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andrew lim: a preacher ponders . . .

Tell us a bit about yourself Andrew

I’m a Malaysian of Chinese descent but have made New Zealand my home for the last twenty eight years. Coming to faith in Christ from Buddhism, I have had special interest in theology and apologetics and that landed me in the then Bible College of New Zealand and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The Lord has enabled me to serve him for forty years as a pastor and seminary lecturer. I stepped down from the pastoral ministry about three years ago, and I now preach and teach as doors are opened for me. Incidentally, I am currently teaching an eight-week course on the Book of Job at Emmaus here in Palmerston North.  I have a wife who works alongside me in the ministry and two daughters who keep me abreast with what’s going crazy in the culture out there! Last bit about myself, it sounds odd but I collect vintage brass plumb bobs!

Describe your natural preaching style

I am a manuscript preacher. I virtually write my sermons word for word. I have made several forays into extemporary preaching (preaching without notes) but I have never felt easy with that approach. One of the reasons for this has to do with my belief in the significance of the spoken word in preaching. The spoken word is weighty and consequential. Therefore, not any word will do for the crucial thoughts I want to convey. There are words and there are words. I work at getting the right word. This necessitates that I preach from manuscripts, though I have not been totally reliant on them.

It may sound a like a contradiction in terms, but manuscript preaching actually keeps me free from the manuscript. This preaching style unshackles me as a preacher to hear from the Holy Spirit even as I am preaching. Because manuscripting enables me to know my next thought with absolute clarity, I actually have more freedom to follow the dictates of the Holy Spirit should He prompt me with a thought which deviates from my prepared script. I know the way back with confidence. It is a fallacy that a well-rehearsed sermon from a manuscript binds the preacher from hearing the Spirit even as he or she preaches.

The other matter which I believe dictates my preaching style has to do with my conviction that if a sermon is to work, I need to consciously strive to preach to the heart, even as I strive to preach to the mind. I am persuaded that rigid textual sermons simply do not cut it where it comes to the matter of convicting the hearts of the listeners. That approach will invariably turn me into a lecturer and not a preacher. My sensitivity to this matter has shaped my preaching style. I tell stories; I draw ideas from experiences, biographies, nature, literature, current events or other corroborative biblical narratives. I believe the Holy Spirit uses such extra-biblical sources, working in tandem with the revealed, inspired text to convict the whole person, mind and heart.


What convictions have sustained you in your preaching ministry?

I believe the Bible is irrefutably the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God, and that it is our final authority for all doctrine and practice. This leads me to the conviction that the Bible is totally sufficient and trustworthy in revealing the mind and purpose of God to us. This conviction emboldens me and it has led me to preach expositionally through the books of the Bible. I have the confidence that if I exegete the text carefully I will be saying what God is saying. After all, as we all know, when you break down the word homiletics it simply means “saying the same thing as God says”.
The other conviction that has gripped me over the years is that unless the Holy Spirit speaks through me, I might succeed in persuading a few people some time, but fundamentally I will be bringing no impactful and lasting changes in their lives. Without the Holy Spirit’s conviction, my sermons may stir up some scintillating sentiments but they could bring about no conversion of souls. This has been a most humbling thing to note for indeed some of my “finest” sermons have fallen stillborn off my lips when some of what I’ve thought were my “lousiest” sermons have brought about genuine conversions.

How do you choose where from the bible you will preach from?

I became convicted in my early years at seminary by reading Andrew Blackwood on the importance of preaching through books of the Bible; what he called a “planned preaching program”.  Although his suggestion of preaching through a book in a quarter going through four books in a year didn’t work for me, I became convicted early in my ministry that I should be preaching expositionally through the Bible. I have largely alternate between the OT and the NT books. I felt compelled not to sideline any particular genre, particularly the problematic ones. This has safeguarded the congregation from my own predisposition to jump on my bandwagon of preaching the prophets all the time.

I must say that in my latter years, the choices of some of the books I have preached have been inspired by fine preachers out there doing a fine job preaching from those books.

If you were teaching a short course on preaching but could only cover three topics, what would they be?

One: Why and How Preachers Should Preach to the Heart.

Two: How to Preach the Old Testament Prophets.

Three: How to Read Worldviewishly

Which authors would you recommend to preachers?

My pick may reflect that I’ve been caught in a kind of a time-warp.

But I find myself going back to the first seven volumes not so much for the “how” of preaching but for the critical “why” of preaching; for inspiration over the basic motivations for preaching.

The last four are excellent on the practical matters of sermon preparation. I fail to understand why Daane is not as well-used as I feel it ought to be. It is excellent work on the power of the pulpit and his practical guide to expository preaching is a gem.

The first 7: the why of preaching

John Stott – The Preacher’s Portrait

Frank Colquhoun – Christ’s Ambassadors

John Piper – The Supremacy of God in Preaching

Donald Coogan – Stewards of Grace

Herbert Farmer – The Servant of the Word

James Stewart – A Faith to Proclaim

Martyn Lloyd-Jones – Preaching and Preachers

The last 4: the how of preaching

James Daane – Preaching with Confidence

John Stott – Between Two Worlds

Haddon Robinson – Biblical Preaching

Bryan Chapell -Christ-Centered Preaching

Some say a preacher’s personal Bible reading (devotions) should not be the basis for sermon preparation; others say it should. What do you think?

I have not read the Bible in my “devotion” with the sole aim of preparing for my sermon. This does not mean that I do not ponder over my selected preaching text “devotionally” seeking the Holy Spirit’s illumination on the text. But in practical terms, I simply don’t see how one could make one’s daily devotional reading the basis of sermon preparation. I don’t get the connectivity between the two.

Which genre of Scripture do you most enjoy preaching from; and which one do you find most challenging?

I have mostly enjoyed preaching through the prophets, both the major and the minor. That said, I have also enjoyed preaching from Paul’s letters. For me, although I didn’t get to turn it into a more thorough series, preaching through Romans was rather challenging.


the one trait the preacher cannot do without – andrew lim

If this piece sounds like I write as one who has abided by his own prescriptions let me quickly deny it.

And yet I must say with all my conviction, that with the power of God to save on one hand and the feebleness of the preacher on the other, it is vital that the preacher considers their own personal holiness a matter of utmost importance.

Paul in 1 Timothy 4:8 admonished Timothy to be rigorous in his pursuit of personal godliness. He said: “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” The verb there is in the imperative – gymnase from gymnaso. Timothy is told “exercise yourself unto godliness.” It is from this word that we derive the words  gymnasium and gymnastics. Timothy is to “train like a gymnast” in order to be godly. This is hard work. But if we are to take our call with utter seriousness, that is imperative for us.

The preacher needs to strive for holiness. Paul himself desired that and he insisted on a life of purity for Timothy. Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said: “A holy man [sic] is an awesome instrument in the hands of God.” Surely God’s promise of fruit to the godly is not irrelevant to the preacher. Ps 18:20, 24 reads: “The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.”

Malachi 2:6 speaks to the life of the preacher when it affirms the tradition of the Levite priesthood: “True instruction was in his [Levi’s] mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity.” The preacher may have been showered with imputed righteousness, but he desperately needs to match that with his practical righteousness. Without holiness and righteousness, they cannot qualify as true preachers no matter how eloquent they may be. Verse 8,9 spells the opposite road the preacher may take: “You have turned aside from the way . . . You have not kept my ways.”

But the reality is that even in our redeemed state, we preachers have feet of clay. We are frail in our resolution, timid in our convictions and often lackadaisical in our duty.

And there must have been times when just about the only difference between a sermon that is prominent and one that is impotent is simply the difference in the character of the preacher behind the sermon. To know the inner life of preachers like Jonathan Edwards, Charles Simeon or Spurgeon, is to understand the secret behind their eminent ministry.

If the preacher’s private life is not clean, they cannot face the congregation with confidence, there’ll be no joy and liberty in their utterance and inevitably the pulpit will be shorn of its power.

You can’t live carelessly during the week and expect to be weighty on Sunday. It was said of a French court preacher: “Sire, your sermon terrifies me, but your life reassures me.”

Clarence Macartney has a line I have personally cherished for nearly thirty-five years now. In his notable book Preaching Without Notes, Macartney says: “The life that the preacher leads during the week, follows him [sic] up the stairs into the pulpit. The better the man, the better the pulpit. When he kneels by the bed of the dying or when he mounts the pulpit stairs, then every self-denial he has made, every Christian forbearance he has shown, every resistance to sin and temptation will come back to strengthen his arm and give conviction to his voice. Likewise, every evasion of duty, every indulgence of self, every compromise with evil, every unworthy thought, word or deed, will be there at the head of the pulpit stairs to meet the minister on Sunday morning, to take the light from his eyes, the power from his blow, the ring from his voice, and the joy from his heart.” [Preaching Without Notes N.Y. Abingdon 1946 p.178]

May God help us all.

exegete your text AND your culture – andrew lim

Preaching demands that you “reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” 2 Tim 4:2. Scrutinising these three imperatives more carefully, it will mean that preachers are to reprove (admonish, repudiate); rebuke (denounce, reprimand); and exhort (appeal, implore). This is a tall order. It demands that we do more than merely exegete the text. We will have to expound the text in such a way that our listeners are cut to their hearts leading them to seek God for renovation.

This is the heart of preaching, and this, is what exposition seeks to do.

If missionaries have to work hard at understanding the culture of the people they hope to win over, what makes us preachers think we may be spared from that labour?

It is as crucial to exegete our culture as it is to exegete the text.

Paul, for all his boast over his fine Jewish pedigree, was willing to subdue those traits and chose to widen his own cultural categories, so that someone like Cornelius, who was a total stranger to Paul’s cultural backdrop, could make sense of what he was preaching. Paul did not use the same approach when he addressed the Jews at a synagogue in Antioch as he did when he addressed the thinkers and scholars in Athens.

At Athens, he showed that he was conversant with the basic rubrics of their philosophy; indeed well-versed with the stuffs that was found in their textbooks. He quoted from their philosophers to help them cross over from the known to the unknown. He exegeted the Athenian culture in order to build bridges. David Wells says, Evangelism demands your willingness to be involved in a clash between worldviews.”  If we insulate ourselves from the thinking of the world, we have a high price to pay. The price of our isolation is irrelevance.

While we should never realign our message to mesh with our prevailing culture, we may use their materials to help people move from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

We do this by learning to detect the cultural narratives that float freely in the space we commonly inhabit. These potential points of connectivity are found located everywhere in almost everything we encounter daily, from a quote from a classic, a line from a song, an anecdote from a movie to a biographical narrative.

Epistemologically, the preacher and his listeners live in two separate worlds. Increasingly, with the majority of our listeners, we may no longer assume that our listeners have any conception of sin. Neither may we assume an understanding of truth or guilt on their part. But there are sounds, scents and sighs of people around us that we can sniff out so we may better understand what fundamentally drives them as people; what their passion, desires, motivations and sensitivities are, and consequently help them see what, in reality, is driving their hopes and desires, and why, for example, they view sex, money and power the way they do. We capitalise on their own materials to help them see some motivations that lie deep down in the subterranean level of their hearts.

Our landscape is littered with cultural iconography of all sorts, and we ought to be cultural cartographers of our city mapping these out in our minds.

Following Acts 2:37, my aim in preaching is to “cut to the heart” of my listeners. And for that, I need to exegete my culture.

why martyn lloyd-jones didn’t want his listeners to take notes when he preached – andrew lim

 

The very first recorded sermon that was preached convicted the heart of the hearers. Luke tells us that “…when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers what should we do?’” (Acts 2:37). Any talk of “preaching to the heart” will give two false impressions: one, that we are resorting to emotionalism; two, that the heart and mind are divided.

The biblical use of the word “heart” does not rigidly confine it to mean a person’s feelings or emotions. Instead the word “heart” denotes the inner life of a person – their character, their inner self, their mind, their will, their intention. It is the mainspring of their thoughts, affections, purposes, passions, desires, appetites, and their endeavours. It is what we have been warned to guard (Prov. 4:23).

We need to be careful that we do not adopt the gnostic dichotomy of head and heart. Schleiermacher made the mistake of degrading the objective thought (mind) of a person and extolling their subjective passions (heart). That is a view that is discordant with scripture. The Bible does not set a person’s intellect against their feelings. This is a Western category and not a biblical one.

Preaching that strikes at the heart strikes the whole person – mind and emotions. The very core of their being is hit so that no listener can remain comatose. They cannot not respond.

This does not mean that they will necessarily respond favourably. Often, they will not. But respond they must for they will feel violated, indeed assaulted. When the Athenians heard Paul in Acts. 17, some mocked and others wanted to come back to hear him out. Both groups were touched to their hearts. When Peter preached, people repented. When Stephen preached, they stoned him. Yet both preached to the heart.

Preaching that touches the heart is preaching that wrests a response from the hearer whether that response is faith or fury.

Why then, do most sermons not sting to the heart?

I believe preachers make two interrelated homiletical mistakes that work against this.

 

One: we are too technical.

In my early years as a student at Bible College, we were told, quite repeatedly: “By all means, work hard at your exegesis, be clear of the context, check your grammar, note the different interpretations, but once you are up there behind the pulpit, whatever you do, don’t let your petticoat show.”

 

Not that we wore them, but the point was made. We could see how an exquisite dress could be spoiled when the slip shows!

This, unfortunately, is a mistake we often see in our preaching. For some reason, we feel bound to present to the congregation all those finer exegetical points that we have laboured over during the week. We enlighten them with the original usage and meaning of a particular word. We tutor them about the theological backdrop of the passage we have studied, and we split hairs over some of the variant readings or interpretations.

We let our petticoats show.

With the result that our hearers cannot see the wood for the trees. They take down copious notes about the “facts” of the passage. They return home with fresh knowledge and new understanding of the text.

But their hearts have not been moved.

 

Two: we lecture rather than preach.

A sermon is not a lecture. One is informational, the other is transformational. A lecture educates while a sermon enlivens! One seeks to instruct, the other seeks to reawaken and regenerate.

The preacher is not to merely educate the people of the facts of the Bible. Rather they are there to declare a timely prophetic Word of God to elicit a response.

Far too many of us have stood behind the pulpit as a grammarian or a theologian

We need to stand behind the pulpit as a preacher.

When you give the impression that understanding biblical or theological facts is all there is to a sermon, your listeners will intuitively take notes.

But it is while they are taking notes that they miss out on the very thing a sermon is supposed to do – something “of the moment”; something that needn’t be jotted down and indeed can’t be jotted down. Lloyd-Jones rightly observes that note-taking during the sermon indeed work against the hearers from responding to the Word preached.

“I have often discouraged the taking of notes while I am preaching. . . . The first and primary object of preaching is not only to give information. It is, as Edwards says, to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently. . . . While you are writing your notes, you may be missing something of the impact of  the Spirit.”  —    Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The   Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh, 1987), page 360.

Jonathan Edwards insists that the primary goal of preaching is to produce “an impression” and elicit a response from the heart. But that is not likely to happen if our hearers are immersed in writing notes instead of pausing to allow time and space for the Spirit to cut them down, and convert them in their seat right there and then.

Preaching needs to make a foray into the heart of the listener so that their mind is assaulted, and their will vanquished and subdued.

 

How then should we preach?

Keller says it best when he tells us that every sermon should have three purposes. You should “preach the truth, not just your opinion; you should preach the good news, not just good advice; and you should preach to make the truth real to the heart, not just clear to the mind.”

Then he gives us this practical advice. The preacher ought to preach affectionately (“If you want to preach to the heart, you need to preach from the heart.”); imaginatively, (“using illustrations”); wondrously (“we should always strive to let the wonder sink in”; memorably; Christocentrically and practically.

For that, we shall need to humbly depend on the Holy Spirit to empower our preaching so that no one listening will remain tepid, cold and impervious but instead have their sinful resistance buffeted, and their will crumble before the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

why preach the gospel in every sermon? – andrew lim

gospel-painting

The Gospel of Jesus is both the ground and resource for life and meaning. I’ve discovered that I will never preach a theological truth that is more profound than the gospel.

Preaching Gospel-centred sermons does not mean preaching an evangelistic Gospel message each week concluding with an altar call; nor does it mean hastily pegging it onto the conclusion just because you have to bring it up.

Preaching a Gospel-centred sermon is not preaching a sermon with the gospel attached to it.

A Gospel-centred sermon shows the people how their anxieties, failures and dissatisfaction all find their cure through the death of Jesus and His sacrifice for our sins. It shows the people how they will not be able to do what God requires of them, but Christ has done for them what they cannot do. It is calling on the people to rest on the finished work of Jesus and to respond with joy and humility.

We say “we preach Christ and Him crucified” but it is easy to go on preaching non-Christocentric sermons. We rail against sin and promote holiness, but Christ is often nowhere to be heard. And the people go home to pray harder and sacrifice more. But it’s a fool’s errand! It’s works righteousness.

Just about the only way to stop preaching such sermons is to start to grow a deep distaste, an allergy, even a repugnance, for moralistic sermons that do not promote the fame of Christ and stir people’s hearts to ravish Him.

How then should we preach?

 

  1. Begin with the unnatural.

Being Gospel-centred is not the most natural thing for us. Feeling safe and satisfied with Jesus is not our heart’s default setting. Our self-preservative instinct automatically kicks in when we’re afraid or hurt. Throughout the day, we need to learn to process our thoughts, attitudes and actions in light of the Gospel. We need to confess our sins of smugness and anxieties in the light of the love and forgiveness of God. For unless we’ve found sufficiency and satisfaction in the Gospel, we cannot be Gospel-centered in our preaching.

 

  1. Grow sensitivity to the invasiveness of the Gospel

When Gospel-centeredness becomes second nature, you’ll begin to see the implications of the Gospel in virtually every aspects of your daily living. You will see Christ as the solution to every human ill and how the Gospel relates to any text you preach; and you’ll seek to promote it so your people may be transformed by it.

 

  1. Get to Jesus in each sermon

Preaching from any text, you could either conclude by giving the people a list of what they should now do, or you could remind them about what Jesus has done on their behalf.

If you preach on greed and not bring the gospel in, the people will probably say: “I’m going to stop making money my security, I’m going to give more away to God” but that is never going to work because the heart’s desire for a supreme object of worship is unquenchable. Greed cannot be destroyed. It can only be dispossessed.

You need to get the people to look at Jesus the Almighty God of the vast cosmos coming down to this tiny cosmic speck earth to face head-on the fires of hell because of His sacrificial love for you. When the people come to see that loving you stripped Him of virtually everything, the object of their greed will cease to be captivating. Knowing this makes Jesus so beautiful their greed for other stuff becomes shamefully pathetic.

what i learned from preaching on job – andrew lim

suffering_job-705x500

Expounding Job is admittedly intimidating. The book defies easy understanding. The author utilises a spectrum of literary genres, similes and metaphors. The book contains such philosophical and theological perplexities as human suffering and the apparent malevolent ways of a benevolent God. Further, interpreting the many speeches of Job’s friends demands that the preacher sniff out those speeches that appear theologically sound but are either inherently flawed or proffered too simplistically to Job.

Yet for the following reasons, this book needs to be preached.

  • It is part of the “whole counsel of God”.
  • Our self-absorbing narcissistic culture and our spirit of self-sufficiency need to be humbled by a God whose knowledge none can fully plumb and whose purpose none can thwart.
  • The prevailing health and wealth gospel needs a biblical rebuttal.
  • Suffering Jobs are present everywhere and, in preaching this book you’ll likely be preaching to someone who is a Job or who knows of a Job.

How then shall we preach this book?

I have found the following disciplines helpful:

READ THE ENTIRE BOOK THROUGH

Job is more than a biblical response to the problem of theodicy. Only in grasping the flow of the entire book will the preacher develop a sound interpretive framework to expound it. Until you read the whole book through, you’ll stumble on numerous passages for which you’ll virtually have no topography on the map.

CONSULT YOUR COMMENTARIES

No single preacher has the breadth of wisdom and discernment to grasp the depth of Job’s message. We would do well to consult the finest commentaries. I’ve personally found Strachan, Gibson, Genung, Thomas, and McKenna to be invaluable.

BE PATIENT WITH POETRY

Some of God’s titanic truths are most effectively freighted to us through the vehicles of music, art and poetry, like The Messiah and The Return of the Prodigal Son. The writer of Job has 39 chapters in poetry partly because he is not content with spitting out propositional truths about suffering. He wants us to feel the throes of Job’s affliction. And for that we need to work at transfiguring those poetic passages so they connect with the aching angst in the human heart.

UNDERSTAND THE PURPOSE FOR THE BOOK

When God finally breaks his long silence, the purpose for the book starts to emerge. But to the end Job receives no explanation for his pain. Neither do we see any evidence of God ever giving him one. Instead God throws a barrage of questions at Job to help him see His sovereignty in all of life. And though suffering remains enigmatic to Job, he comes to see that suffering is neither random nor punitive; and that God is God and he is not.

WORK TO GET THE BOOK TO BREATHE LIFE FOR TODAY

If the book paints a portrait of a patient saint, it also paints a portrait of a headstrong sufferer. Job vacillates between the desire to yield and the temptation to dissent; between faith and anxiety; repose and terror. The average person in the pew can identify herself with him. Exploit those passages which depict Job’s anguish and ire. Openly address the heart-wrenching agony of human sorrow.

It is one thing to exegete Job satisfactorily with diligence; it is another thing to instill hope and inspire worship through it. This calls for prayer for a sensitive spirit.