I was once a member of a church whose senior pastor had retired. A search committee was appointed to do what was necessary to find a suitable successor. The task seemed daunting since the retiring pastor was a gifted preacher under whose ministry people of widely diverse nationality and social backgrounds had been incorporated into the life of a growing church. When asked what it was that drew them to this church, the answer almost always focused on the biblical expository, Christ-centered preaching. The search committee was determined to find a pastor who would continue the pulpit tradition that had so nourished and expanded the ministry of this congregation. That proved to be more difficult than any of us expected.
We discovered that the membership was quite capable of evaluating invited applicants in terms of personality, sensitivity for pastoral concerns, and communication skills. The last of these seemed to be of greatest importance to them. Applicants who were clear and skillful communicators and had captivating preaching styles enjoyed broad appeal regardless of their approach to the Scriptures or the substance of their messages. Since the content of the sermon was a primary issue with the search committee, it became necessary to instruct the congregation regarding the biblical substance which we have come to expect from our pulpit. I was asked to provide some general guidelines to sensitize the congregation as to what it was that the search committee was so eager to identify when evaluating the sermons of applicants for our senior pastor position.
There are three general categories into which sermons fall among preachers who take a text from the Bible as the starting point for their sermons. Many preachers don't even make a pretense of beginning with Scripture or they may have a Scripture reading that really has little or nothing to do with the topic about which they intend to provide advice or encouragement. Their sermons are a form of "group counseling" as Harry Emerson Fosdick once described his sermonizing. We are not addressing that form of preaching. We are rather attempting to distinguish approaches to the preaching task that are taken by those who are serious about the Bible and its message. They are committed to the authority of the Scriptures but approach the task of preaching from the Bible differently. When a congregation is searching for a pastor, the membership should be aware of these differences, at least in general, so that intelligent, prayerful choices can be made.
This approach takes a passage of Scripture and uses it to help people understand how they should live as Christians. One might call this approach a search for biblical guidelines for godly living. It is motivated by a sincere desire to encourage people to be more pious, loving, kind, generous, and faithful in their Christian lives. It primarily addresses the will. Biblical examples are enumerated to serve as models of the way people should live, or bad examples are cited to warn against destructive patterns of living. Thus, Joseph serves as a powerful model of one who resisted temptation even when it cost him a prison term. And David's courageous confrontation with Goliath challenges us to a similar fortitude as we face life's demanding situations. Absalom demonstrates the self-destructive consequences of a rebellious youth, whereas Daniel provides us with an example of faithfulness to the true God in a pagan, unbelieving social environment.
Recently I heard a sermon by a local pastor entitled "Biblical Principles of Money Management". Citing scattered references from Ecclesiastes, the pastor gave advice about earning, handling, and sharing money. It made good rational and responsible sense about stewardship. But there was no Good News, no mention of Jesus, by whose grace and power alone we are able to receive and manage any of God's gifts in a way that honors him and demonstrates our thankfulness. There was simply no Gospel. A Jewish rabbi or a Protestant liberal could have spoken every word of that message.
There are pastors and congregations that prefer this approach. I would recommend against it for several reasons.
This approach searches a text to try to clarify doctrinal teaching. It primarily addresses the intellect. In a "doctrinalistic" sermon the preacher is eager to have his congregation understand Christian doctrine better and leave a worship service with a clearer conception of what they must believe. Thus, for example, the biblical account of Joseph's experiences demonstrates the doctrine of providence. The providential arrival of a caravan of Midianite merchants changed the plans of Joseph's brothers, which were to kill him. They sold him into slavery instead, thereby sparing his life. And, providentially, a kindly gentleman named Potiphar, who recognized Joseph's trustworthy leadership qualities, became his master. Providence is seen in all of Joseph's experiences, right up to his appointment to leadership in government, which enabled him to save his father's family from starvation. The application is obvious: Be aware of the reality of divine providence in your life.
Much preaching in churches that align themselves with the Reformed tradition has historically been of the doctrinalist approach. I would recommend against it, however, for several reasons.
This approach begins with the recognition of the essential nature of the Bible. The Bible is God's revelation of his saving purposes in real planet earth history, culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Every text in Scripture is part of the unfolding of God's sovereign plan to redeem a lost world, a plan that reaches its fulfillment in the person and work of the Savior. Therefore, the fullest meaning of a particular text can be discerned only in relation to him who is the Word made flesh. And obedience to the ethical demands of any text is possible only in dependence on the power and grace of our divine Savior. No sermon is complete unless its place in the history of redemption, which centers in Jesus Christ, is clarified. Only then will we consistently obey the Apostle Paul's injunction to preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Such preaching demands a heartfelt response because it addresses the heart, which is the core of a person's total being, not just the intellect or will.
From this perspective, Joseph's experiences become part of the grand drama of divine redemption. Joseph is himself an object of God's grace, who is chosen by God to be an agent for the preservation of a covenant people through whom the Savior of the world, in the fullness of time, would be born. Joseph is thereby an imperfect type and shadow of Jesus, who is the ultimate preserver and deliverer of a covenant people. Joseph's salvation-and ours-is secure only in Jesus. Whatever noble character traits he exhibits are the evidence of grace in his life, traits that are common to those whose desire it is to please God and who are submissive to his providential will. We, too, are eager to please God as the response of gratitude for what he has done for us in Christ. Even our desire to do God's will has its source in him whose will it is our delight to do.
Why should we insist on redemptive historical sermons?
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Issue: "That Word Above All Earthly Powers: PREACHING" Nov./Dec. 2000 Vol. 9 No. 6 Page number(s): 25, 28-29
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