By Fred Zaspel–
I love it when I hear students and pastors ask how our sermons can be more gospel-shaped in the regular course of preaching — even sermons from narrative or hortatory passages, for example. I love it because it shows their interest to do what every preacher of God’s Word ought to strive to do, and I love it because it forces me again to think through the question myself and determine how I can more faithfully minister God’s Word. Of course I have by no means finished thinking these matters through, but here are some thoughts.
Types of “Gospel Passages” in Scripture
First we need to recognize the various ways in which the gospel is addressed or reflected in various biblical passages. For example, a given passage will be more or less exhaustive. No passage will be completely exhaustive in itself. Some emphasize the person of Christ, some the work of Christ. Some emphasize substitution, some his work of triumph. And so on, as we will see below. Each passage will need to be understood in light of the whole.
Again, some passages are explicitly gospel shaped. Isaiah 53, John 3, Romans 3:21ff, Hebrews 9-10 come to mind here. And others are more subtly but just as certainly gospel shaped, such as Genesis 15, Leviticus 16, the book of Ruth, John 2, and so on. And still others are only implicitly gospel shaped. Examples here would include 1 Samuel 17 (David and Goliath), Joshua 6 (Rahab), the Gospel miracle accounts, and even wisdom and hortatory passages, as we will see.
Some passages (and contexts) are preparatory to the gospel and merely anticipate it in some way, while others show its accomplishment and realization. Here the distinction between Old and New Testament passages is prominent. The Old Testament preparation for the gospel takes many forms — type, prophecy, good and bad examples, rebellious Israel, failing kings and judges, and so on. The Old Testament is often helpfully viewed as a “historical drama” which, understood in its redemptive-historical flow, is seen to point us in a variety of ways to gospel truth later revealed in Christ.
Once again, some passages focus more on the need of the gospel, while others focus more on the solution. The need for the gospel may be seen in rebellious Israel or in individual sinners, and it may be seen in the general fallenness of humanity that is evidenced in the sufferings and weaknesses, even illness and death, that are common to us all. And the solution may be seen in God’s faithfulness, his patience, his unfailing purpose, his promise, dramatic rescues, the many presentations of Christ and his work, and so on.
Finally, some passages emphasize the means of redemption, while others its effects or consequences and entailments. Christ may be displayed (BC or AD) as priest, sacrifice, redeemer, substitution, champion, etc.. Or the passage may emphasize rescue, safety, conversion/transformation, exhortation to obedience-faithfulness.
All this is to say that not all gospel-shaped sermons sound the same. Not ever passage approaches or reflects the gospel in the same way. Our job as preachers is simply, as Bryan Chapell says so crisply, “not … to discover where Christ is mentioned in every text but to disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ” (Christ Centered Preaching, p.279).
That is to say, it is not the preacher’s job to find creative and inventive ways of running from the text to the gospel. The gospel is reflected in Joshua 6 not because Rahab’s cord was red but because it speaks of God’s deliverance for the helpless and for sinners. We needn’t imagine that the center board on the back wall of the tabernacle represents eternal security. We have all heard these fanciful approaches, the underlying hermeneutic of which seems to be found only in the preacher’s fertile imagination. A more responsible approach simply seeks to understand the passage in its canonical flow and to treat it accordingly.
But still we are not done. What follows are some considerations, first general and then more specific, that can help us toward gospel-shaped sermons.
General Considerations & Suggestions
By way of general considerations, first, we must keep what I call “the big picture” — the Bible story line — in mind always. Where does this given passage fit in relation to the whole? What is its context? What precedes? What follows? In what way is the gospel or “the gospel event” itself revealed or anticipated or reflected or suggested? We will return to this point in a moment.
Second, it is helpful to bear in mind the twin gospel promises of justification and transformation. The gospel promises not only rescue from sin’s punishment but also from its rule and dominion, and a given passage may stress one or the other. This, in turn, will have much shaping control of our sermon.
Next, we should bear in mind always the redemptive purpose and power of the preached Word. Warfield emphasized well that revelation itself, culminating in Scripture, is a “redemptive act” in that its goal is the restoration of fallen humanity. And the declaration of that Word from God is a major part of that redemptive process. It is the means by which God works both to claim and to transform his people. The faithful preaching of God’s Word is a means of grace.
Finally, we should understand the difference between teaching and preaching. Teaching merely explains a given passage of Scripture. Preaching is designed (as Tim Keller says it) to make it live. Preaching not merely unfolds the passage, but it unfolds the hearer’s situation also. There is a “So what?” factor that addresses people as they are. Preaching not only exegetes a passage of Scripture; it exegetes the related human problem also and points to the solution.
All this is preliminary. Now to some specific and more practical “hands on” guidelines to help us preach the gospel from every passage of Scripture.
Specific Suggestions when Approaching a Preaching Passage
First, we must locate the passage canonically. We saw this earlier, but it is worth mentioning again that this is the first step in our study of a given passage. We should ask what purpose this book serves in the big picture. How does the book and larger context serve to anticipate or display or otherwise reflect gospel truth? Within these considerations we determine the theme and purpose of the passage itself in order to ensure its faithful exposition within the larger redemptive context.
Second, closely related to this, we must locate the theme and application theologically. That is, a) we should ask how this passage addresses or reflects God’s redemptive purpose and/or its need. b) We should seek to understand what Bryan Chappel calls its “Fallen Condition Focus.” Are the characters rebellious? Destitute? Broken? What “fallen condition” is addressed? What commonalities does this fallen condition have with your hearers? From here we inquire, How is that condition answered? How does this point us to Christ? Is the solution found in the immediate context? How does it reflect the larger context? These questions can be asked in all varieties of genre — narrative, hortatory, doctrinal, etc. And here we can more easily point our hearers to the One who lived up to the moral standards we are pressing, who came from heaven and entered our broken condition. Here is one who is our model, yes, but much more — he is our redeemer and forerunner also. He is the solution in every sense.
We must also, c) remember always the gospel relationship of “do” and “done.” Gospel-shaped preaching should not at all be afraid to say “You ought!” But it will do so in a redemptive context. Gospel imperatives always rest on the gospel indicatives, and we must exhort God’s people accordingly. “You must. But you have not. You cannot. But Jesus did it for us, and having taken our place he has set out to restore us and make us like himself. That work is begun. It will continue. And one day it will be complete.” And so on. And in this way we see that the gospel is never far away from any given passage.
And then, very closely related to all this, d) we must remind our hearers that even wisdom and hortatory passages are given redemptively. They have a redemptive purpose also and serve as a means God uses to transform us and restore us, fallen as we are, to the image of Christ.
Third, it is wise, then, to select your preaching passage carefully. Preaching from doctrinal passages of the epistles, for example, normally should not rehearse the many steps of the preacher’s detailed study. We should serve the cake whole, in its completed form, not each of the separate ingredients that went into its baking. And in preaching narrative passages, we should normally select large enough passages to avoid endless moralism. At some point an overly-lengthy series of sermons from, say, the Abraham narrative, can too easily devolve into “Here Abraham was good; you be good. Here Abraham was bad; don’t you be bad like that.” The life of Abraham is given to us for this ethical purpose also, and we need not shy away from it. But it is this within a larger context that just must not be forgotten. And so we would do well, as a normal course, not to become so atomistic in our expositions that we lose the bigger picture.
Finally, let us remember at all times to keep the gospel prominent and explicit. Far too many “expository” sermons go week after week without any real gospel proclamation. It’s “out there” somewhere in the atmosphere — from the hymns we sing, perhaps. But it is seldom prominent in the preaching. It is assumed, perhaps, but not explicit. But if we only assume it in our preaching, we have no ground to think that our hearers will assume it also. And, as Warfield so insightfully cautions us, to leave the gospel in the shadows is to let Christianity itself slip from our grasp. To preach the Scriptures rightly we must be careful to maintain its own redemptive focus, a focus that rivets our attention, from first to last, on our glorious Redeemer.
He is, after all, the one about whom the book was written.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012).