Don’t draw the wrong conclusion from unanswered prayer

Here is something that puzzles me and I expect puzzles you too.

Ever since we’ve started prayer meetings in Ilford, we’ve prayed for people we know to come to Jesus. I’ve not counted how many such prayers we’ve offered, but there have been many. And yet we’ve seen very few clear answers. The puzzle is this: “are we really more anxious to see people saved than God himself is?”. That’s how it can look and feel. We really want people to become Christians; if it were in our hands, we’d save everyone straight away. So, it looks like we’re more merciful than God.

In his book, “Only A Prayer Meeting”, the preacher Charles Spurgeon puts his finger on that issue and tackles it very, very helpfully. So, this is me basically regurgitating his answer!

Here’s the answer: it’s just an optical illusion. That’s only how it looks at a casual glance. But if we probe further, and examine ourselves a bit more, we’ll see that we’re seriously misrepresenting our own hearts. We’re being pretty puffed up about quite how zealous we really are. Isn’t our compassion pretty hit and miss? Are we as intense in our desire for people’s salvation as we like to tell ourselves? This kind of self-satisfaction is not a good sign at all. It suggests we think our work for God is up to scratch. We’re being pretty conceited. That’s hardly a good pre-condition for God to work. If God were to answer our prayers this Sunday, wouldn’t we be tempted to steal the honour and feel smug about ourselves, secretly thinking: “we’ve done things pretty well as a church; we somehow deserve this”?

God’s plan in salvation is always to make ourselves smaller that he might be bigger. The trouble is: “Some trumpets are so stuffed with self that God cannot blow through them. Some pitchers are too full of their own muddy water for God to pour the water of life into them” (p.29). So, part of our reaction to our unanswered prayers for conversions should be to ask: “what have we got to learn from our non-success?” Paul experienced “the anguish of childbirth” before Christ was formed in the Galatians’ hearts (Gal 4:19). The psalmist first sowed in tears, before he reaped in joy (Psalm 126:5). God wants to form us into men like Moses, who was ready to have his name blotted out of the book that Israel might be saved (Ex 32:32), and like Paul, who was ready to be cut off from Christ for the sake of his brothers (Rom 9:3). Spurgeon says: “We cry, ‘Arm of the Lord, awake!’ and he replies, ‘Awake, awake, O Zion!” (p.30). In other words, let’s not kid ourselves that God’s the one sleeping, when, really, it’s us!

So, don’t draw the wrong conclusion from our unanswered prayers for conversions. When God delays to answer us, let’s not secretly tell ourselves we’re more compassionate than him; rather let’s humble ourselves and pray we’ll start to show just a fraction of the compassion that he has for sinners.

Our weak willpower and the Sabbath

I’ve just read a productivity book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. It’s not a Christian book, but, as Christians, I’m all for “plundering the Egyptians” now and then i.e. using the benefits of unbelievers’ thinking to live for Christ. In the course of his argument, the writer inadvertently makes a strong argument for the benefit of keeping the Sabbath.

The basic idea of the book is something called “Deep Work”. This is the ability to focus without distraction on a mentally challenging task. “Deep work” has obvious parallels to the Bible’s idea of meditation (e.g. Psalm 1:2). The author shows both how valuable a skill “Deep Work” is, and how hard it is to do. If you’re anything like me, I suspect you can relate. You can maybe plan to think about a verse from the Bible, but before you know it, your mind is shooting off in different directions – “did I reply to that important email yesterday? What’s for tea? What’s that noise? Maybe I’ll just check the internet…”.

At one point, the writer asks: If “Deep Work” is so valuable, what’s stopping us doing more of it? Why can’t we just decide to do “Deep work”/meditate at 8am on Tuesday morning, or 8pm on Thursday night? He answers that question by pointing to some studies by a German psychologist, Roy Baumeister, who gave 205 adults beepers that activated at random times. When the beeper activated, the person was asked to pause and reflect on their desires in the last 30 minutes and then answer a set of questions. He collected 7,500 samples in one week. On the back of that and other research, Baumeister “established the following important (and at the time, unexpected) truth about willpower: You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it” (p.99-100).

Here’s the practical lesson Cal Newport draws from this, and that I want to steal and apply to Sabbath-keeping:

“Your will, in other words, is not a manifestation of your character that you can deploy without limit; it’s instead like a muscle that tires. This is why the subjects in the… Baumeister study had such a hard time fighting desires – over time these distractions drained their finite pool of willpower until they could no longer resist. The same will happen to you, regardless of your intentions – unless, that is, you’re smart about your habits.

This brings me to the motivating idea behind the strategies that follow: The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration. If you suddenly decide, for example, in the middle of a distracted afternoon spent Web browsing, to switch your attention to a cognitively demanding task, you’ll draw heavily from your finite willpower to wrest your attention away from online shininess. Such attempts therefore frequently fail. On the other hand, if you deployed smart routines and rituals – perhaps a set time and quiet location used for your deep tasks each afternoon – you’d require much less willpower to start and keep going. In the long run, you’d therefore succeed with these deep efforts far more often”. (p.100)

He’s saying that to help us meditate we need “smart routines and rituals”; we need to be “smart about our habits”. Why? Because the power of a ritual is that it decides in advance and for us how we will act, rather than relying on a much harder, spur of the moment decision. This is, by no means, the whole story on Sabbath-keeping, but isn’t it a helpful incentive to establish Sabbath-keeping as a powerful routine in our lives? God himself has given us a ritual of setting aside the Lord’s Day to be with him and his people; he knows we have weak wills, and by getting this pattern set up, we’ll have more will-power left over to actually meditate and draw near to him. The power of the Sabbath ritual in our lives is in deciding ahead of time and on our behalf how we will act on the first day of the week. Rather than relying on how busy we are on Saturday, or how dozy we’re feeling on Sunday afternoons, or how appealing the TV-schedule is looking on Sunday evening, this (God-given) ritual answers the question of what we will and won’t do with our Sundays for us. We’ll, therefore, have more supplies of will-power left-over to seize the opportunities the day affords. In a shallow, distracted world, where we find it hard to concentrate, Cal Newport is showing us that Sabbath-keeping is a much more beneficial habit than we might think.

Full of the Holy Spirit

We saw on Sunday that Barnabas was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 11:24) and I said that every Christian needs to be “full of the Holy Spirit”. Someone, helpfully, asked me afterwards what that means. In Pentecostal churches, the sign of being filled with the Spirit is speaking in tongues and having a dramatic experience (based on verses like Acts 10:45-46; 19:6). However, the description of Barnabas as “full of the Holy Spirit” isn’t describing a single experience, but an ongoing, characteristic of his life. Stephen is also described as “a man full… of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 6:5. Clearly, this was something that marked Barnabas and Stephen out; both men oozed with a sense of the Holy Spirit. But what does that mean? Isn’t this an idea that Reformed churches are a little uncomfortable with?

Absolutely not! The New Testament is crystal clear that every Christian has the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9b) and has been baptized in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). The Spirit and Christ go together and cannot be divided up. They are indivisible. The danger in Pentecostalism is that it creates two classes of Christians: the haves and the have-nots. It can end up saying: there are ordinary Christians, who’ve been forgiven by Jesus; then there are Spirit-filled Christians, who have moved up to a higher level of Christian experience, when they received the Holy Spirit. Reformed Christians want to abolish any sense of two classes of Christian. We grasp that the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit go hand in hand and cannot be divided up.

But, the fact that Barnabas and Stephen are singled out as “full of the Holy Spirit” shows that this description isn’t true of every Christian. We make a big mistake if we see the Christian life as flat. If you picture the Christian life as a graph, showing a horizontal line from start to finish, or even an ascending straight line at a 45-degree angle, something’s wrong. The Christian life changes and fluctuates. It doesn’t stay the same. Once you’re “in Christ”, there’s a security, but there isn’t a “flat-ness”. There are degrees of closeness to God. There are times when God hides his face (Psalm 13:1; 88:14), or when we experience his fatherly anger (Psalm 6:1). There are times we’re in a spiritual pit (Psalm 130:1) or when unconfessed sin means our bones waste away (Psalm 32:3). But at other times we “feast on the abundance of… [God’s] house” and “drink from the river of… delights” (Psalm 36:8). There are mornings when we wake up and say: “I will sing and make melody!… I will awake the dawn!” (Psalm 57:7-8).

The job of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian is to bring Jesus Christ close. Far from being an irrelevance to your Christian life, the Holy Spirit is its key. There is simply no Christianity without his presence in our lives. This is why the gospel is called “the ministry of the Spirit” in 2 Cor 3:8. This is what John Calvin saw so clearly in his book the Christian Institutes and led to him being called the “theologian of the Holy Spirit”. You can’t be a Christian for a nano-second without the Spirit underpinning everything. So, a “Spirit-filled” Christian is a Christian who is believing Jesus Christ and having his saving grace applied to their lives by God the Holy Spirit.

This means: Don’t be shy of experience, but don’t equate your experiences with the Holy Spirit either. There might be times when you “feel” good, but the Spirit is grieved, and times you “feel” bad, when the Spirit is at work. The Holy Spirit’s work shows up in our experiences, but isn’t reducible to or directly equivalent to experience. We cannot read the Holy Spirit’s work straight off our feelings, but nor should we disconnect them either. In fact, if you study Ephesians 5 where we’re commanded to “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18), what that looks like is spelt out in the rest of chapter 5 and 6. Spirit-filled Christians sing (v.19), give thanks (v.20), and submit to others (v.21). Spirit-filled wives submit. Spirit-filled husbands love sacrificially (v.22-33). Spirit-filled children obey and Spirit-filled fathers are gentle and bring their children up to know Jesus (6:1-4). Spirit-filled slaves work hard for their masters; Spirit-filled masters treat their slaves humanely (6:5-9).

So, Christian, are you full of the Holy Spirit?

If that question exposes our spiritual emptiness and weakness, don’t fear! Instead let it drive us to our generous heavenly Father, who promises to give us more of his Son Jesus (John 1:17; Eph 1:3), by his Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13; Eph 3:19). Oh, that we’d lead Christians lives where people can say of us: “he or she is full of the Holy Spirit”!

Helpful links on children in church

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them” (Matthew 18:14).

Had another exhausting Sunday trying to get your children to sit through church?

Wondering why on earth we don’t get the kids out so that the adults can listen to the sermon in peace?

Getting frustrated at the noise levels on Sundays?

Questioning what the point of children sitting in a service is when most of it seems to go over their head?

These are all common feelings, to which we need to respond in principled rather than pragmatic ways. And to encourage you: inconvenience is a much more valuable aspect of worship than many of us appreciate. What if God uses our experiences of frustration much more than our easy and convenient experiences to make us the Christ-like people he’s calling us to be?

Anyway, to help you think through the subject, here’s a link to a great collection of resources, compiled by the minister of Gareth’s home church in Stranraer, Stephen Steele. Have a browse, if you get the chance. If you want a light-hearted look at the subject, I enjoyed video at the bottom.

https://www.stranraerrpcs.org/news/2018/12/11/children-in-church

Tax Collector Love

“If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Matthew 5:46.

In this verse, Jesus describes “tax-collector” love. What is “tax-collector” love? It’s love that is natural. It’s love that loves its own kind. It’s natural for mothers to love their own babies. It’s natural for the English to love the English (though, it’s also natural for us not to show it!). It’s natural for West Ham fans to love other West Ham fans. It’s natural for Hindus to love Hindus. It’s natural for tax collectors to love tax-collectors. This “tax-collector” love can be sincere and sacrificial. “Tax-collector” love can be willing to put itself out for fellow tax-collectors, when it sees them in need. “Tax-collector” love can be produced by team-building exercises, and by socialising together. It’s built up over time, as you experience the highs and lows of life together. There’s nothing wrong with “tax-collector” love.

But, in this verse, Jesus wants Christians to show a love that is higher than “tax-collector” love. In the context, Jesus call us to love our enemies (v.44). But this raises the question: is the love we have for one another as Christians just another version of “tax collector” love? Is it any different to the way members of the local chess club could start to care for each other, if they tried? I think it’s important to recognise the real danger that believers’ love for one another can, at times, be nothing more than “tax collector” love. It can be based merely on going to shared meetings, singing the same songs, and socialising lots.  So, how do we stop our love being merely “tax-collector” love? The puritan, John Owen, answered that question like this in a catechism that he wrote: we need to be committed to the true worship of God. He points out that the real origin of Christian love isn’t natural but supernatural (or “evangelical”, as he calls it). It comes from our adoption by the same Father, our union with Jesus our elder Brother, and our indwelling by the same Holy Spirit. John Owen says:

“that love which is not built on these principles and foundations [of worshipping the Triune God] is not evangelical, whatever other ground it may have, or occasion it may pretend unto” (p.462, vol 15, Works).

Isn’t that a challenge? What ground is our love for each other built on? Let’s aim to show Ilford a love that is worlds apart from “tax collector” love. How? Well, it won’t be by drumming it up from inside ourselves. It won’t come from simply concentrating on each other, and learning about each other. It won’t come from team building exercises. No, the source of “evangelical” love is God himself. So, let’s give our all to worshipping him. Turn up on Sunday ready to engage with him. Sing your heart out to him. Adore Christ’s grace to you. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. The way to love our brothers and sisters with something higher than “tax collector” love is to give ourselves to God.

Answered Prayers Guaranteed

Yesterday at prayer meeting, James recommended the book: Matthew Henry’s A Way to Pray (also called A Method for Prayer) It’s a great book, so I asked Andrew to write a review of it. Here it is:

It’s your quiet time. You sit down. You shut your eyes. And… you begin to pray. Now what?

Prayer can be a daunting task. There are infinite things to pray for and there are countless different words to use. So how do we do it? How does God want us to pray?

At prayer meeting last night Simon showed how Exodus 34:6-7 is repeated throughout Scripture in people’s prayers. God’s people used Scripture as their prayer (almost word for word!). And here is the key for us – our prayers should be soaked in Scripture. We should use the words of Scripture as our prayers. Scripture itself tells us what we should pray for and the words we should use. 

God wants the words he has spoken to us to be spoken back to Him. 

And this is a wonderful thing to do because as we use Scripture more in our prayers, the more we will pray in line with God’s will. Our will will match God’s will. Is not what is revealed in Scripture God’s will? Absolutely! So surely if we make that will our will, those words our words, God’s words our prayers… well, then, he will answer them. God does what he wills. Of course, this will always be in God’s timing and providence but, nevertheless, that is the way we should pray.

Now the Bible is a big book. It is a mammoth task to memorise all Scripture and be able to turn them into prayers. If only someone had done that for us… well they have! Matthew Henry, a godly minister 300 years ago, did just this. A Method for Prayer is a book in which Henry has compiled lots of prayers about different topics (praise, confession, thanksgiving etc) and all of them are based on verses of Scripture. They are deeply rich, soaked in Scripture and well crafted. Personally, I have found it has changed my prayer life. Not only has it given me direction in what to pray for but also the very words on my lips have been gradually aligning to the words of the Bible.

I recommend this book to pray through just once a day. Read one prayer to yourself. Reflect on it and then pray those words to God. Over time, the language you use will be transformed and your prayers and desires will be become more in line with God’s will.

So, don’t let prayer be daunting. God has told us what to say.

A hardback edition can be found here

Or an online version here: http://www.matthewhenry.org/

Our Great Intersectional High Priest and his #MeToo Moment

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).  

I’m convinced that the ability of our great high priest to sympathise has something very important to say to our world today. I don’t know if you’ve noticed how divided we’re getting into separate identities. A common buzzword you hear today is “intersectionality”; this is the idea that some people can experience overlapping forms of discrimination e.g. a black woman can experience both racism and sexism at the same time, and so is worse off than both black men and white women. A flip side to this is the idea of “white male privilege”, which means that I, as a white, male, am at the top of the pile of privilege. Now, I think both concepts have some validity; I am very privileged (though I think there are many white males living in England that haven’t had anywhere near as much opportunity as me). Likewise, some people do experience discrimination at multiple levels too. But these ideas can be milked in all kinds of unhelpful ways. There’s this growing sense that we can’t really understand each other, e.g. “You can’t know what it’s like to be me, because you’re a white male”. I’ve had people tell me: “You’re not qualified to give a talk on homosexuality, unless you’ve experienced it yourself…”. It can feed into a culture of victimhood, where your experience of “hurt” and “pain” somehow gives you a special, protected status, into which others on the outside cannot speak.

Here’s the problem with that:  it disqualifies Jesus from being our great high priest. You see, is Jesus not qualified to sympathize with women then? Do you need a female Saviour? After all, Jesus didn’t take a female human nature, did he? He’s the man Christ Jesus. Is Jesus not qualified to sympathize with those who’ve experienced racism? After all, he was a Jew living in Palestine – he wasn’t exactly part of an ethnic minority! This can extend in all kinds of directions: Jesus didn’t experience a miscarriage, did he, so how can he sympathise with couples who have? Jesus didn’t suffer sexual abuse, so how can he sympathise with those struggling to come to terms with their abuse?

Christ’s incarnation forces us to re-think human nature. Human nature is nowhere near as divided as our world likes to tell us. You can’t split up human nature into all these different identities that can’t understand each other. Gender is much less significant than we are led to believe. Ethnicity is much less significant than we are led to believe. Our Lord is truly qualified to sympathize with us in all our “weaknesses”, and has been tempted “in every respect… as we are, yet without sin”.

Isn’t the point here that Jesus says: “#MeToo”? Whatever form your “weakness” takes, whatever guise your “temptation” comes in, Jesus can say: “#MeToo”. Hebrews 4:15 is his MeToo moment. The particularities of your temptation may look different to Jesus; for example, Jesus did not experience homosexual urges, but he did experience strong temptation to let his powerful bodily desires get the better of him (Matt 4:3). He didn’t experience the pain of going through a divorce, but he did experience the pain of betrayal and having relationships ripped apart. So, this feeling that “I’m all alone!” – that “no one gets me” – “no one understands me!” – is devilish! Certainly, as Christians, we need to develop sensitivity to one another’s experiences; sure, we need to grow in sympathy and hear what’s unique about each other’s situations, but we mustn’t start playing the games of this world. Let’s not start telling ourselves that our brothers and sisters cannot understand us – that we can’t know what one another are going through. It’s not true that I have to have been through it, to be able to sympathize and genuinely relate! Otherwise, we’ve disqualified Christ as our great high priest. Instead, as we see the splits and divisions created by sin all around us, let’s share the good news of Jesus Christ, our great, intersectional high priest and his #MeToo moment, who, in his one person, can answer and heal them all.

Two books that are more important than the Bible

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done… And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:12, 15).

Growing up, I used to sing a Sunday School song called: “The best book to read is the Bible”. I’m still absolutely convinced that’s right. But Revelation 20 tells us about two other books that are written by God. They are not books we’re able to read yet. We’ll only get to read them on Judgment Day, but God wants us to be aware of them. And, in some ways, these two books are more important than the Bible. What are they?

i) The book of records. It’s not actually called that in v.12, and it’s actually a multi-volume book, but this book contains records of all that we’ve ever done in our lives. That’s hard to get our minds around and it’s sobering. I’ve done enough stuff in the 37 years I’ve been alive to fill 32 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Everything we do of moral significance is recorded and will be considered on Judgment Day. And, if we take a moment to think, it includes a lot of uncomfortable, sinful material that we would dread to see the light of day. Right now, this book is being written and updated. In the last 24 hours, more text has been added under an entry with your name on it.

ii) The book of life. This book is much slimmer than the book of records and is much simpler. It simply contains a list of names. It’s either a Yes or No. Your name is either there or it’s not. Finding your name entered in this book means you’re saved and you’re safe for eternity. If your name’s not in there, Revelation says you’ll be “thrown into the lake of fire”. But while that book is not read out until Judgment Day, Jesus has been sent so that we can know our names are written there. Jesus told his disciples to “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). If the book of records is all about what I do, the book of life is its opposite. I have no control over its contents; in Christ, I simply find my name is there.

Sometimes as Christians, we can think that salvation by grace means how I live doesn’t matter. That’s like thinking that the book of life simply cancels out the book of records; the gospel invalidates or permanently deletes the book of records. But that’s not what’s happening in Revelation 20, is it? On Judgment Day, Revelation 20 says both books will be opened. We’re quite clearly going to be “judged by what was written in the books”. So, on what basis will I be judged? By my works or by God’s grace? This scene in Revelation shows that my complicated, detailed life will be “read” in the light of the book of life. God’s gracious book of life will be used to interpret the book of records. In other words, in the gospel, these two sources of judgment are not in conflict, but harmonise. The entry of my name in the book of life secures my salvation – it is all down to Jesus, first and last – but not in a way that invalidates the moral significance of my life.

So, remembering these two other books is critical for good Bible reading. As you read your Bible, remember the book of life. Only in Jesus Christ will you know your name is entered there. And as you read your Bible, remember the book of records, and know that, in Christ, your good works really matter. At the end of the day, Bible reading that forgets these two others books will be worthless.

A “full diet” of prayer

At men’s breakfast recently, we were thinking about men leading in prayer. One of the ideas I talked about was the importance of praying a “full diet” of prayer, when we’re leading in prayer. But this idea is also very relevant for our own private prayer lives.  When we’re finding prayer hard, one thing Christians sometimes do is to try and inject some creativity into their prayer time. “Light a candle. Draw some pictures. Get expressive. Turn it into a craft session, with colouring pens, and scissors”. I don’t recommend that. Those things are like looking for the equivalent of sugar rush. What we actually need is to be committed to a “full diet” of prayers.

The Bible is crammed with examples of prayer for us to learn from:

There are prayers of adoration. Psalms 146-150 each begin and end with “Praise the Lord!”. The heavenly worship in Revelation includes pure adoration: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come” (Rev 4:8). This type of prayer is like your spiritual meat. It’s spending time focussing on the character of our great Triune God and is like protein for your soul.

There are prayers of confession. Daniel humbled himself in Daniel 9, after reading God’s promises to Jeremiah, and prayed a big prayer of confession. Ezra does something similar in Ezra 9. The people of God spend a quarter of the day confessing their sins in Nehemiah 9. Maybe this kind of prayer is like eating your greens; it’s less popular or easy, but really important for our ongoing spiritual health. God wants us to keep short accounts with him, and the Spirit humbles us all the days of our life (Rom 7:24).

There are prayers of thanksgiving. David prayed a prayer of thanksgiving “on the day the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul” (2 Samuel 22). In this type of prayer, we take time to thank God for the good things he’s given us. Regularly taking time to name the good things we’ve received from him is an important part of our diet. I particularly know I’m capable of being ungrateful, and need to be more deliberate here.

There are prayers of supplication.This is the bread and potatoes of Christian prayer. It means simply asking God for things. We should pray prayers of supplication for ourselves, and for others. We should pray for our families, for our church, for our neighbours, for our denomination, for our country, for the church through the world, and for the world. Even here, maybe we need to learn to switch from white bread to brown-bread, or from mashed potato to eating the potato with the skins on! We should aim to line up the things we ask for with the things the Bible asks for (e.g. Luke 11:2-4; Eph 1:16-21).

The Bible really is packed with spiritually nutritious prayers. If you told a nutritionist that you only ever eat starch in your diet, they’d tell you to change what you eat. Why? because a well-balanced diet is important for your health. Well, the same is true for us spiritually. Why not take some time to think: which of these types of prayer are lacking from my regular spiritual diet? Which ones do I need to introduce into my regular praying? Rather than seeking a spiritual sugar rush, aim to pray a “full diet” of prayers.

Does God speak audibly today?

The Preaching of Knox before the Lords of the Congregation, 10th June 1559 1832 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Purchased 1871 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00894

I just watched this short video by J. D. Greear, the head of the Southern Baptists on whether God speaks audibly today. His basic answer was a reluctant “no!”. God still speaks to us in the Bible, Greear says, but we should be very wary of thinking he speaks audibly anymore.

It’s funny, because he’d describe himself as a “charismatic with a seatbelt” and I’d describe myself as a “cessationist”, yet, I would answer that same question with an emphatic “yes!”. “Yes! God does speak audibly to us today!”.

When? Where? How? Every time you hear a faithful, called and sent Christian preacher, who preaches the Scriptures to you! I really think the Bible teaches us to view the faithful preaching of Christian ministers as the word of God! That voice you hear in sermons on Sundays isn’t just my voice. It’s the voice of Christ to you. If you want some Bible verses to base that off I’d say: Matthew 23:8 & 10; John 10:3-5; Eph 2:17. If you can’t see their relevance, do ask me to unpack them more for you some time. This doesn’t mean preachers can’t get it wrong and are six feet above contradiction. But it means you should develop a reverent attitude to the Word preached as the way Christ has designed to speak to you today. Sundays aren’t just Simon teaching us some stuff from the Bible. They are Christ speaking audibly to us.

In case you think I’ve gone all heretical, let me quote John Calvin as back up:

“It is a singular privilege that he [God] deigns to consecrate to himself the mouths and tongues of men in order that his voice may resound in them”. (Christian Institutes, Book IV, chapter 1, part 5).

Now, I think the different answers that J. D. Greear and I give to the question: “Does God speak audibly today?” are actually quite significant. It shows how the historic Reformed “cessationist” position, when properly understood, actually makes us much more conscious of God’s speech to us today than a “charismatic” position. Ironically, it’s a charismatic emphasis on extra and new revelation from God that actually makes churches less conscious of God speaking to us today in the regular preaching of the Word. 

But I’m not trying to score cheap points. Rather, isn’t this good news?! God is speaking to us audibly today when the church gathers around the reading and preaching of his Word. The preacher’s voice may not sound very exciting, but remember that resounding in that human voice is another voice, the voice which spoke the heavens and earth into being! Now, you’d have to be pretty stupid to actually close your ears to God when he was talking directly to you, wouldn’t you? Yet, is that what we’re doing, when we ignore the preaching of his Word? Why not stop and ask yourself these questions:

  • how might this change my desire to be present at preaching?
  • how might this affect my desire to keep listening during preaching?
  • how might this affect my reaction to things I don’t agree with in preaching?

Does God speak audibly today? The Reformed churches want to say “Yes, yes, yes!”