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

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching, Part 1

Dear Church Family,

This is the third installment of our series on preaching. First, we considered the full-orbed definition of the gospel that includes what Jesus did in history and how God saves sinners (Preaching: What is the Gospel?). Second, we considered the full-orbed definition of gospel preaching that includes Jesus Christ as well as the doctrines and commandments of God (Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure).

At this point, I’d like to offer some thoughts concerning the misunderstandings that surround what is usually called “redemptive-historical preaching.” Now, you might be thinking, preachers need to think about this sort of thing, but I’m not a preacher, so how does this affect me?” Well, my intent here is to try and speak to this topic for the benefit of the hearers of preaching – so that you may be better equipped to understand not merely the things that preachers need to consider, but what to look for in preaching.

Defining Redemptive-Historical Preaching

First, let’s try and define what we’re talking about. Redemptive-Historical Preaching can simply be defined as “that preaching which seeks to understand a particular passage of Scripture in its context in the history of redemption and then making application in light of the coming of Christ. It is preaching Christ from all of Scripture.” And, all God’s people said, “Amen! What’s the problem?”

Well, with this definition of redemptive-historical preaching, there is no problem. I was taught in seminary, and have continued to study, redemptive-historical preaching. I endeavor to preach redemptive-historically. Redemptive-historical preaching is what I believe true, gospel preaching ought to be.

The problem comes in, however, when some preachers, as well as parishioners, use this term to define an overly-simplistic form of preaching (sometimes called “just preaching the gospel”). But what is passed off as redemptive-historical preaching is actually an abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. For you see, if one defines “the gospel” only in terms of justification (see the article at the first link above), then redemptive-historical preaching becomes overly-simplistic and overly-narrow in its focus. When redemptive-historical preaching is abused in this way, often times the main points of a particular text are not preached, but another is imported from outside of that text.

Evidences of the Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching

If that sounds a bit confusing, let me try and clarify by way of some examples and evidences of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. Here are some things to keep an eye out (please recognize that not all of these will be found in every instance of abuse; these are simply potential red-flags, not exhaustive criteria for evaluation).

1. Every sermon has as its main point 2 Corinthians 5:21

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” becomes the final point of every sermon. This certainly is the heart of the gospel message, but it most certainly is not all that the Bible teaches about the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. According to the Bible, the Gospel is, Yes – Jesus was made sin on our behalf and suffered and died for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. But, the Gospel is also, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Turn and deny your sins, and live a holy life, now that Jesus has saved you.” And, the Gospel is also, “One day Jesus is coming back and you will be unable to sin, made perfect in holiness and in righteousness.”

Just as an aside, I recall having a conversation with a woman who had sat under this kind of preaching for a prolonged period of time, and she jokingly said, “It got to the point where in my note taking on the sermon, I could actually make out the notes before the sermon was preached. Every sermon had three points: One – You are a sinner; Two – Where you sinned, Christ was obedient; Three – Trust in Christ.” The worst part was that she didn’t see anything wrong with this. She actually thought that this was a good thing yet failed to consider that a flattening of the Scriptures in such a way – where every passage says exactly the same thing – obscures the richness of God’s Word and stunts the spiritual growth of God’s people (Hebrews 5:12-6:3).

2. There is a call to believe and have faith (trust in Christ), apart from true repentance (confessing and turning from one’s sins)

Point number two is connected with point number one. Of course, repentance is not a condition of receiving God’s grace and trusting in Christ for salvation (WCF 15.3); it is a fruit of God’s grace and saving faith (see our recent Sunday school lesson on the Marrow controversy). Yet, at the same time, if the point of every sermon that you hear is: “Jesus died for your sins, therefore all you need to do is trust in Him and have faith” then you are not hearing the right application of all of Scripture, and you are getting only half of the call of the Gospel. The call of the Gospel is “repent and believe” – not just “believe.” The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that “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” (WCF 15.1).

When John the Baptist prepared the way for our Lord, preaching to those who claimed to be of the truth faith, central to his message was a call to repentance: “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). In the statement that most succinctly summarizes Jesus’ message during His earthly ministry, faith and repentance, are tied together: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). And, when the Apostle Paul gave testimony before King Agrippa, he asserted that out of obedience to the heavenly vision which he received on the road to Damascus, he kept declaring in Damascus, at Jerusalem, in Judea, and eventually to the Gentiles, “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance ” (Acts 26:19-20). When one calls for faith apart from repentance, not only is he wrongly dividing the Word of God, he is wrongly dividing the Son of God – subtly implying that you can have Christ as your Priest, even though He may not be your King.

3. The absence of specific application

Again, this point is connected to points 1 and 2. If the point of every sermon is “just believe the Gospel” and this is the only exhortation of the message week in and week out, then there is actually very little room for application. What more could one say with such a message? I suppose that there is some nuance on how precisely a person should have faith or trust in Christ, rather than, say, your money, your good works, etc. But, in the end, the application is typically singular and very general: only believe.

Another reason for the lack of specific application in the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching is the inherent emphasis on objectivity. In fact, historically, the emphasis on redemptive-historical preaching arose out of a response in Dutch churches to the overly-subjective, exemplaristic preaching that had become so common. Right they were to react to such moralistic preaching, but the pendulum swung in the complete and opposite direction to where any kind of specific application was condemned.

Again, John the Baptist serves as a good example here. In his preaching as recorded in Luke 3, he made very specific application to “the crowds” (vv 10-11), the tax-collectors (vv 12-13), and the soldiers (v 14). Jesus made much of specific application all the time. For example, see of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or Jesus’ discourse concerning life as His servant in Matthew 18. Paul exhorted Titus to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” by teaching the various groups of people in his church how to live in holiness and obedience so that they might adorn the gospel in their lives (Titus 2:1-10). Peter explains that Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross not only atoned for our sins, but that in His suffering and death Christ left us an example to follow (1 Peter 2:21-24). I could go on, but the point is this: far from being manipulative or legalistic, a pastor who makes useful, specific application of the Scriptures in his preaching is simply being true to his call to shepherd the flock that has been entrusted to him (1 Peter 5:1-3).

Conclusion (for now)

I hope this is helpful. Again, 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.

I hope that the evidences of this abuse that I’ve provided are helpful. This is part one, so next week I’ll have two more evidences of this kind of abuse in preaching.

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

Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure

Dear Church Family,

In last week’s reflection, we considered how we might arrive at a more full-orbed definition of the gospel. The gospel is about more than the good news of justification, it is the good news of the kingdom of God! Thus, the gospel includes what Christ, as the King of God’s kingdom, has done in history: how Jesus brought the kingdom (inauguration), how Jesus rules the kingdom (continuation), and how Jesus will bring the kingdom in its fullness (consummation). And, the gospel includes the application of what Christ has done for us as members of God’s kingdom: how we enter into the kingdom (justification), how we live in the kingdom (sanctification), and where we are going in the kingdom (glorification).

Jesus Christ and the Doctrines and Commandments of God (1 Corinthians 3:10-17)

When it comes to preaching the gospel (and hearing the gospel preached), it is important to keep these things in mind. All preaching – if it is true gospel preaching – ought to be Christ-centered. Yet, some Christians, and some preachers among them, propose that true gospel preaching ought to be Christ-centered in such a way that each and every sermon is about the doctrine of justification. While every sermon ought to be at least implicitly evangelistic, this view promotes the notion that every sermon ought to be explicitly evangelistic.

As we’ve noted, part of the gospel is the good news of justification, but to reduce the preaching ministry to preaching sermons only about justification by faith alone in Christ alone imposes a particular grid on Scripture, distorts the purposes of preaching, and does a disservice to God’s people. Yes, everyone needs to hear and be reminded about justification by faith alone (believers, as well as unbelievers); yet, while believers and unbelievers both need to hear about justification, there is more to “preaching the gospel.”

Consider how the Apostle Paul describes his preaching ministry to the church in Corinth:

10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it.  11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,  13 each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work.  14 If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward.  15 If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.  16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?  17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are. (1 Corinthians 3:10-17)

 

As a pastor and preacher, Paul describes himself as a “wise master builder” (v 10) who in his preaching has laid the essential foundation of Jesus Christ (v 11). In the following verses, he proceeds to describe what it means to build upon that foundation – what we might call the ‘superstructure’ of his preaching ministry. This superstructure, which is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, may be comprised of either gold, silver, and precious stones or wood, hay, and straw.

But what does Paul mean by use of this imagery? In condemning the Pharisees, Jesus said, “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:7-8). Simply put, the gold, silver, and precious stones are the doctrines and commandments of God; the wood, hay, and straw are the precepts and traditions of men. Both may be built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, but only one will survive the fires of judgment on the day of Christ.

Concerning this superstructure, John Calvin writes:

…by gold, silver, and precious stones, he means doctrine worthy of Christ, and of such a nature as to be a superstructure corresponding to such a foundation…by wood, hay, and straw is meant doctrine not answering to the foundation, such as is forged in men’s brain, and is thrust in upon us as though it were the oracles of God. (John Calvin, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 3:12)

 

The Lord calls pastors to feed His people primarily through preaching the word (WSC 89). The faithful preacher lays the essential foundation of Jesus Christ and builds upon that foundation with the doctrines and commandments of God.

More than repentance from dead works and of faith toward God (Hebrews 6:12-6:3)

The writer of Hebrews addresses this same issue:

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.  13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant.  14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.  6:1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,  2 of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.  3 And this we will do, if God permits. (Hebrews 5:12-6:3)

 

Commenting on Hebrews 6:1, Calvin writes:

To his reproof he joins this exhortation, –  that leaving first principles they were to proceed forward to the goal. For by ‘the word of beginning’ he understands the first rudiments, taught to the ignorant when received into the Church. Now, he bids them to leave these rudiments, not that the faithful are ever to forget them, but that they are not to remain in them; and this idea appears more clear from what follows, the comparison of a foundation; for in building a house we must never leave the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it, would be ridiculous. For as the foundation is laid for the sake of what is built on it, he who is occupied in laying it and proceeds not to the superstruction, wearies himself with foolish and useless labor. In short, as the builder must begin with the foundation, so must he go on with his work that the house may be built. Similar is the case as to Christianity; we have the first principles as the foundation, but the higher doctrine ought immediately to follow which is to complete the building. They then act most unreasonably who remain in the first elements, for they propose to themselves no end, as though a builder spent all his labor on the foundation, and neglected to build up the house. So then he would have our faith to be at first so founded as afterwards to rise upwards, until by daily progress it be at length completed. (John Calvin, Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:1)

 

You see, when “the gospel” is defined simply in terms of justification by faith alone (“repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” – Hebrews 6:1) the household of faith is taught to lay again the foundation, over and over again. Should we revisit and inspect the foundation? Of course! Is a proper understanding of (and reminders about) the foundation essential? Yes! But, to quote Calvin, to be always engaged in laying it and never proceeding to the rest of the building would be to engage in “foolish and useless labor.” Yet, this is precisely what happens when the preaching of the gospel is limited to the preaching of justification.

Conclusion

Yes, the good news of the gospel includes the doctrine of justification: it is one of the central aspects of the gospel. To limit our definition of the good news by saying that it is merely about justification, however, would be to reduce the grand plan of God, and the richness of a life that is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).

One of Jesus’ favorite ways to describe “the gospel” was with the descriptor, “of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Luke 16:16). Isaiah’s messenger of good news – the one who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation – does not come, saying, “You’re justified!” He says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7). Implicit in the reign of God is, of course, justification – but the effective reach of God’s will through the kingdom of His beloved Son is about so much more than the justification of His people. It’s about His making all things new!

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

Preaching: What is the gospel?

Dear Church Family,

In recent weeks, the confluence of several parts of pastoral ministry have caused me to re-examine and meditate upon the important role of preaching. First, at the beginning of the year, we began a new sermon series in the book or 1 Corinthians in which we have seen the Apostle Paul’s emphasis on both the primacy and the purpose of preaching. Second, in our Men’s Discipleship Group, we just finished reading and discussing T. David Gordon’s book Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Third, in preparing for the next lesson in the adult Sunday school class on “Turning Points in Church History,” I have been wading through the issues and wrestling with the applications of a controversy about preaching from the eighteenth century in the Church of Scotland which has come to be known as ‘the Marrow controversy.’

As I’ve been turning these things over in my mind – and discussing them with others – I thought that I might endeavor, over the course of the next several weeks, to write about preaching. Though I have a tentative outline in mind, I don’t know how many weeks we’ll spend on this topic; however, my hope is that through this series of weekly emails, we all would grow in our understanding of the gospel, the preaching of the gospel, the relationship between the law and the gospel, the means and power of sanctification, how to read the Bible, how the Mosaic covenant and the Ten Commandments are related to the covenant of grace, etc., etc., etc.

So, let’s just get started and see how this goes.

Various definitions of “the gospel”

In applying Isaiah 61 to Himself, Jesus taught that He had been anointed by the Holy Spirit to “preach the gospel” (Luke 4:17-21). In the book of Acts, we read that the Apostles traveled about continuing to “preach the gospel” (Acts 14:7). The Apostle Paul attests that Christ sent him to “preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17). Apparently, according to the word of God, “preaching the gospel” is important.

But what is “the gospel”? Well, if you were to ask several Christians this question, you might get some varied answers. Some would give a strictly objective and historical answer: “the gospel is the good news that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners.” Others might give a more subjective and personal answer: “the gospel is the good news that I am saved through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His work.” I’m persuaded that both of these emphases are appropriate, as long as you don’t hold to one definition to the exclusion of the other.

In my personal experience as a pastor, however, I have found that an increasing number of people answer this question by saying, “the gospel is the good news of justification” or simply speak of “the gospel of justification.”

If you think about it, that’s actually an odd phrase. It’s odd because it takes something that is so glorious and so grand, and reduces it to just one of its parts. Granted, justification is at the heart of the gospel, but it is most certainly not the whole of the gospel. You will never find this phrase – “the gospel of justification” – in the Bible, and yet I hear it thrown around as if it were an accepted descriptor. What’s worse is that there are people who define the gospel in this way, and don’t even recognize that they’re doing it.

Toward a better understanding of “the gospel”

In actuality, one of the primary ways in which the gospel is spoken of in Scripture is with the term “kingdom” (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Luke 16:16). As Michael Glodo has written, “Biblically, the good news is the good news of the Kingdom of God/heaven.”

With the understanding that the gospel is “the good news of the kingdom of God,” I’ve arrived at two, three-fold ways of talking about this question. From the historia salutis (“the history of salvation”), the gospel is the gospel of the kingdom: how Jesus brought the kingdom (inauguration), how Jesus rules the kingdom (continuation), how Jesus will bring the kingdom in its fullness (consummation). From the ordo salutis (“the order of salvation”), the gospel is the gospel of the kingdom: how one enters into the kingdom (justification), how one lives in the kingdom (sanctification), and where one is going in the kingdom (glorification). For those who are familiar with John Murray’s work, you will see how this fits nicely into the structure of “redemption accomplished and applied.”

The gospel is about how God objectively saves us through the coming, continuing, and consummation of His kingdom AND the gospel is about how God subjectively justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies His people. Each one of these is a part of the good news, and all are presented and taught in the Scriptures. In fact – and here comes the application for preaching (where the rubber meets the road) – every passage of Scripture will fit into one of these six categories: (1) inauguration of the kingdom of God; (2) continuation of the kingdom of God; (3) consummation of the kingdom of God; (4) justification; (5) sanctification; and (6) glorification. Of course, there is a lot of overlap and many passages of Scripture deal with several of these simultaneously. Still, it helps to see that the “good news of the gospel” is about more than the justification of the individual believer. The gospel is the good news of the kingdom of God!

Preaching “the gospel”

This is why it is inappropriate to limit “the gospel” to justification. First, it is unbiblical, and stems from a very narrow reading of the Bible. Second, in any given sermon, the preacher is to preach the good news of that passage, not necessarily the good news of justification (unless of course, justification is the good news of that particular passage).

This is the real crux of the matter and something which has continuing application for the preacher (and for the hearers of preaching, as well). If one defines the gospel as being equal to justification, the end result limits the full-orbed, milk and meat, doctrinal teachings of the Christian faith. And, when that happens, God’s people will not grow, but stubbornly cling to milk. Yet, just as children grow and mature by eating solid foods, believers must grow in faith so that they may continue to drink milk, but also eat meat.

Unfortunately, I have seen the result of those who have been fed only “the gospel of justification.” Typically, I have found that when the gospel is limited to justification and does not include the good news of God’s kingdom, believers become stunted in their growth and easy prey for the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Conclusion

There’s more to be said on this, and the related topics, but I hope that I’ve at least given you some things to think about as we seek to be a people who know, believe, rest in, and proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. And, I pray that these meditations will cause us to worship and praise Jesus Christ, the King of that kingdom.

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