For me, one of the highlights of this year’s Southern Baptist Convention meeting was participating in a Gospel Project-sponsored panel discussion on Christ-centered preaching and teaching.
Ed Stetzer, Eric Hankins, Jonathan Akin, and I were joined by more than 300 pastors and church leaders for a breakfast meeting devoted to discussing the New Testament’s use of the Old, the appropriate ways of leading people to Christ from Old Testament stories, and the difficulties and dangers of applying this hermeneutic in irresponsible ways.
The audio from the panel discussion is now available. (The microphones are not all of equal setting, so you may have to adjust the volume on your speakers a little.) I hope it is beneficial to those of you who seek to preach and teach the Scriptures faithfully each week.
No pastor wants his preaching to be considered “Christ-less” or something other than “Christ-centered.” Still, it is sometimes difficult to understand what exactly is meant by this kind of terminology. Likewise, no pastor wants to “read into” the text something that is not there.
In the initial chapter of his book, Preaching Christ from Genesis, Sidney Griedanus lays out seven ways that a preacher can legitimately preach Christ from the Old Testament. I’ve adapted the examples for each category in order to keep the focus on how there are multiple ways to preach Christ from an Old Testament account (such as Noah).
1. Redemptive-Historical Progression
The redemptive-historical road to Christ is the “broadest and foundational path from an Old Testament text to Jesus Christ” (3). It takes into consideration the history of redemption which begins with the opening chapters of Genesis and culminates in the vision of a restored paradise in Revelation. This journey from creation to new creation takes us down a path of redemptive history in God’s acts in Israel, through Christ, and then through the church. We take into consideration the place we are in the biblical storyline and then look forward to the climax of Christ’s death and resurrection.
An example would be the story of Noah. More than a simple story of warning against judgment, it is also a continuation of the Genesis plotline, where the seed of the woman must avenge the heel of the serpent. God’s preservation of Noah is the way He keeps His promises, and we anticipate the coming of the Seed – Jesus Christ in His first coming and then His second.
The “promise-fulfillment” motif is a direct road to Christ from an Old Testament text. The New Testament reveals hundreds of passages that promise the coming Messiah. A preacher who utilizes this approach will take a direct road from the Old Testament promise to the New Testament’s fulfillment.
An example is Genesis 3:15, where God promises that one of Eve’s offspring will crush the head of the serpent. Another example is Isaiah 9:6, where God promises that a virgin will bring forth a son whose name will be called Emmanuel. From the New Testament, we recognize this as being ultimately fulfilled in Christ.
Another way of preaching Christ from the Old Testament is through the careful use of typology, seeing Old Testament events, persons, or institutions as foreshadowing Jesus Christ and His redemptive work.
For example, one finds parallels with the story of Noah. Here, we have a righteous man whose family is saved due to his standing with God. In a similar manner, Jesus Christ is the righteous One whose family is saved due to His obedience.
One must take care to not flatten the Old Testament stories that foreshadow Christ by making all details align. But there are indeed hints and foretastes of Christ in the Old Testament, and a wise preacher will make use of them in his preaching. (Here are some examples of how famous Southern Baptist pastor W. A. Criswell and others have done this with the story of Joseph.)
Another road to Christ from the Old Testament is by analogy. According to Griedanus, “analogy exposes parallels between what God taught Israel and what Christ teaches the church; what God promised Israel and what Christ promises the church; what God demanded of Israel (the law) and what Christ demands of his church” (5).
This approach uses God’s interactions in the Old Testament as a picture that has further application for us today. Jesus used this method when He told the story of Noah as an analogy (Matthew 24:37-41), urging people to repent and thereby escape the coming judgment.
5. Longitudinal Themes
A fifth road to Christ from the Old Testament is similar to the “redemptive-historical” method, but it focuses mainly on the development of theological ideas. These are “longitudinal themes” because they can be traced throughout the biblical storyline, and they develop over time as they culminate in Christ.
Examples of these themes would be God’s kingdom (brought ultimately by Jesus Christ the King), God’s presence (foreshadowed in the Temple but fulfilled in Christ’s incarnation), and God’s judgment (seen in God’s actions against sin, but also His willingness to bring salvation through judgment).
Returning to the story of Noah, we can trace the theme of God’s judgment, understanding that the judgment that falls on the wicked (the flood) is the means of salvation for Noah and his family (1 Peter 3:21). This theme is most clearly seen in the cross, when salvation comes to us through the judgment of God that falls upon Christ.
6. New Testament references
Another road to Christ is found in New Testament references or allusions from the Old Testament. Most often, these references can be used as further evidence of the other ways of pointing to Christ.
Going back to the story of Noah, we could see an allusion to Noah’s faith as referenced in Hebrews 11:7. This reference gives us insight into the nature of true faith in the face of judgment, reminding us of the faith we are to have in Christ for salvation.
The last road in Griedanus’ taxonomy of ways to preach Christ from the Old Testament is the way of contrast. There are aspects of biblical teaching that are quite different today as a result of Christ’s coming. Griedanus uses the example of circumcision. In the Old Testament, circumcision was required of every adult male. In the New Testament, baptism has become the sign of covenant membership. What is now required is “circumcision of the heart” which is brought about through Christ’s death and resurrection and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
At the Southern Baptist Convention this year there will be a breakfast panel discussion on Christ-Centered Teaching and Preaching hosted by The Gospel Project. Make sure you sign up here.
Some delicious quotes from Preachingby Calvin Miller:
Preaching is an art in which a studied, professional sinner tells the less studied sinners how they ought to believe, behave, and serve.
Preaching cannot afford to opt for being cute when it ought to be visceral.
Many preachers below the Mason-Dixon Line still yell a lot, which often accomplishes little more than to clothe weak sermons with volume.
No reasonable book on the subject of preaching can begin with what is said. The force of preaching must begin with who’s saying it.
The world is too sick to be healed by a preacher’s congenial placebos. Merely to build a big hospital is a lame dodge for practicing real medicine.
The world comes to church looking precisely for a sense of significance, and we who preach tell them week by week that God loves them. It’s a truth we tell to give them that sense of significance for which they sought us. But it is a truth that can only be told by those who sense that the preacher also loves them. There is not the slightest chance that they will get hold of the first truth, unless they feel the second.
Only the truly otherworldly have earned the right to speak of the other world.
The preacher is not an answer man. Preachers are God-lovers.
Great preachers are positive purveyors of the wonder of God.
God has a word for us, not an opinion. The kingdom of God is not a discussion club. The church doesn’t gather on Sunday to invite opinion. It gathers to hear the Bible—the Word of God—the wisdom of ancient saints and martyrs comes down to the current calendar after a march of centuries.
Doctrines are the high-voltage center of the faith. Doctrines are the faith.
Sermons that are only about the practical things of this world are often too bound by this world to help them. And this world is too weak to heal what is wrong with most people’s lives.
The best of sermons have never been a belch of information or piety. Good homiletics are wellness reports that take seriously the cure of souls.
The noblest of prophets should feel before they advise.
Preaching Christ is the purpose and intent of the sermon and comes from a preacher whose life is captive to the momentary presence of Christ.
The best preached sermons don’t try to write the Bible on the lives of their hearers, they write their hearers into the Bible.
The pastor who doesn’t care for people has missed the heart of God.
Sermons grow robust in the soul of the listening servant. The best prophets listen before they preach—they reason before they rage.
All application comes to rest on the hearer as one basic conundrum. Shall I be the lord of my life or shall I have a Lord for my life?
Surrender is the only option when God is the only subject.
Propositions give you the information you need to build a life on, and stories motivate you to want to build such a life.
Pain itself does not make us preach well, but it builds a sensitivity that does make our particular emotional experience speak to that of the whole. Only weathered wood makes singing violins.
Where there is real preaching, the sermon is always reminding the flock that the church doesn’t just get together to be told how to live more morally but to remind itself that the church is on a mission.
For those who preach, the most important question for the preacher is not “What shall I say in this sermon?” but “What do I want to happen?”
These two pastors come from different contexts (Atlanta vs. New York) and different theological streams (Baptistic non-denominational vs. confessional Presbyterian). What’s more, they approach ministry from different starting points, then employ different methods to achieve their purposes.
Despite all these differences, there is one thing Stanley and Keller agree on: preachers ought to be mindful of the unbelievers in their congregation.
Different Reasons for the Same Practice
Stanley and Keller may be worlds apart in terms of their theological vision for ministry, but they both maintain that a preacher should consider the unsaved, unchurched people in attendance.
This doesn’t mean we can’t find differences even in this area. For example, Stanley uses the terminology of “churched” and “unchurched” (which makes sense in the South), whereas Keller’s context leads him to terms like “believers” and “non-believers.”
Likewise, Stanley and Keller engage in similar practices from different vantage points. Stanley’s purpose for the weekend service is to create an atmosphere unchurched people love to attend. Keller believes evangelism and edification go together because believers and unbelievers alike need the gospel. He writes:
“Don’t just preach to your congregation for spiritual growth, assuming that everyone in attendance is a Christian; and don’t just preach the gospel evangelistically, thinking that Christians cannot grow from it. Evangelize as you edify, and edify as you evangelize.”
Whether you are closer to Stanley’s paradigm for ministry or Keller’s, you can benefit from a few suggestions for how to engage the lost people listening to you preach.
1. Acknowledge and welcome the non-believers in attendance.
Both Stanley and Keller mention the non-believers who are present. They go beyond a vague, quick welcome at the beginning of the service. Instead, these two pastors acknowledge that even though the non-believers may be uncomfortable, the church members are glad they are present. Here’s the way Stanley does it:
“If you are here for the first time and you don’t consider yourself a religious person, we are so glad you are here. Hang around here long enough and you will discover we aren’t all that religious either.”
“If you don’t consider yourself a Christian, or maybe you aren’t sure, you could not have picked a better weekend to join us.”
“If this is your first time in church or your first time in a long time, and you feel a little uncomfortable, relax. We don’t want anything from you. But we do want something for you. We want you to know the peace that comes from making peace with your heavenly Father.
“If this is your first time in church, or your first time in a long time, and you feel out of place because you think we are all good people and you are not so good, you need to know you are surrounded by people who have out-sinned you ten to one. Don’t let all these pretty faces fool you.”
Keller lets this kind of acknowledgement seep into his sermon preparation. He recommends the pastor address different groups directly, “showing that you know they are there, as though you are dialoguing with them.” Here’s an example:
“If you are committed to Christ, you may be thinking this – but the text answers that fear…”
“If you are not a Christian or not sure what you believe, then you surely must think this is narrow-minded – but the text says this, which speaks to this very issue…”
2. Assume the non-believers in attendance need help in approaching the Bible.
For Stanley, this means explaining how to follow along with the biblical text for the sermon. It also means you teach about the Bible as you teach the Bible.
Here’s an example. Instead of saying “The Bible says…,” cite the authors instead. This way, you are giving information about who wrote the books of the Bible.
Option 1 – The Bible says that Jesus rose from the dead after being in the tomb for three days.
Option 2 – Matthew, an ex-tax collector who became one of Jesus’ followers, writes that Jesus rose from the dead and he claimed to have seen him. Not only that, Luke, a doctor who interviewed eyewitnesses, came to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. He was so convinced he gave up his practice and became a church planter…
Option 2 is better because it doesn’t assume people know everything about the Bible. We should “always start on the bottom rung of the ladder.”
Likewise, Keller suggests pastors think carefully about the audience’s premises. He writes:
“Don’t assume, for example, that everyone listening trusts the Bible. So when you make a point from the Bible, it will help to show that some other trusted authority (such as empirical science) agrees with the Bible.”
While Keller’s approach is not fundamentally geared toward seekers, he still commends a seeker-comprehensible approach to worship that carefully explains the elements of the worship service.
Seek to worship and preach in the vernacular.
Explain the service as you go along.
Directly address and welcome nonbelievers.
Consider using highly skilled arts in worship.
Celebrate deeds of mercy and justice.
Present the sacraments so as to make the gospel clear.
3. Challenge non-believers to engage the Bible by acknowledging the oddity of Christian belief and practice.
Keller believes that proper contextualization will cause the preacher to consider the way the message will fall on the ears of those in attendance. He writes:
“We must preach each passage with the particular objections of that people group firmly in mind.”
Hence, the use of “apologetic sidebars” in the sermon. Keller’s approach is to devote one of the three or four sermon points mainly to the doubts and concerns of nonbelievers.
Stanley makes a similar point:
“As a general rule, say what you suspect unbelievers are thinking. When you do, it gives you credibility. And it gives them space.”
When dealing with stringent moral commands in Scripture, Stanley will say things like:
“Today’s text may make you glad you aren’t a Christian! You may put it off indefinitely after today.”
He claims that whenever you give non-Christians an “out,” they often respond by leaning in.
Stanley uses humor as a way of disarming the audience and pushing them to engage the Bible on their own. In seeking to demolish their excuses, he will say things like, “You don’t have to believe it’s inspired to read it.” Or “You should read the Bible so you will have more moral authority when you tell people you don’t believe it.”
Likewise Keller recommends acknowledging common objections and treating the skeptics with dignity:
“Always show respect and empathy, even when you are challenging and critiquing, saying things such as, ‘I know many of you will find this disturbing.’ Show that you understand. Be the kind of person about whom people conclude that, even if they disagree with you, you are someone they can approach about such matters.”
4. Use cultural commonalities to point out worldview inconsistencies.
Keller recommends that all pastors look for two kinds of beliefs:
“A” beliefs – beliefs people already hold that, because of God’s common grace, roughly correspond to some parts of biblical teaching.
“B” beliefs – what may be called “defeater” beliefs – beliefs of the culture that lead listeners to find some Christian doctrines implausible or overtly offensive.
He explains why this is important:
One of the reasons we should take great care to affirm the “A” beliefs and doctrines is that they will become the premises, the jumping-off points, for challenging the culture… Our premises must be drawn wholly from the Bible, yet we will always find some things in a culture’s beliefs that are roughly true, things on which we can build our critique. We reveal inconsistencies in the cultural beliefs and assumptions about reality. With the authority of the Bible we allow one part of the culture – along with the Bible – to critique another part.
There’s no denying the significant differences between Andy Stanley and Tim Keller when it comes to theology and ministry. But we can learn from them both in how to respectfully engage the unsaved people in our midst. Keller is right:
We must avoid turning off listeners because we are cultural offensive rather than the gospel… On the other hand, our message and teaching must not eliminate the offense, the skandalon, of the cross. Proper contextualization means causing the right scandal – the one the gospel poses to all sinners – and removing all unnecessary ones.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about making the gospel announcement of Jesus Christ front and center in our preaching and teaching. As our society becomes increasingly post-Christian, it is critical for us to not assume lost people know who God is, what He is like, and what He has done for us. We need to be clear in what we teach, with a laser-like focus on Jesus Christ our Savior.
But how do we make sure that Jesus is center-stage in our church?
How do we keep other things from taking His place in our sermons, our Sunday School classes or our small groups?
In other words, how do we maintain Christ-centeredness when there are so many other good things vying for our attention and time?
As editor of The Gospel Project, I’ve wrestled with this question. It’s one thing to have “core values” like “Christ-centered” and “mission-driven” written on the page. It’s another thing entirely to make sure that these values are actually expressed in the lessons. To help our writers, we’ve put together three big questions we want them to ask of every lesson.
The more I’ve thought about these questions, the more I am convinced that pastors ought to ask these questions of every sermon they preach. Teachers ought to ask these questions of every lesson they prepare. The questions are a helpful guide to keeping Christ as the focus of our ministry.
1. How does this topic/passage fit into the big story of Scripture?
It’s not uncommon anymore for me to talk with lost people who have little, if any, knowledge of the Bible. Surprisingly, I even meet church-goers who know individual Bible stories and some of the morals taught in the Bible, but don’t know how they connect to the gospel. They don’t know the overarching storyline of the Bible that leads from creation, to our fall into sin, to redemption through Jesus Christ, and final restoration.
If we are to live as Christians in a fallen world, we must be shaped by the grand narrative of the Scriptures, the worldview we find in the Bible.
Asking the “big story” question will help you as a pastor or teacher to connect the dots for your people. We need to help people learn to read the Bible for themselves, to understand the flow of the narrative, how the different genres fit into that narrative, and how to apply the truths of the Bible with wisdom.
2. What is distinctively Christian about the way I am addressing the topic/passage?
Here’s the question that will lead you back to the gospel. The distinctively Christian thing about Christianity is Jesus and His grace. It’s the good news about how He died on the cross for our sins and rose from the grave on the third day.
So how do we ensure that our preaching and teaching gets to Jesus? I suggest three follow-up questions under this one.
Is there anything about my treatment of this Old Testament text that a faithful Jew could not affirm?
If we preach the story of Moses, for example, without ever pointing forward to our Passover Lamb (Jesus Christ), then we are preaching the Old Testament much like a rabbi, not like a Christian herald of the gospel. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus told His disciples that the Old Testament pointed to Him. The Baptist Faith and Message says “All Scripture is a testimony to Christ.”
So when we preach from the Old Testament, it’s imperative that we point people forward to the Messiah.
Is there anything about my treatment of this New Testament text that a Mormon could not affirm?
Ed Stetzer often says that this is one of the questions he asks of every sermon he preaches. The issue isn’t whether or not you talk about Jesus. Mormons talk about Jesus. Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about Jesus. Self-help preachers talk about Jesus.
The question here is about how we present Jesus. Is He Savior and Lord? Or is He just a helper? Is He God in the flesh? Or is He just a good teacher?
We must make sure we do not present Jesus only as a moral example, but that we present Him as the only Savior, the One who calls for repentance and faith.
Is there anything in my application that an unbeliever off the street would be uncomfortable with?
We’re not asking this question from the seeker-sensitive perspective that wants to alleviate any discomfort. We’re asking this question from the perspective of the pastor who wants to make sure that application goes beyond “be nice.”
In other words, if the application at the end of your message is “Husbands, love your wives,” we should ask: Would an unbeliever have a problem with that? Probably not. We could survey people from different religions and they’d probably agree that husbands ought to love their wives.
So how do we tighten up this application to focus on Jesus? By doing what Paul did. By saying, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.”
When we tell people to forgive, we ought to ground it in the gospel: forgiving one another, “as Christ loved and forgave you.”
When we tell people to be generous, we ought to ground it in the gospel: “for Christ, though He was rich, became poor for your sakes.”
Ground your application in the gospel.
3. How does this truth equip God’s church to live on mission?
There is no true gospel-centeredness that does not lead to mission, because the gospel is the story of a God with a missionary heart, a Father who desires that all come to repentance, a Shepherd who seeks and saves the one lost sheep.
The purpose of God’s Word is to reveal God and His plan to us, in order that we might then be empowered to fulfill His Great Commission. God’s plan is that people from every tongue, tribe and nation would bring glory to Him. When we study the Bible, we ought to see it in light of its purpose – to equip us to be God’s missionaries in our communities and around the world.
If there’s one thing we need to be clear about in our preaching and teaching, it’s the gospel announcement that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived a perfect life in our place, died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose again to launch God’s new creation, and is now exalted as Lord of the world. In response to this message, we must call people to repent and believe. And as Christians, we must continue living every day in repentant faith, witnessing to the love of our great God.
Trevin Wax: One of the things that I often say in reference to The Gospel Project is that we don’t want to short-circuit the power of the biblical text by rushing to application. We don’t want to rush to application and miss the Bible’s teaching in a number of areas. But sometimes in churches that prize expository preaching, we pull the pendulum back to where we don’t make good application.
Jonathan Leeman: The title of the blog post was tongue in cheek. Ultimately, I affirm expositional preaching in which the point of the biblical text is the point of the sermon. I wrote a whole book about the fact that the power of change, the power of death to life, blindness to sight, is through God’s Word re-revealed. So there is nothing in my intelligence or creativity or new, interesting ideas that are going to bring life to the dead. The power of God’s Word alone is what gives life.
So people who have that conviction will often go in and do a good job of exegesis and may even draw some doctrinal conclusions, but they won’t do as good of a job in applying it to the lives of people. And what I was trying to communicate in that post is the advantage of topical preaching as it’s conceived by many people: it finds where people are at and meets them there. And what I’m trying to say is you need to do the work as a preacher to get where they’re at so that, as I’m preaching through books of the Bible, over time, I should get to all of those same topics of people’s lives that topical preaching is going to get to and more because the Bible’s going to draw us to even more.
Trevin Wax: So what do you say to the person who says, “I just present what the Bible says and I don’t need to worry about applying it because that’s the Holy Spirit’s job. The Holy Spirit’s going to apply this in a variety of ways. I couldn’t possibly think of all the ways to apply this text within the congregation. So why should I even try to do what is the Spirit’s work, to apply this to hearts and lives”?
Jonathan Leeman: On the one hand, that is absolutely right. Your instinct that it’s the Holy Spirit who finally does this work through the Word is absolutely correct. He’s going to apply it in all sorts of ways that you can’t predict. That’s awesome. Keep preaching that way.
On the other hand, you’re depriving people of the wisdom God has given you to show them how the text can work itself out into different areas of people’s lives.
So take some truth like Jesus is Lord. There’s a biblical truth, right? I can expound that. Applying that means: What does that mean to you as a doctor or lawyer or struggling at-home mother? What does that mean to you as a retiree? What does that mean to you who struggle with licentiousness or you who struggle with legalism? What does Jesus, as Lord, mean to you in those different domains?
It’s biblical wisdom that helps Christians, as pastors shepherd them along, to know what this text means in all those different areas. So to the preacher who says that, I’m going to say yes. I appreciate your convictions, but you’re depriving your people in helping them see how this works through the different areas of their lives.
Trevin Wax: Do you think it’s also depriving people of the opportunity to make those connections in their own mind and heart? Let’s say you’re taking a doctrine like Jesus is Lord and you want to apply this to the workplace. And you do it in a very specific way that might not be applicable to everybody there, but sometimes just doing that, being that specific, will trigger these thoughts in the minds of people and the Spirit uses that to then make them think: Well, that’s not my situation, but in my situation it would look like this in the workplace. And they begin thinking already of how I would apply this in the workplace, even if it’s not the specific example that you laid out. Do you find that to be a common thing that the Spirit will use to trigger ways of applying the text in different spheres and settings?
Jonathan Leeman: I think that’s exactly right. So whenever I’m preaching a text and I have a meaning or theological truth that I want to then apply, I’m going to pick one or two examples that I trust are going to demonstrate, exemplify for them, how they might do it in their own situations.
Trevin Wax: You’re a stickler for this because in one of the lessons you did for Gospel Project, we were talking about the role of Christians in society. And I was trying to do my editing responsibilities of paring down the text. I pulled back some of the application. And when I sent you the edits, you came back and said no. Cut something else. That’s got to be there, otherwise we presented a biblical theology of this topic and haven’t gotten to some real specific ways that it lays out. And if we don’t do it here, where else are we going to do it? What has given you this passion, as a preacher yourself, to make sure that the Bible’s applied well in the hearts and lives of your people?
Jonathan Leeman: Two things: one, an examination of my own heart and life and know that I need help. I need a preacher to help me know what these awesome truths mean in this area. And the preaching that I’ve benefited from is a combination of rich theological, God-centered, gospel-driven, and specific to show me what this means in the world today. It’s John Stott’s bridge between two worlds. So okay, so there you are standing there with the Israelites in the Book of Judges or whatever. But I need you to help me build a bridge into my world as I’m doing this or that work. So I need that help. So that’s led to this conviction.
Then, of course, the other area is just being a husband or being a father or being a friend or being a fellow church member trying to help others knowing that as I’m trying to shepherd my wife or shepherd my children or my friends – oh how beneficial it is for me to take justification and show them how justification helps you in this struggle right here, right now.
Trevin Wax: What are the dangers of approaching the Bible only from a topical point of view in sermons?
Jonathan Leeman: The danger is that a preacher starts by looking at his congregation and says what are they interested in, what needs need to be met, what’s my assessment of where they’re at? And he applies his wisdom to their needs, and then he goes searching for texts that address either their perception of their needs or his perception of their needs. Whereas, the Bible knows precisely what our needs are in ways that we don’t always recognize. And so the advantage of just preaching through a book of the Bible and making the point of my sermon – I’m going through the book of Mark; what’s the point of Mark 1? Let me preach that.
I wouldn’t have thought that is a need of theirs – whatever the point of Mark 1 is. But the Holy Spirit knew it was and that’s why He inspired Mark 1. So I need to trust the Holy Spirit and what He has revealed that that is what my congregation needs. And so I want to work hard to get the point of the text to them. And that’s going to lead me into topics that I wouldn’t choose.
Trevin Wax: But don’t you do that anyway even when you choose books of the Bible? You’ve got topical preachers choosing passages of the Bible. But then expository preachers, they’re going to look at the needs of their congregation when they choose which book to preach next: if they’re going to go through Mark or if they’re going to go through Galatians or they might look at their congregation and say, you know, we really could use Proverbs right now, some wisdom. So isn’t that even in the nature of how you make choices as to which, unless you preach straight through the entire Bible – Genesis to Revelation – like W. A. Criswell and some others. Don’t we have to make that choice anyway? What’s the difference between making the choice when it comes to books of the Bible versus making the choice when it comes to specific passages based on needs?
Jonathan Leeman: Don’t hear me saying you shouldn’t account for where your congregation is. There is a time and a place for that. You might choose, to some extent, about where they are at and what they need. But to guard against what you’re describing, I think it’s good for a preacher to rotate between, go back and forth between, different genres and different Testaments.
So in one church where I was preaching over the course of several months, I did several Psalms and I decided to go to the New Testament and do Colossians. Right? So you’re going to move back and forth between different genres and over time try to preach or try to expose your congregation to different genres of Scripture – trusting all of it is God-inspired and helpful, useful for the congregation to be built up.
Now here’s what I do in every sermon I preach. I will start by looking at our church directory. And I’ll skim through the faces and I’ll think about, oh, there’s Judy and this is going on with her. And there’s Chuck and I’ll think about him. And I’ll kind of pray through the directory, look at their faces, and that just reminds me of these people and where they’re at and what they’re struggling with and so forth. And then I’ll do my sermon. And then as I’m praying, after I’ve completed my preparation time, I’ll look through the directory again and pray through it again. So that those people and their needs, their felt needs, and their real needs, and their challenges, and their joys are fresh on my heart so that I’m taking that text and applying it a little bit more sensitively to them.
Trevin Wax: So you’re paying attention not just to the text but also to your congregation.
Jonathan Leeman: Absolutely.
Trevin Wax: You’re exegeting the congregation to a certain extent…
Jonathan Leeman: Absolutely.
Trevin Wax: …as you bring the text to bear. One last question: When you deal with a systematic topic that needs to be presented. Let’s say, you want to teach people on the Trinity and that’s something you’re going to have to do kind of topically in a sense that, I mean, you could point to Jesus’ baptism or you could choose a foundational text. But you’re probably going to want to go to some other texts as well, if it’s Ephesians 1 or lots of places.
Some of the doctrines of Scripture that we do need to present and people need to know are not seen as leading to immediate application. So how are you going to take something like the Trinity, which is absolutely foundational for Christianity, and preach in a way that you present that but then also will bring some application out of that that would be beneficial to the hearts and lives of people in the congregation?
Jonathan Leeman: Well first and foremost, you’re going to look for how Scripture itself uses that particular doctrine and where it makes connections with people’s lives. So in the Trinity, I’m looking at the relationship, for instance, between the Father and the Son.
And I’m asking the question, why the language of Father and Son. And then I’m looking to the epistles which, you know, describe God the Father as the pattern after which all human fathers are modeled. And so then I’m thinking, well, obviously the Trinity has something clear to teach the fathers in this church.
So there is a scripturally warranted place to apply in the parenting relationship the doctrine of the Trinity. What about male and female? He created them and in God’s image. I don’t think we have to go all the way and say that to be in the divine image means that we’re relational creatures. That would be an over-reading of the text.
Nonetheless, I think part of what it means to be made in the image of God is to be in a life of relationship just as the communion of the Trinity is in relationship. So then I’m going to look for applications in marriage between husband and wife.
And I might find applications in the church. And Jesus saying in John 17, Father may they be one as We are one. Again there’s a scripturally warranted place for me to apply the doctrine of the Trinity to very practical ways of people’s lives. And then I’m going to dig in even further. Congregation, what does it mean for us to be one as the Father and Son are one? Well, Jesus submitted Himself entirely to the Father. And the Father poured Himself, communicated Himself entirely to the Son and put all things under the Son’s feet and gave His Son a people.
So what does that mean for us as a church? Well, what does that mean our relationships look like with one another? It means we’re looking to submit to one another out of holy reverence and fear. It means we’re looking to build our lives together after the Word of God, just as the Son said He didn’t do anything or speak anything other than what the Father had told Him.
So now I’m looking at the example of the Trinity and I’m looking at our lives in the church and I’m trying to find very concrete ways that on Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning when you and I are having breakfast together, Trevin for instance, what is that relationship then going to look like based on what I’ve learned in the Trinity?
Trevin Wax: That’s great. So there’s no theological truth that doesn’t have application for the congregation. You can draw out application because the whole purpose of theology and the Scriptures is to equip God’s people to be God’s people.
Jonathan Leeman: It’s God’s truth applied to the lives of the people who are there. So if you’re not doing that hard work of investigating, asking how does this apply, I think you’re only doing a part of your job.
You may be surprised to discover just how much your culture determines what you see in the Scriptures.
During the years in Romania, I found myself challenged by the insights Romanian pastors drew from the text. Preachers seemed to spend time on things that I tended to pass over.Even now, when Corina and I discuss a passage of Scripture, we often latch on to different words and phrases. We’re both inclined to think the other has missed the point and is majoring on the minors.
Cultural background and social location play an important role in the way we read a text.
Did You Notice the Famine?
A great example of this phenomenon is found in Mark Allan Powell’s helpful little book What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew. Powell recounts an experiment with 12 American seminary students assigned to read the parable of the prodigal son and then recount it from memory. Interestingly enough, not one of them mentioned the famine in Luke 15:14:
After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing.
Powell himself had considered Jesus’ reference to the famine as an insignificant detail, but he was surprised to see all of his students forget it.
Next, Powell organized a study with 100 American students of different genders, races, ages, economic statuses, and religions. Out of 100 students, only 6 mentioned the famine in their retelling of Jesus’ parable.
Perplexed, he went to St. Petersburg, Russia, and did the same experiment with 50 Russians. He was shocked when 42 of them remembered the famine. Only 6 out of 100 Americans, but 42 out of 50 Russians.
Why the disparity? Powell believes there may be a psychological explanation that goes back to 1941, when the German army laid siege to St. Petersburg and caused a 900-day famine in which 670,000 Russians died of starvation and exposure. Even after so many years, the horror of the famine lingers in the consciousness of Russian citizens.
What’s the Prodigal’s Problem?
Even more interesting is the fact that many Russian readers made no reference to the prodigal son squandering his property! People from these two cultures tend to hear the emphases of the parable differently.
The American hears the parable like this:
Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing.
The Russian hears the parable like this:
Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing.
In other words, Americans see the famine as an insignificant detail that intensifies the prodigal’s big problem – wastefulness. Russians, on the other hand, see the prodigal’s wasteful spending as an insignificant detail that intensifies the real tragedy – the famine.
Social location and cultural background also impact the way we see what the boy did wrong. Americans consider the prodigal’s great sin to be his extravagant, wasteful lifestyle. But in Powell’s study, the Russians didn’t see wastefulness as the biggest problem:
“His mistake was leaving his father’s house in the first place. His sin was placing a price tag on the value of his family, thinking that money was all he needed from them. Once he had his share of the family fortune, the family itself no longer mattered. In a phrase, his sin was wanting to be self-sufficient.” (18)
In a capitalist society, we see the prodigal’s sin in terms of wastefulness. In a socialist society, the Russians see the prodigal’s sin as self-sufficiency.
Know Your Sources and Know Your People
How does this story apply to our preaching and teaching?
First, we ought to consult a variety of sources and scholars as we study the Scriptures. I know pastors who vary their commentaries based on theological diversity. Very well. But perhaps we should also consult commentaries from people in societies different from our own, to see what our cultural blinders may have screened out.
Second, we should consider how our sermons fall on the ears of others. We must be aware of the social context of our listeners and consider not only what we mean to say but how it might be heard. In order to get our intended meaning across, we must know the people we are preaching to and be able to understand how they hear us.
Powell mentions how Bible readers often remain “oblivious to what they themselves are bringing to the process, unaware that the sorting and organizing of data is influenced by particular factors of their own social location. People who hear our sermons do the same thing – they sort the auditory data, prioritizing, organizing, remembering, forgetting: they create a meaning that seems appropriate to them with little awareness of the extent to which their social location has influenced that process” (19).
Better Bible interpretation and better preaching happens when we keep social location and cultural background in mind: the social location of the Scriptures, of ourselves as interpreters, and of those who hear us preach.
One of the drums I’ve been beating lately is the need for our biblical proclamation to be done beautifully. Last year, I posted excerpts from a variety of writers who express the truth in powerful ways that stir our affections.
We do indeed need beauty in writing, but we also need to consider beauty in preaching. Too often we preachers spend all our time making sure we’ve understood the meaning of the text and can communicate it faithfully. Precious little time is spent thinking about how we can communicate that meaning beautifully.
A preacher who preached faithfully and beautifully was W. A. Criswell (1909-2002). Often, when I listen to his sermons, I not only believe the truth presented, but I taste it. Here are a few examples:
Watch how Criswell communicates the cosmic significance of the crucifixion:
So Jesus bowed His head on the cross and cried, “It is finished!”
The drops of blood that poured out from the cross to the dust of the ground whispered to the grass, saying, “It is finished!”
The grass whispered to the herbs, “It is finished!”
The herbs whispered to the trees, “It is finished!”
The trees whispered to the birds in the branches, “It is finished!”
The birds spiraling upwards to the clouds cried, “It is finished!”
The clouds spoke to the stars in the sky, “It is finished!”
The stars in the sky cried to the angels in heaven, “It is finished!”
The angels in glory went up and down the streets of the heavenly city echoing this glad refrain, “It is finished!”
The crucifixion of our Lord was God’s redemption for the sin of the world.
Notice the way Criswell shows how sin leads to the curse of death:
If one sins against a friend, something dies within him.
If one sins against a partner, something will die between them.
If one sins against his home, something will die in it.
If one sins against himself, something will die in him.
When one sins against God, something dies between him and the Lord.
When sin is added to anything – to any gift, any virtue, any achievement – it will spell grief and misery and death.
A gun plus sin will produce violence and murder.
Success plus sin will produce egotism, pride, and overbearing ostentation.
Money plus sin will produce greed, bribery, and blackmail.
Love plus sin turns to lust.
A home plus sin will produce an atmosphere like hell.
Alcohol plus sin – a car plus sin – any gift of God plus sin is damned to misery and perdition. God said, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” There is a curse in sin.
Now watch how vividly Criswell paints the crucifixion scene. He puts the listener in the place of all the main characters and then drives home the theological truths of the cross by addressing the congregation personally:
What do you see when you look at the cross?
The Roman soldiers looked and they saw garments to be coveted and a robe for which to gamble.
The priests looked and they saw an enemy to be destroyed.
The curious passersby, who sat down and watched Him there, saw a scene in which to idle away a weary hour.
One malefactor looked and saw another criminal, like himself, being crucified.
The other thief looked and saw hope for heaven: “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
The centurion looked and said: “Surely this man was the Son of God.”
The ruler of the Passover feast looked and saw a polluted body that had to be removed before the Sabbath Day drew on.
Pilate’s quaternion of soldiers looked and were commissioned with three deaths to be ascertained. Two of the three certainly expired with the breaking of their bones by heavy mallets, and the other was declared certainly dead with a spear, opening His heart and His side.
John looked and saw a fountain of blood and water for atonement and the cleansing of our sins.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus looked and saw a precious body to be lovingly laid away.
God the Father looked and saw the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son.
When you look upon the cross, what do you see? When Jesus stands before you, upon His brow the crown of thorns, mocked, rejected, scourged, bleeding, dying, what do you feel? Surely, surely we are conscience-stricken, for His suffering is a revelation of the judgment of God upon the sin of our own hearts. It is our sins that placed upon His brow the crown of thorns. It is our sins that laid upon His back the cruel and heavy stripes. It is our sins that nailed Him to the tree. Surely it is our sins that we see in the sufferings of His cross, in His tears, in His sorrows, in His wounds, and in His death.
When you look at the cross, what do you see? Do you see the love of God for a lost humanity? He died in our stead. It is by the love of God for us that we are delivered from so terrible a penalty.
When you look upon the cross, what do you see? Do you see our victory over sin and death and the grave? Through the torn veil of His flesh, we have our entrance into heaven.
When you look upon the cross, do you hear God’s call to the human heart? Do you not feel God’s entreaty to your own soul?
And here’s my all-time favorite section from a Criswell sermon. It is one of the most poetic portrayals of the gravity of Christ’s death ever delivered from a pulpit:
He was raised between the heaven and the earth, as though both rejected Him, despised by men and refused by God.
And as though abuse were not vile enough, they covered Him with spittle.
And as though spittle were not contemptuous enough, they plucked out His beard.
And as though plucking out His beard was not brutal enough, they drove in great nails.
And as though the nails did not pierce deeply enough, He was crowned with thorns.
And as though the thorns were not agonizing enough, He was pierced through with a Roman spear.
It was earth’s saddest hour, and it was humanity’s deepest, darkest day.
At three o’clock in the afternoon it was all over. The Lord of life bowed His head and the light of the world flickered out.
Tread softly around the cross, for Jesus is dead. Repeat the refrain in hushed and softened tones: the Lord of life is dead.
The lips that spoke forth Lazarus from the grave are now stilled in the silence of death, and the head that was anointed by Mary of Bethany is bowed with its crown of thorns.
The eyes that wept over Jerusalem are glazed in death, and the hands that blessed little children are nailed to a tree.
And the feet that walked on the waters of blue Galilee are fastened to a cross, and the heart that went out in compassionate love and sympathy for the poor and the lost of the world is now broken; He is dead.
The infuriated mob that cried for His crucifixion gradually disperses; He is dead.
And the passersby who stop just to see Him go on their way; He is dead.
The Pharisees, rubbing their hands in self-congratulation, go back to the city; He is dead.
And the Sadducees, breathing sighs of relief, return to their coffers in the temple; He is dead.
The centurion assigned the task of executing Him makes his official report to the Roman procurator, “He is dead.”
And the four, the quaternion of soldiers sent to dispatch the victims, seeing the Man on the center cross was certainly dead, brake not His bones, but pierce Him through with a spear; He is dead.
And Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus of the Sanhedrin go personally to Pontius Pilate and beg of the Roman governor His body, because He is dead.
Mary His mother and the women with her are bowed in sobs and in tears; He is dead.
And the eleven apostles, like frightened sheep, crawl into eleven shadows to hide from the pointing finger of Jerusalem and they cry, “He is dead!”
Wherever His disciples met, in an upper room, or on a lonely road, or behind closed doors, or in hiding places, the same refrain is sadly heard, “He is dead. He is in a tomb; they have sealed the grave and set a guard; He is dead.”
It would be almost impossible for us to enter into the depths of despair that gripped their hearts.
Simon Peter, the rock, is a rock no longer.
And James and John, the sons of Boanerges, are sons of thunder no longer.
And Simon the Zealot is a zealot no longer.
He is dead, and the hope of the world has perished with Him.
When I am talking to young evangelicals, often who are in ministry, and I say, “Who has been really influential upon you in ministry and on learning to preach and to do the things of ministry?” ten years ago, most people would have given me the name of a local pastor who had mentored them and worked with them. Now they are mentioning a disembodied voice that they have heard on a podcast. That’s a very dangerous thing…
The feedback from that post got me thinking about the men who have been most influential in shepherding me through different stages of my life. Here is a list of six pastors and what they’ve taught me.
1. Bob Kelley – Pastor Passionately
Until I was nine, my family belonged to a prominent independent Baptist church. Bro. Kelley was our preacher. When I trusted Christ on a Saturday morning, Bob Kelley was the man I called to tell the good news. I still remember his excitement on the other end of the line. A few years later, he baptized me.
The one thing that stood out to me about Bob Kelley was his passion. He was fiery in the pulpit, holding up the Bible and then giving every bit of his energy toward proclaiming it persuasively. He pounded. He yelled. He wept. He called for repentance. I didn’t always understand his messages, but I was never bored.
The big impression he left on me was that what we’re doing here is important. It’s life or death. It’s serious business. Not all pastors express passion the same way as Bob Kelley. But all of us should be passionate. And that’s something Bob Kelley got right. (Click here for some of his “lessons learned from a gospel preacher.”)
2. Ken Polk – Pastor Textually
From the time I was nine years old until I left for Romania at 19, I belonged to a church where the pastor preached expository sermons every week. We started as a church plant meeting in a high school cafeteria and over the next decade grew into a church of 1,000. Careful, expository, text-focused sermons were part of that journey. I remember the first (and second) time Bro. Ken took us through the Gospel of John. I still remember his 1 Corinthians series and his sermons from Judges.
I cannot calculate the formative influence that Bro. Ken’s preaching had on my life. For 10 years, I listened to Bro. Ken preach. Ten years. Fifty weeks a year. Two times a week. That’s 1,000 sermons.
It’s no wonder that today I approach the text in much the same manner that he does, looking to discover what’s there, not invent what’s not. I see Christ in the Scriptures because he showed me Christ was there. I respect the Bible because of the way he always made the purpose of the text more prominent than the personality of the messenger. From Bro. Ken, I learned that there is no substitute for pastoring textually. The Scriptures are at the heart of pastoral ministry.
3. Rick Iglesias – Pastor Personally
The years I spent doing mission work in Romania were formative in so many ways. Yet there was a lingering loneliness that set in from time to time, the sense that you don’t quite fit in anywhere anymore – whether back home or on the field.
Pastor Rick visited our campus once or twice a year and led retreats for my college class up in the mountains. He impacted us because he cared about us. He wrote e-mails. He called from time to time. Always seeking to be an encouragement.
As the years in Romania went by, it was easy to feel forgotten by the rest of the world. But Rick remembered.
From Rick, I learned the power of personal contact. Just being there. Another pastor friend on the journey with you. (Click here for an interview I did with Rick a few years ago.)
4. Ted Traylor – Pastor Missionally
Another pastor who made an impact on me during my Romania years was Ted Traylor. I was in my first year of studying theology when Bro. Ted first visited the campus. Our group benefited from several classes with him.
I remember thinking then, What kind of pastor is this who, even though he has a large church to tend to in the States, would come all the way to Romania to pour himself into young Romanian seminary students? Every year after that, Bro. Ted returned. In 2005, he spoke at my class’s graduation.
Ted Traylor is passionate about the next generation. He loves the church. And he has the heart of a missionary. As long as the Lord has given me the privilege to know him, I have seen a missional heartbeat in Ted Traylor’s life and ministry.
Bro. Ted is also passionately devoted to fulfilling the Great Commission in his own city. He’s both a local and global kind of guy. And he has provided a wonderful example of a pastor with Great Commission focus.
5. Florin Trifan – Pastor Prayerfully
My father-in-law recently retired from pastoring two village churches. But during my time in Romania, I saw him in action.
If there’s any word that would characterize Florin Trifan’s approach to pastoring, it would be prayerful. Bro. Trifan is a constant pray-er. Always stopping to thank the Lord for His blessings. Always asking for the Spirit’s power to do God’s will. We pray together over Skype every week even now.
Bro. Trifan has been a good pastoral example in a variety of ways, but the biggest impact he has made on me is his relentless focus on the necessity and power of prayer in the pastor’s life. (Click here to see the testimony of how Pastor Trifan moved from Communism to Christianity.)
6. Kevin Minchey – Pastor Caringly
Along with Ken Polk, Kevin Minchey has had the biggest influence on my life. Kevin is a mentor at heart.
When I was on staff with him, Kevin didn’t only model care and concern for others, he instructed me on how to do the same. For years, I watched Kevin shepherd people, love on them when they were down, rebuke them when necessary, and cast a vision for the kingdom that pushed all of us out of our comfort zones.
For me personally, I was able to see up close the labor of love it is when a pastor chooses willingly to share others’ burdens and to walk through crises and trials. The pastoral wisdom, grace, and care on display in his life and ministry have taught me things that books could never capture. I’m thankful he cared for me. And I hope to shepherd others the same way.
What about you? Who are some pastors who have influenced your life and ministry?
Last week, Chris asked me some specific questions about the importance of a candidate’s view of the gospel. Our conversation is below:
Chris Brauns: Would you first give us a concise definition of the gospel?
Trevin Wax: People hear the question – “What is the gospel?” – in different ways, which may lead to different responses.
Some pastoral candidates will hear the question in terms of evangelism, How would I share the gospel with an unbeliever? Usually that will lead him to articulate a message that begins with God as Creator and Judge, articulates the reality of human sin and the brokenness of our world, climaxes with the announcement of Christ crucified and raised so that we might be justified before God, and then calls for the response of repentance (turning from sin) and faith (trusting in God’s mercy).
Other pastoral candidates will hear the question in terms of New Testament exegesis, How did the apostles define the word “gospel”? Usually that will lead to a Jesus-focused announcement: He fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and promises through His perfect life, He died on the cross for our sins, conquered sin and Satan forever, and is now exalted as Lord over all.
I think it’s good to specify with a pastoral candidate what you mean by the question. If you ask, “What is the gospel?” and they answer exegetically, you might follow that up with a question about how they share the gospel with an unbeliever. If they answer evangelistically, you might follow up with a question about how the Scriptures define the word. Whichever direction you take, you’ll want to make sure that Christ’s death and resurrection is at the center of the candidate’s message.
CB: Do you think that it would be easy for churches looking for a pastor to assume his definition of the gospel?
TW: Absolutely. Too many times, pastoral search teams want to get to know a pastor on a superficial level, asking questions about ball teams or favorite foods rather than probing theological viewpoints to see how one’s methodology necessarily flows from one’s view of the gospel.
When listening to a pastor’s sermons, it’s important to see how Jesus is represented.
Is He present in the sermon?
Is He described as a helper or motivator?
Or is He presented as the crucified King?
Churches often look to the superficial elements of a preacher (Was he funny? Did he keep me interested? Will our people like him?) rather than the core issues that flow from his view of the Bible’s storyline and the gospel announcement.
CB: I am very thankful for your book Counterfeit Gospels. It helped me think more clearly about a balanced view of the Gospel. How might it help churches looking for a pastor?
TW: Ideally, Counterfeit Gospelsmight alert pastoral search teams to ways in which we evangelicals can drift from the centrality of the gospel. The analysis of different counterfeits that are prevalent in society may help a search team distinguish between a candidate who proclaims the gospel clearly and biblically and a candidate whose thoughts on these matters are foggy and uncertain.
CB: Are there any interview questions you would suggest for pastoral search committees that would help them evaluate a candidate’s commitment to the gospel?
TW: The question of personal evangelism is a must. If everyone in your church was as committed to personal evangelism as is your pastoral candidate, what would that do to your church?
I don’t think commitment to the gospel can be measured only in one’s fidelity to ideas. Instead, we ought to measure one’s commitment to the gospel in terms of how prone we are to share this unbelievably good news that has transformed our lives.
Regardless of a pastor’s biblical knowledge, there is no such thing as “spiritual maturity” apart from living a Great Commission life.
CB: What in a candidate’s background might warn a church that a pastoral candidate does not really see the Gospel as of first importance?
TW: I’m not sure that background will determine this question. A better way forward is to look at the pastor’s preaching. Is he clearly relying on the gospel to bring about life change for his listeners? Or is he relying on something else to “deliver the goods” every Sunday? Does he see the power as residing in this message he’s been given? Or does he see the message as an add-on to his own skills, a more popular message, etc? These are issues that generally come out in public preaching and in personal conversations with the candidate.
CB: Do you have any other advice or suggestions for churches in the midst of a pastoral search?
TW: Don’t settle. Better to spend more time finding the right pastor than to settle for the wrong one. Keep the gospel in view as you search for a candidate. Look out for counterfeit messages that drift from biblical teaching. And pray, pray, pray for God’s direction.