Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1

Dear Church Family,

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:

Preaching: What is the Gospel?

Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3

Preaching: The Same Message No Matter the Text?

 

Introduction

Last week, we examined the inappropriate view of preaching in which some argue that every sermon ought to have the same message: justification by faith alone in Christ alone. In that essay, I tried to show the implications of such a view of preaching with regard to the calling of a pastor to feed the sheep, some basic rhetorical issues, and how it inappropriate alters (and flattens) how believers read the Scriptures. I also tried to explain why I think this methodology of preaching the same message no matter the text is attractive.

One of the main points that I sought explicate was that while God’s people need to continually hear and be reminded of how they have been saved by faith alone in Christ alone, that the Bible has more to say to God’s people than this one message. With that in mind, today we will look at a particular portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith which helps us to see the multifaceted message of God’s Word.

Insights from the Westminster Confession of Faith

Chapters 14 & 15 of the Westminster Confession of Faith deal with faith and repentance, respectively. WCF 15.1 reads: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.” Plain enough – repentance and faith in Christ are to be preached by every minister of the Gospel. Chapter 15 then goes on to define and describe the different aspects of repentance.

Chapter 14, though, provides us with some insights that helps guide and direct preachers and readers of the Word, alike. Chapter 14 (Of Saving Faith) gives the definition, source, and means of faith (14.1), the effects of saving faith (14.2), and the victory of saving faith (14.3). [1 Peter 1:1-2:12 teaches all of these.] Consider, in more detail, the second paragraph:

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (WCF 14.2)

 

Notice the use of the two verbs (believes and acts). By faith, a Christian believes what is revealed in the Word of God because of the authority of God speaking in the Scriptures; one of the discernable marks of saving faith is that a person believes that the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God. Then – and here’s where it gets really interesting and applicable to how a preacher preaches, and how a hearer responds – by faith a Christian acts differently depending on the particular passage and its contents: (1) obeying the commands; (2) trembling at the threatenings; (3) embracing the promises. Finally, the paragraph concludes with the principal act of saving faith: receiving and resting upon Christ alone.

This portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith helps to chart the waters in the debates over what it means “to preach the gospel.” Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps, we ought to be asking, “What does it mean to preach the Word of God?” (WLC 159). Whichever question we ask, however, we need to understand WCF 14.2 and the importance of preaching the particularities of a passage (commands, threatenings, promises, or perhaps even several of these). Then, let God work faith in the hearers, a faith that manifests itself in different ways depending on the passage of Scripture that was preached. In the end, I suppose it comes down to the preacher having faith, himself – as defined in the first sentence of this paragraph – faith in the authority of God speaking in the Scriptures.

Conclusion

Here, we’ve just introduced the concept of how believers act differently based upon what each particular passage of Scripture contains. Next week, we will examine the Scriptural basis for this idea.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: The Same Message, No Matter the Text?

Dear Church Family,

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:

Preaching: What is the Gospel?

Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3

 

Introduction

In this installment, we take up in more detail a specific question that I have heard some wrestle over with regard to preaching: should every sermon have the same message no matter the text? Often, this is framed in terms of a narrow view of the gospel as speaking only to the justification of the individual believer (see the first installment linked above). With that narrow view of the gospel, the subsequent, the erroneous theory is derived that individual believers are sanctified only by hearing “the gospel of justification” – and that this ought to be the same message of every sermon.

Yes, it is true that the doctrine of justification and a person’s need to trust in Christ and repent of their sins ought to be preached by every minister of the gospel (WCF 15:1). And yes, it is true that one of the motivations in sanctification is the gratitude that comes from hearing what Christ has done for us. At the same time, is what God has done for us through Christ the only message of the Scripture? Should a preacher preach only this one message because it is the only means by which men and women are sanctified?

Implications of the “same message, no matter the text” view of preaching

These are important questions that every preacher wrestles with all of the time – or, at least ought to. One of the guiding principles, however, of lectio continua preaching – preaching through a book verse by verse, chapter by chapter – is that one ought to preach the text before him. This is key and needs to be stated and understood right up front. When this is done – sticking with the doctrinal teaching of a particular text – the Word of God (in all of its variety and emphases) is systematically set before the people of God.

Too often, as is the case for most every new preacher right out of seminary, one’s tendency is to preach all of Scripture in every sermon. One of the reasons for this is because in seminaries, we are trained to think systematically about the Bible and doctrine, and we want to make sure that our hearers understand all of the nuances and caveats in every sermon. The problem is this (to paraphrase a former seminary professor of mine): if you try to say everything about something, you will inevitably wind up saying nothing about anything.

For instance, when preaching a passage that emphasizes the importance of diligently applying virtue to one’s faith (e.g. 2 Peter 1:5-15), does one have to caveat every exhortation to supply these various virtues to one’s faith by saying, “Now, remember, there is nothing that you can do to earn or add to the merit of Christ for your salvation”? The answer is simply: No. Of course, this is true. Of course, it should be stated and stated clearly so as to avoid confusion or misunderstanding. But, that is not the emphasis of the text. The question that we should be asking of a passage of Scripture is not, “What doesn’t this passage teach?” (salvation by works), but, “What does this passage teach?” (the call to press on toward godliness).

There are some basic rhetorical issues at stake here, as well. If the text is an exhortation to pursue holiness, but then the sermon is concluded with – “But, don’t worry about that. Christ died for your sins. That’s all that matters.” While the latter is true as far as it goes, it is not the emphasis or the teaching of that passage and takes away from the emphasis of that particular text. I’ve actually heard proponents of this “same message, no matter the text” theory of preaching, insist that when preaching such a text, one must always “import the ‘gospel’ from another place in the Scriptures, lest your hearers put faith or trust in something other than Christ.” So, according to this philosophy of preaching, if one preaches on the important role of elders from Titus 1:5-9 – after exhorting the congregation and the elders of the church to maintain these criteria for ecclesiastical leadership, one should conclude with something like Jesus’ statement in John 10 where He describes Himself as the only “good shepherd.”

What this does, in practice, is misapply the original meaning of the text, and it also subtly teaches the hearers that all of the imperatives of Scripture are not applicable to them because Christ already fulfilled the demands. Again, of course, it is true that Christ has fulfilled all the demands of the law for those who have placed their faith and trust in Him – for all His elect. Yet, if “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), then shouldn’t we preach and apply all Scripture in the various ways that God has purposed for us to benefit from them?

Why the “same message, no matter the text” view of preaching is attractive

There are at least three reasons why this narrow view of preaching is so attractive.

First of all, when you sit under this kind of preaching – and when you preach it – it makes you feel good. If there is never a call to do anything, to reform my ways, or change my behavior, and all I have to do is acknowledge that where I failed, Christ succeeded – I get a sense of great assurance, and I feel really good about myself. And, people are attracted to that kind of message. The problem, however, is that it leaves out many of the hard sayings of the Bible; it leaves out the Lordship of Christ; it leaves out the call to discipleship. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it tickles one’s ears (2 Timothy 4:3), but it can very easily lead to a lack of self-examination and a false assurance. Perhaps that’s why it is so appealing.

Second of all, this kind of preaching sounds biblical. In fact, it is biblical, but it is only one side of the coin. Yes, it is true that we are justified by faith alone, in Christ alone; there is not one thing that we can do to add to the merit which Christ has provided for us in His perfect life, death, and resurrection. Truly, God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Yet, that is not the whole of the gospel message. Justification may be the heart of the gospel, but it not the whole of the Gospel. The good news is the gospel of the Kingdom. Last I checked a kingdom implies that there’s a king. And, the fact that there’s a king, implies that we ought to obey Him. Sometimes the only thing that people hear is that Christ is their Savior (a good thing), that they forget that He is also their Lord and King.

Third, and finally, in certain contexts – as I once found myself in as a chaplain in the army – when one is preaching mostly to unbelievers, an exclusive emphasis on justification by faith alone is often warranted. This is why we such an emphasis in many of the sermons that we have recorded for us in the book of Acts. The initial emphasis for those who have never heard of Jesus Christ needs to be an exposition of the teachings surrounding the doctrine of justification. Perhaps, this is why many on our college campuses gravitate toward this kind of preaching. Evangelistic contexts often require a different emphasis than week in and week out preaching in a congregation. That doesn’t mean that God’s people don’t need to continually hear and be reminded of how they have been saved; it simply means that that is not the only thing that they need to hear.

With the Apostle Paul, preachers ought not to shrink back from declaring to God’s people the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:27).

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching, Part 3

Dear Church Family,

In this mini-series of weekly emails on the nature and purposes of Christian preaching, most recently we have been looking at evidences of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. The first two parts of “Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching” are available online here: Part 1, Part 2.

If you’ve read the previous installments of this mini-series, then you will know that I have argued that redemptive-historical preaching is the proper way of interpreting and applying the word of God. That is, interpreting and applying Scripture in light of the life, dead, resurrection, ascension, and imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, this methodology has sometimes been abused.

So, in parts one and two, we considered four evidences of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. Here now, in part three, we consider the fifth and final evidence.

5. "Second Use of the Law Only” Preaching

There is this idea in the abuse of Redemptive-Historical preaching that the only legitimate interpretive grid for understanding the Scriptures is what is known as the “Law-Gospel Hermeneutic.” Simply put, the Law-Gospel Hermeneutic means that every Scripture may be divided into one of these two categories: law or gospel. In the law passages there are only imperatives (only commands concerning what you must do); in the gospel passages there are only indicatives (only statements concerning what God in Christ has done for you). According to this methodology, the law is opposed to the gospel.

To be sure, there is a legitimate sense in which we may view the Scriptures this way: the law commands us to be perfect, we recognize our inability to keep the law, and then we see our need for Christ who has fulfilled the law for us (Galatians 4:4-5). At the same time, there is also a legitimate sense in which the law and the gospel are not opposed to one another, but the law actually sweetly complies with the gospel (WCF 19.7). To better understand what’s going on here, it’s helpful to consider what has historically been known as the three uses of the law. Reformed theologians have recognized, and for the most part agreed, that the law of God functions in at least three ways; the law has three uses.

First, the law of God is a goad to civil righteousness. This is the operation of God’s law in the realm of common grace. The law restrains sin and promotes righteousness. In this use, the law functions merely as a cold task-master. Second, the law of God is a tutor to drive us to Christ, a stumbling block, if you will. A person tries to keep the perfect, holy law of God, fails and comes up short, and thus sees his or her need for Christ who has kept the law for us. In this use, the law functions as a measuring stick against our sinfulness and sin, continually reminding us of our need for a perfect Savior. Third, the law of God is a rule of life, a guide. While the first two uses of the law are employed with respect to both believers and unbelievers, the third use of the law is employed only for believers because only those who have been regenerated may actually keep God’s law. John Calvin wrote that this third use of the law is “the principal use, and more closely connected with its proper end” (Calvin’s Institutes, 2.7.12). [I’ve explained these three uses of God’s law in more detail here.]

Here’s why understanding these three uses is helpful. In the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching, only the second use of the law is used. That is not to say that in true redemptive-historical preaching, there is no place for preaching the law as a rule of life and guide for believer; however, in the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching, one never finds it. The fear is that the hearer will come away from the sermon with either undue despair (there’s no way I can live that way!) or misplaced arrogance (look how good I am!). These are legitimate concerns, but the answer is not to omit the demands which God makes on His people in our preaching. The answer is to be clear, balanced, and faithfully preach the text before us.

Though the exclusive Law-Gospel approach to preaching is gaining ground among some in the Reformed community, it is interesting to note that it is actually a very Lutheran distinctive. In a paper presented to the Evangelical Lutheran Confessional Forum in 1998, Mark DeGarmeaux described this distinctive Law-Gospel approach as one of the unique contributions to worship and preaching by the Lutheran tradition. He calls this type of preaching, “sacramental preaching.” You will note that in the following quote, the author is using “the gospel” in the narrow sense as referring only to justification by the substitutionary atonement of Christ:

Luther’s understanding of the distinction between Law and Gospel shines forth clearly in the preaching done in the Lutheran church. Of course, that statement is a bit idealistic because we all at times fall short in making this distinction, but we would hope that all Lutheran preachers strive to keep this distinction clear for themselves and for their hearers. The preaching in our Lutheran congregations should be neither the “dreary preaching of the Puritans” nor the legalism or mysticism of the papists, which both so easily go along with a lack of understanding concerning Law and Gospel and the means of grace. Lutheran preaching will be evangelical in that the Gospel predominates, and it will be sacramental because that Gospel emphasis proclaims “the wonderful works of God” (Act 2:11), “that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God" (2Co 5:19-20).

 

I fear that the Psalmists’ confession and exhortation to delight in God’s law (e.g., Psalm 1:2; 40:7-8; 119:77, 174) might fall into this author's category of the “dreary preaching of the Puritans”! So, it is hard to understand how this form of “sacramental preaching” (an odd phrase in itself) comports with what the Bible teaches about how believers are to view God’s law.

You seem, with this kind of an emphasis on the Law-Gospel hermeneutic as the only legitimate way to interpret the Scriptures, the proponents of this kind of preaching will often say that the preacher must always “expound the law so that people see their need for Christ, and then once they have seen their need, give them the gospel.” And, yes, this is a legitimate and necessary way of preaching from many portions of the Scriptures: law, then gospel. But, there are other forms as well: law, gospel, and then law again (where the law operates both in its second and third uses in the same sermon); gospel, then law (only the third use of the law). I could go on. The truth of the matter is that God’s people are to respond in various ways to the law of God: as that which reveals our need for Christ (e.g. Galatians 3:24ff; 2 Corinthians 5:21), as a rule of life (e.g. Exodus 20, esp. v 20; John 14:3; 1 John 5:3), as something to meditate upon (e.g. Psalm 1), as something to delight in (e.g. Psalm 119:70, 77, 92, 174), as a joy (Nehemiah 8:9-11), etc.

Conclusion

We’ll consider some of these things in future installments. For now, let me simply summarize as simply as I can the main benefit of pointing out this fifth and final evidence of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. To only preach the law of God in its second use – as a tutor to drive us to Christ – is to implicitly teach God’s people to have a negative view of God’s law.

Yet, according to the Apostle Paul (Romans 7:7-14), the Law isn’t the problem; our sin is the problem. So, yes, to preach the law of God in order to expose man’s need of the gospel and the forgiveness of sins that can only be found in Christ (and not in the law) is essential. This form of preaching addresses the need of the unbeliever, but it also addresses need of believers who must be continually reminded of their ultimate need of Christ and His righteousness.

At the same time, because believers are regenerate (Titus 3:5-7), born again (John 3:1-8), new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17), the law of God functions for them in an additional way: as a rule of life. By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the renewing of their natures, believers are called to walk in good works (Ephesians 2:10) and to be zealous to do good deeds (Titus 2:14) in keeping with God’s law.

Thus, a proper use of the second and third uses of the law in preaching helps believers to grow in their gratitude for what Christ has done for them and how they may now live for Him in the pursuit of holiness.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching, Part 2

Dear Church Family,

Last week, I sought to explain the proper definition of redemptive-historical preaching. I also attempted to explain how this form of preaching is often abused and provided some examples and evidences of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching to be on the lookout for. You may read part one of “Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching” online here.

By way of a reminder, my contention is not that there is anything wrong with a redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture and redemptive-historical preaching. In fact, in my opinion, it is the proper way of interpreting and applying the word of God. What I’m attempting to assess and critique, however, is the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching.

In part one, we considered three evidences of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. Here in part two, we consider one more. Next week, in part three, we will consider the fifth and final evidence.

4. Creativity without biblical warrant which borders on allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament – aka “Leprechaun Theology”

Redemptive-historical preaching really comes alive in preaching from the Old Testament. For many people who have become accustomed to dispensational preaching, or just plain moralistic and exemplaristic preaching, when they see Christ in the Old Testament, it’s thrilling – God’s Word comes alive for them as never before. This is a good thing and a benefit of redemptive-historical preaching. To miss the new covenant realities of the story of King David, would be to miss the main point of how Jesus is the son of David and the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises concerning God’s preservation of David’s throne.

Yet, just as the Old Testament Scriptures are not only exemplaristic (which they are, see 1 Corinthians 10:1-15), neither are they only typological (which they are, see Romans 5:14 or John 6:49-51). For example, in preaching from the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), it is appropriate to see Joseph as a type of Christ – one who literarily foreshadows the Savior of God’s people, as any redemptive-historical preacher should (this is what Stephen did in his sermon (Acts 7:9-18)). However, it is also appropriate to see Joseph as an example for believers as to how to live faithfully and obediently, even and especially in difficult times (Hebrews 11:21-22).

The problem comes in, however, when interpreters and preachers take their typology too far. Some have half-jokingly called this “Leprechaun theology” – seeing Jesus behind every tree and every rock in the Old Testament. Again, as we mentioned in point number one in part one, this causes an inappropriate and dangerous flattening of the Scriptures. It also creates the seductive lure in the sermon to expect the surprise typological leap at the end – “Oh, Jesus is the rod that Moses used to part the Red Sea! I didn’t see that before!” Well, the reason you didn’t see it before is probably because it isn’t there. In some ways, the sermon becomes not unlike the magician’s performance, except at the end of the act instead of a rabbit, the preacher pulls out Jesus to everyone’s surprise.

One of the favorite verses those who abuse redemptive-historical preaching in this way is Luke 24:27 – “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” Of course, most all believers would readily agree that all of Scripture points to Christ. That’s not the issue. The issue is: does all of Scripture point to Christ in exactly the same way? That is, typologically? The danger here is that if everything in the Old Testament is interpreted and preached typologically, we will begin to lose our guides and rails. As a result, our interpretation will be subject more to our imaginations or “literary acumen” then to the actual interpretive grid of the Scriptures themselves (WCF 1.9).

Conclusion

I have long thought that the form of a good sermon ought to mimic and follow many of the same principles that define a good short story; it seems to me that in many respects, they are similar genres. As such, the ability to be creative in sermon preparation and presentation (homiletics) is very helpful. Yet, creativity in the interpretation of Scripture (hermeneutics) is not usually a good thing.

If, as the Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us, “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (WCF 1.9), then God’s Word itself gives us boundaries and rails to guide us in how to interpret it. Again, there are proper ways to employ a typological interpretation of Scripture for the purposes of redemptive-historical preaching; however, when the preacher makes typological connections that are not explicitly found in Scripture – or by good and necessary consequence, deduced from Scripture (WCF 1.6) – it is very dangerous.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch