Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

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reprinted from the Autumn 2006 edition of Essentials

  In November last year the students at Moore College farewelled me as I prepared to leave for our family's move to Melbourne and the new ministry at the Bible College of Victoria. In fact, from the moment we began the service with the stirring opening hymn, 'Before the Throne of God Above', I knew I was never going to be able to keep my feelings in check. The speeches, the gifts, and the prayers were very moving. When I was invited to respond, I was so overwhelmed that through the tears I couldn't speak. I'm not sure the last time some one wept publicly at a gathering at Moore College, but it's certainly been a while! Mike Raiter moved from Moore College to become the Principal of the Bible College of Victoria in January. Already he considers himself three-quarters a Melbournian. He supports South Melbourne (their proper name), he buys 'The Age' and not 'The Sydney Morning Herald', and he makes jokes about Sydney. However, his conversion is incomplete: he prefers the UBD to the sacred Melways!
  Of course, I tried to fight back the tears. Now, isn't that an interesting expression: 'fight back the tears', as if tears are an enemy to be suppressed and overcome. Why did I not feel content just to let them flow? I had a perfectly good reason to. I suppose that it was because I saw my inability to hold my emotions in check as a sign of my weakness.
  In the perceptions of many, Evangelical Anglicanism and strong emotions is not a natural or familiar association. And, sometimes, it's not hard to see why. I recall some years ago hearing a sermon on "the height, depth, length and breath of God's love for us in Christ" (Eph 3:19) delivered throughout without a flicker of emotion. A towering Scripture was treated with a tepid presentation.
  What has happened to our evangelical piety when we allow such preaching to continue without challenge from the pulpits of our churches? It is tragic to hear sermons on, say, the seriousness of sin, the majesty of Jesus, the assurance of salvation, the expectation of glory, delivered with all the passion one might show in giving street directions to a passing motorist.  
  When was the last time we heard preaching that deeply moved us? Preaching during which we could feel tears in our eyes, or a lump in our threat, or goose bumps on our arms? Preaching through which we felt deep conviction of sin, or excitement at the prospect of serving some Christian cause? I am not saying these things never happen, but I suspect that they're pretty rare. Of course, such preaching is not just the product of skilful oratory. It comes from a profound intellectual and emotional engagement with the text of Scripture and is then delivered out of a deep conviction that this living word is to be announced to the congregation with all the urgency and seriousness that the text itself warrants.  
  That's one reason why I've come to dislike the expression 'teaching the Bible'. I find that increasingly it is announced before the sermon that, "The speaker will now come and teach the Bible to us." Of course, there is a vitally important teaching dimension to what we are doing when we preach. But we preach. This is more than just 'giving a talk' or explaining the meaning of a passage. It is proclaiming, announcing, declaring God's word to this people in this place at this point in time. Too many sermons I hear are conversations between the speaker and the audience which rarely rise much above a 'talk'. The glory of God, the wonder of the Cross, the awfulness of sin, and the terror of the final judgment are so momentous that they must be proclaimed and, at times thundered, from our pulpits.  
  Words from the Wise  
  a. Jonathan Edwards  
  The great 18th century theologian, Jonathan Edwards in his classic work, The Religious Affections, argues that the soul is endued with two faculties. The first is the understanding by which it is able to perceive, speculate upon and, finally, judge the truth or rightness of a matter. The other faculty "is that by which the soul does not merely perceive and view things, but is in some way inclined with respect to the things it views or considers". He calls this variously the inclination, the will, or the heart. For Edwards, true religion consists not just in the understanding, but "in a great measure in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart". In other words, true religion is both the apprehension intellectually of a truth, and then the response of the person emotionally and volitionally to that truth.  
  Edwards goes on to assert that God is glorified in both. He maintains that God glorifies himself in his people by revealing himself both to their understanding and to their hearts. In short, God is glorified in us not just by our seeing and perceiving his goodness and greatness but also by our then responding to what we have seen with joy and delight. Indeed, when people see God's glory and delight in it, God is actually more glorified than if they only see it, because his glory is then received by the whole soul, by both the understanding and by the heart.  
  b. John Piper  
  If you've read anything of John Piper you'll recognise immediately the influence of Edwards on Piper. Piper says that once you grasp the important point that Edwards is making, that the work of the heart (or the emotions) is as important for reflecting the glory of God as the work of the head (the understanding) then you begin to see why music and singing is so important for Christian worship.  
  Piper wisely observes that we sing because the truths about God are so wonderful, so sublime and so majestic that they demand more than prose. We sing, not just because we're commanded to but because the realities of God and Christ, creation and salvation, heaven and hell are so great that when you've really grasped what they mean, and what they mean for you personally, then you have to do more than just reflect, analyse and discuss. Some truths are so wonderful that only poetry and song does them justice. Piper says, singing is the Christian's way of saying: God is so great that thinking will not suffice, there must be deep feeling; and talking will not suffice, there must be singing.  
  The Power of the Song  
  Martin Luther wrote, "The devil takes flight at the sound of music just as he does at the words of theology. We know that to the devils music is distasteful and insufferable. " It only takes a moment's thought to recognise that music is one of the most powerful media available to men and women, and that's why it is a weapon that can be harnessed to accomplish tremendous good – or incredible harm.  
  Music is not the enemy of faith, it is the expression of faith and a fuel for faith. Of course, because it is so powerful we must be so careful to whom we entrust this power. In the hands of unscrupulous or self-serving or undiscerning people, it can wreak havoc in a church, but when used by the godly and the wise it is a great source for good.  
  And singing reminds us of our raison d'être: God made us, redeemed us and will glorify us that we might live to the praise of his glory. That is something we express with our minds, our wills and our hearts, and that's why singing is indispensable. That is also why the New Testament's picture of heaven is not a celestial Bible study or an eschatological morning tea, but a heavenly choir forever lost in wonder, love and praise.  
  We've all heard the quip by Christians that an eternity spent singing songs sounds more like purgatory than heaven. It may be that this says more about the quality of singing in our gatherings than the joy and hope of glory! Singing intensifies our emotions and Evangelicals need to hear that this is a good thing. Of course, it can be manipulated and abused, as can every other dimension of a fallen personality but we need to recognise that God has made us emotional beings, and we are to focus our emotions on the one who supremely deserves to be the object of our love, joy, fear, and praise.  
  Personalities differ. Some people are just more naturally inhibited in how they express their feelings than others. And cultures differ, and there are particular cultural expressions of grief or happiness. We don't want uniformity in emotional expression. However, it is good to be reminded that we are emotional beings and our response to the Lord should be a fully human response – intellectual volitional and emotional.  
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