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The Power of God's Word: A Conversation with Jonathan Leeman

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2011 10 Mar


Today, I'm glad to welcome Jonathan Leeman to the blog, as we enjoy a conversation about how the Word of God should reverberate in our churches. Jonathan's new book,Reverberation: How God's Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People,encourages us to have full confidence in the power of God's Word. I wrote this about the book:

I love books from authors who love the Word. Jonathan Leeman is one of those authors. In ReverberationJonathan displays his passion for Scripture, his heart for the church, and his love for King Jesus. This book has deepened my affection for and my confidence in the Word that is powerful unto salvation.

So, on with the conversation!

Trevin Wax: Lots of books are out there about the Word of God and its importance in the church. What makes your book different? How does the idea of reverberation tighten our understanding of how the Word does its work?

Jonathan Leeman: Thanks for starting the conversation, Trevin. In a discussion about the role of the Word and preaching in the church, a friend said to me that it's good to talk about the meat, but did I see a place to talk about the barbecue sauce? He wanted to know if we could talk about the devices that spice up preaching, or spice up a church service, and so forth.

I think that's a fine question to ask. But my impression is that many church leaders these days too quickly want to talk about the sauce, or write books about the sauce, or offer workshops on the sauce. And, personally, I like some sauce. At Chic-Fil-A, I go for the Polynesian sauce.

But the purpose of my book is to say, "Hey friends, let's talk about the meat. 'Cause all the power and protein is in the meat."

I guess my contention is that, like the gospel or the doctrine of God, we need to apply ourselves continually to deepening our understanding of how God's Word works. Our faith in its power needs to grow! Otherwise, our faith in its power becomes nominal. When that happens, church leaders begin to build their churches on secondary things, and church members begin to value and go looking for those secondary things.

So how is this different than other books? First, because I try to trace out the process of how the Word builds up the church, moving from person to person and area to area. In so doing, second, I hope it's a faith-creating meditation on the Word's power to give life and change.

Trevin Wax: I like sauce too. Honey mustard has always been a favorite. But I'm with you - the Word is where the power is and that's the foundation of building a church.

What do you say, though, to a pastor who seeks to faithfully preach the Word week in and week out and yet doesn't see much numerical growth in the church? His people know the Bible, love the Bible, want to hear from the Bible, and yet they are sluggish when it comes to the mission and evangelism. How does the Word challenge the Bible-centered church in this area?

Jonathan Leeman: That's a great question, Trevin. And I did try to write the book with that pastor in mind--the one trying to preach faithfully, but seeing few results.

At the risk of being slightly cheeky, as our British friends say, let me turn the question around on you, drawing from my last answer. What would you say to the pastor who preaches the gospel week after week, or the doctrine of God week after week, and yet he doesn't see numerical growth as well as sluggishness in missions and evangelism?

Trevin Wax: Oh boy, the conversational approach turns on me!

Here's a start. There are two ways that numbers can skew our vision. The first is when we equate numerical growth with God's blessing. This is a mistake. Churches may grow because of a number of factors. Not every church that grows numerically is biblically faithful.

On the other hand, there's another way that numbers skew our vision - and that's when we become suspicious of growing churches and thus take comfort in declining numbers as a sign of faithfulness. "I'm just preaching the gospel no matter what and our decline must mean I'm doing something right." Neither approach is helpful or healthy.

The key for me would be to go back to what you said in your first response. It's not the sauce that matters ultimately; it's the meat. The temptation for a pastor of a declining church is to start analyzing the sauce.

Instead, I'd encourage that pastor who seeks to faithfully preach the Word every week and is discouraged that his people are sluggish in missions and evangelism - I'd encourage him to evaluate his teaching to make sure that he is faithfully preaching the Word. If 300 people are gathering every week to worship Christ and no one is being baptized upon conversion, something isn't right. Gospel-centered ministry will lead to mission because it's the story of a God with a missionary heart. This is the God who calls us, saves us, sanctifies us, equips us, and sends us back out.

The way that God accomplishes this is through - to borrow your title - the reverberation of His Word among His people. Our love for one another within the context of the church is the evidence of the gospel's truth. As we are led deeper into the truths of His Word, we come to know God in a deeper way. And the greater our love for God, the greater should be our desire for others to know Him. When we're not overflowing with passion for the lost, then we need to go deeper into the meat (not the sauce) until we are strengthened for the task that lies ahead.

Jonathan Leeman: Yeah, I agree with all of that. I think the basic point here is that you shouldn't go changing your assumptions about the power of God's Word, the gospel, or God himself just because you don't see your church growing.

Maybe you're not called/gifted to preach. Maybe you're not as faithful or gospel-centered in your exposition of Scripture as you think. Maybe you are being faithful, but God does mean to close that church's doors (though I agree with your point about being suspicious of growing churches). This is where it's good to have people capable of giving you honest and informed feedback.

Bottom line: it's still God's Word that gives life.

Trevin Wax: Agreed. I'd even say, Only the Word of God gives life.

Let's turn to the buzzword of "gospel-centered preaching." When you get into the nitty-gritty of expositional preaching, you write of the need to be gospel-focused. "No matter what part of Scripture you mean to expose, the gospel should eventually come into view."

I totally agree, and I am thankful that more and more pastors are seeking to Christ-centered and gospel-focused in how we do exposition. Yet, we want to do this in a hermeneutically responsible way, not artificially inserting Jesus in every proverb or psalm or story. Do you think that overreading Christ into the Scriptures is a potential problem? Perhaps we can unintentionally send the signal: "Wow, my preacher sees the Christ-connection everywhere... I'm sure glad I have him to interpret the Bible for me. I would've never seen that myself." And then the preacher becomes more important to the congregation than the Word itself.

What suggestions would you offer the pastor who seeks to be Christ-centered and gospel-focused in a hermeneutically responsible way?

Jonathan Leeman: Study. That's my ingenious one word answer. So I've spent the last decade trying to learn how to do this, and I'm always discovering how much I don't know. In 2001, I read Graeme Goldsworthy's Gospel and Kingdom. That's when the big paradigm shift for me occurred. But ever since then, I've been working to build on this new paradigm.

For example, several years later I'm teaching a Sunday school class on the wisdom literature. And I'm digging through everything I can get my hands on in order to help me teach those books as Christian books, but to do so responsibly and without allegorizing, as you're suggesting. Obviously I'm looking at commentaries. But almost more helpful than those were a number of biblical theologies. Bruce Waltke had a helpful essay on Proverbs. Charles Drew had a good book on the Psalms. Carson helped with Job. That sort of thing.  The Gospel Coalition has begun offering a new resource called Preaching Christ From the Old TestamentThat looks like a great resource for exactly this sort of stuff.

Beyond study, look to your church. Invite other church leaders to work through these issues with you. Get feedback. Listen to the teaching of others.

What do you do, Trevin?

Trevin Wax: I've dipped into some of the same resources that you mention. Goldsworthy has been especially helpful.

I try to keep the Emmaus principle in mind when I preach from the Old Testament. I don't want to be guilty of eisegesis, forcing Jesus into every text.

At the same time, Scripture tells us that all of God's Word is a witness to Christ. So there must be a way of faithfully pointing to Christ from any and every book in the Bible without falling into clever allegorizing. When I first started preaching, I did the allegory thing to the extreme. Then, reading people like Kaiser and others moved me into the "authorial intent" category almost exclusively. Now, I've realized the limits of authorial intent if it doesn't take into consideration the Authorial (capital A) intention that puts the whole Bible together. Talking with others about these issues has been very helpful in working through faithful ways of going to Christ.

Jonathan Leeman: I think you're striking the balance on the exegesis matter: it's about recognizing that the Bible is a unique book with both an author and an Author, and therefore you want to get at the authorial intent for each.

Trevin Wax: Before we wrap this up, I want to draw attention to your chapter on singing. If other readers are like me, they may be surprised that you devote an entire chapter in a book on the Bible to the importance of singing. Give us a snapshot of the case you make there. I think you've done a good job extending the idea of Word-centeredness to everything we do as a church, not just the preaching.

Jonathan Leeman: On the matter of singing...I'm glad you asked. Singing is the perfect place to think about the reverberations of God's Word in our hearts. Singing accomplishes a number of purposes, but I focus on three:

  1. It's how we the church own and affirm the truth of God's Word.
  2. It's how we engage our affections with God's Word.
  3. And it's how we both demonstrate and build corporate unity.

At one point I write that the reverberations of singing God’s Word should begin to reprogram the very way in which a Christian experiences emotion and affection. We can let our emotions be trained by sports enthusiasm, by television commercials, by movies, by the songs on the radio, by whatever our culture defines as masculine or feminine. Or we can let our emotional lives be formed by the church’s singing of God’s Word, by the Psalms, by centuries of wonderful hymnody, and by the choruses of the saints today.

How powerful the music of the saints is!

Trevin Wax: What does singing the Word teach us about ourselves?

Jonathan Leeman: One way I perceive my own spiritual immaturity as a Christian is in my inability to emotionally engage with the songs on Sunday, whereas it's relatively easy for me to emotionally engage with any old movie on Friday night. Now, I understand, there are probably a thousand qualifications one should probably make with a statement like that. Still, there's a real challenge there for me, and perhaps others.

Furthermore, it's one thing to emotionally engage with a style of music that's what I naturally listen to on the radio. But here's a harder question: can I learn to emotionally engage with music that's not necessarily "my style" for the sake of loving the older member or the younger member? Now we're talking about building unity, too.

I didn't say this in the book, but music is a tough topic in the church today because it's an emotive medium and we live in an emotivistic culture. We idolize our emotional states, which typically tends toward exalting the more extreme emotional states as somehow more real, alive, and desirable. But learning to engage our emotions with God's Word is not simply about learning to feel, it's also about learning self-control, knowing what role emotions should play in the whole scheme of things and how to moderate them for the sake of loving and serving others. It requires a more complicated formula than an emotivistic culture recognizes. Rejoicing with those who rejoice, and grieving with those who grieve (1 Corinthians 12) requires  the spirits of the prophets to be subject to the control of the prophets (1 Corinthians 14:32). It's about learn to feel, but learning to feel in a way that builds up the whole body.

Did you know that, in India, Christianity is known as the singing religion, because we're the only ones who sing?  What does that tell you?!

Trevin Wax: I'm going to sing louder and more passionately this week because of this conversation, Jonathan. Thanks for stopping by and answering my questions about your new book.