Archives For Christopher Ash

Christopher Ash, director of the Cornhill Training Course, London, has recently published a new commentary on Job in the Preaching the Word series: Job: the Wisdom of the Cross (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014). I encourage you to use this excellent commentary in your devotional reading (when you reach Job as you read through the Bible) and also for your preparation for preaching and/or teaching through Job.

Ash was recently interviewed about this work. I include a few key questions and responses from this exchange.

Ash was initially asked about the contemporary heresies of the prosperity gospel, which promises that coming to faith in Christ means riches, health and wealth, and the therapeutic gospel, which promises that that being a disciple of Christ means the Lord will give me subjective benefits of happiness and making me feel better about myself. In response Ash concludes, “Job pulls the rug out from under both these gospel distortions. It sets before us a conspicuously righteous man (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3) who suffers prolonged and intense loss and grief, the very opposite of what these gospel distortions would lead us to expect.”

When reading and interpreting Job, Ash concludes that he could not be like any one of us, a representative man. The interviewer, noting Ash’s conclusion, states that Job’s “suffering and trials are in a class by themselves. What role does Job play in the drama of the human story?”

Yes, indeed, it seems to me that Job cannot be “everyman” for several reasons. He is exceptionally righteous (1:1,8; 2:3), exceedingly great and successful (1:3), and his sufferings are intensely deep (1:6-2:10). Far from being a picture of human suffering in general, the book tells the story of a unique man suffering with unmatched intensity. In the big sweep of the bible story it is very natural therefore to see him as foreshadowing Jesus Christ, the one absolutely righteous man on earth, the greatest human being who has lived, and the one whose sufferings were uniquely deep and grievous. Job in his extremity helps us understand Jesus in his uniqueness. Only then may we legitimately see Job as prefiguring our experience in any way, as those indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus and experiencing in our lives some measure of suffering with him (e.g. Rom.8:17; Col.1:24).

Ash’s thesis statement throughout the commentary is as follows: “the glory of God is more important than your or my comfort.” He was asked why this is and why this is actually good news.

Yes, I was greatly helped by 1 Peter 1:7 as I grappled with Job. Writing to suffering Christians, Peter says that the “various trials” they are enduring will show the “tested genuineness” of their faith. That is to say, the trials will prove that they really trust God; it is easy to say we trust God when things are going well; it is when blessings are taken away that it is seen whether we really worship God simply because He is God. When we do and our faith is seen to be tested and genuine then, when Jesus returns, there will be “praise and glory and honour” to God. It is good news to know that your and my Christian sufferings have such an exalted purpose; that our sufferings will prove that in our hearts we honour God as God. Only when we suffer can this be publicly and convincingly seen to the watching world.

One of the challenges in Job is understanding how to read, interpret and apply the messages of Job’s (so-called) friends and comforters. Ash gives some helpful guidance.

The comforters say many true things – true things about God, true things about justice, true things about sin and judgment. But they are not true of Job. The critical thing they deny is the possibility of unjust suffering, and therefore the flip-side of this, which is the possibility of undeserved blessing, or grace. I have included an introductory chapter about the comforters’ theology, and in the various speeches have suggested what we can learn from them. One of the main things I have learned is to be warned, because it is so easy for our Christian culture to slip into a Job’s comforters culture, and for grace to slip out of the window.

Anyone who reads Job knows the book ends with God never answered Job’s questions. In fact, God is the one who asks questions of Job. God never answered Job and he never explained to Job why he suffered. How is this to be understood?

Job has spoken as if he could run God’s world better than God. God’s speeches focus first on the wild parts of the universe, the parts that are clearly outside Job’s control. And then finally on this strange and terrifying monster, serpent, beast called Leviathan (Job 41), who is a vivid storybook way of speaking of the devil or Satan. The central message is that God alone may be trusted to be sovereign even over supernatural forces of evil in the universe. This is a huge claim, that there truly is one Sovereign God who rules the universe and is so great and wise that he can even use supernatural evil as one of his agents in governing the world. The devil is, in Luther’s vivid phrase, “God’s Satan”.

 

 

Encouraging Good Preaching

Greg Strand – January 16, 2014 Leave a comment

The people of God gather around the Word of God. Preaching is the most important element of the corporate gathering of the people of God.

God spoke to Moses who recorded these revealed words with a purpose and a direction: “Assemble the people before to me, to hear my words, so that they may learn to revere me” (Dt. 4:10). To this we respond, “Let the assembled peoples gather round you, while you sit enthroned over them on high” (Ps. 7:7). This purpose and direction carries over into the New Testament to the people of God who when gathered are to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1Tim. 4:13).

It is God’s Word that births the people of God, and it is God’s Word that nourishes these people. The Word is central in the gathering and the living, the purpose and the direction. This is true as it is revealed in the Bible. It also reflects some of the important changes brought about during the Reformation in which the Bible was the authority, the sola Scriptura, not the Pope or the Church, and the preaching of the Word was the prominent focus whenever the people of God gathered. The Reformers and churches of the Reformation added to this importance by the way they built and where they placed the pulpit, which served the Word of God and gave prominence to this Word as preached.

This was not about the pastor as preacher. Rather it was about the Word of God as revealed/spoken, for the Bible not only consists of what God spoke in the past, it is the way God speaks today in the present tense. This is why the gathered church would often read Psalm 95, quoted by the preacher in Hebrews 3: “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Ps. 95:7b-11; Heb. 3:7-11, 15; cf. Ex. 17).

Though it is true that with the coming of Christ and the ushering in of the new covenant place and space have been transformed. And yet, we remain embodied in time and place so it means something. As you ponder this, what is the central focus of the church gathering where you meet? What role does the pulpit have? With or without it being the centerpiece of the “furniture,” does preaching remain preeminent. We will pick this up again at some future point.

With this foundation, we now build on yesterday’s post. We learned from Christopher Ash of the “seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening.” Today we hear again from Ash on “7 suggestions for encouraging good preaching.” 

  1. Pray for the preachers. Pray specifically that they will work hard at the Bible passages (I Timothy 5:17) and preach them faithfully, passionately and in a way that engages with us.
  2. From time to time, tell the preachers you are praying for them and looking forward with expectancy to the sermon. That will be a great encouragement and incentive to them to prepare well.
  3. Be there. You may be surprised what an encouragement it is just to have you there, and what a discouragement to have you absent.
  4. Thank them afterwards for things you learned. Don’t flatter or just give them very vague comments about how good it was (if it was). Try to be specific and focus on the biblical content of the sermon rather than just stories, anecdotes or illustrations. Tell them if there was something in particular that you found helpful.
  5. Be prepared to be constructively and supportively critical. Ask the preachers to help you see where they got a particular point from the passage, or indeed the Bible. It will encourage them to stick to the Bible more next time. Be humble and respectful in the way you do this; remember, it is much harder to preach than it is to criticize preaching.
  6. Relate to your preachers as one human being to other human beings. Remember that the best sermon by a remote preaching hero, heard on an MP3 recording, is no substitute for the word of God preached by a human being face to face with other human beings in the context of trust and love.
  7. Be on the lookout for gifts of preaching and teaching in the church, and be ready to tap someone on the shoulder and suggest they develop these gifts and get further training. Mention these ideas to the pastoral leadership team in your church.

Tomorrow we will hear a word from Ash on how to hear “bad” sermons.

Yesterday we looked back to a previous day to learn from Charles Simeon about how to hear a sermon. Today we look at a contemporary work that serves as a guide for how to hear and heed sermons: Christopher Ash, Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons (The Good Book Company, 2009).

Ash has served in local church ministry and in a church planting ministry. He now serves as the Director of the Cornhill Training Course, London, England. He has written a number of books including a helpful one on preaching, The Priority of Preaching (Christian Focus/PT Media 2009). Cornhill is a ministry of The Proclamation Trust, a ministry that exists “to encourage ministry that seeks above all to teach the Bible as God’s Word relevant for today.” More specifically, Cornhill is “a training course with a primary aim of training preachers. Alongside this we train men and women to teach the Bible in other contexts, such as youth/children’s work and women’s ministry.”

This is an extremely helpful booklet consisting of 30 pages and filled with nuggets of practical counsel regarding listening to sermons. I would encourage those of you who regularly preach the Word of God to read it. Though intended to aid the listener of the sermon preached, it would also be invaluable for you as you prepare, ponder and pray over the sermon to remember sermons are preached to people. I would then encourage you to have the elders read it so that they will be more effectively equipped to grow through the preached Word and also help you as the preacher to grow in the preaching of the Word. Finally, you may want to make copies available to the congregation.

I also used this in my own family devotions, reading through one of the “seven ingredients” as we gathered each night. It was good for my wife and me to be reminded of these important ingredients, and to learn a few additional insights, and it was also good to teach and talk about the significance of learning how to listen and learn well from the preached Word, since it holds the preeminent place in the corporately gathered people of God known as the church. What a gift to receive and give to my daughter – guidance about how to listen to sermons at this stage of her life that should serve her, the pastor and the church, well the rest of her life.

Below I have outlined this major section of the booklet.

Seven ingredients for healthy sermon listening

1.       Expect God to speak

Practical Steps to Take

  1. Look up next Sunday’s Bible passage and read it at home during the week.
  2. Pray for next Sunday’s preacher in the middle of the week.
  3. Pray often for yourself, that, by His Spirit, God will grow in you a heartfelt expectation that God Himself will speak to you as His word is preached.
  4. If you can, try not to come to the sermon exhausted, but to come rested and ready to pay close attention.
  5. Deliberately quieten your mind and heart before the sermon and say to yourself: ‘This is when God speaks to me.’ Pray again: ‘Lord, speak to me. I am listening’.

2.       Admit God knows better than you.

Practical Steps to Take

  1. Which parts of this week’s preached Bible passage challenge your beliefs or lifestyles?
  2. Does the passage clearly teach these things?
  3. Pray for the work of God’s Spirit to enable you to submit to what the Bible clearly says, and to help you to change.

3.       Check the preacher says what the passage says

Practical Steps to Take

  1. Read the passage or listen carefully when it is read.
  2. What do you think is the main point of the passage? This may be signaled by repetition of something important, or by being in the punchline (for example, of a parable), or by being the theme that runs through the passage: Is the main thrust of the sermon the same as the main point of the passage?
  3. Are there any surprises in the passage, ie [sic]: things the Bible says that we wouldn’t expect it to say, or that it says in ways we wouldn’t expect it to say them?
  4. Who was the passage originally written or spoken to? Are we in the same situation as them? In particular, if they were before Christ, we need to be careful what parallels we draw; we can’t simply apply it straight to ourselves. After all, it wasn’t written to us. It was written for us (for our benefit) but not directly to us.
  5. Why do you think the Bible writer wrote this passage? What is the passage intended to achieve in its hearers?
  6. Pray as Martin Luther used to pray: ‘Lord, teach me, teach me, teach me’.

4.       Hear the sermon in church

Practical steps to take: These have been combined with the suggestions in the next section.

5.       Be there week by week

Practical Steps to Take

  1. Keep count for six months or a year of how many weeks you are in your own local church to hear the sermon. Make a note of the different reasons why you’re not there.
  2. If you find you’re away more than you realized, and more than you ought to be, take some practical diary action to make sure you’re there more regularly. Come back from a holiday on a Saturday. Get back from a visit to friends in time for the Sunday evening meeting. And so on.
  3. Be aware of the others in your local church as you listen to the sermon. Talk to them afterwards, not only about how we should respond as individuals, but about how the Bible passage should shape the church.
  4. Pray often for the work of God’s Spirit to shape both you as an individual and your church as a body of Christians together.

6.       Do what the Bible says

Practical Steps to Take

  1. After this week’s sermon, write down all the ways you wish that other people would obey that teaching. Don’t hold back. When you’ve written it all down, tear it up.
  2. Now let’s get to business. Write down as definitely and precisely as you can some action you need to take to obey this Bible passage. It may be a change of attitude, or an alteration in the way you speak, or some action you need to stop doing, or start doing. Whatever it is, write it down.
  3. In a week’s time, and then a month’s time, look at what you’ve written and ask yourself whether that Bible passage made any difference to you.
  4. Pray, pray and pray again for God to work obedience in you to His word.

7.       Do what the Bible says today – and rejoice!

Practical Steps To Take

  1. Ask yourself how the preached passage shows you an attitude, or words, or actions that need to change.
  2. Then change, urgently, praying for grace to enable you to repent.
  3. Ask yourself in what way the passage encouraged you to trust in God and in Christ afresh. Then resolve, urgently, to put that fresh trust into your life as God helps you.
  4. Enjoy preaching, not as entertainment but as God’s regular gracious invitation to walk with Him, rejoicing in a clear conscience. 

Christians and Co-habitation

Greg Strand – March 1, 2013 3 Comments

Christopher Ash, Director of the Cornhill Training Course in London, and author of the excellent book Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (Nottingham, UK: InterVarsity Press, 2003), recently responded to a question about “Christians and co-habitation.”

This is an extremely pertinent issue as many younger Evangelicals are co-habiting and find nothing wrong with it. Is this a moral issue of a by-gone day? Does morality in an enlightened postmodern day mean that marriage as traditionally understood is good but unnecessary? Can marriage be sloughed off without going contrary to Scripture’s mandate about marriage and sexual expression being reserved for the relationship of a man and a woman within the context of marriage? Though Ash states the question posed by this young Christian man as making reference to many of his “non-Christian peer group,” many Christians are also engaging in this same sort of arrangement.

Ash stated the question in this way:

It comes to light that a Christian young man in your church is living with his girlfriend, unmarried. When you challenge him about this he responds, “So, can you show me from the Bible that it’s wrong for me to be living with my girlfriend?” He is not aggressive, though perhaps a little defensive. But he really does seem to want to know the answer. . . . All—or nearly all—his non-Christian peer group are living together, and really it hasn’t seriously occurred to him that it is wrong, let alone scandalous. So what is his pastor to say?

The young man answers his own question by claiming that

what we are doing is morally responsible, and not at all like fornication or sexual immorality. I am not paying her for sex, as a man does with a prostitute. We are not breaking marriage vows by having an affair. We are not sneaking off for secret assignations in a covert and shameful way. On the contrary, we have quite openly moved in together. We love one another, and we are faithful to one another. So what’s wrong?

Ash notes that there is no single, simple and convincing proof-text in the Bible to quote to win the day. It is not that the Bible has nothing to say – it has a great deal to say about this! – but it cannot be stated in a one-minute sound bite. Here is Ash’s response:

1. Jesus taught clearly and forcefully that the sexual relationship of man and woman ought to be faithful and lifelong. We are not to separate what God has joined (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9). Any sexual relationship between a man and a woman that is not accompanied by the intention of lifelong faithfulness is, by definition, displeasing to God and immoral. It is not possible for a sexual relationship to be moral and intentionally transient. (It is essential to the definition of marriage that both parties pledge themselves to lifelong faithfulness; the fact that, sadly, some marriages later break does not change the fact that marriage is always built upon this pledge.) So there are two kinds of sexual relationships, ones that are built upon the pledge of lifelong faithfulness, and ones that are not.

2. There is a very great difference between public pledge and private assurances. This difference is not appreciated as it ought to be. In our privatized and individualistic culture we think there is little or no difference between private assurances exchanged between lovers on the sofa and public pledges made before witnesses (which is marriage).

But, in fact, there is a very great difference. A private assurance is, as we all sadly know, terribly easy to break. After all, when it comes to it, it is my word against hers/his as to what exactly was said. My reputation suffers minimal loss if I break a private word. BUT when I make a pledge before witnesses, I place my whole integrity and public reputation on the line. This is what happens in a marriage. I pledge publicly that I will be faithful to this woman alone until death separates us. Everybody knows I have made this pledge, for marriage vows (even if made before only a few witnesses) are unboundedly public. When I tell people I am married, they know that this means (by definition) I have publicly pledged lifelong faithfulness.

This means I am agreeing with Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce. By publicly pledging lifelong faithfulness I agree that I ought never to be the one who breaks the marriage. And if I do break it (that is, be the one who actually causes it to break, never mind who does the technical legal business of suing for divorce), everyone will know I have broken my clear vow. And my reputation and integrity will suffer. So the stakes are rightly high in marriage. For public vows nail my public integrity to the maintenance of our marriage.

But unmarried cohabitation never has this clarity of commitment. Whatever private understandings may have been entered into (and these vary enormously), the whole relationship is surrounded by a public haze of ambiguous commitment. When a woman introduces her ‘boyfriend’ or ‘partner’ (horrible word), we are left to guess the nature of their relationship. When a cohabitation breaks, we do not know what private understandings or assurances have been broken and by whom.

3. Furthermore, in marriage there is public clarity that the vows have been made equally by man and wife. Whereas all too often in cohabitations there is a disparity of expectation. Typically (though not always) the woman expects the relationship to last (and persuades herself that her man has committed himself to her) while the man regards the whole business as much more of a “let’s see how it goes” relationship.

4. To the unmarried couple we may therefore say, “Either your relationship is committed for life or it is immoral. If it is not immoral, you must be committed for life. In which case, you ought to be willing to stand up and say so. For what reason might there be for keeping your commitment private? Answer: none. On the contrary, if you really love one another, you will make the public commitment, since this commitment aligns the resources of wider families and society behind you, holds you to it by our expectations that you will be a man and a woman of your word. Public commitment therefore buttresses your relationship and makes it more likely to last (much more likely, as the statistics indicate). And if you are not willing to make this public commitment, the only possible reason is that you are not really committed like this at all and do not really love one another. In which case your relationship is immoral.”

Ash’s conclusion is the following:

That sounds a touch harsh, and it will need to be said in the context of a pastor who loves and cares; but it does need to be said to any professing Christian couple who really think it is moral to live together unmarried. For although they think they love one another, actually they do not love one another very much—and certainly not enough to make sex moral.

What would you say? How would you respond?