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Him We Proclaim: Defining Apostolic Homiletics (Part 4)

October 5, 2011

Dennis E. Johnson

4. Apostolic homiletics does not merely exhort hearers to imitate Jesus as example (turning gospel indicatives into dutiful imperatives). Nor does apostolic homiletics let hearers merely contemplate Christ’s once-for-all redemptive accomplishment without responding in a living faith that expresses itself in obedience (savoring Scripture’s indicatives while discarding its imperatives).

Rather, apostolic homiletics proclaims Jesus’ unique and inimitable redemptive achievement on our behalf, for the sake of calling us to faith, and then calling us to Christ-like love and living in gratitude for grace and assurance of the Father’s favor.

I have no doubt that 19th century social gospel classics such as Charles Sheldon’s novel, In His Steps, as well as 20th century evangelical youth fads like WWJD, were motivated by a desire to be Christ-centered after a fashion. As the allusion to 1 Peter 2:21 in Sheldon’s title implies, there is biblical warrant for summoning people to the imitation of Christ, to “follow in his steps.” Moreover, as Dr. Hood’s recent essay shows, the New Testament authors do draw moral lessons for Christians’ conduct from the positive and the negative examples of Old Testament history recorded in the, from Noah’s ark-building faith to Lot’s wife, and from Israel’s unbelief in the desert to the prophets’ pious prayers.

But we are not reading and preaching the Scriptures as the apostles have shown us to do when we reduce Old Testament narratives to morality-inducing tales, such as we might find in William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. To read Old Testament narratives (or, for that matter, the Gospels and Acts or the hortatory sections of New Testament epistles) solely for the sake of distilling duties and life lessons is to remove these passages from their most significant context, their place and role in the unfolding story of God’s gracious covenant bond with his undeserving people. As they preach the Scriptures, the apostles do not distill and retain the imperatives for our response, while disregarding the indicatives of God’s saving initiative.

On the other hand, the apostles do not distill and retain the indicatives, the good news of God’s redemptive achievement in Christ, only to discard or dismiss the imperative implications that direct our response to this gospel. As Paul said in Col. 1:28, the goal of proclaiming Christ is to “present everyone perfect in Christ.” The goal is not only forensic (forgiveness and vindication—the two aspects of justification) but also relational (reconciliation and adoption) and transformational (sanctification in motive, thought, word, and deed).

The epistle to the Hebrews provides a striking example of the marshalling of a rich redemptive-historical exposition of the Old Testament as foreshadowing fulfillment in Christ for the purpose of motivating Christian believers to faithful living in community. The preacher calls his document “the word of exhortation” (tou logou tēs paraklēseōs) (13:22). “Word of exhortation” not only implies that it is an ancient sermon in written form (Lane, Hebrews, 568). It also highlights “exhortation” or “encouragement” as the central task that this document is designed to perform. It exhorts believers to exhort each other daily to persevere in faith (Heb. 3:13; 10:25) and calls attention to the “strong encouragement” (paraklēsis) that God provides to believers through his unchangeable oath-bound promise (Heb. 6:18; cf. also 12:5). In each of the six “movements” in the sermon’s theological argument for the superiority of the new covenant to the old—showing Jesus’ superiority to angels, Moses, Aaron, the animal sacrifices of the tabernacle, the earthly promised land, and the terrible glories of Mount Sinai—the exegetical and theological argument is directed toward a hortatory section that urges the hearers to respond appropriately to the privilege that is now theirs in Jesus. These exhortations are not interruptions to a pristine theological discussion. Rather, they are the intended goal of the theological and exegetical argument that Hebrews is building for the superiority of Jesus and the salvific order that he has brought. As Dr. Gaffin has written,

It is misleading to view Hebrews basically as an apologetic-polemic treatment of the person and work of Christ and the superiority of the new covenant to the old, to which various imperatives have been appended in a secondary fashion…. Hebrews does provide profound and extensive teaching, especially in the areas of Christology and soteriology, but it does that only ‘in solution’ with application, only as the parenetic element is pervasive and shapes the course of the argument as a whole. (“Sabbath Rest,” 35)

Hebrews calls its hearers not only to persevering trust in Jesus, but also to peace and sexual purity (12:14-17; 13:4), to hospitality, to generosity, to contentment (13:2, 5-6), to patient endurance of suffering (12:3-11), and to other actions flowing from faith.

So, on the one hand, apostolic preaching is not ethical imperative ungrounded in theological indicative. But, on the other hand, apostolic preaching is not merely theological contemplation, which stops short of challenging and changing its hearers’ values, affections, allegiance, and behavior. The apostolic New Testament authors did not assume that they had done their duty and finished the job when they had only announced the gospel’s indicatives. They did not assume that the Holy Spirit would mystically show their hearers how to respond to the majestic truths they had proclaimed. Rather, they saw themselves as the pastoral means by which Christ would show his sheep the shape of their grateful response to his saving grace.


Fifth and final contrast next Wednesday!