Douglas B. Clawson
The sermon is the central act of Reformed worship. It plays a crucial role in our Christian life. God uses it to bring us to salvation and into a living relationship with himself through Jesus Christ. Therefore, God’s Word must be expounded in such a way that it shows us our place in Christ and his work for and in us. Not all sermons are equally useful, and neither are all methods of expounding the text.
What do you look for in a sermon? What kinds of things do you want to hear when the minister preaches the Word? In other words, what do you think makes a good sermon?
While these questions help determine what a person may prefer to hear, we must first ask: What does God want in a sermon? The standards of our church teach us that we can determine many things from the Bible about the sermon.
Perhaps the best summary is found in our Directory for the Public Worship of God. There, in part, we read, “In the sermon God addresses the congregation by the mouth of his servant. It is a matter of supreme importance that the minister preach only the Word of God, not the wisdom of man, that he declare the whole counsel of God, and that he handle aright the Word of truth. To these ends the sermon must be prepared with the utmost care.... A text may not be used merely to introduce a sermon but must be painstakingly expounded. In the sermon the minister should explain the Word of God for the instruction of his hearers and then apply it for their exhortation. Care should be taken in preaching that Christian duty be not divorced from Christian truth” (DW, III.3).
Yet even with all the instructions that can be found in the standards of our church, there remains another question: How should the Scriptures be expounded in a sermon? There is no controversy over whether a sermon should be “expository.” Sermons should be expository. An expository sermon is one which explains a Bible text in detail. As we just read from the Directory for Worship, “A text may not be used merely to introduce a sermon but must be painstakingly expounded.” But the question remains: What method should be used to expound a Bible passage in the sermon?
One approach to expounding the Scriptures is called analytic-synthetic, exegetical, or textual. Variations on this method have different names. The other approach is called redemptive-historical or biblical-theological. In both of these approaches, the text of Scripture itself is the focus of the sermon. In the first approach, the analytic-synthetic, the preacher carefully studies and searches the biblical text in order to discover its theme. The theme is usually a doctrine or timeless truth. The doctrine or timeless truth becomes the single theme of the sermon. Points are then made to support the theme.
While the quality of a sermon depends on the ability and work of the preacher, there are things that preachers must watch out for when they use this approach. First, they may fail to appreciate the context of a passage. Second, they may fail to appreciate the development of a doctrinal theme or timeless truth in the flow of redemptive history. Third, their sermon may become moralistic. In other words, what Christ did may become an illustration rather than the point of the passage. He may become an example of what we are to do, rather than the reason why we are to do it. Finally, preachers using this approach may fail to appreciate the different ways that God used different human authors.
Although there are those who use this approach carefully, others believe that the potential dangers of the analytic-synthetic approach are too great to be corrected by careful sermon preparation. These others have sought a different approach to expounding the text.
In searching for a different approach, they ask: Are we able to discern from the New Testament how the apostles expounded the texts of Scripture? For instance, when we look at the sermons found in the book of Acts or the manner in which Paul and the writer to the Hebrews expound Old Testament texts, we do not find the apostles looking for a theme in the passage to preach on.
In the book of Acts, for example, we do not find Stephen, Peter, and Paul looking for a theme in some Old Testament passage and then preaching on it. Instead, they bring their hearers to the Old Testament text and then point the hearer to Christ. The redemptive-historical approach to preaching says that sermons today should be like these sermons and sermonlike passages in the New Testament.
Those using a redemptive-historical approach to exposition begin by using the methods for studying a text called biblical theology. What is biblical theology? Biblical theology looks at God’s revelation from its historical standpoint. It seeks to show the growth or development of the truths of God’s Word from the beginning of Genesis to the close of the New Testament canon. It examines a text within the context of the process God used to unfold his revelation through the history of his people.
So as to raise no confusion, it must be noted that the methods of biblical theology are to be distinguished from a biblical-theological or redemptive-historical sermon. This distinction is important because there are those who gladly make use of biblical theology in their research, but then choose not to use it in the actual preaching of the text.
Like a mystery novel, the Bible contains many threads of God’s redeeming work. These must be investigated and followed to their conclusion. Unlike a mystery novel, however, the Bible contains no dead ends! It does not give us a false lead here or there in order to divert our attention from the real point. The Holy Spirit inspired every word for a purpose. The Bible begins and ends with the same goal and everything in the middle is focused to fulfill that goal.
The Bible begins with man placed in the context of a creation where he has perfect communion with God and complete union with him. The Fall breaks that union and communion. Man and God’s disposition toward man must be changed if union and communion are to be restored. There is nothing that man can do. The goal of redemptive history is to restore that union and communion. God accomplishes this restoration through Jesus Christ. The goal of Christ’s redeeming work is to reach the day when the whole church will hear the shouted words, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3).
The redemptive-historical sermon shows its hearers that the text of Scripture points forward to Christ, the coming of the new heavens and the new earth, and the final restoration of the union and communion between God and his people. The redeeming work of God always points us forward to the day of its completion. Therefore, God’s Word always points his people toward the end from the beginning. (For example, when God cursed the serpent, he promised that the day would come when the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent.)
In the sermon, God’s people are reminded, as Abraham was, that they are aliens and strangers in this world (John 12:25; 17:16, 18; 1 Pet. 1:1) and that they are to look for a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:9–10, 13–16). With Paul we are called to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called (us) heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
In the sermon, we are shown that the history of the people of God is our history, that the Old Testament patriarchs are our patriarchs, that the sins of those who heard the voice of the prophets are our sins. The church, families, and lives that are addressed by the Word of God are our church, our family, and our lives. Most of all, the only Redeemer of God’s people is our only Redeemer.
To help achieve this focus, those listening to the sermon are taken to the text and put in the place of those who first heard it. In the sermon, we stand with the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai. We hear the voice of God with our own ears when he thunders the commandments. We are caught reveling with the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai before the calf, when suddenly Moses like God himself descends from the mountain to witness our idolatry. We walk in the procession of the Israelites and sing psalms with them as they enter Jerusalem’s gates. We sit around Jesus on the mount or by the lake as he teaches us. We hear, with the Galatians, the words of Paul’s letter, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. 3:1). From the vantage point of those who first heard the Word, those hearing the sermon today are pointed to Christ and their ultimate redemption in him on the day of his return.
In expounding the text in the redemptive-historical manner, most importantly, the focus is placed on Christ. The sermon is always to be Christ-centered. In his article on “Scriptural Preaching” in The Infallible Word, R. B. Kuiper says, “One more demand ... of preaching must be named. Preaching the inscripturated Word involves preaching the personal and living Word, Jesus Christ. All of Scripture revolves around him. Truly scriptural preaching, therefore, cannot but be Christocentric. And as Christ is God manifest in the flesh, the terms Christocentric preaching and theocentric preaching are interchangeable” (p. 247).
Does the whole Word of God point to Christ? Passages like Luke 24:27, 44; John 1:45; 5:39, 40, 45–47; Gal. 3:24; Col. 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:14–15 show us that it does.
One of the chief criticisms of the redemptive-historical approach is that it has no application. But, as we saw above, Christian duty is not to be divorced from Christian truth. It is true that the application in a redemptive-historical sermon is not of the same type as that which is found in the analytic-synthetic sermon.
In the redemptive-historical sermon, the application points both the unbeliever and the believer to Christ and their relationship to him. Unbelievers are shown their desperate need for Christ and their lost condition apart from him. They must repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Their morality is worthless, their world is perishing, and they are without hope outside of Jesus Christ. (This is no different from what is done in a good analytic-synthetic sermon.) Believers, on the other hand, are pointed to Christ and to their life in him and his life in them. What they are to believe concerning God and the duty that God requires of them are to be found in Christ.
As the text is shown to point to Christ, believers see that it points to their life in Christ and his life in them. In Christ, man’s union and communion with God, which were lost on account of man’s sin, are restored. In his saving work, Christ unites believers to himself (John 6:56–57; 14:20, 23; 15:4–10; 17:20–26). From this union comes their justification, adoption, sanctification, and, finally, glorification (Larger Catechism 65, 66, 69, 79, 82).
Believers share in all the benefits of their salvation because they are united to Christ. As those who are united to Christ, we are told that where he is, there we are, and that where we are, there he is (Matt. 18:20; 28:20; Rom. 6:1–14; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 4:2–7; Col. 1:27; 3:1–4; Heb. 10:19–22). Because he died, we have died to sin and been buried with him. Because Christ now lives, we live. Because Christ has ascended and been seated at the right hand of the Father, we have ascended and been seated with him. Because we are in Christ, that which is true of Christ (guarding, of course, the Creator/creature distinction) is true of us. What he has accomplished, he has also accomplished in us who are united to him by faith.
There is also another side to this application of the text. The redemptive-historical sermon must show that while believers are still in the flesh, they wait for the full accomplishment in their flesh of that which is already true of them in Christ. What is true of Christ’s humanity is to be true of ours. Because Jesus is righteous and holy, we are declared righteous and holy in the sight of God. Now we must become righteous and holy. The Spirit works in us even now to conform us to the likeness of Christ. Jesus is the ground and the reason why we are to be righteous and holy. He is not simply an illustration of the righteousness and holiness that is to be in our lives. We are to be conformed to his image and likeness. We are in Christ and must long to see our life conformed to his life (Phil. 3:8–21).
Placed in the sandals of those who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, we hear the law and not only see the righteous demands that we cannot keep, but are shown that we have come to a better mountain and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 12:18–24). Reveling with Israel before the calf, we are not only shown the idolatry and immorality that still clings to our sinful flesh, but are shown that One who, better than Moses, has descended not from Sinai but from heaven itself to suffer the wrath of God and die in our place. Singing the Psalms with the people of God as they go up into the city, we see that we have come to that better Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem, to sing there the praises of him who is our Savior and God. Seated with those gathered around Jesus on the mountain or by the lake, we realize that as surely as the disciples were with him, we, as believers, are in the very presence of our God, our Savior, Jesus Christ. We listen to his voice and hear it right now. Seated with those in the churches to whom the apostle wrote, we are shown that Christ’s instructions to the churches are his instructions to us.
The issue is not whether God’s Word is to be expounded for the church of Jesus Christ in the sermon. This is a desperate need on which we all agree. The question is how the Word is to be expounded. The OPC has a great heritage of understanding and preaching the Word. Pray that she would be guided by the wisdom of the Lord as Christ’s servants labor together in his service to preach Christ to his church and to a lost world.
Mr. Clawson is the associate general secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions. New Horizons, March 1997.