I want to conclude our discussion of Christ-centered preaching in this letter to you. We have discussed a number of particular illustrations of Christ-centered preaching-illustrations from different kinds of biblical material. But there remains one kind of biblical material which we must still treat. I refer to hortatory texts, i.e., texts which contain admonitions.
Perhaps especially this type of material can easily become Christless. It ought not really to be that way, but it appears sometimes as if it is. I suppose that if one casts about in his mind why this is the case, the reason, at least in part, is that hortatory material necessarily emphasizes our activity as it directs us to our calling. When the emphasis in a text falls upon what we must do, then the danger is ever present that we fail to emphasize what Christ has done. And if we fail to emphasize what Christ has done, then we reduce the admonitions of Scripture to moral homilies or pertinent and helpful advice or “hints for better living.” And this is exactly to rob the Word of God of all its significance and power.
It is well that we take a moment or two to emphasize that also the admonitions of Scripture must be preached on in such a way that these sermons too are Christ-centered. There are two points here which we must notice. Even the admonitions in Scripture are part of the revelation of God as our God Who has saved us through the blood of His own Son, Jesus Christ; all the admonitions of Scripture emphasize the fact that Glad saves us through Jesus Christ as rational and moral creatures. But the emphasis falls upon the fact that God saves us—even when it needs to be stressed that He saves us, if I may put it that way, without doing violence to our human character. We do not, as the saying goes, go to heaven in the upper berth of a pullman sleeper; nor are we pulled into heaven as a child pulls a mechanically-quacking duck along the floor. It is not God’s purpose or desire to save us in this way, because it is His will to save us in such a way that we experience His salvation so that we may give all the praise and glory to Him for His great grace. Admonitions in Scripture form a part of that.
It is perhaps well too to emphasize that preachers ought to make this explicit. It is spiritually dangerous and theologically incorrect to leave this to the understanding of the people. Sometimes this happens. A minister may preach what is essentially a Christless sermon as he admonishes those in his audience to do this or that; and when this is called to his attention, he responds by appealing to the fact that it is to be understood that he is speaking to people of God who have the grace of God in their hearts. But assumptions are not enough on such important matters. It is spiritually dangerous to do this because, on the one hand, we are all, as far as our natures are concerned, fundamentally Arminian, because we always strive to preserve some remnants of our shattered pride and keep for ourselves some element of our work in our salvation. And we need constantly to be reminded of the truth that this will never do. And, on the other hand, if the truth of Christ is not made explicit in such preaching, the listening saint will only be filled with a sense of despair as he ponders the hopelessness of this high and lofty calling. But it is theologically incorrect because we jerk admonitions out of the context of the Scriptures themselves when we do not make these things explicit, and present them, after all, as our work.
How then can we make our hortatory preaching Christ-centered?
In the first place, it is extremely important to develop carefully the concepts of the text. If this is done with care and precision and in the light of the Scriptures themselves, we will without fail be led to the fundamental truth of salvation in Jesus Christ in this way. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say, when a sermon is Christless, it is because a minister has failed to pay attention to the concepts of the text on which he is preaching. Perhaps a few examples, chosen at random, will illustrate what I mean by this. Supposing that you are preaching on the text, “Fear not, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Quite obviously, the admonition’ here is the calling not to be afraid. And there is surely where the emphasis of the sermon must fall. But how can one preach on this text without paying attention to the fact that God’s people are called here, “little flock”? And how can he develop that important concept without going into the truth of eternal election? There are, of course, many other things implied: the people of God are compared with sheep, and sheep have, according to the Bible, various characteristics which fit the people of God. They are always, in this world, alittle flock; and this is surely one reason to be afraid. But while all these things are true, the fact remains that election stares us in the face and cannot be ignored. Another example. Supposing that one is preaching out of James: “But that ye ought to say, If the Lord wills, I will do this or that.” Certainly this is an important admonition, especially within the context in which it is found. But it seems to me to be on the surface that it is impossible to preach on this text without carefully explaining what the will of God is. And that, in turn, will lead us to discover that, not the will of God’s command, so called, but the will of His decree is referred to. And this in turn will surely lead us to expound how that will centers in Christ and in the salvation of the church through Christ’s work. And only when we understand this, are we able also to say, “If the Lord wills, I will do this or that.”
And so we could go on. But perhaps the point is sufficiently made to show that even this kind of preaching is and must be Christ-centered.
But there is another important aspect of this question. It must always be remembered that the preaching is addressed to the people of God. The Scriptures are addressed as a whole to the church. They are the church’s Book, God’s gracious gift to His people, Christ’s love-letter to His elect bride. They are specific and particular in their contents, never general and for all men. They are addressed in a very particular way to the saints because they are the infallibly written and inspired record of God’s particular revelation to His church.
It is true, of course, that the preaching of the Scriptures has a broader address. This lies in the very nature of the fact that the preaching is promiscuous and comes to all who hear whether elect or reprobate. And God intends also that this be so, for it is the means which God uses to accomplish His purpose also in the hardening of the reprobate, for God sovereignly hardens through the means of man’s unbelief. And it is for this reason that our Canons are quite clear on the point that the particular promise of the gospel must be promiscuously proclaimed along with the command to repent and believe (See Canons II, 5). But this does not alter our fundamental thesis. All the letters of the New Testament were addressed to congregations, even to saints, to the called, to the churches in this place or that.
This is true even of those texts in Scripture which are often given some kind of universal reference. When Jesus says, in Matthew 11:28, “Come unto Me all ye that labor and are heavy laden. . .,” He is speaking to His people who have experienced the burden of sin and guilt and who have, for that reason, the work of grace begun in their hearts. When Isaiah calls, “‘Ho, everyone that thirsteth; come ye to the waters and drink. . . ,” the specific address is to the thirsty. And it surely must be emphasized that this is for the thirsty and for them alone. That is, it is for them who have a deep longing for escape from their sin and guilt as they wander in this desert land “where all the streams are dry.” But that too is the work of God.
This particular address of the preaching must always be maintained. And again it must be emphasized that this be made explicit in the preaching. It is never enough, especially in these days of rampant Arminianism, simply to assume these things.
My colleague in the Seminary drove this point home strongly to me the other day when he observed that, if you stop to think about it, it has only been for very brief periods of time in the history of the church that the church has strongly and uncompromisingly maintained the doctrines of sovereign and particular grace. How true this is. Always the tendency is towards Arminianism, because this is exactly the tendency of our own sinful flesh.
If we maintain this truth and make it explicit in our preaching, then it is also true that we put all of hortatory preaching in its proper context. We make it clear that this is the way God saves us, that it is God’s purpose to save us in such a way that, consciously experiencing His salvation, we give all praise and glory to Him. And this conscious salvation becomes ours in the ways of admonition, reproof, the chastisement of the Word, encouragement and constant incentive to press on in our calling. And, at the same time, it is made clear to God’s people that they are enabled to do good works and fulfill the admonitions of Scripture just because they are the recipients of grace, the objects of God’s salvation, heirs of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. It is true that this is yet only in principle, so that we have daily to humble ourselves before God, seek His forgiveness, and constantly fight against our whole evil nature with which we live all our life long. But it is also true that, relying upon the one perfect sacrifice of Christ, we have a sincere and earnest desire to live according to all the commandments of God.
God’s Word holds before us perfection, complete and absolute perfection. Nothing else will do. Nothing short of this will please God. But by the preaching of that perfection of God’s commands, we are taught how deep are the sins from which God delivers us, how great is the power of the cross in which we are more than conquerors, and how blessed is the perfection which is reserved for us in heaven towards which we wend our sometimes weary way and for which we long with ever greater longing-in the confident hope that the time will come when we shall finally be gathered without spot or wrinkle in the assembly of the elect in life eternal.
The people of God want to hear Christ speak to them. Don’t ever forget that. And they want to hear Christ speak to them of the work which He has performed for them to save them from their sins. In the final analysis, when everything else is said and done, this is all they want to hear. And that is what you must preach. For that is the kind of preaching which makes God everything so that all things are only to His glory now and forever.
Fraternally in Christ,