“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (I Corinthians 1:21-24)
Let me say it. All preaching is redemptive-historical; at least, all true preaching is redemptive-historical. That is not meant to be an arrogant statement. We will no doubt have to clarify what we mean and to define terms, but sometimes terms become so burdened with unnecessary and unhelpful baggage that the mere mention of them can set off the most negative reactions. For example, surely no one at the table here this morning would mind being called a “Calvinist.” As B. B. Warfield put it, “Calvinism” is simply a nickname for Christianity. But if we were to call Billy Graham a Calvinist, some might be surprised or even take offense. Yet when Billy talks about the sovereignty of God or when Billy prays for God to change a sinner’s heart, he is showing himself more of a Calvinist than he or most others realize or would perhaps even like to admit. Well, the present paper is simply and humbly offered in the hope of promoting more consistent Christian preaching.
Now I will be the first to admit that all preaching is by no means always self-consciously redemptive-historical preaching. Christian preaching is biblical preaching. The Bible is God’s self-revelation to us. While God most certainly reveals Himself in and through creation, what is often called general revelation, it is God’s supernatural special revelation and more specifically the Bible, ‘the sacred writings,’ “which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15). The preacher can rest assured that the Bible is most necessary, most sufficient, most authoritative, and most clear so that he may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. In truth, we affirm the Bible’s own teaching that, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16). We know “that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (II Peter 1:20-21).
Thus, it is the firm conviction of the present writer that the message and the method of preaching ought to arise from the Bible alone. If preaching is a divinely appointed task (I believe the Bible says it is.) and if it is a gift of the Spirit (I believe the Bible says it is.), then we ought to be looking to God for wisdom as to who ought to preach and what they ought to preach and how they ought to preach it. We ought not to be looking to the wisdom of this world but to the wisdom of God. And that wisdom is revealed in the Word by the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit.
Now we are about to be engaged in biblical theology. Biblical theology is once again one of those loaded terms that generates considerable reaction. Some consider it a novelty, the invention of 18th century rationalism, the trademark of classical liberalism. Indeed the term biblical theology as a distinct discipline arose among those committed to rationally sort out the eternally valid, divine truths in the Bible from the purely human, individual, local, and temporal ideas of men to be found there. Surely, there was some skepticism when Princeton Seminary inaugurated a Biblical Theology chair in 1894, a chair first filled by Geerhardus Vos. Be that as it may, the foundational principle of biblical theology to which we all ought to hope to be committed is that we draw our theology from the Bible. Systematic theology, even so-called natural theology, ought in the final analysis, to be subject to the Bible. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF I.X.).
My prayer then is that what follows will be faithful and true reflections of the Word of God on the subject of preaching.
What is Redemptive-Historical Preaching?
The Scriptures are a story. The story is true. It takes place in history. It is the story of redemption. That is to say, the Bible presents itself in redemptive-historical terms. It is the story of God’s great and mighty acts. Those mighty deeds point toward and have their fulfillment in Christ. S. G. DeGraaf says the following,
“As a result of sin, there is no revelation of grace other than in the Mediator. This is made clear throughout the Scriptures-not only in the New Testament but also in the Old. Scripture is a unity. The Old Testament is the book of the Christ who is to come, while the New Testament tells us of the Christ who has come.
“The entire Scripture is God’s revelation of Himself as the Redeemer. The redemption in the Mediator is revealed to us in every story. But this is not to say that the whole sweep of redemption is visible in every story. We believe in the progress of revelation. This progress is a development in which nothing new is added. In principle, the whole of redemption is revealed in the mother-promise (Gen. 3:15). Therefore, the seed of redemption is present in every story in the Old Testament. Our job is to use the light of the New Testament to uncover it. There is no veil covering our eyes when we read the Old Testament (See II Cor. 3:14-16), for the testimony of Jesus is also the Spirit of Old Testament prophecy (Rev. 19:10).
“The Mediator was operative throughout the Old Testament era. His work did not begin at the start of the New Testament. He already penetrated Old Testament history, moving among the people and shadows in order to reveal Himself. Everything is full of Him, and history has become one great miracle through His Spirit” (S. G. DeGraaf, Promise and Deliverance (Paideia Press, St. Catherines, Ontario, 1977), Vol. I, pp. 21-22).
Now we are to preach the gospel of God revealed in the Bible, the good news that has come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Our attempt at a sophisticated definition of gospel preaching yields the following: to bear solemn testimony of the good news of God’s sovereign covenant grace accomplished and applied in the Lord Jesus Christ in the eschatological establishment of the kingdom of God, and, thus, to call all men everywhere to repentance and faith in Christ. This is what I mean when I use the term redemptive-historical preaching. Or to use Paul’s rich but simple biblical language, “we preach Christ crucified.” This is the message we are to preach until Christ comes again.
The gospel does not end with what Christ has done. What He has done, He has done for us. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). Jesus says of the disciples and all who believe, “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (Jn. 17:19). Redemption accomplished without redemption applied is meaningless.
Preaching is in itself a divinely appointed redemptive activity. Preaching is an activity in history, ministered by real historical people to be received by real historical people, which is the primary means the Lord uses to apply His salvation to His elect situated among “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). The salvation that God has purposed and accomplished in Christ continues to be applied to His people. Preaching is a redemptive-historical activity.
“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:12-15)
Some Biblical-Theological Reflections on Redemptive-Historical Preaching
I. Redemptive-historical preaching ought to be consciously biblical.
This, of course, is a given. Quoting from the current OPC Directory for the Public Worship of God, “In the sermon God addresses the congregation by the mouth of his servant. It is a matter of supreme importance that the minister preach only the Word of God, not the wisdom of man, that he declare the whole counsel of God, and that he handle aright the Word of truth. To these ends the sermon must be prepared with the utmost care…A text may not be used merely to introduce a sermon but must be painstakingly expounded. In the sermon the minister should explain the Word of God for the instruction of his hearers and then apply it for their exhortation” (DPW, III.3.).
Faithful preaching is committed to declaring the “whole counsel of God.” The Westminster Confession states, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.
Faithful preaching, then, will be committed to the inspiration, the infallibility, the authority, the necessity, the sufficiency, and the perspicuity of Scripture. The faithful preacher is convinced that the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit that moved the biblical writers to write what they did, is necessary to the saving understanding of the Word.
Hermeneutically, faithful preaching is committed to the trustworthiness of the Bible and to that infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture: the Scripture itself. The Bible is the self-revelation of God. That revelation comes to us in the history of God’s mighty acts. Those mighty acts include the giving of Scripture itself. Because God is the Author of Scripture and because He is one, the true and full sense of any Scripture is not manifold but one (WCF I.IX.). The Author knows the end from the beginning. Therefore, the revelation is organic and progressive; and the Scripture is given to us by divine inspiration as a unified whole. Therefore, redemptive-historical preaching takes seriously that comparing Scripture with Scripture is essential to right interpretation.
All Scripture is prophetic; by prophetic we mean it is God’s Word to us. It is to be understood to be both forth-telling (what God would have us believe concerning Him and what duty He requires of us) as well as foretelling things to come. All Scripture has its fulfillment in Christ. Jesus came not to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17). Every jot and tittle shall have its fulfillment in Him. S. G. DeGraaf says, “Scripture is prophecy. This is true even of its historical passages. In other words, every story in Scripture reveals something of the counsel of God for our redemption, even though every story tells it differently. And in every story God is the prime agent, revealing Himself through His acts as the Redeemer. The entire work of redemption can be seen in each story” (Promise and Deliverance, Vol. I, p. 19).
Redemptive-historical preaching, then, aims to open up the revelation that God has made of Himself as Redeemer and to call the hearers to the appropriate responses of faith and repentance before Him.
II. Redemptive-historical preaching ought to be consciously covenantal.
“The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant” (WCF VII.I.). Redemptive-preaching is offered in the recognition that those who hear are being addressed in a covenantal context as either covenant-keepers in Christ or as covenant-breakers in Adam. All of their thoughts, words, and deeds are covenant thoughts, words, and deeds exercised in history. They will issue in either blessing or curse. Not one cup of cold water offered in the name of Christ shall go without its reward; neither shall one idle word or thought escape the judgment.
Redemptive-historical preaching is intent upon setting forth the covenant mediated only in Christ, along with the privileges and responsibilities associated with that covenant. Redemptive-historical preaching is intent upon calling those in Christ to become what they are. The covenantal imperatives flow out of the covenantal indicatives accomplished in Christ. The essence of the covenant of grace is God’s promise secured in Christ to be the God of His people and for them to be His people. God in Christ has taken the church to Himself as His bride. God has given His Spirit to His people as a gift and a guarantee of their inheritance. As a people born again to a living hope through the power of the Spirit, that people are now to walk in the Spirit. Having begun in the Spirit, this people are to be perfected in the Spirit. Preaching is the primary means appointed by God for the application of that grace to them.
Consciously covenantal preaching does not have to add on a notion of the church. The church herself is party to the covenant in Christ. Thus, the preaching ought to set forth the salvation realities that belong to the church in all of their richness and height and breadth and depth and the obligations placed upon the people of God as the church in communion with God and with one another in Him.
Redemptive-historical preaching ought also to be intent upon setting forth the mighty acts of God the Redeemer and calling those outside of Christ to repent of their rebellion against God and to believe in the One offered as the only Redeemer.
III. Redemptive-historical preaching ought to be consciously Christ-centered.
We have already stated that all of Scripture has its fulfillment in Christ. Only in the Mediator is the people elected before the foundation of the world to be by Him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified. Only in union with Christ are we saved. Salvation was accomplished once and for all in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ; and “We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by His Holy Spirit” (WSC 29). The succeeding Shorter Catechism questions lay out what that redemption consists of and how it is applied to us. Questions 30-38 are as follows:
Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
Q. 32. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
A. They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.
Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.
Q. 34. What is adoption?
A. Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of, the sons of God.
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Q. 36. What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification?
A. The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification, are, assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.
Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.
Q. 38. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?
A. At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.
This redemption and these benefits, secured and applied by Christ through His Spirit, is the grace given in the covenant of grace. The ordinary means of grace appointed by Christ to communicate these things to His people are His ordinances, especially the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC Q. 89). Preaching Christ crucified and raised from the dead, and the redemption accomplished by Him in history, redemptive-historical preaching consciously preaches Christ with the aim of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up.
To paraphrase Galatians 3:3, we call men, women, and children, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, to begin with Christ and to be perfected by Christ. Application of the redemption purchased by Christ is the work of His Spirit. That is the application we ought to aim for in preaching. Men do not begin with Christ (justification) and then sanctify and glorify themselves by the power of the flesh. No. Christ the Justifier is also Christ the Sanctifier and Christ the Consummator.
IV. Redemptive-historical preaching ought to be consciously eschatological.
Rightly have we come to understand eschatology, the doctrine of end things, as relating to heaven and to glorification. But we have also rightly come to understand eschatology in terms of the already as well as the not yet. If any man is in Christ, he already is a new creation; he already has eternal life. The man in Christ has already died , and he already has been raised together with Christ and seated with Him in the heavenly places. Thus, that man is to be called to set his mind on the things above. He is to live as a son of God, a child of light, in the midst of this present evil age. He longs to depart to be with Christ, and he waits in hope for the Second Coming and the bodily resurrection unto glory.
Redemptive-historical preaching, therefore, ought to consciously aim to enable the people of God to see themselves in the light of Christ’s resurrection and ascension as citizens of the heavenly kingdom. Thus, they ought to see their lives in the present to be lived in conformity to the pattern of Christ. As those who have been raised and exalted with Christ, they are to be called through the preaching to humble themselves, to take up their cross to follow Christ, to serve Him and one another, and to love God and their brethren. They are even to serve and love their enemies, praying for those who persecute them and returning good even to those who do evil against them. Faithful preaching ought to continually call God’s people to such lives. In a word, they ought to live their lives in the light of the end that has come upon them and is coming in all its fullness at the end of the age.
V. Redemptive-historical preaching ought to be consciously evangelistic.
The message we preach is the good news of the kingdom of God that has come and is coming in Christ. The redemptive-historical preacher is a herald of that kingdom who has been sent to proclaim the gospel and to call all men everywhere to repent and believe. We are to point to what God has done in history in His Son Jesus Christ and to what He will do when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead. Men’s souls are in the balance. As many as will receive Christ, to them is given the power to become the children of God. Those who will not receive Christ must be warned that there is no other name given under heaven whereby men may be saved. Apart from Him, all that remains is the judgment and wrath to come. We do not preach redemption into a timeless situation. Today is the day of salvation. May men hear and not harden their hearts; and may many be saved.