Bible Reading for the Disciple

In my previous essay, The Decline of Bible Reading, I commented on polling in Canada that revealed a serious decline in Bible reading amongst Christians. In that essay, I noted two key ways the church could address the problem. In this essay I discuss how a disciple of Christ can make reading the Bible an indispensable part of his spiritual development and life.

Be Committed

The first key step involves creating a hungry heart. A committed disciple must be committed to the Word of God and must possess a strongly held belief that the Bible is critical in one’s relationship with Christ. All disciples know that in their heads and give intellectual assent to the concept but does that belief go further to penetrate their hearts and permeate their lives?

The cultivation of that attitude towards the Bible is dependent on the disciple leaning on the power of the Holy Spirit to create a hunger for God’s word and undertaking a few basic spiritual exercises to create the environment for that hunger to thrive. There needs to be a commitment to walk in the Spirit, to be filled with the Spirit and a commitment to practice spiritual disciplines that together move a disciple to always be seeking to feed upon the Word.

So how does one get that hunger? One way is to look at your life and see if there are other things your heart and soul are feeding on for fulfillment and meaning, besides the Word of God. Do you hunger more for that promotion, that hobby, those clothes, that status, that political activism, that desire to change the world rather than change yourself? The list could go on but the principle is one of self examination. Are there things that you hunger more for in your heart than the Bible? If you find your heart has a larger feeding tube to something other than the Bible, it may be time to either cut off that tube or start putting some clamps on it and start enlarging the pathway to the Scriptures.

Be Consistent

Routine may be seen as dull and boring and generally looked down upon by those advocating a more exciting lifestyle. But routine is a key success factor for consistency and consistency is necessary in getting into the Bible on a regular basis.

Ideally, the disciple should be reading the Scriptures at least once a day, every day. For most people, this can only happen if Bible reading is incorporated into a regular routine, so regular that it becomes a life long habit.

There will be times when routine is upended due to special circumstances such as travel, but even then, a disciple must be diligent in carving out time for Bible reading. Travel can even be a better time to read the Bible, such as while waiting for a flight in the departure lounge or taking extra time to read an entire NT book instead of watching an in-flight movie.

Whether you read in the morning, in the afternoon or at night, really doesn’t matter. What counts is finding a sufficient length of time to read the Bible on a regular basis so that you are reading it daily. Try to find a time when you are not rushed and when you can read it thoughtfully.

Be Creative

Normally, disciples will read a chapter a day or follow a reading plan of some type but, over time, this can become too repetitive and even dull. It is easy to get stuck in a reading rut where the Scriptures seem uninteresting and one winds up reading the Bible more out of a sense of duty rather than a means of communion with God.

That is when it is time to get creative with Bible reading. Break up the reading routine with some simple things to change the pace or set some new reading goals. A common one is to read the Bible in an entire year. One can use a reading plan but once I read the Bible in a year, backwards. Instead of the standard starting in Genesis, I started in Revelation and read each book in reverse order.

Another idea is to read the Bible in a different translation rather than your favourite one. This has the dimension of providing a different perspective on your reading of the Scriptures. My go to translation is the New International Version (NIV) but lately I have been reading in the New English Translation (NET) and enjoying its study notes as I read.

Read the seemingly difficult books, such as Leviticus or Ezekiel, by first reading an introduction to these books from an associated commentary. That way you can gain some background information that can help you understand the text better.

Another way to shake up your reading is to use an audio version of the Bible. Instead of visual reading, try hearing a book of the Bible. This may not become part of your regular practice but it will definitely act as an interesting change of pace.

Daily Bible reading is important and sounds simple but it is harder than it appears. That is where the application of the three principles of being committed, consistent and creative can help a disciple on the pathway to solid Bible reading.

2017 © Ed LeBlanc

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Loving the Sinner, Hating the Sin: An Outdated Concept?

Sin Church and Moonand the Sinner

There is an old saying that many Christians believe in: love the sinner but hate the sin. I’ve heard a few secular humanists scoff at this saying but what does it actually mean and is it true?

The Bible says that every human being has sinned and will sin against God and against others, no matter what their intentions may be. Sin is an ugly and destructive force that destroys people’s lives, damages relationships and sours community. Above all, sin is something that God absolutely hates. Romans 3:23 sums it up, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This has been the human predicament since the Fall.

The Scriptures state that humanity is tainted with the sinful nature and that we have a built-in propensity to do things and think things contrary to God’s will. To paraphrase a current pop culture icon, we were born this way. But if this is so ingrained in the human nature, isn’t rebellion against God just the way we are? Doesn’t everyone simply have to get used to it, perhaps even to celebrate it? Is loving the sinner but hating the sin an outdated concept?

Despite the sinful inclination of the human heart, the Bible is clear: there are no excuses. Just because we are born that way doesn’t mean that we have to live that way. Even though a person may have a propensity to engage in shoplifting now and then or cheat on their taxes every second year, it doesn’t automatically mean that those actions are justified. Both the Bible and the Criminal Code have something to say on these matters. The defence of natural inclination has no standing. Instead, God has directed human beings on how they should live despite how they want to live. Even more, God has provided humanity with the means to overcome their sinful inclinations and live according to His ways through the power of Jesus Christ.

Born this Way

But if people are “born this way”, then why shouldn’t their sinful acts be accepted? One could argue that they have no choice, that is just the way they are. In today’s culture, the prevailing attitude is, if that is the way they are, we have to accept what they do if we want to accept them. In our multiethnic multicultural society, acceptance of people from other cultures is considered a supreme virtue. Society says that in order to accept others you must accept their culture. We are called to see the beauty in other cultures with the long term goal of preventing conflict, hate and war between peoples.

This form of multicultural acceptance has transferred itself into the area of morality and sin. Certain actions considered sinful by the Bible are no longer considered wrong in today’s culture because of this strong link between practice and people. Since accepting people is so important, we have to accept their practices as well, even if we don’t practice them or believe in them ourselves. This attitude has found fertile ground in the area of sexual morality. The acceptance of certain sexual practices and the acceptance of the disposition to those practices must be made if we are to accept the people who do them. In this view, you have to love the sin if you are going to love the sinner.

This belief holds to a tight interrelationship between disposition and being. The old saying, you are what you eat, has been modified to say you are what you do. But what if the “do” is not at all positive? Efforts then are made to make it positive by celebrating what was once considered repulsive. Not too long ago, homosexual acts were considered repulsive, so much so that they were criminalized. Today, these acts are celebrated in parades down the streets of major urban centres.

Let’s take this analogy further: today physical abuse of your spouse is considered repulsive. But if we are to accept spousal abusers, should we not accept their practice and disposition to abuse? Shouldn’t it be celebrated with parades in the streets? It is at this point the logic falls apart. If accepting and loving others means accepting their sin, you then can’t pick and choose what kinds of sin you want to celebrate and others you want to continuing classifying as horrific. This is the end result of integrating the person with the action and disposition.

This failed logic breathes new life into the old saying of loving the sinner but hating the sin. The two can and must be separated. If not, it brings a horrible form of anthropology that equates the value and worth of human beings to their sometimes terrible actions. This form of anthropology has no choice but to whitewash sin into something virtuous. Human beings are more than their actions, more than their disposition, more than their orientation. They possess a worth that is far greater than what the current culture wants to bestow upon them.

A careful reading of the New Testament reveals that Jesus practiced this old saying. He hung around people who were not only despised by their culture but who practiced lifestyles that were truly in rebellion to God’s ways. Jesus was quick to point this out to them. Yet, He saw beyond their lifestyle and wanted to embrace them instead. People have value because they are made in the image of God. Jesus saw value in people that went beyond how they lived and He treated people, not their sin, in a loving way. So much so that He died for them to grant them a life that was far more abundant, rich, free and holy than what there were currently experiencing.

How to Untie the Knot

If Christians are called to make the distinction between the sin and the sinner, how can this be done? The first step is for the church to recognize where is current practicing that tight integration between the sin and sinner and repent from it. In the past, the church classified certain sins so tightly with people that if they committed these sins once or were trapped in them, the church offered no sympathy. The attitude was hate the sin and hate the sinner. Fortunately, the church is seeing the error of her ways and is repenting in how she treats people trapped by sin. Ironically, the culture is following this old error where it now condemns those who do not embrace the connection between the action and the actor with its inverted love the sin in order to love the sinner.

The second step is to learn from Jesus how He dealt with sin and sinners. This requires the church to take itself through a very careful study of the New Testament on what Jesus taught about sin and how He related to people trapped in their sin. The classical doctrines of the sinfulness of man and the value of man in the eyes of God must be looked at again with fresh eyes. Each Christian has to constantly remember one thing: I am a sinner, too.

The third step is to recapture the essence of what the Bible says about forgiveness, repentance, confession, discipline and restoration. It is critical for the church to recapture all these aspects in order to know how to deal with sin, sinners and the separation of the two. Unfortunately, many have a distorted view of these biblical concepts or are not actively practicing them.

Preserving human value and worth while firmly rejecting sin is not an easy task but it is a necessary one. It is something that God Himself has done through the Cross and it is something that the church must emulate by carefully examining the Bible in order to know how to do this. Hating the sin and loving the sinner is not easy to discern or to do but it is critical. It is not what our culture wants to do but it is what Jesus did when He walked this earth and it is what He requires of those who follow Him.

2014 © Ed LeBlanc

 

Contemporary Challenges in Preaching

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The Importance of Preaching

In the life of the church, preaching plays an important role.  This is especially so in the Protestant tradition where the key component of corporate worship has been the preaching of the scriptures to the body of believers.  On a typical Sunday, preaching takes up close to half of the worship time.  For many Christians  the preaching of the Bible from the pulpit is their primary, if not only, form of teaching that they receive.  Preaching informs, encourages, inspires, rebukes and convicts.  Some may believe that the traditional practice of one individual standing up to give a unidirectional message to a group of people is an outdated church tradition.  Despite this and all the changes the church has experienced over the years, preaching remains a key part of the life of the church.  

Much has been written and discussed  about the art and science of preaching that one would think nothing more needs to be said however, there have been a few trends that raises concerns about this ancient means of teaching the Word of God.  These trends are producing sermons that are bland, unfocused and distracting from the scriptures.  Oddly, many Christians think such sermons are wonderful and believe they represent good preaching.   Are they right?   

The Failures of Preaching

Preaching is suffering in many churches across North America.   The quality of sermons has been on the decline, characterized by banal preaching, poor subject matter and lots of fluff with little in the way of solid food.  The scope of preaching has become fragmented with many preachers having little in the way of coherent messages that tie into larger themes.   Here are some of the causes that are leading to the poor state of preaching.  

Too Much Topical, Not Enough Expositional

One major cause is the almost exclusive use of topical preaching by the majority of preachers.  On a typical Sunday in a typical church, one will be listening to a sermon that is based on a particular subject.  The next Sunday, one will hear a message that is based on another subject.  In all cases the sermon will contain a passage or two from the Bible that the preacher will expound from.  However, it is the subject at hand that determines the biblical text and the scope of the text; from a single verse, to set of scattered verses to an entire chapter.  Subjects range from love, to suffering, to kindness, to evangelism, etc.  It could even be a subject about something in the Bible such as the sufferings of the apostle Paul, or the kind of relationship Jesus had with his disciples.  But in all cases, it is the subject that determines the sermon and the scriptures.  This stands in contrast to expository preaching where a specific biblical text is examined and expounded upon from the pulpit with a view to discovering what the text is saying.  

There is absolutely nothing wrong with topical preaching.  It is a very important form of preaching that addresses the needs of the church.  The problem with topical preaching is that it is overused to the point where few sermons are preached anymore on just the Bible.  Few preachers are taking their flock through a verse by verse study of a particular book or set of major chapters to discover what the scriptures are saying.  Instead, topical sermons are given where the Bible is used to support the topic at hand with less examination on what these Bible texts may be saying outside of the topic of that Sunday.  

The lack of expository preaching has led to some unintended consequences in the life of the church.  The first is that it contributes to the problem of biblical illiteracy.  Recent surveys claim that many evangelical Christians, whose faith is supposedly based on what the Bible says, know little of what the Bible says.  Many Christians have not read their Bibles from cover to cover.  Even more have a poor grasp of the content and structure of the Bible.  Most would probably fail a basic Bible quiz.  Given this back drop, the continuous use of topical sermons does little to reverse this situation.  Preachers need to start going through books of the Bible with their congregations in order to improve their basic knowledge of the scriptures.  

A second unintended consequence is that it reinforces the idea that the Bible is boring, so boring that preachers dare not preach from the same book week after week for fear it will bore their listeners.  The feeling is that one needs to have fresh, new and exciting topics week after week.  Doing a series of messages on the book of Leviticus spells the kiss of death.  But this is false premise.  It is not the book that makes for the boredom but rather the lack of skill or interest of the preacher to bring the freshness and excitement in the text to the listeners.  Topical sermons are “easy” in that the preacher controls the subject matter.  Expository preaching requires more skill as the preacher has to address the text at hand whether its content is easy, hard or seemingly boring.    

Too Many Stories, Too Little Bible

This may seem crazy to say but stories and illustrations are killing good preaching.  But wait, didn’t Jesus use parables in much of His preaching? Yes He did and to great effect, leading Him to become history’s greatest storyteller.  But Jesus did not use His stories to entertain His audiences.  He often used them to shock and shame them into repentance and to warn them of God’s coming wrath.  He often used stories to show people that they were not as good before God as they thought themselves to be.  Jesus used stories in a careful manner to cause people to pause, think and be convicted about the deep truths of the kingdom.

One of the major failures of contemporary preaching is the overuse of stories in sermons.  This trend can be found in many sermons where stories are taking up more preaching time than the actual message or scripture being preached.  It is not unusual to find a preacher spending 50 percent of his time telling all kinds of stories and not having enough time to finish the main body of the sermon!  Stories and illustrations are good and even critical in successful preaching.  Any sermon that doesn’t have them suffers.  But like any good thing, the overuse of storytelling ruins the sermon.  

Preachers who like to tell stories often spend too much time talking about their Aunt Bessie’s car breaking down in order to illustrate their point about trusting in God’s provision.  Then they go back to their text but in a short time they launch into another story about their Uncle Bob’s life as a tradesman in Chibougamau, Quebec.  Many stories from the pulpit may sound good but they are often too long, irrelevant, distracting and are often poor illustrations of the point the preacher is trying to get across.  Preachers need to make sure their stories do not displace the scriptures, that they are short, to the point and that they actually add value to the message.  The temptation is to use stories to entertain the audience in order to keep their attention and less on challenging them with the biblical text.  Stories are good but they must not override the main task at hand: the exposition of the Bible.  Too much story telling is feeding junk food to the flock.  

Too Much Dumbing Down, Too Little Biblical Challenge

The dumbing down of the western mind is all around us.  The culture of the short attention span, the Reader’s Digest version of almost anything, the lack of the ability to think critically and the lack of thoughtful reflection are hallmarks of contemporary society.  Unfortunately the art of dumbing things down is present in the church where the push to oversimplify and be content with spiritual baby food has become de rigueur in what passes for discipleship.  This is something the writer of Hebrews told his readers about in Hebrews 5:12-13:  

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.    

The readers of Hebrews should have been feeding themselves on solid food but instead they were content to live on baby food.  Unfortunately, this is what many preachers are content to do with their listeners, keep feeding them dumbed down spiritual baby food and never leading them into the deeper and harder truths of the scriptures.  It seems many preachers are afraid to speak of difficult biblical issues or are dismissive of them.  Preachers should not think that they have to dumb things down or talk down to their audience when it comes to preaching on deep theological matters.  Christians need to be on a solid path towards maturity.  Sermons filled with fluffy baby food does not help matters.  

The Reformation of Preaching

  Most preachers in evangelical churches today are godly servants of God who want nothing more than to lift up and encourage the saints.  Many of them spend hours in the Word preparing their messages.  Many have taken courses on preaching, theology and ministry and have learned the craft from seasoned veterans.  For this, they are to be commended.  Unfortunately, many have gone the way of topical overuse, story overuse and the dumbing down of their sermons. So what can preachers do to reverse these failures? 

The first step to avoid these failures is to get back to true expository preaching.  As they say, it is time to preach the whole counsel of God and this means going through the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter with the saints, Sunday after Sunday.  Preachers need to bring topical preaching down a few notches in use and focus more on those obscure books of the Bible that few preach on.    

The next step is to make sure one is feeding the saints real solid food.  Part of this means tackling the very difficult and controversial sections of the Bible that many  Christians have questions about but few preachers are willing to address in their sermons.  This is never easy but it is necessary if Christians are to emerge out of their spiritual infancy into maturity.  

The third step is to do the hard work of finding those hidden gems in the scriptures, especially within the familiar passages, and hauling them out for the congregation to feast and wonder over.  Preachers will need to hone their biblical skills and depend on the Holy Spirit to extract the gems in those obscure or difficult books for their listeners to receive.  The Bible is a vast treasure trove of spiritual jewels.  It is the preacher’s job to mine and refine those jewels for all to see.  

Preaching needs improvement.  It is not yet in a crisis situation within the church but it is coming close.  Getting back to biblical basics and cutting out unnecessary and unhelpful fluff are the key principles that preachers need to follow in order to stay the course.  These will help keep their sermons fruitful for the saints, for the edification of the church and for the glory of God.