Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Preaching to the Saints (2)

Here is the second excerpt from my talk on Preaching to the Saints, given at the PTS Preachers Conference on Saturday 16th October.

II. What we should preach to the saints

1. Preach systematically

Not everyone reading this is in a settled pastoral ministry, so this might not apply to you. But for those of us who are, I believe that we should preach systematically through books of the Bible. Scripture is not a random jumble of odd texts, it is in the form of Books from Genesis to Revelation, and our preaching should reflect that. This was the method of John Chrysostom, Augustine, Calvin and Puritans, etc. What I’m commending is not a series of running commentaries on Bible books, but expository preaching. Each message must be each a stand alone sermon in which the text is explained and applied. One of John Murray’s students asked him, “Is it right that a sermon should have once main point?” Murray replied. “At least one.” I’m reading through Tony Blair’s A Journey at the moment. Early in the book he recalls the formative experience of hearing Tony Benn give a speech,

…there was a thread that ran throughout the speech. There was an argument. Sometimes there was digression and the thread was momentarily obscured, but always he returned and the thread was visible one more.
A sermon should have a thread, an argument, one big point that drives the whole message forward. Jay Adams says that we should be able to summarise the main point of our sermons in a snappy ten word sentence. Preach expository series on Books of the Bible. But make sure that what you are doing is expository preaching, rather than simply giving a Bible study.

2. Even one-off sermons should be expository.

Our preaching should model a careful and responsible reading of the biblical text. People should not be amazed by the things that we bring out of the text like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. The truth we proclaim should arise obviously from the text we are trying to expound. We should not try to fit all of the “Five Points of Calvinism” into every verse. I once heard a message on John 3:16 in which the speaker spent most of his time trying to prove limited atonement. I'm sure that when properly understood John 3:16 does not contradict the definiteness of Christ's atoning work, but surely that's not the main point of the verse. If text emphasises definite atonement – e.g. John 10:11, Eph 5:25, then preach definite atonement. But the text teaches the bigness and sufficiency of the cross, then preach that truth without embarrassment, 1 John 2:2.

3. Give the people a varied diet

Don’t just stick to the Epistles or the Gospels. I like steak and chips, but wouldn’t want to eat it every day. Variety is the spice of life. In the Bible we have narrative, poetry, prophecy, proverbs and epistles. Faithful preaching will reflect the polyphonic variety of Scripture, taking the differing biblical genres seriously. Messages based on biblical narratives should preach those narratives. The shape of the narrative must be allowed to affect the shape of the message. I once heard a preacher comment on another man's sermon, "I listened to 'so and so' preaching on David and Goliath - he mentioned it once." No doubt the preacher derived some neat, timeless principles from the text, but did he capture the richness of God's communicative action in 1 Samuel 17?

4. Preach the whole counsel of God

According to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preaching is “theology on fire”. If that is the case, preachers need to be on fire for theology. Some training courses for preachers simply focus on Bible handling skills. Preachers certainly need to be able handle the Bible with exegetical accuracy. We also need to be able to construct a sermon with a clear structure, attention grabbing illustrations and telling application. But without theology the message will be all style and no substance. We need to get to grips with biblical doctrine – and have a good grasp of what Paul called “the whole counsel of God” Acts 20:27.

Now, the relationship between preaching and theology, especially systematic theology may not always be immediately obvious. Charles Hodge defined systematics like this, "the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation". But theological study is not simply a matter of investigating the raw materials of biblical revelation in order to draw up an neat and tidy system of truth. Theology, even systematic theology should always be preachable and practical.

John Frame proposed a better understanding of systematics saying, "theology is knowing God, and theology is the disciplined study of God." He is critical of Charles Hodge’s method suggesting that "Hodge didn't have a very clear idea of why we need theology." We need theology says Frame, "for the sake of people. Theology is the application of the Word by persons to the world and to all areas of human life." True theology is applicatory. It enables the people of God to live out the Word of God in the present day context. Similarly John Murray,

Since the Bible us the principal source of revelation and since the Bible is the Word of God, systematics is the discipline which more than any other aims to confront us men with God's own witness so that in its totality it may make that impact upon our hearts and minds by which we shall be conformed to his image in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness of the truth.
 In his The Drama of Doctrine Kevin Vanhoozer argues that the purpose of theology is to enable the people of God to play their roles in the great drama of redemption. He wants to restore the link between doctrine and practice or theology and ministry so that the ‘pastoral lamb lies down with the theological lion’. He says,

…doctrine, far from being unrelated to life, serves the church by directing its members in the project of wise living, to the glory of God. Christian doctrine directs us in the way of truth and life and is therefore no less than a prescription for reality.
So, preachers should aspire to be preacher-theologians, men who have a coherent grasp of biblical doctrine and who know how to apply the truth of God to the people of God. Reading the great works of theology will help us to be better preacher-theologians. Read Calvin’s Institutes, John Owen on Communion with God, make a start on Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. In understanding be men! Preach the truth in all its vast dimensions.

But while we should preach the Word in all its grandeur and depth, and hold nothing back that will be profitable to the saints, there are some truths that call for special emphasis. But that's for another post...

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