David Strain

Preaching vs. Bible Study

In the faithful preaching of the Word by those God has sent, sinners not only hear of Christ; they hear Christ Himself calling to them in the voice of His gospel. In the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith, Heinrich Bullinger, the Swiss Reformer and contemporary of John Calvin, sums up Paul’s point eloquently and shows us why preaching—more than small-group or private Bible study—ought to be the focus of our expectations for Christian growth and blessing.

Blessed lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.” So reads the collect for the second Sunday in Advent in the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. It is a justly famous prayer, the language of which often still appears in evangelical prayers from across the denominational spectrum without our always recognizing its source.

The particular phrase that has come to ring in the memory of many is the request that God would enable us to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures. It articulates a deeply biblical concern for the centrality of the Word—the instinctive desire for the Bible to “stick” in our minds and hearts and bear fruit in our lives, which is a mark of all authentic Christian spirituality. “Like newborn infants,” all Christians must “long for . . . pure spiritual milk,” that by it we may “grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). This Spirit-wrought instinct propels us into the private study of Holy Scripture. If texts that extol the Scriptures, such as Psalm 19:10–11, are to be taken seriously, a Christian life that does not make diligent, regular study of the Bible—alone and in small groups—is like a miner who foolishly neglects rich seams of ore where “much fine gold” can be found. It is to live a Christian life unsweetened by the Word and promise of God that is “sweeter . . . than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” It is to ignore the warning signs posted for His servants in Scripture all along the dangerous paths of life by our gracious Lord. And how can we ever hope to obtain that “great reward” that comes from keeping God’s Word when we do not know and love what it says? So to the degree that we are Bible people, in large measure to that same degree we will be holy people, faith-filled people, patient people, and happy people.

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Let’s Isolate our Differences, Explain our Views, and Persuade our Brothers

Keller advances four excellent strategies to help the PCA move forward together: We should acknowledge how much doctrinal unity we do have; we should acknowledge the complexity of the reasons of why we differ; we must repent and forgive each other; and we need far more face-to-face conversations. I couldn’t agree more. I believe that the majority of those on the “stricter” side of the denomination share upwards of 90% of their opinions with those on the “broader” side.

I was grateful to be asked by byFaith to offer something of a response to the often-insightful March 21 article by Tim Keller, entitled, “What’s Happening In the PCA?”  Keller begins by correcting what he believes to be a misinterpretation of the recent failure of Overtures 23 and 37 and then proceeds to offer his perspective on the state of the denomination as a whole.
While I will interact with Keller’s piece at various points, in what follows I will also try to offer some thoughts of my own regarding the state and health of the Presbyterian Church in America which will present a slightly different take on where things stand and how best to proceed from here. Before I do any of that, however, I wish to thank Keller for his article and for his ministry in general. I hold him in the highest regard, have benefitted from his preaching and writing, and, like so many of us, I’ve learned a great deal about ministry, but especially about Jesus from him. He remains in my prayers as he continues to serve our common Savior and our beloved church, even in the midst of his fight with cancer. 
We All Agree: Side B Christianity is an Unwelcome Guest
Keller takes as his primary target a narrative that reads the failure of the two overtures in question as indicating that, while “most of the PCA is sound,” a minority of the presbyteries of the PCA are “Side B-leaning.” If left unchecked, this argument runs, they will slide inevitably into Side A “and the end of orthodoxy.” He rejects that account of things for three reasons: First, no court of the church has ever endorsed Side B convictions; second, the Ad Interim Committee Report on Human Sexuality clearly rejected Side B theology; and third, given the overwhelming support for the report, we must recognize the many other valid reasons why presbyters and presbyteries voted ‘no’ besides agreement with Side B ideas. 
So, Keller concludes, “As far as I can tell and as far as our documented actions can affirm, an overwhelming super-majority of the PCA does not accept the biblical legitimacy of a Side B perspective.”  
In this, I am delighted to say, I am in complete agreement with Keller. Side B “gay-Christianity” is an unwelcome guest in the PCA, and the overwhelming majority of our members, churches, presbyters, and presbyteries reject it. That Overtures 23 and 37 failed, but only by the very slimmest of margins, surely reinforces that point. As Keller helpfully points out, many of those who voted ‘no’ did so without any disagreements with the theological or ethical issues raised in the overtures themselves. They voted ‘no’ out of concern for what they feared might be the unintended, negative consequences for our polity and procedures of some of the language used.
I can say that I’ve heard some — but really only a very few — voices (over)reacting to the failures of the overtures by suggesting that those who voted “no” are crypto-liberals who want the PCA to fling wide her doors to Side B-affirming candidates and officers. In my view, these are unworthy and unhelpful ways to characterize the votes of brothers to whom we are duty-bound to extend the most charitable interpretation of their actions.  
Recent Votes Tell Us to Perfect Language, Not Retreat
Instead of concluding that the PCA has suddenly slipped further down the Side-B slope, I have a different interpretation of the failure of the overtures. In my judgment, the recent votes of both General Assembly and the presbyteries tell us not to back off from pressing the matters raised in the overtures, but that we are yet to perfect the language, and we must listen carefully to the polity concerns that have been raised, and bring back improved versions of these important overtures to this, and if necessary, to future Assemblies.
The message isn’t “the PCA is sliding into liberalism.” The message is “the PCA is in broad agreement on this issue, now let’s find language that allows us to implement wise provisions that address the problem.”
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What Is Real Spirituality?

Union with Christ is, as we have begun to see, one of those architectonic principles that shapes the fabric of the Christian life. In this article, I want to highlight a few of the implications of our union with Christ for our spirituality. To be sure, spirituality is fascinating to people today. Usually when we run across the idea, it suggests the pursuit of subjective spiritual experience, often linked to mental and emotional well-being, sometimes suggesting practices like Eastern meditation and mindfulness. But true Christian spirituality has little in common with that way of thinking. And the fundamental point of difference has to do with the center—the object, the focal point. In the models of spirituality common in our culture, the self is the focal point. We pursue spiritual experience for the sake of experience, or possibly for the sense of well-being it is alleged to promise. But in authentically Christian spirituality, experience—though present and vital, rich and real—isn’t the goal and the self isn’t the focus. In Christian spirituality, God in Christ by the Holy Spirit is the focus. Knowing Him and delighting in Him are our objectives. Insofar as thoughts of self have a place in Christian spirituality at all, it is a small one. This view of spirituality helps us see ourselves truly only insofar as we come to know God truly.
For our purposes, I am defining “spirituality” as the pursuit, by means of scriptural disciplines, of an ever-growing, deeply felt communion with the triune God. My argument is that the doctrine of union with Christ is at the very heart of all our fellowship with God and every discipline or habit of grace by which that fellowship may be cultivated.
Union Leads to Communion
In John 14:16, Jesus promised the disciples that He would ask the Father to give them another Helper, whom He identifies as the Spirit of truth. The phrase “another Helper” means another of the same kind. Jesus was departing to the Father, by way of the cross, but He would send another helper of the same character as Himself. This Helper is the Holy Spirit, who would dwell with the disciples and be in them. But in verses 18–19, we learn that the link between Christ and the Spirit is far more profound than we might first think. Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me” (emphasis added). Jesus, though departing, would come to His disciples. This isn’t a reference to the resurrection or to the second coming of Jesus at the end of the age. This is a reference to the coming of the Holy Spirit. There is a union between Christ and the Spirit such that the Spirit communicates to us the presence of Christ. Jesus comes to us and indwells us by the Spirit. When Jesus says, “Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I in you” (vv. 19–20), He is telling us the consequence of the Spirit’s mighty work. In the Spirit, we are united to Jesus Christ.

Expository Preaching

Jesus tells the disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God” (v. 10). In other words, the message of the gospel that Jesus preached is “the secrets of the kingdom” that must be revealed. It is the light that ignites the lamp of our lives. And that light must not be hidden but must shine so that others may see it too.

“Getting the Most Out of Expositional Preaching”
When I was a teenager, I often failed to do what my parents asked of me in a timely and adequate manner. At the root of my problem, they had often to point out, was the fact that I “just didn’t listen.” In many ways, a failure to listen lies at the root of most of our struggles to grow as Christians. We hear partially. We hear what pleases us and edit out the rest. We mishear. We ignore. We reinterpret what we hear. It’s not simply that we have failed to understand what God is saying to us. It’s that we have preferred not to listen.
Jesus’s famous parable of the sower in Luke 8 outlines various responses to the Word of God. Given how famous the parable is, the passage that follows is often overlooked, yet it has much to say to us about how we listen to God in the preaching of his Word. First, Jesus imagines a ridiculous scenario: lighting a lamp and then putting it under a jar or a bed. This, of course, defeats the purpose of lighting it. It makes no sense. Instead, the lamp goes “on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light” (v. 16). That’s why we light lamps. In the context of the chapter, read alongside the parable of the sower, Jesus is saying that those who have received the Word in faith are like lamps that have been lit. Their purpose is to shine the light of the Word in such a way that others might be drawn to it and welcomed in.
Jesus reinforces that point with this principle: “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (v. 17). To understand what is being said here, we should not miss how Jesus uses the same language to talk about his own message. He tells the disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God” (v. 10). In other words, the message of the gospel that Jesus preached is “the secrets of the kingdom” that must be revealed. It is the light that ignites the lamp of our lives. And that light must not be hidden but must shine so that others may see it too.
Well, so what? What difference should Jesus’s teaching about the Word here really make? Jesus drives home the implications: “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (v. 18). This verse serves as a conclusion for the whole section of Luke 8, beginning with the parable of the sower, that deals with the way the Word of God works. Verse 18 tells us that the key issue, the vital factor, must be how we hear the Word.
Hebrews 2:1 makes a similar point. The author urges his readers to “pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.” When it comes to the way we listen to preaching, the stakes are far higher than we may at first imagine. Hebrews 2:1 warns us of spiritual drift. Luke 8:18 goes even further and warns of eternal consequences if we “have not” when, through the preaching of the Word, every opportunity to “have” has been afforded us. So what does it mean to take care how we hear? How shall we “pay much closer attention to what we have heard”? These are the questions we hope to answer in this chapter. Put more directly, we need to know how we can get the most from expositional preaching.
The Westminster Larger Catechism offers some important help. It asks, “What is required of those that hear the word preached?” and answers, “It is required of those that hear the word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.”
This is an excerpt from the chapter, “Getting the Most Out of Expositional Preaching” from David Strain’s book, “Expository Preaching,” part of the Blessings of the Faith series. Pick up a copy of “Expository Preaching” for more insight into the importance and benefits of this approach to the Word of God. Used with permission.

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