D.A. Carson – Pastoral Pensées

23 08 2010

The new edition of Themelios is out. As always, some interesting, relevant, thought-provoking articles and reviews… (and some less so!)

Most of all, I enjoyed this: D.A. Carson’s Pastoral Pensées: Motivations to Appeal to in Our Hearers When We Preach for Conversion.

‘Most of us, I suspect, develop fairly standard ways, one might even say repetitive ways, to appeal to the motivations of our hearers when we preach the gospel. Recently, however, I have wondered if I have erred in this respect—not so much in what I say as in what I never or almost never say.’

There have been a large number of articles, books and popular preachers who have encouraged us in recent years to think about the many strands of the gospel, and how we can apply each of them to the hearer as is most apt. Equally, there have been a number of articles, books and popular preachers who have favoured one model over another, or indeed over all the others (such that one particularly high-profile book on the atonement argued until its authors were blue in their faces that ‘penal substitution is the primary atonement model, but of course we believe in all the others as well!’ and then proceded to articulate each of the other atonement theories, practically disregarding their subtleties and describing all of them as in such a way as to make them sound just like penal substitution under a different guise!)

I feel that for all our talking about the many strands of the gospel, when it comes down to making an appeal, we still don’t quite get it. I still don’t get it. I still rely on tried and tested appeals, phrases, metaphors and methods. I fail to ask what my audience member might be thinking and feeling at that moment and instead preach a formula.

So for that reason I found Carson’s article helpful and enlightening. In it he surveyed eight possible motives we can and should appeal to in our hearers:

  • Fear
  • The Burden of Guilt
  • Shame
  • The Need for Future Grace
  • The Attractiveness of Truth
  • A General Despairing Sense of Need
  • Responding to Grace and Love
  • A Rather Vague Desire to Be on the Side of What Is Right, of What Is from God, of What Is Biblical, of What Is Clean, of What Endures.

I don’t intend to repeat all he said. Read it for yourself. But let me offer a couple of comments and some further reading:

  • I’d never before thought of ‘The need for future grace as a category of its own apart from Guilt and Shame…
  • ‘A Rather Vague Desire…’ deserves more thought. I wonder how many of the people I encounter fall into this category rather than any of the other seven? I’m also not entirely sure how I would tailor my appeal to them any differently than to those in the ‘Attractiveness of Truth’ camp.
  • ‘Burden of Guilt’. Carson writes:

‘I specify “the burden of guilt” instead of “guilt” because I prefer to use the latter for one’s moral and legal status before the holy God. In other words, one may be very guilty and not feel guilty, that is, not labor under any burden of guilt. If one is in fact guilty but feels nothing of the burden of guilt, the objective guilt is not a motivation for conversion. Until one cries, in these words or something similar, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4), one is not strongly motivated by the burden of guilt. On the other hand, that guilt, rightly perceived, can be a crushing burden and thus a powerful and desperate motivation for relief.’

I found this a fascinating distinction. Guilt is objective, but oft-unperceived. The Burden of Guilt is a feeling we can appeal to.

It strikes me that this is the one most of us fall back on regularly. But I doubt whether it is always the most effective. I remember preparing a talk a year ago for a student guest service and I had agonised over it for ages. When I took a step back, I realised that I was spending 70% of the talk trying to engender a feeling of ‘Burden of Guilt’ in people who had not the slightest perception of their objective Guilt. As a result, it simply came across as doom-mongering.

Now, sometimes that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I remember in an old job that a colleague of mine would, every day, just take some of the chocolate that was lying out in the kitchen, not realising that you were meant to pay for it! (As if the Civil Service has a habit of being exceedingly generous to its low-level grunts?!) I wondered at first how they didn’t seem to feel guilty about it, until I realised that nobody had ever explained the system; how much it costs, where to put the money etc. So I told them of their objective Guilt, which engendered a Burden of Guilt and led to a solution.

I’m sure there are a hundred and one less trivial examples, not least relating to salvation. But in general I feel that we depend solely on the ‘Burden of Guilt’ approach because we know no other. And more often than not, it falls flat, because that’s just not where our listeners are at. Often our gospel is so small that the only way we are able to preach it is to lead someone to the point where they think ‘I feel so guilty‘ and then say ‘Hey, I have an answer to that‘ rather than addressing the real questions and emotions they had in the first place!

Enough said on that before I labour the point. I’m not asking that we abandon the ‘Burden of Guilt’ approach. Just don’t unthinkingly take it as your default.

His concluding statements (expanded from these below) were a helpful check to keep the conversation in balance and limit knee-jerk reactions.

  1. We do not have the right to choose only one of these motivations in people and to appeal to it restrictively.
  2. On the other hand, we may have the right to emphasize one motivation more than others.
  3. Nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of our appeal to diverse motivations will reflect the comprehensiveness of our grasp of the gospel.
  4. To put this another way, all of the biblically sanctioned motivations for pursuing God, for pursuing Christ, say complementary things about God himself, such that failure to cover the sweep of motivations ultimately results in diminishing God.

I still feel we have a lot of work to do on this. We have the theory in place, but have to regularly fight the flesh and the temptation to rely on safe, easy, road-tested formulae. Ultimately we will serve people better if we genuinely engage with their emotions rather than fling a series of propositions at them and hope one hits home.

I’d encourage you to read Carson’s article and see what you think, especially if you’re a preacher. And to put flesh on the bones, check out this excellent paper by Andrew Wilson from Kings Church Eastbourne on ‘The Essential Gospel.’ It will really serve to model some of what Carson suggests.




4 responses

26 08 2010
We have met the enemy, and he is us « Liam's Blog

[…] Related Post: D.A. Carson – Pastoral Pensées […]

30 08 2010

Ive actually just re-read Andrews article, it made me think about how we preach the whole counsel to our young people. But it also made me question, what if you are asked to ‘do an evangelistic event’ somewhere, how do you gage your audiences need, other than the prevailing culture? TBH i have a personal unsureness about big gospel events but it has made me think…

31 08 2010

Good question. I think I’d offer a number of thoughts:

1 – We will never preach the whole Gospel in one go. We have to be comfortable with preaching a part of it and hoping that people will come into a church community where they will regularly hear different aspects of the Gospel and grow as a result. That is why it is essential we are always preaching the gospel. If we think people only need to hear the Gospel at an evangelistic event, and never bother to preach all the different aspects of it them once they are saved, they will miss out enormously! People who are saved by learning that Jesus deals with their guilt will need to know that he also deals with their shame, in order for them to progress in their Christian life. So we ought to trust that it will not be a one off… but a first proclamation of something they will grow to understand more as they come into the church.

2 – I think a major way of determining how you preach is the culture. But not just the ethnicity – the age range, the intellectual level, the social background, those sorts of things. The way I preach when I do an apologetics event in an art college is different to how I preach at a youth event for example. I think you’ve got to take time to think about the struggles your audience will be going through that will be unique to them. In some ways events for a single age group is easier in that regard… although of course we can’t imagine that everyone in the room will be struggling with exactly the same things. An event like Newday draws an enormous crowd! That’s going to be hugely challenging to preach at! That’s probably why the evangelistic talk virtually always focusses on Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Jesus dealing with guilt. If I’m speaking somewhere that I don’t know, I ask a lot of questions beforehand…

3 – The counsellors need to be well versed in all the strands and applications of the Gospel. Even though someone responds to a ‘guilt’ appeal, in conversation with a counsellor it may well emerge that the real issue that person needs help with is shame, in which case the counsellor needs to be able to reframe the gospel for them on the spot, and pray with them accordingly. A single talk will not reach everyone exactly where they’re at… but I think/hope that God will often move people to respond in miraculous ways, and it’s only when they get time one on one with someone who is going to pray with them, that they then get to ask the specific questions they have and be prayed for in a way that will deal directly with their concerns. So a good infrastructure will make or break a large evangelistic event.

4 – If you’re given a particular passage to preach from, that should be your guide as to what appeal you make. If a passage clearly and unambiguously points in one direction, you’ve got to have pretty good reasons for taking it another! Be true to the text…

5 – You can appeal to more than one motivation in any given talk. Think for example how Adrian preaches at Newday. i) He goes for healings, so one motivation for responding to the Gospel is that God does miraculous things that could be done no other way then ii) he preaches the Gospel a particular way and does an appeal and then iii) he does a second appeal, usually reframing it to say ‘one day it will be too late.’ Three different motivations, and people respond to each of them. If you can do that without cluttering the talk and confusing people… go for it!

I’m sure there’s far more that could be said. I also have a bit of nervousness about large events, but it all comes down to how the people are treated, counselled and then followed up. Large events will attract a certain kind of person you might never have a way of reaching otherwise. I think as long as the counsellors know what they are doing, and that the churches the converts join are clued up and pastor them well, they’re great!

Hope that helps a little…

26 05 2011
Honour and Shame i – The Jumping Frog « Liam and Helen's Blog

[…] may prove to be as clunky and indecipherable as version three of the Jumping Frog! Reading Carson’s article reminded me that I wanted to revisit the subject and give it some further […]

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