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