The Gloriously Unpredictable Jesus Bit—Expository Christ-Centered Preaching

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expository preaching

“The predictable Jesus bit” is how Graeme Goldsworthy summarizes a common caricature of Christocentric preaching that stresses the Scripture’s organic unity (Preaching the Whole Bible, xi). Some of the loudest critics of Christ-centered redemptive-historical preaching share a similar evangelical heritage with its fiercest proponents. He writes,

“Such predictability is, hopefully, a bit of a caricature. Yet, at a more sophisticated level it can exist. Some of the students that I teach at Moore Theological College discussed their concerns with me about listening to preachers who deal with the Old Testament in such a way that the students were moved to think, in the course of the sermon, ‘Ho hum! Now here comes the Jesus bit.’ These preachers were attempting to avoid an exposition of the Old Testament without Christ, which so often leads to a moralizing approach. Obviously a preacher needs to have a clear sense of the relationship of Old Testament texts to the person and work of Jesus, but that preacher also needs to be able to communicate this relationship in ways that avoid such stereotyping. It is also obvious that something is very wrong if the preacher’s way of relating the text to Jesus is felt to be boring and predictable.”

Jay Adams provides a restatement of the “predictable Jesus bit” critique:

The general problem is that the sermons of some who have become enamored with biblical theological preaching turn out to be journeys through the Bible that follow the trail of a word, metaphor, theme, or concept from Genesis to Revelation. . . . These biblical-theological trips are like a one-week tour of Europe: very little time can be spent at any one location. That means that little justice is given to particular passages. The big picture is constantly held before a congregation; the emphasis is on the forest, not on the trees. Such preaching tends to by-pass the telos of these passages in favor of a few, great concerns (Preaching and Preachers, “Proper Use of Biblical Theology in Preaching,” 47).

The solution to these critiques is to emphasize expository Christocentric, kingdom-focused preaching. Expository preaching and a Christocentric approach to biblical interpretation and proclamation are the logical consequence of biblical inerrancy and the fact of the organic unity of God’s Word. The goal in expository preaching is to bend one’s mind to the Scripture and to avoid using the text to support one’s own thoughts. The sermon can be orthodox and completely evangelical and yet be unfaithful to a given text of Scripture. Jacques Ellul warns,

“And what if I err, substituting my ideas and opinions for God’s revelation—if I proclaim my word as the Word of God, in order to give it weight and sparkle, in order to beguile my listeners? Then my word, ungratified by God and disavowed by the Holy Spirit, becomes the cause for my condemnation (The Humiliation of the Word, 109).

Rightly done, expository preaching uniquely honors all of the Scripture as God’s Word, nourishes the congregation on the whole counsel of the Word of Christ, and benefits the preacher because he is forced to consistently encounter God according to God’s own terms. The expository of Christocentric, kingdom-focused expository preaching is what rescues the redemptive-historical approach from the charge of monotony. The Scripture represents sixty-six books, myriads of human authors, diverse settings and genres; it was written over 1,500 years and contains thousands of stories. But all of these stories constitute a single story, one only partially intended by human authors: the story of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

Christocentric expository preaching allows every text to uniquely bring its diverse riches to our understanding of Jesus and his gospel of the kingdom. Peter J. Leithart explains it this way: “The Bible tells the same story over and over, though never in exactly the same way twice” (A House for My Name: A Survey of the Old Testament, 64). And Peter F. Jensen articulates the indissoluble marriage of a Christocentric approach to expository preaching: “The whole gospel of Christ is made up by the diversity of the Bible; the diversity of the Bible is summed up in the gospel of Christ. To be selective in our preaching is to diminish Christ; our aim is to proclaim the whole Christ in the whole Bible” (Preaching the Whole Bible,” in When God’s Voice is Heard: The Power of Preaching, 64).

The redundancy that some fear if Christ is preached from every text of Scripture will only occur if the preacher abandons a rigorously expositional approach. When rigorous biblical exposition coaxes each passage to speak from the multiplicity of its contexts, human and divine, the hearers will see the gospel freshly in the diverse unfolding of the testimony of redemptive history. Bryan Chapell helpfully explains,

“We must relate even seed-form aspects of the text to the mature message they signal, or for which they prepare us, in order fully and rightly to interpret what the passage means. You do not explain what an acorn is, even if you say many true things about it (e.g., it is brown, has a cap, is found on the ground, is gathered by squirrels) if you do not in the same way relate it to an oak tree. In a similar sense, preachers cannot properly explain biblical revelation, even if they say many true things about it, until they have related it to the redeeming work of God that all Scripture ultimately purposes to disclose” (Christ-Centered Preaching, 270).

For instance, the gospel in Judges and Romans is the same gospel, but their situations in the drama of redemptive history provide unique windows through which the preacher can proclaim the beauty and glory of the gospel message. Conversely, when sermons ignore the holistic biblical storyline and treat the Scripture as if it were primarily a book of systematic doctrine, morality, or life principles, the result is weekly monotony. When the gospel is minimized to a slogan, people in the pew tragically can think that they are bored with its message. When truth is treated as abstract, people easily evade application. The faithful expository pulpit must call the church to comprehensively reorient its vision of reality through exegesis of biblical texts understood in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the eschatological triumph of his kingdom.

By |July 3rd, 2014|Categories: Blog|Tags: , |

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