Some Journal Entries on Preaching

by John M. Frame


1/17/99: W. F. preached at the evening service, on the serpent in the wilderness, which I’ve heard expounded several times recently. He didn’t reach me. Complicated discussion, without anything new. Not much application except the traditional redemptive-historical applications: (1) Wow! Christ in the OT!, and (2) repent and believe. All this supposedly sophisticated biblico-theological research always leads, in the end, to the simple gospel, as if nothing else ever needed to be said.

D. D.  is not a redemptive-historical preacher; at least, I think Ed Clowney, Jim Dennison and their disciples would not admit him to the club. But he preaches salvation by grace. Occasionally he touches on the already/ not-yet. I think most of the congregation understands that Christ is the chief theme of Scripture. So I ask, what are we missing? I suspect that we get a lot more straight biblical content from D. than we would from those RH preachers who simply point to Christ and say repent and believe. And the idea that D. should be called a “moralist” is so galling. “Moralist” was what they called the old liberal social gospel preachers who had no gospel at all.


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AUG. 2, 1999: From 2-3:30 I attended a D. Min. exam by M. E., pastor of Gloria Dei Lutheran, on how to preach about addiction. As a typical Lutheran, he went on and on about Law and Gospel, but nothing I couldn’t have said in other language. But he seemed to be saying that you need take no other “steps” than to have faith in Christ. So faith replaces everything else. But, I asked him, once one trusts Christ, is deliverance from addiction automatic? No, of course not. Then are there “steps” to be taken in addition to trusting Christ? Well, yes. But he never mentioned them, nor authorized preachers to mention them. Hugely oversimplified in my estimation.

Also inveighed against medical models. I asked him if there could be any physiological factors contributing to alcoholism. Well, maybe.

No doubt his counseling is better than this. But I don’t think the proper response to psychologizing everything is to theologize everything.

I have essentially the same problem with the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and the redemptive-history fanatics. And maybe the Van Tillian extremists, who want to hear only the Word and nothing of the evidence. And the worship traditionalists who think we don’t need to worry about speaking the language of our culture.


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8/8/99: Alone today at the house, I listened to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion all the way through: three hours and some. What a magnificent piece! I had always been intimidated by it in the past. Certainly it is formidably complex and difficult music, But I followed the words, and it all seemed to come together for the first time.

Bach doesn’t belong to the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. He was not the great musician of the magisterial Reformation, pitting the objective against the subjective, pooh-poohing experience, simply proclaiming redemptive history. Bach was a pietist. One of the major differences between Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Passions is that the former is all Scripture: it just sets Scripture to music. In Bach, some of the text is Scripture, but a lot of it is hymns and devotional reflections on the texts. The singers are constantly seeking to get nearer to Christ in his sufferings.

Not all the applications would make Redemptive-Historical enthusiasts happy. When Jesus is buried, the choir asks that he be buried in their hearts. Hmmm… That application never would have occurred to me, and it probably doesn’t reproduce the Adamsian telos of the text. But there’s something precious about this. The singers say, “Lord you shouldn’t be buried in the ground. If you are buried anywhere, it should be deep in my heart.”

There is no explicit reflection on the Resurrection in this Passion (though Bach arranged many Easter hymns and wrote an Easter Oratorio, a Cantata Christ Lag in Todesbanden and others honoring the Resurrection). This lack has been an embarrassment to some writers. But the Passion bears witness to the Resurrection by presenting a living Christ: one you can talk to, draw near to, bury in your heart.


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Ordinary Preaching

8/8/99: On another subject: what is preaching, anyway? I don’t mean the preaching of the OT prophets, or Jesus, or Peter at Pentecost, or Paul on his missionary journeys. I mean the preaching we hear every Sunday morning. You see, this “ordinary” preaching is not quite the same as the others, though to be sure there are similarities. The preaching of the prophets, apostles, and Jesus, was specially inspired of God, for one thing. Ordinary preaching is not, or at least doesn’t have to be. And the apostolic preaching was usually out in the open, not in a gathered worship service of God’s people. And its themes are almost entirely judgment and/or grace. It is evangelistic in thrust. When we gather in church, of course, we need to hear the Gospel again and again; but we are not in the position of those in the marketplace. We have believed, and we need to hear what Scripture says about living the Christian life.

All the Reformational emphasis on the power of the preached Word seems to transfer what Scripture says about the marketplace preaching of the apostles to the ordinary preaching of the church. Reformation theology built a huge theological construct on this equation: the Second Helvetic Confession even said, “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” We have spent a lot of time talking about heralding and so on. But were the Reformers and we right to make such an equation between the extraordinary and the ordinary? Maybe so. But the issue hasn’t been studied much, and somebody ought to do it.

Some have found the origins of ordinary preaching in the Synagogue, or in the great occasion when Ezra expounded the Law to the returning exiles and the Levites “gave the sense.” So the essence of this kind of preaching is biblical exposition. This is closer to the mark, in my view. We don’t know if the church followed the synagogue pattern in the very beginning of its existence. 1 Cor. 14 looks like something rather different. Eventually, things did settle down, and something like a Christian synagogue did develop. But note that if this is the model we are to follow, we cannot bring into ordinary preaching all that Scripture says about preaching being the saving power of God, being a heralding of redemption, about the preacher as God’s special representative, and so on. There may something in all that, but it needs to be shown.

So far as I can see at the moment, Scripture never commands us to preach sermons in church, or in synagogue either, for that matter. At least the kind of sermons we are accustomed to. 1 Cor. 14:26 does refer to a “lesson” (didache) taught in the worship service, but it says very little about the character of that teaching. In general, Scripture doesn’t tell us anywhere to preach on a single text (even the inspired preaching of the apostles fails to do this), or to have just one sermon per service. It doesn’t tell us that every sermon has to be by an ordained officer, and by only one. It doesn’t forbid drama as a means of communication. It doesn’t tell us we must always preach on the history of redemption as opposed to “moralistic” ethics. It doesn’t appoint the preacher to be an official herald of the coming age. Indeed, it doesn’t tell us much of anything. Thus it seems to me that we have great freedom.

I do think we should have sermons in church, simply because believers and visitors alike need to hear God’s Word. But I think there can be a simplicity about ordinary preaching. It does not have to be something dreadfully complicated that requires enormous theological sophistication. It’s simply teaching one another what the Bible says. So it seems to me that the teaching of preaching can be simple too.

There are many maxims in homiletical texts. But in my estimation, there are only four rules: (1) make it biblical, (2) make it clear, (3) apply it correctly to the congregation, (4) make it interesting. I wish we could focus on these rules in the teaching of homiletics. But instead, the students have to focus on the Reformation theology of preaching and to master the biblical theology of texts. (Why BT and not ST or ET?) They learn methods of preparing sermons that require maybe 40 hours for each message. Their applications are not very practical, usually not much more than “Isn’t Christ great?” and ”Repent and believe.” (As a bottom line, that hardly fulfills the promise of profundity made by the Redemptive-Historical method.) And most students never do learn to communicate. So many Reformed Christians turn to the Grahams, Swindolls, and others, people who were taught preaching (usually by a mentor) without all the theological elaboration.

Perhaps some of our failure here stems from our pride, our wanting to be seen as preaching more profoundly than mere fundamentalists, and with much better scholarship. And as God’s poetic justice would have it, the result is often less rich, less interesting, less penetrating, and less clear than many mere radio preachers. We should be able to do better, perhaps by setting our sights lower.


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