Preaching: The Threat of Legalism and Antinomianism

Preaching: The Threat of Legalism and Antinomianism

Dear Church Family,

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:

Preaching: What is the Gospel?
Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3
Preaching: The Same Message, No Matter the Text?
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 3
Preaching: Depravity, A Virtue To Be Embraced? Part 1
Preaching: Depravity, A Virtue To Be Embraced? Part 2

Introduction

Today, at long last, we come to the final topic of this series on preaching: the threat of legalism and antinomianism. I use the word “threat” because preachers must always be on guard against both of these dangers.

The Relationship Between Legalism and Antinomianism

Before we talk about that, however, let’s first try and define these terms. Legalism – which is perhaps our default nature as fallen creatures – is the belief that a person can in any way earn favor with God through obedience to the moral law (that is, the Ten Commandments). Antinomianism is defined by James Thornwell as “a system of doctrine which naturally leads to licentiousness of life. Those who deny that the law of God is the measure of duty, or that personal holiness should be sought by Christians, are those alone who can properly be charged with Antinomian principles.”

At first glance, legalism and antinomianism might seem to be opposite to one another. After all, a legalist clings to the law of God in a misguided effort to earn salvation, while an antinomian discards the law of God as the way of righteousness in a misguided desire to live as he pleases. On the surface, legalism and antinomianism seem to be distinct and opposite problems, but they are actually more alike than one might think.

Usually what happens is something like this: a believer is raised in the context where the moral and ethical demands of Scripture are emphasized and taught apart from the context of God’s redeeming grace. And so, this person comes to believe that God requires certain behaviors in order to be made acceptable to Him and receive His blessing. Since the fall, man’s default view is legalistic; so this kind of teaching comports well with our natural inclinations.

The believer who is reared in such a context may remain a legalist; however, when he is exposed to (and embraces) the proper teaching concerning the extravagance of God’s grace to us in Christ, he often becomes an antinomian, believing that God’s grace does away with the law. The turn from a legalist to an antinomian is an easy and natural one to make because in both instances, God’s law is viewed as the enemy; and, in both views, God’s law is viewed as separate and distinct from God, Himself.

So, while legalism and antinomianism may seem opposites of one another, “legalism and antinomianism are, in fact, nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb” (Sinclair Ferguson, The Whole Christ, 84). Here, I’m quoting from, and indebted to, Sinclair Ferguson. Years ago, I ran across some audio recordings online in which Dr. Ferguson explained the history and relevance of “the Marrow controversy,” a theological controversy in the Scottish Presbyterian church in the 18th century. The audio recordings of that three-part lecture series are still available online here.

More recently, Ferguson has written a book – based on the content of those lectures – called, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance – Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters. Concerning this idea that legalism and antinomianism are nonidentical twins that emerge from the same womb, Ferguson shows how both arise from a distorted view of God and His law:

Within the matrix of legalism at root is the manifestation of a restricted heart disposition toward God, viewing him through a lens of negative law that obscures the broader context of the Father’s character of holy love. This is a fatal sickness. Paradoxically, it is this same view of God, and the separation of his person from his law, that also lies at the root of antinomianism. The bottom line in both of these -isms is identical. That is why the gospel remedy of them is one and the same. (The Whole Christ, 85).

You see, both legalism and antinomianism fail to see that both law and gospel are expressions of God’s grace.

The Relevance in Preaching

So, how does this relate to preaching? Well, as noted at the beginning, preachers must always be on guard against these twin dangers of legalism and antinomianism. In fact, one of the greatest dangers for preachers is to over-react to one of these dangers and thereby fall into the other. You see, on the one hand, out of a fear of being labeled a legalist, a preacher may be tempted to never preach the imperatives or commands of God’s Word. On the other hand, out of a fear of being labeled an antinomian, a preacher may be tempted to never give assurances in the grace of the gospel.

However, the law is not contrary to the grace of the gospel, but sweetly complies with it (WCF 19:7). Therefore, the preacher must learn to put away the fear of false labels and trust the Holy Spirit to work as he seeks to preach the whole counsel of God. As Herman Bavinck writes, the law must be proclaimed in the context of the gospel:

The law, after all, is an expression of God’s being. As a human being Christ was naturally subject to law for his own sake. Before the fall the law was inscribed on Adam’s heart. In the case of the believer, it is again engraved on the tables of his heart by the Holy Spirit; and in heaven all its inhabitants will conduct themselves in accordance with the law of the Lord. The gospel is temporary; the law is everlasting and precisely that which is restored by the gospel. Freedom from the law, therefore, does not mean that Christians no longer have anything to do with that law, but that the law can no longer demand anything from them as a condition for salvation and can no longer judge and condemn them. For the rest they delight in the law in their inmost being [Rom. 7:22] and meditate on it day and night [Ps. 1:2]. For that reason that law must always be proclaimed in the church in the context of the gospel. Both law and gospel, the whole Word, the full counsel of God, are the content of preaching. Accordingly, among the Reformed the law occupies a much larger place in the doctrine of gratitude than in that of misery. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 454-455)

Or, as a former seminary professor of mine, Mike Glodo, once wrote:

“While it’s true what Lloyd-Jones said – ‘If your preaching of the gospel…does not provoke the charge…of antinomianism, you’re not preaching the gospel…’ – it’s also true that if you’re not accused of being a legalist or moralist, you’re probably not preaching the gospel.”

Conclusion

Here’s the main point – and really the bottom line of this entire series on preaching: those who are called to preach the gospel must have faith in the power and purposes of God’s Word by preaching the main point of the text before them; and those who hear must trust the Holy Spirit to convince and convert sinners, and build them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation through the preaching of the Word (WSC 89).

I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: Depravity, A Virtue To Be Embraced? Part 2

Preaching: Depravity, A Virtue To Be Embraced? Part 2

Dear Church Family,

Introduction

Last week, we sought to define the term “depravity” and we examined how the Bible teaches that believers are no longer totally depraved. This week, we will continue to examine some more examples of how this erroneous view concerning the continuation of depravity in the Christian is alive and well today.

Evidence of the Problem

Many believers fail to see the glorious benefits of the new birth, and how faith in the Lord Jesus Christ does away with both the punishment and the power of sin in our lives. We are not only forgiven; we are also able to now resist sin and live righteously (Titus 2:11-14).

There are other evidences, however, of how the erroneous teaching that depravity is a virtue to be embraced is alive and well. For instance, I have heard believers pray things like, “O Lord, forgive us – for we increase our depravity every day.” To be sure, believers sin every day in thought, word, and deed, but if you’re increasing your depravity every day, you might want to examine your heart and life and see if you have true faith!

Or, the most pervasive evidence of this faulty understanding of “depravity as a virtue to be embraced” is in the general call for believers to pursue sanctification by embracing their depravity – sometimes termed “brokenness.” In this line of thinking, Peter’s three-fold denial of the Lord Jesus (Luke 22:54-62) becomes a paradigm not only for every believer’s conversion experience, but also of every believer’s daily sanctificational experience. Understood this way, the only way to grow in Christ is by focusing and dwelling upon what a miserable sinner one is.

Not only is this practically dangerous in that it inevitably stunts the growth of believers, but it is biblically untenable. Instead of embracing – or even focusing on – his sin and failures, the Apostle Paul acknowledges his own weakness, but is not satisfied to wallow in the mire of his sinful condition: “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14). And, his focus is not on who he was in his own sin, but on who he presently is in Christ Jesus: “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3).

There’s a world of difference between acknowledging one’s sin and weakness and embracing one’s sin and weakness. In his book A Spirituality of the Road (p 77), David J. Bosch writes:

When we realize that Christians are weak, we usually react in one of two ways. I use my weakness as an excuse or I reject it and demand strength. If I use weakness as an excuse I am not to blame for what is happening. God has caused me to be as weak as I am, therefore He is to be blamed if things go wrong. In fact, arguing this way, our weakness does not only become an excuse but a virtue. We are grateful for being weak because this relieves us of our responsibility; we may relax with a clear conscience.

Linked to the call to continually embrace one’s brokenness as a means toward sanctification is the refusal to ever compliment or recognize a person for their goodness or good work. In fact, if weakness and depravity are virtues to be embraced, rather than conditions that God remedies by the power of His Holy Spirit, then people are actually to be praised for their weakness and self-awareness of their own depravity. If depravity is a virtue to be embraced, then one could never say of a man, “He is to be honored for the work that he has done for the furtherance of the gospel” (actually, this is a paraphrase of what Paul said of Epaphroditus, Philippians 2:29-30). Instead, according to this view, one ought to only praise men for their worthlessness! Or, at least praise men for their awareness of their own worthlessness.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then keep your eyes open for this sort of “wormology.” It’s out there, I promise. Listen to how people talk about how to progress and grow in the Christian life. Listen to how people talk about others and what is virtuous. I once attended a gathering of Reformed pastors and elders in which every speaker and preacher was introduced the same way, “The best thing about Joe is that he understands what a great, big, fat sinner he is.” Well, OK. Good for Joe. But is that really the best thing that we can say about him?

In the early 1940s, in The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote the following:

If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.

Thinking about how the positive virtue of Love has been replaced by the negative virtue of Unselfishness, causes me to think about how for many Christians the “pursuit of righteousness” has been replaced by the “denial of self-righteousness.” The New Testament has a lot to say about the denial of self-righteousness, but not about the denial of self-righteousness as an end in itself. We are told to deny or turn from our own self-righteousness and trust in Christ (Galatians 2:16); and nearly every description of what we shall find, if we do examine the Scriptures, contains an appeal to the desires of our new natures and the Holy Spirit within us.

For example, in his letter to the church in Galatia, even as the Apostle Paul condemns works-righteousness and the false notion of obtaining salvation by works of the law, his main exhortations at the end of the letter in chapter 6 are an appeal to sow to the Spirit: “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.” (Galatians 6:8-9)

But, here’s another thing that strikes me as I think about the above quote from C.S. Lewis: there are Christians today who have so embraced depravity as a virtue that they would deny Lewis’ main premise. They would deny that there even exists twenty “good men” whom one could ask such questions about virtue. They would argue that having a category of people whom one labeled “great Christians of old” would be inappropriate, prideful idolatry, or at best, humanism.

I remember having a discussion with a leader from another church about a church discipline issue and whether, or not a particular action was right or wrong. His dismissive conclusion to our disagreement was this, “Look, all I know is that I’m 100% wrong all the time, you’re 100% wrong all the time, and God is 100% right all the time.” Need I even probe why this line of thinking is illogical, inappropriate, self-refuting, and can only lead to apathy?

Let me conclude this essay with a quote from someone who also recognizes the dangers of embracing depravity as a virtue, though he uses slightly different terms. As he points out, one of the dangers of this line of thinking that we have been discussing is that it actually leads to the place that it so desperately wants to avoid: prideful self-aggrandizement. Commenting on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, in his book The Divine Conspiracy (p 103), Dallas Willard writes:

If all we need to be blessed in the kingdom of the heavens is to be humble-minded through recognizing our spiritual poverty, then let’s just do that and we’ve got bliss cornered. We escape the humiliation of spiritual incompetence because, strange to say, we have managed to turn it into spiritual attainment just by acknowledging it. And we escape the embarrassment of receiving pure mercy, for our humble recognition makes blessedness somehow appropriate. We have egg on our face perhaps, but at least we know it – and then can wear it defiantly, even proudly, like a badge of virtue.

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: Depravity, A Virtue To Be Embraced? Part 1

Preaching: Depravity, A Virtue To Be Embraced? Part 1

Introduction

Oftentimes, what informs (or misinform) our understanding of the purposes of preaching is our understanding of other doctrines of the Christian faith (e.g., how people come to faith, how believers are sanctified, and the nature of the human condition). One of those doctrines that is often misunderstood and thus leads to a misunderstanding of preaching, and Christian ministry in general, is the doctrine of depravity.

So, in this essay, we take up the question: Is depravity a virtue to be embraced? At first glance, you might consider that to be a silly question. Maybe we ought to embrace the doctrine of depravity, but depravity itself as a virtue? And one that we ought to embrace, no less? That’s just strange! Well, yes, it is strange, but the notion that depravity is a virtue to be embraced is becoming more common.

Defining Depravity

Let’s first define our terms. The doctrine of depravity is the teaching that men and women are born with original sin, the sin of Adam. This original sin, along with the actual sins that we commit, is what comprises our depravity. Depravity is simply the sinful condition of every human being who is descended from Adam by ordinary generation (that means Jesus is exempt). The fact that we are depraved means that this sin permeates and touches all parts of our being and all parts of our actions. Nothing that we are, and nothing that we do, is free from the effects of our sin and depravity. Of course, God created man and woman in His image, in knowledge and righteousness – that was the original plan (Genesis 1:26-28, 31). But, all of us – in Adam and then personally – sinned and rebelled and turned against our Creator (Isaiah 53:6).

It is this depravity (or pervasive sin) that cuts us off from God our Creator who is holy and just. We are natural-born children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). It is the doctrine of depravity (the “T” in TULIP – Total Depravity) which makes the love and grace of God all the more glorious and amazing: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And, so it follows that understanding our own sin and depravity – our utter hopelessness and helplessness – is essential to understanding the abounding grace of God in rescuing sinners by sending His Son, Jesus Christ.

Most non-Christians, and unfortunately even many professing Christians, no longer understand or believe in depravity. Human beings are generally thought of as good, sweet, and innocent; sin and evil are typically blamed on external forces or uncontrollable circumstances and experiences, rather than flowing from the human heart (Genesis 6:5; Matthew 15:19). In the realm of apologetics and evangelism, one must first establish an understanding of a Holy God who demands perfection from His sinful, depraved creatures. Otherwise, when we say, “Jesus saves!” most people will not understand or care, but simply ask, “Jesus saves from what?” And so, we must make a Biblical case for the doctrine of depravity in our efforts to communicate the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Problematic Errors

And now, here’s where things get interesting, and problems ensue. Those who have formerly not believed in the depravity of man but now do (or those who have come to see that it is a much-denied doctrine in our culture), will often argue and continue arguing for the depravity of man such that it carries over into one’s Christian life and becomes an essential ingredient for pursuing sanctification. In the words of Benjamin Brook, writing in The Lives of the Puritans, “Persons who have embraced sentiments which afterwards appear to them erroneous, often think that they can never remove too far from them and the more remote they go from their former opinions the nearer they come to the truth.”

And so, little by little, in ever so subtle ways, Christians actually come to believe (implicitly, if not explicitly) that depravity is not only a doctrine that must be understood, but that it is actually a virtue that must be embraced! Perhaps you’ve never heard this, or perhaps you’ve heard it so much that you don’t even notice how this strange way of thinking is so pervasive.

Some of this inappropriate emphasis on depravity in the post-conversion life of believers comes from a misunderstanding of certain Scriptures, and the avoidance of others. For instance, I have had people assume that even believers cannot do any good works that are acceptable to God based on Isaiah 64:6 – “all of our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” Yet, Jesus assumes that God’s people will do good works in order to glorify their heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16). When we are reborn, we are recreated in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).

Are these good works acceptable to God? Well, we know that without faith it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6), but what about the good works of believers? Are our good works and sacrifices ever made acceptable and pleasing to God? Of course they are! It is precisely because we are part of the spiritual household of faith and holy priesthood of God, that our spiritual sacrifices are acceptable to Him through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5). Depending upon the power of the Holy Spirit in us, we seek to imitate God by walking in love, always trying to mimic the love of our Savior; when we do this our offerings and sacrifices to God are a fragrant aroma to Him – well-pleasing to our God (Ephesians 5:1-2; Philippians 4:18).

The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:

…the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections. (WCF 16.6)

Notice how the Confession emphasizes that it is because believers are accepted through Christ, that their good works are also accepted in Him. For example, commenting on Genesis 4:4 – where God accepts Abel and his sacrifice, but does not accept Cain or his sacrifice – John Calvin writes:

God is said to have respect unto the man to whom he vouchsafes his favor. We must, however, notice the order here observed by Moses; for he does not simply state that the worship which Abel had paid was pleasing to God, but he begins with the person of the offerer; by which he signifies, that God will regard no works with favor except those the doer of which is already previously accepted and approved by him.

Conclusion

You see, believers are not only different from unbelievers in their justification; those who arejustified are made new creatures, as well (2 Corinthians 5:17). By faith, not only has our legal status before God been changed, but we have been changed. In our justification, we have been made fit for heaven; in our regeneration, we have been made fit to serve heaven.

Therefore, if you are a Christian – united to Christ, justified, and born again – then you are no longer depraved. Still fighting against the indwelling sin? Yes. Still seeking to live for Christ with many weaknesses and imperfections? Yes. However, you are no longer depraved. You are being sanctified; you are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

For further reading, and a helpful explanation of this particular misunderstanding of the doctrine of depravity, see this excellent article by Rick Phillips entitled, “Thank God that Christians Are Not Totally Depraved.”

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 3

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 3

Introduction

Two weeks ago, we introduced and examined the concept from the Westminster Confession of Faith (14.2) of how, by faith, a Christian responds differently to the Word of God depending on the particular passage and its contents: (1) obeying the commands; (2) trembling at the threatenings; and (3) embracing the promises. Then, last week, we considered where we find this teaching in the Scriptures.

Now that we have a good confessional and biblical basis for this concept, this brings us to the practical implications of what this all means for preaching.

Practical Implications for Preaching

Understanding the theoretical aspect of preaching – that is, preaching the whole Word of God (commands, threatenings, and promises) as defined by the text before us – leads us to consider the practical implications. That is, is it true that believers grow in their faith solely by hearing and meditating upon their justification? Again, this is based on a misunderstanding and a too-narrow a view of the definition of the Gospel.

Here it is helpful to gain some insight from a particular teaching in the Canons of Dort. In response to the teachings of Arminianism, the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) set forth five main points in refutation of the claims of the Remonstrants (the followers of Arminius). These five points have come to be referred to as the TULIP, or the five points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints. In the fifth point, article 14 reads as follows:

And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.

What’s interesting here is that the Synod of Dort states that perseverance in faith is furthered by hearing and reading the gospel, and also by the use of the sacraments (what we often refer to as the ordinary means of grace). But what’s even more interesting is how the Synod of Dort refers to the hearing and reading of the gospel as being comprised of “its exhortations, threats, and promises” (notice the parallel in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 14.2).

The point is this: not only is the preaching of the emphasis of a particular passage of Scripture (it’s commands, threats, and promises) proper because believers respond by faith to each one differently (obedience, trembling, and embracing), but these aspects of the gospel (!) are that which God uses for the preserving, continuing, and completing of His work in His people.

Early on in my preaching ministry, when I was just starting out, I greeted a family at the door of the church after the service. The young husband and father stopped in front of me, shook my hand, and said, “I just want you to know that you stepped on my toes in the sermon this morning!” A bit unsure as to how to respond, I said, “Oh, sorry about that.” He said, “Don’t be sorry. I needed my toes to be stepped on!”

That episode – and others over the years – has reminded me that God uses the preaching of His word in ways that I, as the preacher, don’t always expect. In fact, I am surprised by those things that God uses to convict or encourage people from a sermon. But I am also encouraged. I am encouraged because it means that despite my own weaknesses and failings as a preacher, I can have confidence to know that God will speak to His people. And, I can have confidence that, because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God’s people will, by faith, hear His voice through the faithful exposition and preaching of His word.

Conclusion

There is seemingly no end to the debates over what are the proper ways to preach the gospel, how pastors ought to be faithful to the Scriptures in proclaiming His word. The debates can be frustrating, but they are also helpful in that they make ministers and laity alike consider afresh the importance of the preached word. The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us of its importance:

Q. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation. (WSC 89).

In the end, hopefully, the debates and discussion, books and articles, will be used of God to make all of Christ’s under-shepherds better and more faithful in their important work.

One such book, that explains and emphasizes the teachings of the Westminster divines on the subject of preaching is The Westminster Directory of Public Worship: Discussed by Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson. I’ll conclude with a with a quote from that book, and the insightful words of pastor, preacher, and author, Mark Dever:

Today, preachers face the twin dangers of Hypocritical Christianity and Hypothetical Theology, which both result in lives unaffected by truths unapplied. Preachers sometimes think it more spiritual only to declare objective realities of the historical work of God through Christ, and not to address the Spirit’s work of application in the hearts of hearers. Some decry such applicatory work as subjectivism, pietism, or the seed bed of legalism and works-righteousness. While such perversion may, in fact, arise, they are nevertheless perversions, and not the simple application itself, the application we see in Scripture. When we oppose application as such, we are certainly separating ourselves from the understanding of the Bible and its truths that the Westminster divines had.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2

Introduction

Last week, we introduced the concept of how believers act differently based upon what each particular passage of Scripture contains. Today, we will look at some of the things that God’s Word has to say about this concept.

Insights from the Scriptures

When the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that “by faith, a Christian…acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commandstrembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come” it does not do so arbitrarily and without biblical warrant.

Obedience to the Commands

In understanding how a Christian, by faith, responds to God’s commands in His Word with obedience, the Confession draws upon the closing benediction in the book of Romans. There the Apostle Paul declares that his “gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith” (Romans 16:25-26).

Even as God called Abraham by entering into covenant with him and gave him sign of circumcision, obedience was implicit in the gospel call: “Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless’” (Genesis 17:1). Noah was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Moses recounted the law of God to the people of Israel and they all responded with one voice, “All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 24:3). Daniel mourned over the exile of his people because of their lack of obedience to the message of the prophets: “we have rebelled against Him; nor have we obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in His teachings which He set before us through His servants the prophets.” John the Baptist called upon his hearers to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). It was the practice of Jesus to call for his hearers to obey His commands – for example, the command to cut off that which causes sin (Matthew 5:29-30). And, in his defense before King Agrippa, Paul summarized a portion of his gospel ministry as a call to “repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:19-20).

Trembling at the Threatenings

In understanding how a Christian, by faith, responds to God’s threatenings in His Word with tremblings, the Confession draws upon the words of Isaiah: “Thus says the LORD, ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest? For My hand made all these things, Thus all these things came into being,’ declares the LORD. ‘But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word’” (Isaiah 66:1-2).

God looks with favor on the one who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at His word. One of the clearest places in the Old Testament where we see God use threatenings to bring about repentance is in the book of Jonah. Jonah’s message to the people of Ninevah (the enemies of God’s people) is recorded in the Bible as being a very simple message of threat: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). This was the gospel according to Jonah: Ninevah will be destroyed! What was their response? “Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. He issued a proclamation and it said, ‘In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.’” (Jonah 3:5-9). And, what was God’s response? “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (Jonah 3:10).

It is also illuminating to consider how Paul, near the end of his ministry, talked about faith in Christ Jesus with Felix (the Gentile) and his wife Drusilla (the Jew). Having sent for Paul, Felix and Drusilla “heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, ‘Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you’” (Acts 24:24-25). Paul’s explanation concerning faith in Christ Jesus included righteousness, self-control, and the future judgment (commands and threats, along with promises). Apparently, this went on for two years while Paul was imprisoned (Acts 24:26-27). In the words of Paul, “according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16).

Embracing the Promises

In understanding how a Christian, by faith, responds to God’s promises in His Word by embracing His promises, the Confession draws upon two passages. The first is Hebrews 11:13. Having recounted the faith of several people (from Abel to Abraham and Sarah), the writer of Hebrews says, “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). These early saints who died in faith saw the promises of God from a distance. Though they did not see the fulfillment of those promises which only comes when Christ Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God on earth, they welcomed them; by faith, they embraced the promises of God. “And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). God makes promises to those who may not have been able to experience the fulfillment of them, yet they embraced those promises by faith and desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16).

The second passage that the WCF draws upon to teach how a Christian, by faith, embraces God’s promises in His Word is 1 Timothy 4:8: “for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” God makes promises to those who pursue godliness. The promise of reward is for both this life and the life to come. At the end of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, the people were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” To which, Peter responded with a wonderful promise of the indwelling, regenerative power of the Holy Spirit: “‘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. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.’ And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation!’” (Acts 2:38-40).

This is probably why the WCF concludes paragraph 2 of chapter 14 with these words: “But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.” By faith, Christians obey God’s commands, tremble at His threatenings, and embrace His promises. All of these work together as God’s means for the bringing about and building up faith and faithfulness. Yet, saving faith has – as its principle act – accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life in the covenant of grace.

Conclusion

This last point is very important because some may read these essays and arrive at the erroneous conclusion that I am making an argument for legalism or works-righteousness. By no means! There is a difference between ends and means that we must keep in mind here. The end is accepting, receiving and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life in the covenant of grace. The means which God uses (within the proclamation of His Word) are commands, threats, and promises which God’s people, by faith, obey, tremble at, and embrace.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1

Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1

Introduction

Last week, we examined the inappropriate view of preaching in which some argue that every sermon ought to have the same message: justification by faith alone in Christ alone. I tried to show the implications of such a view of preaching with regard to: the calling of a pastor to feed the sheep, some basic rhetorical issues, and how it inappropriately alters (and flattens) how believers read the Scriptures. I also tried to explain why I think this methodology of preaching the same message no matter the text is attractive.

One of the main points that I sought explicate was this: while God’s people need to continually hear and be reminded of how they have been saved by faith alone in Christ alone, the Bible has more to say to God’s people than this one message. With that in mind, today we will look at a particular portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith that helps us to see the multifaceted message of God’s Word.

Insights from the Westminster Confession of Faith

Chapters 14 & 15 of the Westminster Confession of Faith deal with faith and repentance, respectively. WCF 15.1 reads: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ.” Plain enough. Repentance and faith in Christ are to be preached by every minister of the Gospel. Chapter 15 then goes on to define and describe the different aspects of repentance.

Chapter 14, though, provides us with some insights that helps to guide and direct preachers and readers of the Word, alike. Chapter 14 (Of Saving Faith) gives the definition, source, and means of faith (14.1), the effects of saving faith (14.2), and the victory of saving faith (14.3). [by the way, 1 Peter 1:1-2:12 teaches all of these.] Consider, in more detail, the second paragraph:

By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace. (WCF 14.2)

Notice the use of the two verbs (believes and acts). By faith, a Christian believes what is revealed in the Word of God because of the authority of God speaking in the Scriptures; one of the discernable marks of saving faith is that a person believes that the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God. Then – and here’s where it gets really interesting and applicable to how a preacher preaches, and how a hearer responds – by faith a Christian acts differently depending on the particular passage and its contents: (1) obeying the commands; (2) trembling at the threatenings; (3) embracing the promises. Finally, the paragraph concludes with the principal act of saving faith: receiving and resting upon Christ alone.

This portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith helps to chart the waters in the debates over what it means “to preach the gospel.” Perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps, we ought to be asking, “What does it mean to preach the Word of God?” (WLC 159). Whichever question we ask, however, we need to understand WCF 14.2 and the importance of preaching the particularities of a passage (commands, threatenings, promises, or perhaps even several of these). Then, let God work faith in the hearers, a faith that manifests itself in different ways depending on the passage of Scripture that was preached. In the end, I suppose it comes down to the preacher having faith, himself – as defined in the first sentence of this paragraph – faith in the authority of God speaking in the Scriptures.

Conclusion

Here, we’ve just introduced the concept of how believers act differently based upon what each particular passage of Scripture contains. Next week, we will examine the Scriptural basis for this idea.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: The Same Message, No Matter the Text?

Preaching: The Same Message, No Matter the Text?

Introduction

In this installment, we take up in more detail a specific question that I have heard some wrestle over with regard to preaching: should every sermon have the same message no matter the text? Often, this is framed in terms of a narrow view of the gospel as speaking only to the justification of the individual believer (see the first installment linked above). With that narrow view of the gospel, the subsequent, the erroneous theory is derived that individual believers are sanctified only by hearing “the gospel of justification” – and that this ought to be the same message of every sermon.

Yes, it is true that the doctrine of justification and a person’s need to trust in Christ and repent of their sins ought to be preached by every minister of the gospel (WCF 15:1). And yes, it is true that one of the motivations in sanctification is the gratitude that comes from hearing what Christ has done for us. At the same time, is what God has done for us through Christ the only message of the Scripture? Should a preacher preach only this one message because it is the only means by which men and women are sanctified?

Implications of the “same message, no matter the text” view of preaching

These are important questions that every preacher wrestles with all of the time – or, at least ought to. One of the guiding principles, however, of lectio continua preaching (preaching through a book verse by verse, chapter by chapter) is that one ought to preach the text before him and not the whole Bible in every sermon. This is key and needs to be stated and understood right up front. When the preacher sticks to the doctrinal teaching of a particular text the Word of God (in all of its variety and emphases) is systematically set before the people of God.

Too often, as is the case for most every new preacher right out of seminary, one’s tendency is to preach all of Scripture in every sermon. One of the reasons for this is because in seminaries, we are trained to think systematically about the Bible and doctrine, and we want to make sure that our hearers understand all of the nuances and caveats in every sermon. The problem is this (to paraphrase a former seminary professor of mine): if you try to say everything about something, you will inevitably wind up saying nothing about anything.

For instance, when preaching a passage that emphasizes the importance of diligently applying virtue to one’s faith (e.g. 2 Peter 1:5-15), does one have to caveat every exhortation to pursue holiness by saying, “Now, remember, there is nothing that you can do to earn or add to the merit of Christ for your salvation”? The answer is simply: No. Of course, this is true. Of course, it should be stated and stated clearly so as to avoid confusion or misunderstanding. But that is not the emphasis of the text. The question that we should be asking of a passage of Scripture is not, “What doesn’t this passage teach?” (salvation by works), but, “What does this passage teach?” (the call to press on toward godliness).

There are some basic rhetorical issues at stake here, as well. If the text is an exhortation to pursue holiness, but then the preacher concludes the sermon by saying, “But, don’t worry about that. Christ died for your sins. That’s all that matters.” While the latter is true as far as it goes, it is not the emphasis or the teaching of that passage and takes away from the emphasis of that particular text. I’ve actually heard proponents of this “same message, no matter the text” theory of preaching, insist that when preaching such a text, one must always “import the ‘gospel’ from another place in the Scriptures, lest your hearers put faith or trust in something other than Christ.”

So, according to this philosophy of preaching, if one preaches on the important role of elders from Titus 1:5-9, after exhorting the congregation and the elders of the church to maintain these criteria for ecclesiastical leadership, one should conclude with something like Jesus’ statement in John 10 where He describes Himself as the only “good shepherd.” Instead of an exhortation to elect and maintain qualified men as elders in the church, the sermon becomes an exhortation to trust in Christ as the one perfect elder. The point of the sermon is no longer the point of the text.

What this does, in practice, is misapply the original meaning of the text, and it also subtly teaches the hearers that all of the imperatives of Scripture are not applicable to them because Christ already fulfilled the demands. Again, of course, it is true that Christ has fulfilled all the demands of the law for those who have placed their faith and trust in Him, for all His elect. Yet, if “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) – a text which is specifically about how preachers are to handle the text of Scripture – then shouldn’t we preach and apply all Scripture in the various ways that God has purposed for us to benefit from them?

Why the “same message, no matter the text” view of preaching is attractive

There are at least three reasons why this narrow view of preaching is so attractive.

First of all, when you sit under this kind of preaching (and when you preach it) it makes you feel good. If there is never a call to do anything, to reform my ways, or change my behavior, and all I have to do is acknowledge that where I failed, Christ succeeded – I get a sense of great assurance, and I feel really good about myself. And, people are attracted to that kind of message. The problem, however, is that it leaves out many of the hard sayings of the Bible; it leaves out the Lordship of Christ; it leaves out the call to discipleship. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it tickles one’s ears (2 Timothy 4:3), but it can very easily lead to a lack of self-examination and a false assurance. Perhaps that’s why it is so appealing.

Second of all, this kind of preaching sounds biblical. In fact, it is biblical, but it is only one side of the coin. Yes, it is true that we are justified by faith alone, in Christ alone; there is not one thing that we can do to add to the merit that Christ has provided for us in His perfect life, death, and resurrection. Truly, God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Yet, that is not the whole of the gospel message. Justification may be the heart of the gospel, but it not the whole of the gospel. The good news is the gospel of the Kingdom. Last I checked a kingdom implies that there’s a king. And, the fact that there’s a king, implies that we ought to obey Him. Sometimes the only thing that people hear is that Christ is their Savior (a good thing), but they forget that He is also their Lord and King.

Third, and finally, in certain contexts (for example, as a military chaplain, on a college campus, or in open-air preaching where when one is preaching mostly to unbelievers), an exclusive emphasis on justification by faith alone is often warranted. This is why we find such an emphasis in many of the sermons that we have recorded for us in the book of Acts. The initial emphasis for those who have never heard of Jesus Christ needs to be an exposition of the teachings surrounding the doctrine of justification.

Perhaps, this is why many on our college campus ministries gravitate toward this kind of preaching. Evangelistic contexts often require a different emphasis than week in and week out preaching in a congregation. That doesn’t mean that God’s people don’t need to continually hear and be reminded of how they have been saved; it simply means that that is not the only thing that they need to hear.

Through the ministry of those who have been called to minister His Word, God purposes to build up the body of Christ; the Church is to learn to not be carried about by every wind of doctrine, but to grow up into Christ our head (Ephesians 4:11-16). With the Apostle Paul, preachers ought not to shrink back from declaring to God’s people the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:27).

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching, Part 2

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching, Part 2

Dear Church Family,

Two weeks ago, I sought to explain the proper definition of redemptive-historical preaching. I also attempted to explain how this form of preaching is often abused and provided some examples and evidence of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching to be on the lookout for. You may read part one of “Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching” online here.

By way of a reminder, my contention is not that there is anything wrong with a redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture and redemptive-historical preaching. In fact, in my opinion, it is the proper way of interpreting and applying the word of God. What I’m attempting to assess and critique, however, is the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching.

In part one, we considered three kinds of evidence of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. Here in part two, we consider one more. Next week, in part three, we will consider the fifth and final evidence.

4. Creativity without biblical warrant which borders on allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament – aka “Leprechaun Theology”

Redemptive-historical preaching really comes alive in preaching from the Old Testament. For many people who have become accustomed to dispensational preaching, or just plain moralistic and exemplaristic preaching, when they see Christ in the Old Testament, it’s thrilling – God’s Word comes alive for them as never before. This is a good thing and a benefit of redemptive-historical preaching. To miss the new covenant realities of the story of King David, would be to miss the main point of how Jesus is the son of David and the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises concerning God’s preservation of David’s throne.

Yet, just as the Old Testament Scriptures are not only exemplaristic (which they are, see 1 Corinthians 10:1-15 or Hebrews 11), neither are they only typological (which they are, see Romans 5:14 or John 6:49-51). For example, in preaching from the story of Joseph (Genesis 37-50), it is appropriate to see Joseph as a type of Christ – one who literarily foreshadows the Savior of God’s people, as any redemptive-historical preacher should (this is what Stephen did in his sermon (Acts 7:9-18)). However, it is also appropriate to see Joseph as an example for believers as to how to live faithfully and obediently, even and especially in difficult times (this is what the writer of Hebrews does (Hebrews 11:21-22)).

The problem comes in, however, when interpreters and preachers take their typology too far. Some have half-jokingly called this “Leprechaun theology” – seeing Jesus behind every tree and every rock in the Old Testament. Again, as we mentioned in point number one in part one, this causes an inappropriate and dangerous flattening of the Scriptures. It also creates the seductive lure in the sermon to expect the surprise typological leap at the end – “Oh, Jesus is the rod that Moses used to part the Red Sea! I didn’t see that before!” Well, the reason you didn’t see it before is probably because it isn’t there. In some ways, the sermon becomes not unlike the magician’s performance, except at the end of the act instead of a rabbit, the preacher pulls out Jesus to everyone’s surprise.

One of the favorite verses of those who abuse redemptive-historical preaching in this way is Luke 24:27 – “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” Of course, most all believers would readily agree that all of Scripture points to Christ. That’s not the issue. The issue is: does all of Scripture point to Christ in exactly the same way? That is, typologically? The danger here is that if everything in the Old Testament is interpreted and preached typologically, we will begin to lose our guides and rails. As a result, our interpretation will be subject more to our imaginations or “literary acumen” then to the actual interpretive grid of the Scriptures themselves (WCF 1.9).

Conclusion

I have long thought that the form of a good sermon ought to mimic and follow many of the same principles that define a good short story; it seems to me that in many respects, they are similar genres. As such, the ability to be creative in sermon preparation and presentation (homiletics) is very helpful. Yet, creativity in the interpretation of Scripture (hermeneutics) is not usually a good thing.

If, as the Westminster Confession of Faith reminds us, “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (WCF 1.9), then God’s Word itself gives us boundaries and rails to guide us in how to interpret it. Again, there are proper ways to employ a typological interpretation of Scripture for the purposes of redemptive-historical preaching; however, when the preacher makes typological connections that are not explicitly found in Scripture – or by good and necessary consequence, deduced from Scripture (WCF 1.6) – it is very dangerous.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching, Part 1

Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching, Part 1

Dear Church Family,

This is the third installment of our weekly series on preaching. First, we considered the full-orbed definition of the gospel that includes what Jesus did in history and how God saves sinners (Preaching: What is the Gospel?). Second, we considered the full-orbed definition of gospel preaching that includes Jesus Christ as well as the doctrines and commandments of God (Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure).

At this point, I’d like to offer some thoughts concerning the misunderstandings that surround what is usually called “redemptive-historical preaching.” Now, you might be thinking, preachers need to think about this sort of thing, but I’m not a preacher, so how does this affect me?” Well, my intent here is to try and speak to this topic for the benefit of the hearers of preaching – so that you may be better equipped to understand not merely the things that preachers need to consider, but what to look for in preaching.

Defining Redemptive-Historical Preaching

First, let’s try and define what we’re talking about. Redemptive-Historical Preaching can simply be defined as “that preaching which seeks to understand a particular passage of Scripture in its context in the history of redemption and then making application in light of the coming of Christ. It is preaching Christ from all of Scripture.” And, all God’s people said, “Amen! What’s the problem?”

Well, with this definition of redemptive-historical preaching, there is no problem. I was taught in seminary, and have continued to study, redemptive-historical preaching. I endeavor to preach redemptive-historically. Redemptive-historical preaching is what I believe true, gospel preaching ought to be.

The problem comes in, however, when some preachers, as well as parishioners, use this term to define an overly-simplistic form of preaching (sometimes called “just preaching the gospel”). But what is passed off as redemptive-historical preaching is actually an abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. For you see, if one defines “the gospel” only in terms of justification (see the article at the first link above), then redemptive-historical preaching becomes overly-simplistic and overly-narrow in its focus. When redemptive-historical preaching is abused in this way, often times the main points of a particular text are not preached, but another is imported from outside of that text.

Evidences of the Abuse of Redemptive-Historical Preaching

If that sounds a bit confusing, let me try and clarify by way of some examples and evidences of the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching. Here are some things to keep an eye out for (please recognize that not all of these will be found in every instance of abuse; these are simply potential red-flags, not exhaustive criteria for evaluation).

1. Every sermon has as its main point 2 Corinthians 5:21

“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21) becomes the final point of every sermon. This certainly is the heart of the gospel message, but it most certainly is not all that the Bible teaches about the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. According to the Bible, the Gospel is, Yes – Jesus was made sin on our behalf and suffered and died for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. But, the Gospel is also, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Turn and deny your sins, and live a holy life, now that Jesus has saved you.” And, the Gospel is also, “One day Jesus is coming back and you will be unable to sin, made perfect in holiness and in righteousness.”

Just as an aside, I recall having a conversation with a woman who had sat under this kind of preaching for a prolonged period of time, and she jokingly said, “It got to the point where in my note taking on the sermon, I could actually write out the notes before the sermon was preached. Every sermon had three points: One – You are a sinner; Two – Where you sinned, Christ was obedient; Three – Trust in Christ.” The worst part was that she didn’t see anything wrong with this. She actually thought that this was a good thing; yet she failed to consider that a flattening of the Scriptures in such a way – where every passage says exactly the same thing – obscures the richness of God’s Word and stunts the spiritual growth of God’s people (Hebrews 5:12-6:3).

2. There is a call to believe and have faith (trust in Christ), apart from true repentance (confessing and turning from one’s sins)

Point number two is connected with point number one. Of course, repentance is not a condition of receiving God’s grace and trusting in Christ for salvation (WCF 15.3); it is a fruit of God’s grace and saving faith. Yet, at the same time, if the point of every sermon that you hear is: “Jesus died for your sins, therefore all you need to do is trust in Him and have faith” then you are not hearing the right application of all of Scripture, and you are getting only half of the call of the Gospel. The call of the Gospel is “repent and believe” – not just “believe.” The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that “repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the Gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ” (WCF 15.1).

When John the Baptist prepared the way for our Lord, preaching to those who claimed to be of the truth faith, central to his message was a call to repentance: “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). In the statement that most succinctly summarizes Jesus’ message during His earthly ministry, faith and repentance, are tied together: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

And, when the Apostle Paul gave testimony before King Agrippa, he asserted that out of obedience to the heavenly vision which he received on the road to Damascus, he kept declaring in Damascus, at Jerusalem, in Judea, and eventually to the Gentiles, “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance ” (Acts 26:19-20). When one calls for faith apart from repentance, not only is he wrongly dividing the Word of God, he is wrongly dividing the Son of God – subtly implying that you can have Christ as your Priest, even though He may not be your King.

3. The absence of specific application

Again, this point is connected to points 1 and 2. If the point of every sermon is “just believe the Gospel” and this is the only exhortation of the message week in and week out, then there is actually very little room for application. What more could one say with such a message? I suppose that there is some nuance on how precisely a person should have faith or trust in Christ, rather than, say, your money, your good works, etc. But, in the end, the application is typically singular and very general: only believe.

Another reason for the lack of specific application in the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching is the inherent emphasis on objectivity. In fact, historically, the emphasis on redemptive-historical preaching arose out of a response in Dutch churches to the overly-subjective, exemplaristic preaching that had become so common. Right they were to react to such moralistic preaching, but the pendulum swung in the complete and opposite direction to where any kind of specific application was condemned.

Again, John the Baptist serves as a good example here. In his preaching as recorded in Luke 3, he made very specific application to “the crowds” (vv 10-11), the tax-collectors (vv 12-13), and the soldiers (v 14). Jesus made much of specific application all the time. For example, see of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or Jesus’ discourse concerning life as His servant in Matthew 18. Paul exhorted Titus to “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine” by teaching the various groups of people in his church how to live in holiness and obedience so that they might adorn the gospel in their lives (Titus 2:1-10). Peter explains that Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross not only atoned for our sins, but that in His suffering and death Christ left us an example to follow (1 Peter 2:21-24).

I could go on, but the point is this: far from being manipulative or legalistic, a pastor who makes useful, specific application of the Scriptures in his preaching is simply being true to his call to shepherd the flock that has been entrusted to him (1 Peter 5:1-3).

Conclusion (for now)

I hope this is helpful. Again, my contention is not that there is anything wrong with a redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture and redemptive-historical preaching. In fact, in my opinion, it is the proper way of interpreting and applying the word of God. What I’m attempting to assess and critique, however, is the abuse of redemptive-historical preaching.

I hope that the evidences of this abuse that I’ve provided are helpful. This is part one, so next week I’ll have two more evidences of this kind of abuse in preaching.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure

Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure

Dear Church Family,

In last week’s reflection, we considered how we might arrive at a more full-orbed definition of the gospel. The gospel is about more than the good news of justification, it is the good news of the kingdom of God! Thus, the gospel includes what Christ, as the King of God’s kingdom, has done in history: how Jesus brought the kingdom (inauguration), how Jesus rules the kingdom (continuation), and how Jesus will bring the kingdom in its fullness (consummation). And, the gospel includes the application of what Christ has done for us as members of God’s kingdom: how we enter into the kingdom (justification), how we live in the kingdom (sanctification), and where we are going in the kingdom (glorification).

Jesus Christ and the Doctrines & Commandments of God

When it comes to preaching the gospel (and hearing the gospel preached), it is important to keep these things in mind. All preaching – if it is true gospel preaching – ought to be Christ-centered. Yet, some Christians, and some preachers among them, propose that true gospel preaching ought to be Christ-centered in such a way that each and every sermon is about the doctrine of justification. While every sermon ought to be at least implicitly evangelistic, this view promotes the notion that every sermon ought to be explicitly evangelistic.

As we’ve noted, part of the gospel is the good news of justification, but to reduce the preaching ministry to preaching sermons only about justification by faith alone in Christ alone imposes a particular grid on Scripture, distorts the purposes of preaching, and does a disservice to God’s people. Yes, everyone needs to hear and be reminded about justification by faith alone (believers, as well as unbelievers); yet, while believers and unbelievers both need to hear about justification, there is more to “preaching the gospel.”

Consider how the Apostle Paul describes his preaching ministry to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:10-17):

10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it.  11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,  13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.  14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward.  15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.  16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?  17 If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.

As a pastor and preacher, Paul describes himself as a “wise master builder” (v 10) who, through his preaching, has laid the essential foundation of Jesus Christ (v 11). In the following verses, he proceeds to describe what it means to build upon that foundation – what we might call the ‘superstructure’ of his preaching ministry. This superstructure, which is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, may be comprised of either gold, silver, and precious stones or wood, hay, and straw.

But what does Paul mean by use of this imagery? In condemning the Pharisees, Jesus said, “But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:7-8). Simply put, the gold, silver, and precious stones are the doctrines and commandments of God; the wood, hay, and straw are the precepts and traditions of men. Both may be built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, but only one will survive the fires of judgment on the day of Christ.

Concerning this superstructure, John Calvin writes:

“…by gold, silver, and precious stones, he means doctrine worthy of Christ, and of such a nature as to be a superstructure corresponding to such a foundation…by wood, hay, and straw is meant doctrine not answering to the foundation, such as is forged in men’s brain, and is thrust in upon us as though it were the oracles of God.” (John Calvin, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 3:12)

The Lord calls pastors to feed His people primarily through preaching the word (WSC 89). Through the preaching of the word, the faithful preacher lays the essential foundation of Jesus Christ and builds upon that foundation with the doctrines and commandments of God.

More than repentance from dead works and of faith toward God

The writer of Hebrews addresses this same issue (Hebrews 5:12-6:3):

12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.  13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant.  14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.  6:1 Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God,  2 of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.  3 And this we will do, if God permits.

Commenting on Hebrews 6:1, Calvin writes:

“To his reproof he joins this exhortation, –  that leaving first principles they were to proceed forward to the goal. For by ‘the word of beginning’ he understands the first rudiments, taught to the ignorant when received into the Church. Now, he bids them to leave these rudiments, not that the faithful are ever to forget them, but that they are not to remain in them; and this idea appears more clear from what follows, the comparison of a foundation; for in building a house we must never leave the foundation; and yet to be always engaged in laying it, would be ridiculous. For as the foundation is laid for the sake of what is built on it, he who is occupied in laying it and proceeds not to the superstruction, wearies himself with foolish and useless labor. In short, as the builder must begin with the foundation, so must he go on with his work that the house may be built. Similar is the case as to Christianity; we have the first principles as the foundation, but the higher doctrine ought immediately to follow which is to complete the building. They then act most unreasonably who remain in the first elements, for they propose to themselves no end, as though a builder spent all his labor on the foundation, and neglected to build up the house. So then he would have our faith to be at first so founded as afterwards to rise upwards, until by daily progress it be at length completed.” (John Calvin, Epistle to the Hebrews, 6:1)

You see, when “the gospel” is defined simply in terms of justification by faith alone (“repentance from dead works and of faith toward God” – Hebrews 6:1) the household of faith is taught to lay the foundation, over and over again. Should we revisit and inspect the foundation? Of course! Is a proper understanding of (and reminders about) the foundation essential? Yes! But, as Calvin wisely observes, to always be engaged in laying the foundation and never proceeding to the rest of the building would be to engage in “foolish and useless labor.” Yet, this is precisely what happens when the preaching of the gospel is limited to the preaching of justification.

Conclusion

Yes, the good news of the gospel includes the doctrine of justification: it is one of the central aspects of the gospel. To limit our definition of the good news by saying that it is merely about justification, however, would be to reduce the grand plan of God, and the richness of a life that is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).

One of Jesus’ favorite ways to describe “the gospel” was with the descriptor, “of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:239:3524:14Luke 16:16). Isaiah’s messenger of good news – the one who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation – does not come, saying, “You’re justified!” He says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7). Implicit in the reign of God is, of course, justification – but the effective reach of God’s will through the kingdom of His beloved Son is about so much more than the justification of His people. It’s about His making all things new!

The Lord be with you!

– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch