Preaching & Grace #2

27 01 2009



Sculpture of  Peter Preaching

     As we have seen already, the preacher has a responsibility to make grace, Christ, and His cross central to his explanation, understanding, and application of every text.  However, grace also plays a vital role in the enablement for obedience.  In leading his listeners to the point were they become enabled to obey the truths taught, the preacher must always start with God’s grace.  As Bryan Chapell reminds us in Christ Centered Preaching, “The power to do what God requires resides with God.  Responsible preaching does not tell people their responsibilities without also informing them how to plug into this power.”  No matter how well a passage has been studied or how well a sermon has been developed, none of it will be effective if the listener does not see God’s love for us and His infinite mercy.  It is when we understand and embrace the love that God Himself has given that His Holy Spirit stirs within our hearts the power which enables us to live the truth which has been explained and applied.  

     On the question of enablement, we can find our answer in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he writes,

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to al this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.  With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”

     When believers grasp what God has done for them through His grace and what He provides for them by His grace, they are motivated by love: God’s truth is received more freely because of His love, His Spirit gains more and more control of their lives because of that love and that His Spirit provides the very power needed to enable them to live lives which are pleasing to their Heavenly Father.  It is all by His grace.  

     Whether the preacher is explaining or seeking to understand Holy Scripture, or applying it to the lives of his listeners, grace is the central ingredient that must always be in the center of his efforts.  Whether the preacher is seeking to motivate his congregants to live lives pleasing to God or to reveal to them how they can live the lives they are motivated to live, grace must be the center of his message.

     It is by God’s grace that the preacher’s mind is ever able to comprehend the vastness of God’s Word.  It is by God’s grace that His truth is communicated through the preacher.  Grace provides the love which motivates believers to live out the truths the preacher proclaims and grace sends the Spirit which enable believers to live lives pleasing to God which are in accordance with Scripture.  

     We are enabled because the Spirit of God empowers us.  The Spirit of God empowers us because we love God.  We love God because He has adopted us as His children.  God adopted us as His children be cause He gave us the faith to believe, repent and surrender to Christ.  We surrendered because of the great sacrificial love Christ and the Father displayed for us on the cross and through the resurrection.  God sent His Son who died on the cross because of grace.  In fact, grace is central and ever present at each step in the process.  The preacher must never forget this and always see it’s presence in all of Scripture as well as through every step of the process of preparing and delivering his sermon. 


Preaching & Grace

24 01 2009


Paul Preaching in Athens      

Paul Preaching in Athens    

     The more I study and experience the role of grace in my own life as well as in my preaching, the more I realize the vastness of God’s grace and the human impossibility of its complete comprehension.  Because preaching is what I do, I have particularly been thinking about the question, “What role should grace play in a preacher’s understanding and explanation of Scripture?”

     Well, first, grace keeps the sermon focused on God instead of on man, on the Creator instead of the creature.  Grace keeps the preacher from falling into the trap of moralizing and proclaiming a legalistic ‘to do’ list.  When the preacher is looking at a text, his focus must always be on God and God’s gracious eternal plan of redemption.  He should point his congregation to the fact that whatever they might hope to achieve comes from a life that is centered on and surrendered to Christ, because any hope to achieve comes only through Christ alone, not from good works or personal efforts.

     Paul writes in Romans 3: 22-24, “The righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  This text makes it clear that our salvation comes only by God’s grace.  Taking the text in context, the preacher must fully understand and then explain that it is Christ who gives us salvation as a free gift of His grace and our salvation is secured solely in Him.  Therefore, it should always be at the forefront of the preacher’s preparation and study that “the Bible requires us to construct our message in such a way as to reveal the grace that is the ultimate focus of every text.”

    Grace must not just be central in a preacher’s study, understanding and explanation of of Scripture, but equally important when it comes to how he applies Scripture for daily living.  Preachers should motivate their listeners by grace, not guilt.  As Bryan Chapell has written, “If God has freed His people from the guilt and power of sin, then preachers have no right to seek holiness by putting believers back under the weight Jesus bore.”   

     The preacher must understand and make clear that it is God’s grace that gives us what we need to please our Heavenly Father.  Philippians 2:13 makes the point quite succinctly, “For is is God who works in you to will and act according to His good pleasure.”  In his book, Holiness by Grace Dr. Chapell writes, “Though it flows through us, the righteousness that sanctifies us before God originates in Him.  We strive in the strength that He generates, reach for Him with the love that He instills, and trust Him with the faith that He provides.”  This is true for every believer.  For the preacher specifically one could say that though the sermon flows through him, it originated in God and is a product of His grace.

     So, how does the preacher motivate his listeners to apply the truths of God’s Word to their lives?  Certainly not through guilt or fear, for their effect is short lived at best.  The answer to the question can be found in the words of the Puritan preacher, Samuel Bolton when he wrote three hundred years ago, “There is nothing more powerful than love.”    Again, Chapell speaks convincingly, “What compels the mother back into the burning building for her child is love.  And what most powerfully and persistently compels us to obey God when there is no apparent earthly gain is love inspired by the mercy of God in Christ.”

     We are loved by God, saved by His grace and adopted as His children through His mercy.  Romans 8:15 explains, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by Him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’”  Just as a small child does with his earthly father, we are motivated to please our heavenly father out of a graceful heart consumed by love.  

     My prayer is that this will be the focus of my preacher and the motivation for holiness in my life and in my preaching.

A River of Grace

5 11 2008

Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River tells the story of Jeremiah Land, a custodian at a local school.  He has been known to perform miracles from time to time, including one which brought healing to his son Reuben. Jeremiah lives with his three children: 16-year-old Davy, 11-year-old Reuben, and 9-year-old Swede.  The novel is written from the perspective of Reuben Land who, as an adult, reflects on his family in 1962 Minnesota and the events that altered the path of their lives. Reuben reveals his father to be a quiet gracious man who is humble and gentle and has been given  a gift which he uses not for himself but for others.

The novel takes a dark turn when Davy kills two teenage thugs who invade his family’s home. It isn’t long before the whole community turns on the Lands, especially the school superintendent—Jeremiah’s boss—Chester Holgren. Mr. Holgren is a nasty man with a diseased face. Young Reuban, the story’s narrator, describes Mr. Holgren as “a man whose face was a minefield of red boils.” He adds: “I hated him, I’ll admit, and would soon hate him more, but a person had to feel sorry about this face. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried a dish called tomato pudding. It’s cooked soft and is ever so red and lumpy.”

Mr. Holgren does whatever he can to make Jeremiah’s life miserable, eventually firing Jeremiah for false accusations of drunkenness. The firing takes place in the school cafeteria in front of all the children. Here’s how Reuban describes the scene:

“I left my milling classmates and headed for Dad, where he stood in rapt surprise facing Holgren. I hadn’t in mind to say anything, and indeed I didn’t; for as I approached Dad lifted his hand, sudden as a windshift, touched Holgren’s face and pulled away. It was the oddest little slap you ever saw. Holgren quailed back a step, hunching defensively, but Dad turned and walked off. The superintendent stood with his fingers strangely awonder over his chin, cheeks, and forehead. Then I saw that his bedeviled complexion—that face set always at a rolling boil—had changed. I saw instead skin of a healthy tan, a hale blush spread over cheekbones that suddenly held definition; above his eyes the shine of

constant seepage had vanished, and light lay at rest upon his brow.


Listen: There are easier things than witnessing a miracle of God. For his part, Mr. Holgren didn’t know what to make of it; he looked horrified; the new peace in his hide didn’t sink deep; he covered his face from view and slunk from the cafeteria.


I knew what had happened, though. I knew exactly what to make of it, and it made me mad enough to spit.


What business had Dad in healing that man?


What right had Holgren to cross paths with the Great God Almighty?

The story of Jeremiah and Mr. Holgren is fiction, of course. But in the real world, Christian mercy is a miracle of sorts. It is two miracles! It takes a miracle of God to show that kind of mercy, and it is a miracle to be touched by such mercy.



A Love Supreme

15 10 2008


There were three pivotal moments in John Coltrane’s short life.  The first occurred sometime during his high school years when he decided to begin playing the alto and tenor sax.  Today, over 40 years after his death, Coltrane is still considered the greatest jazz sax player of all time.


The second turning point of Coltrane’s life occurred in 1948 when he tried heroine for the first time and soon became hooked.  Within the jazz community virtually every young player who began playing in the late 1940’s and 1950s felt a great deal of pressure to experiment with the drug.  It was widely believed that Charlie Parker, who was Coltrane’s mentor,  had become a better player because of his self professed heroine use and, therefore, musicians believed their playing would improve as well.  In addition to Coltrane, Miles Davis and Chet Baker became addicts to heroine because of their false belief that it improved their playing.


Needless to say, heroine did not fulfill its false promise to make Coltrane a better musician.  His playing, when he showed up, was erratic.  He would appear at the last minute for gigs unshaven, un-bathed and in smelly, wrinkled and worn clothes.  He achieved a reputation of falling asleep on stage.  Miles Davis fired him and Dizzy Gillespie complained bitterly about his unreliable performances but apparently refrained from firing Coltrane only because of their deep friendship and Gillespie’s respect for Coltrane’s talent when he wasn’t wasted on heroine.


The third key event in Coltrane’s life occurred in 1957.  John Coltrane had grown up within a Christian family and within the church.  Both his grandfathers were pastors and he attended a small AME church service every Sunday in High Point North Carolina.  During his teen years he practiced every Tuesday evening with the church band and his pastor.  So, when he hit rock bottom in 1957, Coltrane looked up and returned to the faith of his childhood through professing his trust in Jesus Christ.  Supported by his wife Naima, and friends, Coltrane locked himself away for days and kicked heroine. 


Coltrane would write latter “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening that was to lead me to a richer, fuller, and more productive life.  At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”  John Coltrane believed that “you can improve as a player by improving as a person,” and he believed that a transformation such as that only came through humble reliance upon God’s grace.  After his 1957 encounter with God’s grace, Coltrane would often speak of his playing as a prayer.  “That’s what music is to me,” he told his wife.  He would write of how his playing was an offering of thanksgiving to God.  Many of his albums and compositions after 1957 were clearly influenced by his Christian faith, most notably his classic A Love Supreme.       

“Will Franklin, Your father loves you!

28 09 2008


I was frantic!  It was my twin son’s ninth birthday and I had made a promise, tickets to a concert by Steven Curtis Chapman.  There was one problem, as a single father, I had neither the time nor the funds to keep the promise I had made.  Now, on their birthday AND the day of the concert I finally had the money and we headed off to Chattanooga for our tickets and to see Steven Curtis Chapman.  There was just one problem, I was now at the fourth ticket outlet and was being told, once again, that the concert was sold out.   I explained to the lady at the counter how I had made a promise to my sons and how disappointed they would be but she explained there was nothing which she could do.  So, we turned and started out the door and back to Georgia.  “Sir!  Sir!  Wait, I have three tickets here for store employees and, well, no one wants them.  Would you like them?”  So, God smiled on a Dad and his twin sons that day and we not only ended up with tickets but we ended up with center aisle seventh row tickets, backstage passes …. For FREE!


I often think of that day and smile.  In my memories I remember meeting Steven Curtis Chapman and how gracious he was.  I remember seeing HIS two sons playing and how close they were to my boy’s age.  I remember explaining to him what we had been through that day and him smiling and handing me a free t-shirt.  I still have that t-shirt.  It reminds me of a kind lady, a merciful God, and a famous musician who took time to show some grace to a stranger.  Scripture teaches that those who understand the grace they have been given by their Heavenly Father are the ones who most easily are able to be gracious themselves.


Recently, I turned on my television for one of those morning news programs and there was Steven but what caught my eye more was the young man behind him playing his guitar.  Caleb is the older of Chapman’s two sons and was one of those little boys I had first seen playing backstage alongside my own sons so many years ago.  He is no longer a boy but now a man, if not because of age certainly because of the tragic turn his life, and the lives of his family, had recently taken.


On May 21st of this last spring the Chapman family was celebrating, celebrating a birthday, a graduation, and an engagement.  However, as most know by now, tragedy struck on that day when Caleb’s younger brother, Will Franklin accidentally hit his younger sister, Maria, with one of the family cars.  Caleb ran and held his little sister in his arms as she took her last unassisted breath.  Soon, Steven and other family members began to apply first aid, medical assistance would arrive, and Maria was rushed to the hospital.  The family would explain latter that by the time Maria was flown by life flight to a nearby Nashville hospital, they held out little hope.  Steven and his wife Mary Beth quickly headed by car to the hospital.  Caleb, who had just held his sister before she died, was now holding his brother who had been driving the car when it hit Maria.  Somewhere in the trauma and madness of all that was occurring Steven Curtis Chapman glanced at the scene of his two boys and stopped the car to yell out the window, “Will Franklin,  your father loves you!” and then he was gone. 



Indeed, those who have encountered grace at the core of their being understand it at a level that those who have never known it can not imagine.  It does not come out in simplistic platitudes or through thoughtless “Sunday School” answers but rather as a natural flow from the center of who you are.  Like a simple, but kind, act to a father struggling to give his boys a meaningful birthday.  Like a Father, who in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, stops to remind his son that he is loved.    




What Can I Do For You?

2 08 2008


For a few months now, on and off, I have been reading The True Bonds of Christian Freedom written in 1645 by the puritan Samuel Bolton.  Last night, as I was coming to the end of the book, Bob Dylan’s song What Can I Do for You? from his 1980 album Saved came to mind.  Dylan takes a few poetic stanzas to say what Bolton expounds upon in his book.  When we encounter the transforming power of God’s grace in our lives duty becomes pleasure, obligation becomes offering, and performance becomes praise. Only those who have not encountered the freedom of grace continue to try to earn God’s favor under the taskmaster of legalism.


“You have given everything to me.

What can I do for You?

You have given me eyes to see.

What can I do for You?”


Dylan begins with the chorus and asks a question whose answer is obvious.  When we encounter love in all its truth and purity there is only one natural and true response to it and that is self sacrificing love to the One whose love we have encountered.


“Pulled me out of bondage and You made me renewed inside,

Filled up a hunger that had always been denied,

Opened up a door no man can shut and You opened it up so wide

And you’ve chosen me to be among the few.

What can I do for You?


You have laid down Your life for me.

What can I do for You?

You have explained every mystery.

What can I do for You?”


The song then moves from the truth of grace that has been encountered and transformational response which it brings to showing the complexities of sin and the depth of our separation from God’s grace.


“Soon as a man is born, you know the sparks begin to fly,

He gets wise in his own eyes and he’s made to believe a lie.

Who would deliver him from the death he’s bound to die?

Well, You’ve don it all and there’s no more anyone can pretend to do.

What can I do for You?


You have given all there is to give.

What can I do for You?

You have given me life to live.

How can I live for you?”


While I love this song, I believe the most moving verse comes at the end.  Dylan makes that point that true grace is so powerful that we can do nothing else but stand against all odds to proclaim it ourselves.


“I know all about poison, I know all about fiery darts,

I don’t care how rough the road is, show me where it starts,

Whatever pleases You, tell it to my heart.

Well, I don’t deserve it but I sure did make it through

What can I do for You?”


We don’t ask what we can do to earn God’s favor if we have encountered grace because we know His favor rest in Christ. When we have encountered His grace and, as sons and daughters of God, look up to experience our Father’s loving grace as it rest upon us, we cry out from the depths of our being and ask a question which can not be contained – “What can I do for You Lord?  I need to know.  I long to know!  What can I do for You?

Go to my “Current Tunes” page to see Bob Dylan perform this song.   




The Nail Man

9 07 2008

The beauty of good poetry is its simplicity.  When I ran across “The Nail Man” by English poet Steve Turner the profound truth which it speaks of God’s grace moved me deeply.  In truth each of us is “The Nail Man” and with each hammer beat upon the nail rings out a tune of unfathomable grace, love and forgiveness.


The Nail Man

By Steve Turner


Which one was it
that held the nails
and then hammered them
into place?
Did he hit them
out of anger,
or a simple
sense of duty?

Was it a job
that had to be done,
or a good day’s work
in the open air?

And when they
clawed past bone
and bit into wood,
was it like all the others,
or did history
shudder a little
beneath the head
of that hammer?

Was he still there,
packing away his tools,
when ‘It is finished’
was uttered to the throng,
or was he at home
washing his hands
and getting ready
for the night?

Will he be
among the forgiven
on that Day of Days,
his sin having been slain
by his own savage spike?