The Qualities that make a Gospel Worker

Many readers will likely know that if I can get the funds I need I will be doing a MA Theology (technically in Biblical Studies) in the States. One of my scholarship applications (which was rejected, read into that what you will) posed the question, “What qualities make someone a good minister of the Gospel and why?” I really enjoyed thinking through the answer to this question. Here is something of what I wrote – what would you say?

Love

LoveWhen asked, “What qualities make someone a good minister of the Gospel?” I immediately think the answer must be whatever characterised Jesus. Jesus not only ministered the gospel, he is the gospel. Love is probably the simplest answer at which to arrive but is undoubtedly undermined by the flippancy with which we say it. For Jesus, it meant self-giving sacrifice in the extreme, I think of 1 John 4 and Romans 5. I don’t think we can begin to fathom the depths of what love means.

The answer seems associated with the greatest commandments, to love God and our neighbours. Certainly a good minister of the gospel must love God above everything he could ever dream of. It’s difficult to measure someone’s love for God though, but it can often be seen in his/her love for others. It does seem like a bit of a cheat to say “love” though, it’s too general, too abstract. What does love look like?

Love seen in Humility.

Philippians 2 was the first passage that occurred to me and humility the first attribute. I suspect that’s because whenever I believe I have humility, I find it is like quicksilver in my hands. Even so, pride and arrogance in the ministry never turn the focus to God but to the minister and that is always worthless. Jesus exemplified humility and “[our] attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus”.

Love seen in Service.

Closely related to humility is service. I pick service because it is something identifiable in a person. Again, Philippians 2 characterises Jesus as a servant and it is in service that we see Jesus’ self-sacrificial love at work. If we love people as ministers of the gospel, it will be a delight to serve them even when serving them is unpleasant because ultimately we are serving Christ.

Holiness

HolinessPerhaps holiness should precede love. In any case, it is loving holiness and holy love that characterised Jesus and that should characterise a minister of the gospel. Of course the gospel is for the sick but it’s not the gospel if it never heals them. An indication that the gospel is at work in anyone’s life is a growth in holiness. Holiness, therefore, must be present in the life of a gospel minister. This is what Paul means when he looks for a man “blameless” or “above reproach” in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.

Prayer

Prayer Prayer doesn’t really fall under holiness or love and yet it is tied to both because it is a matter of relationship just as holiness and love are. I could be wrong, but the only thing I recall the disciples asking Jesus to teach them is how to pray (Luke 11). Apparently disciples recognise the need to pray. It is also instructive to read Paul’s epistles and note how his prayers pervade his discourse. Prayer strikes me as a hallmark of a relationship with God.

Of course, Paul enumerates a number of other qualities. What qualities would you say make a someone a good minister of the gospel? What are the qualities you would look for?

What is Expository Preaching?

Expository PreachingI suppose the type of person who reads this sort of blog would, in general, be sympathetic to the notion of “Expository Preaching”. All the cool kids are doing it these days. All the people the cool kids listen to say it’s the only way to be faithful to Scripture and preach the full counsel of God. I must say, I pretty much agree (I’m cool like that). It seems, though, that the term and its meaning have become somewhat removed from one another.

Popular Parlance

When I hear the words “expository preaching”, the idea that is usually being expressed is that of a pastor preaching section by section (perhaps even verse by verse) through a chunk of the Bible – whether that chunk be Jude, Isaiah or Genesis 1-12). The point is, expository preaching is defined by what the sermon was on last week and what it will be on next week.

It’s great to do series through books. It can truly help people understand what the book as a whole is really about and knowing what’s coming could (in theory) enable people to read and think ahead for sermons that are still to come. That sort of engagement is, and would be, fantastic but honestly, it’s rare.

infrequentSomething for preachers to consider is the fact that today people consider themselves regular church attendees if they go once in six weeks – twice every three months. That’s not going to do much for continuity. What’s more, among those who attend every week, how many can tell you what the text of the sermon was from the previous week, never mind the main points? It’s terribly naive to believe that the average member of your congregation is reading ahead because you’re moving consecutively through a book.

Technical Meaning

What may be a surprise to many is that, technically, expository preaching is actually not about preaching section by section consecutively through a book or portion of Scripture. It’s not about what came last week and what will come next week. In actual fact, “expository” preaching is about “exposition”.

“Exposition” means that if you arrive at my sermon today and never hear anything else I preach, you should go away understanding this passage. Exposition is about presenting and explaining the idea or message embedded in the passage of the day. Exposition is an attempt to read the Bible in such a way as to understand it correctly.

Mary Poppins: I Never Explain AnythingIf we open our Bibles to Jeremiah 29:11, good exposition will guard us against thinking that we are ancient Israelites living in Babylonian exile. Good exposition will, however, also move us to the theological significance of a passage that promises prosperity. Good exposition will make sense to us today of a promise given thousands of years ago to a nation of people living in exile.

That means that if we’re wondering whether preachers (or even we ourselves) preach expositionally, the question is not, what was the sermon on last week. The question is, does the sermon make sense of the passage in the context of its place in the book and its place in the Bible and is whatever application stems out of that. The key is that such application is grounded in the meaning and message of the text.

Expositionally Topical

I often hear derision at the idea of topical sermons. I think we have even used to use preaching styles (expository vs topical) as a litmus test; demarcating conservatives and liberals. To be fair, “topical” preaching can be a facile excuse for an appalling use of Scripture. Essentially though, “topical vs expositional” is a false distinction. We could hear a series of sermons on humility (a topic!) taken from John 13, Philippians 2 and Jeremiah 9:23-24 and be listening to excellent exposition because humility is a major teaching point when each text is rightly understood. In contrast, I have heard plenty of sermons from consecutive passages that hardly dig into the meaning of the text at all, whose applications have little or nothing to do with the text in its context. However, “biblical” that sort of sermon may be, it’s not helping me understand the Bible.

The real question to ask of our preaching and our preachers is whether or not they are helping us understand the text. Exposition is an attempt to do exactly that: beware of false imitations.

The Lost Art Of ‘Quiet Times’

Traffic captured on a time lapseLife gets busier. That is the experience few of us evade. But what do we give up when the inescapable fact of busyness presses? Though they are the hardest things to relinquish, I have learnt we are to make our selfish and indulgent activities past times. As Christians we are called to live in community, which is life long service and active love towards others, after God. Jesus’ call to discipleship involves dying to self and therefore to those things directed solely towards self-gratification. That is an arduous call. As our lives become more crowded with responsibilities, we must abandon selfish pursuits. These pursuits are the places we retreat to, zealously protect, and need to survive.

What has always surprised me, observing my own approach in dealing with busyness, is my readiness to abandon prayer and reading the Scriptures, what we might call ‘quiet times’. I can even justify it: ‘I am busy serving the church, loving my neighbour, and glorifying God in my life.’ Action is—after all—greater than contemplation, isn’t it? In fact, I could argue that contemplation is quite selfish; our devotion should seek to actively bless others. Maybe it is these lines of thought which have brought so many Christians to a place that leaves no room for meditation amidst the hum drum of life.

Man on a bench reading his Bible

However, Christians through the centuries have emphasised the vitally important and vitality imbibing discipline of meditating on God’s Word. They saw it as the one activity we should zealously guard, retaining it at any cost. Indeed, Christians have always insisted on practising daily Scripture reading, meditation and prayer. The obvious danger with any spiritual discipline is legalism, but that risk does not justify the failure to spend time in the Scriptures, serious contemplation, and sincere prayer; nor does busyness. Below are a few challenging quotes I have come across in my reading recently.

In one of Samuel Rutherford’s letters he offers some directions for Christian living, a “Christian directory” (this can be found in Letters Of Samuel Rutherford, p70). And in the place of prominence, first on the list, he writes: “That hours of your day, less or more time, for the Word and prayer, be given to God”. For Rutherford, this discipline was not even in question. Only in the second direction does he mention the tangle of “worldly employments”; and that amidst them we should give some thought to sin, judgment, death and eternity, along with a word or two of prayer to God, on top of daily reading. It seems unrealistic or overly pious. But as I read through his letters I was struck by the richness of his relationship with God and how that deep communion overflowed into godly concern and invaluable counsel for the church.

Banner of Truth's Collected Works of John OwenIn his irreplaceable work on mortification, John Owen warns Christians against growing “sermon-proof” (p52, volume 6 of Owen’s collected works, Banner Of Truth). The cause of this, the ability to have our souls and sin addressed through the preaching of God’s Word while remaining unconcerned and hardened, is rooted in the ease with which we “pass over duties, praying, hearing, reading”. Complacency starts at home and extends to the pulpit where are hard hearts are visibly unaffected and sin becomes lighter. Owen continues: “Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell, come all in at the same season.” Our faith involves being good listeners to God’s Word, not merely faithful church-goers. The heart that is not nourished and continually challenged by meditating on the Scriptures in private, is already becoming hardened to it in public.

I will close with some striking words from the 1547 Book Of Homilies. The collection was deftly edited by Thomas Cranmer. While it is widely accepted he contributed just three homilies – on salvation, faith and good works – Ronald Bond thinks the style and theology of the sermon on Scripture is clearly the work of Cranmer’s pen. So Cranmer writes: ‘What excuse shall we therefore make, at the last day before Christ, that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than his most Holy Gospel? And will find no time to do that which chiefly above all things we should do; and will rather read other things? Let us, therefore, apply ourselves, as far forth as we can have time and leisure, to know God’s Word by diligent hearing and reading thereof, as many profess God and have faith and trust in him.’