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Preaching Christ with Application!

August 21, 2013


It seems that one of the perennial debates that swirls around Reformed circles is the question of how to preach the text of Scripture. Do you rely upon the "grammatical historical method" or the "redemptive historical method" (notice the scare quotes)? The way these two opinions are typically bandied about is: Do you believe in exegeting the text responsibly or arbitrarily forcing Christ upon it? Do you believe in preaching Christ or in preaching application? I think much of this debate forces false dichotomies upon people who genuinely want to know how rightly to interpret and preach Scripture.

First, pitting grammatical historical vs. redemptive historical is like trying to pit your heart against your lungs. Which one is more important? Pick! Choose! Uh, can I have both? You have to understand the grammar of the passage as well as its historical context, but you also have to situate the passage with regard to the rest of the Bible. Where, precisely, in the canon does the passage rest? Are we pre- or post-fall, before or after Christ's advent? Before or after the monarchy, Pentecost, etc. 

Second, exegetes and preachers should want to preach Christ from every text, responsibly, not by foisting him upon it, but showing the church how Christ is organically connected to it. Edmund Clowney used to tell his students (so I'm told) to ask themeslves a simple question: "Can you preach your message at a Jewish synagogue without offense?" In other words, if you walk away from preaching a text and deliver a message that would have been positively received at a synagogue, then chances are that you have failed to preach Christ and deliver the offense of the gospel. Moreover, preaching Christ and the gospel from any text in Scripture is not merely a matter of the so-called "shingle sermon." What's a shingle sermon? It's when the preacher goes on for the entire sermon but knows that he has to mention Christ and the gospel so he tacks it on to the end of his sermon like a shingle. Christ's presence in the text, sermon, and hence preaching the gospel, should arise naturally not as an afterthought.

Third, all responsible preachers should follow the apostolic method and apply the text to his auditors, to the church. Yes, "application" (scare quotes again!) is a hotly debated subject. Not all application is created equal. To illustrate my point, consider preachers in the days of Johan Sebastian Bach. In the German churches of his day preachers were expected to be imminently practical and not dwell upon arcane doctrines. So what did they do? They would sometimes give practical tips, such as how to make your garden grow. Seriously--they gave gardening tips to be practical. Again, as with preaching Christ from every text, the preacher must seek to apply the text exegetically and responsibly. If you're preaching a text from Romans 4 where Paul discusses justification and you somehow end the sermon on the importance of good works, chances are you missed the point of the text. The application should be about believing in the gospel of Christ! On the other hand, if you are preaching from Ephesians 5:25-33, your application cannot merely be, “Contemplate with gratitude how sacrificially Christ has loved his church.” It must drive toward the specific direction with which Paul opens and closes his discussion: “Husbands love your wives…let each one of you love his wife as himself.” The text should drive the application, not the agendas, desires, or interests of the preacher or congregation. Sometimes the application will be to love your wife, worship God, give of your money to the poor, or believe in Jesus. 

If you want to learn more about these things from someone who has given them very careful, prayerful, and theological thought, check out a number of resources by WSC's own Prof. Dennis Johnson.

Click here to find a series of lectures that Dr. Johnson gave on apostolic christocentric homiletics. Or for a more in-depth look at these issues, check out Dr. Johnson's book, Him We Proclaim.

Click here to find a trove of resources on preaching Christ from all of Scripture.

In the end, study the Scriptures and ask, How did the apostles connect Christ to the various Old Testament texts that they cite? How, for example, does Paul connect Christ to Psalm 8, a text clearly about the creation of man (1 Cor. 15:20-28)? Obtain good resources to study these subjects, such as Dr. Johnson's book and lectures. But whatever you do, don't rely on bumper-sticker debates about preaching.