The Fallen Condition Focus And The Purpose Of The Sermon Bryan Chapell May 1 Determining a sermons subject is half done when a preacher has discerned what the biblical writer was saying. We do not fully understand the subject until we have also determined its purpose. It is too easy to preach on a doctrinal topic or an exegetical insight without considering the spiritual burden of the text for real people in the daily struggles of life. In doing so, preachers relieve themselves of having to deal with the messiness and pain of human existence. The greater intellectual and spiritual task is to discern the human concern that caused the Holy Spirit to inspire this aspect of Scripture so that God would be properly glorified by his people. Consideration of a passage’s purpose ultimately forces us to ask, Why are these concerns addressed? What caused this account, these facts, or the recording of these ideas? What was the intent of the author? For what purpose did the Holy Spirit include these words in Scripture? Such questions force us to exegete the cause of a passage as well as its contents and to connect both to the lives of the people God calls us to shepherd with his truth. Until we have determined a passage’s purpose, we are not ready to preach its truths, even if we know many true facts about the text. Yet as obvious as this advice is, it is frequently neglected. Preachers often think they are ready to preach when they see a doctrinal subject reflected in a passage, though they have not yet determined the text’s specific purpose. For example, simply recognizing that a passage contains features that support the doctrine of justification by faith alone does not adequately prepare a pastor to preach. A sermon is not just a systematics lesson. Why did the biblical writer bring up the subject of justification at this point? What were the struggles, concerns, or frailties of the persons to whom the text was originally addressed? Were the people claiming salvation based on their accomplishments, were they doubting the sufficiency of grace, or were they afraid of God’s rejection because of some sin? We must determine the purpose (or burden) of a passage before we really know the subject of a sermon.5 We do not have to guess whether there is a purpose for a particular text. The Bible assures us that every passage has a purpose, and it clearly tells us the basic nature of this purpose. The apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Greek terms that Paul uses to express our need to be thoroughly equipped convey the idea of bringing to completion. God intends for his Word to “complete” us so that we can serve his good purposes.6 That is why the translators of the King James Version interpreted verse 17 of the passage as “that the man of God may be perfect.” God intends for every portion of his Word (i.e., “all Scripture”) to make us more like him so that his glory is reflected in us.7 Since God designed the Bible to complete us for the purposes of his glory, the necessary implication is that in some sense we are incomplete. We lack the equipment required for every good work. Our lack of wholeness is a consequence of the fallen condition in which we live. Aspects of this fallenness that are reflected in our sinfulness and in our world’s brokenness prompt Scripture’s instruction and construction.8 Paul writes, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4). The corrupted state of our world and our beings cries for God’s aid. He responds with the truths of Scripture and gives us hope by focusing his grace on a facet of our fallen condition in every portion of his Word. No text was written merely for those in the past; God intends for each passage to give us the “endurance and the encouragement”we need today (cf. l Cor.10:13). Preaching that is true to these purposes (1) focuses on the fallen condition that necessitated the writing of the passage and (2) uses the text’s features to explain how the Holy Spirit addresses that concern then and now. The Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those for or by whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage to manifest God’s glory in his people. By assuring us that all Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus (FCF), God indicates his abiding care and underscores his preeminent status in preaching. The FCF present in every text demonstrates God’s refusal to leave his frail and sinful children without guide or defense in a world antagonistic to their spiritual well-being. However, the FCF not only provides the human context needed for a passage’s explanation but also indicates that biblical solutions must be divine and not merely human. Since fallen creatures cannot correct or remove their own fallenness, identification of the FCF forces a sermon to honor God as the only source of hope rather than merely promoting human fix-its or behavior change. In technical terms, though the FCF requires a sermon to deal honestly and directly with the human concerns of the text, this focus simultaneously keeps the sermon from being anthropocentric. The acknowledgment of human fallenness that undergirds the text’s explanation and the sermons development automatically requires the preacher to acknowledge the bankruptcy of merely human efforts and to honor the wonders of divine provision. Because an FCF is a human problem or burden addressed by specific aspects of a scriptural text, informed preaching strives to unveil this purpose in order to explain each passage properly. Obviously, there may be more than one way of stating the purpose for a text since the biblical writer had various mechanisms for stating or implying his purpose. There may also be a variety of purposes within a specific text. Still, a sermon’s unity requires a preacher to be selective and ordinarily to concentrate on a Scripture passage’s main purpose. The FCF determines the real subject of a message because it is the real purpose behind the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of a passage.9 Ultimately, a sermon is about how a text says we are to respond biblically to the FCF as it is experienced in our lives – identifying the gracious means that God provides for us to deal with the human brokenness that deprives us of the full experience and expression of his glory. Various subdivisions and dimensions of the FCF may be developed as a sermon unfolds, but the main theme should remain clear.This agenda makes sense when we remember that a text’s contents are God’s response to and provision for an aspect of our fallenness. The FCF sets the tone, determines the approach, and organizes the information in a sermon to reveal this divine provision and direct our response to it. Thus, the FCF is usually directly stated or strongly implied in the introductory portion of a sermon. Determining the FCF Proper understanding of a passage and formation of a sermon require a clear FCF If we do not determine the FCF of a text, we do not really know what the passage is about, even if we know many true facts about it.10 The FCF reveals the Spirit’s own purpose for the passage, and we should not presume to preach unless we have identified his will for his Word. We must ask, What is an FCF that required the writing of this text? before we can accurately expound its meaning. This FCF will enable us to interpret the passage properly, communicate its contents, and give the congregation the Holy Spirit’s own reason for listening. The more specific the statement of the FCF early in the sermon, the more powerful and poignant the message will be. An FCF of “not being faithful to God” is not nearly as riveting as “How can I maintain my integrity when my boss has none?” A message directed to “the prayerless patterns of society” will not prick the conscience or ignite resolve nearly as effectively as a sermon on “why we struggle to pray when family stresses make prayer most necessary” Generic statements of an FCF give the preacher little guidance for the organization of the sermon and the congregation little reason for listening. Specificity tends to breed interest and power by demonstrating that Scripture speaks to the real concerns of individual lives. Specific sins such as unforgiveness, lying, and racism are frequently the FCF of a passage, but a sin does not always have to be the FCF of a sermon. Grief, illness, longing for the Lord’s return, the need to know how to share the gospel, and the desire to be a better parent are not sins, but they are needs that our fallen condition imposes and that Scripture addresses. Just as greed, rebellion, lust, irresponsibility, poor stewardship, and pride are proper subjects of a sermon, so also are the difficulties of raising godly children, determining God’s will, and understanding one’s gifts. An FCF need not be something for which we are guilty or culpable. It simply needs to be an aspect or problem of the human condition that requires the instruction, admonition, and/or comfort of Scripture. Thus, an FCF is always phrased in negative terms. It is something wrong (though not necessarily a moral evil) that needs correction or encouragement from Scripture. The personality of the preacher, the circumstances of the congregation, and the emphases of a particular sermon can cause the statement of the FCF to vary greatly. A passage whose central focus is learning to trust in God’s providence may equally well address the need to lean on God in hard times, the responsibility to teach others about God’s abiding care, or the sin of doubting God’s provision. There is more than one proper way of wording a passage’s FCF for statement in a sermon. This is why preachers can preach remarkably different sermons on the same passage that are all faithful to the text. A preacher must be able to demonstrate that the text addresses the FCF as it is formulated for this particular sermon, not that this sermon’s phrasing of the FCF is the only way of reflecting on this text. The truth of the text does not vary, but the significance of that truth can vary greatly and be stated in many different ways that are appropriate for difficult situations. Since the FCF can vary greatly from text to text and from sermon to sermon preached on the same text, a preacher needs to make sure the purpose of a sermon remains evident in the passage. An FCF will remain faithful to a text and identify powerful purposes in a sermon if a preacher uses these three successive questions to develop the FCF: 1. What does the text say? 2. What concern(s) did the text address (in its context)? 3. What do listeners spiritually share in common with those for (or about) whom it was written or the one by whom it was written? By identifying listeners’ mutual condition with the biblical writer, subject, and/or audience, we determine why the text was written, not just for biblical times but also for our time. We should realize, however, that the Holy Spirit does not introduce an FCF simply to inform us of a problem. Paul told Timothy that God inspires all Scripture to equip us for his work (see 2 Tim. 3:16-17). God expects us to act on the problems his Spirit reveals. Application Key concept: Without the “so what?” we preach to a “who cares?” No passage relates neutral commentary on our fallenness. No text communicates facts for information alone. The Bible itself tells us that its message is intended to instruct, reprove, and correct (see 2 Tim. 3:16; 4:2). God expects scriptural truths to transform his people. Faithful preaching does the same. The preacher who identifies a passage’s FCF for a congregation automatically moves the people to consider the Bible’s solutions and instructions for contemporary life. Therefore, biblical preaching that brings an FCF to the surface also recognizes the need for application. Memorable in my own homiletics training was the Air Force colonel turned seminary professor who challenged students, no matter where they preached in future years, to imagine him sitting at the back of the sanctuary. With a benign scowl the professor growled, “In your mind’s eye look at me whenever you have said your concluding word. My arms are folded, my face holds a frown, and this question hangs on my lips: ‘So what? What do you want me to do or believe?’ If you cannot answer, you have not preached.” People have a right to ask, “Why did you tell me that? What am I supposed to do with that information? All right, I understand what you say is true – so what?” The healthiest preaching does not assume listeners will automatically see how to apply God’s truths to their lives; it supplies the application people need.11 If even the preacher cannot tell (or has not bothered to determine) how the sermon’s truths relate to life, then people not only are unlikely to make the connection but also will wonder why they bothered to listen. The Need for Application The Bible’s instruction and pattern indicate the importance of application in preaching. When Paul told Titus, “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), the Bible students of that day probably echoed the chorus of enthusiastic “Amens” today’s seminarians voice at such a statement. But Paul did not mean that Titus was simply to teach theological propositions.12 In the next sentence, the apostle begins to unfold what preachers should teach that “is in accord with sound doctrine”: Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. (Titus 2:2-6) Paul expects Titus’s “doctrine” to give the people of his congregation specific guidance for their everyday lives. Such instruction does not merely characterize this one passage; it reflects the pattern of Paul’s epistles (cf. Rom.1-15; Eph.1-6). The apostle typically begins each letter with a greeting, moves to doctrinal instruction, and then applies the doctrine to a variety of circumstances. Paul refuses to leave biblical truth in the stratosphere of theological abstraction. He earths his message in the concerns of the people he addresses.13 Preaching that is true to the pattern of Scripture should do the same. Biblical preaching moves from exegetical commentary and doctrinal exposition to life instruction. Such preaching exhorts as well as expounds because it recognizes that Scripture’s own goal is not merely to share information about God but to conform his people to the likeness of Jesus Christ. Preaching without application may serve the mind, but preaching with application results in service to Christ. Application makes Jesus the source and the objective of a sermon’s exhortation as well as the focus of its explanation. Clear articulation of an FCF drives a message’s application and ensures the Christ-centeredness of a sermon. The FCF marshals a sermon’s features toward a specific purpose and therefore helps a preacher see how to apply the information in the text. At the same time, the fact that a message is focused on an aspect of our fallenness precludes simplistic, human-centered solutions. If we could fix the problem with our own efforts in our own strength, then we would not be truly fallen. Application that addresses an FCF clearly rooted in the textual situation necessarily directs people to the presence and power of the Savior as they seek to serve him. Early statements of an FCF in a sermon may open the door to application in a number of ways. A preacher may open a spiritual or an emotional wound in order to provide biblical healing, identify a grief in order to offer God’s comfort, demonstrate a danger in order to warrant a scriptural command, or condemn a sin in order to offer cleansing to a sinner. In each case, the statement of the FCF creates a listener’s longing for the Word and its solutions by identifying the biblical needs that the passage addresses.14 The surfacing of these scriptural priorities compels a preacher to tell others how and why to do something about them. This compulsion becomes the spiritual imperative that leads a preacher to discern the text’s answers and instructions. When these crystallize, applications that are true to the text’s purpose, focus, and context naturally develop. The Consequences of Nonapplication However well selected is the meat of a sermon, the message remains uncooked without thoughtful, true-to-the-text application. This rare meat is not at all rare in evangelical preaching, as Walter Liefeld attests: In earlier years (I hope no longer) I often did exegesis in the pulpit, in large measure because I was conscious of the deep and wide-spread hunger for teaching from God’s Word. I finally realized that one can teach, but fail to feed or inspire. I think (and again hope) that my sermons today are no less informative but much more helpful. Expository preaching is not simply a running commentary. By this I mean a loosely connected string of thoughts, occasionally tied to the passage, which lacks homiletical structure or appropriate application… Expository preaching is not a captioned survey of a passage. By this I mean the typical: “1. Saul’s Contention, 2. Saul’s Conversion, 3. Saul’s Commission” (Acts 9:1-19). In my own circles I think I have heard more sermons of this type than any other. They sound very biblical because they are based on a passage of Scripture. But their basic failure is that they tend to be descriptive rather than pastoral. They lack a clear goal or practical application. The congregation may be left without any true insights as to what the passage is really about, and without having received any clear teaching about God or themselves.15 A grammar lesson is not a sermon. A sermon is not a textual commentary, a systematics discourse, or a history lecture. Mere lectures are pre-sermons because they dispense information about a text without relevant application from the text that helps listeners understand their obligations to Christ and his ministry to them.16 A message remains a pre-sermon until a preacher organizes its ideas an the text’s features to apply to a single, major FCI? We might represent the concept this way: textual information (pre-sermon material) -> addressing a textually rooted FCF + relevant textual application = sermon A message that merely establishes “God is good” is not a sermon. Howe when the same discourse deals with the doubt we may have about whether God is good when we face trials and demonstrates from the text how handle our doubt with the truths of God’s goodness, then the preacher h a sermon. A pre-sermon message merely describes the text. Such a “speech may be accurate, biblically based, and erudite, but the congregation know it falls short of a sermon even if the preacher does not. A former student recently telephoned me for assistance because his congregation seemed to be growing less and less responsive to his preaching. “Last Sunday during the sermon,” he said, “they just looked at me like they were lumps on a log. I got no feedback whatsoever. What am I doing wrong?” I asked him to describe his sermon to me. He responded by giving me the main points of his outline: Noah was wise. Noah was fearless. Noah was faithful. “I understand,” I said. “Now, why did you tell them that?” There was a long pause on the other end of the phone line. Then he groaned. “Oh yeah. I forgot!” Information without application yields frustration. This old adage rings true for preachers as well as for parishioners. Preachers who cannot answer “so what?” will preach to a “who cares?” Later in this book we will see that one way to help keep the Bible’s truths from seeming disconnected from life today is to state main points and subpoints as universal principles rather than simply as descriptions or recitations of the facts in a text (such as “Noah was wise”). The reason is that only when we can demonstrate that the facts of Scripture were recorded for a purpose and have practical application for the lives of God’s people today do our sermons warrant a hearing. This is not simply because people have no reason to listen to what has no apparent relevance to their lives – though this is certainly true. We must also recognize that sermons that do not spell out the purposes and applications for which they were written fail to fulfill God’s stated will for his Word. We are not simply ministers of information; we are ministers of Christ’s transformation. He intends to restore his people with his Word and is not greatly served by preachers who do not discern the transformation Scripture requires or communicate the means it offers. ______________________ Bryan Chapell is President and Professor of Preaching at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, MO. ______________________ Notes 5. Adams, Preaching with Purpose, 27. 6. See the Greek term artios (complete) in v. 17. 7. Some exegetes understand the “man of God” in 2 Timothy 3:16 to refer to the Christian minister, in which case the “work” for which the Word equips refers to ministry rather than the sanctification of believers. This interpretation does not undermine the conclusion that God intends “all Scripture” to “complete” believers, since a minister’s duties of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”from “all Scripture”will convey God’s perspective on the hearers’ inherent need of the scope of biblical truth. 8. Haddon Robinson refers to this as the “depravity factor” in “The Heresy of Application,” Leadership Journal 18, no. 4 (Fall 1997):24. 9. Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1988),128-29. 10. Ibid., 173. 11. See chap. 8 for a full discussion of application in preaching. 12. Michael Fabarez offers this additional insight: “It can be demonstrated that the common usage of the word ‘doctrine’ today is more narrow than in biblical usage. The words lequach, sbemuab, and mucar in the Old Testament, and didaskalia and didache in the New Testament (all of which are translated ‘doctrine’ in various English translations) represent both abstract propositions and practical directives” (Preaching That Changes Lives [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002], 215-26). 13. John R. W Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1988),140. 14. A “biblical need” may or may not be a “felt need.”In recent years, much criticism has been offered of preaching that focuses on felt needs in order to make the gospel appealing (see Terry Muck, “The Danger of Preaching to Needs.” cassette [Jackson, Miss.: Reformed Theological Seminary, 1986], responding to such works as Charles H. Kraft’s Communicating the Gospel God’s Way [Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1979]). Such criticism rightly assumes that a steady diet of preaching focused on felt needs can make faith and worship purely matters of self-concern. At the same time, the gospel often helps people to see their biblical needs through felt needs (John 4:4-26; Acts 17:22-23). Preachers should not be afraid to help others see their biblical needs in order for such persons to discern their biblical obligations. 15. Walter L. Liefeld, New Testament Exposition: From Text to Sermon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984),20-21. 16. Adams, Preaching with Purpose, 51; and reiterated with even more force by the same author in Truth Applied: Application in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 33-39. See also Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Perry Miller, vol. 2, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 115-16.