Jeremy Walker

How to Draw Near to God: Learning Prayer from the Puritans

The Puritans, at their best, cultivated a communion with the living God that flowed naturally into prayer. Moreover, as Christlike pastors, they prayed Christlike prayers, reflecting the desires and priorities of their Savior for his people.

In learning prayer from the Puritans, we are not seeking to become mere mimics. We do not live in the seventeenth century; we may not live in those places where the Puritans walked. We are not trying to simply ape their vocabulary and the cadence of their intercessions. At the same time, we do want to understand how they prayed — from pulpits and in prisons, among their families, and in their churches. It is not carnal to ask, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). We learn well by listening to those who pray well, not with empty eloquence but with heavenly fervor.

As we listen to Puritan and Puritanesque praying, putting our ears to their doors, what do we hear? What can we seek to imitate?

Pray with Intelligence

We hear, first of all, intelligence. I do not mean that their prayers sounded clever, displayed their academic learning, or impressed with their oratory and vocabulary. I mean that they prayed from true knowledge.

First, they possessed a knowledge of God — an experiential and affectionate knowledge of their God and Father. Have you ever heard someone pray who walks with God, who is accustomed to communion with him, who knows what it is to be in the presence of the Almighty and returns there by familiar paths? I have sat stunned as a praying man seems to take me by the hand and lead me with him into the presence of God. That cannot be manufactured.

In addition, the Puritans show intelligence in their thinking about prayer. The Westminster Catechisms define prayer like this: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.” A succession of further questions delves into the nature of prayer.

John Bunyan wrote a treatise exploring this definition: “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God hath promised, or according to the Word, for the good of the church, with submission, in faith, to the will of God” (Prayer, 13).

William Gurnall said that “prayer is called a ‘pouring out of the soul to God.’ The soul is the well, from which the water of prayer is poured; but the Spirit is the spring that feeds, and the hand that helps to pour it forth; the well would have no water without the spring, neither could it deliver itself without one to draw it” (The Christian in Complete Armour, 467).

Puritans distinguished between public and family and private prayer; between personal and pastoral intercession; between regular habits of prayer, special seasons of prayer, and sudden cries in prayer; between feeble, faithful, and fervent prayer. They argued about scripted prayers as opposed to extemporaneous prayers. They did this not to bewilder or confound, but because they wanted to honor God in their praying. So, they studied the spirit and substance of true prayer according to God’s revelation.

Pray with Reverence and Confidence

The Puritans’ knowledge of God led them to pray also with reverence. Puritans knew that they approached a high and holy God. Like the publican in the temple, they were conscious that sinners like them could approach the throne of the Almighty only through the blood of sacrifice.

In Thomas Cobbet’s language, “No sooner do the saints essay to draw near unto God, than the beams of the glory of God reflect upon their souls, which do thus awe and abase them; they see in the glass of that excellency their own vileness” (Gospel Incense, 212). This is true humility, a profound awareness that coming to God under the terms of the new covenant does not in any way diminish a sense of his holiness but rather enhances it (Hebrews 12:22–29). They realized that nothing but the blood of Jesus could open a way for sinners to come to the God of light.

But such reverence is matched by confidence. Alongside that holy fear was a holy familiarity. Because Puritans came to God by Christ, they had “confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” And having “a great priest over the house of God,” they drew near “with a true heart in full assurance of faith” — their “hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and [their] bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19–22).

Trusting in Christ for their reception, and assured that they were accepted in the Beloved, the Puritans came to their Father in heaven, crying out to him as beloved sons, in tones at once intimate and expectant: “Let us . . . with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). For them, the promises of Luke 11:9–13 were no empty rhetoric, but the very basis on which they came with large petitions.

They loved to speak of coming to a throne of grace, to the mercy seat where God both displays and dispenses his favor to those who come in faith: “As long as God hath a mind to give mercy and grace, as long as any of the children of men are sensibly needy of grace and mercy, and askers and receivers thereof from the Lord, (and that will be till the heavens be no more), this throne of grace will be plied and praised” (The Works of Robert Traill, 1:14).

Pray with Substance

When they came to the throne of grace, we also hear the substance of Puritan prayers. Several collections of prayers by the Puritans and others of their spirit demonstrate this substance (for example, The Valley of Vision, Piercing Heaven, The Pastor in Prayer, or Into His Presence).

It is one thing to theorize about the Puritans at prayer; it is another to read them teaching and preaching about praying; it is something else altogether to lurk at their shoulder as they approach God on behalf of his people. One is tempted to say, “If this is how they spoke with the Lord in public, what must have been their communion with him in private?” These are men who deal with God, who plead the promises of Scripture, who wrestle with a tenacity learned from Jacob (Genesis 32:28), with a humility and dignity that has something of Christ himself about it.

If you read a prayer like Daniel’s in chapter 9 of his history and prophecy, you see the whole woven together from strands drawn from previous revelation. The Puritans do likewise. Their prayers, therefore, reflect divine priorities and concerns. Such scriptural substance gives their intercessions richness and depth, and underscores their confidence because they are asking for what God has already promised.

Some Puritans offered helps for prayer, sometimes culling Scripture (or, at least, “bibline”) phrases from the word of God to supply the saints with appropriate vehicles for their wants and needs, their praises and their pleas (such as Matthew Henry’s A Method for Prayer). They loved the Psalms and similar portions of Scripture as fruitful expressions of a praying heart; they explored the recorded prayers of Christ and his apostles. This scriptural familiarity gave their prayers at once a glorious variety (for they plucked their flowers from the whole field of revelation) and a delightful simplicity (for the language they used — while of its time — is earthy and potent). They drive straight at the mercy seat, echoing God’s word back to him.

To the Throne of Grace

Without wishing or needing to become anachronistic mimics, the Puritans can teach us to pray. They teach us what prayer is, to consider it intelligently, to engage in it reverently, to pursue it confidently, and to deal with God substantially.

At root, if you had asked a Puritan how to pray, I suspect they would have said to study God in Christ. Why? Because when we thus perceive God by faith, we become praying people. The spirit and substance of our prayers should be conditioned by our coming through the gracious Spirit by the beloved Son to the almighty Father, seated on a throne of grace. Here we arrive at the very heart of true prayer, and here we begin all true eloquence.

The Half-Baked Sermon: Missing Ingredients in Much Preaching

To say that some sermons reach the pulpit half-baked would be unfair to bread. Some sermons are barely dough; some little more than a collection of dry ingredients. The sermon, as a sermon, is barely begun, largely unappetizing, not particularly nourishing, lacking the enticing taste and texture of a fresh-baked loaf.

What is the problem? Perhaps the preacher is a recent seminary graduate rehearsing his lectures on a certain book of the Bible. Perhaps he has lacked teaching or had poor teaching and example. Perhaps the preacher has not thought about what preaching is and what it involves. As a result, he is not actually preaching, even if sincerely persuaded that he is.

He may be delivering a lecture rather than a sermon, even if warmer rather than cooler in tone. He may offer “hot systematics” — an accurate treatment of a theological topic delivered with deep conviction. He may provide a biblical-theological survey, tracing the sweep of revelation along a particular line, but not anchored to any one part of it. Perhaps he is offering, in fact, a single technical treatment of a portion of Scripture or a biblical topic that actually lasts about forty hours, delivered in chunks between thirty and sixty minutes.

Sometimes fire in the pulpit masks a lack of warmth in the material, like delivering a frozen pizza in a heated bag. Often the context is provided, all the words are explained, the strict sense is given. By the end of such a sermon, the congregation might know much of what a text says. At the same time, they may know nothing of what it actually means for them.

Better to Taste the Orange

The eminent Baptist theologian and minister Andrew Fuller criticized some sermons this way:

The great thing necessary for expounding the Scriptures is to enter into their true meaning. We may read them, and talk about them, again and again, without imparting any light concerning them. If the hearer, when you have done, understand no more of that part of Scripture than he did before, your labor is lost. Yet this is commonly the case with those attempts at expounding which consist of little else than comparing parallel passages, or, by the help of a Concordance, tracing the use of the same word in other places, going from text to text till both the preacher and the people are wearied and lost. This is troubling the Scriptures rather than expounding them.

If I were to open a chest of oranges among my friends, and, in order to ascertain their quality, were to hold up one, and lay it down; then hold up another, and say, This is like the last; then a third, a fourth, a fifth, and so on, till I came to the bottom of the chest, saying of each, It is like the other; of what account would it be? The company would doubtless be weary, and had much rather have tasted two or three of them. (Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, 1:712–13)

It may be that the preacher has exhausted his technical commentaries and himself and is now ready to exhaust his congregation (often allied to the assertion that it takes a good forty hours to prepare a single decent sermon). It may be that he is a slave to the historical-critical approach. Whatever the reason, he thinks he has finished his preparation when in fact he has only just begun.

Preaching Like a Puritan

So, how might the preacher correct himself? The Puritans provide help. The simplest point of departure might be the outline of the typical Puritan sermon. The three main divisions of such a sermon consist in the doctrine, the reasons, and the uses of the text.

DOCTRINE

Bear in mind that, separate from the sermon, the Puritan minister might already have given himself to “exposition” of a longer portion of Scripture (Matthew Henry’s commentary, for example, reflects his morning and evening expositions of the Bible, whereas his sermons were of a different order altogether). In other words, if a Puritan could hear you speak, he might commend you for your exposition, and then politely ask when you intend to preach!

This may be a slight exaggeration, but all our exegetical labor really only gets us to the point at which we can accurately explain the text and state its doctrine or doctrines. It is the first and most basic building block of the text. The typical modern preacher may invest ninety percent of his sermonic time and matter in providing what the typical Puritan may offer in ten percent of his sermonic time and matter, or less.

REASONS

Once the text has been explained in context and the doctrine stated (perhaps with some additional scriptural evidence for its substance), the Puritan proceeds to reasons and uses. We might call this approach “pastoral preaching.” The aim is not merely to instruct a gathering of students, but to feed the souls of the flock of Christ.

The reasons develop the doctrine that the text of Scripture has supplied, bringing it to bear upon the particular congregation to which the preacher is speaking. While the doctrine itself might be universal, it is not just the context of the text that is important, but the context into which the text is preached. The doctrine means something to the people in front of the preacher. They need to understand how and why it is true, and what it means for their thinking and feeling and willing. Men and women, boys and girls, need to be convinced of this doctrine; it needs to be brought close, brought home. This truth is not abstract, but concrete. It intrudes into their lives; it fashions their thought processes; it forms and informs their responses. God is speaking to them in his word.

USES

Often, when a Puritan moves into the phase of uses, or application, the modern preacher is stunned: What did these men think they were doing up to that point? A faithful Puritan would get closer to the heart in his reasons than many preachers today do in their most pressing applications. This is where the Puritans excelled as physicians of souls. William Perkins, for example, suggested an application grid that extended across seven possible groups in the congregation, to whom the truth could be applied in various ways.

The truth makes a difference to those who hear it, individually and congregationally, in relation to God, to themselves, to one another (in their several different relations), and to the world at large. It speaks to them as believing or unbelieving, as needing doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16–17). The Puritan knows that he cannot make someone think or feel or will or act in a certain way simply by his eloquence, but he lays his spiritual charges carefully and closely, dependent on the Holy Spirit to operate in his own convincing and convicting and converting divine power.

The whole sermon would be bound up with reiterations of the truth and appeals to the conscience, rising to a crescendo of pastoral intensity and affection. No hearer need doubt that a living man speaks the living word to living men in the presence of the living God. No hearer need doubt that this man speaks God’s truth to me, because he loves me, and that he expects and desires this truth to change me.

Bake the Bread

Preachers beyond the Puritans have excelled in such an approach. If you read Spurgeon’s sermons, you will often see just this kind of structure lying in the background (not surprising, given his affection for the Puritans). The comical old “three-pointer,” so easily mocked and dismissed, is not just a casual or clever division of the text, but is often a simpler presentation of the same basic mode. The same could be said of the sermonic method of other gifted and effective preachers of the past and the present. They do more than simply state the text. Having grasped its truth, and considered and felt it for themselves, they bring it to bear upon the congregation with the desire and expectation that it will have its God-intended impact upon them (Isaiah 55:11).

So, how can we improve? Don’t just hold up the oranges; let the people taste the fruit. Don’t merely trouble the text. Commit to understanding not only God’s word but also people’s hearts, and knowing their lives. Love your people enough to preach like a pastor, not just teach like a lecturer. If need be, spend less time analyzing and more time meditating and praying. Study to preach heartfelt sermons rather than to deliver tame and toothless homilies. Read good preachers (including various Puritans) and commentaries that suggest lines of lively application. Physically sit in the seats of particular people in the building where you meet, and pray for wisdom to speak to them in their situation. Look people in the eye as you speak to the congregation. Be willingly subject to the Spirit’s influence in the act of preaching.

To return to the bakery, mix the ingredients of your sermon, let it rise in contemplation, knead it thoroughly in prayer, let it prove in meditation, bake it well in your own heart, and serve it warm from the pulpit. In dependence on the Spirit, nourish the very souls of the hearers.

Growing in Grace

You have grown in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. You are not the man or woman you once were. You are more mature than once you were—more like Christ, more in tune with your heavenly Father, more manifestly a child of His care. Your delight in righteousness has developed. Your sensitivity to sin has increased. Your wish to please God is fuller and more finely developed. It’s not just growing up. That cannot account for it all. It is growing up in all things into Him who is the Head, Jesus Christ.

When someone is converted, there is an immediate and radical change. From the inner man outward, everything changes. For some people, perhaps converted from a more openly wicked life, that shift has effects that are obvious to others. Like the Gadarene demoniac, the sinner is now found clothed and in his right mind, and everyone can tell the difference. For others, although the inward shift is equally radical and equally absolute, the outward evidence is not so marked. Perhaps they had lived a more moral life or were brought up under the healthy restraint of a gospel home.

But either way, conversion is only the beginning. From that point on, the believer—typically within the fellowship of a faithful church and under the care of godly undershepherds—should be growing “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
After those first striking moments in which, now that the believer is joined to Christ, there is a breach with sin, a process of maturation goes on. By degrees, sometimes faster and sometimes slower, the believer is conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Paul labored in birth for his “little children” in Galatia until Christ was formed in them (Gal. 4:19). God’s obedient children are not to conform themselves to their former lusts, as they did in their ignorance, “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14–16).
Have you known that reality of growing in grace? Do you experience it now? What might it look like and feel like? Perhaps you remember a friend you used to know, and you get a chance to meet up again. You get together, and after a few minutes you feel a disconnect—you are speaking past each other. You are referring to the same events but no longer looking with the same eyes. The old jokes aren’t so funny, the old memories are not quite shared any longer, the old perspectives don’t sit with you as they once did. It’s not that you don’t have any affection for your old friend, but you have moved on. There’s less common ground, and there is a marked bump in the road when you speak to your friend about your Savior.

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When God Woke Up Wales: Three Lessons from Revival

It is those who are asleep who need to be awakened. Those who have become listless and lethargic need to be stirred to liveliness and labor.

The Lord was pleased to do this in wonderful ways during the eighteenth century in various parts of the world and by various human instruments. In England, he raised up George Whitefield (1714–1770) and the Wesley brothers, among others. In America, the name of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) is well-known, as both a preacher and a theologian, and in connection with Whitefield’s transatlantic labors.

And then in Wales, God employed a number of men to glorify his name. Again, Whitefield was involved, but among the other prominent names for us to learn from today is that of Daniel Rowland (c. 1711–1790).

Land of Spiritual Dullness

The work in Wales was manifestly a work of mercy and grace. Little in the country at the time commended it. Wales was poor and deprived, both naturally and spiritually. Some had recognized gospel needs during an earlier time and, in 1649, a particular Baptist church at the Glaziers’ Hall in London held a day of prayer “to seek the Lord that he would send laborers into the dark corners and parts of this land.”1 Two men offered their services and were sent to Wales.

God blessed their labors mightily. Conversions and baptisms followed, and a church was constituted at Ilston that had 43 members by October 1650. Yet by the early to mid-1700s, even this gospel progress of about a century before seems to have stuttered and stalled. One well-known statement suggested that Christianity in Wales was less a subject of inquiry and more a subject of mirth and ridicule.2 Faithful ministers were few and far between, though some knew a measure of spiritual effectiveness. Churches of all stripes were typically sleepy and dull, if not altogether dead. Does that sound familiar to us today?

Daniel Rowland was born into this environment. He grew up manifestly gifted, typically passionate, and evidently godless, in a family that had known something of true religion but that seems to have declined. His education directed him toward the clergy, and he was ordained deacon on March 10, 1734. He walked from the little Welsh village of Llangeitho to London and back for the occasion. Up to this point, Rowland’s ministry had been sadly empty of any gospel fervor and force. However, about this time, Rowland heard the truth through a godly preacher, Griffith Jones (c. 1684–1761), and became a new man in Christ. Rowland was ordained as a priest in the national church on August 31, 1735. His preaching began revealing his genuine change of heart.

‘The Angry Clergyman’

The same earnest soul that had once run in ungodliness now showed itself zealous to declare divine truth. A heart once given over to wickedness had been stirred by a sense of God’s holy majesty and stricken by the cutting edge of his righteous law. Like John Bunyan before him, Rowland preached what he felt, what he smartingly (deeply, acutely) did feel.3

“The same earnest soul that had once run in ungodliness now showed itself zealous to declare divine truth.”

Constrained by a heavy sense of his own sinfulness before God, Rowland inclined toward Scriptures that emphasized God’s holy hatred of sin and the fearful punishments that hung over the heads of the unrepentant. It was a far cry from what seems to have been the tame, tepid, and toothless homilies of his earlier ministry. He preached as a son of thunder, a true Boanerges (Mark 3:17), bound by the majesty of God’s person and the value of men’s souls. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, such preaching, with its emphasis on God’s holy law, drew and slew many hearers, earning Rowland the nickname of “the angry clergyman.”

This kind of ministry was powerful and effective, but its unrelenting force over the space of a couple of years was in danger of driving sinners to an unscriptural despair. Rowland’s ministry of judgment was not tempered with much mercy; his hearers were marked more by profound distress of soul than anything else.

Jerusalem of Wales

At this point, a godly Dissenting pastor by the name of Philip Pugh (1679–1760) stepped in to help the younger man. He advised Rowland to apply the blood of Christ to the spiritual wounds he was causing. His hearers needed to know not just that they needed a Savior; they also needed to know the Savior!

Rowland, still young in spiritual years, felt that he lacked sufficient sense of that reality himself — his faith in the Lord lacked something of what he felt was its necessary vigor. Pugh pressed him with the need to let some beams of light through the storm clouds before he killed his hearers. He told Rowland to preach till he felt more of that for which he yearned. Now the gentle tones of a Barnabas began to mingle with the piercing cries of a Boanerges, and the sweet gospel balm was readily poured into the wounds that God’s holy law had righteously inflicted.

Alongside his enlivened ministry of the word of God, Rowland had become a man of earnest prayer. He would often climb the hills around his home. The panoramic view of the region stirred his heart to plead for God’s blessing upon the people. Gripped by the gospel of Christ and sustained by his communion with God, Rowland’s preaching now began to have an even wider range and deeper effect. Crowds flocked to hear the gospel minister of Llangeitho, and they were transformed by the transformed man and his transformed preaching.

Previously, groans of distress had risen from hearers gripped by conviction of sin; now, cries of “Glory!” began to mingle with those groans, as convinced sinners looked to Christ and saw in him the beauty and majesty of the Savior. Soon Rowland was preaching to hundreds, if not thousands. He preached as “a seraph in tears.”4 God drew near to preacher and hearer alike, and some of the descriptions of his preaching leave us aching for the sense of heaven that often seemed to accompany his efforts.

Eventually ejected from the Church of England, Rowland continued to preach with spiritual force, enjoying the favor of many who relished the word of God. Howell Harris (1714–1773) reckoned that by 1763 as many as ten thousand were coming to hear him at Llangeitho. The little village was becoming known as the Jerusalem of Wales.

Lessons from Revival

This is a mere snapshot of the beginnings of the labors of one man in one place. In conclusion, let me offer three observations for pastors today.

Coordinated Efforts

First, consider that Rowland was one man among several, each one blessed of God in similar ways. He did not stand alone. In Wales, a few godly men had faithfully labored for years and had known a measure of real fruitfulness, as evidenced both in Rowland’s conversion and in the salvation of other men in his generation in Wales — such as Howell Harris and William Williams, Pantycelyn (1717–1791).

Recall also that Whitefield was converted at about the same time as Rowland and became a firm friend of and co-laborer with the Calvinistic Methodists in Wales. It is too easy to isolate, romanticize, and even idolize individuals. Nevertheless, we need not become spiritual or historical cynics. It is proper to recognize the distinct gifts and contributions of men raised up by God, seen and appreciated in their broader context.

Lively Men, Lively Ministries

Furthermore, learn that spiritually lively ministries come from spiritually lively men. Do not imagine that potent sermons will spring from dull hearts. Our desire for striking sermons or a powerful ministry must not be for its own sake, but for the glory of God and as the consequence of heart communion with him. Grace gripped godless Rowland, drew him out of darkness into God’s light, and made him both a faithful Christian and a useful preacher. What then seemed to mark him out was his deep meditation on divine truth and his seeking the face of God in prayer. Like him, we can learn to long for God’s blessing for his own glory’s sake and for the good of mankind, never for our own exaltation.

Preaching Under God’s Eye

Finally, Rowland’s power as a preacher derived from his profound and primary consciousness of the eye of God upon him. Like the apostle Paul, he spoke “not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). He was clearly a gifted man, capable of high flights of spiritual oratory, his own fervor impacting his hearers. Nevertheless, his usefulness was at least as much a matter of heavenly substance as heavenly style.

“Spiritually lively ministries come from spiritually lively men.”

Rowland preached a full-orbed gospel, increasingly marked by the supremacy and centrality of Christ. He preached felt truth, both the law and the gospel. He set out to bring sinners to see their need of a Savior, and to show them the Savior they needed. Another well-known Welsh minister, Thomas Charles of Bala (1755–1814), converted through Rowland’s ministry, described it thus: “Rowland preached repentance, until the people repented; he preached faith until men believed. He portrayed sin as so abhorrent that all hated it; and Christ so glorious as to cause all to choose Him.”5

Brothers, are we preaching for repentance and faith, preaching the law and the gospel, preaching an abhorrent sin and a glorious Christ, for the glory of God and for the blessing of sinners? This is the ministry God blesses, and a ministry worth pursuing.

The Worshipper

There is only One who is truly worthy of worship. The instinct to worship is ripe and robust in the hearts of fallen men and women. Why does it seem to be diluted in the hearts of the saints? Why is it that the worship of the world puts to shame the worship of the one true and living God? Should not the glories and beauties of Christ capture and enrapture our hearts more than the fading glories and flawed beauties of this world? 

There is no doubt about his worship. Everyone knows the object of his worship, because he cannot stop talking about it. Even the way he dresses and behaves declares his commitment to his cause. On a Monday morning he is full of the activity of the previous day, recounting everything that took place in the recent worship.
Actually, his whole week revolves around worship. To be honest, it’s his whole life! His planning is meticulous, his preparation never lacking. Days and even weeks and months ahead he is making things ready to be where he belongs. No time is too early, no requirement is too demanding, no forethought is too extreme. He intends to worship, and he will do whatever it takes to be there. It it clear that worship is his absolute priority, and nothing gets in the way.
He also exhorts and encourages. It is wonderful to see how he is concerned not only for his own worship, but for the worship of others. If zeal is lacking, he is the first to draw alongside. If someone needs help to be at worship, he is quick to offer his. You can often see him rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep—so quick to share the delights of worship, so ready to put an arm around the shoulder of those who are cast down. He is very ready to remind people of glories past, and to point to the hope of future glory. He loves his fellow-worshippers with ardent love; they know that he has got their back. His wife knows what has the first place in his heart, and he’s been bringing his children to worship since they were babes-in-arms. They certainly won’t miss any opportunity to worship, and nothing and no-one is allowed to encroach on their family commitment, either.
And he supports and invests. He is always in his place. You know that if he is not present, it must be a real problem or a real sickness. Otherwise, there would be no excuse. People still laugh about the time he broke his leg and made special arrangements to be present. There is even a rumour that he nearly missed the birth of his first child because he wanted to be worshipping! Even his spending is arranged around his worship: the first portion of his salary is invested in worship. A certain amount is set aside, in addition to which he makes a number of freewill offerings and thank-offerings during the course of the year. And if there were a need, he would always be ready to sacrifice even more.
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A Pastoral Mistake

If I am God’s servant bringing God’s rule to bear in God’s church for God’s glory and the good of his beloved children, if I am a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the complete salvation of sinners, if I am a man who knows and trusts the influences and operations of the Holy Spirit bringing to bear the very truth he has made known, I need to be a man of the word, and we need to be a people of the Book.

I often make the same pastoral mistake. It is not deliberate, it is often well-intentioned, sometimes it is even hopeful. It is this: to presume upon the biblical knowledge of the people to whom I speak. I do not at all mean by this to deliver a backhanded insult, appearing to confess a shortcoming of my own while really assaulting the failings of others. If I am teacher, if am called to preach the word, to be ready in season and out of season, to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching (2Tim 4:2), then I cannot presume upon the understanding of the saints. I cannot say things, even true, biblically-based, and scripturally-sound things, and assume that everyone picks up the quotation of God’s Word or makes the connections of various texts-in-context that may be hanging in my mind. Not everyone is thinking of the chapter where that is taught, or instinctively arriving at the same point in redemptive history on the basis of what has gone before, or seeing the types and shadows fulfilled, or ticking the box of a certain conclusion in systematic theology.
I need to remember this in a variety of settings. I need to remember it when I am preaching, so that I more regularly quote the Scriptures, and—when appropriate and helpful, and probably more often than I do—to turn people to a particular portion or passage, so that they can see it for themselves. I need to remember this in teaching, publicly or more privately, when I may be discoursing on some scriptural theme or principle which I assume is evident to all, but which may be entirely in shadow for someone who has not read or understood that portion of God’s Word, or who has only just come to faith, or who has never been taught these things before. I need to remember it in church members’ meetings, when there are, perhaps, complex or thorny matters of church polity and practice to address, some of which may be alien in principle and in practice to some of the members. I need to remember it in evangelising—not that I can ask open-air listeners to look at their Bibles, or even that I can always put a Bible in front of someone with whom I am speaking more informally, but rather that I can both emphasise that I am speaking from the Bible and encourage them to check.
I need to remember all this not just for unbelievers who may never have been exposed to the Scriptures, but for both new believers and for older Christians as well. Even new believers who have been for years under the sound of the gospel, perhaps under the soundest of ministries, or who were raised by godly parents in a well-ordered home, are likely to be encountering much as if for the first time. The Spirit of Christ has opened their eyes, and they are like people who have never really read their Bibles before! To be sure, we are hoping that the new life they have will vivify the entire framework of truth which they have been taught, but there are lively perceptions and lively connections which they have not yet made, and will not without someone to guide them. And older Christians, too, for various reasons, may be marked by confusion, suspicion, or accusation. I have heard saints of many years standing assure me that the plain teaching of the Bible is wrong, or claim some obscure (or even well-known) verse, poorly interpreted and carelessly handled, as trumping the clear instruction of the more obvious portions of the truth. Some do not so much manhandle as manipulate or even mutilate a text, making it mean what they wish or expect, in danger perhaps of twisting it even to their own destruction. (Now, do I leave that hanging, or do I refer to 2 Peter 3:16, so that people know where I got that language?) Some listen to a preacher or teacher (more often than not, online) with a novel interpretation, or have perhaps come from a religious background marked by ignorance or flawed, if not false, teaching, to which they cling. Some have been bruised by bad teaching in the past. Some just don’t read or engage with their Bibles—some are scared of portions of it, or seem to have spent a lifetime with their eyes going over the page but little truth penetrating the mind. Some are (perhaps natively) marked by suspicion and aggression, quick to accuse and slow to trust, often ready to impute something ugly, perhaps because they have never heard of it or thought of it before. Often people have had little training in basic thinking and learning, or have their own particular limitations.
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Pastor, Preach Repentance

Much contemporary preaching demands faith. This is right insofar as it goes, but it is not all. Preachers should not demand faith only. We are saved by faith in Christ, yes, but Christ saves us, through faith, from sin. He was called Jesus (literally, Savior) because he was going to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). If the preaching of salvation through Christ has no reference to sin, then the people to whom we preach are robbed of the whole context of sin which gives penitent faith in Christ its significance. It is easier, even pleasant, to preach faith in Christ as the only necessary response to the proclamation of gospel truth, but it is sin to which sinners are attached.

True repentance grows in the gospel soil of God’s sovereign grace. Its roots comprise both biblically-informed grief over sin and biblically-informed apprehension of God’s mercy in Christ. Its trunk and branches are turning from sin and turning to God. Its fruit is the endeavor for new obedience in full dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
All this we have gleaned so far from looking at chapter 15 of the Second London Baptist Confession. The chapter now concludes by examining the necessity of preaching repentance in the light of what we know about sin:
Such is the provision which God hath made through Christ in the covenant of grace for the preservation of believers unto salvation; that although there is no sin so small but it deserves damnation; yet there is no sin so great that it shall bring damnation on them that repent; which makes the constant preaching of repentance necessary.
No Sin So Small
The Confession completes its treatment of repentance with some particular and searching counsel about the necessity of preaching repentance in the light of what we know about sin. As we noted when we began, every sin is grievous, and the “least” sin (as men perceive it) is sufficient for the condemnation of any man. However, that God is willing to forgive the sins of those who come to him in faith and repentance is the hope of the sinner, and must therefore be preached to sinners fully and freely.
Never underestimate sin. There is no sin so small but it deserves damnation. The wages of sin — all sin, each and every sin — is death (Rom. 6:23). In this sense, no sin should be considered small, as it brings so great a condemnation. The holy law of God is like a great and fragile object, perhaps a beautiful window or some other work of art, all made of one piece. If I make a crack in this great and fragile thing, no one accuses me of breaking only a part of it. The entire object is no longer whole. Thus it is with the law of God: to break it at all is to break it all (James 2.10). To stumble in any point is to become a lawbreaker, and therefore to be guilty, and deserving of punishment.
When David cries out for forgiveness in Psalm 51, there is a comprehensiveness in his desperate request. David is concerned for particular sins, yes, but with every particular sin also. He wants God to cleanse him from sin in its totality and sins in their plurality. He desires a complete cleansing (for example, Ps. 51:2, 7, 9), because he knows that one sin is fatal to peace with God. All this means that when we look at any man or woman, boy or girl, we are looking at someone who is a lawbreaker, who has offended the gracious and holy God, and is therefore liable to the just and fearful punishment of that God for the transgression of his revealed will. That proper and righteous punishment is death and hell. This is the horror of sin.
No Sin So Great
We should not underestimate sin, yet neither should we underestimate the Christ who saves us from sin. Here is cause for great praise and thanksgiving! Such is the provision which God has made through Christ in his covenant of grace for the preservation of believers unto salvation, that there is no sin so great that it shall bring damnation on them that repent.[1] The blood of Christ is sufficient to wash away the deepest stain of iniquity — his blood can make the foulest clean. The gospel offer, the gospel provision, for repenting sinners is that those whose sins are like scarlet shall be made as white as snow through the blood of the Lamb; though our sins are red like crimson, they shall be as pure new wool (Isa. 1:18).
All upon whom God has set his love are so provided for by the atoning blood of Christ in his propitiating sacrifice that each sin, all sin, and every sin can be covered, transgressions swept away as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). Again, this is no ground for sinning with impunity, but is rather the great motivation to holiness of life and fleeing every sin.
We should also be very clear in our minds and hearts, and in our preaching, about the certainty of forgiveness where true repentance is demonstrated. As we should ourselves repent with an “apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ,” so we should preach to others.
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