Archives For Sinclair Ferguson

Discernment

Greg Strand – October 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Discernment is a much needed gift among Christians. This has always been true, but for the day in which we live it has become even more critical. During major cultural changes, discernment is especially needed as we remain faithful to God and his Word and seek to be salt and light in and to the world (Matt. 5:13-16).

Not only is discernment a gift,  it is also to be fostered and nourished. It is something in which one can grow.

I often think of the words of the writer of Hebrews (5:11-14):

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

The author notes that discernment is “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” This consists of knowing God’s truth and the practice of living and applying those truths in all of life. In essence those foundational truths God has revealed in the Word are believed and it is in living those truths that one gains, grows and learns the truth and the person grows in discernment. This does not mean truth is made more truthful by living it. The truthfulness of truth is not dependent on one’s believing or reception of it. Rather, the truth is experienced and understood at another level than truth propositionally.

Recently I read with great interest an article written by Sinclair Ferguson, What Is Discernment?, a pastor-theologian from whom I have learned much and for whom I have great respect. He defines discernment in this way:

True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best.

It is the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action. It includes the ability to “weigh up” and assess the moral and spiritual status of individuals, groups, and even movements. Thus, while warning us against judgmentalism, Jesus urges us to be discerning and discriminating, lest we cast our pearls before pigs (Matt. 7:1, 6).

Ultimately, Ferguson summarizes by stating that

discernment is learning to think God’s thoughts after Him, practically and spiritually; it means having a sense of how things look in God’s eyes and seeing them in some measure “uncovered and laid bare” (Heb. 4:13).

Having and living with discernment affects the way we think and live. Ferguson highlights four:

  1. It acts as a means of protection, guarding us from being deceived spiritually.
  2. Discernment also acts as an instrument of healing, when exercised in grace.
  3. Again, discernment functions as a key to Christian freedom.
  4. Finally, discernment serves as a catalyst to spiritual development:

In conclusion, how, then, is discernment to be obtained? Ferguson states,

We receive it as did Christ Himself—by the anointing of the Spirit, through our understanding of God’s Word, by our experience of God’s grace, and by the progressive unfolding to us of the true condition of our own hearts.

 

Sinclair Ferguson recently addressed the important theme of “Best Lessons from a Lifetime of Pastoring.” Ferguson has served in pastoral ministry for 42 years. He acknowledges that there are both positive and negative things to learn from ministers of the gospel.

Ferguson identified three lessons, three dimensions of pastoral ministry that he would consider “best lessons” which focused on (1) the church family, (2) the center of ministry, and (3) that which underlies everything about ministry, one’s relationship with the Lord. He did so under the alliteration of “love your people,” listen to our own preaching,” and “living all of life in the presence of the triune God.” I include a summary of Ferguson’s excellent message, but encourage you to listen to the whole of his presentation (19 minutes).

Ourselves and Our People (love your people)

It is fundamental to love the people God with and to whom you serve (1 Tim. 1:5). The end-goal of loving people is the foundational principle of ministry and is more important than anything else, including your gifts. If gifts are exercised without love they become nothing more than a noisy gong or clanging symbol (1 Cor. 13:1). A challenge of the young is to emphasis truth. But often it is done so at the expense of love: truth without love. He notes that with the gospel there is no reality of truth without love. It is love that oils the wheels of our preaching since people know we love them. This is not a virtue that we create or work up on our own but is a work of the Holy Spirit, fruit he produces. A common mistake is that one can say something without a relationship of love. Jesus reminds us to be patient with people (Lk. 24:25). Paul exhorts us to be careful in our teaching with great patience (2 Tim. 2:24-25).

Ourselves and Our Preaching Ministry (listen to our own preaching)

Listen to your own preaching (this does not mean a literal recording of yourself). As you do so, bear in mind that you can never hear yourself like the congregation hears you. John Owen noted that the messages that came most powerfully from him were those that had come to him first in his life, i.e. he heard and heeded the message he was preaching before he preached the message. As you study, prepare and preach, there is no one in the congregation more under the ministry of the Word than you  as a preacher. As pastors and preachers, we will never be masters of the Scriptures, but we are to be mastered by the Scriptures. Paul states that as a minister of the gospel we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and we are the bondservants of those we serve (2 Cor. 4:5). That is love for the people. When Martyn Lloyd-Jones was asked about preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit, he stated that it happens when you are conscious that you are hopeless, sinful and weak. God desires us to be under the ministry of the Word in which we are engaged. We all sit under the same ministry of the Word that others in the congregation do.

Ourselves and Our Walk with God (living all of life in the presence of the triune God)

We live the whole of our lives in the presence of our triune Lord. As a teenager, Ferguson was exposed to three things that profoundly shaped him. The first was Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God (lived in the 17th century).The second was William Still’s The Work of the Pastor (lectures from the mid-1960s, first published in 1984) through which he was challenged always to keep a sanctuary in your heart for the Lord that is hermetically sealed from everything else, and to let nothing into that sanctuary. The third influential work that influenced him was John Owen’s Communion with God the Trinity (1657). The truth of God’s appropriations, his work focused on the church in which the whole trinity is involved, though one takes a lead, was and is a profound reality. He learned to live the whole of his life with the foundational truth and reality that he is not alone, he is an adopted child of the Creator, he is one for whom Jesus was not ashamed to die and call brother, which is true for all Christians, and his profound awareness that when the Spirit comes he transforms our lives into light in the Lord. It is then that we become pastors.

 

Part Two: Sinclair Ferguson’s “A Preacher’s Decalogue”

6. Speak Much of Sin and Grace

Spiritual surgery must be done within the context of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Only by seeing our sin do we come to see the need for and wonder of grace. But exposing sin is not the same thing as unveiling and applying grace. We must be familiar with and exponents of its multifaceted power, and know how to apply it to a variety of spiritual conditions.

Truth to tell, exposing sin is easier than applying grace; for, alas, we are more intimate with the former than we sometimes are with the latter. Therein lies our weakness.

7. Use “the Plain Style”

C. S. Lewis’s counsel on writing applies equally to preaching:

Use language that makes clear what you really mean; prefer plain words that are direct to long words that are vague. Avoid abstract words when you can use concrete. Don’t use adjectives to tell us how you want us to feel—make us feel that by what you say! Don’t use words that are too big for their subject. Don’t use “infinitely” when you mean “very,” otherwise you will have no word left when you really do mean infinite!

In a similar vein, here is J. C. Ryle’s counsel: “Have a clear knowledge of what you want to say. Use simple words. Employ a simple sentence structure. Preach as though you had asthma! Be direct. Make sure you illustrate what you are talking about.”

Of course, there are exceptions to these principles. But why would I think I am one? A brilliant surgeon may be able to perform his operation with poor instruments; so can the Holy Spirit. But since in preaching we are nurses in the operating room, our basic responsibility is to have clean, sharp, sterile scalpels for the Spirit to do his surgery.

8. Find Your Own Voice

Yes, we may—must—learn from others, positively and negatively. Further, it is always important when others preach to listen to them with both ears open: one for personal nourishment through the ministry of the word, but the other to try to detect the principles that make this preaching helpful to people. . . . We ought not to become clones. Some men never grow as preachers because the “preaching suit” they have borrowed does not actually fit them or their gifts. . . . The marriage of our personality with another’s preaching style can be a recipe for being dull and lifeless. So it is worth taking the time in an ongoing way to try to assess who and what we really are as preachers in terms of strengths and weaknesses.

9. Learn How to Transition

How do we do this? To begin with by expounding the Scriptures in a way that makes clear that the indicatives of grace ground the imperatives of faith and obedience and also effect them. This we must learn to do in a way that brings out of the text how the text itself teaches how transformation takes place and how the power of the truth itself sanctifies (cf. John 17:17).

Do we—far less our congregations—know “how to”? Have we told them they need to do it, but left them to their own devices rather than model it in our preaching?

Some years ago, at the end of a church conference, the local minister, whom I knew from his student days, said to me, “Just before I let you go tonight, will you do one last thing? Will you take me through the steps that are involved so that we learn to mortify sin?”

I was touched—that he would broach what was obviously a personal as well as pastoral concern with me, but perhaps even more so by his assumption that I would be able to help. (How often we who struggle are asked questions we ourselves need to answer!) He died not long afterwards, and I think of his question as his legacy to me, causing me again and again to see that we need to exhibit what John “Rabbi” Duncan of New College said was true of Jonathan Edwards’s preaching: “His doctrine was all application, and his application was all doctrine.”

10. Love Your People

John Newton wrote that his congregation would take almost anything from him, however painful, because they knew “I mean to do them good.”

This is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study; it means that my preaching will have characteristics about it, difficult to define but nevertheless sensed by my hearers, that reflect the apostolic principle:

What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Cor 4:5)

We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thess 2:8)

In Jesus Christ, the church’s One True Preacher, message and messenger are one. He is the Preacher, and also the message. That is not true of us. But, in union with Christ (and we preach “in Christ” as well as live and die “in Christ”), a coalescence of a lesser sort takes place: the truth of the message is conveyed by the preacher whose spirit is conformed to the grace of God in the message. How can it be otherwise when preaching involves “God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20)? “A preacher’s life,” wrote Thomas Brooks, “should be a commentary upon his doctrine; his practice should be the counterpane [counterpart] of his sermons. Heavenly doctrines should always be adorned with a heavenly life.”

My challenge – This whole article was helpful and challenging. I appreciated three key quotes from faithful pastors/preachers/theologians:

  • I must not be an illiterate. But I do need to be a homo unius libri – a man of one Book.
  • We need to exhibit what John “Rabbi” Duncan of New College said was true of Jonathan Edwards’ preaching: “His doctrine was all application, and his application was all doctrine.”
  • A preacher’s life, wrote Thomas Brooks, should be a commentary upon his doctrine; his practice should be the counterpane [counterpart] of his sermons. Heavenly doctrines should always be adorned with a heavenly life.

A reminder – one is never too old to learn these important components of faithful and fruitful ministry of the gospel.

A nudge – these are the kinds of helps that are important to pass on to those beginning in ministry as they establish the habits, patterns and disciplines of ministry that will, by God’s grace, serve them and God’s people well for a lifetime of ministry. Where we are now, what are the things we had wished a godly mentor would have imparted to us as we began a ministry of preaching? Make sure you pass those on to younger pastors and leaders today!

A couple of years ago Sinclair Ferguson wrote an extremely wise and helpful article entitled “A Preacher’s Decalogue Themelios 36/2 (August 2011).  This piece was generated by Ferguson’s reflections on this question as he pondered his own life as a minister and preacher of the gospel: “What Ten Commandments, what rule of preaching-life, do I wish someone had written for me to provide direction, shape, ground rules, that might have helped me keep going in the right direction and gaining momentum in ministry along the way?” Ferguson is Senior Minister at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, and Professor of Systematic Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas, prior to which he taught Systematic Theology for many years at Westminster Theological Seminary. Ferguson is a true pastor-theologian in that he has simultaneously served both in the church and the academy.

What follows are the “ten commandments” Ferguson compiled from his forty years of ministry. I will include brief excerpts under each of the points, and include Ferguson’s complete statement on his final point. Since this is long, I will include five today, and follow with the rest tomorrow. I conclude with a few challenges.

1. Know Your Bible Better

I must not be an illiterate. But I do need to be homo unius libri—a man of one Book.

2. Be a Man of Prayer

Alas for me if I don’t see the need for prayer or for encouraging and teaching my people to see its importance. I may do well (I have done well enough thus far, have I not?) . . . but not with eternal fruit.

3. Don’t Lose Sight of Christ

. . . systematic exposition did not die on the cross for us; nor did biblical theology, nor even systematic theology or hermeneutics or whatever else we deem important as those who handle the exposition of Scripture. I have heard all of these in preaching . . . without a center in the person of the Lord Jesus.

Paradoxically not even the systematic preaching through one of the Gospels guarantees Christ-crucified centered preaching.

4. Be Deeply Trinitarian

Our people need to know that, through the Spirit, their fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. Would they know that from my preaching?

5. Use Your Imagination

Imagination in preaching means being able to understand the truth well enough to translate or transpose it into another kind of language or musical key in order to present the same truth in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, feel its power—to do so in a way that gets under the skin, breaks through the barriers, grips the mind, will, and affections so that they not only understand the word used but feel their truth and power.

What is the secret here? It is, surely, learning to preach the word to yourself, from its context into your context, to make concrete in the realities of our lives the truth that came historically to others’ lives. This is why the old masters used to speak about sermons going from their lips with power only when they had first come to their own hearts with power.