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