The Dean Recommends
Don’t shortchange your education and don’t shortchange your flock. Log time—significant time—learning the languages. Go to a seminary that is strong in Greek and Hebrew. And when you get into ministry after your theological education, do not measure the success of the church by the size of the congregation but by its depth of devotion to Christ and the Word.
If God is as good and as powerful as the Bible says he is, then why would he allow a hurricane like Florence to devastate the Carolina coast, where it has taken the lives of at least seven people already and made thousands of other people homeless? Where is God during the hurricane?
The female martyrs and ascetics go a step beyond the #MeToo movement by testifying to an eternal truth: resurrection life in Christ. The martyrs tell women today to love our bodies as signs of the future resurrection. They encourage us to think about what is temporary and passing away and to cling to what is eternal. The martyrs usually gave up economic security and social honor. The female slave martyrs shocked the pagans who could not believe people from the lowest class could have such strength of character. Whether you are rich or poor, have social honor or are at the bottom of the social ladder, the martyrs can show you how to use your position for Christ’s honor.
Certainly the most humbling and reassuring lesson coming from a three-quarter-century backward glance is his persistence in drawing me to himself. Now I know that God was always way out in front of me, initiating life-giving knowledge of himself. And it was he who pursued me and sustained the relationship when I strayed in ignorant sheeplike fashion, doubted his existence, and then like the Prodigal Son deliberately moved to the far country.
The Preacher as Exegetical Escort
Preachers of the Word are exegetical escorts who usher hearers into the presence of God for the purpose of transformation. As students of the Word, preachers search for what God’s Word really says in its raw radiance without denominationalizing, ethnicizing, culturalizing, fossilizing, minimizing, trivializing or sanitizing the text. They take the original meaning of the text--the text as it is, even though it cuts, confronts, and challenges both the preacher of the Word and the hearers to whom the Word is preached.
As exegetical escorts, we carry the Word for the benefit of others. We always have a word for the church. Wouldn’t it be strange on Sunday morning for pastors to say to their Sunday morning congregations, “The service is canceled for lack of a word from God?” The challenge for preachers is to have a word from God for themselves! Wouldn’t it be unimaginable and unthinkable for a gas truck to be stranded on the side of the road? A gas truck has two tanks, one for the station it is delivering gas to and the other for the fueling of its own engine. The gas truck might be full of gas for its regular deliveries but it is not going anywhere because its own personal gas tank is empty. Preachers of the Word cannot afford to run out of gas because their own spiritual vitality is at stake. They cannot entertain the possibility of even running on fumes. The result is personal dryness and emptiness.
Jesus as an Exegetical Escort
Luke 24:13-36 provides a model for the preacher as an exegetical escort. Jesus, the quintessential exegetical escort, walks with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, escorts them into the presence of God through the expounding of the Word and they experience a transformation and return to the Eleven with the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus initiated them into the faith, instructed them in the faith and inspired them to keep the faith.
A Diagnosis of Preaching
So, what’s the matter with preaching today? What keeps preachers from being effective exegetical escorts?
The Dilution of Grace
First, there is the dilution of grace. In his writings, Paul always put a theology of grace before a theology of works. Doctrine always preceded deeds. In Romans 1-11, he talks about the grace of justification, sanctification, glorification, adoption, and the like. When he comes to Romans 8:31 he asks: “What shall we say to these things?” “These things” refers to all the doctrines of grace preceding this verse. And then he goes on to talk about election and predestination in chapters 9-11. In chapter 12, he opens up, “Brethren, I beseech you by the mercies of God,” mercies that are visible in the first eleven chapters. Furthermore, he discusses the service gifts from the end of chapter 12 through chapter 16. These are ethical deeds and responsibilities.
Martin Luther lifted up the indicative above the imperative. The indicative is who I am; the imperative is what I must do as a result of who I am. It is not the imperative first: I must do this in order to become a Christian. Rather, it is the indicative first: because I am a Christian, I do what I do. I do not work toward salvation; I work from salvation. The love of Christ constrains me.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, mentions “cheap grace.” This is grace without any accompanying ethical and social responsibility. There is something worse than cheap grace; it is perverted grace, grace that is stretched so that it is no longer grace. Too often in our preaching we start off with justification by grace; then, after people get saved, we move on to preaching sanctification by works. If I am saved by grace, then I am sanctified by grace. I cannot add anything to it. It is grace plus nothing—not grace plus my achievement, merits, works or credentials. It is grace plus nothing.
The Eclipse of the Cross
Second, there is the eclipse of the cross. In Hebrews 5:8, Jesus the Son of God learned “obedience from what he suffered.” The Son of God had to experience discipline to be obedient through suffering. This is the sinless and infinite One. We are not allowed to skip a theology of the cross and move immediately to a theology of glory.
The cross is so central in salvation history that the only thing Elijah and Moses talked about as heavenly delegates to the summit meeting at the transfiguration of Christ was the exodon, or death at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). Elijah, who represented the prophets, and Moses, who represented the law, appeared with Christ as if to declare that Christ was the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets.
The Demise of Doctrine
Third, there is a demise of doctrine. The greatest divorce to take place in the church in the last fifty years is the divorce between the minister of music and the minister of Christian education. And what is so sad is that the pastor has officiated over the ceremony. The minister of Christian education and the minister of music need to be remarried. They were not divorced in the early church. In Acts 2:41 we learn that about three thousand souls were added to the church, and God continued to add to the church daily those who were being saved. Verse 42 states, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine.” This is Christian education. Verse 47 adds that they continually praised God. This is Christian worship.
The pastor is the resident theologian and must inform the minister of Christian education and the minister of music that, regardless of the meter and the rhythm of a song, the message must be theological and biblical. In our churches we sing more heresies than the early church councils ever condemned during the patristic period. Worshippers may do musicological flips and liturgical calisthenics, but heaven will not bless untheological and unbiblical songs. There is no antithesis between musical inspiration and biblical lyrics. The minister of Christian education prepares students for the sermon, and the minister of music prepares worshippers to worship God biblically and intelligently.
The Dissemination of Anthropocentric Preaching
Fourth, there is the dissemination of anthropocentric preaching. We have been affected by the past. During the Renaissance, God was replaced by the human being as the center of the universe. This is particularly true in the thinking of the seventeenth-century scientist René Descartes, whose dictum was, “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). Our preaching is becoming more human-centered than God-centered. Bryan Chapell decries the rise of humanism in a concept he calls sola bootstrapsa: “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
Chapell challenges preachers to look at their congregations as a piece of swiss cheese when they stand before them to preach the Word of God. Both the preacher and the people have holes in them, and only the Word of God can fill the holes and make them complete. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Only God can reach farther in and go deeper down to put the interiority of the human state in order.
The Detachment of Mystery from Revelation
Fifth, there is a detachment of the mystery of God from the revelation of God. Martin Luther referred to the concealing of God as deus absconditus and the revealing of God as deus revelatus. Some modern preaching is attempting to reverse the process so that the mystery of God is demystified and the inscrutability of God is unscrewed.
God reserves the right to reveal Himself and to be inconspicuous. God is the God of the beyond. Too many of our modern-day preachers pose as if they were so familiar with God that they receive advance heavenly bulletins to notify them of what His next move will be. Only when faith yields to sight, the hitherto surrenders to the henceforth, and the “more” of devastation embraces the “no more” of eternity’s delights will we no longer see through a glass darkly, but rather see face-to-face. Until then preachers must keep them in tension, for what God has joined together is not to be separated!
Adapted from Dr. Robert Smith’s lectures “Preaching That Transforms: Turning the Ink of Doctrine into the Blood of Life” given at Carey Baptist College in May 2014.
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