FTC Preaching Guide: 2 Corinthians

1. Introduction
2. Preaching Outlines
3. Key Themes and Motifs
4. Problem Passages
5. Commentaries and Resources
6. Preaching Christ from the Book
7. Why You Should Preach This Book

1. Introduction

This letter of Paul’s is unique. It is not marked by the same symmetrical shape and structure as many of his other letters. One cannot divide 2 Corinthians up into a neat “Introduction, Doctrine, Application, Conclusion” outline like Romans or Ephesians or Colossians. This is because 2 Corinthians is written as a part of an ongoing dialogue between Paul and the Christians in Corinth. If you can imagine listening to one side of a phone conversation, you can start to get an idea of how this book is laid out. Paul, on one end of the phone call, talks about his plans to come to Corinth, then he talks about church discipline, then he talks about how to read your Bible, and eventually the conversation goes to financial stewardship and the reminder for Christians to marry other Christians. There is another speaker—the Corinthian church—who shapes the conversation just like Paul, but we cannot hear that speaker. We are in the room with Paul, hearing only his answers to their questions, and his comments on their assertions. If 2 Corinthians were the transcript of a speech it would be maddeningly confusing. This is not how speeches are written. But it is how conversations occur. In a way, then, the fluctuation of themes in 2 Corinthians makes the letter all the more relatable. Paul addresses travel plans and church discipline and suffering and money because local churches are, at any given moment, dealing with all of these things simultaneously (as the agenda of topics in just about every elders meeting of every church confirms!). This is a real-life church letter, written to a real-life church, which means that we—as members of real-life churches, dealing with real-life church situations—have much to glean from it.

Since Paul’s opponents are nowhere named explicitly, and since the nature of their criticism is nowhere disclosed in full, we must read between the lines. Paul’s heartache over the Corinthians is near audible in this letter (cf. 6:13, 7:2, 10:1-2). The central tragedy that animates Paul’s emotive language is the Corinthian’s lack of loyalty. A class of teachers critical of Paul had infiltrated the Corinthian church with no apparent objection from the believers there (e.g., “you put up with it readily enough.” 11:4). Their central message is not certain, but the mood and general thrust of their ministry is apparent from Paul’s response. They carried themselves with a swagger and built their platform largely by putting Paul down, stepping on him to elevate themselves. Boasting of super-apostolic status (11:5), they placed a high premium on letters of recommendation (3:1), physical professionality (10:10), and rhetorical showmanship (11:6). Calling attention to Paul’s apparent lack of these qualities served to both belittle him and elevate themselves. As the Corinthians grew increasingly sour toward Paul, his disappointment understandably occasions words of exhortation and rebuke (10-13).

It would be a mistake to assume, however, that Paul’s defense of his ministry is a reactionary expression of hurt feelings. Second Corinthians contains a calculated defense aimed at the Corinthian’s good. Their abandonment of Paul reflected a deeper problem. Paul was far more concerned with repudiating the Corinthians’ idolatry than with preserving his own reputation.

Second Corinthians is actually the fourth letter Paul writes to the Corinthians, and in-between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians is a personal visit, and a “tearful” letter. In 2:1-4, Paul refers to his last visit as “painful.” This painful visit is the occasion for writing his tearful letter. In 2:5, we can start to get an idea of why it was painful. It was painful because someone had caused him pain. Given the context of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians as a whole and what he has to say in this letter, it is probable that someone publicly challenged his authority and questioned his integrity and the rest of the congregation said nothing in his defense. This is a painful thing for Paul, who has invested so much personal, pastoral attention to these people. It is what occasions him saying things like, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affection. In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also” (2 Cor 6:12). All this to say, 2 Corinthians is an emotionally heavy letter.

2. Preaching Outlines

Bethlehem Baptist Church

The God of All Comfort | 1:1-7
The God Who Raises the Dead | 1:8-11
Blood-Bought Boasting | 1:12-14
Yes in Christ | 1:15-20
Standing Strong Together in Christ | 1:21-22
The Aim of All Ministry | 1:23-24
Christian Hedonism Is a Community Project 2:1-5
Outsmarting Satan | 2:5-11
Thanksgiving for Spreading Through Suffering | 2:12-14
The Aroma of Christ | 2:15-17
Christ’s Living Letters | 3:1-3
The Sufficiency of the Spirit | 3:4-6
The Greater Glory of the Gospel | 3:7-11
Set Free to See | 3:12-18
The Gospel of Christ’s Glory | 4:1-6
God’s Power in Cracked Pots | 4:7-12
Faith Finds a Voice | 4:13-15
The Hope of Glory | 4:16-18
The Home of Glory | 5:1-5
Pleasing the Lord | 5:6-10
Controlled by Christ | 5:11-15
The Ministry of Reconciliation | 5:16-6:2
Wide Open | 6:3-13
Family Ties | 6:14-7:1
The Hospitality of the Heart | 7:2-4
The God Who Comforts the Downcast | 7:4-7
The Painful Joy of Repentance | 7:8-13
Horizontal Christian Hedonism | 7:13-16
Funding the Filling: Amazing Grace | 8:1-7
Funding the Filling: The Grace of Christ | 8:8-9
Funding the Filling: Finish What You Started | 8:10-15
Funding the Filling: Thanks Be to God | 8:16-24
Gospel-Drenched Giving | 9:1-5
God Loves a Cheerful Giver 9:6-7
Grace Abounding | 9:8-11
Grace Be to God | 9:12-15
Bold Warfare: Tearing Down | 10:1-6
Bold Warfare: Building Up | 10:7-11
Bold Warfare: Boasting in the Lord | 10:12-18
Fooled by Satan | 11:1-11
Fooled by Satan’s Servants | 11:5-15
Fooled by False Leadership | 11:16-21
The Fool’s Boast | 11:21-33
Boasting Like a Weakling | 12:1-10
The Cure for Foolish Thinking | 12:11-21
The Final Visit | 13:1-4
The Final Exam | 13:5-14

Emmaus Church

Introduction | 1:1-2
The God of All Comfort 1:3-11
The Faithfulness of God | 1:12-2:4
The Dangerous Gift of Church Discipline | 2:5-11
The Aroma of Christ | 2:12-17
A Tale of Two Covenants | 3:1-11
The Glory of Christ | 3:12-4:6
Treasures in Jars of Clay | 4:7-18
The Hope of Heaven | 5:1-11
The Ministry of Reconciliation | 5:12-21
Sorrowful Yet Always Rejoicing | 6:1-13
God’s Temple | 6:14-7:1
God’s Kindness to His Saints Through His Saints | 7:2-16
Gospel-Motivating Giving | 8:1-24
A Cheerful Giver | 9:1-15
Paul’s Defense | 10:1-18
Godly Self-Denial | 11:1-15
Godly Sarcasm | 11:16-33
Power Through Weakness | 12:1-10
Paul’s Pleading | 12:11-21
Final Exhortations | 13:1-14

3. Key Themes and Motifs

God’s Dealing Within the ChurchIf we learn nothing else from this book, we learn that God ministers to his people through his people. We learn from this letter that God comforts his people through the comforting of others (2 Cor 1:3-11), that he saves and redeems people through the gospel witness of his saints (2 Cor 2:12-17; 5:11-21), that he ministers to his people through the faithful witness of his suffering children (2 Cor 4:7-18), that he encourages his people through the encouraging reports of others (2 Cor 7:2-16), and that he blesses his people financially through the gifts of others (2 Cor 8:1-9:15). This means that the little phrase in 2 Cor 5, “we are ambassadors of Christ,” is paradigmatic; this is who we are to one another. We are instruments in God’s hands to build up and shape one another. God speaks correction and encouragement to us through the voice of our brothers and sisters. God provides for us through the financial generosity of our brothers and sisters. God embraces us with the arms of our brothers and sisters. To journey through this book is to reorient the way members of a church view one another in a God-glorifying way. At the bottom of all our ministry to one another is God, building up his Church.

God’s Purpose for Suffering – This letter of Paul’s develops, perhaps more thoroughly than anywhere else in the whole of Scripture, a theology of suffering. Second Corinthians 4:7-5:10 has made it into more counseling conversations than I can count, and for good reason, because in these verses we are given promises for the suffering saint from God himself. The two greatest mistakes we can make when thinking about suffering are, on the one hand, to minimize or trivialize, and, on the other hand, to catastrophize and despair. Paul will not let us to either with 2 Corinthians. He lets our suffering weigh as heavy as it is, and he refuses to ever let us label it as “pointless.” No, not for the Christian. There is no such thing as wasted suffering for the believer. Suffering is real, and it is sanctifying. Few churches have ever had a shortage of suffering people because the world has never had a shortage of suffering, so taking time as a congregation to consider God’s purposes for suffering is a must. It will help to shape a local church into the kind of people who are “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10)—the kind of people who have biblical reflexes when it comes to suffering. It will shape them into the kind of people who bear the burdens of their suffering members in an informed way—in a way that appreciates the gravity of pain, and the eternal weight of glory that makes it light by comparison (2 Cor 4:17-18).

The Paradox of Power Through Weakness – Paul’s whole paradigm for “successful” Christian ministry can be summed up in the counter-intuitive, apparently contradictory phrase: power through weakness. That is, God’s power through my weakness. This is something that the Corinthians needed reminding of over and over again because, much like our own culture, Corinth valued self-aggrandizement, self-promotion, and boasting. The cultural air they breathed incentivized pride. Paul, on the other hand, fiercely plows in the other direction. In 2 Corinthians, the apostle, like nowhere else in the Bible, advocates for “downward mobility.” Paul will still boast, but he boasts in his weakness for the central reason that it showcases the power of God (2 Cor 12:9). It is not fine china that God stores his treasures in, but jars of clay (2 Cor 4:7). This is true reality for the Christian: power comes through weakness. We are never stronger than when we have despaired of our own strength and have thrown ourselves entirely upon the empowering grace of God. This is crucial for us in our own day. Much like Corinth, our own culture prizes self-promotion and braggadocios boasting. Book publishers practically fall over themselves trying to get more and more to the point with their titles. “You Are a Rockstar,” “Pick Yourself First Because You’re the Best and You Deserve It,” “Girlfriend, Wash Your Head” (note: these are fictional titles inspired by true ones. Let the reader understand). Advance. Boast. Quiet humility is for the birds. Paul, in 2 Corinthians, shows us a better way. In a world that says that up is down and down is up, good is evil and evil is good, strength is autonomy and God-dependence is weakness, we need for our conception of reality to be recalibrated.

Godly Evangelism – There are two places in particular in which Paul gives a powerful attestation of what godly evangelism looks like, and it is not what we might expect: 2 Corinthians 2:12-17, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, the former paints the picture of evangelism in a much more humiliating light than we might imagine, and the latter does the opposite. In 2 Corinthians 2:12-17, Paul thanks God who “always leads us in triumphal procession.” And while it might seem flattering to liken evangelism to a triumphal procession at first blush, that impression quickly dissipates when you realize that Paul likens the evangelizers not to the victorious army returning to a city, but to prisoners of war! “We,” says Paul, “are the captives. Christ conquered us, and is now leading us around where he pleases. Our defeat is his glory.” Which means all that smell drifting from our bodies (i.e., our gospel witness, spoken with our words and corroborated with our lives) that some receive as the aroma of life is the smell of death and defeat. The death and defeat of us who were living in the flesh, which is why those who are still in the flesh consider our “scent” repulsive. On the other hand, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 is almost terrifying in how high and noble it depicts evangelism. When we speak the gospel message, according to Paul, God is speaking through us. The common thread that brings both passages together, though, is simply that in evangelism, we are making a name not for ourselves (the way of the Corinthian culture), but rather for Christ and Christ alone.

Godly Sarcasm – 2 Corinthians 10:1-12:13 is an uncomfortable section of Scripture. It is uncomfortable for us to listen to and just as uncomfortable for Paul to engage in (if not, more so). This section of 2 Corinthians has some of the most biting sarcasm we will find in all of Scripture. Paul is reluctant to use this tone with the Corinthians, but evidently, their affections for him had grown so cold, and the influence of their false apostles had grown so great, that Paul was forced to use extreme measures. This section of Scripture is a bucket of icy cold water intended to jolt them out of their sleepy indifference. And we have to acknowledge that this is holy satire. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul uses the rhetorical device of sarcasm. If we are honest, this is a problem for some of us. It rubs us the wrong way. We get uncomfortable when we come across it in Scripture. But frankly, we are just going to have to get over it. Now, this does not mean we are invited therefore to sink into cynicism and speak sarcastically all the time. If our age has any temptation regarding sarcasm, it is overuse. But this section of Scripture does mean that we do not have the luxury of ruling satire out as an illegitimate form of rebuking communication. It is used intentionally and carefully for this purpose: to expose the folly of idolatry. In fact, whenever satire is used in Scripture, it is used in this way—the Prophets, Paul, and even Christ himself use sarcasm to illustrate and expose idolatry for the fool’s gold that it is. We may not belittle people, but we must belittle idolatry. Sometimes we expose idolatry in a tone of deadly seriousness—with gravity, we show it to be a viper hiding in the bushes. But sometimes we expose idolatry by laughing at it—we show that for all its verbosity and impressiveness, in comparison to the glory and majesty of God, it is a silly, pitiful little thing.

That is what Paul is doing in this section of 2 Corinthians. He is reluctant to do so. It doesn’t give him any pleasure. But the Corinthians are stuck in a delusion, thinking themselves wise when they are actually being foolish. And so Paul embodies their folly for them, so they would see how ridiculous it looks. He becomes their mirror, showing them how unbecoming such boasting is. He puts on his super-apostle hat, acts a fool, and says, “Hey look at me! I’m so special!” But he does even more than this, because he’s actually going to subvert their standards and flip their criteria for boasting on its head. Remember, their folly was thinking that fleshly, boastful, prideful, self-aggrandizing displays of human strength was glorious. They placed undeserved merit in human strength and power and success and financial security and self-reliance and self-sufficiency and self-promotion. That is what they boasted in, foolishly, because as Paul as labored to demonstrate, the glory that comes from that kind of life is a pathetic rival to the glory of God. So he begins this passage by being like them, showing them how ridiculous they look and thereby jolting them out of their folly, and then he turns the table and shows them where glory really comes from: being weak for Christ.

4. Problem Passages

The Identity of the “Super-Apostles” – As mentioned in the introduction, it is not historically or literarily obvious who Paul’s chief opponents are in this letter. They are given the designation of “super-apostles,” but their exact identity and central teaching is unclear. A lot of theories are out there, and it is clear from 2 Corinthians 3 that whatever materially made up their teaching, they were big fans of Moses. However, whoever they were, we can be certain that their strategy was to curry the favor of the Corinthians by appealing to Corinthian values (boasting, power, wealth, prestige) and by putting down Paul. They sought to elevate themselves by stepping on Paul’s head. This makes Paul’s strategy to compete with them all the more striking: rather than trying to beat them at their own game, he sees their accusations of his weakness and raises them his humiliation (cf., 2 Corinthians 11:16-33).

One letter, or two? ­– Some have made a big deal about the tonal shift between chapters 9 and 10, insisting that 2 Corinthians is actually two letters (1:1-9:15, and 10:1-13:14). This is because of the closure of thought at the end of chapter nine (i.e., Paul was building up to his point of “fundraising,” which concludes with chapter nine), and the beginning of a brand-new thought in chapter ten. But there is really no solid reason for dividing the letter in two. For as significant a shift there is between chapters 9 and 10, there is just as much coherence that ties the whole letter together (if not, more so). There’s also no manuscript evidence for dividing the two. There may be something to the theory that 2 Corinthians was written in two “sittings”—the idea that Paul wrote chapters 1-9, and then after hearing additional news of Corinth, amended his letter with chapters 10-13. But the point is that we have every reason to believe that the Corinthians received this letter like we do: as a whole.

5. Helpful Commentaries and Resources

Gerald L. Bray, Editor, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. VII: 1-2 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006).

John Calvin, The Second Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Translated by T.A. Small (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).

Timothy B. Savage, Power Through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Murray Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).

Linda L. Belleville, 2 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996).

6. How to Preach Christ from 2 Corinthians

The presence and importance of Christ in 2 Corinthians is too ubiquitous to describe exhaustively. To put the matter simply, if you are not preaching Christ from every passage of this letter, not only are you not preaching Scripture like a Christian, you’re not even getting a surface level understanding of this book. But there is one section of 2 Corinthians that pulsates uniquely with Christological glory, and that is 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6. In this passage, we learn that the image of the glory of the Lord, which Christians “behold,” and to which Christians are transformed “from one degree of glory to another” is “the face of Jesus Christ.” And Paul says that this glory emanates from Scripture—even the writings of Moses. Those who look at Scripture and fail to see the glory of Christ there are not prevented by some intrinsic limitation of Scripture. It’s not as if they are not seeing Christ because Christ isn’t there. No, Paul insists that their inability to see Christ’s glory in Scripture is owing to a Satanic veil that is removed only by the Spirit of God. Since it is the glory of God we see in the face of Jesus Christ, it is effective to save and to create new life.

Second Corinthians 4:6 makes us think of God’s creative speech that brought everything that exists apart from him out of nothing in Genesis 1. However, the language Paul uses also sounds similar to the language found in Isaiah, when the prophet speaks of God’s glorious and luminous presence in the culmination of history, when he will make all things new and re-create the heavens and the earth in glorified fashion. This has prompted the question for some scholars: which is Paul getting at? God’s glory in creation or God’s glory in the future re-creation? And the answer is both, because it is the same glorious God displaying his same glorious creativity at the beginning of history and at the end of history. The same ex nihilo creative power that was at work at the creation of the cosmos, and will be at work at the glorification of the cosmos, is at work in the creation of every Christian. God spoke light into the dark void of nothing and out came a planet teeming with life. God will speak light into the dark void of fallen creation at the end of human history and out will come a new heavens and a new earth teaming with new life. God speaks light (“light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”) into the dark void of the sinful heart and out comes a new heart teeming with new life. The same ex nihilo creative power that was at work when God spoke the universe into existence is present in the conversion of every single Christian. The display of glory in Christ’s face is effective to save because it is none other than the glory of God, who creates life out of nothing. That’s what he’s in the business of doing.

This all has implications for how pastors ought to preach always. The lessons of 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 should cast their glow on the whole of a preacher’s ministry. Since all real and true transformation (be it new birth and saving faith, or progressive sanctification and maturity in the Christian life) happens from beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, the most effective Christian preaching is preaching that calls attention to the glory of Christ. This is what Paul stresses over and over. 2:17, 4:2, and 4:5, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Paul’s opponents came to Corinth with all sorts of flash and gimmicks and impressive resumes. But Paul knows that none of those things can possibly occasion the kind of transformation he’s after in the Corinthians—nothing in the universe can do for the Corinthians what the undiluted glory of Christ can. So he simply preaches Christ. Full proof and unfiltered. And so should we.

7. Why You Should Consider Preaching 2 Corinthians

In light of everything else written in this guide, and to avoid needless repetition, let me summarize my points in numeric form:

  • 2 Corinthians is inspired by God, and preaching “the whole counsel of God” looks like preaching this book.
  • 2 Corinthians, more than just about any other book, develops a robust theology of suffering. Your people need this.
  • 2 Corinthians paints a sober, glorious picture of Christian ministry, which does not look like triumphant boasting or health and wealth. It looks like imitating Christ in his path of descent.
  • 2 Corinthians affords the pastor to hit a plethora of issues and topics without leaving the book.

Why I’m Mostly Quoting Dead Guys These Days

It seems every couple of months now the evangelical world is wrestling with the moral implosion or other kind of disqualification of yet another church leader. And while our first priority ought to be justice and healing for any victims of these leaders, one subject that inevitably comes up is what to do with all of these leaders’ works. Should we read their books any more? What do we do with all the ways they’ve informed or ministered to us through their preaching and writing?

The endorsements printed on the back cover of Paul Tripp’s 2012 book Dangerous Calling now serves as an ironic reminder of how many of our vaunted figures stand on feet of clay. Some of these “falls” we probably should have seen coming. Others startle us. I don’t know about you, but I am weary of having this rug pulled out from under me. There are more than a few quotes from fallen leaders I wish I could go back and take out of my books and past sermons.

Now, the solution, I don’t think, is that we no longer pay attention to living ministers! Loving the brethren necessarily means hoping and believing all things. I don’t think gracious discernment entails embracing a spirit of cynicism and suspicion about everybody. And as one who continues to be blessed by numerous colleagues in local and public ministry, I plan to continue enjoying that blessing. And as one who hopes to continue preaching and writing, I sure hope the solution is never paying attention to the living!

But there are still some reasons why it may be wise to prioritize the wisdom of those saints who have gone before us, who have already passed into glory. I’ve begun intentionally prioritizing the voices of departed brothers and sisters in my own work. I have a book coming out later this fall in which the vast majority of quotes from Christian works comes from departed saints. In my ministry book coming out next week, I intentionally planned for literary longevity and enduring usefulness by only quoting two or three living Christian leaders. The rest of the quotes represent my leaning on the pastoral wisdom of tried and true voices past. Here are a few reasons I’m leaning that way these days:

1. We can see how those who’ve died finished their race.

Some Christian leaders tend to serve faithfully for a long time and then seem to get into some kind of trouble in their final season. Whether it’s the exposure of a long-hidden pattern of sin or the devolution of their message to something less dignified than gospel exposition, we have seen how strangely easy it is for too many leaders to falter in the waning days of their work. We can see how our dead heroes finished their race and don’t run any risk of embarrassment in endorsing their work in our own.

2. We can see the failings of departed heroes better through the clarity of time.

I don’t think any person we quote, other than Jesus, is ever a perfect person. Indeed, I’m not saying at all that we should never quote the work of even departed saints who struggled with sin or exhibited any troubling aspects in their thinking or ministry. It would be difficult to find any voice from church history who didn’t have something in their life worthy of a caveat. The point is, we can see these things more clearly. We can even cite that troubling context in our references to them. The rearview vision is 20/20, and so we can bring to our consideration of these figures a clearer appraisal of their wisdom, how well they followed it themselves, and the like. In that sense, they are more reliable. We see them more clearly, warts and all.

3. The enduring work of departed saints endures for a reason.

The tyranny of the new imparts value to many voices and statements that have not yet stood the true test of time and impact on the church. Treasured legacies are not really made in a few years or even in one’s own lifetime, but rather in the enduring impact of a life — even a short life — on the church or the ongoing fruit of one’s work through subsequent decades. There are reasons we are still reading the figures from 2,000 years of church history today. Their words have proven helpful, formative, or otherwise impressive through the ages. That’s the kind of wisdom I want to lean into more and more.

Of course, to repeat, I plan to continue enjoying the wisdom of faithful voices speaking to the church today. But for those three reasons I’m more and more intentionally looking back in my work rather than around.

Small Beginnings: C. H. Spurgeon at Waterbeach

Before he was the pastor of the largest of church in London, president of the Pastors’ College, founder of an orphanage and dozens of other charitable institutions, and read by people from all over the world, C. H. Spurgeon pastored a small Baptist church in the village of Waterbeach, about five miles outside of Cambridge. At that time, few could have predicted what was to come. And yet, God used his faithful ministry to bring about a transformation to that village during his short time there. 

When Spurgeon arrived, Waterbeach was notorious for its connection with an illicit still, which resulted in rampant drunkenness. 

Did you ever walk through a village notorious for its drunkenness and profanity? Did you ever see poor wretched beings, that once were men, standing, or rather leaning, against the posts of the ale-house, or staggering along the street? Have you ever looked into the houses of the people, and beheld them as dens of iniquity at which your soul stood aghast? Have you ever seen the poverty, and degradation, and misery of the inhabitants, and sighed over it?[1]

Far from an idyllic country setting, Waterbeach placed Spurgeon in the trenches of pastoral ministry where he saw the reality of suffering and sin. What was Spurgeon’s approach to his early ministry? 


From the very beginning, Spurgeon sought to make the gospel the central theme of his preaching ministry. His very first sermon as pastor at Waterbeach was from Matthew 1:21, ““Thou shalt call His name JESUS: for He shall save His people from their sins.”[2] Every sermon, no matter what text he was preaching, Spurgeon sought to make saving work of Christ clear to his people, calling them to repentance and faith. Even though many in his congregation would have considered themselves Christians, Spurgeon was not content with a nominal faith, but desired to see genuine conversion in the hearts of his people. Nor was Spurgeon content simply to preach sermons which gratified his people. He wanted to be used by God supernaturally in the salvation of sinners.

When I began to preach in the little thatched chapel at Waterbeach, my first concern was, Would God save any souls through me? … After I had preached for some little time, I thought, “This gospel has saved me, but then somebody else preached it; will it save anybody else now that I preach it?” Some Sundays went over, and I used to say to the deacons, “Have you heard of anybody finding the Lord under my ministry? Do you know of anyone brought to Christ through my preaching?” My good old friend and deacon said, “I am sure somebody must have received the Savior; I am quite certain it is so.” “Oh!” I answered, “but I want to know it, I want to prove that if is so.”[3]

It would not be until his 100th sermon that Spurgeon recorded his first convert.[4] Reflecting on this event, Spurgeon compared his joy to a boy “who has earned his first guinea” or a diver “who has been down to the depths of the sea, and brought up a rare pearl.”[5] Spurgeon went on see many more converted under his preaching in Waterbeach. One early biographer writes, “The Pastor was not satisfied to draw a crowd. He wanted conversions and within the year of his labors, the church grew from forty to a hundred.”[6] But he never forgot about the joy of that first convert: “I remember well her being received into the church, and dying, and going to Heaven. She was the first seal to my ministry, and a very precious one.”


Spurgeon’s ministry was not limited to preaching. As the pastor, he sought to know his people and to counsel them privately regarding their struggles. Because the church was not able to pay him a full salary, Spurgeon continued living in Cambridge as a tutor, and he would make the 5-mile walk to Waterbeach on the weekends. However, Spurgeon took advantage of this situation, and would make it a point to travel on Saturday and stay in a different home each weekend. “The people were hospitable and generous beyond their means. For the fifty-two Sundays, I had fifty-six homes.”[7]

During these stays, Spurgeon had many opportunities to visit with his people: young mothers, gossips, deacons, farmers, and many others. In these conversations, Spurgeon gave his people pastoral advice about their temptations, parenting, theological questions, work, and most importantly, about their faith in Christ.

But this was not generic counsel. Spurgeon sought to know his people and their particular struggles. His pastoral care can be seen in his description of one church member, whom he calls “Mrs. Much-afraid”:

She was very regular in her attendance at the house of God, and was a wonderfully good listener. She used to drink in the gospel; but, nevertheless, she was always doubting, and fearing, and trembling about her own spiritual condition. She had been a believer in Christ, I should think, for fifty years, yet she had always remained in that timid, fearful, anxious state. She was a kind old soul, ever ready to help her neighbors, or to speak a word to the unconverted; she seemed to me to have enough grace for two people, yet, in her own opinion, she had not half enough grace for one. [8]

Far from being an isolated preacher, Spurgeon envisioned himself as Mr. Great-heart in Pilgrim’s Progress, gently leading his people in “personally conducted tours of heaven.” [9]


Preaching the gospel will always mean dealing with error. Spurgeon was known throughout his ministry for his willingness to enter into controversy, and this began in these early days. Waterbeach was located in East Anglia, a region where hyper-Calvinist Baptists had their greatest influence. Their teaching often produced an antinomianism that Spurgeon detested. In preaching the gospel, Spurgeon refused to water down the need for repentance, but called his people to holiness.

In my first pastorate, I had often to battle with Antinomians, — that is, people who held that, because they believed themselves to be elect, they might live as they liked. I hope that heresy has to a great extent died out, but it was sadly prevalent in my early ministerial days… From my very soul, I detest everything that in the least savors of the Antinomianism which leads people to prate about being secure in Christ while they are living in sin. We cannot be saved by or for our good works, neither can we be saved without good works. Christ never will save any of His people in their sins; He saves His people from their sins.[10]

Spurgeon’s earliest sermons are marked by repeated calls to faith in Christ and to holy living, refuting the claims of antinomians.

This call to holiness would be carried out not only in his preaching, but also in church discipline. Spurgeon backed up his teaching against antinomianism by carefully maintaining the membership of the church to those who gave a credible profession of faith. Spurgeon records at least two instances of church discipline during his time at Waterbeach.

One instance was about a young man who participated in the drunken village feast.

 While I was Pastor at Waterbeach, a certain young man joined the church. We thought he was a changed character, but there used to be in the village, once a year, a great temptation in the form of a feast; and when the feast came round, this foolish fellow was there in very evil company. He was in the long room of a public house, in the evening, and when I heard what happened, I really felt intense gratitude to the landlady of that place. When she came in, and saw him there, she said, “Halloa, Jack So-and-so, are you here? Why, you are one of Spurgeon’s lot, yet you are here; you ought to be ashamed of yourself. This is not fit company for you. Put him out of the window, boys.” And they did put him out of the window on the Friday night, and we put him out of the door on the Sunday, for we removed his name from our church-book.

The other instance is the heartbreaking story of Mr. Charles.[11] He was “a ringleader in all that was bad… the terror of the neighborhood,” but under Spurgeon’s preaching, he professed to be converted. He initially showed signs of a dramatic conversion and labored joyfully for the gospel for some time. But eventually, “the laughter to which he was exposed, the jeers and scoffs of his old companions, — though at first he bore them like a man, — became too much for him,” and he fell away from the faith, much to the shame and sorrow of the church. Here was one case which caused Spurgeon “many bitter tears.”[12]


The experience of pastoral heartache was compounded by other challenges. As a bi-vocational pastor, Spurgeon began with a meager salary of 25 pounds a year. This meant that he had to continue his work in Cambridge during the week in order to be able to pay his living expenses. As the church grew, they were able to increase his salary to 50 pounds a year, which came to about 19 shillings a week, which, with the help of his people, allowed him to focus more on his pastoral work.

I paid twelve shillings a week for my rooms at Cambridge, and had left seven shillings for all other expenses. But the people, whenever they came to town would bring potatoes, turnips, cabbages, apples, and sometimes a bit of meat and so I managed to live.[13]

As Spurgeon grew in popularity and his ministry became known, he began to experience opposition from other pastors who despised this 18-year old going about preaching. At the annual meeting of the Cambridge Sunday School Union, after Spurgeon preached, one minister remarked publicly how “it was a pity that boys did not adopt the Scriptural practice of tarrying at Jericho till their beards were grown before they tried to instruct their seniors.”[14] On another occasion, he was invited to preach an anniversary sermon for an aged minister, who had never met him, but had heard of his growing popularity. In seeing Spurgeon for the first time, he was disgusted and expressed his lament at “boys going up and down the country preaching before their mother’s milk is well out of their mouths.”[15]

In these situations, Spurgeon did not shrink back from these criticisms, but persevered in doing his best, looking to God, not man, for blessing. And God did bless his preaching beyond what he could have imagined. Reflecting on what God accomplished during his short two years, Spurgeon writes,

In a short time, the little thatched chapel was crammed, the biggest vagabonds of the village were weeping floods of tears, and those who had been the curse of the parish became its blessing. Where there had been robberies and villainies of every kind, all round the neighborhood, there were none, because the men who used to do the mischief were themselves in the house of God, rejoicing to hear of Jesus crucified. I am not telling an exaggerated story, nor a thing that I do not know, for it was my delight to labor for the Lord in that village. It was a pleasant thing to walk through that place, when drunkenness had almost ceased, when debauchery in the case of many was dead, when men and women went forth to labor with joyful hearts, singing the praises of the ever-living God.[16]

And it was in that Cambridge Sunday School Union meeting that George Gould heard Spurgeon preach and told his friend Thomas Olney, a deacon at the historic New Park Street Chapel in London.

For so many young pastors, the early years of pastoral ministry can prove to be daunting. Yet, these highlights from Spurgeon’s first pastorate provide a guide for areas to prioritize in these early years. While the outcome remains in God’s hands, Spurgeon’s life reminds us not to despise these small beginnings (Zech. 4:10), but rather to pursue a faithful gospel ministry wherever God has placed us.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at Spurgeon.org and is used with permission.

Less About The Fence, More About The Playground: Female Ambition and Complementarian Culture

There was once a community that experienced a great deal of growth. Many families with young children moved to the area and city planners saw the need for a place where parents could bring their kids and connect with one another. Plans were made for a playground to be built, but the only area big enough for a playground was near a busy intersection. Every day, families would pass by the construction site to see intricate tunnels, colorful swings, impressive slides, and all the latest in modern playground design. The children grew in eager anticipation for the day they could partake in this joyful park. 

The week before the playground was to open, a large, sturdy fence was established around the perimeter with all the safety precautions any parent could hope to see. Finally, the day came for the grand opening of the playground. The community flooded. Parents walked through the gate and let their children take off with all the speed their tiny feet could muster. Children ran and squealed and jumped and laughed while their parents sat comfortably on the benches watching their children explore, create, and learn.

Now imagine a family comes with their son for the first time to this playground. They walk in, serious and somber. Their child is eager to join with his friends, but the parents hold his wrists tightly and walk over to the fence. The father bends a knee to look his son in the eyes and says, “Do you see this fence? I want you to study it, know it, remember always that it is here. When you are playing, I want you to keep your eyes on the fence because this fence is the only reason you are able to play at all. And whatever you do – this is the most important thing I will say to you – do not try to climb the fence.” 

Is the father’s statement wrong? No. Is his desire for his child’s safety good? Yes. But what happens to the child’s spirit? His joy is squelched and his fear is elevated. He may climb the monkey bars and forget the fence is even there, only to hear his father yelling in the background, “Don’t forget about the fence!” 

If you’ve been in the world of Southern Baptists or complementarians for any length of time, you might be familiar with a giant fence we like to call “the office of elder reserved for men.”1 One of the first assumptions made about me when I started seminary was that my desire was to climb this fence. Even after explaining and demonstrating that I had no desire to even come near the fence, I still heard the bellowing voices of my fellow complementarians shouting, “Don’t forget about the fence!” 

I still hear them today, and my guess is other women do too. I trust that many who declare over and over again that women are prohibited from the pastorate have good intentions. They are confident in God’s Word and trust it as absolute truth and authority. They desire to defend the truth and speak clearly and often about the Scriptures. They see the world’s hyper-feminism and belief in equality without distinction and they want to stand in direct opposition to this distortion of God’s good design. I share in the deep trust of God’s Word, the desire to defend it, and the longing for this broken world to be made right. 

But the emphasis on the “fence” too often repeated can overshadow a woman’s good desire to serve the church. 

I know a lot of women, myself included, who are tired. The slightest hint of ambition can be misunderstood as reaching for the pastorate. A woman who speaks her mind or has strong opinions can be declared unfeminine. If a woman holds a leadership position in a church or Christian establishment, she can be subject to skepticism in ways that her male counterparts are not. The road to ministry in the church for women can be a weary one.   

When weariness takes its toll, it is easy for rebellion to rise in our hearts. I know there are times for me when the chorus of “no” feels so strong, I wonder if it’s even worth it to stay, or if I should just jump the fence and flee to the land where a boundaryless “yes” resounds. 

By God’s grace, when I am most tempted to run for the boundaryless “yes,” I am reminded of the sweetness in a “yes” that comes with boundaries. I am far less tempted to climb the fence around me when I hear my friends on the playground shout, “Allyson, come and play! Look at all that you can do!”

Fellow believers, when is the last time you encouraged women in your church to use their gifts? Are you more inclined to comment on what women cannot do than what they can? What would it look like if you spoke less about the fence, and more about the playground? 

I have seen the ways my church has grown when our pastors encourage women to use their gifts, and I am confident that God is most glorified when the whole church is encouraged to serve. 

It is not wrong to talk about the fence. It is not wrong to state very clearly that climbing the fence is dangerous. In fact, it is the very existence of the fence that gives us freedom to use the playground without fear. If I believe God established the fence as a good boundary, then I can roam freely within the playground He has created for me. I can explore, create, and learn all the ways I can glorify Him and serve His church. The fence is what makes the playground safe, but it is also what makes the playground boundless. What joy and goodness wait for the church when women are encouraged to sprint full-force into the playground where they can use their gifts in any and every way possible! God’s full and complete church, every man and woman, every pastor, deacon, or layperson, every child and every seasoned member, are necessary for the exultation of God’s glory to the ends of the earth.

May we, by God’s grace, speak less about the fence, and more about the playground. For the glory of God and the good of the church. 

1For the purpose of this post, I am working from the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, which states that the office of the pastorate is reserved for men. My personal conviction is that the role of pastor or elder is the only role in the church that is limited to men and other roles or leadership opportunities in the church or outside of the church are open avenues for women to use their gifts. There are, of course, many nuances in this discussion and my goal is not to address them all here. https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#vi-the-church

Christ Jesus Came to Save Pastors

What might Timothy have thought when his father in the faith, the Apostle Paul, called himself the “foremost” sinner?

Is there sin you’ve been keeping secret from me, Paul? If not, you’re wrong. In fact, you’re the least sinful human being I’ve ever met.

By God’s grace, our spiritual role models will be the most holy human beings we know. Scripture holds the bar high for the character of all Christians, especially pastors (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9). But as Paul shows in his first letter to Timothy, the most faithful servant of Christ needs no less mercy than the unrepentant sinner.

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance,” Paul says, “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).

This verse’s shock-factor only increases when context is considered. In the previous paragraph, Paul lists sinners who the law is laid down for:

“The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:9-10).

Then four verses later, Paul declares, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost!”

This mindset is essential for the pastor. Shepherds blind to their desperate need for mercy become obstacles to the gospel for the very flock in which the Holy Spirit made them overseers. They will exercise their God-given authority with arrogance and a quick temper, rather than with gentleness and lowliness in heart, as they grow puffed up with pride in their law-keeping.

And the arrogant pastor is the disqualified pastor.

For the overseer who aspires to know himself like Paul, here are three truths to think through from 1 Timothy 1:12-17.

1. Your Strength is Christ-Given

If a pastor is above reproach, his teaching makes dry bones live and his leadership dawns on his flock like the morning light, he should be overwhelmed by God’s grace in his life. Yet how often do we, like Israel, forget from whom our blessings flow? A strong Christian is constantly tempted to see his strength as his strength and, therefore, think of himself more highly than he ought to think.

For Christians to swim against the stream of a culture drowning us with encouragement to “be proud of yourself,” they must imitate Paul’s posture toward his strength: gratitude to God.

“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Timothy 1:12-13).

Christ gives us strength in spite of who we are—despite that we, too, formerly lived lives contrary to sound doctrine.

Christ gives us strength because of who he is—a God merciful and gracious. Let us channel every ounce of strength we have as thanksgiving to God for his grace. May remembrance that our strength comes from the omnipotent God grow us in dependence on him.

2. You Need Christ’s Grace This Moment

Few professing Christians would deny, once upon a time, they needed to be saved by grace. However, it is far easier to forget our second-by-second need for God to be actively saving us by grace.

When Paul tells his testimony in 1 Timothy, he does not refer to himself as someone who was the foremost sinner, but rather as one who is the reigning foremost sinner.

“…Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:13-15).

Are you tempted to accuse Paul of false humility? If so, it’s understandable, if we compare the holiness of Paul to the holiness of other Christians. But Paul is measuring himself against another—“the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17).

In the presence of the holy, holy, holy God, Paul identifies himself as nothing more-humbling than the foremost sinner. And it’s this needy identity that allows him to marvel at God’s grace as a fountain that “overflowed” for him, and surely overflows still. Pastors need as much as grace on the day of their best sermon as in the hour they first believed.

3. Christ’s Mercy Toward You is for Others

God, indeed, loves you individually and intimately. But if he called you to pastoral ministry, he chose you in order that you and others might know him. Paul, God’s chosen instrument to carry his name before the Gentiles, knew this reality well.

“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:16)

God chooses pastors to change eternities.

What a privilege. What a motivation to clothe oneself in patient-humility. People believe in Jesus for eternal life because they witness the display of Jesus’ perfect patience for the foremost sinners.

Do our fellow church members see us as examples of Christ’s perfect patience? How can they if we do not confess our sin and constant need for his perfect patience; or if we shepherd like our sheep require more patience from us than we did from God?

We are identifiable examples of Christ’s perfect patience only when we present ourselves as the foremost sinners.

Examples of Pretty Good Patience

No one on earth needs to cry out to Jesus as Savior more than pastors, because no one on earth needs Jesus’ perfect patience less than anyone else. Even God’s chosen are not extra-deserving recipients of gospel grace. That’s what makes it grace. That’s what makes them chosen.

May the Holy Spirit grant us all the eyes to see ourselves as the foremost sinner, that we may better enjoy him for his amazing grace, abundant mercy, and perfect patience.

Political “Pastoral” Posturing Is Not the Path Forward

I peruse Twitter, I feel discourage and frustrated, I get off. This seems to be a daily experience. This experience is not entirely because of the irrationality and secularism of our world, but also because of the incessant barking of pastors complaining about political policy in recent months.

Is this really the path forward? Is this the path to which our Heavenly Father has called us? While we, as Kingdom citizens, are to engage the world in which we live, is this what Paul and other New Testament writers had in mind?

First Timothy is a revitalization book. The church at Ephesus had lost its way. Paul seeks to bring correction through Timothy in promoting a pure church through instructions to emphasize correct doctrine and structure. In that context, Paul addresses some of the conduct expected within worship services. In chapter 2, he urges the church to pray for political leaders (2:1-7).

The purpose of praying for these political leaders was, in part, to ask God to give them a tolerant disposition towards Christianity so that Christianity could coexist alongside other religious systems. Paul seemed to believe, throughout all his writings, that Christianity was true and when placed alongside other religions would prove to be true. He also urged the church to pray to ask God to bring those leaders to saving faith in Jesus.

It is to this last end that Paul, himself, “was appointed a preacher and an apostle . . . a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth” (1 Tim 2:7).

Paul, and I would argue Peter, saw the primary focus of pastoral ministry as the conversion of souls and the maturing of saints in Christ, which in turn would impact culture. Paul focused on preaching a transforming gospel versus seeking to overly a biblical worldview on a secular world.

What if we followed his example more closely? What if we focused on refining the church gathering and members as a manifestation of the kingdom of God (albeit imperfect) in this world while we await the full physical manifestation of the kingdom at the end of the age? What if we focused our preaching on the gospel and how it transforms our lives? What if we held our members accountable to that standard? In salvation, we are called to submit our lives and our fleshly desires to God in exchange for the righteousness of Christ and eternal life. We are called to live compassionately and courageously for Jesus. We are called to be light, which in turn, naturally impacts and dispels the darkness, not based on critical rhetoric and tweets, but based on righteous living and loving in community in our immediate cultural context.

So, yes, we speak out about cultural issues, but we need to spend more time emphasizing the gospel to our world and not merely moral compliance with our biblical worldview. Let the world feel the inconsistency and destruction of their policies while we live as light alongside of them, pointing them to the one who offers them hope, versus us constantly complaining about their political and moral positions.

Here’s a question, “Who have you won to Jesus or what policies have you influence through your political criticism and political pandering on social media?” So, as we consider that, may I offer a few suggestions?

In our social media engagements, let us:

  1. Focus on the transformation of the church and salvation of culture.

The church should be a transformed body because of the embracement of the gospel in individual lives. The world has no biblical foundation for true and lasting change. We can shift their behavior but lose their soul if we are not careful, or worse, incite them to enforce their current trajectory while still losing their soul.

  1. Find opportunity for occasional agreement and praise.

What about policies that help the poor, marginalized, and broken in our culture? Can we not applaud those things while also expressing concern for the moral and practical implications of other aspects of the same policy or other policies? Additionally, it seems, at times, our criticisms are driven more by capitalism than Christianity, which, when interspersed with biblically moral arguments, seems to create more confusion in the world.

  1. Follow up privately on occasion.

Private confrontations are generally received with a more receptive disposition than public criticism. When was the last time you wrote a letter to the President or a member of congress? When was the last time you sought an audience with a city or state leader to express concerns and provide encouragement? As an aside, when was the last time you prayed for them?

  1. Find someone with whom you disagree and have a conversation while genuinely listening to them.

There are so many other things I’d like to expound upon regarding the conversation above, but space here doesn’t allow for it. Let me end by simply asking you to consider these things. Would you pause to reflect upon your motives and goals before clicking “tweet” or “post”? Would you ask yourself and God if there is a more effective approach or a more biblical one? Would we present ourselves to the world in a kinder and more loving way while seeking to reverse the hypocritical and destructive trajectory the church has been on for the last twenty years?

On Feeling Lonely

Living in Nashville, also known as “Music City,” can create some unique opportunities. For me, one of these opportunities is getting to serve about once a month as backstage chaplain to musicians at the historic Ryman Auditorium.

One evening, I met a successful artist who has several hit songs and travels worldwide, singing to sold-out, adoring crowds. In our conversation, I asked her what it was like being a performer—especially having reached the level of acclaim that she had. While having fortune and fame may seem glamorous from a distance, she admitted that relating to others chiefly through a microphone, screen, or written page could be a painfully isolating experience. Her response, sadly, is all too common among those who carry the privilege and burden of celebrity.

With a pained look on her face, she told me that being a performer had become a source of sorrow for her. The frequency and pressure of life on the road had caused her marriage to crumble. She felt guilty for being away from her daughter as much as she was. She didn’t have many friends because she no longer knew who she could trust. Did people want to be in her life because they loved her for who she was, or did they just want to use her for her money, her name recognition, the access she has to elite social circles, or the doors she could open up for them? Then she said:

In about five minutes I am going to walk out on that stage. Thousands of people’s attention will be fixed on me, and they will sing along with all of my songs. Then, tomorrow night I will do it again, and then again and again. You might think, ‘What a life! She’s living the dream!’ But the truth is, being the person on the stage makes me feel like the loneliest person in the room.

In this vulnerable moment, she was putting into fresh words what God has been saying since the beginning of time: It is not good to be alone. No amount of fans or sold out shows will ever be able to substitute for our need to have friends. It is far better to be known and loved than it is to be followed, tweeted, and applauded. While not a bad thing in itself, this woman’s celebrity had become an inadequate substitute for intimacy and connection. As one song from the Indigo Girls goes, performing—whether from a stage or an athletic field or an executive office or a pulpit—instead of interacting personally, will inevitably lead us to “reap the praise of strangers, and end up on (our) own.”

My backstage friend’s story is the story of us all. Like her, the surface appearance of our lives often presents a more connected, relationally full, emotionally satisfying picture than how things really are. Whether from a stage or behind a pulpit or through a screen, we look a lot more together than what we feel in our hearts. Our performances and profiles betray our reality. We, too, can feel alienated, isolated, and sometimes friendless. The curse that was first pronounced on Eve in the garden—that relationships would be a struggle even under the best conditions—also touches our lives. Isolation can become painfully familiar to us, even at our own dinner tables.

The words of twentieth century novelist Thomas Wolfe resonate…that the central and inevitable fact of human existence is loneliness. Whether we are introverts or extroverts, married or single, standing on the stage or sitting in the cheap seats, preaching sermons or listening to love songs, we all share the struggle to connect.

But why is loneliness a thing?

Why does feeling lonely seem like the norm versus the exception for so many of us? According to the Bible, we experience loneliness not because there is something wrong with us, but because there is something right with us. We experience loneliness because we know, deep down, that we were made for more connection, intimacy, and love than we seem to experience. We sense that this is not how it’s supposed to be. This is true experientially. It is also true theologically.

As the first chapters of Genesis reveal, when God created the universe, he declared it all very good (Genesis 1:1-31). But God still saw something missing with creation—just one thing preventing his perfect world from being complete. “It is not good,” God said, “that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). It is striking that God declared this negative assessment in Paradise… before sin entered the world! God’s perfect world still had one missing piece: Adam had no companions.

Being made in the image of God, we humans are likened to our Lord who is both One and Three—the Triune God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is one of the great mysteries about God—he is an inseparable, eternal, intimate, and affectionate community. If we, who are made in his image, remain islands unto ourselves, if we keep our relationships on the surface, if we push others away to a safe distance, we will fail to thrive. This is true because we cannot be vitally connected to a God who is One and Three while remaining disconnected relationally from each other. He has made us for community, not for isolation; for interdependence, not independence; for relational warmth and receptivity, not for relational coldness and distance.

The answer God provided for Adam’s loneliness in Paradise was Eve, a come-alongside companion, a “helper corresponding to him”(Genesis 2:18). Scripture reveals high regard and honor for those called “helpers.” In fact, the other main character in Scripture who is given the name “helper” is God as he strengthens, protects and provides for his people. Together, Adam and Eve would share life and serve God’s purposes. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27, 2:18). When Eve is presented to Adam for the first time, Adam’s artistic inclinations surface, and history’s first love poem is composed:

This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed (Genesis 2:23-25).

This word from God—that it is not good to be alone—is ultimately less about marriage, per se, and more about companionship. Otherwise, we would be forced to conclude that both the apostle Paul and Jesus were incomplete as human beings. And of course, they weren’t.

Even still, both Paul and Jesus recognized that it was not good for them to be alone. Each became deeply tethered to others, nurturing and enjoying an abundance of friends that included both men and women. Paul took traveling companions with him almost everywhere he went. In every town he visited, he developed deep, lasting friendships. Many of these he would mention by name and with great affection in his New Testament letters. As for Jesus, he had twelve intimate, male companions—the disciples—including his most intimate circle of Peter, James and John…plus several women including sisters Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdalene.

If Paul and Jesus needed friends like this, so do we.

This is true because even in Paradise, and even when you are God, it is not good to be alone.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at ScottSauls.com

This Is Not Unprecedented

There is a difference between “new” and “new to us.”

Type the word “unprecedented” into a search bar and narrow the results to the past twelve months. It might take another twelve to get to the bottom of the list.

Evidently, everything was unprecedented. The word has lost all meaning.

I was in my Brooklyn apartment last March when the world stopped. First came the alert that schools were shutting down. Then that restaurants were closing. Then that we had to stay home. Then the year unfurled the rest of its mayhem.

It all felt unprecedented. And to us, it was.

But not to history.

Many began noticing similarities to the Spanish flu a century ago. Pastors quoted Martin Luther’s response to the plague in the 16th century. Epidemiologists sought various lessons from prior experience.

How eerie is this description of New York City during a yellow fever epidemic in 1798?

“In September [1798], 45 victims perished per day…Robert Troup described the terrifying paralysis that gripped New York: ‘Our courts are shut up, our trade totally stagnant, and we have little or no appearance of business.’ Wealthier residents escaped to rural outskirts while the poor were exposed to a disease that multiplied around.”1

There is more.

During a similar yellow fever scare in 1793, the competing medical strategies of one Dr. Rush and Dr. Stevens coincided with the emergence of the two-party system in the United States. Though yellow fever knows nothing of political parties, one technique for treating the disease became known as the “Republican” approach, and the other the “Federalist” method. The matter was hotly politicized.2 (Last April, when it somehow became “Democratic” to wear a mask and “Republican” not to, I thought, “How could we tribalize over this? This is a new low.” It turns out it wasn’t.)

Racialized violence and rioting aren’t unprecedented, either. Much of the pain over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd resulted precisely because such events are precedented. Too precedented.

Political upheaval is also not new. Some say, “We’ve never seen America divide like this,” but that depends on who “we” is. “We” baby boomers, Gen X’ers, millennials, and Gen Z’ers have never seen America divide like this. But “we” America have seen worse. (The Civil War comes to mind.) And “we” humanity at large have seen immeasurably worse.

Christianity offers a more reality-matching viewpoint than the illusion of newness: that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10). The core human experience doesn’t change, despite its endless re-packagings and fresh presentations. Our highest highs and lowest lows have been lived before. We are not pioneers in pain, pioneers in crisis, or pioneers in heroic or cowardly responses.

When it comes to setting expectations about suffering, the Bible is second-to-none. The Bible teaches the assumption that the nations will rage without exception (Psalm 2:1), that evil people lie in wait to kill (Proverbs 1:11), that human life is frail and brief (James 4:14), that the world is corrupt (Romans 8:20-21), that bad things happen to good people (1 Peter 3:17), that when unrighteous kings govern, the people groan (Proverbs 29:2), and that somehow people will still keep looking to human leaders for the justice only God can give (Proverbs 29:26).

So, though our pain is terrible, it is not original.

In teaching this, Christianity doesn’t veer into heartlessness. Christians don’t say to the world, “Toughen up because this is common.” We say, “Our hearts are broken because this is common.” Christianity teaches us to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15), whether those are individuals or groups (Proverbs 31:8-9). The Suffering Servant is at the heart of our faith (Isaiah 53:5-6), who cared for hurting people (John 11:35) and inspired generations of humanitarian work. So we don’t look at 300,000 virus-hastened deaths and say, “Well, that’s life on earth for you.” We grieve, pray, serve, give, and sacrifice to say, “No more.”

By this point, Christianity emerges as uniquely balanced. Only by absorbing the empathetic heart of God and recognizing the patterned nature of human suffering can we be engaged, but unpanicked.

How does false belief in “unprecedented” suffering cause panic? By subtly undermining our confidence in God’s providence and the full arc of the biblical narrative.

In other words, if we think the world is reaching unprecedented levels of chaos, we’ll wonder if God is reaching unprecedented levels of carelessness. If he’s allowing more harm, maybe he’s feeling less love, we reason. But if he warned us of this kind of pain (Genesis 2:17), personally entered into and conquered it (John 19:30), assists us through it (John 14:25-27), and will one day rescue us permanently from it (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17), he is to be trusted more, not less.

Christians must be able to tell the difference between what’s new and what’s not.

The creation of a perfect world was unprecedented (Genesis 1:1). Human sin plunging our quality of life and security into eternal ruin was unprecedented (Genesis 3:1-24). God entering into this pain-filled world in the person of Christ and living, dying, and living again to rescue us undeservingly were unprecedented (Romans 5:6-8). And the re-entrance of this Christ (Matthew 24:42), the wrapping up of human history (2 Peter 3:10), and the creation of a painless, endless world will be unprecedented (Revelation 21:4).

Until then, we all get to choose whether we’ll live faithfully or faithlessly in the patterns.


(1) Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 585.

(2) Ibid., 450.

Editor’s Note: This originally published at Mission City Church.

Four Realms of Realization in Preaching

When preparing a sermon, the first thing to remember is that, when it comes to biblical interpretation, context is king. Every first-year seminarian has been taught this lesson, and rightly so. You cannot accurately interpret a text, much less rightly preach it, unless you consider its context. As Don Carson has warned, “To take a text out of its context is to have a pretext.”

Yet for the preacher contextual concerns involve more than a familiarity with your passage and the book in which it’s situated. To be sure, familiarity with your biblical context is paramount, but the preacher must maintain other realms of familiarity. Accomplished surgeons know their patients as well as their instruments. For the preacher it is not all that different. One of the most important, yet often overlooked, aspects of sermon preparation is familiarization.

For the sermon to be maximally effective, there are several realms with which the preacher must be familiar. Consider with me these four crucial ones.

Know Your Audience
The first question you must ask is, “To whom am I preaching?” Depending on the audience, whether your church or another group, your message may change or at least be adapted. Certainly, Scripture’s authority and power ensure its ability to transform any person in any context. Our setting doesn’t change what we say, but it may change how we say it.

We want our sermons to achieve the most optimal impact. Different groups in varied settings often require sermons that are different in style and depth. Thus, every sermon should be customized and crafted specifically for its recipients.

This became clear to me in February 2006. The prior Lord’s Day was the last Sunday in the pastorate I’d enjoyed for nearly four years. I had just transitioned to a new position in the president’s office at Southern Seminary. My family and I were in the throes of unpacking and attempting
to settle into our new home in Louisville. Unexpectedly, I received a call on Friday afternoon about preaching in Nashville on Sunday. The pastor had
a family emergency, and since the church had strong ties to the seminary, I felt obligated to meet their need. The short notice of the request and an already overbooked Saturday (including the commute to Nashville) meant
I had little time to prepare.

I elected to use a previously preached sermon. Though I spent as much time as possible reviewing my notes, I failed to remember that the two congregations could not have been more different. My former church was considerably smaller, more rural, and obviously well acquainted with me and I with them. The church in Nashville was nearly ten times larger, in a major city, and they did not know me at all.

I’ll never forget the feeling I had during the preaching event when I realized that my application and illustrations were less than ideal for that audience. Thankfully, I was able to adjust midcourse and prevent disaster.
So, as you prepare the sermon, think through who your audience will be. Ask yourself questions like:

• How will this point strike the eighty-year-old lady who lost her husband
last year?
• Will the less-educated folks in the audience be able to process this biblical
concept as presented, or does it need to be simplified?
• What does this truth have to say to the young couple struggling with marital trouble?
• How might this concept be expressed in a way that is encouraging to the
middle-aged woman recently diagnosed with cancer?

Remember, the more personal the sermon, the more likely it will be well received. For those who weekly preach to the same congregation, there’s simply no excuse for sterile, impersonal preaching.

A pastor is called to do more than simply lecture; he is a shepherd called to care for his congregation. When you’re truly shepherding your people, the Lord will bring specific people and situations to mind as you prepare, and He will lead you in applying the text to your congregation, not just to Christians generally. Indeed, each sermon is custom-built, bringing a specific text to bear on a specific congregation. As York and Decker note:

Sermons are not about just imparting information. They should be custom built to change lives. We don’t want to fill their heads; we want the proclamation of the Word to grip their souls and motivate them to conform to the will of God. Our approach to the Bible and to preaching, therefore, has application as its ultimate goal. Application is what makes the Bible come alive and makes sermons practical.

Know Your Context
Second, the preacher must be familiar, broadly speaking, with the text or book he is preaching from. This familiarization takes place at both the macro and the micro level. At the macro level, the preacher should let the big picture of the text marinate in his mind.

For example, if you are going to preach through the book of Acts in the fall, then read through it a few times during the summer. Likewise, peruse commentaries and other resources to help familiarize yourself with the broad contours of the book. Obviously, as your sermon preparation progresses, you’ll move from broad familiarization to a more technical analysis of the passage.

Questions to be asked at this stage are:
• What are the main themes in this book?
• Does the author repeatedly emphasize anything throughout the book?
• What is the outline of the book?
• What are some seemingly difficult passages in the book?

Once the preacher is generally familiar with these book-level questions, he can then move to the micro level with more specific, passage-level questions like:

• What is the author saying in this passage?
• How does this passage relate to the preceding passage?
• How does this passage relate to the following passage?
• What is the main point of this passage?
• How does this passage affect the flow of thought in the rest of the book?

One way I attempt to grasp the “big idea” of the text is to force myself to write out the main idea of the passage in one sentence. I have found that the earlier in the sermon preparation process I can produce the central proposition of the text, the sooner the other components of the sermon will come together.

John Stott comments on the need to ascertain the main idea of the text, and he offers suggestions as to how one might obtain it. Specifically, Stott argues that patience is central to familiarizing oneself with the text. That is to say, familiarization should function more like a Crock-Pot than a microwave. Slow and protracted contemplation often will yield the best results. Stott writes:

So then, in our sermon preparation, we must not try to by-pass the discipline of waiting patiently for the dominant thought to disclose itself. We have to be ready to pray and think ourselves deep into the text, even under it, until we give up all pretensions of being its master or manipulator, and become instead its humble and obedient servant. Then there will be no danger of unscrupulous text twisting. On the contrary, the Word of God will dominate our mind, set fire to our hearts, control the development of our exposition and later leave a lasting impression on the congregation.

Know Yourself
Third, while at first blush this may seem odd, you will learn that how you feel spiritually directly influences how you preach. You should strive for self-awareness. This moves beyond the blatant question, Am I living in sin?

Rather, it is to reflect on the spiritual indicators in your life. If you are ill tempered toward your wife, adrift in your devotional life, or just cold about spiritual things, your preaching will suffer. You should be especially mindful of this as you approach the Lord’s Day. Self-awareness is a difficult subject to master, but he who would be a powerful preacher must give himself to careful consideration of his own spiritual state.

Beyond the weekly evaluation of his own spiritual status, the preacher should also look inward as he considers what passages and/or books of the Bible to preach through. Generally, what you find interesting in Scripture, you will be able to communicate in an interesting way. Likewise, what impassions you will surely lead to more impassioned preaching.

Of course, this should not devolve into hobbyhorse preaching; a faithful pulpit will, over time, preach the whole counsel of God, including books or genres with which the preacher struggles. Nonetheless, it may be wise to get plenty of repetition in before taking on a particularly challenging book of the Bible.

Furthermore, I’ve noticed that often my strongest preaching comes from preaching an area of personal weakness. For instance, several years ago I was frustrated with myself for not doing a better job of practically living out my faith. I decided to preach through the book of James and, in a real way, the Lord grew me spiritually as He grew my church spiritually. Self-awareness is difficult to master, but wise is the preacher who gives it intentional thought.

Know the Culture
Fourth and finally, though the preacher always has both eyes in the text, he should, nonetheless, try to keep his hand on the pulse of his culture. Strive to be mindful of how society is influencing the congregation and what the pressing concerns of the day may be.

For example, I have been burdened in recent years about the proliferation of pornography, so I have preached sermons on this sin. Likewise, being aware of pressing political issues and knowing what is dominating the news cycle can help foster specificity in sermon application.

When it comes to preaching effective sermons, familiarization is an essential step. How will you helpfully apply the text if you don’t know your audience? How will you faithfully exegete the text if you don’t know the literary context? How will you rightly proclaim the text if you don’t know yourself? And how will you accurately situate the text if you don’t know your cultural context?

If you are familiar with these four areas, then you can count on an accurate and persuasive sermon that moves your audience to action. If you are unfamiliar with these four areas, then you can count on a shallow sermon that has little effect on the audience. The only question now remaining is, Are you willing to put in the needed work of familiarization?

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Jason Allen’s book, Letters to My Students: Vol. 1 — On Preaching and originally appeared at jasonkallen.com.

I Long to See You: A Pastoral Plea for Valuing In-Person Gatherings

It will be a corporate memory in the mind of many pastors. Where were you the first time you preached to an empty room and made eye contact with a lifeless camera? True, I was blown away by the impact we could have online yet simultaneously I knew something was wrong. Preaching in an empty room to a comatose camera was like a post-card from a loved one. In one sense, it achieved something but only made me desire to see, feel, and touch the real thing all the more. In-person gatherings achieve this in ways virtual realities just don’t fully fulfill. I believe there is biblical precedent to value physical in-person ministry over the gracious convinces of technology. Consider Paul’s words and desire to move past the technological grace of letter writing and Spirit-filled desire to be in-person with the saints,

1 Thessalonians 2:17-20 “17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.”

Romans 1:11 “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you”

2 Timothy 1:4 “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy.”

Of course, Paul is speaking about personal interaction. Still the fact clearly remains that certain aspects of his ministry could not be achieved apart from in-person interaction. Sunday gatherings in-person is a spiritual rhythm to see the body of believers gathered around the Word, encouraged by one another, and edified by Spirit. Yes, streaming and or watching a recording is a gracious concession but may we be reminded it is not commanded in Scripture.

Hebrews 10:24-25 commands us “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Colossians 3:16 instructs us “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Please read these scriptures, memorize them, and meditate on them. I believe the Spirit will impress upon you that these commands are touchpoints of grace we cannot fully grasp in the virtual experience.

Not only is this a grace we cannot experience it is also a good work we can seldom exert in the virtual realm. The in-person gathering reemphasizes our ministry to one another. In the classic book A Display of God’s Glory, Mark Dever states:

“Being a member of a church should mean regularly being present at public meetings. Attendance is perhaps our most basic ministry to each other. As the oft-quoted Hebrews 10:25 says, ”Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

If the New Testament uses the image of the church as a building then we must be bricks in it; if the church is a body, then we are its members; if a church is the household of faith, it presumes we are a part of that household. Sheep are in a flock, and branches on a vine. Biblically if one is a Christian he must be a member of a church. And this membership is not simply the record of a statement we once made or of affection toward a familiar place. It must be the reflection of a living commitment, a regular attendance, or it is worthless, and worse than worthless, it is dangerous.”

When you stream, you can’t physically hug a widow processing her recent loss, you can’t look a teen in the eyes and tell them about the beauty of Christ, you can’t hold a dear friend’s baby and bless them in the presence of their parents. When you stream, you can’t look a row ahead of you and see something is off with your Sunday School classmate, you can’t notice good news hiding in the smile of a new couple, and you can’t encourage the pastor preaching a hard truth from a difficult passage with a heart-felt amen. When you stream you can pray along but seldom pray with.

Regardless of where you fall on the theological spectrum of the sacraments, many if not most agree the full magnitude of Baptism and the Lord’s Table cannot be expressed or experienced in its totality virtually. It is a deeply spiritual honor and significant privilege confirming the testimony of a new believer in the assembly. It is a spiritual duty and significant delight to eat the bread and drink the wine together as a family gathered in one singular moment.

Friends, we must be honest. If it is true that worship includes service (Romans 12:1-2), then streaming is stunted worship on our best Sundays and consumer Christianity on our worst Sundays. Family as we enter a Post-COVID world we need to remember streaming is a supplement and not a substitute for worship.

Throughout the ages, there have arisen very important discipleship questions that challenge the culture and convicts the Christian. Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves and others, “When will you return?” No doubt we will all have different answers and reasoned responses. For many it will be after vaccines are distributed, for others, it may be when “numbers” go down, and yet for others, the question may evolve depending on circumstances.

But here is the point: if we haven’t consistently asked ourselves or those accountable in our community this question then we have short-sighted the importance and impact the in-person gathering has on our lives. If we are streaming merely for the sake of comfort, convenience, and compromise of convictions then we have sold our brothers and sisters in Christ short. We have sold our corporate privileges for a bowl of digital soup. Yet, if you stream because of unique occasions or because of unique seasons then please understand any shepherd worth his salt will get that. But again, the keyword is “unique”. We need to guard our hearts against making concessions utter complacency.

In returning, we want everyone to be safe and secure. However, it would be pastoral malpractice to tell you risk-free Christianity exists. It doesn’t. We were called to bear a cross and not a crown until Christ calls us home or until he returns. Never the less, believing the gospel means we have the ultimate security and rescue we all desire. Making the decision to return will take wisdom, caution, and ultimately courage. Making a decision to value in person over streaming will take conviction. Biblically speaking, for those able, the question moving forward is not if you will consistently pursue in-person gatherings but when will you consistently pursue in-person gatherings? I pray this decision becomes one of great importance and maximum urgency because a sheep without a flock under the guidance of a shepherd is a very joyless path. May our joy increase and our hunger grow as we consider the beauty of the Gospel displayed in Christ’s gathered, living, and active Church.