What is the Source Material for Preaching? (Pt 2)

When we deliberately choose not to preach from one corner of the Bible or another, then our declaration of truth becomes hollow and shallow. This is not to say that it becomes untrue, unconstructive, or unbiblical. Nor does this mean that an unbalanced approach to preaching fails to glorify God. However, when we neglect certain passages of Scripture over a lifetime of ministry we fail to glean the fullest expression of the Gospel and our congregation suffers for it.

William Still laments that a sincere but misapplied obsession with evangelism has led many to neglect large swaths of the Bible in their lives and ministry. Many do this because they consider much of the Bible to be unnecessary and unhelpful for their desired end, which is the conversion of the masses (Still, Work of the Pastor, 80):

Some of the hardest nuts to crack in the Christian world are those who have been so busy evangelising that they have never allowed the Word to be turned upon them, and who therefore regard the Bible as a mere book of Gospel texts to hurl at others, or at least to bait them with. The sad decline in the quality of Christian life and witness in our country is largely due to the fact that the evangelical church has for several generations been a huge nursery, not only of infant babes but, much worse, grown-up babes.

Neither Still nor I are against evangelism. It is indeed an important aspect of our obedience to Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). However, the Great Commission is about making disciples, not merely collecting converts. And, to make mature disciples it is prudent to draw on the full Word of God, from beginning to end. Still has rightly observed that when the full breadth of the Bible is routinely set aside the result is Christian immaturity, which in turn leads to a sad decline in the quality of Christian life and witness. And when the quality of Christian life and witness is in a sad decline it becomes all but impossible to fruitfully fulfill Christ’s Great Commission. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the neglect of full Biblical exhortation in favour of mass evangelism has stunted the growth of the Church and inhibited our ability to effectively draw people to Christ in order that they be saved and transformed into His image.

If we want to have a powerful evangelical presence in the world then we must commit ourselves to retelling God’s story in the Church. God deliberately revealed Himself to us progressively through many centuries. The Bible unfolds from front to back in an intentional and purposeful manner. It is, therefore, constructive for us to help our congregations to grasp the big-picture canvass of Scripture in chronological order. This is not to say that we must begin our preaching careers in Genesis and end in Revelation. Nevertheless, some effort must be made to help our people understand the forward flow of Salvation History from beginning to end. Otherwise, God becomes a philosophical idea and the Gospel becomes an intellectual formula, rather than God being the Sovereign Lord of History and the Gospel being the dramatic and wonderful in-breaking of God into our world. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen present a compelling survey of the Bible as a single coherent story in their book, The Drama of Scripture. This is a helpful book for preachers who are struggling to know how to begin to help their congregation to see the panorama of Salvation History.

A full presentation of the Gospel requires us to preach from the Old Testament as well as the New. Jesus did not come in a vacuum, but in a very specific context. God prepared the way for Jesus to come in the fullness of time through the history and experience of His people, which is recorded in Genesis through Malachi. If we neglect these books, we understand some of the Gospel but not all of it. For example, there are many professing Christians in our pews who do not know who or what they were saved from. They may embrace the idea of salvation, and promote the idea that they have been saved, but many of them have never been taught the dark backdrop against which the Gospel shines brighter than any created sun (Still, Work of the Pastor, 60-61):

Beyond the deeper truths of the Gospel – which, alas, so many do not teach and preach for, I fear, reasons obscure to others but known to themselves – there is the darker backcloth to the Good News, namely, the penal and corrective judgements of God, upon which the scintillating diamond of the Gospel shines with a thousand facets. The judgements are also the Word of God; and only he who preaches and teaches the whole Bible, dark and light, rightly dividing the Word of truth, fully proclaims the Word of God. After all, we see a rainbow only on the clouds.

Christmas will never be felt with greater emotion and thanksgiving and spirit than when a person meditates on books like Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah. The devastating judgment of God is crippling until we perceive the glory of the promise of the Messiah who saves us from the righteous wrath of a Holy God.

Even Peter declared that more important than his own eyewitness account of Jesus was the Old Testament Scriptures, which bear witness to Christ and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is the long awaited Messiah. Therefore, Peter likens the Old Testament to a lamp shining in a dark place and he suggests that it is to our advantage that we pay attention to walk by that lamp (2 Peter 1:19-21). Likewise, Paul states that the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament bear witness to God’s eternal plan to manifest His righteousness apart from the law through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (Romans 3:21-22).

These proclamations of Peter and Paul are captured by the conviction that we must have some working knowledge of the whole history of salvation in order to most fully understand any of its parts. Sadly, gone are the days when we might expect our congregation to glean the big-picture for themselves. Biblical literacy is dropping, which means that many of the people in our churches do not know the grand sweep of Salvation History anymore.

Therefore, it is our job to recast the dye. We must repaint the canvas from beginning to end. Ian Stackhouse (Gospel-Driven Church, 96) rightly identifies the central mission of preaching today:

The urgent task for preachers of the gospel is to reawaken the core memory of the church…Through preaching, the basic narrative of the gospel might be recovered and act as a catalyst for renewal [within the church itself].

This is a monumental task. Nevertheless, this is our call and by the power of the Holy Spirit it is doable.

We must preach the whole Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation. There is no substitute for the Bible and it is essential that we teach it to our people. As biblical literacy drops, our job increasingly becomes one of painting the big-picture of Salvation History from the pulpit. Prime and Begg (On Being a Pastor, 53) offer a helpful method of self-evaluation to ensure that we are indeed teaching from the full breadth of Scripture:

If we keep the notes of our addresses and sermons, it is salutary to review how balanced our teaching and preaching have been. Have we maintained a balance between Old and New Testaments? Have we given the kind of balance we find in Ephesians between doctrinal teaching and moral instruction?

These are two simple but practical questions to apply to our own ministries from time to time to ensure that we are feeding God’s flock a balanced diet from the Holy Scriptures.
May God plant in us joy for this task and may He gift us with the power of His Spirit that we might utter the complete Word of God to His infinite glory.

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