Put a cargo ship out on the high seas without any ballast and it will roll. It will simply go belly-up, that is, until it sinks. Worthy sea vessels get ballast by taking water into holding bins beneath the waterline. Once the compartments are filled, and the hatches are closed, the ship is ready for the open waters.
There is a lesson in this for preachers. Sometimes, the thing that keeps your preaching afloat is a discipline otherwise hidden. Good preachers have holding bins that lend weight to their words, ballast found beneath the surface. And that ballast is biblical theology.
In recent years, evangelicalism has seen a wave of resources produced in the area of biblical theology. This is a good thing, because the discipline of biblical theology is uniquely suited to teach us how the Bible progressively unfolds the redemption plan of God in Christ. That said, simply ending a sermon with Jesus does not mean that one is truly preaching Christ. Sidney Greidanus explains:
Preaching Christ [is] preaching sermons which authentically integrate the message of the text with the climax of God’s revelation in the person, work and or teaching of Jesus Christ as revealed in the New Testament.
To deliver Christ in a sermon requires authentic integration of the message of the text with the work of Christ. In other words, it requires ballast.
Our goal in this series of three posts is to introduce tools of biblical theology so that you might put some bulk in your preaching. In this first post we will discuss how plot and theme serve to make preachers Word-worthy vessels.
The Bible has a plotline. It tells one story through 66 books that, under the authorship of the Holy Spirit, all arrive at the same port: the person and work of Jesus Christ. This plot is not simply a literary device, but is an historical unfolding of the progressive revelation that culminates in Christ. According to Graeme Goldsworthy,
It is the nature of biblical revelation that it tells a story rather than sets out timeless principles in abstract. [The Bible] does contain many timeless principles, but not in abstract. They are given in an historical context of progressive revelation.
God did not choose to bring his Son into the world immediately after the fall. Rather, he chose to progressively reveal himself and his plan throughout human history. The result of revealing himself over time, and through the hard and happy history of Israel, was to ensure that when his Son did come we could recognize Jesus to be the fulfillment of all God was doing in history.
This means we can authentically integrate texts in the Bible with the message of Christ by rightly seeing their place in the plotline of the Bible. Texts are not springboards or foils to get to Christ.
Here are some questions that probe the amount of ballast you have in your preaching: How well do you know the plotline of the Bible? Where are its major turning points? Who are the significant characters and what role do they play? What are the different episodes, acts or epochs that show how the Bible’s story is divided?
These are vital and important questions for you to be able to answer. And, in the final post in this series, we will point to great resources for helping you.
As preachers begin to learn to read the Bible through the lens of an historical plotline, themes will emerge throughout, some of which will find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Defining a theme is not easy. But we find it helpful to think of themes in terms of established ideas or concepts that develop throughout the plotline. Themes are more than words that merely get repeated, though a repeated word can be helpful in summarizing a theme.
A good example of a theme is the temple. The temple represents the idea of God’s presence throughout the Bible, which finds its fulfillment in Christ, whose death opens up the way for us to be in the presence of God. The preacher with ballast will learn to handle this theme from places in the Old Testament that are not limited solely to where the word appears, or the ancient structure is mentioned. Rather, they will see the idea in places like the tabernacle or in the Garden of Eden.
A host of themes are present in the Bible, and all of them, rightly taken on, provide much-needed weight for our preaching. They include covenant (how God relates to his people), kingdom (how God orders and rules over his people), exodus (how God saves his people), exile (how God punishes his people), and many others. These all find their fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Preaching that is worthy of being out on the open waters is done by those who know the value of questions like: Are there any themes in my text this week that find fulfillment in Christ? Do I even know the major themes of the Bible? Can I show how these themes are developed and find their fulfillment in Christ?
In the next post we will look at two more tools that will add ballast to our preaching: typology and analogy.
 Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 10.
 Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 22.
David Helm is one of the pastors of Holy Trinity Church in Chicago, Chairman of the Charles Simeon Trust, and the author of Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Forthcoming from Crossway, April 2014). Joel Miles is the Director of Training at the Charles Simeon Trust and a pastoral resident at Holy Trinity Church.
So, what exactly is the worship set? And should it be a given in our churches?
Simply put, the worship set is a consecutive group of deliberately chosen worship songs or hymns. It reflects forethought and creativity. It’s a far better option than picking a few popular songs and tossing them up on the canvas like a Jackson Pollock painting.
Similar to a meal with an appetizer, entrée, and dessert, the worship set follows a dynamic arc or storyline. A set might begin with a call to worship or song of invitation. This song sets a particular theme and invites worshipers to praise God. Next, a couple more songs develop the theme both musically and lyrically. This is the “entrée” portion. If the first song focused on the character of God, these selections might move the church to consider our sin and redemption in Christ. The final song of the set is the theological and musical climax. It could consist of a celebration of the resurrection, or a call to respond in faith and discipleship, or simply a declaration of praise. Bob Kauflin argues for this kind of deliberate thematic development in his book Worship Matters, and he outlines a number of helpful worship set frameworks to try.
On the whole, I think the worship set is a wonderful idea if it is used well. In a former church, serving as director of worship, I devoted substantial time each week to crafting and preparing sets of music. My hope was that this process would aid believers in responding to God in robust praise with their heads and their hearts, and I believe God blessed this effort.
The worship set can be a God-glorifying approach because deliberately shaping the order of songs aids in “the strengthening of the church” that is to characterize our corporate praise (1 Cor. 14:26). It unifies the songs around a central concept, which promotes understanding. If used well, the worship set prepares the congregation for the specific questions and priorities that the sermon will address. Like a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, a worship set can capture our imagination and help us engage with God through the implicit story being told in the sequence of songs.
THE WORSHIP SET: POTENTIAL PITFALLS AND SOLUTIONS
So I don’t want to declare that the worship set is a terrible concept altogether. But I do want to take that glass sculpture off grandma’s shelf and see if it can be improved.
Why? While the worship set has much to commend it, it’s not without dangers. Here are three potential pitfalls it presents. For each, I’ll identify some ways to think and move “beyond” the worship set.
1. The worship set can fragment the order of service.
First, the worship set can fragment the order of service. If pastors and other leaders aren’t careful, using a worship set can subtly convey that the worship service basically has two parts: the singing and the sermon. The worship leader presides over the first half, then passes the baton to the pastor for the message.
I fear that because of this, many evangelicals have a bifurcated picture of public worship: the music part of the service is geared at those who relate to God through emotional experiences, while the sermon exists to engage heady, left-brain types. At worst, this false dichotomy can also perpetuate the common misconception that worship through song is the church’s worship, leading to comments like, “The worship (read: music) today was incredible, but the sermon was a bit dry”—as if preaching is not doxology too.
However we structure our services, we must take pains to convey that both music and preaching (and other elements—see point 2) are properly “worship” to God, and that they’re essential for all Christians.
Here are some suggestions to circumvent this danger. First, if your services usually fall into the “30 minutes of music and 30 minutes of preaching” formula, then change up your order of service regularly. Consider breaking up the music set with prayer, Scripture reading, or silent reflection. Try occasionally placing the sermon closer to the beginning of the service and leaving most of the singing for after the message.
Have an individual other than the worship leader or preacher, preferably an elder, lead the whole service. Call this man a “host,” an “MC,” a “service leader” (that’s the term we use at my church), or whatever you like. But make sure he’s not the music leader or the preacher. If this individual gives the welcome and announcements, introduces the songs, presides over the offering, leads the prayers, and so on, then he can bring unity to the whole service.
Pick a theme for the service based on the theme of the sermon text. Ensure that the songs, prayers, and even the announcements relate to this theme. When the congregation realizes that the whole service is about “the faithfulness of God” or “knowing Christ in suffering,” it will mitigate against the feeling that the worship service is merely a concert followed by an unrelated talk.
2. The worship set can lead a church to undervalue non-musical worship elements.
Another danger of the worship set is that it can lead a church to undervalue non-musical worship elements. Paul told Timothy, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). He instructed the young pastor to lead his church in offering up “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 2:1). His expectation was that the members of the Corinthian church would set aside their offering “on the first day of every week” (1 Cor. 16:2), from which many have inferred that giving was an integral part of the New Testament church’s public worship. Jesus commanded his followers to baptize new disciples (Matt. 28:19), and he gave them his Supper so they could proclaim his death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26). There’s a lot more to do in church than sing and preach.
The danger with the worship set is that these other elements of biblical worship can fade into the background. If the congregation expects (or even demands?) to experience a well-rehearsed, creative musical progression, that can force out these other mandated expressions of worship. Of course, I’m not suggesting that anyone intentionally sidelines biblical elements of worship. I only mean to highlight a pattern I’ve noticed: when a church privileges worship through song by giving it the lion’s share of time and focus, these other elements of worship tend to become thin and perfunctory.
How can pastors and those who lead worship through song work against this tendency?
If you use a worship set, resist the idea that the set must only contain music in order for it to have maximum impact. This isn’t a concert. Intersperse prayers and readings between the songs.
Promote a culture of worshipful, robust prayer in your services. If you devote substantial time to prayer during the public meeting, it shouldn’t be a surprise if your church members learn to prioritize prayer in their private lives.
How do we bolster our public prayers? By saturating them with scriptural truths: “Do we not learn the language of confession and penitence from the Bible? Do we not learn the promises of God to believe and claim in prayer from the Bible? Don’t we learn the will of God, the commands of God, and the desires of God for His people for which we are to plead in prayer, from the Bible? Since these things are so, public prayers should repeat and echo the language of the Bible throughout.”
There is also a correlation between rehearsal time and value. If your church values well-crafted music, it’s likely that your band or choir spend hours in rehearsal. Why not spend as much time and effort on preparing public prayers?
Finally, promote a culture of worshipful Scripture reading in your services. If we believe that the Word of God is “sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12) let’s take it out of the sheath and let it do its work. Read in such a way that the majestic truths of Scripture echo in the ears of your congregation. Consider training up a number of congregants to read Scripture well: with meaning, emphasis, gravity, and joy. We hand out Tim Challies’ excellent article on how to read Scripture publicly to everyone who reads at our church.
3. The worship set can foster an entertainment culture.
Third, the worship set can foster an entertainment culture. This danger is ironic, of course, because one of the purposes of the worship set is to unify a group of songs along the lines of theological content. But I fear that often, what the congregation experiences as they sing through a worship set is not a new appreciation for a biblical theme, but a concert-like journey through a stirring series of songs.
Although I’m not against creativity and emotion in public worship, I believe it is possible to so prioritize the emotional response that comes from music that biblical truth is overlooked rather than illuminated. One implication of Colossians 3:16 is that if the word of Christ does not dwell in us richly as we sing, then something about the way we’re singing needs to change.
As Neil Postman argued in Amusing Ourselves to Death, entertainment has become the dominant discourse of our age. While the church must recognize this fact, it shouldn’t capitulate to it. Our services don’t have to feel like a concert or TV show, even if those modes of discourse define the manner in which postmodern people experience the flow of ideas. Rather, we have the opportunity in our services to model a different type of discourse, one that begins with the self-revelation of God. Our worship—whether contemporary or traditional, high church or low—should eschew man-focused experientialism and embrace the transcendent God.
So, if a worship set can help people adore, treasure, and understand more of our holy Creator, then by all means use one. But if in your church the worship set tends to place more focus on the artistry of the band than on the awesomeness of the Redeemer, something needs to change.
How can we resist the way a worship set might slowly pull a church toward entertainment-ism?
Do all that you can to prioritize the congregation being able to hear one another sing. This is a basic biblical principle, given that Paul exhorts believers to speak “to one another” with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19). But it also goes a long way in cultivating an atmosphere of joy and engagement with the lyrics.
Awareness of others in corporate worship, and of how the volume and expression of your own singing actually encourages others, helps to thwart self-centeredness. Practically, this may involve turning down the volume of the band or orchestra, and instructing the musicians to focus on tasteful, simple accompaniment rather than complex or virtuosic performing.
Provide a framework that helps to interpret the worship through song. For example, instead of beginning the service with dark lighting and a reverb-heavy guitar line (which feels a lot like a concert), begin with a call to worship from God’s Word or a brief prayer.
Before the music begins, have the service leader give a few words of instruction or exhortation to set the song(s) in context. This interpretation of what is about to come is invaluable not only for believers, but also for unbelievers who may not know what to make of the music they’re about to hear. (See 1 Corinthians 14:24 on the priority of making the service understandable to non-Christian visitors). Yes, it might feel a bit wooden and awkward to have a few remarks before the singing. But even this speed bump in the service is a good thing, because it engages the congregation’s minds and inhibits the passivity that an entertainment culture thrives on.
Also, keep the main lights turned up. Darkness, smoke machines, and spotlights all scream that the focus should be on musicians up front. In contrast, bright lighting and modest staging—even placing the musicians off to the side if possible—convey that what really matters here is not the choir or the worship team, but the content of the songs and the whole congregation’s participation.
See silence as a friend, not an enemy. If there are a few moments of quiet between a song and a prayer, or between the offering and the sermon, it’s not a disaster. After all, this is a gathering of Christians for praise, not a TV production. In fact, allowing silent space in transitions can refresh people’s mental palates and allow the church to reflect on what has come before in the service. In addition, use planned moments of silence for reflection and prayer. Sitting in a room with dozens or hundreds of other believers and simply being quiet before the Lord is bracingly countercultural in our noisy, distracted age.
MORE TOOLS IN THE TOOLBOX
In all of this, I’m not trying to make the worship set a bogeyman. It’s a useful tool. But for these three reasons, I don’t think it should be the only tool in our toolbox. And if we do use a worship set, we should do so in a way that unifies rather than divides the order of service, that highlights rather than downplays other elements of worship, and that promotes awe before God rather than an entertainment experience.
When it comes to planning a worship service, there is much freedom with regard to the forms and circumstances in which a congregation reads the Word, sings the Word, prays the Word, hears the Word preached, and sees the Word in the ordinances. I pray that as pastors and music directors think beyond the worship set, God would give us wisdom to lead our congregations in offering him an appropriate sacrifice of praise. I pray that our churches, filled by God’s Spirit, would increasingly delight in God’s Son, the one who gave himself for us that we might be worshipers of him.
Matt Merker is a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, where his responsibilities include music and service preparation. You can find congregational worship songs he has composed at www.capitolhillbaptist.org/
 Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 114.
 Terry Johnson, Reformed Worship: Worship That Is according to Scripture (Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press, 2000), 35.
All this month, Logos is giving away electronic copies of Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church by Michael Lawrence.
If you haven't read the book, this is a great chance to do so. One of the unique things about the book is that it describes the hermeneutical tools for biblical theology, models how to do biblical theology, and sketches how biblical theology works out in pastoral ministry.
In other words, this isn't just a book about how to put the Bible together, but about how to use that put-together Bible to put God's people together.
Take up and read!
I assume it’s a foregone conclusion among many—maybe most?—evangelical Christians that the greatest love in all the universe is God’s unconditional love.
And it’s not just evangelicals, but Americans generally. Just last Sunday the preacher pulled out these Katy Perry lyrics:
I will love you unconditionally,
There is no fear now,
Come just as you are to me.
Don't need apologies,
Know that you are worthy,
Let go and just be free.
Acceptance is the key to be truly free
Will you do the same for me?
Love is acceptance without conditions. To put conditions on a person is not loving. It’s imposing yourself, which is selfishness, the opposite of love. So if you love someone, you set them free. Or so said another rock star of an older era.
Hopefully it’s obvious to most readers that Perry’s not exalting the Christian life here, but something very different.
Which leads me to my main point: at the very center of the universe, and the greatest love in the universe, is the divine Father’s conditional love for the divine Son. And that should give us hope.
Does that sound crazy? Listen to the divine Father:
“This is my beloved Son. With him I am well pleased” (Matt. 17:5).
The Father was pleased with the Son, and so he loved him. The Father looked down at the Son, and he saw someone who was not like Adam, or Israel, or any human who ever lived. He was perfect in every way. He was utterly, ineffably, divinely pleasing. He was altogether lovely.
John Piper put it like this: the Father “beheld the panorama of his own perfections in the face of his Son” (Pleasures of God, 28-29).
You may have beheld a woman’s face or a man’s face and thought it exquisite. But beholding the Son’s face, the Creator of all beautiful faces found himself beholding the very standard of beauty, righteousness, justice, goodness, and perfection. For he found himself beholding himself. And so he was attracted to such perfection. He loved it because it was perfect. His love was conditioned on this perfection.
Therefore the Father exalted the Son above his companions. He didn’t exalt the Son indiscriminately, randomly, unconditionally. He exalted him because he was altogether lovely.
“You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (Heb. 1:9; citing Ps. 45:7).
Did you catch the therefore? The Son loved righteousness. Therefore the Father exalted him.
I wonder if all this sounds vain and horrible and backwards to you.
Well, stop and think. If it turns out that everything the Bible says is true about God’s mercy and goodness and generosity, the fact that the Father conditionally loves the Son because the Son is perfect means he will want others to share the Son’s perfection. He will want to remake the universe for the display of the glory of his Son. He will want to fashion billions of creatures to image the Son. He will, that is to say, want to make us perfect and just and righteous and good like his most good Son.
The fact that the Father conditionally loves the Son means there will be an end to injustice and unrighteousness in the universe. It means there is a glorious standard toward which this universe is careening and will be conformed.
It means Christians should stop preaching Easy Believism and Jesus-as-Savior-but-Not-Lord.
Rather, Christians should preach that God loves us contra-conditionally, as David Powlison has put it. He loves us contrary to what we deserve because he’s gracious and merciful. And then he loves us by calling us to repent. To be born again. To follow the Son by putting on the image of the Son.
And so my own church’s statement of faith teaches, “Justification includes the pardon of sin, and the promise of eternal life on principles of righteousness.”
What principles of righteousness are those? They’re the principles that say I need to be righteous for God to love me. But I’ve not been righteous. The good news is, Jesus was perfectly righteous. And through faith his righteousness is granted to me. Now, the Father loves sinners like you and me, Christian—get this!—as if our faces shone forth with all the beauty, righteousness, justice, goodness, and perfection of the Son.
And so the Father says to us, “With you I am well pleased.”
You can follow me @JonathanDLeeman.
Of all the things I have written, my little essay, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” has provided me with so many delightful surprises over the years. I wrote it in about 45 minutes one afternoon, infuriated by some superficial comment about worship I had heard but which I have long since forgotten. And yet this little piece which took minimal time and energy to author has garnered more positive responses and more touching correspondence than anything else I have ever written. It resonated with people across the Christian spectrum, people from all different church backgrounds who had one thing in common: the understanding that life has a sad, melancholy, painful dimension which is too often ignored and sometimes even denied in our churches.
The article was intended to highlight what I saw as a major deficiency in Christian worship, a deficiency that is evident in both traditional and contemporary approaches: the absence of the language of lament. The Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, contains many notes of lamentation, reflecting the nature of the believer’s life in a fallen world. And yet these cries of pain are on the whole absent from hymns and praise songs. The question that formed the article’s title was thus a genuine one: what is it in the hymnody of your church that can be sung honestly by the woman who has just lost her baby, the husband who has just lost his wife, the child who has just lost a parent, when they come to church on Sunday? The answer, I suggested, was the Psalms, for in them one finds divinely inspired words which allow the believer to express their deepest pains and sorrows to God.
Would I write it differently today? Not in terms of substance. If anything, I would broaden its application since I believe that its message is more important now than it was at the time of composition. As I survey the contemporary church landscape, I am struck at how even the great gospel of sovereign grace is now so often focused on the youth market and consequently packaged with the aesthetics of worldly power, of celebrity, of the kind of superficial approaches to life which mark the childish and the immature. Things that were once (and sadly no more) the exclusive preserve of the proponents of the prosperity gospel now feature in mainstream evangelical circles without comment or criticism. The world has truly been turned upside down when Calvinism has in some quarters become known for its pyrotechnics and its cocksure swagger.
I am also more aware now than I was when I wrote it of how real mortality is and of how short life can be. I wrote the piece with others in mind; now I am older and only too aware of how it applies to me and to those I love. The older one is, the more one is acquainted with the loss of friends and family, and the more one’s own mortality feels like a constant and unwelcome dinner guest. As a father I rejoiced the first time my son beat me in a running race; but my delight in his growing strength was short-lived when in the coming months and years I realized it was also indicative of my own decline.
The world tells us to defy this as long as we can, whether by fitness, fashion choices or even surgery. But the world is a malevolently plausible confidence trickster who tells us what we want to hear. Weakness and then death ultimately come to us all; and it is the pastor’s task to prepare both himself and his people for the inevitable. Thus, I now believe it is more important than ever that the church embrace weakness and tragedy in its worship. True, we look forward to the resurrection; but we often forget that the pathway to resurrection is necessarily and unavoidably through death. We need to remind our people in both what we preach, what we pray, and what we sing as a congregation that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness—and, where resurrection is concerned, in and through our total weakness at the hands of death.
Since writing the original piece, I have also become more aware of the power of liturgy to shape the mind of a Christian congregation. I am not talking here only of formal liturgies such as those in The Book of Common Prayer. I mean the form and content of any worship service claiming to be Christian. That which we say and sing as a congregation will over time subtly and imperceptibly inform our thinking about the Christian faith and thus about life in general in a powerful way. That is why an emphasis on the aesthetics of power and youth—perhaps we might say liturgies of power and youth—are problematic. They exclude the old or delude them into thinking that they are not old; and they deceive the young into thinking that they are the center of the universe and are destined to live forever. A liturgy which accurately reflects the expectations we can have for life in a fallen world, one that inculcates and reinforces that week by week, is important as a means of preparing our people for the suffering that must eventually come their way.
And that brings me once more to the psalms. True, there are Christian poets and even the occasional hymn writer who have captured the dark complexities of life; but there are none to compare with authors of the Psalter who set forth the riches and depths of human experience and existence with perfect poetic pitch. The church which makes the psalms part of her regular diet provides her people with the resources for truly living in this vale of tears, just as the church which does not do so has perversely denied her people a true treasure in pursuit of what? Relevance? There is nothing more universally relevant than preparing people for suffering and death. I have people in my congregation who have very hard lives, lives that are not going to become easier over time. To them I can only say: suffering comes to us all, but there is a resurrection; listen to how the notes of real, present lament in the Psalms are suffused with tangible, future hope and be encouraged: weeping may tarry for the night, and indeed be truly painful while it does, but joy will come in the morning.
When I married a young couple in my congregation a few years ago, I commented in the sermon that all human marriages begin with joy but end in tragedy. Whether it is divorce or death, the human bond of love is eventually torn apart. The marriage of Christ and his church, however, begins with tragedy and ends with a joyful and loving union which will never be rent asunder. There is joy to which we point in our worship, the joy of the Lamb’s wedding feast. But our people need to know that in this world there will be mourning. Not worldly mourning with no hope. But real mourning nonetheless, and we must make them ready for that.
Still, as I look back to the original “Miserable Christians” piece, I never imagined I would still be commenting on it so many years later. I am grateful that it seems to have been a help and encouragement to so many.
Carl Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania.
 “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” in The Wages Of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus, 2005), 157-63.
Repentant Christians grieve sin. They remember times of iniquity. A place, person or conversation can trigger these memories.
Driving to visit my parents, I pass a house where, as a teenager, I gathered with other teens to engage in sin.
Or, my Facebook feed updates me about a guy that I bullied in high school.
Or, my daughter remarked when learning the fifth commandment, “Dad, you’ve always honored your mother and father, haven’t you?” Yeah, right.
All these things, when I stop to consider them, cause grief.
Surely, the Christian life is filled with the joy of forgiven sin. Yet that joy can only grow out of the soil of sadness, a sadness that results from reflecting on our betrayals of God and others, present and past.
If you are a pastor, one of your jobs is to teach and lead your congregation in grieving sin. Do you?
GRIEVING IN SCRIPTURE
We grieve sin because God grieves sin. The Prophets are filled with the Father’s groans over his people’s sin. Isaiah tells us the Holy Spirit grieves sin (Is 63.10; also, Eph. 4.30). The Son came to bear humanities grief: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow” (Is. 53:4). And we see him weeping over Lazarus’ death and grieving the sins of Jerusalem.
We also watch Peter grieve his own denial of Christ. The third time Jesus asked Peter if he loved Jesus, the Scripture says, “Peter was grieved …” (see John 21:15-19). The trigger for Peter was the third request of his love. It reminded him of his three denials.
Yet grief in Scripture is not just an individual activity, it’s a corporate activity, led by church leaders. Peter preached the first gospel message with an aim of producing grief over sin. He accuses them of crucifying and killing Jesus (Acts 2.23, 36). Their response? “They were cut to the heart…and said, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” (v. 37). They experienced grief of sin, which produced repentance (v. 38).
Paul, too, observes that one of his letters caused the Corinthians to grieve. And he rejoices because it led to repentance: “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief…for godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation (2 Cor. 7.9-10).”
This text is not directed to an individual. It points to corporate sin and corporate grief. The Greek text uses the plural pronoun “you” over and over in this passage. (See Judg. 10.10ff, 1 Sam. 7.6; Neh. 1, and Dan. 9 for other instances of corporate confession.)
And notice, godly grief produces repentance, which leads to salvation.
LEADING YOUR CHURCH THROUGH GRIEF
It is appropriate, therefore, for us to include opportunities to grieve, confess and repent sin in our church’s corporate gathering. Unless miserable sinners are brought to grief, they will not experience relief.
Here are a few suggestions to help our congregation grieve sin in our worship services.
1. Grieving Sin through Corporate Prayer
Dedicate an entire prayer to confessing sin. The pastor or another trusted leader should lead the congregation through this prayer. Nehemiah 1 and Daniel 9 are excellent examples (Mark Dever often begins his prayers by reading a slightly amended version of Daniel 9:18-19). Both Nehemiah and Daniel grieve the sin of Israel and confess this sin to God on behalf of Israel.
Some ideas for executing this include: praying a Scripture that confesses sin such as Psalm 106.6 or Ephesians 2.4, using another’s prayer such as a Puritan prayer from the Valley of Vision, or writing your own prayer.
2. Grieving Sin at the Lord’s Table
A natural place to grieve sin is during the Lord’s Table. There we remember that Christ drank the full cup of God’s wrath against sin on our behalf (Ps. 75.8; Matt. 20.22, 26.39).
Whoever facilitates the Lord’s Supper should work in time for God’s people to reflect, grieve and confess sin. Paul explicitly instructs us to examine ourselves (1 Cor. 11.27-28).
One could simply recite this confession from the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from Your ways like lost sheep…We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done…we acknowledge with great sorrow our many sins which we, from time to time, have committed by thought, word and deed, against Your divine majesty, provoking most justly Your wrath against us. But, O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare all who confess their faults and truly repent; according to Your promises declared in Christ Jesus our Lord. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for our wrongs; remembering them now grieves us…Forgive us all that is past.
Recall that the Lord’s Supper is not only a gospel celebration but also a participatory sacrifice of service and devotion to the body (1 Cor. 10.14-22, 11.26).
3. Grieving Sin through a Hymn or Song
Many churches only use hymns and songs for praise. But the Bible calls for songs of lamentation, too (see Carl Trueman’s essay, “What Do Miserable Christians Sing?”)
God instructs Moses to teach Israel a song that laments sin, stands as a witness against sin, and reminds them of their salvation (see Deut. 31.19-22). Try reading this song. You will be struck by Israel’s grievous sin and how this song is structured to cause Israel to grieve sin.
The Psalms, too, offer examples of lamenting sin.
Gratefully, many hymns and more and more contemporary songs include both confession and praise. Bob Kauflin and Keith and Kristyn Getty are modern day hymn writers that intentionally bring the church through the gospel starting with grief of sin. Visit WorshipMatters.com and GettyMusic.com to find songs that incorporate these elements of worship.
Joey Cochran, a graduate of Dallas Seminary, is a church planting intern at Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, Illinois under the supervision of Pastor Joe Thorn. Follow him at jtcochran.com or @joeycochran.
You can warm a seat in a church for many years and still have a cold dead heart. I did.
You can know the lyrics to all of the songs. You can memorize all of the right verses. You can be the son or daughter of a minister. You can talk, dress, and act in all the right ways and still not know forgiveness for your sins. Is this you?
Maybe you’re like me and John Wesley. In his book Am I Really a Christian, Mike McKinley writes:
“John Wesley was an Anglican minister and the son of an Anglican minister. By 1738, he was well known in England for his piety and his strict and methodical approach to his religion. He was not, however, a Christian. By his own admission he was trusting in his own goodness to earn God’s favor. He thought that his religious performance would make him right with God.
Then one day in May, right after Wesley had returned from a failed mission’s trip to the Americas, he had an experience of understanding God’s grace.
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society [meeting] in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle of the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while [the leader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given to me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (131-32)
Like John Wesley, do you trust in your religious performance to make you right with God? Friend, are you really a Christian? It may be time to test yourself and examine your standing before God. Read more here.
For the past few days I’ve been more or less confined to bed. That’s rare for me, since I’m twenty-seven and healthy. But I’ve got a degenerative disc in my lower back that flares up once in a long while.
As physical afflictions go, this one is mercifully minor. It’s nothing compared to the cancer that one member of my church is facing down, or the debilitating conditions other members battle. But it has still blown up my plans for the week. I’ve had to miss class, delay an anniversary day away with my wife, and lie in bed all evening instead of playing with my kids.
In all this God has been teaching me lessons I didn’t particularly want to learn. He’s teaching me not to turn frustration into hard words toward my wife, not to worry about how this condition might play out in coming decades, to know just how dependent on him I really am.
I didn’t want to learn these lessons this week, but God knows I need them. I’m confident that’s one reason, at least, why he didn’t give me the week I wanted.
I’d suggest there’s a lesson here for life in the church. To put it bluntly, nobody gets the church they want.
You may not bring a checklist and clipboard when you show up at church, but we all bring a want-list. Maybe you want a certain kind of music, a certain experience in worship. Maybe you want a preacher who can dive a mile deep into two verses in Romans. Maybe you want charismatic, extroverted leaders who can connect with anyone and always know what to say.
Whatever might be on your list, I can guarantee this: not everything on your list is on God’s.
Mainly, I mean that you have opinions that go beyond God’s revealed will. One preacher I greatly respect has been known to say, “I don’t have opinions, I just believe the Bible.” I love the spirit there, but that’s impossible. Would you rather eat a burger or boeuf bourguignon? Would you rather sing “A Mighty Fortress” or “10,000 Reasons”? Either way, you’ve got an opinion, but you’ll have a tough time giving me chapter and verse for it.
But there’s another sense in which your list for a church won’t always match God’s: God has revealed his will for the church in Scripture, but no church perfectly fulfills that will. No church is as mature and holy as God’s Word calls it to be. Every church is a work in progress. Sometimes, then, even the good hunger to be part of a mature, thriving church might lead you to be impatient with the immaturities and struggles of your own congregation.
And God has revealed what churches should be and do. Churches should be led by a number of godly men who shepherd the flock and preach the Word (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 4:1-5). What should you do if you’re in a church without plural elders? The answers are as endless as the variables in any real situation. But one likely option is for you to embody some of God’s own patience toward his imperfect people.
If God can patiently bear with his people in their immaturity and failure to follow his own directives, so can you. If you’re in a position of influence, deploy that influence humbly and wisely. But whatever you do, don’t let your good desire for your church to obey Scripture harden into frustration or bitterness.
Nobody—that’s right, nobody—gets the church they want. We all have opinions, preferences, and sometimes even convictions that won’t perfectly match any actual assembly of God’s people. We all will have to put others’ interests before our own, and sacrifice what we want for the sake of what the whole body needs.
In some ways, that’s the whole point of life in the church. God has made us members of the body so that we would learn to attend to the body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). God has made us co-laborers in the gospel so that we would image the gospel by putting others before ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4). Christ set aside his rights to serve us, and that’s what you do every time you sacrifice a preference to promote the body’s growth.
Putting others before yourself will cost you. In a culture saturated with consumerism, and in cities with a buffet of church options, the last thing we typically want to do is sacrifice our preferences. But that’s precisely what the gospel calls us to do.
So say your church sings a song that you don’t really like. The words are orthodox, but you grimace at the tune and the tone. Instead of silently smirking through it, dig deep and belt it out. Odds are that another member of your church loves it. So encourage that member, whoever they are, by addressing them with that particular hymn or spiritual song (Col. 3:16-17).
Get in the habit of letting go of your preferences so you can grab onto the good of the whole body. Train your heart, mind, tongue, and hands to run in the gospel grooves of giving up so others can gain.
God may not give you the church you want, but he’s more than capable of giving you the church you need. So take a look around. Maybe he already has.
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
We asked Mike McKinley a few questions about his book Am I Really a Christian? Here’s what we got.
Why did you write this book?
The short answer is that I was struck on one hand by how much time the NT spends clarifying what it means to be a genuine Christian and on the other hand how little time most churches spend talking about it. As a pastor, I run into people all the time that are confused on these issues; some believers with sensitive consciences lack assurance, others with no evidence of conversion in their lives are presuming on the grace of God. My aim in writing the book was to help both of those kinds of people by examining what the Bible says on the topic.
Any funny stories about people's reactions to the title since it's come out? What about encouraging stories?
I had a near-death experience with a women’s book club of sorts that was reading the book. They invited me to sit in on one of their discussions, and then spent most of the time talking about how discouraging and upsetting the book was. After about an hour, one of the women who had until this point been silent spoke up and said, “But all of the things that you’re upset about are in the Bible. Don’t blame him, blame Jesus.” That was uncomfortable.
But I’ve also heard some amazing stories of how God has used the book as a means of bringing people to Christ. The best are emails from people who gave the book to a friend or family member for whom they’ve been praying for a long time and the Lord saved that person. When I hear those stories I think to myself, “This might be the most important thing I ever do in my ministry”.
Anything you'd change in the book since writing it?
Maybe a different publicity photo, or a photo of someone better looking. Seriously, I don’t think so; not because it’s perfect but rather because it’s pretty simple. There wouldn’t be that much to change that wouldn’t change the basic message.
Get your copy of Am I Really a Christian? today.