Advice for Preachers and Teachers (21)
For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith… Ephesians 3.14-17
“For of what use is the religion of the outward man, if there is not also shown an improvement in the inner? That person can be false and a thief, that person is false and a hypocrite, who displays one quality in his bearing and another in his character. Then let us not be like whited sepulchers, let us study to show ourselves splendid and adorned within and not without; for true religion resides in lowliness not of habit but of heart.”
- Columbanus, Sermon II
Christian growth is mainly inside-out. While it’s true that bringing our outward lives into conformity with Biblical guidelines and practices can discipline the members of our body for obedience (cf. Rom. 6.11-13), no lasting change occurs until we have been transformed within, in heart, mind, and conscience – the components of the soul.
When Columbanus and his team arrived in Gaul toward the end of the 6th century, they were dismayed at the state of Christian faith there. Local ministers were held in high regard, and just about everybody seemed to have faith in Christ. But it was all outward, pro forma, and lacking in any true spiritual vitality. People talked the talk and even did some of the works, but their true desires and vision of the good life were defined more by the worldly practices of the Frankish court than the heavenly priorities of the throne of Jesus Christ.
Many of the people of Gaul sensed there was more to following Jesus, and when Columbanus and his team began teaching and training, young people flocked to them from all over Gaul and beyond. They were practicing and proclaiming a form of Christianity that had long been absent from continental Europe, an inside-out faith that worked to disciple and transform the soul, not just the body, for conformity to the likeness of Jesus Christ. Thousands of young believers found new life, purpose, and calling from the Lord as they joined Columbanus and his monks to learn Jesus.
We’re familiar with preaching to the mind, working by all the hermeneutical, homiletical, and rhetorical devices we can muster to impress the truth of Scripture on the minds of those who hear us. But if we only ever aim to inform people – to put up more of the right wallpaper in their brains – we will not achieve the kind of inside-out transformation that improves discipleship. We need to aim in our preaching and teaching at the whole person, beginning within at the components of the soul.
The inner person
Within the soul is where salvation is worked out into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This is where the Spirit dwells, and where He is at work making us willing and able to do that which is pleasing to God (Phil. 2.13).
The Spirit writes the Law of God on our heart (Ezek. 36.26, 27), so that we love God and our neighbors (Matt. 22.34-40). He trains the conscience to read and adopt the values and priorities of God’s Word (Rom. 2.14, 15). He also unpacks the riches of the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2.12-16; Rom. 8.5-8), so that we are able to take every thought captive for obedience to Jesus (2 Cor. 10.3-5). The Spirit guides us into all truth (Jn. 16.13) – line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little (Is. 28.10) – so that He teaches us the things of Jesus and shows us His glory (Jn. 15.26; 2 Cor. 3.12-18). The Spirit reveals the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4.6), and this exerts transforming power on the mind, the heart, and the conscience. Thus we learn to think Jesus’ thoughts after Him, to love and desire what Jesus loves, and to value those priorities which conduce to seeking and advancing His Kingdom.
Within us is where the explosive and expansive power of God waits to be engaged for lives of witness and good works (Eph. 3.20; Acts 1.8; Eph. 2.8-10). We can try patching on exercises and practices designed to involve the members of our body in sharing the Gospel or doing good to others. But unless these take root within us, where the Word of Christ dwells and the vision of Christ prevails (Col. 3.16; 3.1-3), those outward practices will not remain.
We must preach and teach for improvement of the inner person, so that the living water of the Spirit will flow abundantly from within through channels of witness and service to the world.
Taking aim at the inner person
Jesus is the focus and end of all preaching and teaching, as He is formed within us for loving God and our neighbors (1 Tim. 1.5). Every text and theme of Scripture must unfold from, through, and unto our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 11.36). Because Jesus is infinitely wise, infinitely good, infinitely true, and infinitely beautiful we need not fear becoming merely repetitious or boring as we work to help those we serve to see Jesus. There is always something new, wonderful, amazing, inspiring, and transforming about Jesus to hold before His people.
And our work of preaching and teaching must aim at this consistently, and with a view to informing the mind, exciting the affections, and solidifying the conscience for obedience to Jesus Christ. We recall how Peter and the disciples on the mount of transfiguration were so enraptured by the vision of Jesus that, in spite of their fear, they longed to remain there. And how the vision of Jesus emboldened Stephen, arrested and transformed Paul, moved and sustained John, and enthralled and captivated prophets and psalmists alike. This is what we want for the people we serve – that they might see Jesus, and seeing Him be made more like Him in the inner person. To think like Jesus, love what Jesus loves, and value His priorities above life itself.
But if all we ever speak to are the minds of our hearers, and some aspect of their outward lives, our words will not have the kind of transforming effect that Columbanus and his monks had on the people of Gaul, Switzerland, and northern Italy. We must study intently and pray earnestly for the Lord to show us keys in each text which can open the doors of minds, hearts, and consciences for Jesus to enter and expand His Presence. If we can connect people with Jesus in their inner person, Jesus and His Word and Spirit will take it from there.
What are these “riches of the glory of God?” They are “being strengthened with might through his Spirit,” so that they may be strong against the sinful nature, the desires of the flesh and the dreadful powers of this world. This strengthening happens through the Spirit of God. But how are persons strengthened and made firm through the Spirit of God? By “Christ’s dwelling in the inner man,” he says. For when Christ begins to dwell in the inner citadel of the soul, persons are made strong by might through the Spirit. In this way everything of a hostile nature is evicted.
- Marius Victorinus, Epistle to the Ephesians 1.3.16-17
T. M. Moore
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).