Raising an alarm in the PCA alarms Joe Novenson
Sermon critiques are helpful
I’ll never forget what happened right after I preached for the very first time. The other intern, the session and the pastors took me into a back room and immediately critiqued the sermon. It was their standard practice for interns. We had not been to seminary yet. This experience was part of the local church testing our gifts before they told us either to pursue theological training or stay in your other line of work. Now, to give you an idea of how this went for us, the second time I preached they implemented a rule that each one had to offer as many good comments as bad. And I remember one man stewing for a long time, struggling to find something he could praise, until finally he said (I am not making this up), “you have a nice smile.”
But the first time was only brutal, as I said. And the first comment I ever got was, “It seems like you could have preached that from a different text.” As the senior pastor roared with approving laughter, I sat bewildered, not getting the joke. “That comment,” he explained, finally catching his breath, “would be the kiss of death in any homiletics course.” Oh. Thank you, sir, may I have another?
My critic was right and his criticism was the nuclear warhead of sermon critiques. If it’s true in the sense this man meant it, the sermon ain’t a sermon—it’s a speech illustrated with a Bible quote. The preacher must get the sermon from the text, not find the text to fit the sermon. It is the commandment of expository preaching: thou shalt not do eisegesis but only exegesis. Get the message from the text; don’t force the text to speak your message. We must never force the Bible to say what we want it to say.
Anyway, I found it helpful to hear that criticism. While the men in the room were struggling to be gentle to such a dumpster fire as I’m sure that first sermon was, their criticism is what made me grow. And even now criticism is where I grow best. Praise can deform a proud man pretty quickly. A seasonable word of admonishment can do much good.
Consider this a friendly critique in much the same way. I will begin with praise.
A truly gifted communicator
Thursday night, June 14th, the PCA met for the final worship service of her 46th General Assembly. Joe Novenson, pastor of Lookout Mountain PCA delivered the sermon.
Immediately after the benediction, a friend looked at me and said, “Why don’t we all just quit preaching and join his church?” Indeed. It was a powerful, affecting sermon. Even the benediction was pronounced with shut-your-mouth gravitas. In the world of Reformed preaching, Joe Novenson must have few rivals. Most of us pride ourselves on careful study but few can communicate the fruit of that exegetical work with real pathos. Many who love Christ fail to effectively project their affections in both word and tone, to say nothing of, timbre.
Joe Novenson can. Last Thursday night Joe Novenson did. Thursday night last week, Joe let ‘er rip and it was a thing of beauty. It was aimed at repentance, grounded in Christ, emotional without being syrupy sweet. In all my years going to presbytery and GA I have never heard its equal. When he finished no one applauded. People do applaud sermons at GA. Sometimes it feels like a political rally, with the preacher actually pausing for a response.
But not Thursday night.
We heard about a sin we are guilty of. He pleaded with us to forsake it. He did it all with illustrations, passion, quotes from Calvin—it was all there. And the point was well taken.
So that’s the good comment. What else is there to say? Who could criticize that?
Still, something seemed to be missing from the sermon. At first I thought, no, I’m being defensive. My association with Warhorn has biased me in favor of the sin he’s rebuking. Maybe. But after listening again I think the comment needs to be made that, this sermon could have been preached from a different text. And that isn’t the worst of it. The text he could have used as the basis of the sermon he did preach began one paragraph later than the text he used. Let me explain his mishandling first and then go into that other, more appropriate text.
The text he preached from was this—quoted here in the ESV:
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24 ESV)
With all the swirling controversy in the PCA today, if a pastor begins a sermon with this text, what do you expect him to address? Notice some key words here: sensuality; greedy to practice every kind of impurity; corrupt through deceitful desires. I’m thinking sexuality, Revoice, the so-called gay Christian movement. The hardness of heart and the deceitful desires may have suggested racism might also come up. But no.
As he explained the meaning of Ephesians 4:17-24 he said the great elephant in the room at General Assembly this week was… intemperate speech. Well I thought the elephant in the room was Revoice. That’s what Mark Dalbey said. As it turns out, though, no one up front at GA was concerned about Revoice. No one in leadership was concerned about the involvement of several CTS students, graduates, and one faculty member in promoting the holiness-defeating conference in St. Louis next month. They were all deeply concerned, though, about the tone of those of us who are. In fact, the only time Revoice came up on the floor, to my knowledge, was Dr. Dalbey’s statement which, had it not been for some brutal PR, might never have been made at all.
The godly duty of alarm
I admit heartily that we ought not to love invective. But for CRYING OUT LOUD, has no one in leadership in the PCA ever tested a smoke alarm? Or ever heard a siren? When no one listens to the man saying, “I smell smoke” what should the man do? Ring the alarm! And alarms are loud, irritating noises no one can ignore. That’s how they work. If you’re in a crowded building and the fire alarm goes off, do you comment on the pitch? “I wish it were more like that iPhone ringtone ‘Slow Rise.'”
Actually an alarm did go off Thursday morning in the lobby of the convention hall where the assembly was meeting. What happened was a perfect parable of 2018. We all looked around, saw no one moving, saw no smoke, and decided to carry on our conversations as soon as that blasted noise went away.
If we are loud irritating noises, it’s because we feel a grave responsibility to warn, plead, beg, shout, even, to move the people under our care away from danger.
Joe Novenson had a perfect text with which to sound this very alarm! Sensuality, corrupt through evil desires! But instead he used this text against those who dare question the PCA’s seminary and the SBC for flirting with sensuality. How did he do it? I’ll just give a few examples:
Pastor Novenson said that in verse 19 when Paul uses the word callous, that the word meant unfeeling. He’s right, of course, but it’s the kind of unfeeling that is important—what don’t the Gentiles feel? According to Pastor Novenson, they lost the ability to feel love toward God or neighbor. But look at the definition of the word translated callous (apelgeo):
…to lose the capacity to feel shame or embarrassment – ‘to lose a feeling of shame, to become calloused.’… ‘some, having lost all feeling of shame, gave themselves over to vice’ Ephesians 4.19.
They are calloused—not able to feel shame. Well, it’s true that sometimes invective is shameless, but is that really what Paul is getting at? Is Paul telling us about how the Gentiles speak?
We read on:
They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. (Ephesians 4:19 ESV)
We should probably know what sensuality means. Pastor Novenson warned us not to just take the modern world’s view of sensuality and think that the definition stops there. It’s not just about sex, he said. No, the kind of sensuality Paul is talking about can also refer to harsh invective. So, again, let us go to the lexicons. The word is aselgeia:
…living without any moral restraint, licentiousness, sensuality, lustful indulgence; especially as indecent and outrageous sexual behavior debauchery, indecency, flagrant immorality
It just screams at you off the page that Paul would be telling us that the solution to our “SSA” conundrum is to lay aside the old self (4:22), including evil desires (what the Revoice camp might admit to be disordered desires) and be renewed in the spirit of your mind (4:23). We must repent of the sensuality that leads to and feeds effeminacy and same-sex attraction. Effeminacy isn’t the same thing as SSA but they are undoubtedly related—as one incubates the other.
The silencing of godly alarm
Why would Joe Novenson use this text to condemn harsh rhetoric when the Apostle Paul had something else he was condemning, here? One potential answer is that Pastor Novenson is trying not to take sides, but we think not. Start with the fact that no side in any debate or conflict has a monopoly on fire-breathers. In fact, Pastor Novenson was breathing a little fire in this sermon himself.
But if Pastor Novenson was preaching against fire-breathing alone, why didn’t he preach it from this text immediately following the text he chose?
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:25-32 ESV)
This text not chosen by Pastor Novenson actually deals with the sins he’s wanting to condemn. This text actually addresses conflict and speech and the heart. But rather than use it, Pastor Novenson took a blade perfectly suited for battle against sensuality and turned it instead against all those who fight. And specifically, those who fight for purity.
Had Pastor Novenson any inclination to condemn Revoice’s lust and sensuality, his text was a sixteen-inch softball lobbed across the plate for him to hit out of the park. But he didn’t. Even. Swing.
With Revoice as a backdrop and the text he chose, Pastor Novenson’s refusal to apply the Apostle Paul’s condemnations of lust and sensuality screams for our attention.
Whether intentionally or not, Pastor Novenson himself took a side in the battle. He took a text about sensuality and said it was actually about something else. The effect of such a sermon is not to improve the text but to wrest the text away from those seeking to warn against sensuality.
Pastor Novenson took a sword and attempted to use it to plow. He even made a pretty good furrow with it, but in the process he ruined anyone’s ability to use it as the sword against lust and sensuality God inspired it to be.
Perhaps Pastor Novenson wishes faithful watchmen like Pastor Dionne would lighten up a little bit. Perhaps he judges that Al Baker is shrill. It seems more likely he is simply uncomfortable with conflict, and this is why he sought to silence the alarm.
Ultimately the sermon discouraged fighting in the church, and this is a serious mistake. The church needs men who have faith to take up the armor of God and the sword of the Spirit to oppose false teaching. Men who will thrust and parry. Men with such a pitch of expression that their warnings will actually be heard.
Dr. Dalbey’s statement after the Committee of Commissioners report was an improvement on what he had previously said. That improvement would not have happened if he had not been pressured by those warning against lust and sensuality and felt the wonderful heat of their criticism.
The church needed and still needs men of faith to sound the alarm. Men willing to stand up to error and fight to correct it.
But watching this work, Pastor Novenson concluded only that those sounding the alarm should repent of their tone, thus choosing to align himself with those being warned against.
Listen, when an alarm sounds, we don’t engage in judgments of the alarm’s tone. Nobody likes the sound of an alarm, much less the danger it is warning of, the consequences of that danger, or the actions we will be required to take to avoid that danger. But when we hear the alarm, we consider the danger the alarm is pointing to and flee. Or fight. Or ignore it. Or silence it.
Is this a false alarm? That’s the question each of us must answer.
Pastor Novenson chose to attempt to silence the alarm we have been raising. If we are raising a false alarm, and there is no danger, then such an action is justified. But if the danger is real, then silencing the alarm will have terrible consequences.
Here’s one more verse for us to think about. Meditate on it tonight as you lie on your bed:
But [Lot] appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting (Genesis 19:14)