Tuesday, August 31, 2010

“A Pastor’s Analysis of Emphases in Preaching: Two False Dichotomies and Three Conclusions”

By Ryan M. McGraw

The strength of the Church depends largely upon the preaching of the Word, yet many debates rage over the manner in which preaching should be done. Some debate whether or not preaching should be Christocentric or Trinitarian. Should ministers preach Christ and him crucified in every discourse or should they emphasize the Person of the Godhead set before them in the passage at hand? A related question is whether preaching ought to be exegetical or redemptive-historical. Many ministers believe that they must choose between a simple exposition of a book and the place of each portion of Scripture in redemptive history. However, I am increasingly convinced that most modern debates about preaching are fundamentally off base. I intend to examine the two choices stated above, contrast them with the history of Reformed preaching, and offer three conclusions. This article represents a non-technical analysis, because I am not responding to scholarly debates over emphases in preaching; but I am addressing issues as they have come up regularly in conversations with fellow ministers over the past decade or so.

Christocentrism vs. Trinitarianism
First, Christ-centered preaching and Trinitarian preaching should not be competing options, since each is implied in the other. The biblical doctrine of the Trinity, while recognizing that each of the three Persons of the Godhead is equal in power and glory and entitled to divine worship, is distinctly Christocentric. As John Owen has suggested, the “great discovery” of the gospel is the love of the Father(1), and the highest goal and privilege of the gospel is to come to God as Father(2). Yet no man comes to the Father except by the Son (John 14:6). It is through him that we come to the Father, by one Spirit (Eph. 2:18). All preaching must be Theocentric and place varying degrees of emphasis upon each of the three Persons as each passage of Scripture demands. However, if the Father is preached in detachment from the Son, he cannot be preached as the God who is love (1 John 4:8). The Father revealed himself as love by sending his Son to die for our sins (v. 9).

With regard to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, Jesus has summarized his work under three aspects: to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). As Owen has pointed out, all of these terms must be understood primarily with reference to the Lord Jesus Christ(3). The context of John 16 spells this out clearly. Though not excluding other points of the Law, the Spirit convicts the world of sin primarily because the world rejects God’s undeserved mercy and pardon through the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 9. See Acts 17:30-31 as an example of this). Righteousness probably bears the sense of “vindication,” and has reference to Christ returning to his Father after his death and resurrection(4). The Spirit convinces men that they are wicked and that their sin reaches its highest expression in the rejection of the Savior and, as a corollary, he convinces men that Christ was holy in his death and that God vindicated his righteousness by resurrecting him and lifting him up to heaven. Peter appealed to God’s vindication of Christ in this manner in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:24, 36. Judgment is explained in terms of the judgment accomplished against Satan (“the ruler of this world”) through the cross (Jn. 12:31; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 12). Satan is still active in this world, and he rages because he knows that his time in short (Rev. 12:12); but the Spirit convinces men that Satan is like a strong man who is bound by Christ, who is one stronger than he, and who is plundering his “goods” by redeeming sinners (Matt. 12:29; compare Rev. 20:2). On a popular level, this passage is paraphrased often as “judgment to come,” yet the context points to a judgment that is past and has already been accomplished by Christ. However, this victory over Satan, cannot be detached from the certainty of the final judgment. In every aspect of his ministry, the Spirit does not testify out of his own resources, but declares what belongs to Christ (v. 15). According to Jesus, the sum and substance of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is, “He shall glorify me” (v. 14).

The point is that when you preach any of the three Persons of the Godhead, you cannot do so biblically without preaching the Lord Jesus Christ. Are you preaching on the Father? Then remind your hearers that he is not Father to you or to them except through the work of the Son. Without preaching the Son, you cannot preach the love of the Father. Are you preaching the Holy Spirit? Even if you tell your hearers to worship and glorify the Spirit as God, you dishonor him if you do not reflect the fact that his mission is to glorify Christ. If you preach the Spirit without preaching the Son, you run contrary to the express and sovereign purpose of the Spirit. There is no hope in preaching without the demonstration of the Sprit’s power (1 Cor. 2:4), yet how can you expect his blessing upon a sermon that does not pursue his purposes? The primary purpose of preaching is to set forth the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8). Paul purposed in his heart to make nothing known among men apart from Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). In preaching, men must hear Christ (Rom. 10:14). Many things may and ought to be said about how to preach Christ in every sermon. Most of our Reformed forefathers certainly held this position (see section three below). I have one suggestion at this juncture: instead of clouding the issues involved by reading modern books and following modern debates on preaching only, read some of the classic treatments respecting why you must and how you ought to preach Christ and him crucified. We should do well to note, however, that if Christ affects our hearts in any measure comparable to how he affected the heart of the apostle Paul, we would never need to be reminded to preach Christ in every sermon. Paul wrote of Christ in at least every other sentence in his epistles.

However, even if your preaching is Christ-centered, you must never detach the Person and work of Christ from the Father and the Holy Spirit. In every act of worship, through him we have access to the Father by one Spirit (Eph. 2:18). Christocentric preaching must be Trinitarian, and Trinitarian preaching is unavoidably Christocentric. These theological considerations impose themselves upon you as a preacher, and should greatly shape the manner in which you prepare your sermons. This raises questions regarding the proper exposition of Scripture in preaching.

Exegetical vs. Redemptive Historical
True ministers of the gospel must preach from the Bible alone, yet even here we are often given a choice between exegetical and redemptive-historical preaching. Considered in themselves, both of these approaches merely represent two aspects of what is necessary in preaching, while neither sufficiently fulfills the mandate to preach. Many are attracted to the idea of verse-by-verse exposition of books of the Bible, yet act as thought a simple exposition of the text coupled with a few practical observations is all that is necessary to preach the Word. This method is useful for Sunday school or Bible study lessons, but is not sufficient for sermons. Frankly, reading commentaries and telling others what you read is not particularly difficult and barely requires the ability to teach, let alone preach. There are no examples of bare exposition in apostolic preaching. As vital as the systematic exposition of Scripture is, the Bible can be expounded verse by verse faithfully without ever being preached. It is one thing to expound the meaning of a text; it is another thing to speak as a herald on behalf of God, apply his message to men’s hearts, and call them to respond to his Word.

Others adopt an exclusively redemptive-historical approach to preaching. Instead of simply expounding the words and sentences of Scripture in their immediate context, this approach unfolds each passage of Scripture in relation the plan of redemption as it is gradually unfolded throughout the Bible. In some cases, the exegetical model roughly corresponds to the “Trinitarian” preaching referred to above, and the redemptive-historical model roughly corresponds to “Christocentric” preaching. This model attempts to take seriously the apostolic mandates to preach Christ and him crucified. This approach, however, is not always an improvement over bare exposition, since at times there is a tendency to Christomonism rather than Christocentrism(5). It is one thing to make the Lord Jesus Christ central in preaching; yet it is possible to preach him almost exclusively. If carried out consistently, this may end in a tendency towards modalism(6). Some have even taken the bizarre position that preaching should not directly appeal to the consciences of those in the congregation. This is bizarre both because it runs counter to every example of preaching in Scripture, and because it forbids direct address in preaching, which is one of the primary factors distinguishing the preaching of the Word from every other form of address(7).

The dichotomy between exegetical and redemptive-historical preaching implicitly excludes a third element that is vital for true biblical preaching. Preaching must be both exegetical and redemptive-historical, but ultimately, preaching must be systematic and practical. Warfield’s paradigm for theological study illustrates this well(8). Exegesis is the most basic level of biblical study. The exposition of Scripture provides the preacher with the “raw materials” of theology. Biblical theology then places exegesis in the context of the author of each particular book and of the Bible as a whole(9). The purpose of exegesis and redemptive history is to systematize theological conclusions regarding the mind and will of God in Scripture. These conclusions then make practical demands upon the lives of those who hear. In other words, the goal of exegetical and biblical theology is systematic and practical theology. Applied to preaching, the sermon begins with what the divinely inspired author says, then harmonizes this with what God says about that subject in general, and finally concludes with what God says to you. The purpose of preaching must be identical with the purpose of the Scriptures: to teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 3). This cannot be done without drawing theological conclusions from the exposition of Scripture and directly applying them to the Church. In other words, a thorough and growing knowledge of Systematic Theology is indispensable to the preacher(10).

This is why one of the greatest mistakes commonly committed by ministers is reading commentaries alone to prepare sermons. It is far better to plan and read ahead, especially if you are preaching systematically through entire books of Scripture and are able to anticipate doctrinal and practical subjects that will arise in the course of preaching that book. Though useful, most commentaries do not provide material for preaching. With rare exceptions, in order to transform the material gleaned from commentaries into sermons, the pastor is left on his own entirely. It is one thing to comment upon a passage of Scripture and draw a few practical inferences from it. It is another thing entirely to prepare a sermon, which convinces hearers that the text was written for them and that God is instructing and appealing directly to them through it. For a vivid illustration of this difference, read Calvin’s commentary on a book of Scripture and then compare it to his sermons on that same book. Both are practical, but the differences speak for themselves. I have many friends in the ministry who have developed the bad habit of surviving from Sunday to Sunday with a spiritual diet that consists of commentaries alone. If you stimulate your thoughts for preaching exclusively through commentaries, you may starve your own soul, and the flock shall starve with you.

A Historical Perspective
The historical precedent set by Reformed preaching demonstrates that our forefathers did not treat the emphases that we are asked to adopt in preaching today as mutually exclusive choices. Virtually every work of pastoral theology written since the time of the Reformation has mandated Christ-centered preaching. The question as to whether Christ was directly presented in the passage at hand or not was irrelevant. The assumption was that Christ was naturally related to every doctrine of Scripture, and that he could always be imposed upon the sermon without doing violence to the text. Consider the following examples: “Christ is the center of revelation and the adequate subject of preaching; and he must be the substance and bottom of every sermon”(11). “This is the one mode of preaching God has promised to bless: when all our sermons . . . are made to set forth and magnify Christ the Lord. Uniformity of sentiment upon this cardinal point has always marked the labor of faithful ministers, and secured the Divine blessing upon their work; while a deficiency in this particular . . . is attended invariably with proportionate inefficiency”(12). “The design of the pulpit is identical with that of the cross: and the preacher is to carry out the design of the Saviour in coming to seek and save that which is lost”(13).  John Jennings advocated that Christ should be the end of preaching, the matter of preaching, and the distinguishing mark of Christian preaching(14). The great William Perkins wrote: “The heart of the matter is this: Preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ”(15).

From a historical perspective it is as abnormal not to preach something of Christ in every sermon as it is to preach Christ only in every sermon. Our forefathers advocated a thoroughly Christ-centered emphasis in preaching, yet none of them would have recognized much of what now goes by the name of redemptive-historical preaching. They preached Christ as relevant to every passage and doctrine of Scripture, while proclaiming and carefully applying the whole counsel of God.

Discussions of exegetical preaching are often too limited at the present time as well. Most church members have come to adopt the idea that unless pastors preach verse by verse through books of the Bible, they cannot be exegetical or faithful to the text of Scripture. I have two observations: First, who told you that you must preach verse by verse through books of the Bible?  Not a single example of New Testament preaching follows this model. If the Bible has not mandated that you preach in this manner, then why has this method virtually come to stand as a test of orthodoxy? R. L. Dabney made an excellent practical case why it is best to preach through books of the Bible, but this case is mandated only by being the best among available options(16). I am not by any means advocating that we reject this method for our normal course of preaching. We would be foolish to set aside Dabney’s arguments lightly. Preaching through books of the Bible helps God’s people understand the Bible better as a whole, and it presents biblical doctrines in “Bible dress”(17).  This method forces ministers to address the topic demanded by the text rather than their favorite subjects. However, this method does not remove all difficulties. I know congregations that will testify to the fact that some ministers continuously preach on their favorite topics irrespective of the text or book of the Bible at hand!

Second, preaching exegetically or expositionally should not be equated with preaching through books of the Bible. If this were true, no individual sermon could be regarded as exegetical unless connected with a series. Who could question the expositional depth of the sermons of Jonathan Edwards? His introductions in particular provide some of the most profound expositions of Scripture ever produced(18). Yet with rare exceptions, Edwards did not preach consecutively through extended portions of Scripture. His sermons were so powerful because most of them were grounded in thorough exegesis of a portion of Scripture, while the depth of theology and application in his sermons rivals that of some of his major theological treatises.

Historically, most Reformed preaching has not been limited to preaching through books of the Bible. Early Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwinglii did so almost exclusively. Later Puritans such as Joseph Caryl, Thomas Manton, and Jeremiah Burroughs produced significant collections of sermons on various books or chapters of Scripture. However, most Puritan sermons that were beloved then and now did not follow this model. I have heard many people virtually apologize for Puritan preaching, as though somehow they knew nothing of what true biblical preaching was!  We may have more to learn from their preaching than we at first may recognize. Their sermons were biblical and contained a theological depth and practical quality that is lacking in most preaching today, even when expounding entire books. We love the Puritans for their robust and practical theology as well as their command of Scripture, yet we reject their preaching, which they viewed as the primary function of their lives and ministries. Most Reformed preachers who have been well loved and blessed with the power of the Spirit have preached biblically, theologically, and practically, without preaching through books of the Bible. Davies, Griffiths, Payson, Spurgeon, Palmer, Edwards, Boston, and many others fulfilled the biblical mandate to preach — without preaching through books of Scripture. I repeat emphatically that I have no intention to discourage preaching through books of Scripture, yet we may expound every book of the Bible and never preach truly, while many of our forefathers preached truly without preaching through books of the Bible.

Moreover, we find this characteristic in the few inspired sermons we have recorded in Scripture. Peter’s Pentecost sermon expounded Joel 2 and Psalm 16 in accord with their contexts. He reasoned from Psalm 16 and demonstrated that the text must point to Christ. He drew theological conclusions about Jesus and applied these truths to the consciences of his hearers by calling them to repent and be baptized. His sermon was exegetical, redemptive-historical, profoundly theological, and intensely practical. Is this so different from the example of our Reformed forefathers?  Do we choose between false dichotomies in preaching because we no longer ask the right questions about preaching?

  • 1. I propose a model for preaching (not the model for preaching). Preaching must reveal the mind of God from the Scriptures. It must be performed by a messenger ordained, sent, and gifted by God, so that preaching carries the weight and authority of an ambassador of Christ. Preaching must be Christ-centered and Trinitarian; exegetical and redemptive-historical; systematic and practical. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones modeled all of these factors well, particularly in his series’ on Romans and Ephesians. Those who read these sermons will grow in their grasp of these books of the Bible in a manner that few other sermons achieve. Yet while expounding a book, his sermons develop a profound theology, and the entire discourse is Christ-centered, Trinitarian, and engages his audience in heart and mind from start to finish. The fact that he achieved all of this in his sermons is the reason why it took him years to preach through each book of Scripture. However, there is also great advantage to preaching through the entire Bible to one congregation. This means much less exposition and much more Bible presented to the people. Flexibility must be allowed with regard to the style of preaching and even the content of preaching, provided that we pursue all the ends of preaching.
  • 2. Pastors must pursue great depth of learning in every area of theological study. Seminary training should not be regarded simply as a necessary step to ordination. Seminary should provide a theological baseline and foundation to build upon for the rest of a minister’s life. If you lapse into studying nothing but commentaries, your seminary training shall truly prove to be a waste of time. Pastors must be first rank theologians. They must excel in every area of theological study and, even more importantly, their theology must flow from their hearts to the minds and hearts of those who hear them. If you question the relevance of seminary training, remember that the great John Owen did not believe that he was qualified to train ministers at Oxford because he only completed two years of his seven-year divinity degree(19). This was after obtaining a B.A. and an M.A.!  Ministerial training in Owen’s day required reading in all of the major Reformed literature before anyone could be considered a competent pastor(20). The task of preaching demands no less.
  • 3. Make slow, but steady progress. Read systematic theology, pastoral theology, works of devotion, historical theology, commentaries, biblical theologies, biographies, and sermons. Strive to avoid random reading as well. Look ahead at what you will be preaching this year and start reading ahead. For example, if you are preaching through John, be reading works on the Trinity, Christology, and the Holy Spirit. Read books that are both theological and practical. If you read systematically rather than randomly, you will increasingly become a more effective preacher and will avoid losing the profit of your reading. I keep a record of everything that I read and present it quarterly to our ruling elders in order to gauge progress and identify areas of weakness. At my ordination, Dr. Joseph Pipa commented that by the blessing of the Holy Spirit, our preaching should improve every year. Your growth, however, shall be proportionate to your diligence in your studies and your diligent prayer over your studies. If you gain nothing else from this article, follow the footnotes and do some good reading.

The foregoing article was first published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, volume 2, number 1, January 2010, pg. 266-276. Used by permission.

  • 1. John Owen, Of Communion with God in The Works of John Owen (ed. William H. Gould; orig. pub: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1853, reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), vol. II, 19.
  • 2. John Owen, “The Nature and Beauty of Gospel Worship,”  in, The Works of John Owen (ed. William H. Gould; orig. pub: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1853, reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), vol. IX, 58-60.
  • 3. Owen, Communion with God, 94-106.
  • 4. See Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John: A Theological Commentary; trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 533.  Most other commentators do not pick up on the idea of vindication that is clearly implicit in this passage.
  • 5. John Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 130.
  • 6. Carl Trueman has written a thought provoking critique of modern redemptive historical preaching in, The Wages of Spin (Geanies Hours, Fearn, Ross-Shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2004), 171-174.
  • 7. For a devastating critique of the arguments against application, see Carrick, Imperative of Preaching, 108-146.  For a summary guide to experimental preaching, see Joel Beeke’s chapter on “Applying the Word” in Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008), 255-274.
  • 8. See Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology,” in, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House2003), 49-87, especially pg. 74.  Also see the following article on “The Task and Method of Systematic Theology,” 91-105.
  • 9. Geerhardus Vos, who has often been called the father of Reformed Biblical Theology, actually subordinated Biblical Theology to Exegetical Theology.  See Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1980), 6-7.
  • 10. See Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Indispensibleness of Systematic Theology to the Preacher,” in, Selected Shorter Writings, ed. John E. Meeter (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1973), II, 280-288.
  • 11. Thomas Foxcroft, The Gospel Ministry (orig. pub: Boston, 1717, reprint, Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2008), 5.
  • 12. Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry: With an Inquiry into the Causes of its Inefficiency (orig. pub: 1830, reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2001), 239-240.  Emphasis original.  In this section, Bridges provides six instructions as to how we ought to preach Christ.
  • 13. John Angell James, an Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (orig. pub, 1847, reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 35.
  • 14. John Jennings, “Of Preaching Christ,” in, John Brown, ed., The Christian Pastor’s Manual (orig. pub: 1826, reprint, Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1991), 32-46.
  • 15. William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (orig. pub, 1606, reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 79.  See also: Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (orig. pub: London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1881, reprint, Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1990), 73ff; Charles P. McIlvaine, Preaching Christ: The Heart of Gospel Ministry (orig. pub: 1863, reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003); Pierre Marcel, The Relevance of Preaching, trans. Rob Roy McGregor (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963), 49-55; Arturo Azurdia, Spirit Empowered Preaching: The Vitality of the Holy Spirit in Preaching (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-Shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 1998).
  • 16. R. L. Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence: A Course of Lectures on Preaching (orig. pub, 1870, reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), 37-40, however, arguments for this sort of preaching pervades this entire book.
  • 17. Ibid., 29, 67ff.
  • 18. See John Carrick, The Preaching of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 121-130.
  • 19. Derek Thomas, “John Owen,” lectures from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
  • 20. See Carl R. Trueman, “John Owen as a Theologian,” in John Owen: The Man and his Theology, ed. Robert W. Oliver (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2002), 44-51.