Covenant Preaching (Part Two)

Robert Russell Drake

If you’re a preacher, you’ve probably been asked how you write a sermon and much time it takes. I’ve always avoided answering those questions. About 10 percent of my hesitation could be attributed to humility: who am I to say how one should write a sermon? The other 90 percent is just that I don’t really think about “how to write a sermon.” I just do it. But when I think about it, I realize that there are certain principles that guide my preaching.

Principle One

The first principle is that the Bible is a covenant document. Its major divisions are, after all, the Old Testament (Covenant) and the New Testament (Covenant). A covenant consists of promises and obligations, and the covenant document records the terms of the covenant. The covenant document comes with binding authority. Its contents are to be proclaimed, not just presented as suggestions.

Authority is integral to the covenant record. God did not just act and then leave it to us to interpret his acts. He did not send his Son to die on the cross and then say to himself, “Let them figure out what that means.” The very significance of the cross goes hand in hand with the authority of Scripture to interpret it. If there is no authoritative interpretation of the cross, then there is no real importance to it. So any assault on the authority of the Scripture is also an assault on the significance of the cross and the resurrection. Because of the authority of the Bible, we can preach the atonement and the triumph of Christ, and not just give our opinions about how to live.

Principle Two

The second principle is that the covenant document is for the covenant people. This is what we often call application. It wouldn’t really be a covenant if we couldn’t find any application. Covenants are about promises and obligations, but also about rewards and punishments—blessings and curses.

On the surface, what some call “moralistic preaching” appears to be covenantal. Such preaching sees the main purpose of the text to be the producing of right behavior in us. After all, 2 Timothy 3:16 does speak of Scripture training a person in righteousness. The problem is that such preaching deals only with one side of the covenant. We could call it the response side. We must also deal with what God does, which in fact undergirds what we do. He calls us to covenant obligations and then fulfills them himself in Christ. That doesn’t mean we are simply spectators. Christ himself fulfills the terms of the covenant for us, but also in us. That’s why Paul could say, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13).

The Westminster divines captured both sides of the covenant very well by dividing the catechisms into two sections. The first half, dealing with what we believe concerning God, is really about who God is and what he does: he wills, creates, sustains, redeems, calls, justifies, adopts, sanctifies, and glorifies. The second half deals with what we are to do, but it basically covers the same material. In the Shorter Catechism, justification is defined in Answer 33, which is in the first half, but faith isn’t dealt with until Answer 86 in the second half. It’s like looking at one side of a basketball and then the other, because you can’t see both sides at once.

Think of the covenant obligations and God’s fulfillment of them in Christ as comparable to the command of Jesus to a lame man to get up and walk. The command brings with it the ability to respond. The man obeys and does what he, in fact, has no ability to do. In the covenant, we have both the command and the need to respond, but the command is a gift-giving command. The call to repent and believe is parallel to the shout, “Lazarus, come forth!” Lazarus was able to do what he was absolutely incapable of doing. Sermons give applications because they are dealing with a covenant document that calls for obedience, but the living God is the power behind the obedience. I tell people, “Blessing precedes obedience—and makes the obedience possible.”

Principle Three

The third principle flows from what I just said above: I want to honor the covenant maker, who is also the covenant fulfiller. That to me is the most important principle. I want a sermon to get to Christ. If you’ve followed what I’ve said about the nature of covenant obedience, you’ll see why I will always make Christ the climax of the message. He’s the one who makes the impossible possible.

If we are in the Old Testament, all the material fits within the context of covenants that contain promises of the coming Christ. If we are in the New Testament, all imperatives are grounded in the indicative. It’s not Star Trek, where you are boldly going where no one has ever gone before. You already have a new identity in Christ. Be it.

I want to end a sermon with Christ because I want people to leave thinking about him, not about what they should be doing for him. I intend no disrespect here for wise preachers who want to leave people with some way of responding to the message. It is actually one of the marvels of assembling with God that he turns attention away from himself to our brothers and sisters. We see that in the Ten Commandments. We see it in Hebrews 10:24–25, where we are told to assemble together in order to encourage one another. Nevertheless, preaching takes place in a worship service, and I want the hearts of the people to end in praise. I want us to hear the “good news,” which is about Christ, the fulfiller of the new covenant through his cross and resurrection. If people don’t hear me mention the cross, they should know I’m not yet done preaching.

In fact, for the last fifteen years of my ministry, I ended each message by saying, “And that is one reason why we call this good news.” Then I would ask, “Do you believe that?” And the people would say, “Amen.” It was glorious! Then, for the last five years or so, my benediction would reinforce that emphasis on Christ. I would say, “And now, before you can do anything to obey him, receive the blessing which comes from God: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirits.” Then I would add another note of triumph: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds!” The people would again say, “Amen.” One Sunday I forgot to say, “He is coming with the clouds!” But a young man with Down syndrome stood up, raised his hands, and declared to us all, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds!” And the whole congregation joyfully said, “Amen!”

The author is a recently retired PCA (and formerly OPC) minister. This is the second installment of a three-part series.