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My sermon on Romans 3:21-26 is here.  Audio is here.

I preached on 'Why the Cross?' on Sunday.  Thanks to all who gave help to this sermon.

In the end I guess I did a version of an old style law-gospel talk.  Basically it ran - sin is very serious, thank Christ for atonement.

Now I'm aware that such a shape to preaching has both a long pedigree and a number of dangers.  The dangers of this kind of preaching seem to me to be:

  • Sin tends to be defined merely as transgression and almost never considered christologically
  • It can sound like there's something called 'Justice' which forces God to punish sin
  • It can sound quite impersonal (even if you accept Christ it can be more 'Whoopee I have a pardon' rather than 'Hallelujah I have the Son!') 
  • All in all, it can be, ironically, less than christocentric

But bearing in mind these pit-falls, there is much to commend such an approach.  And I had a go!

Check it out here if you like.

Do you think my fears of law-gospel preaching are unfounded/insurmountable/irrelevant? 

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For Barth the three-fold Word - Christ, Scripture and Proclamation - means that preaching should always be Scriptural and always witness to Christ.   Here he makes it clear that christo-centrism is not something the preacher (or the biblical theologian) bestows on the Bible.  Rather, the Bible is already and inherently witness to Christ:

"The Bible says all sorts of things, certainly; but in all this multiplicity and variety, it says in truth only one thing - just this: the name of Jesus Christ... The Bible becomes clear when it is clear that is says this one thing... The Bible remains dark to us if we do not hear in it this sovereign name... Interpretation stands in the service of the clarity which the Bible as God's Word makes for itself; and we can properly interpret the Bible, in whole or part, only when we perceive and show that what it says is said from the point of view of that... name of Jesus Christ." (I/2, p720)

What about the Old Testament?  For Barth...

"the Old Testament is witness to Christ, before Christ but not without Christ... As a wholly Jewish book, the Old Testament is a pointer to Christ." (Homiletics, p80)

Barth does not consider the christo-centric meaning to be a sensus plenior in addition to the literal sense. 

"the natural sense is the issue... [we do not] give the passage a second sense... This passage in its immanence points beyond itself... The Old Testament points forward, the New Testament points backward, and both point to Christ." Homiletics, p80-81.

As for the New Testament, Barth insists that christocentric preaching is no less important here.

"One can never say of a single part of the narrative, doctrine and proclamation of the New Testament, that in itself it is original or important or the object of the witness intended. Neither the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount nor the eschatology of Mk 13 and parallels, nor the healing of the blind, lame and possessed, nor the battle with the Pharisees and the Cleansing of the Temple, nor the statements of the Pauline and Johannine metaphysics and mysticism (so far as there are any), nor love to God nor love to neighbour, nor the passion and death of Christ, nor the miraculous raising from the dead - nothing of all that has any value, inner importance or abstract significance of its own in the New Testament, apart from Jesus Christ being the subject of it all. His is the name in which it is all true and real, living and moving, by which, therefore, everything must be attested." I/2, p10-11

This is a helpful reminder.  We usually hear from the Old Testament sermon some "bridge to Christ" (however tenuous!).  Yet what does it say when the same preacher can manage to preach Christlessly from the New?  

Do preachers really believe that the Scriptures are already Christ-focused?  Or is it our job to add a second layer of Christ-centredness?  If a preacher breathes a sigh of relief once they're in New Testament waters, and if they then fail to witness to Christ while there - what does it say about their view of the Old and New Testaments?

Barth is really helpful here.  Scripture exists within the perichoresis of the three-fold Word.  It exists to be preached.  And it exists (every part of it) as witness to Christ.  It is not the preacher's job to make it into a witness to Christ.  If we find our Old Testament sermons involve some weird change of gears in order to 'get to Christ', we've not understood the bible properly.  If we find that our New Testament sermons fail to point people to Christ, we've not understood the bible properly.   These issues might be a sign you've bought into the wrong biblical theology. 

Just a thought.

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         Here's my length paper on Barth and Preaching.

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That's what Heinrich Bullinger asserted in the Second Helvetic Confession.  And he's not alone.  Check out Luther:

"Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor's and preacher's mouth is Christ's mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ's word and forgiveness... For the office is not the pastor's or preacher's but God's; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor's and preacher's but God's." (Quoted from CD I/1, p107)

Or Calvin:

"When a man has climbed up into the pulpit... it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man." (Sermon XXII on 1 Tim 3:2 "apt to teach", quoted in THL Parker, Calvin's Preaching, Westminster/ John Knox, 1992, p24)

Or, more to the point, check out the Bible!

"And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers." (1 Thes 2:13)

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands for ever."  And this is the word that was evangelized to you. (1 Pet 1:23-25)

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. (Heb 13:7)

So do we agree that 'Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God'?  Or would we rather Bullinger had maintained a more modest: 'Preaching of the Word of God explains and applies the Word of God'?  Can we seriously maintain the word 'is' in that statement?

Karl Barth did.  Emphatically.  If you want to read more, go here to a very lengthy essay on Barth and preaching.  Here I'll sketch out the argument in point form:

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1) The Word of God is a three-fold Word.  That is, Christ, the Bible and preaching are all called 'the Word' in the Bible.  And yet there are not three competing words or revelations but One Word of God (Christ) who comes to us in the Spirit-mediated modes of Scripture and proclamation.  Thus we have one Word in three modes.  This is Barth's primary analogy of the trinity.

2) Just as in the trinity we have distinct Persons who, nonetheless, are one, so with the Word we have distinct modes which nonetheless have a perichoretic unity.   The Son is one with the Father in His mediation of the Father.  He is no less God for being a witness of God.  But He is also no less distinct from the Father in this oneness.  In the same way preaching is no less the Word for being a witness (a Scriptural witness) to Christ. But simultaneously it is no less distinct from Christ (and Scripture) for being one with it. We need a perichoretic ontology not only for God but for the Word also.

 3) There is divinity and humanity to all three forms of the Word.  Yet, for all that, we must avoid the danger of Nestorianiam - that is, we must not conceive of the humanity as a separate existence from the divinity.  Barth is adamant that you cannot get around the worldliness of the Word - whether of Christ, Scripture or preaching.  In fact, it is not at all desirable that you should get around it.  For the Word as grace meets us where we are.  Christ the Man says 'If you've seen me you've seen the Father.'  Christ the Man says 'Son, your sins are forgiven.'  The humanity of Christ in no way jeopardizes divine revelation or salvation.  Equally, the humanity of the apostles and prophets and the humanity of the preacher does not prevent the Word from being still a divine Word.  

Just as the eternal Word did not come in a man but as a man, so on Sunday morning, God's Word does not come contained somewhere within the preaching but it comes as this human preacher in this situation witnesses to Christ.

4) We must remember the divine initiative in all this.  It is not a question of 'Can we hear God's Word in the preacher?' Rather the question is: 'Is it Christ Himself who encounters us in the preacher?'  It's not a case of pulling Christ down through correct exegesis.  If we think like this we're basically falling for an ex opere operato of the pulpit.   That is, we're imagining that our correct priestly exercises ensure a divine encounter.  We must resist this - we must begin from above.  Revelation is grace.  It is Christ who chooses to condescend in Scripture and Proclamation (not we who bring Him down).  But in this divine condescension it is Christ Himself who encounters us. 

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Let's take all these points together.  Preaching is a mode of the Word of God.  It is distinct from Scripture and Christ but inextricably linked to it.  And in relation to Christ and Scripture - that is, as Christ is proclaimed Scripturally - it is itself the Word of God.  Not a competing revelation to the Bible but rather a 'Word from Word' (parallel to Christ's divinity as 'God from God').   The humanity of the preacher is not a barrier to divine revelation but instead is the very worldiness in which the Word must meet us.  Thus the congregation on a Sunday morning is not confronted with explanation and application of the Word.  They are confronted with Christ Himself. 

Think of a preacher who challenges the congregation to confess Christ as 'My Lord and My God.' (John 20:28)  If the hearer does not trust Christ, is it only the preacher they've disobeyed? Have they not more fundamentally disobeyed Christ?  Isn't it Christ Himself who confronts them in this preaching?  It is a daunting prospect for preachers, but such is the humbling authority of 'the keys of the kingdom' (Matt 16:19; John 20:23).)

[Preaching is] "the speaking of God himself through the lips of the minister." (Karl Barth, Homiletics, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991, p67.)

"...in what Church preaching says of God, God Himself speaks for Himself." (Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, vol. 1, part 2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956, p800)

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           This post contains reworking from my comments at Faith and Theology

This week I've been listening to sermons from the web on Luke 14.  I'm preaching on it on Sunday.  It's Jesus at a banquet.  He heals on the Sabbath, He teaches about not taking the seats of honour, He calls people to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind to dinner and He speaks of the kingdom as a great feast.  Wonderful stuff.

But do you know, in all the sermons I've listened to from the web, what's been the number one application of Luke 14??  Quiet times!  From both UK and US pastors, the predominant take-home message was 'make sure you get alone with God every day.'  I'm not going to name names but I listened to some big hitters.  And they preached on the feast.  The feast where Jesus tells us to throw feasts and then speaks of the kingdom as a feast.  And what's their conclusion: 'We need to get on our own more!'  ??!  Usually the logic was: Don't take the places of honour => Therefore Get humble => Therefore get on your knees => Therefore commit to quiet times. 

Now there were two notable exceptions:  John Piper was good.  And so was the Australian (obviously!) Mike Frost.  (Those two aren't usually positively lumped together but there you are).  But the rest took Luke 14 and boiled it down into some very individualistic applications.

Now I'm all in favour of ensuring that our doing flows from a lively relationship with Christ.  But why does that equate to 'getting alone with God'??  I mean how do we get from the feast to the prayer closet??  Are conservative evangelicals that afraid of getting our hands dirty in mission, in rubbing shoulders with the poor, crippled, blind and lame?  Are we that individualistic and moralistic?

Anyway...  I do think a healthy relationship with Christ means talking and listening to Him daily.  But why is the quiet time the touch-stone of evangelical spirituality?  Why is it the default application for every sermon?  (I say this against myself)  Why do we reach for the privatized exhortations so readily?

And how many times have I heard Robert Murray McCheyne's daunting challenge:

What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is and no more.

I mean it's right to be challenged by that.  But is it true?  And is it right to aim for this as the very model and highpoint of Christian maturity?  What about: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."  (John 13:35)

I dunno.  Bit of a rant really.  What do you think?

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Check this out.  From Steve Holmes.

‘Our task is not to tell people that they must believe in Jesus, but so to tell them of Jesus that they must believe in Him.’

Spot on!

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State, Explain, Illustrate, Apply.  That's apparently the blueprint for the young preacher.  Find three points in the text (regardless of the genre of the passage, regardless of how many 'points' the Scripture might be making).  For each of the points (it's best if they all begin with 'P'): state it, explain it, illustrate it and - in a discrete section of the sermon - apply it. 

This almost inevitably means turning each point into a law to be enjoined on the congregation.  Thus: point one - Jesus is faithful.  Application - how will you be faithful this week?  For the preacher who is very keen on 'application' they will offer all manner of suggestions as to how the congregation can be faithful in the minutiae of their lives.

All this begs the question: what is preaching for?  If it is faith that comes by hearing why do our sermons aim at awakening works?   Why do both preachers and congregations love to cut to the 'application.'  You know the phrases that get a whole church wide eyed, edging to the front of their pews, pliant in the preacher's hand: "Now where does the rubber hit the road?" "What about on a Monday morning?" "How does this play out in the nitty gritty of life?"  And of course the answer given by the preacher (the answer that all our flesh longs to hear) is "You've heard this abstract, 'unearthed' stuff about Christ's righteousness, now, go, establish your own righteousness in your home, school or office.  You've heard of Christ, now you go and be the Faithful One." 

On this understanding, application looks like this:

preaching 1 

In my experience the more 'concrete' and 'earthed' an application the better.  Specific moral instructions are thought to really liven up the sermon.  Now of course this puts a huge onus on the preacher to be able to discern the thoughts and attitudes of the heart - something which surely only the Spirit by His Word is competent to do.  And the more specific these applications become the more easily they slide off the backs of a congregation safe in the knowledge they didn't commit that sin this week. 

But that's not the real issue with such an understanding of 'application'.  The real issue is - what are we aiming at in preaching?  Here's my question: what if we took seriously the fact that the gospel is to be believed?  Christ is to be received.  The Word is to be heard.  What would application look like then?  I suggest it should look much more like this:

preaching 2

Application ought to be the pointed driving home of the gospel.  It is the lively and repeated application of the Word to the heart of the congregation to the end that it might be believed.  It is not the derivation of principles which can then be turned into moral instruction.  Application is the Spirit's work of awakening faith in the Christ who we proclaim.  It is a work which we cannot perform ourselves but to which we are called nonetheless.  In prayerful dependence we follow the way of witness in the Scriptures as they point to Christ.  And we point too.  With excitement, with passion, with entreaty.  And we say like Moses did regarding the bronze serpent: Look and live!

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State, Explain, Illustrate, Apply.  That's apparently the blueprint for the young preacher.  Find three points in the text (regardless of the genre of the passage, regardless of how many 'points' the Scripture might be making).  For each of the points (it's best if they all begin with 'P'): state it, explain it, illustrate it and - in a discrete section of the sermon - apply it. 

This almost inevitably means turning each point into a law to be enjoined on the congregation.  Thus: point one - Jesus is faithful.  Application - how will you be faithful this week?  For the preacher who is very keen on 'application' they will offer all manner of suggestions as to how the congregation can be faithful in the minutiae of their lives.

All this begs the question: what is preaching for?  If it is faith that comes by hearing why do our sermons aim at awakening works?   Why do both preachers and congregations love to cut to the 'application.'  You know the phrases that get a whole church wide eyed, edging to the front of their pews, pliant in the preacher's hand: "Now where does the rubber hit the road?" "What about on a Monday morning?" "How does this play out in the nitty gritty of life?"  And of course the answer given by the preacher (the answer that all our flesh longs to hear) is "You've heard this abstract, 'unearthed' stuff about Christ's righteousness, now, go, establish your own righteousness in your home, school or office.  You've heard of Christ, now you go and be the Faithful One." 

On this understanding, application looks like this:

preaching 1 

In my experience the more 'concrete' and 'earthed' an application the better.  Specific moral instructions are thought to really liven up the sermon.  Now of course this puts a huge onus on the preacher to be able to discern the thoughts and attitudes of the heart - something which surely only the Spirit by His Word is competent to do.  And the more specific these applications become the more easily they slide off the backs of a congregation safe in the knowledge they didn't commit that sin this week. 

But that's not the real issue with such an understanding of 'application'.  The real issue is - what are we aiming at in preaching?  Here's my question: what if we took seriously the fact that the gospel is to be believed?  Christ is to be received.  The Word is to be heard.  What would application look like then?  I suggest it should look much more like this:

preaching 2

Application ought to be the pointed driving home of the gospel.  It is the lively and repeated application of the Word to the heart of the congregation to the end that it might be believed.  It is not the derivation of principles which can then be turned into moral instruction.  Application is the Spirit's work of awakening faith in the Christ who we proclaim.  It is a work which we cannot perform ourselves but to which we are called nonetheless.  In prayerful dependence we follow the way of witness in the Scriptures as they point to Christ.  And we point too.  With excitement, with passion, with entreaty.  And we say like Moses did regarding the bronze serpent: Look and live!

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