The Dark Side of Preaching

Few evangelicals would argue against the primacy of preaching Christ in Christian ministry. We evangelicals preach Christ. As we preach Christ, we do so with an expectation of benefit to our hearers. Through the preaching of the Word of Christ, the lost are saved. Paul tells us that this is in fact the way sinners get saved (Rom 10:14-15).

Preaching PersecutionIn addition, believers get edified, instructed, and trained in the way of righteousness when Christ is properly preached, according to the Scriptures (2 Tim 3:16). There are untold, eternal benefits rendered through the preaching of the Word of Christ. Little wonder, then, that evangelical preaching books focus on the positive side of preaching, the side of preaching in which hearers are enlightened and continue walking in the light.  Every good preacher practices his homiletical craft for the benefit of those who hear him.

Nevertheless, holding merely a beneficent view of Christian preaching is slightly askew from the biblical portrait of those preaching Christ. Consider the fate of biblical preachers: James was killed (Acts 12). Peter and John were beaten.  Paul was stoned and repeatedly imprisoned. John was exiled. And Christ was crucified.

Where many contemporary preaching texts read like primers on how to win friends and influence people, the Bible—the original preaching text—expects preachers to make enemies as well as friends. “If they hated me,” Jesus told his disciples, “They will hate you also” (John 15:18-25). In Acts 14:19-23, Paul is stoned and left for dead after preaching in Lystra. He and Barnabas then moved on to Derbe and other places, teaching the disciples along the way: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  Biblically speaking, the work of a preacher may be rewarding, but it is not necessarily safe. As Calvin said centuries ago, “But in every age the prophets and godly teachers have had a difficult struggle with the ungodly, who in their stubbornness can never submit to the yoke of being taught by human word and ministry.”[1]

Why is preaching such a precarious profession? Two simple reasons: the presence of Jesus and the person of Jesus.

Jesus is present in authentic, biblical preaching. Whether one ascribes to Luther’s concept of the Word or Calvin’s sacramental explanation of proclamation, the truth abides: Jesus Christ is present with his people through the preaching of His Word.  “The Word—faithfully preached—is Christ’s Word or voice, and an offering or presentation of Christ himself.”[2] This truth was clearly displayed by Christ Himself, as He taught His followers that His sheep would hear His voice, know His voice, and follow His voice (John 10). Christ also left His followers with the sure promise of His presence with them throughout the church age (Matthew 28:20). Christ will never leave nor forsake His people. He is now (as always) present with His people.

Christ’s presence now (as always) provokes persecution. Christ taught His original followers that persecution would continue on account of Him (Mat 5:10-12; Jhn 15:21).  Christ told the disciples He would send the Holy Spirit as a helper to be present with them. This Holy Spirit (while helping the disciples) would also convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment. (More will be said of this righteousness in part two).

The point for now is to say the presence of Christ is every bit as divisive now as it was in the first century because (a) Christ is still present with His people, particularly through the preaching of the Word, and (b) because the world has not changed, it is still fallen, along with those unbelievers who remain under the curse of sin and death. If the unbelieving world persecuted Christ when he walked physically on the earth, they will now persecute His followers with whom He remains present until the day of His return. The presence of Christ in preaching provokes persecution.

…Part Two of this article will consider the person of Jesus in preaching.

[1] Calvin, Institutes 4.1.5

[2] See “The Real Presence of Christ in the Preaching of the Gospel: Luther and Calvin on the Nature of Preaching,” by J. Mark Beach,


Blame Christians: An Old Practice Finds New Life in Malaysia

A recent editorial is making news in Malaysia. According to Free Malaysia Today (FMT), the Umno government in Malaysia is making scapegoats of Christians in order to turn attention away from their own failures.

The original scapegoat (Azazel of Leviticus 16) was an innocent goat who had the sins of Israel put upon its head and was sent away from the camp, signifying a removal of Scapegoat Azazel Lev 16 Christians Malaysia persecutionsins from God’s people. Since then, anyone who has taken the blame for another has been referred to as a scapegoat.

FMT argues that Christians are now being asked to take the fall for the sins of Malaysia’s government leaders. Things are going poorly in an increasingly Muslim Malaysia, so why not blame the Christians? Whether the accusations against Christians are true, these charges against Christians are nothing new.

From the beginning, Christians have been blamed: for unrest in Jerusalem (Acts 5); for social ills in Philippi (Acts 16:19ff); and for political unrest in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5ff). Less than four decades after the death of Christ, Christians were blamed for the destruction of Rome.  Nero famously accused Christians of causing Rome to burn in 64 A.D.  From that time forward, Christians were routinely considered a plague blighting an otherwise pristine and glorious Rome.

By the end of the 4th Century, Augustine had arrived on the Christian scene and finally had enough of the accusations against Christians.  As a result, he wrote his epic defense of Christianity, The City of God.  In that work, Augustine specifically addressed the folly of blaming Christians for the ills of Rome.  Christians, according to Augustine, actually brought light into the darkness of Rome. Consider this paragraph from the City of God (Book I, Chapter 7):

Window St. Augustine City of God Christian persecution

St. Augustine Window
Gnu Free License (source: Wikipedia)

All the spoiling then which Rome was exposed to in the recent calamity—all the slaughter, plundering, burning, and misery—was the result of the custom of war.  But what was novel, was that savage barbarians showed themselves in so gentle a guise, that the largest churches were chosen and set apart to whom quarter was given, and that in them none were slain, from them none forcibly dragged… Whoever does not see that this is to be attributed to the name of Christ, and to the Christian temper, is blind; whoever sees this, and gives no praise, is ungrateful; whoever hinders any one from praising it, is mad.

Augustine pointed out that Christians brought humanity to war through their church ministries. Still, Augustine understood that Christians would be easy targets as scapegoats.  He also understood that Christians had an obligation to be good citizens in the city of man precisely because they already were citizens of the city of God.  This clash between ruling powers and Christian citizens did not end with the fall of the Roman empire; it continued on.

Few people realize that John Calvin was not motivated to write his systematic theology for the purpose of fueling five centuries of debate in the western tradition of Christianity. Calvin actually wrote his Institutes of the Christian Religion to defend Christians from the persecution they were receiving at the hands of European rulers.  Christians were again being blamed for political unrest, and Calvin took up the pages of the Institutes for the purpose of stopping the slaughter. In his preface, Calvin addressed King Francis with these words about his reasons for writing:

For ungodly men have so far prevailed that Christ’s truth, even if it is not driven away scattered and destroyed, still lies hidden, buried and inglorious.  The John Calvin Institutes Christian Persecutionpoor little church has either been wasted with cruel slaughter or banished into exile, or so overwhelmed by threats and fears that it dare not even open its mouth. And yet, with their usual rage and madness, the ungodly continue to batter a wall already toppling and to complete the ruin toward which they have been striving.  Meanwhile no one comes forward to defend the church against such furies…

Calvin, obviously, hoped the Institutes would defend the church against the furies of persecution. What’s happening in Malaysia has happened before. There is nothing new under the sun with regard to persecution.  I am not surprised to read that the same scapegoating of Christians is continuing in Malaysia, but I am anxiously awaiting the next Augustine or Calvin to come to the aid of the Bride of Christ.

Then again, maybe we don’t need a single great man. Maybe, instead, we need the Lord to raise up an army of people like us to oppose injustice and exalt Christ. Why not us? History is certainly on our side. Even if history were against us, Christ would still be for us.

What Is Calvinism vs. Arminianism?

Calvinism is a name derided much more often than understood. Typically, debates are framed by the so-called “5 Points of Calvinism.”  This 5-point framework is both helpful and misleading.  If one were to ask John Calvin about 5-point Calvinism, he wouldn’t know what to say.  He never devised such a theological pentagon.  For Calvin, there was 1 point of concern: the gospel.

So, in the face of what he saw as grave errors of theology (both practical and doctrinal), Calvin researched the Scriptures to clarify what the Bible teaches about salvation.  The result of his research was the publication of the Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he fleshed out in detail what the Bible teaches about God and man.  For Calvin, this was an exploration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He wrote at a time when men were being executed for teaching error; so, he tried to get the gospel right.

After Calvin died, one of his students attempted to correct what he thought were errors in Calvin’s theology.  The student was Arminius, and he disagreed with some of what his teacher had taught him.  Arminius never worked out all the details of his disagreements with Calvin, but his followers did.  They issued a report to the Synod of Dort in which they presented 5 areas of theological disagreement with Calvin’s theology.  These 5 areas are those we know by the acrostic, TULIP.  The acrostic, like the 5 points, can be both helpful and misleading.  The 5-point acrostic is helpful as a memory device, but it is misleading as a theological statement.

Keep Reading

Something Different

If you are in the mood for something a little different, check out this blog on John Calvin, called Calvin500.  Calvin is celebrating his birthday, or, actually, we are celebrating his birthday.  Interesting links on this blog.  Enjoy.