Denial and post-truth – the real problem with faith

The film Denial has been recently released in British cinemas after its premier at the Toronto film festival on ‘9/11’ last year and its UK premier on Holocaust Memorial Day 27th January 2017.  It gives the outline of the libel trial brought by notorious Holocaust denier David Irving against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt for her calling him a falsifier of history in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

Denial (2016 film).jpg

The UK judge found Irving to be a Holocaust denier, an antisemite and a racist who had deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence, and ordered him to pay more than £2m in legal costs.

There are many issues raised by the libel case, and many have commented on the timely recollection of it in view of false-truth and its spread through social media.  Historian Richard Evans, president of Wolfson College in Cambridge and involved in the research behind the trial, draws parallels between Nazi propaganda and our era of ‘alternative facts’.

False-truth is the end result of a generation of spin and of acceptance of lies in public life, particularly in the political process.  Eventually it reached a tipping-point and it is now the norm.

One can understand people changing their mind when circumstances change, but this has developed into saying one thing and doing another in public life.  The backlash against the ready acceptance of this behaviour has resulted in the popular revolt against ‘the establishment’ in its various forms.

However Denial finishes by raising another question which is not addressed and needs to be addressed.  It ends with David Irving continuing to deny the Holocaust when interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight.

Why do people not change their beliefs, or rather hold on to their beliefs?  This is the real issue raised both in Denial and in much current public debate.  Richard Dawkins frames the issue the wrong way round.  He says that people adopt their beliefs when they are young from their parents and teachers.  There is nothing surprising about this, although he uses this to buffet religion and to accuse parents of child abuse.  Rather, the really surprising thing is, not that children adopt the religion of their parents but, why they rarely change it.

This psychological prejudice is so common to the human condition that it merits more study and comment in public life.

However it is A-B-C to those Christian preachers who spend much of their time explaining the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who taught the need and difficulty in changing people’s beliefs.  He taught that it was so difficult that when it came to true religion it needed nothing short of the powerful conviction of the Holy Spirit of God – this is what Jesus meant by ‘you must be born again’.  Human prejudice is too strong to change from the outside; it must come from personal awakening, personal conviction.

Government tries strong arm tactics using the law and sanctions to force conformity to its secular morality, but ‘he that complies against his will is of his own opinion still’.  In addition, there are not enough law enforcement officers to be effective, as the police are discovering with paedophiles now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, more than the immigrants coming into the UK, and the justice system cannot cope with the number of law-breakers of the growing number of laws.

Law enforces conformity through sanctions, but the Christian Gospel of love gives motivation to keep the law, is cheap and effective through the self-policing Christian conscience, as well as giving peace of conscience for daily living.  Try it – it begins with changing your beliefs about Jesus Christ.

What do we do about confusion in congregational preaching?

Intelligent listeners will notice differences in teaching between preachers even in the same denomination, as well as between denominations.

The right of private judgment is permitted to Christians, but the continuous and unchallenged preaching of different doctrines only leads to confusion in congregations – and God is not the author of confusion 1Cor 14:33.

So what should congregations do?

 

What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is the good news of the free offer of eternal life through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The evidence of a living faith in Jesus Christ is love to God, love to one’s Christian brethren and love to one’s neighbour. Jesus said: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” Jn 14:15,23.

Faith must lead to good works, and prayer without repentance and a plan of action is empty words. We need prayer and action; action that needs prayer to be effective; action that will teach us and encourage us to pray in order to have God’s blessing on our work.

The Gospel needs to be distinguished from the social Gospel, which is a counterfeit gospel. The social Gospel misinterprets the Gospel as salvation by good works, or salvation by merit. Merit and grace are opposites Rom 11:6. Salvation is by free grace, God’s unmerited favour, not by merit.

This misinterpretation arises because social justice is the natural outworking of the Gospel, and social justice is mistaken for the Gospel itself. Social justice arise from the Gospel; it is not the Gospel itself.

Social justice is another way of saying that “faith without works is dead” Jam 2:20,26. Social justice is so important that Jesus taught that worship which does not arise from, and does not create Christians who are interested in social justice is vain, empty worship, which does not please God because it is devoid of proper content.

Exegesis and eisegesis

As a divinity student in 1980 I came across the term ‘exegesis’ in reference to the exegesis of Scripture.  It means ‘drawing out’ the meaning of a written text and Scripture in particular.

I was aware of the common problem of people reading into Scripture their own opinion and thus putting into Scripture something that was not there.  The danger of this is that it clothes the wrong idea with the full force and authority of Scripture.

For example: ‘A bishop must be … the husband of one wife’.  Instead of reading this in the light of polygamous practice, some have interpreted it as if it reads ‘only one wife during the whole of their lifetime’ so that people who have divorced and remarried are excluded from office, interfering with the lives of multitudes of Christians.   There are other ideas read into this verse with similar unhappy results.

Another example is Mat 7:14 ‘ strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there be that find it.’  This is commonly read and preached as if it says: ‘there will always be few that find it.’  It doesn’t.  This is reading one’s own ideas into the text rather than drawing out of the text its full and proper meaning.

This mistake was so common that I realised that I needed a term to describe it, so I coined the term ‘eisegesis’ in the mid-1980s – reading into the text ideas that were not there.

There are multitudes of examples.  The Thessalonians misunderstood Paul’s first epistle as if he had said that Christ would return soon, whereas he had said suddenly, which he corrects in his second epistle 2Th 2:2.

Many people read ‘But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup’ 1Cor 11:28 as if it means ‘and therefore let him eat’, whereas the original Greek text shows that it means ‘and in this self-examining manner let him eat’.

The Greek prepositions ex – meaning ‘out of’ – and eis – meaning ‘into’ – give us these two terms:

Exegesis: drawing out of (ex-) a text what is its full and proper meaning.

Eisegesis: reading into (eis-) a text one’s own ideas, prejudices, suppositions and interpretations, which may or may not be scriptural, and which may or may not be in the text.

If we read into Scripture what we already know, we will not learn anything new.  But the value of exegesis is that one draws out of Scripture what one may not know – adding to one’s knowledge.

Thus Jesus said: ‘Every scribe who is instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like a man that is a householder, who brings out of his treasure things new and old’ Mat 13:52.

Only by exegesis can we draw new things out of Scripture.

Sermon preparation

Some bullet points on sermon preparation.

1. Have an interesting introduction. In Lectures to My Students, Charles Haddon Spurgeon says that every notice should have the word “Attention!” at the top; and so every sermon should call attention to the topic of the sermon. It should be composed last, when the whole message is clearly in your mind.

2. It should be possible to give the whole sermon a clear title – if not, the message is confused and needs to be tidied up.

3. The sermon should have clear headings – usually no more than three because the brain needs mnemonics to go beyond three. State each of them slowly without hesitation, and repeat them so that people who are writing or trying to remember them can do so. The title and the headings are the most one can expect the average person to remember, so give them the opportunity to do so. Anecdotes and illustrations will usually be remembered also, so make them useful and applicable to everyday life to help people recall the message when they come across the illustration in real life.

4. Stick to the headings. Material should be organised properly under each heading, not digressing in the second heading to explain something that should have been dealt with under the first heading. The last heading could be application, but if not, there should be an additional section for application.

5. The message of the sermon is the burden laid upon your spirit in prayerful consideration of the people you are hoping to address. This should be the same message in your text. If the text speaks of A and you want to speak about B, choose a different text.

6. Work on the message of the text, using your exegetical tools. If it is different from what you thought it meant, change your message to fit it, or find the correct text.

7. Having determined the subject, ask yourself what is the easiest way to explain it to the people in three headings. Not 1. the person speaking; 2. the people he addressed; and 3. what he said. This is boring and not helpful except in special circumstances. Rather, you have a message to deliver – divide it up appropriately into clear and logical headings. Under each heading, compose two or three subheadings that logically expand and explain the heading. These flow naturally from the heading and they need not, and possibly should not, be announced as subheadings; they are a logical development of the heading and should be seen to be so without needing to announce them as such.

8. As for the balance and content of the sermon, having worked on your message, you want now to review the whole to check that it is balanced with appropriate content.

A. does it have the basic 3Rs (not necessarily prominent, but there in one form of another) 1. Ruined by the Fall; 2. Redemption through Christ’s life and death; 3. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit. These essential doctrines need to be integrated into the message, not necessarily as subheadings but inserted under the appropriate heading. Visitors to the congregation may be present for the first and only time, and they need to hear the essence of the Gospel in every sermon. This ensures that all sermons have Christ in them, and one should aim for their being Christo-centric but not divorced from the needs and applicability to the hearers. Sermons are to be practical, not simply theoretical. Faith without works is dead, and sermons are a call to action ‘the words of the wise are as goads’ Ecc 12:11 – to worship, to glorify God, to dedicate oneself to His service, to bring His message to the world in which we live. There are other basic ingredients with which to season the sermon, to make it tasty, and you can add these as your cooking skills improve.

B. an illustration should illustrate; if you need two illustrations it means that the first one did not work, or was not complete. Scripture uses two illustrations when there are two points to develop. Make them applicable to real life so that when people come across such situations in real life, hopefully the message of the sermon will be recalled ‘the words of the wise are as fastened nails’ Ecc 12:11.  Illustrations can take various forms, so that there is huge scope for meaningful and interesting illustrations, so that no sermon should lack interesting information. An occasional anecdote, or point from a book, or news item, can be used as illustrations, but Spurgeon says in his Lectures to My Students that too many illustrations is like a house with too many windows, and no illustrations is like a house without any windows. They should be sprinkled like salt in appropriate places. Do not strive to insert an illustration if the topic is simple and clear enough already.

C. the application needs to contain the free offer of the Gospel, along with an appropriate warning about its neglect. A sermon without the free offer is like a house without a door. The door should be opened with a Gospel invitation. Theologically, sinners close in with Christ in the free offer of the Gospel. Application can also be trickle-fed throughout the sermon, for example, at the end of each heading. Illustrations can be used in the same way. To catch the attention of careless hearers it can be useful to have a pointed application or interesting illustration in one’s introduction, to highlight the purpose of the sermon and to make them sit up and listen.

D. the overall tone and impression of the sermon needs to assessed. Is it clear, warm and inviting, with suitable seriousness and warning? This is what will be felt and remembered much longer than the details of the message.

9. Know how you are going to finish your message. Don’t let it tail off into insignificant or banal comment. Give it a clean and pointed finish so that people know that it is completed.

10. Bring to the boil with fervent and meaningful prayer.

11. William G T Shedd recommends reviewing your sermon immediately after preaching. This is correct, although many preachers profess to want to forget their own sermons and some don’t even want to discuss them!  Rather, this is the time to clarify points or difficulties, while the sermon is fresh in your memory.  Add better illustrations and ideas, and reorganise points that could have been presented in a better order or needed additional explanation. This ensures that the sermon is improved and it will not be the same when preached to a new audience. In reviewing your sermon just preached, it is an opportunity to commit the hearers to the Lord in prayer, to pray for specific people brought to your attention during preaching, and to pray for all sermons being preached around the world. The sermon needs prayer both before and after, as well as during its delivery.

Wise preaching

Ecc 12:10
v10: “the preacher sought”: a good preacher studies how to put across his teaching in an acceptable and memorable manner. “acceptable words”: to speak in a manner which will be well received by his hearers. This does not mean pleasing words, which will not upset people, but it is expanded and explained in Ecc 12:11.

Ecc 12:11
v11: “goads”: Heb: dorbon. The words of the wise provoke to action. “nails fastened”: the words of the wise are as goads, which stick in the memory. These words are fastened because they are received and accepted by the hearer, and thus are acceptable words Ecc 12:10, like the seed received into good ground Mat 13:23. “the masters”: Heb: ba’al, the same word as Baal, the heathen deity, which has the root meaning of being a master because of one’s masterly work, being a master craftsman. “of assemblies”: Heb: ’asuppah ‘a collection of (learned) men’. It is a masterly work to teach assemblies, requiring the knowledge of words, one’s subject and one’s audience to be able to fasten acceptable words in the minds of one’s hearers. The wise, through study Ecc 12:10, attain this knowledge to fasten acceptable words in the minds of their hearers. People will not act if they do not remember.
Application: preachers are to be wise and to study how their words will stick in the memory of their hearers in such a way as to provoke them to action. Words and hearing without action are like faith without works Jam 2:20,26. Paul joins them when he speaks about the “work of faith” and “labour of love” 1Th 1:3. Repentance is a change of mind that leads to action, and it is not complete without action. Individual Christians and congregations need to repent and believe Christ’s great commission to “Go” and “make disciples of all ethnic groups” Mat 28:19. In order to do so, each believer must seek spiritual wisdom and learn how to fasten their words in their hearers’ memories as goads to action. Preachers should review their sermon to see if there is a memorable matter that will stick in people’s memories, particularly which will goad them to action. Think of something which will recur in their lives, and associate it with some Gospel truth or action. When these events recur, they will act like reminders. There are many examples that can be given but, to promote a particularly rare subject in Christian living, I will use fasting. The preacher could teach the congregation that their hunger pangs will remind them periodically that it is time to pray, and prayer in turn will take your mind away from the desire to eat – helping both body and soul to keep ‘in trim’ – “exercise yourself to godliness” 1Tim 4:7. A preacher could take time to invite the drunkard to concentrate his mind on the colour of his alcoholic drink Pro 23:31, and then accompany it with the warning that it will bite like a serpent Pro 23:32. Thereafter, when he is looking into his alcoholic beverage, the warning will come up into his mind.

Questions and answers in church and congregational life

In 1Corinthians Paul deals with some congregational issues and in 1Cor 14:35 he tells wives: “if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

This strongly suggests that husbands were asking questions in congregations – but how many preachers finish their sermons with “Any questions?”

Imagine the scene – Paul arrives in a new place and preaches a sermon to the gathered people.  Does he stand up and leave, or will there be questions? Jesus was often questioned by His disciples afterwards Mat 13:10-11; Mk 4:10,34; and the Gentiles in Antioch wanted an after-church fellowship, which Paul was happy to encourage Act 13:43. The disputes described in the Acts of the Apostles Act 7:57; 13:45 show that congregations discussed what was said. The disciples gathered in homes to have fellowship Act 2:46 and collective prayer Act 12:12.

“Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God” Act 13:43. Contrary to this, many congregations hurry home and have no fellowship afterwards. Some ministers even expect them to go home immediately and to come back to the next set diet of meetings. The after-church fellowship meeting is an apostolic tradition.

Questions give feedback to the preacher and help relevant issues to be addressed.  Answers give opportunity for the congregation to learn collectively and teach Christians the skills of gracious discussion.  The benefits are so great that it seems obvious to me that this is how the new testament congregations grew and developed, how congregational life flourished, and how Christian leadership emerged and was recognised.  I believe that this is central to spiritual development in congregational life and that it should help the growth of a congregation both spiritually and numerically. Further, the gifts and graces given by the Lord to the congregation are recognised, appreciated, and more effectively utilised.

When catechising was commoner, the spiritual life of the church was healthier.  With the demise of feedback from the hearers to the preacher, a disconnect has emerged in many congregations and denominations with the result that congregations are not edified to the extent that they could.

Updates:

23 Mar 2013: John Knox on asking questions after sermons.  Husbands are to study.

10 Apr 2013: a rare example of taking questions during a sermon.

13 Jul 2013: the pope of Rome begins answering questions

9 Aug 2014: Jesus was not static in His pursuit of knowledge in His human nature, but ‘Jesus increased in wisdom’ Lk 2:52. In the Temple He sat among the doctors ‘asking them questions’ Lk 2:46.

24 May 2015: ‘God is not the author of confusion’ 1Cor 14:33 is a well-known quotation. However, the context is not often noted. Prophets were making statements which were not vetted by others in the congregation 1Cor 14:32. So how is this confusion to be avoided in Christian congregations if there is no process for challenging the preaching?  Critical listening to sermons is often encouraged with reference to Act 17:11 ‘These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so’. However, the method for challenging teaching is not often mentioned – far less suggested. Without it, there is liable to be confusion and God is not the author of such confusion.  Congregational discussion should be peaceful, orderly and edifying.

21 Jul 2015: I have heard that some Baptist churches in Germany have a Questions and Answers session.

6 Nov 2015: the Rev. Brian Norton of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Durham, recently gone to glory, gave opportunity for questions about his sermons afterwards.  Also, during the mid-week Bible study he would stop in the middle of the service and ask for any questions so far, and he gave another opportunity at the close of the service.

19 May 2017: the Rev. Partheepan Shanmugam spoke of the advantage in his mission work in Sri Lanka from congregational discussion of sermons after their being preached.  The benefit that one person receives is shared with all, and another benefit another receives is also shared with all.