3 Reasons the Resurrection Matters

The resurrection of Jesus (alongside his crucifixion) is the central historical event in the Christian faith. Without the resurrection there would be no Christianity. “If Christ has not been raised,” wrote St. Paul, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

I am a Christian because I believe in the resurrection. I am convinced that after dying a violent death on a Roman cross on a Friday afternoon in 30 A.D., Jesus of Nazareth came back to life and emerged from the tomb on Sunday morning.

This is not easy to believe. But if it is true, it is the most pivotal event in human history. Much has been written in defense of Jesus’ resurrection, the most thorough and convincing book being N. T. Wright’s massive 800-page volume, The Resurrection of the Son of God.[1] If you haven’t done so, I hope you’ll weigh the evidence for yourself.

What is unquestionable is that the first generation of Jesus’ followers did believe he had risen, and were convinced that everything had changed as a result.

Consider just three of the ways the New Testament highlights the significance of the resurrection. 

1. Jesus’ resurrection means that his sacrificial death on the cross was sufficient, and therefore our sins can be forgiven.

Paul emphasizes this in 1 Corinthians 15, reminding us that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (vv. 3-4). Then, in verse 17, he argues that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

In other words, Paul saw a direct connection between the resurrection of Jesus and the sufficiency of his death to atone for our sins. When Jesus rose again on the third day, it was the public announcement that God was fully satisfied with the sacrificial death of his Son.  In his resurrection, Jesus was vindicated (1 Timothy 3:16).  But in his vindication, we are vindicated too. That’s why Paul says in Romans 4 that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).[2]

2. Jesus’ resurrection means that death is defeated once and for all.

As Peter proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost, “God raised [Jesus] from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). Death lost its grip on Jesus!

But the resurrection means that Jesus not only defeated death for himself, but that he defeated it for us. He died and rose as a new representative for humanity, as the Second Adam. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,” writes Paul, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). His resurrection guarantees ours.

Perhaps no one has said this more eloquently than C. S. Lewis. In his 1947 book Miracles, Lewis wrote:

“The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the ‘first fruits,’ the ‘pioneer of life.’ He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has been opened.”[3]
The empty tomb assures us that sickness and suffering, death and disease will not have the final word.

This is both personal and powerfully hope giving to me. I have terrible eyesight, because of a degenerative eye disorder called karetoconus. I have a child with Type 1 diabetes, who takes at least four insulin shots a day. And my mom, at only 64 years old has advanced Alzheimer’s and hasn’t recognized me for several years. But the resurrection of Jesus means that someday I will have 20/20 vision, and my son will never need another shot again, and that Mom will know me once more.

3. Jesus’ resurrection means that the material world matters.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, when the apostles said that Jesus rose again, they meant that his physical body came back to life. The risen Jesus wasn’t a phantom or ghost, but a breakfast-eating, flesh-and-bone, human being (see Luke 24:36-43 and John 21:10-14).

As the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist John Updike once said,

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.[4]

When Jesus’ came out of the tomb in a physical body, it was God’s definitive stamp of approval on the creation project with all of its materiality. The resurrection shows us that matter matters. And this is why the early Christians looked to the future with confidence that the created order itself would be redeemed (see Romans 8:18-25).

Though we wait for the full consummation of new creation, the Scriptures also teach that the power that raised Jesus from the dead is already working within us (Ephesians 1:19-20). The resurrection, you see, not only assures of God’s forgiveness and comforts us in suffering as we anticipate the final reversal of death, disease, and decay; it also motivates and empowers us to push back the tide of suffering and evil in the present world, through word and deed, in mercy and in justice, all in Jesus’ name.

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End Notes

[1] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 3) (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003).
[2] The Greek word for “justification” (dikaiosin) in Romans 4:25  is closely related to the word “vindicated” (edikaiothe) in 1 Timothy 3:16.
[3] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1947) 236–237.
[4] John Updike, “Seven Stanzas of Easter,” in Telephone Poles and Other Poems (Random House, 2013).

Why is Christianity Such a "Bloody Religion?"

Christianity has been called a “bloody religion.” Christians have built their faith, after all, on the bloody death of the crucified Jesus. We sing with gusto, “What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” And with the apostle Peter we confess that we have been ransomed “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
But it is possible for us to misunderstand the significance of Jesus’ blood and even speak of it in ways that subvert the teaching of Scripture. Roman Catholic doctrine undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s finished work by teaching that his blood is offered repeatedly in a Eucharistic sacrifice. And some Protestants make a similar mistake with the supposition that Jesus continually offers his blood in heaven.
On the other hand, are those who propose that the saving efficacy of Jesus’ blood lies in some mystical or divine quality of the fluid itself, rather than his sacrificial death. This error confuses the human and divine natures of Christ and veers dangerously close to Monophysitism.[1]
Here are three propositions that summarize the teaching of Scripture about the significance of Jesus’ blood and safeguard us from error.

1. The saving efficacy of Jesus’ blood is found in his sacrificial death on the cross.  

When we read about the blood of Jesus in Scripture it signifies his violent death on the cross, along with the sacrificial nature of his death. We know his blood signifies death because biblical language described death in terms of shedding blood (cf. Genesis 9:6).

Paul makes the connection between Jesus’ blood and death explicit when he speaks of Christ making peace through “the blood of his cross” and reconciling us to God in “his body of flesh by his death” in Colossians 1:20-22.[2]

But Jesus’ blood is especially connected to the idea of sacrifice. In the midst of a sustained meditation on the relationship between Christ and the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, we read in Hebrews 9:22 that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” This highlights the necessity of sacrifice for forgiveness and shows that sacrifice by its very nature involves the shedding of blood. The passage then goes on to show that Christ “has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).

This leads to a second proposition:

2. Jesus’ bloody sacrifice was made once for all in a single offering.

This is also especially clear in Hebrews. Consider this litany of verses:
 §  Hebrews 7:27: He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. 
§  Hebrews 9:11-12: But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.     
§  Hebrews 9:25-26: Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 
§  Hebrews 10:10: And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 
§  Hebrews 10:12-14: But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

These passages clarify beyond dispute that Christ’s sacrifice was completed once and for all in his self-0ffering on the cross. Though, as our high priest, he continues to intercede for us at God’s right hand (Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:34), there is no need for continual or repeated sacrifice. His priestly work of sacrifice is complete. The offering has been made and does not need to be repeated. In Jesus’ own dying words, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

3. This single offering has secured for us a double grace.

Scripture, of course, attributes a whole host of blessings to the blood of Christ. These include forgiveness (Ephesians 1:7), propitiation of God’s wrath (Romans 3:25), justification (Romans 5:9), reconciliation with God (Ephesians 2:13-16) cleansing (1 John 1:7), sanctification (Hebrews 13:12), freedom from sin (Revelation 1:5), and the conquest of Satan (Revelation 12:10-11).

But one helpful way to summarize these blessings is with John Calvin’s language of “double grace.” In his Institutes, Calvin said:

Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.[3]

In other words, our union with Christ in his sacrificial death is both the basis of our acceptance with God and access into his presence, and the means of our cleansing from sin and moral transformation into the image of Christ.

This means we can confidently trust in Christ’s finished work for both the assured removal of the burden of guilt and the effective power to unshackle us from the chains of sin. The traditional theological categories for this are justification and sanctification.

The grace of justification is beautifully captured in Wesley’s translation of Zinzendorf’s classic hymn:

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
’Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.

Bold shall I stand in Thy great day;
For who aught to my charge shall lay?
Fully absolved through these I am
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame.[4]

This alone is good news! But the blood of Christ not only justifies, it also sanctifies. That’s why John Owen, the great seventeenth century physical of souls, in his classic work on the mortification of sin, said, “Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls.”[5]

Believers have rejoiced in this double grace down through the centuries. And that’s why we joyfully sing,

For my pardon, this I see,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
For my cleansing this my plea,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.[6]

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End Notes

[1] Monophysitism (from two Greek words, mono (single) and physis (nature) teaches that Jesus had only one nature, rather than two natures (human and divine) united in a single person. The Council of Chalcedon condemned Monophysitism as a heresy in AD 451. For more information, see “Monophysitism,” in S. B. Ferguson & J. I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), p. 442. 
[2] Emphasis added in this and following Scripture quotations.
[3] John Calvin, John T. McNeil, ed., Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960) III.xi.1, p. 725.
[4] Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness,” 1739; translated from German to English by John Wesley, 1739.
[5] John Owen, W. H. Goold, ed., The Works of John Owen, Volume 6. (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprint) p. 79.
[6] Robert Lowry, “Nothing but the Blood,” 1876. 

What Does it Mean to Abide in Christ?

One of Jesus’ most vivid and powerful illustrations for the believer’s relationship with him is the vine and branches. Just as branches can only bear fruit if they abide in the vine, so the only way believers can glorify the Father through fruitful lives is by abiding in Jesus. The teaching is found in John 15, where Jesus prepares his disciples for his imminent death and departure, by instructing them about their calling and mission as his disciples, and emphasizing their absolute dependence on him. As Jesus says in verse 5,
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Unpacking the metaphor
This picture is a rich metaphor that needs unpacking. The vine is Jesus, while we (believers, disciples) are the branches. The Father, Jesus says, is the vinedresser (v. 1) – that is the gardener who tends the branches. He prunes the fruitful branches so they will bear more fruit (v. 2), and takes away the unfruitful branches, throwing them into the fire (v. 26). The unfruitful branches appear to be nominal disciples: people who outwardly follow Jesus for a time, but fail to bear fruit.  Think, for example, of Judas Iscariot. The fruit we are called to bear probably includes both the fruit of transformed character (similar to “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23) and fruitfulness in evangelism as we bear witness to Jesus and his work.
What does it mean to abide?
That much seems to be clear. But what does it mean for us to abide in Jesus as branches in the vine?  I believe three things are implied: connection, dependence, and continuance. Don’t think of these as three successive steps, but as three interwoven aspects of abiding.   
1. Connection
Abiding in Jesus first of all means having a life-giving connection to him. A branch is connected to the vine, and a vine to the branch. This is what theologians frequently describe as “union with Christ.” Notice that this connection, this union, is mutual. We abide in him and he abides in us (v. 4). If there is no connection, there is no life, no fruit.
2. Dependence
But abiding also implies dependence. This aspect of abiding, unlike connection, is not reciprocal. The branch is dependent on the vine, but the vine is not dependent on the branch. The branch derives its life and power from the vine. Without the vine, the branch is useless, lifeless, powerless. Sap flows from the vine to the branch, supplying it with water, minerals, and nutrients that make it grow. And believers receive the “sap” of Christ’s grace through our life-giving connection to him. We are completely dependent upon Jesus for everything that counts as spiritual fruit (v. 4). Apart from him, we can do nothing (v. 5).
3. Continuance
Abiding also involves continuance. In fact, “abide” (Greek, meno) means to remain, or stay, or continue. For example, in John 1:38-39, two of the disciples who first encountered Jesus asked him “Where are you staying?” They wanted to know where Jesus made his residence. The word “staying” is the same word translated “abide” in John 15. To abide is to reside. To abide is to continue, to stay, to remain.
This shows us that another aspect of abiding in Jesus is remaining in Jesus. This simply means that we go on trusting, that we keep on depending, that we never stop believing. To abide in Jesus is to persevere in Jesus and his teaching. This is what Jesus is talking about in John 8:31-32, when he says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
In summary, to abide in the vine means to be united to Jesus (connection), to rely on Jesus (dependence), and to remain in Jesus (continuance).
Who is this for?
That leads to another question: who is this for?
In one sense, Jesus description of abiding seems to be an all or nothing deal. If someone abides in him, his love, and his word, this proves that they are his disciples. To not abide in him (and his love and word) is to show that one is not a disciple at all. So, to be a believer is to abide.
But on the other hand, “abide” is a command (v. 4). Jesus tells us to abide in him and to abide in his love (v. 9). It’s something we have to do. So, is abiding in Jesus something that is true of all believers?
There are certain streams of Christian teaching that have made this unnecessarily complicated. They have suggested that abiding in Christ is something additional, something special, that we gain through a crisis experience that ushers into a higher, deeper, or victorious life, sometimes even called the “abiding” life. And it is then suggested that Christians can be broken down into two groups: the “haves” and “have not’s.” The ordinary Christians who believe in Jesus but don’t abide and the extraordinary Christians who believe and also abide.
But I think it’s simpler and closer to the text to say that abiding, like faith itself, is a reality true of all Christians but also an experience that we grow into by degrees. It’s not that some Christians abide and some don’t. If you believe in Jesus, you are in him. You are united to him. You are connected to the life-giving branch. But no matter where you are on your spiritual journey, you can experience the reality of this connection to Jesus more and more.
You can become more fruitful. There are degrees of fruitfulness. The passage not only speaks of bearing fruit, but of bearing “more fruit” (v. 2) and “much fruit” (v. 8).
You can enjoy Jesus more. That’s why Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (v. 11). He not only wants us to have joy, he wants us to have full joy.  
And you can be more like Jesus. You can experience the sweetness, power, and joy of your connection to him in greater degrees, as you grow in ongoing daily dependence on him. In theological terms, all believers have union with Christ, but all believers can also know communion with him in greater (or lesser) degrees.
How do you abide?
That leads to a final question: how do you abide? If abiding in Jesus involves ongoing daily dependence on him, what does that look like? Jesus himself tells us. We abide in Jesus by letting his words abide in us (v. 7) and by abiding in his love (v. 9-10).
To put it simply, abiding in Jesus doesn’t require advancing beyond the gospel to something else. It doesn’t demand a crisis decision or a mystical experience. It just means keeping the words of Jesus in our hearts and minds, so that they are renewing and reviving us, shaping and sanctifying us, filling and forming us. And it means keeping ourselves in his infinite, enduring, sin-bearing, heart-conquering, life-giving love.
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Gospel Repentance

Let’s play a word association game.

What comes into your mind when you see or hear the word “repent”?

You might think of a street preacher wearing sandwich sign blazoned with “Turn or Burn.”

Perhaps you think of hell. Maybe the familiar illustrations of doing a U-turn or an about-face come to mind.

While any of these associations are understandable, none of them quite hit the biblical mark. If the only thing we think about when it comes to repentance is escaping hell or changing our ways, we’re still missing the most important part of repentance.

We’re still missing Jesus.

For repentance is not merely turning from sin. Repentance is also turning to the crucified and risen Savior. And if we miss this, we will fall into the “worldly grief” that “produces death,” that Paul describes 2 Corinthians 7:10.

There is a kind of sadness over sin that doesn’t lead to Jesus, doesn’t produce joy, and doesn’t end in life. But that kind of grief over sin is not genuine gospel repentance.

Theologians from an older generation distinguished between legal repentance and evangelical repentance. By legal repentance they meant a kind of repentance that had its eye on the law and its condemnation. But this is sharply different from evangelical, or gospel, repentance. Gospel repentance fixes its gazes less on broken laws and threatened judgments and more on the weeping, wounded, sin-bearing Savior.

Calvin said that in evangelical repentance, “the sinner, though grievously downcast in himself, yet looks up and sees in Christ the cure of his wound, the solace of his terror; the haven of rest from his misery.”[1]

St. Bernard’s old hymn beautifully captures the ethos of gospel repentance:

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.

Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;

Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,

For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?

O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.[2]

Gospel repentance, you see, is the reflex of our hearts when, captivated by the dying love of Jesus, we throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the embrace of his mercy and grace.

Gospel repentance is Peter back on the boat following the week of Jesus’ passion, toiling again with the old nets. But, suddenly aware that Jesus stands on Galilee’s shore waiting for him, he jumps head first into the water and swims with all his might for land.

Gospel repentance is the prodigal son with the smell of pigs lingering on his clothes and the taste of husks still in his mouth, astonished at the joyous indignity of his father running to meet him and squelching his well-rehearsed confession with kisses, tears, and a bear hug.

I wonder if the negative associations we make with the word repentance are because we too often think of repentance in terms of escaping the consequences of sin, and too seldom in terms of returning to the outstretched arms of our welcoming Father in heaven?

Yes, there is certainly a place for self-examination. We should all pray with the Psalmist,    

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting![3]

But introspection also has its hazards. We should especially beware of so fixating on our sins that we lose sight of the Savior himself.[4]

This post was originally written for Gospel Connections, the blog of Tim Merwin. Be sure to check it out. 


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (III.3.4). Translated by Henry Beveridge. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
[2] “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, 1153 (Salve caput cruentatum); translated from Latin to German by Paul Gerhardt, 1656 (O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden), and from Latin to English James W. Alexander, 1830.
[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Ps 139:23–24). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[4] For more on gospel repentance, see the helpful Tim Keller’s helpful essay, “All of Life is Repentance,” ( and “Don’t Seek Repentance or Faith as Such; Seek Christ
“ in John C. Miller’s The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller (p. 244). (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004) p. 244.

3 Tests of Balanced Preaching

In his classic book Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones described three different kinds of sermons that every pastor needs to preach:
1. Sermons that teach or instruct. These are messages for the church with a more doctrinal or theological focus.
2. Sermons that edify. These are also messages for the church, but with a more “experimental” focus. (By “experimental” preaching, Lloyd-Jones meant preaching that related to Christian experience.)
3. Sermon that evangelize. These are messages that declare the essential message of salvation – the message of the gospel.[1]
Lloyd-Jones wrote in an era when it wasn’t unusual for churches to have three services, and thus three full sermons a week, with many of the same people attending each one. In the United States this is the traditional Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening structure. For Lloyd Jones it was Sunday morning, devoted to edification; Sunday evening, devoted to evangelism; and Friday evening, devoted to doctrinal instruction. His “Great Doctrines of the Bible” series, as well as his 14 volumes of expository sermons on Romans were originally preached on these Friday nights.
The preacher’s quandary 
While some churches retain the three-service structure, this is increasingly uncommon. The church I pastor only has one weekly worship service, and thus one sermon. There are, of course, other venues for teaching – Sunday schools, Bible studies, and small groups, for example – but only one weekly time when the full congregation is assembled together for worship.
Pastors like me are left in the quandary of choosing which kind of sermon to preach for one main gathering. At which target should we aim? Should we preach evangelistically so that unbelievers can hear the gospel? Will we focus on building up the believers in our congregations by preaching and teaching on real life issues, such as marriage and family, suffering and grief, work and rest? Or perhaps spiritual life issues such as prayer, growing in grace, and dealing with habitual sins should be the focus? If so, then when do we teach doctrine? Should we ever devote Sunday mornings to subjects like the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection of Jesus, and justification by faith?
Answering this isn’t as easy at one might think, partly because most pastors tend to gravitate to one of these types of preaching over the other two. Which means we can’t just go with our preference. If we do, we will lack balance and leave the congregation malnourished over time. Nor is it enough to scratch where people itch. If we do that, we’ll almost always deal with “felt needs” and almost never with doctrine. (Paul warns us about itch-scratching preaching in 2 Timothy 4:3). But Christians need doctrine in order to mature (Ephesians 4:11-16), even though they sometimes don’t realize it and may turn up their noses at the word “theology.” (I have a working theory that people actually do like theology, they just don’t like the boring ways we pastors and theologians often package and present it. But they perk up when we get our theology a bit more street level and show how it applies.)
Towards a solution
I’m not claiming a definitive solution to this problem, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about, so I’d like to offer some thoughts.
1. All preaching must be expositional
First off, we should insist that all preaching must be rooted in the exposition of Scripture. This doesn’t mean every sermon is a running commentary on a whole paragraph or chapter of the Bible. Nor does it rule out “topical” preaching as such. It means rather that the main focus of the sermon is derived explicitly from the text of Scripture itself. Scripture is not just an added bullet point given to lend support to our own ideas.
2. Three-in-one preaching
Secondly, I don’t think we should settle for only one of these components per sermon. Even Lloyd Jones acknowledged that his “distinctions should not be pressed in too absolute a sense.”[2] But I think it’s even more important to cross-pollinate these types of sermons today. Tim Keller has argued that every sermon should be a gospel sermon, in which Jesus is the hero of the story, the solution to the problem.[3]Bryan Chapell similarly teaches preachers to look for the “fallen condition” and “Christ solution” in each text.[4] When we do this, it builds in opportunities for us to share the good news of the gospel and point people to God’s saving grace, even when our sermons aren’t explicitly and wholly targeted to unbelievers.
But it’s also true to say that every sermon should teach theology. That doesn’t mean we need a theological outline. In fact, we probably should package most of our sermons more practically. But even in practical sermons, when we’re building our messages on the text of Scripture, there are always clear connecting points between belief (doctrine) and behavior (practice). We should look for those points and connect the dots. 
3. Give yourself plenty of preparation time
But preparing sermons like this take time. You’ll need time for reading that hones your hermeneutical skills and keeps you theologically sharp. You’ll need time and space for meditation and prayer and the time and tools to be sure your exegesis of any given text is on target.
But you also need time each week to work things out clearly in the structure and content of the sermon. You might try writing multiple outlines for the same sermon. I often go through five or six possible outlines before preaching. For example, in a recent sermon on “Abiding in the Vine” from Jesus’ teaching on the vine and branches in John 15, I wrote up three or four outlines. One of them was more theologically focused on the theme of union with Christ – it’s reality, importance, results, etc. Another was built on questions: what does it mean to abide, why should we abide, and how do we do it? Still another was a list of seven observations I made on the passage about abiding. But while all of these outlines served the final sermon, none of them ended up being my preaching outline. Looking back, I can say that while this wasn’t the best sermon I’ve ever preached, I think it had all three components: a strong theological base, practical application, and a gospel focus.
4. Know what to leave out
One of the greatest temptations of a preacher is to bring all the fruits of his study into the sermon. But doing so makes the message unwieldy – more like a lecture than a sermon. We’ve got to learn what to leave out. (I can certainly improve in this.) Chapters 5-9 of Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching provide a helpful guide for honing this discipline.
5. Listen to feedback
In fact, ask for it. You should solicit feedback from a variety of people both inside and outside your congregation. I’ve benefited immensely from having staff members who occasionally offer constructive critique of my sermons. When I’m getting too repetitive, or am not clear, or am leaving people with more sense of duty than wonder at the gospel, one of them is sure to let me know – often offering positive suggestions for how to improve. But I especially pay attention when non-Christians comment, because I want to know whether I’m connecting with them or not. And I give special heed to spiritually mature folks (including my wife) who have a good sense for what is feeding people in contrast to what is merely instructing them. 
The triple test
So how do you know if you’re hitting the target with your preaching? None of us will hit it perfectly. Ever. But we can improve. We can grow in measurable ways. So, it’s helpful to have benchmarks for measuring our progress.
Here’s the triple test: is my sermon true to the text, true to the gospel, and true to life? If my sermon is true to the text, it will expose the theological and doctrinal truths of the text. If it is true to the gospel, it will make the necessary canonical connections to the person and work of Jesus Christ, framing the message of the sermon in terms man’s need and God’s gracious provision in Christ that meets that need. And if it’s true to life, it will be relevant, accessible, and applicable to the lives of the people.
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[1] D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 40th Anniversary Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). See especially chapters 3 and 4.
[2] Lloyd Jones, p. 73.
[3] Keller said things like this in multiple places, but to really “get it,” you should listen to a few dozen sermons. He is an exemplary model of practical, gospel-centered preaching. To listen to free sermons go to:
[4] See Chapell’s excellent book Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).

Links Worth a Look

Jesus Spent 30 Years Being Boring - Stephen Altrogge on the ordinary, mundane kind of obedience that still counts as radical. "For the first 30 years of his life, Jesus was boring. He was an unknown carpenter who wasn’t doing “big” things for God. He worked alongside his dad, using his hands to shape, shave, and tack together pieces of wood. He quietly studied the scriptures, and grew in stature with God and men. He didn’t have a public ministry. He didn’t write any books, go on a conference tour, adopt an orphan, give away 75% of his income, or go on multiple missions trips. He loved the Lord with all his heart, honored his mother and father, and quietly went about his work. Was Jesus wasting his life?"

Biblical Womanhood for Pariahs - Wendy Alsup on the application of biblical womanhood to women in all circumstances of life. "Our understanding of Biblical Womanhood has to include such women. The divorced. The widow. The single mom. The working single mom. The single woman with no kids." 

You are What - and How - You Read - Rosaria Butterfield helped create the world of LGBTQ activism on college campuses. Now she reflects on "three unbiblical points of view Christian communities harbor when they address the issue of Christianity and homosexuality."

Love and Spiritual Transformation

The most famous chapter in the Bible on love is 1 Corinthians 13. We often treat this chapter like a poem about love, printing it on greeting cards, reciting it at weddings, and placarding it on the walls of our homes. But this chapter is much more than a sentimental poem about warm fuzzies. In its original context, it is a heart-searching, gospel-drenched, portrait of Christianity in its highest ethical dimensions. It is a call to an immature and divisive congregation to prioritize the virtues of Christ over self-centeredness. It is a beacon shining the light of the eschaton into the darkness of this present age, showing us the more excellent way: the way of Christ, the way of love. As such, this chapter does nothing less than beckon us to a deep transformation of the heart – a radical reorientation towards Christ and the character he is forming within us.

The Formation of Character

In his thoughtful commentary on 1 Corinthians, Richard Hays observes that love “requires the formation of character.”
Love is not just a matter of feelings: feelings come and go, while love abides. Paul's description of the attributes of love [in 1 Corinthians 13] offers a picture of habitual actions and dispositions. One cannot merely decide in a day's time to start doing these things. They are learned patterns of behavior that must be cultivated over time in the context of a community that models and supports such behavior…the church should be a school for the cultivation of these habits and practices.[1] 

In other words, 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t just about doing loving deeds, but forming loving character. There are a couple reasons for thinking Hays is onto something here. 

First of all, Paul describes love in terms of its actions, using present tense verbs, which express “habitual as well as present actions.”[2] And habitual actions are indications of character. 

But secondly, Paul calls love “a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). The word “way” (hodos) denotes a road or path along which someone walked. Walking along a way was a euphemism for following a set of teachings or living according to particular code of ethics.

The Old Testament frequently spoke of walking in the ways of God (Deut. 8:6; Psa. 25:4; Psa. 11:1). And Jesus adopted the same image as he contrasted the easy way that leads to destruction with the hard way that leads to life (Matt. 7:13-14). In fact, this “way” language was so common, that the early Christians were known as followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 22:14, 22).

When we see Paul describe love as the more excellent way, it’s helpful to remember this background. It reminds us that we’re on a journey, walking towards a specific destination. And this journey involves many slow, plodding, repeated steps along the way. Our destiny is the eschaton, the last day, when we will enter into the full consummation of our salvation in the eternal kingdom of God, where his grace will restore our fallen world once and for all. But the journey there is gradual, requiring us to take lots of steps (walking) and stay on the appointed path (perseverance). And the road, the path, the way, along which we walk, is the way of love. 

How is Character Formed?

So how is this character formed? Last year I read N. T. Wright’s excellent book After You Believe. It’s all about the formation of Christian character. In fact, the subtitle of the book is “Why Christian Character Matters.” Wright helpfully summarizes how character transformation happens, saying:
Character is transformed by three things. First, you have to aim at the right goal. Second, you have to figure out the steps you need to take to get to that goal. Third, those steps have to become habitual, a matter of second nature.[3]
Then Wright gives some helpful illustrations. He says forming character is in many ways like learning a second language. That, of course, involves serious intention and really hard work. You have to learn vocabulary words. You have to go over it again and again. You slowly have to learn to speak the language, read it, and so on. And the goal is to get the place where you’re no longer translating in your head (this German/French word means this in English), but instead you’re actually able to think in the other language. It becomes second nature. 

Or think of learning to play a musical instrument. You of course have to learn the mechanics of the instrument, how it works and so on. You have to play scales or cords – a lot. You start with simple pieces and move on to more complex pieces over time. And you have to practice – a lot. Some research says that it takes about 10,000 hours to really develop competence in this kind of complex skill.

As Wright points out, both learning a second language and learning to play an instrument help us understand how the formation of character works. It takes time. It takes intentionality. It requires regular, repeated practice. You will make lots of mistakes along the way. But over time you develop fluency, competency.

And this is the way it is with love. With time, intention, and sustained effort, and in conscious reliance on the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, you learn the language, the music of love. 

Putting Love into Practice

Now, to be practical, this is how you might go about it. If you have a serious intention to follow Jesus in the way of love, consider doing the following exercise. Take 1 Corinthians 13 line by line and try to visualize what it would look for you to be this kind of person. “Love is patient, love is kind” – what would it look like for you to be patient and kind in you relationships? Think about your roommate, or siblings, or if you’re married, your spouse. Consider the members of your small group or church.

Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where this isn’t true in your life. Where are you failing to be patient and kind? Ask him to show you specific ways, times, and places when you’ve been impatient and unkind. Think specifically of the people with whom you have poor relationships: where there is conflict or difficulty or unhappiness? Where are you returning evil for evil? Is there anyone you need to forgive? Have you harbored hurt? Are you nurturing the slow-growing seeds of resentment? Have you been cruel to anyone? Are you withholding good from someone?

Then ask God for the grace to repent and change. Ask him for both the ongoing desire and sustained energy to behave in different ways. And then seriously commit yourself to acting in just those ways, and change will begin to happen.

As C. S. Lewis describes the process in a well-known passage from Mere Christianity:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.... This same spiritual law works terribly in the opposite direction…. The more cruel you are, the more you will hate; and the more you hate, the more cruel you will become—and so on in a vicious circle for ever. Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.[4]

The Personification of Love

But finally, we must remember that the highest example, the greatest demonstration of love, is Jesus himself. In one of his sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, Tim Keller observes that Paul doesn’t just tell us to be patient and kind. Paul doesn’t really even command us to be loving people. In fact, “love” is the subject of the verbs. He is showing us what love looks like. “No, he says ‘Love must be…’ He personifies love.”[5] 

Don’t you see? 1 Corinthians 13 is a character description of Jesus. And we must see this, or trying to live by 1 Corinthians 13 will become just another law, as crushing as trying to earn salvation by keeping the Ten Commandments.

But if we read this passage and see in it the portrait of our Savior: the face of Love himself who was crucified for our lovelessness, the One whose resurrection ushers us into the power of age to come, and into whose image we are now being remade, then the passage functions not as a crushing burden to be borne, but as a warm and inviting light towards which we walk. As Keller says, “Before love is a behavior to a Christian, love is an experience. You have to meet love before you can ever do it.”[6]

Have you met Love?

No one described this encounter with Love Incarnate more eloquently than the English poet George Herbert. So, I’ll give him the last word.

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
      Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
      From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
      If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
     Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
      I cannot look on Thee.
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
      'Who made the eyes but I?

Truth, Lord; but I have marred them: let my shame
      Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, Who bore the blame?
      My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
      So I did sit and eat.[7]

This post was published by Servants of Grace. Be sure to check out the many helpful resources for spiritual growth at their site


[1] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1997) p. 232-233.
[2] David Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2003), p. 617. Garland is quoting Peter O’Brien.
[3] N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York, Harper One, 2010) p. 29. Overall this is a great book, but ignore everything Wright says about Martin Luther.
[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) pp. 131-132.
[5] Timothy J. Keller “Love’s Way with God,” April 28, 1996. The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
[6] Ibid.
[7] George Herbert, “Love (3)” in The Complete English Poems (New York, Penguin Books, 2004), p. 178.