500 years later: a couple theses on Reformed preaching and worship…
I’ve been told John MacArthur doesn’t believe in preaching. As it’s been said to me, he denies the preacher is to work to convict the souls under his watchcare of sin and righteousness and judgement. He claims that’s the Holy Spirit’s work and the pastor should just stick to the text. Conviction of sin is, apparently, the one work God does in His people without employing secondary causes.
There’s a lot that could be said about this. It reminds me of something that happened in my previous congregation.
This was a congregation in which the richer and more sophisticated women of the church had spent decades leading and attending Bible Study Fellowship lectures, and thus they felt the same way as John MacArthur.
One Sunday one of their leaders took offense when I preached a warning against adultery, saying it was one of the main sins of my flock. She asked to meet with me and, given her undeniable stature in the church and community, several elders were also present. After the niceties were over, this leading lady looked at me and, quoting my pastoral warning, declared with perfect self-confidence, “we have no adultery in our church!”
The elders began to squirm and I kept silent. The general discomfort continued for a few moments. Finally, one of the elders cleared his throat and summoned the courage to contradict her: “Actually, yes; we do have adultery in this church,” he said.
It was a pregnant moment. Direct contradiction by the very elders she was certain would come to heel behind her was not what this leading lady married to a leading professor was used to, or expected.
But she didn’t give in. Moving from the lesser to the greater principle—from truth to ettiquette, that is—she huffed and puffed: “Well, even if there is, it shouldn’t be talked about from the pulpit!”
She was channeling her inner John MacArthur.
Now let me stop here and say that I’ve listened to scores of John MacArthur’s sermons and don’t know where I would be today without his lectures. I say this both as a pastor and a Christian man. Back when I was ministering in a mainline denomination among male and female pastors who believed abortion was a “deeply personal issue,” Pastor MacArthur was my lifeblood. I listened to his series on First Timothy and it gave me the faith and strength to fear God and strive to be faithful in my calling. Further, the work he did defending the Gospel in his The Gospel According to Jesus was very heartening to me, personally. My gratitude for Pastor MacArthur’s ministry goes deep.
In fact, his sticking to the naked text and not improving it is better preaching than most of us do while knowing that preaching without application and appeals to the conscience isn’t biblical.
The point of this piece isn’t to prove John MacArthur wrong from Scripture. Anyone who’s ever read even one of the sermons of the Old and New Testaments and considered the matter for a single moment knows he’s wrong, and also why he’s gone in this direction. Those of us who are called to preach know what the Apostle Paul and Timothy paid for applying God’s truth to their flocks and speaking to their consciences. Remember the hours the mob cried “great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” for instance?
It would be a glorious thing for my comfort and security to become convinced that God has not called me to convict, reprove, rebuke, both in and out of season and with great patience.
Of course, if I did become convinced of this, my flock and their elders would fire me—just as they ought!
Sadly, Reformed pastors today have been hoodwinked by John MacArthur, Tim Keller, and their homiletics professors into believing their preaching should scrupulously avoid any hint of pastoral authority. This is the leitmotif of Reformed preaching today: absolutely no authority.
So where do we get transcendence? How do we provide our flocks the sort of weight religion is supposed to possess? How do men who think it’s wrong to speak with authority and to preach conviction of sin provide their flock some gravitas in worship?
First, Reformed pastors today have become infatuated with Roman priests and robes and stoles and liturgy and weekly sacrifices. Humble and plain is out. Complicated and sophisticated is in. The Reformers’ beauty of simplicity has been left behind.
Second, Reformed pastors today have become infatuated with art. Like Rome and Tezel and Michelangelo, they find it juices things up. Maybe the end of my respect for any lingering confessionalism in the Presbyterian Church in America came the presbytery meeting where we were hosted by one of Tim Keller’s Redeemer clones and, at a break in our meeting, they invited us to have artisan coffee to the side of their sanctuary in the art gallery. Nakedness on the walls and all that, you know? They had large mobiles hanging at the front of the church just to the side of the pulpit, such as it was. Art was everything to them.
Infatuation with liturgy, the sacraments, and art permeates our own Reformed church today. That the art is idolatry is undeniable. That no one exposes it as idolatry is also undeniable.
These thoughts upon the occasion of my reading one of our Reformed fathers—nineteenth century Scotsman Alexander Maclaren—in preparation for preaching this past Lord’s Day:
The roots of idolatry are in all men. The gross form of it is impossible to us; but the need for aid from sense, the dependence on art for wings to our devotion, which is a growing danger today, is only the modern form of the same dislike of a purely spiritual religion which sent these people dancing around their calf.
Mark Moses’ blaze of wrath.
It’s a very old observation of our Reformed fathers that there is an inverse correlation between things that jazz up worship and Biblical preaching. Like all false shepherds who had come before them and all who have followed them since, the Pharisees and Sadducees and ruling elders and scribes jazzed things up.
But our Lord?
They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1:22)
Heavenly Father, give us faith to put your Word back at the center of our worship. Help us to preach it with faith and conviction for the sanctification of the souls for Whom your Son gave His precious blood. Help us to be willing to be despised and hated. Help us to be willing to first come under conviction ourselves in our study. Help us then in the pulpit to bring our beloved flock under conviction, also. Help us to love You. Help us to love the sheep You have called us to guard and protect. In the Name of Jesus we pray, Amen.