No two people will observe the same event in the same way. So it’s no surprise that no three hundred people will hear the same sermon in the same way. When a preacher opens holy Scripture on a Sunday morning, he’s delivering a message of divine weight and eternal truth not just to bodies, but to souls. To complete people, hundreds of them, all listening in their own way. This is why a heart-wrenching sermon isn’t enough. It’s why a thought-provoking sermon isn’t enough. It’s why a motivational sermon isn’t enough. Each person in those pews has his own needs, and they don’t all need their hearts wrenched or their thoughts provoked or their wills motivated.
What each person needs, however, is to hear the whole gospel addressed to their whole person. Jesus Christ took on our human nature to redeem our human nature – the whole mess of it. As a result, his gospel has nothing less than a total claim on our being, on our emotions, our thoughts, and our wills. It was this conviction that lay behind the theme of this year’s CRTS conference: “Preaching the Whole Gospel to the Whole Person.”
Rev. Eric Watkins, pastor of Covenant OPC in St. Augustine, Florida, opened the conference with a public talk on Thursday evening. His talk was titled, “The Relevance of Redemptive-Historical Preaching in a Postmodern Context: An Optimistic Proposal.” Rev. Watkins became a believer as an adult, and only encountered redemptive-historical preaching well after his conversion. So the fact that he was speaking about such preaching to a crowd of people raised in that tradition led him to remark, “I feel like a lion in a den full of Daniels.”
He began the talk asking whether redemptive-historical preaching has gone out with the cultural tide. After all, postmodern thinking holds that we can’t truly know what has happened in history, nor can we truly know what a dead author meant by his writing. Thus we cannot rely on the history in Scripture, and we cannot even know what Scripture means. To a person who believes these things, redemptive-historical preaching can have little significance.
But it isn’t the case, Rev. Watkins argued, that redemptive-historical preaching has been made irrelevant by postmodernism. On the contrary, such preaching can actually have much value in a culture like ours. For one, the central element in redemptive history is God’s story – and these days everyone loves talking about stories. What redemptive-historical preaching provides is the grand story of the meaning of our lives, the story of what we are and where we’re going. This shows Scripture to be what it is, not “dulled by two thousand years of history,” as some have put it, but ever fresh, ever inviting. Good redemptive-historical preaching tells the story of Christ, and then shows us our place in it. This is just the kind of thing many people today are seeking.
Friday morning began with a lecture by Dr. Lawrence Bilkes, “Spiritual Guidance in Preaching: The Manner of Preaching the Word of God.” This talk focused not on the content of preaching, but on the way the content is presented. He spoke first about the manner of the preacher, and second about the manner of preaching itself. A preacher ought to be concerned above all with the response of his hearers to the gospel. This means being winsome, and it means preaching from the same sacrificial love showed to us by Christ. To that end, there are four things that should characterize the manner of his preaching. First, he must address the mind. The mind is key, for it is right understanding that leads to right living. Second, he must address the conscience. A sermon has to expose the motives behind our actions, and call them to account. Third, he must address the heart. It pleased God to attribute emotions to himself in Scripture. So a preacher too has to feel with his flock whatever they are feeling, and this should come out in his preaching. And fourth, he must address the will. We have been created to act, and a sermon must call us to live lives of light in the midst of spiritual darkness. The preacher himself should exemplify this calling.
The second talk of the morning session was another by Rev. Watkins. This one was called, “Imitating the Saints in Hebrews 11: Revisiting the Questions of Christocentricity and Application.” Redemptive-historical preaching has long stood opposed to the method of preaching that equates the people in Scripture with the people in the pew. The method that says that because David slew his Goliath, with enough faith you can slay your Goliaths, too. But Rev. Watkins argued that Hebrews 11 shows that a stark opposition is simply unbiblical. That chapter sets before us examples of how Christ’s work has unfolded in real human lives. The saints we read of in Hebrews 11 received the revelation of Christ, just as we have. But not only did they receive revelation, God worked through their lives to reveal himself, as well. This, too, applies to us. We don’t simply possess the revelation of God; our lives go on to manifest that revelation to the world around us. Those of us who are alive today are the current “theatre,” as Rev. Watkins called it, of God’s work in the world. Redemptive-historical preaching, then, does not stop at showing us God’s work in Scripture; but it teaches us that such work continues very much in our own lives.
After the lunch break Dr. James Visscher walked us through the challenge of preaching on the book of Leviticus. Because the book delves into various unpopular subjects like pus, incest, and bloody animal parts, it suffers from a lack of fondness on the part of preachers. But, Dr. Visscher argued, this shouldn’t be – for it’s an important book. In fact, it was one of the first books that Jewish children had to study in-depth. Its central theme is the holiness of God, and all of its uncomfortable subject matter drives home that profound reality. God is holy, and clean, and pure; and his people are not. And this is how Leviticus sets squarely before us our deep need for Christ. The only way that humanity could reach the impossible holiness of God was for God to take on our unholy humanity. All of the skin diseases, bodily discharges, and sexual sins that depict our pollution before God were washed away by the blood of the one, spotless, and perfectly pleasing sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Leviticus drives us straight to the gospel.
The afternoon closed with a provocatively-titled speech by Dr. de Visser: “Would Schilder Pass Classis?” Schilder drew much praise for his preaching, so that even if his hearers did not understand everything that was said, they at least understood that it was profound. The kinds of things that shaped his preaching were derived from his strongly held theological beliefs. Schilder was a major force behind reading Scripture redemptive-historically, and his sermons could be grandiose in the connections they teased out from Scripture. And since all the lines of Scripture converge on Christ, Christ was the centrepiece of Schilder’s preaching. But these strengths could also be weaknesses. In his effort to draw so many connections across Scripture, Schilder would sometimes ignore the immediate context of the passage he was preaching. This would fail a sermon proposal at classis today. And sometimes his lines to Christ were more fanciful and speculative than they needed to be. This, too, is bad news at classis. His application often amounted to little more than a call to faith when he could have done so much more, but classis tends to go easier on that, as young preachers are expected to grow in that wisdom as they minister. That being said, “if Klaas came to classis, would he pass?” Dr. de Visser asked. “I’m fairly confident he would scrape through.”
The conference closed with a public speech from Dr. Bilkes, “Preaching the Whole Counsel of God.” As you can imagine, that’s a big topic. So to focus his talk, Dr. Bilkes outlined the ministry of Jonah. It was Jonah who took the counsel of God to the nations, and Christ proclaimed that one greater than Jonah had come. Dr. Bilkes highlighted four features of Jonah’s message. The first was that its origin was in God. Jonah had to bring the message of repentance that God commanded him to bring, and so today’s preachers must first of all bring God’s Word. The highest duty for a preacher is not that his preaching is attractive; it’s that it is faithful.
The second feature was the uniqueness of Jonah’s message. It was not a message the people of Nineveh could have expected to hear from anyone else, for it’s a message that no one wants to hear. It was a message of judgment and destruction: repent or you will be overthrown. This unique message, explained Dr. Bilkes, has not lost any of its relevance. God has overthrown churches and nations in the past, and he will certainly do so today. We all must either repent or perish. The third feature was how comprehensive the message was. All of humanity has sinned against God, so a preacher must preach about the fullness of God’s holiness and about the extent of humanity’s sin. Because of this a preacher must preach about the fullness of Christ’s redemption, for this is the all-encompassing solution. And fourth, Jonah’s message was one of requirement. It did nothing for Jonah’s own status, but laid a hold on its hearers. Preachers, too, ought not to preach to be admired, but to convict their hearers of the requirements of God’s Word.
The subject of preaching the whole counsel of God was a fitting end to the conference. “The whole counsel of God” is just so vast – those few words seem utterly useless to the task. That counsel cannot be contained in a single sermon, or in a lifetime of sermons. It cannot be contained in two thousand years of sermons, nor could it be contained in two thousand more. We are speaking of Christ, in whom, as the KJV puts it, “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). We would hardly dare to utter such words were they not found in Scripture; but in Scripture they are. And so preachers must utter them and deliver them in all their majesty, however ineffective human words may seem. The dwelling of God with man is just the point of the whole gospel, and so this gospel outfits every part of our being to be worthy for God’s presence. How beautiful indeed are the feet of those who prepare our heart, soul, mind, and strength for that holy place!
CRTS 2016 conference review, originally published in Clarion magazine, Issue 6, Volume 65.