Promoting Christ-centred Biblical Ministry

Index of Articles

Christian ministry and the heart
reprinted from the Autumn 2006 edition of Essentials

When John Safran, religious satirist, was asked why he made the television series John Safran versus God this was his reply: "I find the right religions intellectually stimulating." 1
Philip Southwell is married to Lisa and ministers in South Australia. You can meet him at our EFAC National Conference "Growing Gospel Passions" in June.
Sometimes people could be mistaken for thinking that we evangelicals chant a similar mantra: "I am an evangelical because it is intellectually stimulating."
In Romans 1-5 Paul writes of the wonderful Christian doctrines that we have come to know and love. But have we forgotten that contained within these chapters is Romans 5:1-11?
These verses describe the unimaginable joy and peace which overflows from the Christian's heart. God's love for us displayed on the cross (v6-10) is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (v5) and overflows into a life of rejoicing (v2, 11). Our whole being is to be captivated by "the hope of the glory of God" (v2). This is no mere intellectual stimulation! This is a life set on fire by the holiness and love of God.
My edition of John Calvin's Institutes runs to 1521 pages. Yet the man who gave his life to so masterfully stating biblical doctrine writes the corollary to Romans 5:1-11: "we detest [those]…who are content to roll the gospel on the tips of their tongues when its efficacy ought to penetrate the inmost affections of the heart, take its seat in the soul, and affect the whole man." 2
One of my relatives knows how to mix a good lemon, lime & bitters. He gets a few drops of the liquor, rolls it around the sides of the glass, and then adds the lemon and lemonade. He does it with great care. He holds the glass up and admires his handiwork. But he never drinks it. He doesn't like that particular beverage. He always hands it to someone else. Now that's OK to do with a drink (maybe even advisable!) but not with the Gospel. Is the Gospel for you something to simply hold up and admire, or does it "find a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the heart?" 3
Warm Orthodoxy and Cold orthodoxy
There is a contrast between what I would like to term this "warm orthodoxy" and the "cold orthodoxy" which seems to me to be infecting modern evangelicalism.
Cold orthodoxy confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord and that the church and individual must be reformed in doctrine and practice to that end. Yet by failing to confess that the heart must be captured by God's love it practically denies that which it seeks to confess: Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
The first chapter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship is one of the passages that hit me like a hammer during theological study. Either I had grown up in churches that emphasised justification by grace at the expense of discipleship, or I myself had been blind to the radical nature of Jesus' call to follow him. How could this happen? Bonhoeffer answers the same poignant question: how could the German church, forerunners in the reformation, capitulate and largely acquiesce with Hitler?
Bonhoeffer's analysis is that costly grace, rediscovered by Luther, demanded rigorous discipleship. Costly grace is the pearl which calls for a man to give his soul, of which Luther's life was an example. Luther's discipleship was evident to all as he left the monastery, entered the world, and engaged with it for God's glory.
The modern German church had exchanged this costly grace for cheap grace. "Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship. …The justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of sin and the world." 4
John Safran would find such cold orthodoxy intellectually stimulating indeed. The justification of sin. The gospel gutted of its power. This is the only Gospel that we are left with when the warm orthodoxy of Romans 5:1-11 falls into the background.
  The individual and the heart  
What , then, should we do if we, or someone we know, is an evangelical of the John Safran variety?
The first thing is to realise that there is nothing we can do. Remember verse 5: "God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit." It is God, through his Spirit, who opens our hearts and lives to his mercy. That is why in Calvin's Institutes the section which includes justification begins with a discussion on the work of the Holy Spirit. 5
The Christian life is like a bubbling fountain which overflows. We might be able to construct the theology of the fountain (even though it is God who gives us the intellect to do so), but only God can turn the water on. He alone "poured out his love into our hearts."
But because God in his sovereignty uses fallible humans for his own ends the remainder of this article is concerned with the related practical issue: How can we exercise our ministries to the end that our people's hearts become and/or remain warm to the Gospel?
  Minister like God does in scripture  
But should we even ask this question? Isn't it our job to simply lay out correct biblical teaching with the logic of Einstein's E=mc2 and then let God's Spirit do his work?
Amos provides a good example here. 6 Amos could have spoken a doctrinally correct sermon in classic three point rhetorical form: 1) God is angry; 2) God is angry with the nations; 3) God is angry with Israel. Instead, Amos metaphorically executes the surrounding nations and then shoots his fellow executioners. Amos crafts his message best to touch the hearts of his audience. If we wish to minister like God does in scripture then we will do the same.
  Theological discussion and the heart  
  This issue of ministering to the heart profoundly affects how we enter into theological discussion with those holding both similar and different views to ourselves.  
  In Psalm 119 the psalmist expresses his deep love for God. He loves God's word (v97); he delights in it (v92); it tastes sweet to his mouth (v103). It tastes sweet because by his word is disclosed the God who acts for his people's salvation (v93).  
God's word as described in Psalm 119 is not primarily a mathematical formula with which we can conjure up impressive figures which baffle God's adversaries. It is something to love primarily because it discloses God's glory and grace.
In the current climate where we (rightly!) are so diligent in guarding correct doctrine we might be tempted to think that doctrine is the end of the Christian life. We must remember that doctrine is meant to point us to the God described by that doctrine.
This goal of doctrine affects how we enter any theological discussion. Where apostasy exists and needs to be corrected it is to be done in a humble and tearful spirit (v136)—because the affront of false teachers is not ultimately to us but to God Almighty.
In evangelism our aim is not to destructively run rings about the other person's beliefs in a kind of theological one-upmanship—it is to bring them face to face with the God who is to be honoured above all.
Each of us could do worse than to reflect on our most recent sermon, pastoral conversation, letter, e-mail or other ministerial communication and ask this question: "Is its tone more commiserate with a desire for God's glory, or with the reciprocal eye gouging in a rugby union scrum?"
  Preaching and the heart  
How, then, do we preach in such a way that we inject God's word into our people's hearts? I believe that the solution again is found as we consider the nature of scripture.
Scripture is not written to solely convey doctrinal truth. Any individual passage does convey doctrinal truth, but it does so with intent. For example, 1 Corinthians 1 provides doctrinal teaching on the centrality of the cross with the intent of urging the Corinthians to shun divisions over party politics.
In our preaching we might be tempted to distil the doctrine out from the 'divine intent' of any given passage; but the 'intent' of a passage is often where the rubber of the doctrine hits the road of our hearts. When we separate out the doctrine from the intent of a passage of scripture we are minimizing its effect on our people's hearts, and doing a disservice to scripture itself. 7
One additional benefit of this approach is that it gives us license to use our rhetorical skills in a non-manipulative way. We can use any of the skills at our disposal as long as they bring the "divine intent" to bear on our congregation. This authorizes a wide variety of sermon styles and we are at liberty to choose the one which best targets the hearts of our congregation.
"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into the grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." Romans 5:1-5 (Niv)


Index of Articles  

1 Endnotes:

Michael Dwyer, Television's god couple, Sydney Morning Herald, 3rd November 2005.

2 J.Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols, LCC 20-21, Westminster Philadelphia, 1960 (1959),

3 Ibid.

4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, R.H.Fuller (trans.), SCM Press, London, 1959, p.41.

5 Calvin, III.i.1-4

6 This example of Amos came from Gary Millar (Presbyterian Church Howth-Malahide, Dublin), in lectures he gave titled, "Preaching Christ from the Old Testament in a way that does justice to the text and gets through to the heart" at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, 2005.

7 This understanding of "Divine Intent" also came from Gary Millar's lectures.