I rarely saw my father get angry.
However, I distinctly remember two occasions, and they both had to do with a lawnmower. The first one was when my 5-year-old brother looked at the lawnmower, unscrewed the gas cap, and began filling the gas tank with grass clippings-not good. The other time was when my dad decided to upgrade to a nice lawn mower. My older brother, who was always very good with his hands, was fascinated with this new lawn mower. Now if you want to know how something works, you have to know how it is made. But if you do not know how it is made, you have to take it apart. So that is what my older brother did; he disassembled the mower piece by piece on the garage floor. In a way, his idea was somewhat brilliant; it’s what designers call reverse engineering. Ifyou want to know how something is assembled, you have to disassemble it.
You can imagine that the brilliance of this concept was lost on my dad in the moment. Nevertheless this is how you find out how something is made. You take it apart.
So this is what I want to do: disassemble a sermon and lay out all the component parts. Technically, this is called rhetorical criticism, and we all do it. We are all sermon critics. We are all rhetorical critics. In fact, the best way to learn how to preach is to become a rhetorical critic. The trick is to develop a critical mind without developing a critical spirit. But as you listen to a sermon, you will see where the wires are hidden and see how/why they are effective. If you dismantle the very first Christian sermon, you can understand what is important to the Apostle Peter.
A LITTLE CONTEXT
Jesus Christ has died, He has risen, and He has told his disciples to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes upon them. He also told them that once the Holy Spirit comes, they are going to be His witnesses in these concentric circles of obedience and effectiveness. So that is what the disciples do. All 120 of them wait in the upper room until the Spirit comes in like a rushing wind, and they begin to speak while other people understand them in their own foreign languages. In addition, tongues of fire rest on their heads in these unusual manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 13 that he would make them “trained scribes” for the kingdom (Matthew 13:51-52). A trained scribe is one, Jesus said, who can take out of his treasury old things and new. So while all this is going on, Peter stands up and demonstrates that he is, in fact, a trained scribe. We know this because he reaches back and takes from the Old Testament passages and brings new light to them. In other words, he brings new truths from these old passages of Scripture.
What happens next is found in verse 14: “But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.”‘ Watch what Peter is doing: the crowd is trying to understand this cultural phenomenon of people speaking in one language while other people understand it in their own language. Peter tries to explain this cultural phenomenon by using a biblical explanation. That is the first component part we are going to unscrew and then remove. The first thing Peter does is give them a biblical explanation. He reaches back and gets it from the prophet Joel. Verse 17 says,
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
Peter is not just reaching back and grabbing some obscure passage; Peter is reaching back and finding the passage of the prophets that speaks specifically to that moment. There is coming a time that God is going to pour out His spirit, and when He does the consequence will not be discriminatory. This is important. God said that He is not just going to give it to the elders, but everyone is going to know the truth.
Then Peter speaks to something else in verse 19-20:
And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
That sounds more like Revelation than Pentecost. Peter is talking about the day of Pentecost when the Spirit comes, but there is also something prophetic about his words. It will ultimately be the Day of the Lord. So, in the present day, we are sitting somewhere between verses 18 and 19. Then in verse 21, Peter says, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
This is Preaching 101-you take some cultural phenomenon that maybe doesn’t have any other explanation, and you run to Scripture and show how Scripture addresses the issue. We all do this. We can do this easily because everything we deal with, everything that culture is experiencing, is either directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, addressed in Scripture. You just have to find it. In my mind, this is one of the best arguments for being a text-driven preacher. If you commit your life only to preach what is the pressing need of the moment, then when bigger needs arise, you probably will have little to nothing to say to it. But if you spend your life committed to explaining the texts of Scripture, you will then begin to interpret culture through Scripture.
I have noticed that when catastrophes happen like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, many times it is those who have committed themselves to exposition that God raises up and places in the media spotlight to speak to those issues. Why? Because they have explained Scripture, they know Scripture. Therefore, they can give a biblical explanation to a cultural reality. That is what Peter has done. But he does not stop there. There is something else of importance we must see.
There is a temptation in me, and I assume in many of my brothers, to build bridges to the culture with the way we talk and dress and act and do church, but after those bridges are built, we do not walk across them to actually get the Gospel to people. I fear that so many times we spend a lot of time trying to attract the right soil, but once it is attracted we do not give it the right seed. Peter does not stop at attracting the soil. He begins with biblical explanation, but then he moves quickly to Gospel confrontation. He has his audience’s attention. Therefore, we see the second component to pull apart. Peter says in verses 22-24,
Men of lsrael, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know-this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
There are at least four components of his Gospel confrontation that need quick identification.
First, Peter confronts them with their own culpability. ls Peter skirting around the issue when he says, “You killed Jesus”? He is not nuancing it very much. “You killed Jesus, you are perfectly liable for this, and God will hold you accountable,” is what he is saying. This is a very explicit and immediate confrontation.
Second , Peter points to God’s plan. He says, “Even though you killed Jesus, this is a part of God’s plan.” In verse 22 he says, “… this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified.” So what Peter says to them is, “Even though you crucified Jesus, there is a sense in which you did not thwart the plan of God. You actually made yourself a part of it by your very disobedience.” Preaching should always be passionate and, in a sense, dispassionate. What I mean by that is Peter is not saying, “Well, you missed it, too bad,” or “I am going to beg with you and plead with you and cry with you to come.” Instead, he seems to say, “Even though you have rejected God, this is a part of God’s plan, so now you must deal with it.” Peter is passionate, but in a sense, he is dispassionate.
Third, Peter addresses the resurrection. Peter has previously reached back to Joel, and now he reaches back to Psalm 16 because the pressing issue in their mind was this idea of the resurrection. Look at verses 24-27:
God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.”
Now everything in verses 25 and 26 is true of David, but the context of verse 27 is not true of David. “You did not let me die, or let my body decay.” David did in fact die and his body would in fact decay. So how do you explain this? Peter explains this in verse 29 when he says,
Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.
Peter is explaining to his audience, “This Jesus that God raised up, of which we are all witnesses, you killed Him, it was God’s plan, and thirdly, it was God who raised Him from the dead.”
The fourth component of Peter’s Gospel confrontation focuses on the exaltation of Christ. This is wildly neglected by me and perhaps many preachers. Peter ends his Gospel confrontation not with Jesus raised from the dead but with Jesus exalted as God. Look at verses 33-36:
Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, [Psalm 110, the most quoted Old Testament text in the New Testament],
‘”The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”‘
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
The exegetical idea that Peter is developing is that the kingdom has come. Jesus Christ is the Lord. He is the Messiah, and this one whom they crucified is the one whom God has exalted.
It is extremely important that as we preach the Gospel, we need to make much of the exaltation of Christ. Just think about this: you preach to men who will only hear you about two or three times a year. The first time of the year that they will hear you is on Easter Sunday. Probably the second time they hear you will be Christmas. And if you are fortunate enough to be blessed by their presence a third time, you are probably going to get them on Mother’s Day.
So this is what they hear, “Jesus rose from the dead,” and then, “Jesus was a baby.” And if you get them a third time, “You are a sorry man because you have been a bad husband and you need to be better to your mom.” This is what they hear. If they are really fortunate on Easter Sunday, they get to hear one of those great hymns that really attract men like “I Come to the Garden Alone,” while the dew is still on the roses. I don’t want to make fun of that song-well maybe a little-but can I just tell you that growing up, I heard that hymn, and it never appealed to me as a man. Just imagine a man saying to me, “Steve, I really enjoyed your message, and I would love to discuss it tomorrow, but we do not have much time, so we should just get up tomorrow before the dew is on the roses. And you could come with me to the garden … alone. And I will walk with you and talk with you and tell you that you are my own.”
The truth of the matter is that often times the Jesus that is portrayed in films, plays and our sermons is not the Christ of Scripture. Jesus Christ is not a baby; he is not a 33-year-old Jew hanging naked between two thieves. That person does not exist and will never exist again; that is who He was, but that is not who He is now. We need to talk about Christ as the ascended Lord. So this is what Peter has done; he has built this bridge to the culture, he has shown them this biblical explanation for what is happening, but he walks across the bridge to give them a Gospel confrontation. But you cannot stop there. There is a fourth element to Peter’s Sermon.
Next, Peter explains what God expects them to do. Look at verse 37, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?”‘ The people began with a question, “Are these men drunk?” They also ended with a question, “Brothers what should we do?” Then in verses 38-39 Peter says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” He had an immediate, explicit response. Verses 40-41 tell us the effect: ”And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
WHICH BRINGS US TO TODAY
We often do a fair job at the biblical connection of explaining culture through Scripture. Gospel confrontation is something we do fairly well, but I have noticed a fuzziness about explaining God’s expectation. Can I confess even in my own heart I have noticed a hesitation as to what to do at the end of a sermon? In a recent class, filled with students nearing the end of their Master of Divinity degrees, we talked about this issue, and it was clear the students were struggling with the question, “Should I give an invitation or should I not give an invitation?” Do you struggle with this? “Should I call people to respond explicitly like my home pastor used to do? On the other hand, I have been listening to others whom I really like, and they do not give a hard, explicit invitation. So what should I do about this invitation issue?” It may be clear to you, but it is not to the coming generation.
Let’s examine this. First, I want to remove the word “invitation” and set that aside for a second. “Why?” you ask. Well the word “invitation” means different things to different people. Some talk about going forward or coming back, or filling out a card or however it is physically manifested or done, that is not the point. I want to set that aside for just a second. The word “invitation” is somewhat unhelpful because when I think of an invitation I think of a wedding invitation, a graduation invitation or an invitation to a baby shower-all of those things I have spent my life trying to avoid. When I receive an invitation, I can either respectfully decline or graciously accept because it is just an invitation. In other words, the ball is in my court on how I need to respond. That is not at all the sense of what Peter is doing. He is not inviting them to consider their options; rather he is telling them what God expects of them. This is not about Peter’s invitation; this is about God’s expectation.
GOD’S EXPECTATION: AN IMMEDIATE RESPONSE
Please understand this, brothers, that every time God speaks, a response is expected. One can look all through Scripture and see that there is not one time when God has spoken in a vacuum of response. So, the question is, “When you preach, is God speaking?” If we are preaching Scripture, then the answer is of course, “Yes.” Therefore, if we explain and confront but never explain God’s expectation of response, we have misrepresented the nature of His word. God’s word demands a response.
So how do we facilitate the end of the sermon? In order to get to that issue, we must talk about what we do know, and then we will work to what we do not know.
Probably the most important book that has ever been written on preaching is book four of On Christian Doctrine, written by Augustine. Augustine was groomed to be a rhetorician. This means that, as a rhetorician in his early Greek culture, he could stand at any given moment and give a phenomenal speech. The rhetoricians in those days were like hired guns; today’s equivalent of a lawyer. They did not have to believe in what they were saying. In fact, they could have horrible motives or just draw attention to themselves, but they were hired to stand before the senate or the people and give speeches. So when Augustine became a believer, he could not imagine bringing this awful, pagan, self interested art into the pulpit.
Later, he wrote On Christian Doctrine, which is comprised of four smaller “books,” the fourth of which deals with preaching. What is interesting is that there is a 30-year separation between the writing of books 1-3 and book 4. It never had a book four for about 30 years. Many think Augustine could not imagine bringing the pagan art of rhetoric into the pulpit. But after 30 years of listening to sermons, Augustine changed his mind. He thought that maybe preachers could learn something from the rhetoricians. So, borrowing heavily from Cicero, he wrote book four of On Christian Doctrine, and it still influences the way we preach today.
In book four, Augustine said that every great speech (in our case, sermon) has to have these three things: it has to teach (it has to give content), it has to delight (we will use the word “portray”), and it has to move (we will use the word “persuade”). In other words, he says you have to teach content, but then you have to make it appealing to the listeners. We would talk about illustrations-making them provocative, compelling, etc. But then he said that, thirdly, you have to persuade. Yes, you have to teach content, you have to teach it in a compelling way, but then you have to move people to a response.
We still talk about teaching and delighting, but we don’t talk a lot about persuading today. When I think of persuading, I think of something bad. I think of a used car salesman trying to twist my arm. Or you may have a caricature of some sweaty evangelist walking up and down the aisles trying to get you to make a decision that you do not want to make. That is what we think when we think of persuasion.
However, Augustine believed deeply in persuasion. In fact, listen to what he says in book 4 of On Christian Teaching, “The eloquent divine then, when he is urging a practical truth, one must not only teach as to give instruction and to please as to keep up the attention; he must also sway the mind so as to subdue the will.” That is strong language. Where does Augustine get off being so persuasive and demanding? He goes on to say, “If a man will not be moved by the force of truth, though it has demonstrated his own confession, and clothed in a beauty and style. ..” you have tried to make it delightful, you have portrayed the truth clearly, “…nothing remains but to subdue him by the power of eloquence”. So Augustine believed that if you taught the truth, but they did not respond, then you painted it in ways that were compelling. And if they still did not respond, then rhetorically it was fair game to try to move that person to a certain position.
This is not how we think about preaching. Generally we are taught to take a truth and explain, illustrate, and apply. This answers the basic functional questions of preaching that we ask: What is it? Is it true? What do I do with this? Most preachers who we want emulate do the same thing: explain a truth, illustrate it, and then apply it. Yet this triad is different than Augustine’s. He did encourage one to teach, then (paint) illustrate. However, we rarely talk about persuasion or exhortation. In modern homiletics, application has displaced persuasion.
I was once listening to my students preach in class. As I listened to a student begin his sermon, he gave a great introduction, which was encouraging. When he launched out of the introduction, I could tell he was dealing with the exegetical nuances of the text-again, encouraging and good. Then he explained the text-excellent. Next, he gave a stimulating illustration-fantastic. He argued the text well, giving good proofs he brought in from other Scriptures, and then he said, “There are three ways this needs to change your life.” So application was included as well. But, I thought, “He did everything right, and yet it could not have been more boring.”
His problem was that he took my advice!
He explained, illustrated, argued and applied. He did these things, but why was it not compelling? His problem was that although he had the explanation, illustration, argumentation and application, there was no exhortation. It does not matter how well we navigate the exegetical nuances of the text. If at some point, either explicitly through our words or implicitly through our tenor, we don’t clear a spot and say, “God expects you to respond to this,” then we have misrepresented the text. We have to represent the text by communicating to people that when God speaks, there must be a response.
Every time God speaks, He expects a response. I have thought about this a lot. What is the first thing that God said? Perhaps it was “Let there be light.” Well the light responded and got the message. The first question God asked was ”Adam, where are you?” Did that anticipate a response? Yes. Maybe on a technical level, the first preacher in Scripture was Noah because the book of Hebrews calls him a “preacher of righteousness.” As he was building that ark while other people gave witness, it was clear that God was expecting a response in those people. Well what about Moses, maybe he technically had the first sermon when he preached, “Will you do all God expects you to do?” He demanded a response. What about Joshua or Nehemiah? Every time God speaks, it demands a response.
This is the sense of Matthew 6. The very first thing we are told to ask God for when we pray is, “Lord, Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Well how is God’s will done in heaven? It is done perfectly; everything God asks for is done. And so when I pray, “Your will be done, Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” what I am really saying is, “God, I commit myself to immediately responding when You speak.” That is what Jesus is saying. Maybe most explicit is James 1:22, “Do not just be a hearer of the word, but be a doer.” Again, you can get everything right in the text but miss the point of the text. As we talk text-driven preaching-something I have given my life to-my fear is that I just honestly believe there are some men (and God help me, some that I have trained), who get out in the pulpit and get everything right in the text, and they have blood on their hands because they have never called people to do what they have just talked about doing. We have created a culture of preaching for information and not for transformation.
Recently, I was preaching this very text from Acts 2 at the request of a local church pastor. The point of the text, of course, is not how to preach a sermon. That is what I am discussing now, but that is not really the point of the text. The point is found back in verses 38 and 39, “Repent and be baptized.” So it became very clear as I was preparing this message that I have to, at some point in the message, look at the congregation and say “Repent; be saved!” And this thought came into my mind, a horrible confession to make; I said, “God you know I am not really an evangelist. I am a teacher.” But you know what? Nothing could be more irrelevant. I hope that if you see me stranded on the side of the road in the pouring rain while I am trying to make repairs that you would not drive by and say, “If I were a mechanic, I would stop and help Steve.” That is using a professional proficiency to excuse disobedience, and it is no less the same in preaching. If I am to explain a text of Scripture, I am not just to explain what it means; I am also to explain what it implies.
Now here is what happened in my sermon. I explained the text, and using the same methods we talked about before, I reverse engineered the sermon and pulled out all the component parts. But then when I got to the end, I said, “What we reverse engineered, now we have got to put back together. So let us put it back together. God is trying to tell you that He is navigating things that are going on in your life because He wants you to know that you crucified Christ, and Christ is ascended, and He is Lord, and so you need to repent.” At the end of the sermon, there were a dozen or so decisions, and many of those were for salvation. It was incredible because I know it had nothing to do with my gifting; it was just the Holy Spirit moving through the power of the Word.
There is a cynical spirit alive, one that is in me, that says those people that walked down the aisle or filled out a card, you do not know that they are true conversions. Have you heard this? Have you thought it maybe? Listen to me carefully, the fact that you do not know if they are believers is exactly the point!
We have two choices when someone expresses a desire to repent. We can be spiritual pessimists and say “Well, God bless them.” And we will send them on their way because we do not know if they are saved. Yet, the only biblical response is spiritual optimism. If we are spiritually optimistic, we will counsel them, we will love them, disciple them, hold them in accountable relationships because in fact we do not know. Our only possible response is that they genuinely are in the kingdom!
What I fear is that while we are working to have practical ways to facilitate someone’s desire to repent, ways that reflect good theology, we wind up being in the position of the very thing Jesus taught against in Luke 15, which is not rejoicing when lost people come to faith in Christ. And it’s just sadly ironic that as a denomination we have won the battle for the inerrancy of Scripture, and we have more faithful explanation of it, and yet, right in the middle of this, I frankly see very little rejoicing when lost people come to Christ. Just think about this, someone who was dead is alive! Light from darkness, aliens and strangers are now friends in God! This is something to rejoice about! And if I cannot rejoice about that, then I am the very one Jesus has in the crosshairs in Luke 15.
When the prodigal son came home, the father knew he had to work at his repentance. But that did not stop him from throwing a party. Imagine if the prodigal son parable happened today in our Baptist churches. If we had to retell that story, the father would meet him and say, “Son, I am so glad you have come down to the front of the house here.” Then addressing the rest of the family the father would say, “You have heard that the prodigal son has come home, so we will keep an eye on him for three months, and after the three months, I will make an announcement followed by light hors d’oeuvres.” That is not the way the prodigal son’s father responded. Did he know what was going to happen in the next 30 years? No, but that was not the point. The point is that even if you cannot rejoice about what you do not know, you can still rejoice about what you do know, and you do know that someone is at least making a step toward Christ. We should absolutely do all the things right about holding them in accountable relationships, but rejoice when people move to Christ.
And whatever we do to facilitate that process when we preach, we at least have to hold people accountable based on what God expects them to do from that particular text; maybe more, but certainly not less. If you are preaching on Matthew 18 about forgiveness then you have to say to people that if you do not forgive, you are in disobedience to God. Whether they walk an aisle or not, the important thing is if they go home, pick up the phone and call their dad about that relationship that has been broken for seven years. That is the critical issue.
So everything God speaks demands a response. As expositors, that at least means for us that we have to call people to act based upon what God expects of them from the text. And we do not, we cannot pretend that we are representing the text but in reality misrepresenting it; no matter how well we have dealt with everything in the text. So that is the first reality.
GOD’S EXPECTATION: LONG-TERM RESULTS
With all of this said about an immediate response, we have to hold in tension that ultimately we are preaching for long-term results. The best illustration I know of this is found in Matthew 13, The Parable of the Soils. The first seed falls on rocky or hard ground and does not penetrate the surface. The second one grows up and appears as if it is doing wonderfully, yet it finds no depth of soil; it is shallow, so immediately it withers away. The third one also grows up and looks like it is doing fantastic, but the cares of the world choke it out and make it unfruitful. The fourth soil is characterized by two things: it bears fruit, and it lasts. That is what we want. I do not want people who are Christians in the moment; I want to see them over a period of time sustaining and growing. Perhaps this is best expressed by the apostle Paul in Colossians 1:24 when he says, “I want to bring all men [everyone in my care] and bring them complete in Christ.” That is my goal. I want long-term results.
This is why Paul said in Ephesians 5:26 that the reason why Christ died for the church is to make her a pure bride, and the means by which He is going to do that is by the washing of the water of the Word. So over sustained exposure to God’s Word, this person is going to be a part of the pure bride. This is why Jesus would say in John 15:3 that if we grow, “I am going to prune you back, but you are clean already by the Word that was spoken to you.” Long-term results are the objective. This is all realized in Revelation 19:7 when the bride comes because she has made herself ready-“Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.” So the indication is that the bride got herself ready. And then in verse 8, “It was granted her.” This is a divine passive. God granted her “to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure-for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.” This bride is going to be pure before the groom because God said it would be so. However, the bride is incapable of doing so, therefore the groom helps the bride prepare for the wedding day by giving her the righteous deeds, the alien righteousness of Christ that is given to her and allows her to be a pure bride for Christ. What is remarkable about that huge, eschatological, future moment is that we know from Ephesians 5 that all that future righteousness is predicated by the Word of God! The washing of the water of the Word gives Christ His pure bride.
When I stand in the pulpit, I am after so much more than that moment. I am looking at a 7th grader, and I am praying that God will keep him there because I want six years to simply pour the Word of God into him. I want sustained growth over a period of time. Of course, there are some who say “We want people to have sustained, exposed growth over a period of time,” and from that draw a conclusion that they should do their sermons this way: “Well, I will just stop at this verse and say, ‘God bless you, let us have a word of prayer.”‘ Then they say, “See you next week.”
Why can’t we do that if we are preaching for long term results? It is because that will create a culture of information and not transformation. It sends a message that does not represent Scripture. Scripture is given as God’s Word so that we can respond to it. If we are after long-term obedience, then logically that obedience should start now. If we want them obeying in 20 years, they should at least obey in this 20 minutes. They ought to obey now. The culture of constant, perpetual, exposure to the Word of God and acting in immediate obedience to Him produces the long-term result we are after. Do not evaluate your ministry by the immediate, emotional response; think about it in the long term. I would also say to remember that every time God speaks, He demands a response; a response in my time with Him, corporate time with Him, whatever time with Him.
So this is the tension. God’s expectation is a response-an immediate response that bears fruit over time. Of course we preach to people who do not respond to God this way immediately. In His grace, He allows them to hear His word again and again. But we presume upon His grace to think He owes us another chance to repent. As preachers we encourage this presumption when we preach as if God does not expect an immediate response.
Let me make one application: I am thinking in my mind right now of my students who go to their first pastorate. The truth of the matter is that they have not quite figured out what to do at the end of their sermon. It is awful, awkward and clunky.
If this is you, let me encourage you to do something. Take the Word of God and just read it. Read what it says about how God expects us to respond. Then take your biblical theology, a sheer, straight, systematic theology, your doctrine of revelation and of God proper; and from that ask how you should develop a way to facilitate when people are provoked to come to God. Whether this entered into Peter’s mind or not in Acts 2, he still did it; he told his audience what their response should be. “It is simple,” Peter said, “You have to repent, and you have to be baptized.” There was some administration to it that we know of because someone counted that there were 3,000 who came to faith in Christ.
Has the invitation system been abused? Of course it has. Yet, just because an invitation system has been abused in the past does not mean you should shy away from facilitating what God may be doing. This is extremely important. This makes me reflect back on my own personal experience when God called me to ministry during an invitation during a camp. God pressed this big decision I had made in my life because someone else pressed as well. I know there is a time we have rejoiced in things we do not know, perhaps now it is time to make sure we rejoice in what we at least know, which is that people need to respond to God when He expects them to obey.
Perhaps if how to facilitate an invitation is not clear to you, let me encourage you to take some people in your church on the journey with you. Walk through the important passages. They will be your biggest advocates when the needed change is implemented.
A WORD FROM THE PEW
This is from an email from a man at a local church. He wrote,
For the last 60 of my 67 years, I have known when I could follow a sermon and when I could not, when I liked a sermon and when I did not, but I could not have told you why. Now in these last months from getting exposed to Haddon Robinson’s Biblical Preaching, I have come to understand the theory of good preaching. If nothing else I now know what is wrong with my Sunday school teaching, and in some ways I need to repent in regard to that. I am a firm believer in the value of what you are doing at Southwestern. Our Baptist churches desperately need a new generation of preachers who are better trained to do the job right. Please, tell your preaching students that this old pew-sitter has said that what you are teaching them is extremely important to our church’s health and future. We can read our Bibles every day along with prayer and meditation and still need the clarification and emphasis and encouragement that comes from God-ordained, God-graced preaching. Tell them that what we need is the Word presented clearly and pointedly without being muddled up with extraneous rabbit chases and spotlighting the preacher. Tell them to allow our Lord to show them how they each individually need to let the Holy Spirit change their temperaments so they can get out of the way of good preaching and let the Word do its work. Tell them we need all of the help we can get to clearly understand the Word and its application to us. Tell them our health and the future of many people is dependent upon them learning to do the job right. I know you are doing all this anyway, but tell them the pew-sitters know it is important.
That last little tag line grabbed me. Our people are more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They know when the text calls for a bold response and we posture ourselves in cowardice and back off. On the other hand, they know if we are using emotional manipulation to accomplish a way to satisfy our immediate aims.
When we preach, we must communicate that God expects an immediate response.
When we preach, we must communicate that God expects long-term results.
We must figure out how to facilitate what God said would already happen when His Word is proclaimed-that people would be persuaded and come to Him. And if you can, take as many lay people along with you in that journey so that they will be your best advocates when you put this into practice in your ministry.