Rev C Bouwman
Preaching plays a fundamental role in the life of the child of God. Thatís because the Lord God is pleased to use the official administration of His Word in the church service to work and strengthen faith in the hearts of His people (cf Lordís Day 25; Canons of Dort, III/IV.17).
How, though, is the preacher to open the Word of God? What constitutes Ďgoodí preaching? The answer to that question touches not only the preaching and what we should expect from our pulpits, but touches also our Bible study clubs and our personal Bible study. When is a chapter of Scripture actually opened? In this article I want to show that no chapter or portion of Scripture has been opened unless Jesus Christ has received His rightful place. In the final analysis, a sermon is not faithful to Scripture if it is not Christocentric.
How, you wonder, do I get to this conviction?
The Bible is oldÖ.
The readers of this family journal are familiar with the Bible. It contains stories of things that happened to people who lived centuries ago, in a foreign culture. It contains prophecies of blessing and curse to people who long ago did Godís will or lived in sin. It contains letters written long, long ago about the struggles people faced in circumstances so very different than ours today. All of this together serves to put the Bible at a long distance from us, modern people.
Yet we read the Bible, and listen to its preaching Sunday by Sunday. That raises the question: what makes the Bible relevant for us today? How do we bridge the chasm we sense between Abram, Joseph, Daniel, and Peter of long ago, and ourselves today? In other words, how is the Bible relevant to today?
A tempting and easy method to bridge the chasm is to place an equal sign between the Bible figures of long ago and us today. For example,
As Abraham offered up his son, so we need to be willing to offer up our
Donít parent as Eli did; be instead a father who speaks firmly with his
children and insists on obedience.
Reading the Bible in this fashion is called exemplarism. It produces exemplaric preaching or "be likeÖ" preaching. In this preaching the preacher explains Josephís situation, compares it to our situations today, and ends his sermon with the encouragement to "be like" Joseph.
This sort of preaching was popular in the Netherlands in 1920s and 1930s. But there were those who saw problems with this manner of explaining the Bible. For example:
One doesnít need a Bible character to teach a moral lesson. One can use the life of Augustine, or Calvin, or Gandhi or Clinton to draw out where one should "be like" or "not be like" these role models. So the question arises whether the reason for God putting the accounts of Joseph or Moses or Daniel in the Bible was simply so that we might "be like" them.
Who is to say when a particular conduct is a good example or bad? It may strike us as obvious that Davidís friendship with Jonathan would be a good example to follow, while his actions with Bathsheba were a bad example to follow. But what of Josephís act in buying all the land from the people of Egypt during the famine? Is todayís government to learn from Josephís example to do the same?? Here is a distinctly subjective element.
More importantly: this exemplaric way of applying Scriptures does not give to God His proper place. This is because this method does not do justice to what the Bible is.
So, in the 1930s and 1940s a reaction developed in the Netherlands to this sort of preaching, under the leadership of people as Dr K Schilder, Rev B Holwerda, and Rev MB van ítVeer (author of My God is Yahweh), and others. Instead of placing an equal sign between Bible characters and ourselves today, these preachers spoke of God. That is, the link between Abraham of long ago and we today is the God who does not change. Central in the things that happened to Joseph is not Joseph, but God Ė and God was at work then with a view to us today. This link became known as the redemptive-historical method of reading Scripture, and resulted in redemptive-historical preaching. Because the emphasis is on God and His actions among men, this approach is by definition Christ-centered.
We ought not to think, though, that the exemplaric method of reading Scripture has disappeared from the face of the earth. I read recently Chuck Swindollís book on Joseph. The author lays before his readers what happened to Joseph, and ends each chapter with an application of the "be like" style. I cannot argue with the applications in themselves; we do well, for example, to be as upright under pressure and as forgiving as Joseph was. But Swindoll could just as well have written a book with these lessons based on the life of a godly person from church history or maybe even from secular history. Swindoll (and there are many preachers/authors like him in the evangelical world of today) have not adequately come to grips with why God has given the Bible to us and included in it the particular chapters that are recorded there.
Why, then, has God given the Bible?
The Bible is aliveÖ.
The Bible has come to us from God Himself. It is His Word to His people. Of critical importance to our topic is the apostleís word in 2 Tim 3:16,17:
"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."
This passage draws out not only the origin of Scripture; it draws out too the reason why God has given us the Bible Ė and therefore also each individual chapter in it. We are told that Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac (Gen 22) so that we might today be "complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." We are told of the leprosy laws God gave to Israel (Lev 13) for the same purpose. So it is too with the vision Ezekiel saw in the temple of Jerusalem (Ezek 8-11), the account of Jesusí healing the demon-possessed man (Mark 5), the instruction of Paul to the Romans about the weak and the strong (Rom 15), etc. Events of long ago were written down and preserved over the centuries so that we today might be equipped to live as children of God in our modern society.
But: how? How do the various passages of the Bible benefit us? Here we need to understand what the Bible is about. The Bible God gave us is Godís account of how He deals with people to bring them to salvation. That dealing is by definition a dealing in Christ. For we fell into sin, and so placed a chasm between God and ourselves, one we cannot bridge. But God sent Christ to take the punishment we deserve. So, for Christís sake, God has a relation with people, God comes to sinners in Christ so that sinners can walk with Him along the road of life. This is true of Old Testament and New Testament alike; in the time before Calvary God applied to the Old Testament saints the benefits that Christ was going to obtain, and in the time after Calvary God applies to the New Testament saints the benefits that Christ has obtained. Either way, Godís walking with man and man with God is always a walking in Christ. Every chapter of the Bible is about Godís dealing with people as a result of Christís work, and that is why Christ is at the center of every chapter of the Bible.
The Bible is Godís account of how He deals with people to bring them to salvation. There are two parties here, both of whom need some more attention.
Godís dealings with Earth are with people. But people are fickle. We know that from our own experiences; one day we feel strong in the Lordís service, the next day not. As God walks with Abraham along the road of life (and thatís possible because of Christís work!), the man God is pleased to walk with is relatively strong one day and weak the next. God can say of Abram one day that God "accounted [his faith] to him for righteousness" (Gen 15:6), but on another day God witnessed Abram caving in to Saraiís suggestion that he go in to her maid Hagar (Gen 16:2). God walks with Israel, and one day He has to tell His servant the prophet to proclaim a coming exile in response to Israelís sin, and on another day He tells His prophet to preach some words of profound encouragement. Thatís what gives the Bible its dynamic: the people God is dealing with are real people, people like we are, with the same inclinations and needs. And God interacts with these people in the nuts and bolts of real life, addressing them according to their needs-of-the-day.
The other party is God. The God who walked with His real-life people long ago tells us today of the things He did in their lives because He is today the same God as He was centuries ago. He tells us what He did long ago so that we might get to know our God the better. He tells us of Himself not by giving us a dogmatics textbook straight from heaven with all details about Himself and His characteristics, but tells us instead by showing us how He walked with His people long ago in situations of real life. By walking lifeís paths with these people-of-old He
leads history (in the Old Testament) to the coming of Christ, and uses Abraham and Gideon and David and Jeremiah to move history along to that coming. Today in the New Testament dispensation He leads the lives of His children to the second coming of Christ. Paul and Augustine and Calvin and you and me play a role Ėsomehow- is preparing the world for the return of the Savior. So there is a linear progression in Godís dealings with man; He is busy fulfilling the promise of Gen 3:15.
Through the Holy Spirit God also works in each individual child of His. Eg,
People come to faith. Thatís a process, with struggles, and you see the process Ėand Godís role in the process through the Holy Spirit- in the lives of persons mentioned in the Bible. The pages of the Bible show God at work, working and nourishing faith.
Persons stumble in their faith. This human weakness is outlined in the Bible, and so is the response of the God who walks along with His children through the trials of life. The pages of the Bible show God at work, sustaining faith in the face of His peoplesí weaknesses.
People grow in faith Ė yet not on own strength but because the God who for Jesusí sake walks with them works in them through His Holy Spirit. This God sends prophets or apostles, or maybe makes certain things happen in the lives of His children to prompt growth in faith. The pages of the Bible show God at work, prompting further growth in His children.
People live in faith in a godless world. Despite their weaknesses and the worldís hostility, they strive to live as Godís children, fulfilling the cultural mandate God has given. But their achievements are not their own doing; the God who walks with His people works in them by His Holy Spirit so that they produce fruits of the Spirit in a godless world. Page after page of Scripture shows us the fruits of the sovereign work of God the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those chosen to life.
Preaching must open the Scriptures, draw out what God says to His people today in any given chapter of His Word. The Bible is Godís account about how He deals with people. That being the case, preaching has to open a given chapter (or portion thereof) to display how God dealt with His people in that chapter. The people of God today have to know how God dealt with His people in the past, for our God today is the God who acted long ago in that chapter of Scripture, and He doesnít change. So:
Joseph was sold to Egypt, and the God-who-made-Joseph-His-for-Jesusí-sake dealt with him in a particular way in Egypt. Preaching has to draw out how God dealt with Joseph, and why, and so show people today who their God is.
Israel found themselves in exile in Babylon, and their God-for-Jesusí-sake dealt with them in a particular way; He sent them the prophet Ezekiel with His revelation of majesty. Preaching has to draw out what God did in that circumstance and why, and so set before todayís saints who their God is.
The saints of Galatia were in danger of departing from the gospel due to the false teachings of the Judaists. The God who saved them through Jesusí blood addressed them in those circumstances through His apostle Paul with the particular letter the Galatians received. Preaching has to draw out what God said in those circumstances and why He said it.
That is application in the preaching in first instance: Godís people in 2002 must know well who their Father in Jesus Christ is.
What, then, is Christocentric preaching? It is not mentioning the name of Jesus Christ a certain number of times in a sermon!!! It is not either that a sentence or a paragraph or a point is devoted to the events that occurred on the cross of Calvary.
Rather, what makes a sermon Christocentric is that the sermon recognizes that God has established through Christ a relation with man. A Christocentric sermon does not necessarily explain again what Christ did on the cross to reconcile sinners to God; a Christocentric sermon builds on Christís work on the cross and now draws out how God the Father as a result of Christís work actually goes about with people today.
We need to recall here the Trinity. Christocentric does not mean that the Father is put in second place, or the Holy Spirit in second or even third place. Christocentric preaching draws out what it means that God is our Father for Jesusí sake, draws out that God the Holy Spirit for Jesusí sake renews and strengthens saints in the nuts and bolts of real life Ė be it through the trials a Joseph received or through the admonitions the prophets addressed to Israel or through the corrections the apostle directed to the Galatians or through the visions the Lord gave to John.
In a word: Christocentric preaching lays before Godís people today how God has walked with His sinful people in the past, and so gives due attention to the work of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Such preaching sets before Godís people today how triune God ĖFather, Son and Holy Spirit- still walks with sinners today Ė to His greater glory.
July 10, 2002