Seeing Beauty in the Mud

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. – Psalm 27:4

Living in a fallen world can be a complex moral experience, not because what is right is unclear, but because sin blurs everything. It’s like throwing a quilt over a lamp. The light shines, but it’s covered up. As bright as the sun is, a blind man cannot see it. And if the blind man argued that the sun did not exist, he would expose his own ignorance, and the sun would still be there.

So it is with the world. What is right is not unclear; it is clearly revealed in God’s Word, known by a person’s conscience, and confirmed by nature. But add a corrupting, blinding, mud-soaked principle in the mix, and complexity replaces simplicity. The new heavens and the new earth will not be a complex experience. Righteousness will radiate from the glory of God as much as it ever has, only the principle of sin will no longer exist.

Yet until that day arrives, we wage war against the old man (Rom 6:6, 12-19; Gal 6:16-24; Eph 4:17-32; 6:10-18; Col 3:12-17), using the Word of God illuminated by the Spirit of God to renew our minds and purify our hearts. It’s a process, a daily experience of the resources of grace teaching us the paths of righteousness. It’s a progressive following after the Shepherd, who in the midst of chaos, moral confusion, darkness, and decay, leads us to the still waters and green pastures of righteousness (Ps 23:1-3).

In this process we must allow the living and active Word to strip us bare and expose our nakedness, so that we might be clothed with clean, white robes. This means that the Word must confront every assumption we have about what is right and wrong, and clean it up. By looking to the culture for our moral cues, we trust in values that will shift every generation. It’s nothing more than striving after wind, and what profit is there in chasing wind?

The Word is a fixed rock. It is a revelation of God’s purpose(s) in creation, and those purposes are the foundation of morality. His laws are not arbitrary. They don’t change because one generation has died off. It’s sad but (somewhat) amusing that the present generation is oblivious to the fact that in fifty years they’re going to be the morally bankrupt, and intolerant bigots they lament so often about. Their grandchildren, if following the winds of the culture, will look back on their generation as either too conservative, or too liberal, depending on the direction the wind blows.

The confidence the Christian has is that the righteousness of God does not change. It stands as an ever fixed banner signaling the demise of this present darkness and the coming of the kingdom of peace. Certainly the church, as long as the Lord tarries, will have to battle against the devilish attempts of many who twist the Word to their own liking. But even in this fight she follows one who has already lead the way and succeeded (Matt 4:5-7).

Our confidence in the Word comes from its source, a God who has revealed himself as the Savior of the humble, oppressed, and weak sinner. He is a God who speaks tenderly to the downcast, shows Himself gentle to the lowly, and fierce towards the wicked. He is the God who created beauty, and thus beauty has its origin in Him. Therefore to hear His Word is to hear beauty itself, and to see the promised Word—the Christ of God—revealed as the Savior of a darkened world, is to see beauty clearly in a world of counterfeits. It is seeing beauty clearly in the mud.

Thoughts on Expositional Preaching

In Jonathan Edwards’ book, The Religious Affections, he argues that

Impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men is evidently one great and main end for which God has ordained that His Word delivered in the holy Scriptures should be opened, applied, and set home upon men in preaching. And therefore it does not answer the aim which God had in this institution, merely for men to have good commentaries and expositions on the Scripture, and other good books of divinity; because, although these may tend as well as preaching to give men a good doctrinal or speculative understanding of the things of the Word of God, yet they have not an equal tendency to impress them on men’sjonathan-edwards-preaching hearts and affections. God hath appointed a particular and lively application of His Word to men in the preaching of it, as a fit means to affect sinners with the importance of the things of religion, and their own misery and necessity of a remedy, and the glory and sufficiency of a remedy provided; and to stir up the pure minds of the saints, and quicken their affections, by often bringing the great things of religion to their remembrance, and setting them before them in their proper colors, though they know them, and have been fully instructed in them already (2 Pet 1:12, 13). And, particularly, to promote those two affections in them which are spoken of in the text, love and joy, “Christ gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; that the body of Christ might be edified in love” (Eph 4:11, 12, 16). The apostle, in instructing and counseling Timothy concerning the work of the ministry, informs him that the great end of that word which a minister is to preach is love or charity (1 Tim 1:3-5). And another affection which God has appointed preaching as a means to promote in the saints is joy; and therefore ministers are called “helpers of their joy” (2 Cor 1:24).

This paragraph from Edwards is really a jewel. It captures, I think, the essence of what preaching is, and what it should aim to do.

1. Expositional preaching should aim at the affections with the word of God.

Edwards’ main thesis in The Religious Affections is that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (23). By that he means that the true sign of a divinely created religious life is that a person’s affections, inclinations, will, etc., no longer have as their object worldly things, but heavenly things—specifically Christ. A person who has been “saved” or “born again” or made into a “new creation” has new affections set on heavenly things. The mind is “set on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). It no longer sets itself on fleshly things, but the things of the Spirit (Rom 8:5-8). The desires of a person are for God. He “thirsts” for God (Ps 63:1) and desires nothing on earth besides him (Ps 73:25).

If the great change that has occurred in a Christian is receiving a new heart—if that is what God has done to a person and aims to do to all of his people—then preaching, also, should have that aim. Certainly we recognize that it is not the preaching of a man in and of itself that creates a new heart. But it is the means that God uses to do so (Rom 10:17). In other words, God has purposed to create new hearts in his people, and he accomplishes this purpose through the preached word. Therefore, preaching, if it is to be called preaching, must have the same purpose as God. It must aim at the creation of a new heart. It must aim at the affections, moving them in the direction of love to Christ and joy in Christ.

Now it doesn’t do this by emotional stories or moving background music; it does this by expounding upon the word. The word is the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph 6:17). There is no way that affections set on dead and fleshly things will ever find satisfaction in heavenly things unless the Spirit works, and the Spirit works through the word. Preaching aims at the affections not with some plastic sword of therapy, but with the soul-penetrating, double-edged blade of the word of God.

2. Expositional preaching is not simply an exposition.

Now we should clarify at this point that an exposition of the word of God is not simply explaining the meaning of its words. Edwards says that possessing good commentaries, expositions on the Scripture (probably printed), and other good books of divinity is not enough to “impress” the word of God on men’s hearts and affections. And we might add here that simply giving a commentary on a passage from the pulpit, no matter how accurate it may be, is not expositional preaching. It is preaching when there is a “lively application of His Word to men in the preaching of it.”

Preaching must show people their need of a Savior. It must show them how sinful sin is and how glorious the glory of God is. It must demonstrate how much better the ethics of the kingdom of God are than the ethics of the kingdom of this world. And one way to avoid falling into the trap of just giving a commentary on a passage is to not simply focus on “the point of a passage.”

Mark Dever has defined expositional preaching as “preaching that takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture” (Nine Marks, 44). This is a simple definition that, once explained, is right, so don’t take what I’m about to say as correcting his definition. I agree with it. But to help a preacher avoid the pitfall of giving a lecture, we should add that the feeling, or conviction, or pathos of a particular passage of Scripture should be the feeling, or conviction, or pathos of the sermon. Exegesis is not complete if we have not discerned the feeling of a passage. When Paul says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom 11:33), it’s not enough to recognize and teach that Paul believes God’s ways are higher than our ways—that there is an incomprehensibility of God’s counsel. We must see that he is overwhelmed, lifted into a state of praise, and preach the text with the aim of stirring up the affections of the people of God to match the affections of the word, and this will only be accomplished if our own affections have been enlivened first.

Where God’s word speaks of rejoicing, the purpose of preaching is to impress rejoicing upon God’s people. Where God is grieved, his people should be grieved. What he weeps over, they should weep over. What he delights in, they should delight in. Thus when sin and the judgment it brings is spoken of, we should not joke and make light of the word; nor should preaching on the love of God be the same experience as preaching on the wrath of God. One brings joy, gratitude, and devotion. The other brings trembling, fear and awe. If true religion—the true Christian life—consists in holy affections, we need all of them, and preaching should teach how they’re all held together.

**Update: This video addresses preaching to the affections.**

The Joy of Judgment

But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult, for the mouths of liars will be stopped (Ps 63:11).

Judgment is a nasty word today. It’s taboo. The only sentence it is allowed in is one that begins with, “You shall not.” Even for many Christians, it’s not a comforting word. It’s a word that evokes fear, and in a sense, rightly so (see 2 Cor 5:10-11).

But judgment should also bring joy. In fact our soul’s thirst for God—our longing to know him as our greatest delight—is increased as we are able to exult in his judgments. To praise God for his salvation is to simultaneously praise him for his judgments. We tend to forget that latter part. Salvation is not only God’s work that delivers us from his righteous wrath, but a work that delivers us from evil men.

The destruction of Babylon (Rev 18), the city that symbolizes the corrupt world, is an event that causes the saints to rejoice because “in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth” (Rev 18:24). When God judges the world, it is an answer to the prayers of God’s people who cried out, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth” (Rev 6:11)?

Judgment brings joy because it is an answer to prayer in favor of the righteous. Who are the righteous? Those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14) and have conquered the serpent “by [his blood] and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev 12:11). They are those who have received the righteousness of God “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:22). They are God’s new creations who, having been set free from sin, walk in good works (Eph 2:10). They have cast off the old man that was corrupt by deceitful desires and have clothed themselves with the new, “created after the likeness of God” (Eph 4:24). That is why they are righteous. They swear allegiance to God’s King, living as his representatives in a kingdom ruled by “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44) as they await its end, and the beginning of an eternal kingdom of righteousness.

In Psalm 63, David says that he seeks “earnestly” for God (v. 1). His soul thirsts for God like one who thirsts for water in a wilderness (v. 1). God is David’s greatest delight. He rejoices in God. He finds the steadfast love of God to be better than life itself (v. 3). And as we continue to read the psalm, we find that David’s joy in God is due to his confidence that God will deliver him from his enemies. The friend of the wicked will be the grave (v. 9). But the king and all who swear by him shall exult—their happiness will express itself in song—because “the mouths of liars will be stopped” (v. 11). Judgment will come, and it will not be because of the ingenuity or strength of the people of God, but because of the power of God himself (v. 8, 11).

The Christian’s joy in God increases as he swears by King Jesus and looks forward to the day when “the mouths of liars will be stopped.” This is never some sadistic delight in destruction, but faith in the promises of God that the corruption of this present world is not eternal. When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we are confidently anticipating the arrival of the King who never errs in judgment, never awards the wicked, never oppresses the lowly, and always satisfies the thirsty soul.