[K:NWTS 11/3 (Dec 1996) 3-9]
Like the apostle Paul asking the Corinthians to bear with him in a little foolishness (2 Cor. 11:1), I ask you to bear with me in the same. Paul "boasted" in order to answer those boasting in themselves. I'm engaging in a bit of non-preaching in order to address what passes for preaching in the church.
Preaching, I'm sorry to say, is in a bad state of repair. While many share this judgment, all do not realize how desperate the situation is. Particularly indicting is the fact that good preaching cannot be recognized by many in the church. Tragically, preaching, let alone good preaching, doesn't interest a large number of church-goers.
Now I'm not saying we lack good speakers to fill pulpits, even excellent communicators with large followings—not that I'm opposed to speaking ability in preachers. After all, the church permits too many to enter the ministry, who, frankly, have no business being in it because they are as dull in the pulpit as an old knife.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the denomination I belong to, is far from innocent on this score. Even this most careful of churches has seemingly said on occasion that a man need only a sense of his own call and a sincere effort in his presbytery exams in order to qualify. Poor licensure and ordination sermons have often failed to raise an eyebrow much less generate a rejection.
During my early days in the Presbytery of Ohio in the OPC, a young man seeking licensure preached a horrendous sermon to the excuse he had left his notes in Philadelphia where he attended school. No one thought it was a good sermon, but the presbytery in sustaining the man said, "Every preacher has a bad day." A number of the presbyters were feeling their own necks. Thus, this young man was licensed without any evidence of preaching skill.
At the same time, had this man been a fine communicator, that fact in itself would not have identified him as a preacher. However, you may point out to me Paul's boast about his own lack of skill (cf. 2 Cor. 11:6). Could it be that decent speaking ability cannot be insisted on in preachers?
We must remember that Paul was restating and sarcastically playing upon the criticisms he had received from the polished, highly-trained, well-rehearsed, and jealous masters of the communication arts. According to them, his style, his management of material, and his presentation were weak and fell far short of the canons of their craft. Paul's self-deprecating comments, clothed in the foolishness of his own boast, are actually the Spirit's protest against the demagoguery of these snobs, a protest aimed at exploding the pretensions of those whose use of rhetoric destroyed the message of the gospel.
Still, good preaching is not oratory. It cannot be equated with mastery of Public Speaking 101. It does not hail, for instance, from the principles of Aristotle's Rhetoric, but from the revelations received by the Hebrew prophets.
Good preaching stands in the line of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses' magnificent sermon preached to a people redeemed by God, lead through one world, and poised to enter another even as the law of that other world is communicated to them through a dying mediator. Good preaching stands in the line of the prophet Isaiah who ministers between the coming of the kingdom in David's reign and the coming of the kingdom in Jesse's more wonderful branch. Against the background of the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, Isaiah exalts grace through the anguish, death, and vindication of God's faithful servant for a blessing on his elect from all nations in the new heavens and new earth.
Ultimately, good preaching rests in the preaching of Jesus Christ, who proclaimed the good news about the kingdom's gracious arrival in his person and work before that kingdom's awful consummation (cf. the parables). Jesus' preaching called his hearers to the reality of the kingdom, effectively sealing those repenting and believing in him within that kingdom's superlative blessings presently hidden in a life of cross-bearing (cf. Mt. 5:3-16). Faithful preaching follows the risen Christ who, from Moses and all the prophets, declared to those going to Emmaus the necessity of his suffering before glory (Lk. 24:25-27).
Paul's preaching flows from this fountain. The coming of the kingdom in Jesus' message translates into the apostle's message about the advent of the end of the ages (1 Cor. 10:11), the fullness of the time (Gal. 4:4), the revelation of the mystery (Eph. 1:9), and the end of the law (Rom. 10:4). Kingdom blessings are mediated by faith through gracious union with Christ in the sufficiency and finality of his death, resurrection, and ascension (Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. l:30; Col. 3:1-4). The Holy Spirit is given as down-payment of the heavenly reward and as the one by whom and in whom the church shares in the heavenly life of the world to come (Eph. 1:3-14), even as she, in the self-sacrifice of bondservice to her Lord (Phil. 2:5ff.), awaits in this world the appearance of her great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Tit. 2:13).
Good preaching, therefore, consistently declares the mighty acts of God, supremely the redeeming work of his eternal Son. It labors to convince us about our place in relation to those mighty acts: We are participants in them, not spectators of them. Good preaching directs us to the word of God, the Scriptures, there to find our life in the drama of redemption. It draws us into the text to be confronted with the revelation of the awesomeness of God, the certainties of his justice, and the comforts of his mercy for the gathering of his elect into a holy assembly, the church of Jesus Christ.
Good preaching calls men and women, young and old, to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ so that they might be delivered from this present evil age and be made citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:13). It understands that we live "between the times," i.e., between Christ's bodily resurrection and our own, between the time when the new has come and the old has ended and is being done away (2 Cor. 5:17), even while we wait for the Son from heaven (1 Thess. 1:10).
Good preaching is God-centered, not man-centered. Enough of these litanies of illustrations, autobiographical and otherwise, often more important to the preacher than the text itself. Enough of these shameful anecdotal homilies invented out of half truths and out-and-out untruths, the stuff of evangelical folklore. Preaching is not first of all about what may have happened to me or to you, disgracefully embellished and exaggerated, but what has most assuredly happened to Jesus Christ.
Engaging in my own litany of illustrations (this is a bit of foolishness, after all), let me pass on a couple of personal experiences. I recently heard a message on Isaiah 6 in which the preacher informed us that the prophet's adventure in the temple was merely a moment of new self-awareness, "a defining moment in his life," the kind we all need in the interests of "getting serious" about worship! Thus the life of the hearer was made the text of the sermon. This message rivals in absurdity the one I heard a number of years ago from the minister who preached on Abram's departure from Ur to the theme, "We all need a change from time to time." I have wondered, in light of these travesties, if we should not reconsider our definition of blasphemy?
I plead with you: Good preaching is Christ-centered, not morality or behavior-centered; Scripture-centered, not headline-centered; event-centered, not idea-centered; church-centered, not culture-centered; history of redemption-centered, not history of the world-centered.
But good preaching is even more. For it is vitally bound to the risen Christ. In him it touches the heavenly, transcendent truth of which Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 2:17. The apostle is quite conscious that he "speaks in Christ in the sight of God."
A number of years ago, Edmund Clowney presented a fine example of good preaching in his message "The Singing Christ." His text was Hebrews 2:12 and its quote of Psalm 22:22. Clowney's point was that the exalted Christ enters into and leads us in our worship.
Interestingly, these same texts contain the line "I will declare thy name unto my brethren." Not only, then, do we have the singing Christ; we also have the preaching Christ. The one whose worship is perfect and complete, whose worship even now is observed before the throne of his Father, is the very one who presently proclaims all God's wondrous works (cf. Ps. 26:7). He who leads the church in its preaching is the one into whom ministers of the word must enter, to whom they must be bound, in their preaching task.
Such a perspective both multiplies the glory and the grace of preaching. The ax is laid to the root of Arminian and Pelagian notions as the preacher enters into the already perfect proclamation of the preaching Christ and, as Paul says, speaks in Christ in the sight of God. Every preacher would do well to reflect deeply on Paul's words and reform his ministry in light of them.
Unfortunately, few in the pulpit are prepared to do so. Whether conservative or liberal, Calvinist or Arminian, most preachers pursue their task to the text of the world. Despite even the concern of some to be exegetical, most end up expounding the world's wisdom, its problems, its fears, its psychological state, and its methods. They labor somewhat nervously to insure a point of contact with their audience. To quote one Reformed spokesmen who, I'm sad to say, lends support to this approach:
. . . [the] effective preacher . . . must be a sensitive observer and interpreter of the "times and seasons," understanding the cultural ideas, the political realities, the influential movements, and the challenging crises of a given era.
It would seem, given this understanding of things, the preacher must be a confident, and therefore competent, historian, cultural anthropologist, sociologist, political analyst, psychologist, and in our own setting an expert surveyor of the pop scene. "Effective preachers" are primarily heralds for relevance, anecdotal and analytical masters of modern times, because they are, in the words of our Reformed spokesman, "preaching for modern times" (emphasis added). They proclaim ". . . the word of God in all its relevance to the contemporary situation in which real people are called to responsibility before the Word."
But this is a very different approach than the one I have presented to you in this message. Rather than seeing the hearers of the word called and placed by grace within that word and its flow of the drama of salvation, this approach, as unintentional as it may be, allows the contemporary situation to determine the word's relevance. Moreover, instead of seeing the hearers living by grace out of the heavenly world into which they have been introduced by God's sovereign activity in his word, this approach finds no place for the present eschatological and transcendent environment of the people of God, the very environment that sets them above their culture.
Therefore, the message to preachers is not as it should be, namely, "You and your people have died with Christ to the world, therefore flee the world that, in following the cross and living from heaven, you might be given back as true servants of Christ in the world." Instead the message to preachers becomes, "Master the world, become experts about the world so that you and your people might have influence for Christ and thereby prevail in the world, even as you make your way to God's final benediction." The Scriptures are made subordinate to this perspective and preachers, to the excuse that they must "apply" the word, determine the word's relevance by making it meaningful to their age.
By contrast, good preaching does not make the text meaningful for us in our contemporary situation; rather good preaching makes us and our contemporary situation meaningful in the text. In other words, good preaching doesn't pull the word into our world as if the word were deficient in itself and in need of our applicatory skills. Instead good preaching testifies and declares to us that we have been pulled into the word which has its own marvellous sufficiency.
But a major hindrance to this point of view is the sad truth about the practical theology departments in the seminaries across this country. They assume we live in a qualitatively different world than did the first Christians to whom the word came. Their favorite textbooks prove the point, from Haddon Robinson's, Biblical Preaching, to Sidney Greidanus's, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, to John Stott's Between Two Worlds.
This last title blatantly advances the program against which I object. By the two worlds, Stott means the world of the first century and word of today, not this world and the heavenly world, as the Bible has it. According to Stott, the word from the first century world must be applied to the qualitatively different world in which we live. Unnoticed by the evangelical and Reformed church, must less by Stott himself, is the fact that this is precisely the position of Rudolph Bultmann. While Stott is overcoming the distance between the then and the now by his program of application, Bultmann has pursued his program of demythologizing.1
Theological liberalism has been called modernism because it believes our modern situation and we in that situation are the supreme considerations. The conservative church, as the matter of preaching proves, moves dangerously close to the modernist impulse. However, if we are to be true to the Bible's concern in preaching, we must realize that we have been drawn into the drama of redemption, there to know the sufficiency of Scripture and ourselves as those who live not for ourselves but for God. Such preaching evidences, even in its methodology, the truth of the gospel: It is an enterprise in which we embrace the cross as we give up our life in this world in the interest of and by the power of life in another.
Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
1For further comment, see Charles G. Dennison, "Preaching and Application," Kerux 4/3 (1989): 44-52; also Gary Findley's review of Bryan Chapell's Christ-Centered Preaching in Kerux 11/1 (1996): 37-41.