right – that is, preach the Word faithfully – then God must do great and wonderful things, along the lines of our expectations. Sinners will be saved, saints will be transformed and matured, churches will grow. Glory all around. It’s guaranteed!

Right? Wrong.

I yield to no man in my absolute conviction of the centrality of God’s written word to all thought, faith, worship and practice. It is that very conviction which compels me to point out the corollary truth:

The glory of God requires not only faithful preaching of the Word, but also faithful hearing of the Word.

Once you see it, you will find this verity literally all over Scripture. Take Deuteronomy 28:1 – “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” This verse brims with vital truth.

We see here the voice of Yahweh your God – something many Christians say they long to hear. But what they mean by it is not what God means by it. They mean some mystical, subjective inner experience, where they feel something that they identify as God’s voice. This verse means nothing of the kind. It locates God’s voice not within us, but in God’s commandments. God’s voice is God’s written Word.

But beyond that, note that God’s blessing on national Israel was conditioned on their faithfully obeying that voice, that written Word. The Hebrew words translated if you faithfully obey are more literally if hearing you will hear – which is to say, if you will intently listen, so that you may obey.

Though Scripture itself was God’s mighty voice, it would accomplish no good for the Israelites if they did not listen closely, so as to understand, remember, and do what God told them.

“Ah, yes,” I can hear some neo-mystic murmur. “That was the Old Testament. This is the age of the Spirit. Everything’s changed!”

Has it, now?

Turn to Hebrews 3:7, where we read, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says…” There it is: the Holy Spirit speaks! Now, today, in the present tense! The writer is about to quote Him for us. What will He say?

Listen: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion…” (vv. 7b-8a). Wait, those words are familiar. Where did we hear them before? Check the marginal note…oh, there it is: Psalm 95:7-8.

What? But that’s the Old Testament. This New Testament writer is saying that an Old Testament verse is, today, now the voice of the Holy Spirit, speaking to us?

Indeed he is saying that. He learned it from the Old Testament. The voice of God is the written word of God, not an inner glorpy gloop in the gizzard.

Now note what the Holy Spirit is saying: He says, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts,” as Israel did in the wilderness. He is not saying, “If you feel something you think is God, chase it down.” Rather, the Spirit is saying, “When you read or hear God’s written Word, do not harden your heart.”

What does that tell us? It is possible to hear God’s word, in its full power and authority, and still receive no blessing, and engage in no worship. How? The writer of Hebrews will tell us in the next chapter:

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. (Hebrews 4:1–2)

The message was heard by the outer ear, but it was not welcomed into a heart of faith. So not only did it not benefit them, it positively condemned them (cf. John 12:48; 15:22).

So yes, what a preacher preaches makes all the difference as to whether a service is or is not truly a worship service that glorifies God.

But how the hearers hear is no less important.

Don’t Try and Improve on God’s Methods

pulpit-table-fontArticle by Ray Ortlund – (original source God causes the ordinary means of His grace to make an extraordinary impact on many people.

This idea of “the means of grace” answers these questions: How do I, as a believer, access the grace of the Lord for my many needs? Where do I go, what do I do, to connect with the real help He gives to sinners and sufferers here in this world? I know I am saved by His grace alone. But Jesus said,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28–30)

I believe that. I want that. But, at a practical level, how do I come to Him for His grace?

God’s Way

Our gracious Lord is not playing “catch me if you can” with us. He wants us to be sure of Him, come to Him, and draw strength from Him so that we can live fully for Him. But He does not give Himself to us in any way we might devise. He has made Himself knowable and accessible in specific ways of His own wise choosing. His appointed avenues of blessing are the means of grace. We are profoundly thankful to our Lord for providing open avenues of grace for us as we walk through this world, crowded as it is with enticing means of “anti-grace” pressing upon us every day.

Westminster Shorter Catechism question 88 asks, “What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?” The catechism’s answer is,

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

God does not limit Himself to His wonderful means of grace. Jesus said that the wind of the Spirit “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). But if we are wondering where we can be sure to find the Lord, the answer is His standard means of grace, made effective by His own living presence. His chosen means are not intended to restrict His availability, but the opposite. His chosen means identify where He has concentrated His availability, like a gushing fountain of mercy for sinners who are so desperate that they are finally coming to Christ on His terms.

The Means of Awakening

Awakening or revival occurs when these ordinary streams of divine blessing flow out with unusual power, and the benefits of the gospel pour out upon us with wonderful impact that is clearly of God and not at all of ourselves.

If we long for our churches to experience more of this awakening power in the gospel, the remedy is not to invent our own delivery systems for God’s grace. The remedy might be found in correcting our neglect or misuse or corruption of God’s age-old means of grace. We do not need to improve on God’s methods. We might need to engage with God’s methods more reverently and humbly than we ever have before.

Westminster Shorter Catechism question 85 asks, “What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?” The answer is:

To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

The catechism thus wisely urges upon us “the diligent use of all the outward means,” that is, coming before the Lord with a heart of faith and a purpose of repentance, setting no preconditions on Him but welcoming His lordship over the whole of our lives. Continue reading

The Key to Spiritual Growth

Do you want to grow spiritually? Really? Do you? If God told you exactly what to do, would you do it?

The fact is that God has told us exactly how to achieve spiritual growth in His word. What may surprise us is that this growth is not achieved by some dramatic “mountain top” experience with God, but by the regular, consistent, on-going, non-spectacular but extremely supernatural MEANS OF GRACE. These means are THE PREACHED WORD, PRAYER AND THE LORD’S SUPPER.

bottle_feedDoes that sound in any way boring to you? Not flashy enough? If that is the case, then quite frankly, your thinking has been shaped by something other than the word of God.

I am sure you have noticed that when a baby wants milk, everyone in the house knows about it! There is no way anyone will get any sleep at night until baby has his way. He wants milk and he wants it now! His cry is unrelenting until he can taste milk.

The Bible tells us that in the exact same way babies crave milk, Christians are to desire the spiritual milk of the word of God for spiritual growth. 1 Peter 2:2 tells us, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation…”

Spiritual growth is not automatic. God uses MEANS to grow His people spiritually. These are what we call “means of grace” which one theologian defined as the “objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church to which He ordinarily binds Himself in communicating His grace.” The means of grace are “his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer, and all these are made effective in the salvation of the elect” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 88).

Biblically, these means of grace include the regular preaching of the word of God in the gathered assembly of the saints (the local Church), prayer and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

William Boekestein writes, “the (early) church grew as the believers ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ Because devoting yourself seems to lack pizzazz, we tend to make spiritual growth more difficult than it is. But, with few exceptions, those who are growing in godliness are committed to preaching, the sacraments, and prayer. These are the ordinary means of grace. Spiritual growth doesn’t require innovation because God doesn’t work erratically and irregularly. We don’t have to “find God’s wave and ride it” until He surges elsewhere.

Still, the means of grace don’t always seem to work. Maybe we’ve said, ‘I come to church, partake of the sacraments, spend time in prayer, and I don’t seem to grow.’ Assuming that we are diligently and believingly using the means, we shouldn’t too easily dismiss the vital role they are playing in our lives. Imagine saying, ‘I eat three times a day, but I don’t get any healthier. Eating must not be the answer.’ What shape might we be in if we weren’t being fed by God through His ordinary means?”

In care for your soul I ask you not to neglect the means of grace. For me, for you and for every believer, it is the key to all spiritual growth.

Don’t Neglect the Means

gotmilkIn an article entitled “How to Grow Spiritually” William Boekestein the prophet Elisha promised Naaman healing if he would wash in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman was indignant. Dipping in the Jordan was too undignified an act for him, and it didn’t fit his definition of help. If not for the persistence of his servants, he would have returned to Syria unhealed (2 Kings 5:1–14).

For the same reason, many people miss God’s simple, ordinary plan for their spiritual growth—diligent attendance to the means of grace.

Means or Mystery?

Louis Berkhof defines the means of grace as the “objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church to which He ordinarily binds Himself in communicating His grace.” The means of grace are “his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer, and all these are made effective in the salvation of the elect” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 88). Believers must recognize these means of grace and trust God and His working through them. Continue reading

The Lord’s Supper – A Means of Grace

In an article entitled “Grow in Grace at the Table: David Mathis it is simply an ordinary means of God’s grace to his church, but as eating and drinking go, it can be an unusually powerful experience.

Along with baptism, the Supper is one of Jesus’s two specially instituted sacraments for the signifying, sealing, and strengthening of his new-covenant people. Call them ordinances if you please. The true issue is not the term, but what we mean by it, and whether we handle these twin means of God’s grace as Jesus means, to guide and shape the life of the church in her new covenant with the Bridegroom.

The means of grace — also known as the “spiritual disciplines” — are the various channels God has appointed for regularly supplying his church with spiritual power. The key principles behind the means of grace are Jesus’s voice (the word), his ear (prayer), and his body (the church). The various disciplines and practices, then, are ways of hearing, and responding, to his word in the context of his church.

Shaped and supported by these principles, a thousand practical flowers grow in the life of the new-covenant community. But few, if any, other practices bring together all three principles of grace like the preaching of God’s word, and the celebration of the sacraments, in the context of corporate worship. Here, then, are four aspects of the Supper to consider in seeing it as a means of grace.

The Gravity: Blessing or Judgment Continue reading

The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Means

Christ would return, and the eschaton would arrive.

So, when the heavens didn’t rend on Sunday morning, I didn’t understand. Did I need volunteers who were more committed, or more talented, or more committed to talent? Did I need a pastor who was even more supportive? Was it the equipment? Or the sanctuary? And why couldn’t my congregation be more like those conference attenders I saw on that worship video?

Running Fast for the Short Run
Over time, it became obvious that my view of God’s work was too narrow. I overestimated the immediate impact of my five beloved songs. I believed instantaneous revival was the ordinary response of people to a well-done service, and I was wrong. Because God can work immediate miracles, I was overlooking the Spirit’s more ordinary (but no less miraculous) gradual ongoing work.

And so I changed my perspective. I began to look for and celebrate God’s extra-ordinary blessing of my church’s ordinary gospel work.

Worship leaders need this perspective to persevere in ministry and to avoid unnecessary frustration. And we can persevere and avoid that frustration by forming weightier aspirations for the people in our church. But to begin, we must look beyond our five beloved songs and imagine the faith-growing effect of worship over time.

Holding Fast for the Long Haul
Imagine five weeks of services. Imagine the Holy Spirit using truths from this Sunday’s songs to grow patience in our congregation members during their everyday tasks: commuting to work, washing dishes, picking kids up from school. Imagine people’s homes as small group members gather and encourage each other by singing these songs. Imagine midnights as your tenderhearted congregants gain fresh courage through praying worship songs.

Next, imagine five years of services. Imagine dinner tables with mealtime prayers that quote meaningful worship lyrics. Imagine single believers drawing on the truth in these worship songs as they hope in their perfect Savior more than a hoped-for marriage. Imagine tense budget discussions between husbands and wives when suddenly an old hymn comes to their minds and assures them of God’s provision. Imagine parents sitting on the edge of bunk beds, using worship lyrics to correct and instruct their children. Imagine nervous hospital waiting rooms where patients hum Sunday’s songs, anticipating a doctor’s prognosis.

Now imagine five decades of services. Imagine saints losing their memories and their ability to recognize faces, and yet keeping precious song lyrics in the back corners of their minds. And through these lyrics, our congregation’s saints holding fast to the faithful Savior who will never forget them. And imagine funeral homes as family members choose memorial service songs to celebrate God’s history of faithfulness and ongoing grace to them.

May we not despise the day of small things, but may we become more aware of God’s extra-ordinary work through our ordinary means. And as we wait for the heavens to finally rend, may we render a lifetime of faithful service to the faithful King who gave his life for us.