Monday, April 20, 2015

Keller writes on Calvin and prayer

In the seventh chapter of Manhattan's own Tim Keller's book called Prayer, Keller provides a summary of some of John Calvin's teaching on prayer from Institutes of the Christian Religion. Keller reviews Calvin's treatment of what Clavin calls his "rules for prayer."

Keller introduces the four rules of prayer:

  1. Christians are to have a due sense of the seriousness of what prayer is. That is, they should pray with reverential fear.
  2. Christians should pray with spiritual humility which includes a sense of our dependence on God and a willing readiness to repent of our faults.
  3. Christians should pray with a submissive trust of God.
  4. Christians should pray with confidence and hope.


After laying out these rules  of prayer by John Calvin, Keller describes what it means to pray in Jesus' name. I found this a solid explanation.
To pray in Jesus' name means to come to God in prayer consciously trusting in Christ for our salvation and acceptance and not relying on our own credibility or record. It is, essentially, to reground our relationship with God in the saving work of Jesus over and over again. It also means to recognize your status as a child of God, regardless of your inner state.
I find the idea of regrounding my relationship in the saving work of Jesus again and again a concept that brings me much joy. Prayer can be intimidating if even the most miniscule part of it is relying on anything I have merited. If it's going to be, and it's up to me, then nobody should be holding their breath. But thankfully, prayer is not grounded on my actions, but rather it is grounded on the Son of God's greacious work of salvation. That I can work with!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sovereignty and Prayer

Chapter seven addresses John Calvin's rules of prayer. Towards the end of the chapter Keller raises the dilemma of divine sovereignty and the human responsibility to pray.

I know this is a question that I struggled through when I was first introduced to Reformed Theology. This is something that still comes up with both Christian and non-Christian friends alike. Why does it matter if pray? God's plan is perfect and sovereign. His perfect will is going to pass anyway, right?

Keller quotes Calvin stating:
"He so tempers the outcome of events according to his incomprehensible plan that the prayers of the saints, which are a mixture of faith and error, are not nullified."
Keller expands on Calvin's points:

"If God's will is always right, and submission to it is so important, why pray for anything with fervor and confidence? Calvin lists the reasons. God invites us to do so and promises to answer prayers--because he is good and our loving heavenly Father. Also, God often waits to give a blessing until you have prayed for it. Why? Good things that we do not ask for will usually be interpreted by our hearts as the fruit of our own wisdom and diligence. Gifts from God that are not acknowledged as such are deadly to the soul, because they thicken the illusion of self-sufficiency that leads to overconfidence and sets us up for failure."

This should give us enormous confidence to pray! God ordains certain things to come to pass only through our prayers. Our prayers don't need to be perfect because they're not answered based on the quality that we put forth. Everything is funneled through Christ, he is the only channel in which our prayers make it to God. So pray with confidence! It's your job to pray. Sometimes they will be answered, other times not. But who cares because whatever the result is, "Thy will be done."

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Holy Spirit preaching to us while we pray

 Tim Keller tack on an interesting tidbit near the end of the sixth chapter of his book Prayer. In this chapter he has considered what the famous reformer Marin Luther taught about prayer. On the second to last page of the chapter we come across this quote: "He [Luther] expects that the Spirit, as we reflect on the biblical truth before God, will sometimes fill our heart with rich thoughts and ideas that feel poignant and new to us, even when we are thinking about a text or truth that we have heard hundreds of times before."

This experience, of having Scripture made alive and clearly relevant by the Holy Spirit, is a rich and edifying occurrence. I like that Keller notes that this happens "sometimes;" it is not a routine, daily event. But, as the Spirit wills, he will give you fresh insight into the Word that you have been meditating on. This is not new revelation in the canonical sense, but rather the illuminating of Scripture by the Spirit to specific situations in our lives. When it does happen, it is glorious.

As a reminder that helps us from straying too far down the mystical-experiential yellow brick road, Keller reminds us that Luther's prayer life was informed by the Bible and had God's Word as its foundation: "To paraphrase Luther's little treatise-he tells us to build on our study of Scripture through meditation, answering the Word in prayer to the Lord."

However, there is definitely some room for the Spirit to break through our routines and communicate. Keller writes, "we should be aware that the Holy Spirit may begin "preaching" to us. When that happens, we must drop our routines and pay close attention.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Luther's Method

In chapter six of Timothy Keller's work on prayer he discusses methods used by St. Augustine and Martin Luther.

I found the method described by Luther to be very interesting and something I'd like to put into practice. Luther breaks down his prayer into three stages.

The first is described as meditation. Luther teaches that we should meditate and consider passages of scripture that we are familiar with. We should have a good understanding of the scripture so we can properly paraphrase them and consider them. Luther teaches that we should praise God through the scripture and also confess our sin that comes to light through this contemplation.

The second step is to pray through The Lord's Prayer. Keller provides an example from Luther:
"'Give us. . . our daily bread,' I commend to thee my house and property, my wife and child. Grant that I can manage them well, supporting and educating them."
Luther encourages us to paraphrase the Prayer so that it might not turn into, "idle chatter," but instead forces us to focus on the task at hand. Keller describes this exercise as:
"...command[ing] the full mental faculty, and this helps greatly with the problem of giving God full attention."
In summary:
"Luther says we should start with meditation on a text that we have previously  studied, then after praising and confessing in accordance with out mediation, we should paraphrase the Lord's Prayer to God. Finally, we should just prayer from the heart. This full exercise, he adds, should be done twice a day."
 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review – Preaching with Accuracy by Randal E. Pelton

There are many things in life that are difficult to know and understand without attempting them for oneself. Preaching is like that. It seems to me that, until one has grappled with a text and wrestled with the sermon writing process, and stood behind a pulpit and preached to a congregation, the whole process can seem a little mysterious or even down right scary. As a new preacher, I am finding the process of learning and growing as a Scripture expounder, sermon writer, and a pulpit preacher, to be a fair amount of work. And for that reason, I am usually quick to avail myself of any resources that can help me become a better preacher. Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching is just that type of resource. This book by Randal E. Pelton is a powerfully helpful work that I found to be beneficial in some very practical ways along the lines of exactly what the title suggests; determining Scriptures meaning in light of the Gospel with preaching in view.

Before looking at the practical help this books provides, here is an overview of the entire book. This overview is derived from a thorough introduction which outlines each chapter of the book. I find these overviews useful and supportive for non-fiction reading. Chapter 1 is a mini-apologetic for expositional preaching that seeks to show from 1 Corinthians 14 that an “insider-directed message reaches both insiders and outsiders” (10). Chapter 2 discusses the presence of multiple meanings in passages and how preaching different meanings has different results. Chapters 3-7, the chapters I found extremely helpful in a very practical way, focus on finding Christ-centered big ideas for the purpose of preaching. More specifically, Chapter 3 indicates ways that preaching portions should be determined. Chapter 4 explores how various-sized ideas are recognized and how the textual big idea is determined. Chapter 5 progresses from textual big ideas to contextual big ideas; the big idea formed by the immediate context. Chapter 6 moves one step farther with the search for the canonical big idea which takes the core of Scripture–the gospel–and applies it to the passage in question. Chapter 7 elucidates two benefits of the process of finding the various big ideas of the passage.

The practical nature of this book is suggested in the introduction’s final section entitled Suggestions for Pastors Using This Book. The three main ways in which this book is and will continue to be useful to me as a pastor who preaches are 1) its pursuing of the various “big ideas” through the many genres in Scripture, 2) its step-by-step approach to many of the techniques, and 3) the try-it-for-yourself examples (with the authors answers) which occur throughout the book.

The first way in which the book provides helpful instruction is by not limiting its lessons to only certain genres of Scripture, but by demonstrating how techniques can be applied to many different types of passages. For example, when choosing a preaching portion, the author discusses how one “cuts the text” in didactic passages, narratives, parables, poetry, proverbs, prophecies, and visions. Similarly, Pelton describes the process for finding the textual big idea in narratives, didactic literature, wisdom literature, parables, and prophetic-type sections. I found this thoroughness brought clarity to the processes described and confidence in attempting some of the book’s suggestions. Adding to the practical usefulness of this book is the step-by-step approach offered for many of its techniques.

For a new preacher like myself, or for an experienced preacher who is new to theses concepts, breaking the techniques down into simpler steps makes the work accessible and far less intimidating. As an example, from the fourth chapter, the steps for identifying the textual big ideas are as follows: 1) Locate and write the broad subject, 2) write the narrow subject, 3) write the complements (answers to questions arising out of the narrow subject), and 4) write the textual big idea which is the narrow subject + complement. This gradual approach makes comprehending the author’s strategy accessible to all levels. And again, the author does not just formulaically run through the steps, but discusses the steps in each genre mentioned above. Additionally, the author is helpful in a third very practical way through the use of do-it-yourself examples with answers.

Pelton employs examples for many of his suggested techniques. Following an example of how he might use a technique, he then offers a different portion of Scripture and encourages the reader to try the technique themselves. He even provides space in the book to respond. I cannot emphasize how helpful this process was. I found it brought clarity to what the author was teaching, but also helped “cement” the ideas. I will certainly have to review the book regularly as I preach through various books of the Bible, but the hands-on examples did help key ideas stick. These do-it-yourself opportunities make it abundantly clear that Pelton wants this book to be of real, practical value for the preacher. In my opinion, he succeeds in that regard.

As a new preacher, barely into my second year of preaching, I found this book to be a very helpful resource that I am confident I will continue to use in the future. Pelton provides many useful tips and techniques that I have already used and expect to continue to use. The awareness of the need for teaching to various genres will help support other pastors as they work towards being a better preacher. The simple step-by-step approach to most of the methods presented in Preaching with Accuracy makes it accessible. And the do-it-yourself examples make the skills memorable and reproducible. I recommend this book to new preachers like myself, or experienced preachers who want to hone their skills in regards to preaching with accuracy.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Intercession

In chapter five of Keller's work Prayer he speaks on the comfort found in intercession. He uses an example from his past to articulate his point.
A teacher of mine, Edmund P. Clowney, once told me that he went to one of his own teachers, John Murray, to discuss a private matter. Murray offered to prayer for him, and when he did, the power of the prayer was stunning. Murray's address combined intimate familiarity with a sense of God's absolute majesty. The presence of God was instantly palpable. It was clear that Murray knew both the nearness of God as well as his transcendence.
Murray was being Ed's "mediator," though only in a secondary sense. He was bringing him into God's presence and speaking for him.
Ed said to me, "I was so helped by this godly man's intercession before God for me. Then I realized - if I find this comforting how much more comforted should I be by the knowledge of Christ's intercession for me?"
Murray led Keller's friend Edmund before God in prayer. He brought them both before the throne and addressed God as father and Lord. This is the work of Christ. He does this for us. Without him we would have no business approaching God. Jesus intercedes for us every day. His words on our behalf are far more powerful and comforting that anything that even a great man such as John Murray could muster. Let us all find comfort and courage in this!
 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

An Easter look at prayer

In the fifth chapter of Keller's book Prayer, the author deals with the real and true encounter we have, or should have, with God as we pray. This chapter is aptly titled Encountering God. This was an excellent chapter, and I really appreciated how Keller discussed how the triune nature of God affects our prayer life. I also enjoyed his citing Jonathan Edwards' work A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. But the part of the chapter which moved me the most, perhaps because I am writing this post on Easter weekend, was the section that brought the chapter to a close: The Cost of Prayer.

In speaking of our access to the holy and transcedent God, Keller writes, "How is such access and freedom possible? The only time in all the gospels that Jesus Christ prays to God and doesn't call him Father is on the cross, when he says, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus lost his relationship with the Father so that we could have a relationship with God as father. Jesus was forgotten so that we could be remembered forever-from everlating to everlasting. Jesus Christ bore all the eternal punishment that our sins deserve. That is the cost of prayer. Jesus paid the price so God could be our father" (79-80).

What a glorious blessing this is! What a powerful motivation this is! What a conclusively convincing and encouraging truth this is! This is a heart-warming and mind-expanding gospel-cross-approach to prayer. And to read this on Easter weekend...Wow!

This truth is one we must hold on to with an iron grip. We have access to God in prayer because Jesus was forsaken for us and because of us. He mediated our path to encountering God. This Christ-wrought good news is our ticket into the very presence of God.