Preaching Method

I’m not a preacher; I’m a theologian. But now that I’ve graduated seminary I sometimes have the honor of preaching. And as someone who just barely passed the two required preaching courses while he was focused on other things, I’ve had to go back and really develop a theology and strategy of preaching. It should go without saying that it’s a work in progress, but I’m at a place now where I’m comfortable with my system—which means the next step is to share it. Maybe someone out there can benefit from what I’ve learned, but either way there’s always room for improvement and maybe you can help me see where.

Topic/Text Selection

The first and most obvious question is what to preach on. I was trained to be sensitive to what the congregation needs to hear, but not being a pastor I don’t have that kind of insight. I once heard John Piper say when he’s a guest preacher he preaches to himself that way he knows at least one person needed it. I like that better, but this early in my ministry I’ve taken to something a little less holy: what can I preach well?

This has really driven most of my sermons to-date, especially because I usually have only a few weeks’ notice. I preached on Ahab because I had just read about him in my devotions. I preached on the tree and its fruits because I had just studied the passage in the context of LGBT acceptance. Most recently, I preached on 1 Corinthians because that’s what we’ve been studying in Sunday School. The more I know something ahead of time, the better chance I have of knowing what to look for and how to communicate it.

Study Method

Once I have my topic, I start running the passage through a system in the three phases we used in seminary: exegetical, theological, and homiletical.

Phase 1: Exegetical

The exegetical phase is just getting into the passage itself. First, I want to know the immediate context for the passage. Why is this here? What ideas are continuing, and which are new? How the author frames the passage is probably the most important factor in choosing how I will introduce it in the sermon. If it’s an epistle, I will also play with a structural outline to try and identify rhetorical choices.

Second, I want to try and surface issues in the Greek. I do a very rough translation, and if a word jumps out at me I take note. I’m looking for ambiguous meanings, untranslated concepts, repeated words, related words, etc. I don’t expect to come up with a better translation than the professionals; I just want to have some idea of why they made the choices they did and what might be getting lost in translation. (Note: I don’t talk about Greek and Hebrew words from the pulpit; I only explain the concepts because that’s what I expect people to remember.)

Third, I take the list of questions I’ve been building and I start to do research. Who’s the referent in this verse? What does this metaphor mean? Is it used elsewhere? What’s the relationship between these two ideas? Does this command really imply that? My research is mostly based on Scripture alone, although there are times when I have to turn to historical background information to really get a reference. I see the Bible as one whole text even though it has many authors, and I’m very interested at drawing legitimate connections across books. I’ve also found Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies is a great help at avoiding common errors in biblical studies.

Phase 2: Theological

The boundary between exegesis and theology is thin and messy. I was given conflicting advice on this: some professors insisted I “bracket out” my theology, take nothing for granted; others insisted the only way to read it rightly is with Christian presuppositions.

I try to do both if I can.

Not all doctrines are equal. I refuse to bracket out core doctrines like the Trinity or salvation by grace alone through faith alone. But I feel very free to challenge other doctrines. My sense of how far to take which ideas is really very intuitive and not something that lends itself to explanation.

In short, the question raising and answering process is really the beginning of the theological phase for me. I’m looking for key ideas and trying to identify the timeless truths they communicate. Now there’s a danger here: you can use a passage to communicate all kinds of good theology. I think it’s much better when you can identify the theology the author was trying to communicate.

So one could hypothetically use Jesus’ tree/fruit analogy to talk about order in creation or a theology of arboreal imagery—and I might even do that in a teaching context. But preaching is a different task to me. I believe preaching is exhorting with the authoritative words of God. I’m not up there to educate. I’m there to press the points I believe God is pressing. If I teach anything else, it’s on my own authority. Hopefully it’s right. But if I’m going to say “thus saith the Lord,” I’d better be a sure as I can be that this is really His point; because again, not all doctrines are equal. So that’s why in this example I preached that the fruit of your life reveals the tree of your heart. I’m confident that was Jesus’ point, not mine.

Once I’m done with my exegetical studies, once I’ve done my best to figure everything out on my own—that’s when I turn to the commentaries. Just like with doing the translation, it’s not that I think I’m better than the experts; I do it because I know the text better when I wrestle with it myself. What’s more, as I wrestle with it I get a better sense of where others may have trouble, so I know to explain them more carefully or illustrate them more vividly. The only reason I even open the commentaries is for validation: did I miss anything or draw a wrong conclusion.

Phase 3: Homiletical

Throughout the whole process thus far, I’m keeping my eyes open for anything interesting, catchy, or eloquent. In some ways I’m having a conversation with the text and cross-references, and I note the parts of the conversation I like. If a crucial idea jumps out, I want to note it so I can craft a phrase around it. If an idea gets me really excited, I’ll jump out of my seat and pretend I’m preaching on it right then and there. Often those bursts of inspiration have gems worth polishing. Hopefully by the end of the exegetical process and the theological Q&A, I have a list of ideas and phrases to sprinkle in as I actually write the sermon.

One unfair advantage here is I took a course in copy writing, which is basically script for advertising. I especially liked what my professor called “fulcrum phrases,” like M&M’s famous “melts in your mouth / not in your hand.” It’s a skill I’ve tried to hone in my songwriting. If you can find that well-crafted phrase that has symmetry, it connects deeper and sticks better. I try to make sure I find at least one for every sermon. Here are some I’ve used:

  • It’s not yours to take; it’s God’s to give.
  • He who walks in humility walks in grace.
  • The fruit of your life reveals the tree of your heart.
  • You don’t have to hold on to anything for God to hold on to you.

So that’s my ideal, but I’m looking for anything at all that excites me, because if I’m excited about something there’s a good chance someone else will be, too.

Sermon Structure

At this point, I’m ready to start writing my sermon. I know what the text is about, why it exists, how it relates to the rest of Scripture, which parts are difficult to understand, and which parts are exciting. But before I can build content, I need a skeleton.


At Dallas Seminary I learned that a good introduction has the same essential parts, and I use the acronym INSTeP to remember them: image, need, subject, text, and preview. As someone with some creative writing background, I didn’t like this at first. But truth be told, a good sermon borrows from both storytelling and essay. The story draws you in, but the essay keeps you grounded. And just like a good essay, you need a thesis statement and its essential supports to help prepare people for what’s to come.

In my mind, the most important aspect of the introduction is the boring stuff: what’s the subject, what problem does it solve, where is our passage, and what are the main points. The image serves that. As a student I wanted to pick a great image that really stood out and captured people’s attention. But right now I’m in a place where all I care about is getting people interested in the need. If I have an image that raises the need, great; if not, I’ll try to explain my way to it. If you get through the introduction and people still don’t know what you’re talking about or why they should care, you’re about to fight an uphill battle.


The preaching style taught at Dallas and many other evangelical schools is sometimes called “Big Idea” preaching. The short version is that every sermon should have a well-crafted thesis statement. The way it’s taught, it’s everything; your exegesis is all about finding it, your homiletics are all about driving it home. In some cases the thesis becomes more important than the passage itself, which I think is going too far.

But I do think there should be one main idea tying everything together. It shouldn’t replace the passage, but it should drive the passage. As I go through my study process I’m making a list of possible thesis statements. If I haven’t found it by the end of the study process, I keep working toward it. There’s no point in writing the sermon until I have that unifying thought because I’m interested in every detail, every rabbit trail. I need that thesis to give my writing purpose, to tell me what to cut and what to emphasize.

Once I have the thesis, I try to take the existing structure of the passage and relate it back to that thesis. I know there are many different structures you can play with, but I find I do a better job of preaching the passage when I follow its structural cues. When I try to write a novel structure, I tend to make the passage just a series of illustrations for my own points; I’m sure better preachers are skilled at avoiding this problem.

Once I have the thesis and the structure, I write a draft of the whole sermon, weaving in those phrases I had stored up.


Somehow application seems to be the most contentious part of the sermon. Some preachers try to draw out every possible implication while others see application as purely the Holy Spirit’s job and provide nothing. While there are many possible applications, I try to find one that the text emphasizes more than the others and make that the whole deal. So while I really wanted to say something in my last sermon about how we should love unconditionally just as God does, that wasn’t Paul’s application. It’s true and we should do it, but Paul’s application trumps mine because it’s his passage. So I talked about boasting in the Lord.

Once I have my application, I take it in two directions—and I consider this my own secret sauce. I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of it, but I didn’t hear it anywhere else. My professor always told us “give them something to do!” In fact, he would say to give them something concrete to do that very day to maximize the chances that they will actually apply the sermon. I love it! It takes no time at all to forget a sermon.

But then I discovered there are some who take issue with this entire method of application, among them one of my favorite preachers, Tim Keller. For them, giving people something to do inspires legalism, and that endangers the Gospel. Instead they strive to show how Jesus already fulfilled the command of this passage, and the application is just to believe in Him, to adore Him, to marvel at Him. I love this, too! I absolutely believe that every passage properly understood relates to Christ in some way, and every application can be used to point to His perfect example and finished work.

So I try to do both. And here’s why: both are true. Christ has given us new life and yet we are called to live out a new life. The work is done in one sense, and yet we labor in another. So I always begin with showing how Christ has perfectly applied the passage and inviting people to believe in Him and rest in His finished work. Then because of what Christ has done, I call us to imitate Him by applying it ourselves.


At this point all I have to show for my labor is a rough draft. In order to make it presentable, I have a few more steps I go through, and these typically take me a week all by themselves. My goal is to make the sermon sound as natural and engaging as possible.

First, I read the sermon out loud and mark anything that doesn’t sound like me. Maybe I was copying someone’s tone, or more likely my tone was too formal or too informal for the moment. I also italicize the words I want to emphasize. It’s all about the sound.

Second, I memorize the sermon. (Yes, the whole thing.) This is what they trained us to do in seminary, and I thought it was overkill. Yes, you can get better eye contact, step away from the podium, I get that. But what I’ve discovered is that when I memorize my work it polishes the sermon like nothing else. If I can’t remember what I’m about to say, how can I expect the congregation to remember? Memorizing forces me to find the best words for the job.

It also helps me on a structural level, because if I can’t remember what I was about to say next, it shows that there’s a weak connection between the two points. In a compelling script, the next thing has to follow the last. Once you know why the two are married, you can go back and make it more obvious to the congregation.

As I memorize, I boil down the transcript into a preaching outline, which has just enough structure and content to cue me if my mind goes blank in the pulpit. It will have the necessary structural elements, markers for key phrases, and all condensed so that it fits on just a few pages on the platform. (One danger is if I don’t use it in practice, it’s less helpful on Sunday.)

Third—and frankly this is the step I’m most likely to skip—I try to choreograph my movements. I believe good preaching is theater, but not in the sense that you’re dramatizing the text. Your whole body is communicating whether you want it to or not, so your gestures should be purposeful. Use the space to organize thoughts, repeat certain motions when you repeat the same thought, make sure you’re not sending mixed signals. Usually I run out of time before I get here, so I have plenty of room to grow in this area.

Closing Thoughts

As I reflect on my process I realize that it’s uniquely tailored to me. My background as a writer, my love for theology, and my unique skills all lead me to emphasize different things. For someone with a different background and skill set this might be like trying on another man’s armor. How can you leverage who you are to preach better?

Of course, I didn’t do this from scratch; I was given a great model in seminary and have observed some great preachers thanks to modern technology. The key for me is molding this process to fit my unique mix of strengths and weaknesses, and that’s sure to be a never-ending project.

Annual Meeting in Review: ETS 2015

Last week I made my usual pilgrimage to the place where all the evangelical seminary geeks converge: the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This year was the second time Atlanta has hosted since I began attending, and it was fun reliving early autumn just before the snow arrived back home.

Over the years I developed a strategy: make plans to attend nonstop papers, then throw out those plans when relational opportunities arise. This year the program was a bit light, but thankfully the people made up for what was lacking.

When reflecting on the meeting I was reminded of just how good last year’s meeting had been. This year had none of the same “aha!” moments, but I did enjoy many rich times of reflection after various papers.

Familiar Faces

As is my usual habit, I attended a number of friend’s papers (e.g., Ford on Ignatius, Roeber on historiography, Svigel on the Didache). But then I also stalked a few of the theologians I’ve come to admire in recent years: Al Mohler, Carl Trueman, and Anthony Bradley. Of course the problem there is that once you begin following someone you have the ever-increasing experience of anticipating what they are going to say on a given subject. This is especially true of Mohler, whose two podcasts have been my intellectual lifeline this year in times when babies and house projects and service commitments have prevented deeper study.

Analytic Theology

What came as an outright disappointment was the afternoon I spent in the Analytic Theology section. For those of you who don’t know, “analytic theology” is a recent movement to apply the tools of analytic philosophy to the questions of theology. I’ve been thrilled about this from the moment I heard of it, but what I saw really didn’t reflect what I think the movement is capable of. The thinking seemed lackluster and the questions unhelpful. Crisp and especially Rae were there asking insightful questions, but I think being overly kind to the presenters. I suppose you can’t be too inhospitable if you want guests to come back next year.

Avoiding the Marriage-and-Family Theme

The theme this year was “Marriage and Family” but it’s clear the real interest was continued discussion of how to deal with LGBT-related doctrines. In the past year I’ve read numerous books, taught two classes, and delivered a regional paper on the subject. That was enough for me. Maybe there were some missed opportunities here, but I’m ok with that.

Reflection on 2015

One of the things I’ve been forced to do each year—and rightly so, I think—is to reevaluate my purpose and progress in the intellectual community. This occupied much of my reflection in private, some with friends, and significant portions of the drive time from Michigan.

Here are a few conclusions I reached:

  1. Even though I can’t justify a doctorate for my career, I am coming to the conviction that I can justify one for ministry. It may even be something I must do.
  2. Even though I have the tools for self-study, I can accomplish much more with a cohort of like-minded individuals. I need to find a group of theologians I can run with or I will fall behind.
  3. Even though I feel as though I’ve hardly studied this past year, (I recall reading only two theology books!), I’m reminded that I’ve still accomplished quite a bit with my LGBT studies, weekly Sunday School prep, church doctrinal formulations, and ministry strategizing. It’s different work, but I haven’t been as lazy as I feared.
  4. Even though I have been working to be useful to our local church congregation and open to correction about my academic bent, the fact remains that right beliefs are a crucial part of our walk with Christ. Theology matters.

I used to journal incessantly, but have cut back quite a bit this year to focus on getting stuff done. All that to say the time was ripe for some reflection.

Lately I’ve referred to my calling as a “ministry of ideas.” As I chart a course for 2016, the question of what that ministry looks like looms large. The plans are still up in the air, but my time in Atlanta this year has been enormously helpful in the process.

See you next year in good old San Antonio, TX!

Sanctify Us with the Truth


I’ve been a big fan of the Bible all my life. As a child I was amazed by the miracles God did. As I got older it was His character that captivated me. These days I’m intrigued by His wisdom. I want to know how He thinks, what He’s planning, how to make sense of His creation. The Bible is at the center of my relationship with God, and it always has been.

But the Bible isn’t God, and the Bible isn’t the whole of my relationship with God. So why is it that I always come back here? I believe that God reveals Himself in Creation and in the Church; I believe I have His Holy Spirit. So why does my relationship with Him keep coming back to a book?

One passage that gives us some clues is John 13–17—known as the Upper Room Discourse. It’s Jesus’ last teaching time with His disciples before He goes to the cross. It’s a time of transition.

Up until now, having a personal relationship with God was as easy as ever. You just spend time with Jesus—the Jewish guy. You want to talk to God? Just go find Jesus. You want an answer from God? Ask Jesus a question. You need divine intervention? Call Jesus for help.

In fact, not only is Jesus God in the flesh as the second person of the Trinity, but we see that He also manifests the Father and is indwelt by the Spirit. This goes beyond the perfect unity of the Trinity: all three persons are present in unique ways.

But in the Upper Room, Jesus is about to leave. He won’t be there to answer questions, to heal the sick, to right the wrong. And if He’s gone, so is the manifestation of the Father, and so is the Holy Spirit within Him.

So what does a personal relationship with God look like when God leaves the building?

The Spirit of Truth

First and most importantly, God hasn’t really left. Even though God incarnate has ascended into heaven, He did not leave us alone. The Holy Spirit is God’s special presence in this age.

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16, 17 ESV)

The same Spirit that indwells Jesus will indwell His disciples, and if we skip ahead to Acts, we can see that this Spirit of Truth indwells all believers. He is described as a Helper—which should come as no surprise from the God who just washed His disciples’ feet. And at least one aspect of His ministry is to point back to Christ.

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” (John 15:26 ESV)

But it’s not as though the Spirit is a consolation prize. Even though His ministry is all about Christ, Jesus seems to say the Spirit’s ministry will be better than His!—at least for the next phase of God’s plan.

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:7–15 ESV)

There’s a lot to unpack here, but first I just want you to notice: when we lost the Savior, we gained the Helper, and He’s exactly what we needed next. Even though Jesus fully paid for our sins, we need a Helper to teach us the perfect obedience that Jesus modeled, to realize the change that Jesus purchased for us.

Now we get a fuller picture of what the Spirit of Truth has come to do. To the unbelieving world, He is a source of conviction, confronting sinners with the reality of who Jesus really was and what He did. To believers, He is a source of wisdom and knowledge.

This is a ministry of words and truth. We usually call Him the Holy Spirit, which rightly emphasizes His character and the work that He does in our hearts, but He is also called the Spirit of Truth. He draws us back to the words Jesus spoke, which bear the Father’s authority.

The Sanctifying Word

These days we’ve become cautious about putting our trust in words or staking claim to truth. We’re allowed to have our own truth, and we’re expected to have our own interpretations. But to go beyond this is to invite conflict.

Some of us have also grown weary of knowledge because we’ve seen people devote themselves to a dead orthodoxy that devours truth and then does nothing with it. So we associate the Christian walk with a ministry of love and compassion and holiness—which it is—and try not to get too distracted by the rest.

But it’s clear that Jesus spent a good deal of time ministering in words and teaching truth, and that the Holy Spirit is also committed to a ministry of words and truth.

“Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:24–26 ESV)

When Jesus prays, He even emphasizes this before the Father:

“Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” (John 17:7, 8 ESV)

It’s a precious thing to have the words of God. They came from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit. These words have been compiled in Scripture—the Bible—and it’s not God’s leftovers. At the heart of the Trinity’s ministry is a message. When we put our faith in Christ, we confess and believe specific realities.

“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” (John 17:14 ESV)

But this word is not some passive collection of propositions to be absorbed. Just as the Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of Truth, so the true words and message of Scripture are given to make us holy.

“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” (John 17:17–19 ESV)

This truth has a purpose. God’s message—the words of the Father—they are to make us holy. They are to wash us and set us apart. We are to be purified by this message, and at the heart of these instructions is love.

 “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:10–12 ESV)

God has not left us alone. We have the Holy Spirit of Truth, and we also have the words of the Father.

I think this must be what Jesus alluded to in John 4, when He told the Samaritan woman at the well about those who would worship in spirit and in truth. Jesus clearly leaves us here with His Spirit and His truth. These are the twin lights guiding us on our pilgrimage. These are the two ways God is present with us today. Even though He is not with us physically, He is with us personally, spiritually, and verbally.

Truth is good for its own sake, and sanctification is, too. But we must not forget that our relationship with God as Spirit and through the Word draws those two things together. We pursue truth in order to be sanctified. We are sanctified by the truth.


When we talk about how we relate to God, our first thought is often the Cross, and that’s not wrong. Without Jesus’ work on the Cross we could have no fellowship with God. But even though it is what made a relationship with God possible, our relationship with Him goes much deeper. God is specially present in the world today by His Holy Spirit, Who indwells each and every believer. And the words of the Father have come by the Son and the Spirit to us in the form of the Bible. It is the Holy Spirit of Truth together with the Holy Words of God that mark God’s presence in our lives. They are what guide us and sanctify us.

This is why we can’t get away from Scripture. This is why our relationship with God depends so much on our relationship with this book. Creation reveals God by what He has done, but it does not offer His words to us. The Church is united and empowered by the Spirit of God, but it cannot speak His words either. The Bible is how the Holy Spirit speaks to us; it is one of the means by which God has chosen to sanctify His people. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.

The Story of Death (2/15/15)


  1. Intro: The Matter of Life and Death
  2. Death as Punishment
  3. Death and God
  4. Chinks in Death’s Armor
  5. The Death of Death
  6. For Now We Wait
  7. Closing Thoughts: Ash Wednesday

Introduction: The Matter of Life and Death

A friend once told me that Christianity is a “culture of death.” This was of course a reversal of Pope John Paul II’s 1995 condemnation of the modern culture of death, which sees the weak as useless at best—a burden to be eliminated. He pointed to the crucifixion, the Old Testament sacrificial system, and the way we seem to look forward to death so that we can go to heaven.

In a strange sense my friend was right: Christianity has a lot to say about death, and sacrifice is central to our theology. Of course, in context Christianity is anything but a culture of death, but if we’re not careful we can definitely sound the way my friend described us. We sometimes get confused about the role death plays in God’s plan.

So today we examine what the Bible says about death and reconsider what role it plays in our lives.

Death as Punishment

It’s interesting: there’s a way in which you could read the Bible as a book about death. That’s obviously not all it talks about, but the “story arc” of death spans the entire book.

Let’s take a stroll, shall we?

The first mention of death is in the second chapter of the Bible: “in the day you eat of [the forbidden fruit] you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). This promise was the center of the debate between the woman and the serpent in Genesis 3, and they ate of the fruit. But they didn’t die. God was gracious not to put them to death physically, but there is a kind of spiritual death that took place then. Since the Fall, mankind has been unresponsive to God.

But make no mistake, physical death was coming. We know from Romans that death entered through Adam’s sin—it wasn’t part of the original created order. And as proof, we see in Adam’s genealogy the reign of death: each one dies. We read “and he died” over and over here. Romans 3:23 tells us “the wages of sin is death.” All sinned, so all die. Death had become a part of life.

But Genesis is just getting warmed up! Because next comes the Flood where—you guessed it—everybody dies. Then the Patriarchs die. Then the book ends with the death of Joseph. Who ends a book that way?!? This is not a happy ending.

But then there’s Exodus, where the Egyptians die, Leviticus where animals die, Numbers where unbelieving Israel dies, Joshua where the Canaanites die. Death is everywhere! It’s all over the Pentateuch.

Why would this be? Because death is the punishment for sin. All crimes against God are capital offenses. That doesn’t mean He immediately smites everyone the moment they sin—but technically speaking, He could. That would be just. And if it doesn’t feel just then maybe we don’t understand sin as well as we thought we did.

Death and God

In Ezekiel, God tells us He gets no pleasure from the death of the wicked. Does this surprise you? He would much rather see the wicked turn from their ways—to repent and live. But those who will not get what they deserve.

Sometimes if we’re not careful this is a way that we distort God’s character, as though God somehow hungers for death and blood. God isn’t pleased by animal sacrifice, but He requires some recompense for sin. God didn’t send the Flood on a whim but because evil on the earth had become unbearable. If we take death out of the context of grace and patience and kindness, we get a very wrong view of God.

But because death is part of life in a fallen world, we sometimes get confused about our relationship with death on the one hand and God’s sovereignty on the other. The author of Ecclesiastes notes that people are just as dead as animals in the end. The wise man for all of his wisdom still ends up just as dead as the fool. The nice thing about being dead is you don’t have to live in fear of death anymore! It’s a bleak way to look at things, but not wrong. What’s the point of life if the only thing we can be sure of is death?

Chinks in Death’s Armor

If this is getting depressing, good! Sin is serious business and so is death. Christianity has a lot to say about death because it takes sin seriously.

But there’s a whole lot left to be said.

It turns out contrary to popular belief, death can be undone. Yes, you heard me: the end might not really be the end after all. Elijah and Elisha are both able to raise the dead. Jesus raises the dead. Jesus’ disciples raise the dead. Of course, these were all temporary. But it’s a start!

God promises us that it gets better than this. In Isaiah 25, He promises to swallow up death forever. How is this possible?!? The wages of sin is death. A holy God can’t just get rid of death.

He’d have to get rid of sin somehow.

The Death of Death

This is where everything gets turned on its head. This is that part in the movie where you fly through the black hole and end up in a different dimension, or where Alice jumps down the rabbit hole. God swallows up death by letting death swallow Him up. Jesus, being fully God, lives a perfectly sinless life—a life not meriting death—and dies on our behalf, paying for all the sin of the world.

Let that sink in for a moment: God dies. But the death of God becomes the death of sin, and the death of sin becomes the death of death. And death’s final defeat is announced through the resurrection of God back from the dead. The God of life is alive! And He offers eternal life to all.

As Tim Keller likes to put it, Jesus died the death we deserved so that we could live the life He deserved. Because Jesus submitted to death on our behalf, our relationship with death gets really complicated. It’s still the enemy. It’s still the wages of sin. It’s still not good. But every good thing—salvation, resurrection, eternal life, peace with God—these all came from one great death: the Crucifixion.

So now all death is bad, but that one death brought us everything good. We praise the God of life, but we celebrate His death. God took a horrible, terrible, rotten, no-good thing and redeemed it.

I suppose that shouldn’t surprise us either.

We may sometimes look like we’re rejoicing in death itself, but really we rejoice in that one death that God used to bring eternal life. Our problem isn’t that we sing about death too much—we probably don’t sing about it enough! But we have to keep it in the context of the bigger story. We can’t make any sense of the Crucifixion apart from the Fall, the Resurrection, and Return of Christ.

This is the theme we see in the Book of Acts: God raised Jesus from the dead. It’s all about resurrection now! We baptize in the likeness of His death—and resurrection. We take the bread and cup to remember His death—all the while waiting for His return.

In Romans, death takes on a whole new meaning: since our sins were buried with Christ, we are now alive to God and dead to sin. Spiritual death is over now. Death has become just a metaphor for our relationship with sin.

But make no mistake, death didn’t just die spiritually. We might think that because we still see death all around us. Christians still die. But at the very end of the Bible we see that when Christ returns, death will finally be thrown into the lake of fire and be no more. All the dead will come to life—but this time never to die again.

I can’t help but think of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow
And soonest our best men with thee do go
Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppies or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swellst thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!


For Now We Wait

Today we sit knowing that we are no longer spiritually dead, and instead we are dead to sin. Christ has risen from the dead, but He has not yet returned. Physical death is still a reality. It’s still cruel. But it’s not the end.

I have another friend, a learned scholar who is emphatic about how much he hates death. He doesn’t want to die. Yet Paul almost seems to disagree. In Philippians he writes, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” Is death gain? Is there something good about death—our deaths? Is my death-hating friend overreacting?

Insofar as my friend is only talking about death, he’s right. You can’t really hate death enough. And our hope is in the resurrection, when we get our new bodies and live with Christ forever. Paul’s not saying that death isn’t really so bad after all. He’s saying Christ means so much to him that he would even suffer death to be with Him. It’s not that death is lesser; it’s that Jesus is greater.

This is how we make sense of Paul’s taunt in 1 Corinthians 15, which talks at length about the resurrection: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Ultimately he’s talking about the end of death when we are raised, but there’s a sense in which death’s sting is tempered by the sweetness of life with Jesus.

When we lose a loved one, it’s hard. If he or she is a believer, we’re comforted by the fact that even though they died they enjoy the sweetness of Christ’s presence. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Just don’t forget: that’s not the end of the story. It gets better!

They won’t stay dead.

Who is this God who can even bring good out of death?

Closing Thoughts: Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday. Many Christians will receive ash on their foreheads and be reminded, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Not a message we particularly like to hear. We often think of ourselves as souls who just happen to be in bodies, that our parts are interchangeable—maybe even expendable. But these words are the words God Himself spoke to Adam after the Fall. You are dust. A sobering thought. Our bodies are a part of us, and our reflection is a daily reminder that we’re not as strong as we think we are.

That’s not the whole truth about us, but it’s a part we can’t afford to forget. Considering our frailty and our mortality shouldn’t lead to despair; it should bring us to our knees before our Savior. We confess how much we need Him, and how grateful we are that we have Him. Recognizing our insufficiency is just one way we deepen our appreciation for all we have in Christ. We humble ourselves not to make Him greater but because He is greater! He has brought us forgiveness and eternal life, sent us His Spirit. If we were left to our own devices, we would have no hope. But because of His love, rich in mercy, we have this gift from God.

Bonus: Christ is Risen by Matt Maher

We Didn’t Stay Perfect (2/1/15)


  1. The Unfolding of the Fall
  2. Fractured Relationships
  3. Total Depravity—but not Extreme Depravity
  4. Comparing Theories [new! not discussed in class]
  5. So What Do We Do Until Then?
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bonus Thoughts

The Unfolding of the Fall

We all know the story of the Fall from Genesis 3. Perfect woman with perfect husband in perfect garden meets talking snake. He tempts her to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit, then she hands some to her husband who does the same. God comes and gives them a spanking and sends them out of the garden.

Ok, so the details might be a little off… maybe even a little forgettable. But the story is familiar and the consequences tragic. We live in those consequences. So what does this story have to tell us about the world today and our lives in it?

You can learn a lot about sin and humanity by really chewing on the details here. Consider:

  • The serpent (we’re later told it’s also Satan) begins with questioning what God has said.
  • The question overgeneralizes and invites a conversation.
  • The woman adds to God’s commandment.
  • The serpent challenges God and offers a desirable half-truth.
  • The woman (although perfect) is tempted. That temptation draws her to inspect the fruit.
  • Looking at the fruit, the woman focused on the positive side of the equation.
  • She risked her life trusting the serpent over God, because eating the fruit should have meant certain death.
  • The man ate without any signs of a struggle.
  • Their eyes were open. Before they knew only the good; now they knew good and evil.
  • Their first response to sin is to cover up, which indicates fear and probably shame.
  • Their response to God (their creator whom they knew personally!) was to hide. Apparently they either didn’t know or forgot that God is everywhere and knows everything.
  • God asks the man a question for effect.
  • The man blames his wife and even seems to accuse God.
  • The woman blames the serpent and even seems to deflect by saying she was tricked.

At this point God punishes the serpent, the man, and the woman by cursing all creation. Work will be hard, childbearing will be painful. But there is hope in the promise of One to come who will crush the serpent.

I love how the Good News glimmers even in that first dark moment.

It’s so tempting to read more into the story because there are so many more details we wish we had. The gaps in the story invite our imaginations to jump in, but we need to be careful not to put words in God’s mouth.

Fractured Relationships

One theme we see in the Fall is one broken relationship after another. We noted last week how we were created to need one another and how that’s a good thing. But after the Fall we see husband and wife blaming each other. Worse yet, we see them hiding from God. After creation is cursed there’s really nothing left: man’s relationships with God, with others, with creation, and even with himself are all broken. And so our need for each other grows even greater, but our incapacity to find what we need and be who we need to be for others makes meeting this need impossible.

But let’s be honest here: the biggest problem is this broken relationship with God. He is their Creator and Sustainer. He knows them personally, guides them, and has given them all they need. What’s more, He’s perfectly good. This fall into sin was an act of rebellion against a God who had been nothing but loving and giving. Everything depends on Him.

Is it any wonder He warned them they would die?

Now the astute reader will note they didn’t drop dead. Does this mean the serpent was right? Not hardly! This broken relationship with God is sometimes thought of a “spiritual death,” a state of unresponsiveness to God. I’m generally fine with this idea—after all, they certainly became separated from God! What else could you call a state apart from the God of life? Death makes sense.

But we know that this is where physical death enters the picture. Mankind wasn’t supposed to die. YOU right now reading this: you were never supposed to die. Now we tend to say death is a part of life. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Death was never a part of life. Death is a reality we have to live with, but it’s not good.

So I think spiritual death metaphorically happened, but physical death literally happened. And the only reason they walked out of that garden alive has to have been God’s grace and mercy.

Total Depravity—but not Extreme Depravity

Another observation we can make is that Adam and Eve weren’t immediately as bad as they could have been. This is sometimes what we think when we talk about “total depravity.” If you want a really bleak picture you have to turn ahead a few pages to the state of the world before the Flood. It took a long time to get there.

No, extreme depravity wasn’t the result of the Fall, but total depravity still is. Total depravity is the doctrine that says sin bent every part of man. Sin pollutes man’s reason, man’s emotions, man’s willpower, man’s desires, man’s imagination, man’s memories, man’s senses, man’s body, and even man’s conscience. Nothing is safe. Nothing is pure.

And this is intimately wrapped up in the image of God. Remember that man was made in God’s image, unique among all creation. But sin now pollutes that image. It’s still present—we still can’t help but “image” our Creator when we act rationally, make wise decisions, love others selflessly, and so on. Instead the image is defaced but not erased. What should normally reflect God’s character instead reflects a mixture of good and evil.

This is bad.

Comparing Theories

Now if we take a step back, we all recognize that we live in a broken world. Very few people would argue that everything is perfect, that sin, suffering, and death somehow don’t exist or aren’t really bad. We (generally) all agree that there’s a problem. But there’s little agreement about why it is the way it is.

People who don’t believe in a literal Adam and Even tanking the human race are generally stuck. For example, if you only believe in the natural world, evil is just a part of nature. Death is a part of life. Suffering is a biochemical response to destructive conditions. And if you’re just one organism out of millions competing for resources, all you can really say is that you don’t like these things. They are distasteful. Maybe you’re hard-wired to show empathy with others because of some evolutionary imperative, but objectively speaking what can you say?

Well, you can say lots I suppose, but you can’t be consistent without ending up a nihilist.

Other religions have the same problem: either evil belongs as some part of the bigger cosmic plan or it’s an illusion. Either way, it’s hard to take evil seriously. Either it belongs in some way, or it doesn’t exist at all. Either way it’s hard to justify our natural reactions to injustice, suffering, and death.

But let’s forget about consistency and get to work: what problems can we name and how do we fix them?

  1. If the problem is society, the cure is social change.
  2. If the problem is pride, the cure is humility.
  3. If the problem is bad decisions, the cure is right decisions.
  4. If the problem is lack of love, the cure is love.
  5. If the problem is a broken relationship, the cure is forgiveness.
  6. If the problem is rebellion, the cure is submission.
  7. If the problem is demons, the cure is their destruction.
  8. If the problem is illusion, the cure is truth.
  9. If the problem is original sin, the cure is death of the old self.
  10. If the problem is doubt, the cure is faith.
  11. If the problem is in every part of us, the cure is a new creation.
  12. If the problem is death, the cure is eternal life.

Of course this just scratches the surface. But what I want you to notice is that for all of these problems, Christianity offers the solution. And for all of these problems, the solution is the same: that one seed of woman that God promised, the One to come that would crush the serpent. His name is Jesus.

Some of these things were addressed in His first coming, when He died on the cross for our sins and rose to life to offer us eternal life. But the work isn’t done yet. He’s coming back to finish the work, to make all things new. Think about that. We’ll explain further another time.

So What Do We Do Until Then?

As a wise poet named Tom once wrote, the waiting is the hardest part. If we as Christians are a new creation (we are), have eternal life (we do), are filled with the Holy Spirit (yup), and are no longer slaves to sin (seriously!), then why is the world still messed up? And more to the point, why are WE still messed up?

Frankly, we still suffer the effects of sin in all our faculties. Our wills have been freed from slavery, but they’re still polluted. We won’t be fully free from the effects of sin until Jesus comes back.

So we’re no longer slaves, but we’re still polluted and live in a polluted world. We have the Holy Spirit, but we still choose to disobey. In theory you should be able to live a perfect life after you’re saved, but because we’ve already been marked by sin in our lives and live in an imperfect world, we will never be perfect under our own power.

What do we do then? Give up? Of course not! We beat our bodies into submission. We learn right and wrong from Scripture, and we challenge our motives day to day.

But if we want to go the extra mile, we can’t do it alone.

There will be times you trick yourself into thinking you’re doing what’s right. There will be times you misread Scripture and misunderstand what God expects. And to guard against those times you need to surround yourself with fellow believers. You need people who know you, who know the Word, and who are committed to following Jesus with you. They can provide that outside check to make sure sin isn’t getting the best of you.

Because let’s face it: some days it’s hard to tell the difference between the Holy Spirit’s promptings and our own desires. Nothing can do better to counter that than other Spirit-filled people who bring a different perspective.


We ended up talking a lot about sanctification today, but that’s because it’s how we cope with the effects of the Fall in our lives. I don’t ever want to teach about sin and suffering and death without also pointing to the hope we have in Christ! The sin we as Christians struggle with is our bad choices day to day. If you’re saved, all you can do is persevere in what’s right and help others to do the same. We’ll say more about suffering and death another time.

My challenge to you is this: who do you have in your life who can give you that outside angle to your struggles and decisions? Where can you go to make sure you’re on the right path? If you’re not sure, start looking!

We need each other more than ever.

Bonus Thoughts

Isn’t it interesting how hard it is to remember the details of a story we’ve heard dozens of times? Our memories aren’t perfect. It sure helps having other people to lean on…

Historically speaking, the discussion of the effects of the Fall gets really fun with Augustine and Pelagius. In a nutshell, Augustine argued that we are always in need of God’s grace, but Pelagius believed we didn’t suffer from original sin and could become perfect if we try hard enough.

Regarding different relationships with sin, Augustine put it this way: God is not able to sin, Adam was created able not to sin, the Fall left us not able not to sin, and those in Christ are back where created Adam was: able not to sin.

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