This article is a continuation of our ongoing Friday series by Dr. Adams dealing with homiletics (preaching). To read previous articles check out our archives.
I am not concerned here with evangelistic preaching, so-called. My concern is with the sort of edificational preaching that goes on every Sunday in Bible-teaching churches of the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, the gospel can never be preached without also having evangelism in view. But the sort of evangelism that takes place in the regular gathering of the people of God will be that kind of evangelism that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 14:23–25—incidental evangelism.
What I am talking about is the way in which the letters of the New Testament are written by preachers, whose preaching style and content are plainly apparent in them. These books were written to Christian churches and to saved individuals; that means that the purpose of these books was not strictly evangelistic. They dealt with such themes as heresy, schism, lack of love, encouragement, truth: matters you discuss with believers. But—and here is the main point—no matter what the main thrust of any discussion may have been, almost always the argument, the truth, the exhortation, was presented by Paul, by Peter, or by John in the light of the gospel.
When, for instance, Paul wants his readers to change their way of life, he doesn’t just say, “get with it brothers and sisters”; no, he writes:
I urge you to walk in a way that is appropriate to the calling to which you were called (Eph. 4:1b).
That calling was the great salvation about which he had been writing once again in chapters 1 to 3.
Over and over again in such passages, one encounters references that are both explicit and oblique to the substitutional, penal, sacrificial death of Christ and to His bodily resurrection. This gospel message seems never to be forgotten. On the contrary, it is always in the writer’s mind; he sees all issues in the light of the cross.
This does not mean that Paul preached/wrote about nothing else but the gospel. No, that is exactly not the case. Some preachers fail precisely because that is what they do. They seem to know nothing else. New Testament preachers had much to say about many other topics as well, but everything that they wrote (unlike so much preaching today) was evangelical (gospel oriented) but not strictly evangelistic (i.e., only a preaching of the gospel). In other words, all sorts of topics were considered, but whatever was said about a topic could not just as well have been said by an unconverted Jew. Every sermon was distinctively Christian.
That is what I was talking about in the volume 4, no. 1 (1980) issue of the JPP in the article on balance in preaching. But now, let me ask, How does one preach about other matters in the light of the gospel? In response let me emphasize two things:
- It is not done by tacking the gospel onto an otherwise gospelless message. That is decidedly not what I have in mind. To preach the gospel at the conclusion of a sermon that otherwise would be acceptable in a synagogue may be better than doing nothing at all, but it is not a biblical sort of preaching.
- It is done, rather, by permeating one’s thinking and speaking with the gospel and its implications for the subject being discussed. In preparing the message, the preacher examines all of the relationships of the subject and the gospel and then brings out some of these in the message. In the background of all that he says is a prevailing gospel flavor, or viewpoint, that influences the choice of vocabulary, incidental (but important) remarks, the stance toward the subject that he takes, etc.
But, in a concrete way, just exactly what does that mean? It means that the area under consideration is related, first, to our sin and failure and our need of a Savior. Apart from the bad news, the gospel is not good news at all. It means also that the subject is related to the gospel itself. The redemption of Jesus Christ is considered in its effect on whatever it is that one is discussing. One considers how Christ forgives, how He changes our sinful desires and turns our interests to serving God, and how He enables us to live differently in the future. In one way or another, all of these things are concerns that rather directly relate to the gospel and form a basis for preaching that is truly evangelical. And they all focus on the power of Christ’s liberating death and resurrection. what I am saying is that sanctification ought to be related to justification in preaching, just as it is everywhere in the New Testament. Otherwise, preaching tends to become moralistic.
Let us see how Paul did it. In Ephesians 5:22–33, there is a discussion of the relationship of a husband to his wife. Here the role of each is spelled out-in a redemptive way. The entire passage is thought of in terms of Christ’s justifying (v. 25) and sanctifying (w. 26, 27) relationship to what is called His bride, the church. The work of Christ in redeeming His church, and His present work in relationship to her, are both set forth evangelically. “Be self-sacrificing and kind” is a message that could be preached from a liberal pulpit or from a synagog. That is not Paul’s word to husbands. On the contrary, his message is, “Be to your wife all that Christ is to His church. Give yourself to her as Christ gave Himself up for His church.” Between the two, there is all the difference in the world. And, added to that is always, in one way or another, the message that you cannot do this yourself, but that by the wisdom and the power of the Holy Spirit Who dwells within you, you can.
E. Langston Haygood’s article in this Journal issue also deals with the problem. In it you will find helpful suggestions for preaching Christ from Proverbs. How do you preach Christ from the Old Testament? By showing how every Old Testament topic relates to the gospel. Be sure that in all your preaching—from the Old Testament and from the New—Christ and His death and resurrection condition everything else that you say. Really, in Christian preaching how could it be otherwise? Apart from the gospel, all else is worthless. All is lost. There is no hope, no incentive, no gratitude, no power—nothing! Well, then, if you believe it, preach like you think it is true. Let your congregation never forget that, regardless of what the topic might be, it holds meaning and significance only in the light of the gospel. And if there is any unbeliever present, it should be possible for him somewhere in every sermon you preach to learn the good news that
Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3, 4).