The True Preaching of the Gospel

            Over the past few weeks, I have written articles concerning the Redemptive-Historical approach to preaching which has become so prominent in Reformed circles. Why I would write such articles on behalf of Vanguard Presbytery has probably puzzled more than a few people. I will try to explain. Vanguard is a denomination in the tradition of the Reformers (Europe and Great Britain), the Puritans (Great Britain and America), the New Light (or New Side) Presbyterians of the 1740’s and 1750’s (in America), and the Old School Presbyterians of the 1830’s and 1840’s (also in America). Our denomination is intended to be a blending of all those traditions. New Light Presbyterianism arose during the Great Awakening and their followers were self-consciously supportive of that revival. Vanguard, in the New Light tradition, therefore, supports God-centered revivals and God-honoring revivalistic preaching. Doctrine and preaching cannot be separated. That is why I felt compelled to write concerning the right view of preaching.

            There is a type of preaching that Church history shows God uses and blesses in sending revival. The New Light Presbyterians modeled the truly Scriptural preaching of the cross. In John Carrick’s great book on preaching, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric, he uses examples of great preachers from the past—Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, Asahel Nettleton, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Three of those men—Edwards, Whitefield, and Davies—all preached during the Great Awakening. Edwards was a Congregationalist, Whitefield was an Anglican, and Davies was a Presbyterian. Yet, they could all be classified as New Light preachers because they believed in the same theology that undergirded the Great Awakening. Edwards labored for revival in Northampton, Massachusetts and a great work of the Spirit broke out there. Whitefield was one of the greatest evangelists of all-time and his ministry resulted in tens of thousands of conversions on both sides of the Atlantic. And, Davies was used to spread the revival into the colony of Virginia after it had begun to wane in the middle and northern colonies. Here is the main point—the preaching of all these men was far more similar than different. Moreover, they all followed the Scriptural model for preaching.  

            When I was a young seminarian, one of my early mentors—a pastor for whom I worked one summer—had me outline the various sermons in the Book of Acts. Another useful study would be to outline the various sermons in the Bible. If someone did that, they would find that there is a pattern—it is the same pattern that you find in Paul’s epistles. That pattern is that first there is a statement of facts or truths, then there is an application of those truths. Carrick refers to those two parts as the indicative and the imperative or the explication and the application. Indicative refers to the mood of the verb which indicates a statement of facts. Imperative refers to the mood which exhorts to action or calls for a response or commands to obey. True preaching must include both and must include them in the right order—first the indicative, then the imperative. First the case is set forth, then the response is commanded.

            Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost is a model illustration of the right type of preaching. Peter quoted from Joel 2:28-32, Psalm 16:8-11, 2 Samuel 7:12, and Psalm 110:1 and explained how all those verses pointed to the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That portion of his sermon comprised the indicative statements. Then, and only then, did Peter conclude with this imperative: “Repent and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The sermon was not over until the indicative was concluded with the imperative.

Indicative, Exclamative, Interrogative, and Imperative

            Carrick’s book on preaching actually refers to four different types of sentences that are found in great preaching—indicative, exclamative, interrogative, and imperative. Both the exclamative and the interrogative are types of indicative statements. The interrogative sentences are questions which help the listeners to examine themselves. My wife often tells me how important those questions are and nudges me when she thinks I am not asking enough of them. Samuel Davies, more than any other preacher I have ever heard or read, was a great master in the frequent use of questions to nail those truths on the minds and hearts of his listeners. Exclamative sentences are expressions of deep emotion and must arise naturally rather than being contrived. You find an example of an exclamative statement in Jesus’ tears over Jerusalem—“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!” (Luke 13:34). Exclamative sentences are very rare in modern preaching, but Edwards, Whitefield and Davies used them frequently. Perhaps the reason that modern preachers do not use exclamative sentences more often is because their eyes are not fountains of tears for the lost as Jeremiah lamented about himself. Perhaps we need to spend more time crying in secret over the souls of those bound for hell without Christ so that we will express more heartfelt passion for their souls when we preach to them. Exclamative sentences are outpourings of true pathos. Such pathos cannot be contrived or it will be dismissed. It must flow naturally or not at all. There are many such exclamative statements in the Scripture. There needs to be more such in the true preaching of the gospel. True preaching is not simply a retelling of the facts of the Scripture. That is a Bible story or a Sunday School lesson. True preaching must combine both the indicative and the imperative. People must be informed of the facts of the gospel and must be urged to respond to the gospel call.

The Analogy of Faith

            For preaching to be good and true it must follow the rules for the proper interpretation of the Scripture. What is called the analogy of faith must guide the expositor in interpreting any and every passage of Scripture. That phrase, analogy of faith, refers to Romans 12:6 where Paul is listing various gifts of the Spirit and says concerning those who are given the gift of prophecy: “if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith.” The Greek word that is translated as proportion is ‘analogian.’ So, the emphasis is not on the measure of someone’s faith, but on the explanation or clarification of something. What does the analogy of faith mean? The basic meaning is that the clearer parts of Scripture must guide us in interpreting the more difficult parts of Scripture. That principle is laid down as the fundamental principle of Scriptural interpretation in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1.9—“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is any question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” Scripture interprets Scripture. The plain passages shed light on the more obscure passages of Scripture. And, there is only one primary meaning to every passage.

            Every good preacher must excel in Biblical interpretation and being able to explain each passage in terms of the context. Sometimes, the context will include a whole chapter or several chapters. Every passage must be understood in terms of the wider context of the whole of Scripture. Dr. Lloyd-Jones was a master in that respect. The Apostle Paul is also a great example. He worked every thought out very logically and would bring forth various quotes from the Old Testament to prove his case. The analogy of faith assumes at the outset that Scripture does not contradict itself because God is the author of every part of it.

            There are those, such as the Federal Vision proponents, who teach that Paul and James contradict one another. Their mistake is a failure to exercise the analogy of faith whereby they would see that Galatians 5:6 is essentially the same thing as James 2:18. Or, they fail to see that James 2:26 is not contradictory of Romans 3:28. There can never be truly evangelistic preaching by someone who decides that James contradicts Paul and that James is correct while Paul is mistaken. Such preaching will result in mere exhortations to legalism. The problem with such preachers is that they break the rule that difficult passages are to be interpreted by passages that are easy to understand. As 2 Peter 1:20 says: “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” The analogy of faith does not interpret Scripture by personal opinions.

            By the same token, those in the Redemptive-Historical school of preaching have another problem. By seeking to find Christ in every passage, they inevitably break the cardinal rule of interpretation that the meaning of Scripture is not manifold, but one. Tim Keller provides an example of this flawed method of interpretation when he approaches Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and finds Christ as the ‘other brother’—an unmentioned brother who is not even in the parable. That is Keller’s way of finding Christ in every passage, but what he does is make the interpretation of that parable manifold—something which the WCF says is wrong. With fanciful interpretations like Keller’s, the door is opened for so-called fertile minds to discover things that even the brightest minds from the past have never seen. After all, who else has ever found the “other brother” in the parable of the prodigal son? Of course, the Redemptive-Historical proponents might say that it is obvious to them that the parable is really about the “other brother.” If so, why is it that the whole rest of the Church has missed that obvious interpretation? Why is it, for instance, that the Church has always interpreted Job to be about the problem of suffering illustrated in the sufferings of Job, but the Redemptive-Historical school says that the book is about Christ’s sufferings? The danger for that school of thought is that they would interpret the Scripture as so many allegories. Many other illustrations of the folly which results from the Redemptive-Historical approach to interpretation could be given.

Exemplary Preaching

            Robert Murray McCheyne once wrote: “Get your thoughts, your words, your texts from God. It is not great talents that God blesses but great likeness to Christ.” The best preachers are those who find illustrations for every point from Scripture. The Scripture is a two-edged sword. The illustrations from our own experiences are not on a par with Scripture. They are useful and helpful in many instances, but only Scripture is infallible. One of the results of the Redemptive-Historical approach to preaching is that Scripture examples are dismissed out of hand. That school does not want to use the historical passages as examples out of fear that it will lead to an overemphasis on the imperative mood and to moralism. That is, they fear the preacher will simply say, “Be like Daniel. Be like Abraham. Be like David.” They fear that the comfort of the gospel will be replaced with exhortations to moral behavior. That certainly is a danger in preaching any part of Scripture.

            Yet, the Scripture itself refers to past historical characters and events in the Scripture as examples. In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul refers to several historical events in the life of the nation of Israel during their wilderness wanderings. All of these, he said, “happened as examples for us” (1 Corinthians 10:6). Most of those events are given to us in Numbers. They are also all negative examples. Hebrews 11 is a chapter filled with positive examples of the life of faith which should not be ignored either by readers or preachers of the Scripture. There are many other places which show the importance of such examples. It is certainly true that someone might preach on David and Goliath and emphasize only the courage of David as an example. In other words, someone could make it into an example of courage and totally miss faith. The true preacher of the gospel will hold onto the one without letting go of the other. David’s courage was not self-derived. He was courageous because he strengthened himself in the Lord. That narrative in 1 Samuel 17 exalts the aid that the Lord gave to David and the faith David had in Him. As David said to Goliath: “You come to me with a sword; a spear; and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts” (1 Samuel 17:45). Why would any gospel preacher be afraid to preach on such a passage? Yes, it is an example, but its true interpretation does not lead to moralism. Rather, the proper exhortation is for us to fix “our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2), even as David did in the midst of his contest with Goliath.

Indicative and Imperative

            The only weakness that I see with Carrick’s great book is that I believe he erred in one point. He quotes from Machen at the beginning of the book, “liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative”[1] That is true as a general statement, but it is not true that liberals avoid the indicative mood altogether. Most of my childhood and youth was spent in liberal churches. I remember well that there were often sermons in the indicative mood. There were sermons that set forth the “facts” of liberal theology. Their view of God, of Christ, the meaning of His resurrection, of man, and many other subjects were carefully set forth. They were not facts derived from the Bible. Rather, their “facts” amounted to their denials of Scripture. When I left the United Methodist Church in 1971, the pastor of my former congregation ridiculed me for believing in the inerrancy of the Scripture. I still can hear his words to me, “We have grown beyond the things of the Old Testament.” So, there are indicatives with liberals. It is just that so much of what they believe is just plain wrong.

            In writing a biography of Samuel Davies, I studied not only the sermons of Davies, but also the sermons of many others on both sides of the Old Light-New Light division. I found that many of the Old Light Presbyterians (who were opponents of the Great Awakening) filled their sermons with indicatives—but the wrong indicatives. Like liberals in all generations, many of the Old Light ministers based their indicatives on natural theology or human reason—not the Scripture. We do not need to just preach indicatives. We need to preach the indicatives of Scripture. That is why it is so important to believe the great historical events of Scripture. Such events are the facts that must be the basis for our preaching of the indicatives of Scripture.

            Carrick has rightly pointed out that the Redemptive-Historical school is very limited in the application it can give. Every sermon is basically the same because the analogy of faith is ignored. Thus, many in the R-H school are left primarily with having to exhort people to “look to Jesus.” That is one imperative of Scripture, as we quoted above from Hebrews 12:2. It is not the only Scriptural imperative. Here is another Scriptural imperative: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Here is another imperative: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Here is another imperative: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). Here is another imperative: “Put on the full armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11). In fact, there are so many imperatives of Scripture that narrowing the application down to just looking to Jesus is an absurd reduction which ultimately denies the gospel. Some of the Scriptural imperatives will appear to be moralisms—except that they always assume the new birth and saving faith. They are exhortations to believers. They are not exhortations on how to become a Christian. As Carrick says:

Many preachers in the redemptive-historical school tend to emphasize the historia salutis at the expense of the ordo salutis. In other words, they tend to emphasize redemption accomplished by Christ at the expense of the redemption applied to Christ’s people. In short, there is a tendency in the redemptive-historical school to emphasize the indicative at the expense of the imperative.[2]   

            The true preaching of the gospel will proclaim all the indicatives of Scripture and all the imperatives of Scripture. The application will be different from week to week. The interrogative questions will be different. The supporting facts, the indicatives, will be different from week to week. We must preach the Scripture through the analogy of faith and bring out the exact meaning of every passage and apply it with the uniqueness that each passage deserves.        

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery.

P. S. You may send contributions to Vanguard to: P. O. Box 1862, Destin. FL 32540

P. S. S. Some of you have had your contribution statements from Vanguard Presbytery returned to our PO Box. I have checked the addresses and they are all correct. It seems to be an instance in the inability of the USPS to deliver the mail. I apologize for the delay, but each statement will be sent to you in a new envelope. Hopefully, that will be delivered this time.

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