Since the day the church was born, there have been Christian preachers with deep convictions about preaching who proclaimed abiding themes that have informed, ordered, and sustained the church’s life. These convictions can be summarized as a theology of preaching and a theology to preach. If we do not have a viable theology of preaching, we have nothing to sustain us as preachers; and if we do not have a theology to preach, we have nothing to sustain our hearers. The purpose here is to address the second concern: a theology to preach.
Preaching the Christian message is a continuing process that requires constant study of the Scriptures and a growing maturity in discerning the wisdom which is from God.1 Further, the best way to restore passion to the pulpit is for preachers to rediscover the freshness of the biblical message and to pass that discovery on to their hearers. Unless the pulpit is on fire, it is nearly impossible to get the pew to burn.
Rediscovering our message means emphasizing several key themes. The first one has supreme priority. When we preach, we are to preach Christ. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “I determined to know nothing among you but Christ and him crucified.” Count Zinzendorf, the founder of the Moravians, exclaimed, “I have one passion in life. It is he, it is he!” Martin Luther declared, “We preach first Christ and last Christ and always Christ. It may seem like a monotonous theme but we are never at the end of it.” Preaching Christ is essential because we are Christian preachers.
But proclaiming Christ has two sides to it. On the one hand, it is imperative that we know Christ and help people to know Him. As James S. Stewart put it: “To be ‘in Christ’ means that Christ is the redeemed man’s new environment,” and we make contact with Him through surrender.”2 We are under divine orders simply to preach Christ.
On the other hand, it is imperative that we know as much as possible about Christ. New converts may only need to have been introduced to Christ and to what He has required of them to become His followers. Much more is needed, however, for those of us who are going to be Christian leaders and spokespersons for Christ. We often hear people talking about the simple message of Jesus, but the message of Jesus is not simple. It consists of profundity on top of profundity and mystery on top of mystery.
If we cannot know all about Him, we need to know as much about Him as possible. When we encounter a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon or a Muslim, we had better know something about Christology, and only a biblical Christology can counter the New Age counterfeits and other forms of secularized Christianity so popular in the culture today.
There is an incident in Acts 8 which illustrates this point. The evangelist Philip has been invited into the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch to explain the meaning of the passage that the eunuch was reading in Isaiah 53. The Bible says that Philip began at that same Scripture and preached Jesus to him (8:35). But what did he say about Jesus? What are we to say about Jesus? The answer is that there is a flexibility about the presentation of the basic message about Christ in the New Testament, and scholars vary the ways that they give their litanies of the Kerygma.3
My summary of the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ is more inclusive than most: Jesus pre-existed with God the Father before He came to Bethlehem’s manger; He was born of the virgin Mary; He grew up in His foster-father Joseph’s carpenter shop; He lived a sinless life; He taught as no one has ever taught before or since; He was tried unjustly and crucified between two thieves; He was buried in a borrowed tomb; He rose from the dead on the third day; and He ascended to God’s right hand in glory and power. He reigns in majesty and guides and empowers His church today. One day He will come again in splendor and will preside as judge over the whole universe. As His final act of redemption, He will replace this sinful and evil world with a new heaven and a new earth. This is the Christ we are to proclaim; He is to be at the center of our message.
The second key theme is covenant. A true understanding of covenant underscores the importance of the Old Testament but it also emphasizes the superiority of the New Testament. The Old Testament is the first act of a two-act play; if we see only the first act, we do not get the whole story. The writer of Hebrews claims that Jesus is the mediator of a better covenant, founded on better promises, and then goes on to quote Jeremiah’s promise (Heb. 8:6, 9-12): “The time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,” and “I will put my new law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:31, 33).
A better handle on the significance of the Old Covenant helps to maintain the continuity between the covenants. Christ did not come to do away with the Covenant of Moses when He established His covenant; He came to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-18). All of the promises of God are “Yes” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Understanding the continuity between the covenants will help us to elevate the old to its proper place while at the same time seeing its purpose to lead us to Christ that we might be “justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24).
A renewed sense of covenant will also lead us to become responsible and accountable to each other in Christian community. This covenantal relationship is not contractual or legal; it is lordly and is built on love and trust. It is also not negotiable. We cannot change the terms of the covenant; we can only choose to accept them or reject them. But the good news of the gospel is that we can enter into a win-win relationship with the Supreme Covenant Maker who is also the Supreme Covenant Keeper. Our covenant relationship with Christ has the power to transform all our relationships. In an age of shallow commitments and superficial relationships, we need to remind ourselves that we are the covenant people of God. The covenant that binds us to God also binds us to God’s covenant people — the Church.
The third major theme that we must emphasize is the Church. There are two issues to be addressed here. The first is the current gap between Christ and the Church. There are many kinds of people who are for Jesus and against His Church. While ministering in Portland, Oregon, James Earl Ladd tells about walking through “Pop Off Square,” a place where anyone could say anything he or she wanted as long as anyone would listen. A man was speaking to four hundred people. “God is all right and Christ is all right,” he said, “but to hell with the Church.” Four hundred ignorant people cheered! How do you curse a man’s bride and give honor to the man? Countless people today will vote for Jesus but have no time for His Church. Even many church leaders have a lover’s quarrel with the Church because they have been wounded deeply by attacks against their character and leadership.
Because there is a lack of preaching and teaching about the biblical theology of the Church, many church members see it as a place where they can get their problems solved and their needs met. An effective church does address problems and meet needs, but at more than one level. To win the ear of those seeking a church today, one may have to preach to the surface needs of people to earn the opportunity to preach to their deeper needs; and one of their deeper needs, after understanding sin and salvation, is to grasp the nature of the Church.
T. W. Manson rightly called ecclesiology a branch of Christology. The Church is the body of the living Christ to be and to do in the world what Christ would be and do if He were here in the flesh. It is not merely a series of programs to attend or a variety of activities from which to choose. It is a life to be lived out corporately because we are His body.
Another key emphasis is Christian hope. Our churches lack vitality and power because they do not see their life and ministry in the light of the final coming of Christ. A biblical eschatology will restore a sense of urgency and clarity to our mission. David Buttrick illustrates this point by relating an incident from his days of growing up as the son of George Buttrick, the well-known preacher. As a prank, the children bought a captivating mystery novel, tore the last chapter out, and put it on the night-stand in the guest room. Guests would come down red-eyed the next morning. Some of them would be brave enough to ask about the book. Others would go to a bookstore or a library to try to find it because not to know the contents of the last chapter of a mystery novel makes the parts that remain incomplete and confusing. Since we have the Bible, we already know how its story of human history will end.
God is moving toward His pre-ordained goal for creation and the Church. Recovering the emphasis on the final coming of Christ will restore a sense of urgency about completing the task to evangelize the world that God has given His Church. We have the resources if only we have the will. God has never given His people a task to accomplish without giving them extraordinary resources for the task.
Emphasizing Christian hope, however, does not mean escaping the responsibilities of living as a Christian in this world. As Christians our social responsibilities are heightened, not lessened. We live very much in this world, but we have already begun to partake of the world to come. We are human and we carry the baggage of this life, but we also see what others have not seen and we have already begun to experience everlasting life in Christ. We walk with our feet on earth and our heads in heaven.
The next theme is Christian conduct. It is a cliche, but true, that we are to live in the world, but not of the world. The media evangelize our culture with their own set of values, and they are quite effective.4 In reaction, much preaching today attempts to legislate morality. There are those who applaud this approach, but I am convinced that it is futile to preach morality without grounding it in God, His grace, and the kerygma, because keeping the Christian ethic is impossible without the indwelling power of the Spirit of God in the Christian’s life. We do people a disservice when we tell them to be good rather than to be godly. That every person is to be judged by his/her Christian morality is not arbitrary; it is grounded in the nature and character of God. He made us to be like Him and to live like Him. The secret is to live a Christ-centered life so that one’s dynamic relationship with the Lord leads that person to produce the high moral fruits of the spirit instead of the works of the flesh, Only in union with Christ and in His power are the high moral standards of Christ possible.
The great Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers wrote a memorable sermon which he called “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” His point was that one gets rid of an old affection, not by trying to eradicate it, but by replacing it with a stronger one. One can take most of the oxygen out of a bottle with a vacuum pump, but not completely. A successful way to remove all of the oxygen is to put liquid into the bottle to force out the oxygen. A higher morality must always be governed by a higher affection. It is easier to say “no” to something when one has a higher “yes” — and the highest “yes” is allegiance to Christ.
Another key emphasis is the commission of Christ. Passages scattered throughout the New Testament about the Great Commission include: Matthew 18:16-20, Mark 16:15-17,5 Luke 24:46-48, John 20:21, and Romans 16:25-27. Paul cannot even offer a benediction to close his great letter to the Romans without praying for the evangelization of the world. But the missionary task does not depend solely on the Great Commission passages. The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of a missionary God reaching out patiently and redemptively to the entire fallen human race. “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forebearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). The commission is not optional.
To recover this core value, the Church needs to practice a Great Commission hermeneutic by reading the Bible with church-growth eyes and listening to it with Great Commission ears. To turn to the Acts of the Apostles for what it says about sin and salvation, including what it says to do to become a Christian, for example, and to ignore the mandate to evangelize the world is to pervert its basic message. What they preached and taught is an illustration of their obedience to Christ in carrying out His commission.
The Great Commission has two sides to it. One is the global task to evangelize and to strengthen churches. The global mandate is given to every Christian; the task of the leaders of the Church is to plant it in the heart of every believer. It begins at the address where we live and goes all the way to the 10/40 window6 where Satan has his most powerful stronghold today. But we will never build an effective missions program in our churches if we do not also give attention to evangelism where we live. Evangelism is a global task that begins with the dot on the globe where we reside and goes as far as our influence travels. Thousands of Christians are taking the mission mandate seriously. They are instructing and challenging churches, and many of them are going to mission fields.
Many North American Christians who are committed to the missionary mandate, however, still have a colonial attitude toward foreign missions. Implicit in that attitude is a spirit laced with arrogance, prejudice, and ignorance of the biblical nature of the Church. As a part of the world-wide body of Christ, Christians must learn from each other. Christian brothers and sisters in the “majority” world have much to teach us that would make us more effective in assisting them in their churches, as well as increasing our effectiveness in American churches as we confront a rapidly changing ethnic climate. There is so much to learn from each other in the global church and so much work to do. We need to pray for harvest eyes and a harvest heart but, most of all, for the sovereign blessing of the God of the harvest.
The last key theme is a cosmic perspective. According to John Ruskin, the most helpful thing we can do is to see something and tell what we saw in a plain way. How does one do that with God’s eternal purpose in Christ throughout the ages? How does one talk about the ultimate victory of God over sin and evil in every shape or form? How do you talk about His total redemptive act of creating a new heaven and a new earth? We are limited by our language; therefore, we stutter and stammer as we try to describe the cosmic victory of Christ. Paul was addressing this theme when he wrote in Romans 8:18-25:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expection for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
In Revelation 21 and 22, John gave, perhaps, the grandest cosmic vision ever made when he described in vivid imagery the new heaven, the new earth, and the new Jerusalem. He stands us on our tiptoes and allows us to catch a glimpse of the face and mind and heart of God.
To think in cosmic proportions leads one quite naturally to preach doxologically. This is what happened to Paul. After a lengthy discussion of God’s dealings in history with Jews and Gentiles (Rom. 9-11), he concluded with a poem of praise to God:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgement, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor, Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.7
A cosmic perspective will lead the pulpit to praise Him and to offer their sermons as acts of worship to God.
A cosmic perspective will also cause the discerning preacher to proclaim the great watershed themes of the Christian faith. For example, the dual greetings, “grace” and “peace” appear often in the letters of Paul. They can either be seen as casual greetings or as the deep theological bases for everything else he intended to write. I opt for the latter. If those who belong to Christ continue to be the daily recipients of His grace and peace, then perseverance and victory as the saints of God are possible for every believer. The preacher with a cosmic perspective who has experienced God’s grace will preach doxologically.
These seven key themes represent vital doctrines of the Christian faith that desperately need to be proclaimed from Christian pulpits today. To put it another way, perhaps it would be better to categorize the themes of covenant, church, Christian hope, conduct, commission, and cosmic perspective as sub-categories of Christology, because Christ is Lord of all the categories of Christian doctrine and human existence (Eph. 1:22, 23). And so we are always preaching Christ. At the close of his lecture series on preaching, entitled A Faith to Proclaim, James S. Stewart offered this counsel:
We must make a point of returning far oftener than we do to Bethlehem and Nazareth and the Cross and the empty tomb, pondering this Gospel in all its breadth and length and depth and height, its loveliness and majesty, its piercing pity and searching challenge.
We must also make time to company with Jesus in the Gospels, to stand with Peter at Capernaum listening to His voice, to kneel with Mary at His feet, to climb the green hill outside the city wall, to run with two breathless creatures to the empty tomb in the Easter dawn.8
During Karl Barth’s lecture tour in the United States, a student at Union Theological Seminary in Virgina asked, “What truth has come to mean the most to you over the years?” There was silence as Barth thought for about three minutes. Slowly he raised his head and said, “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.”9
The Christian faith all comes down to that in the end, and that is worth preaching next Sunday.
1. See 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16 for Paul’s discussion of Christian proclamation as it relates to God’s revelation in Christ.
2. A Man In Christ; the Vital Elements of St. Paul’s Religion. (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., 1935), pp. 197-198.
3. Most are variations of C. H. Dodd’s list of kerygmatic elements in the apostolic sermons in Acts [see The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (Edinburgh: R & R Clarke, 1936), pp. 21-23]. In his Forrest Reed lectures, Disciple Preaching in the First Generation — an Ecological Study (Nashville: The Disciples of Christ Historical Society, 1969), Dwight E. Stevenson emphasized that, nearly a century earlier, Alexander Campbell distinguished between proclamation to the unconverted and teaching the saints in the assembly of the church. Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and The Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1988), states the view commonly held today that the New Testament “does not separate preaching and teaching into such rigid, ironclad categories,” that in “the same place, both kinds of activity went on,” but that “preaching in a missionary situation must have a different emphasis than preaching in an established church” (p. 6, 7). My own view is that all preaching, to be Christian, must have a kerygmatic core, explicitly stated or implied, whether one is evangelizing unbelievers or teaching the saints.
4. In the book Dancing in the Dark (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1991), six scholars explored the relationship between TV and the youth culture. They concluded that “the electronic media and youth are in a symbolic relationship” and they are “dependent on each other” (p. 11).
5. The longer ending of Mark 16 has been hotly debated by scholars, but they agree that the point of 16:15-16 is compatible with the other passages on the subject.
6. The 10/40 window encompasses the latitude and longitude of that section of the globe that is least evangelized. Both paganism and poverty are strongest there.
7. Romans 11:33-36.
8. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1953, p. 159.
9. Quoted in a sermon by Billy Graham. 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. 12. (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971), p. 311.

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