Redemptive Historical Preaching: Christ at the Center

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One concept that is so helpful to have when considering how to exhort God’s people from God’s Word is that our preaching must be Christ-centered. The idea that Scripture isn’t just a book of timeless truths, morality plays, or helpful advice for living, but is instead one grand narrative displaying the promise of, the coming of, and the rule of the Messiah Jesus, has been thoroughly covered by men much better than I, most notably Ed Clowney, Sidney Greidanus, Dennis Johnson, and Graeme Goldsworthy. Their articles and books are most helpful. But occasionally, just having a handy chart around can jog your mind in the specifics.

The above chart can be downloaded here. It is a rough adaption of what Dennis Johnson adapted from Ed Clowney. I’ll try to briefly explain what the chart says, as well as how to use it below.

How to Read the Chart

Begin in the bottom left corner: the Old Testament text you are preaching on, or the specific institution (e.g., the Temple) or event (e.g., the Exodus) that you are preaching or teaching on. You want to end up, of course, in the bottom right corner box: our preaching and teaching in 21st century contexts. The question is how to move from the first box to the latter. Following the green arrows is the correct, biblical path to go from text to application with a Christ-centered hermeneutic. Following any of the red arrows is a less than faithful approach to applying God’s Word.

To follow Clowney’s and Johnson’s example, once you begin with your OT passage, you want to arrive at the top left box, the truth that is being taught in that particular OT context. In order to do so, you’ll need to apply rules of exegesis, literary genre, contextual understanding, and understand the human author’s thrust and didactic point. Having done so, you are ready to transition to the top left box, “Old Testament Truth.” Having accomplished your exegesis, etc., you arrive at the symbolic truth that your OT text or event represents. Even though you now understand what that truth happens to be, we are not yet ready to apply that to the congregation, because it is not fully congruent with a New Covenant audience apart from Christ. That is why the next arrow, the “History of Redemption,” forces us to understand the OT truth from our passage not as a disembodied, Gnostic truth hovering out in the stratosphere, but as a specific truth that God has given in a covenantal context of His work to save His people in history. (This is also why redemptive historical preaching is not (neo-)platonic, because it is not dealing with abstract Forms or ideals in the noumenal, but contextualized truths that have historical anchors within God’s covenantal dealings with His people.)

Understanding how an OT truth fits into the grand story of Christ’s redeeming work is not always easy, but passages such as Luke 24:27, 44 – 45 and John 5:39 assure us that it is so. This is the fulfillment of the OT truth, how it ultimately relates to Christ, and this is the capstone of our process of being Christ-centered. We must demonstrate to our congregations week in and week out that Scripture is telling the one, unified story of God’s redemptive process in Christ.

However, as important as understanding Christ’s role in the OT is, we are not finished. Unfortunately, this is the critique of much of redemptive historical preaching: our sermons always end with “and here is how Jesus fulfills this passage, now believe in Him. Amen, let’s pray.” We amaze our congregations by pulling a rabbit out of the hat by producing Jesus from an obscure OT passage, but this eventually grows old and our congregation is not growing in their faith. But according to our diagram, once we’ve demonstrated how Christ fulfills our passage, we still need to apply the significance of Christ’s person and work – as foreshadowed from the OT and revealed in the NT – to our congregations. This will change from week to week, as a unique and variegated aspect of Christ’s person and work is demonstrated by different OT texts.

Perhaps giving an example will clarify things. In Psalm 73:16 – 17, Asaph was troubled by the wickedness and greed and success he saw in the unfaithful people around him, and it was only once he went into the sanctuary (miqeddash) that he understood God’s purpose to bring justice against the wicked (73:18) and to satisfy those who believe (73:24 – 26). So this is our OT text, and it also contains an institution, the Temple sanctuary. What is the significance? By employing exegetical principles in context, we could say that the OT truth being taught is that in the sanctuary, which is representative of being in God’s presence (Psalm 74:7), we understand that injustice will be righted and faithful followers of God will be satisfied in Him. Many preachers might be tempted to run with this concept, and could build an impressive sermon from this. But by tracing this truth through the history of redemption, we see that God’s presence with His people in the Temple sanctuary was very temporary and limited, and wouldn’t come to completion until Jesus Christ tabernacled among us (John 1:14), that He is the true temple (John 2:19 – 21). We too witness injustice and the prosperity of the wicked, and we long to be comforted, but both of these only resolve their tensions when we set apart Christ in our hearts through faith (I Peter 3:14 – 15). In Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection we see the injustice of sin dealt with and the first-fruits of God’s promise to satisfy His own with everlasting life. We could apply this passage to our congregation with Peter’s exhortations in I Peter 3, or by pointing to the reversal that Paul teaches for enemies in Romans 12:14 – 21. Further, we could go to the final chapters of Revelation to point out that in Christ, the wicked will meet the end that God promised in Psalm 73, while the believing community is rewarded with the satisfaction that Asaph sang about.

One further note on the application. Notice, there are often several routes to take from how Christ fulfills an OT passage to how we apply that truth for our congregation. An OT passage may lay the emphasis on Christ’s person (He was divine or sinless where the OT character was not) or an aspect of His work (He obeyed where others failed, He died for our rebellion, He intercedes for us, etc.). This means that redemptive historical preaching will not impose a strict uniformity on our preaching, forcing everyone into a straight jacket, but instead provides a generous unity. Once you demonstrate that every passage is fulfilled in Christ, how you apply the passage in light of Christ will vary from congregation to congregation, pastor to pastor, and unique situations across the spectrum.

How NOT to Preach Christ-centered

It is equally important to note the red arrows which discourage us from poor preaching. If we start with an OT passage and immediately try to apply it immediately in our 21st century context, we’ll often end up in allegory (the bottom red arrow). We’ll try to explain the Temple or the Philistines or King Josiah in a way that makes sense to our context, but that will sacrifice the historical and contextual specifics for a neat and tidy application. We’ll end up allegorizing our passage for a modern understanding. An example would be taking Israel’s battles with their foreign nations and applying it to the modern political phenomena; another (to use our former example) would be to look at Asaph’s struggle in Psalm 73 and exhort modern hearers to find where they can go to find God’s presence when they’re troubled, to find their own “sanctuaries.”

If we try to understand the OT truth contained in our passage and then immediately apply this truth to our congregations, the danger to watch out for here is moralism (the red arrow from top left to bottom right). So even if I understand how the Temple points to God’s presence, or even if I understand how Israel’s victory over the Philistines points to God’s victory over evil, sin and the devil, but I don’t preach these in light of Christ, I’ll preach a moralistic (or conceptual) sermon that doesn’t hinge on Christ’s person and work. Those who knew him used to say of Clowney that he would ask budding preachers if their sermon could be appreciated by a Jew. His point was that if your message didn’t turn on the uniqueness of the Incarnation, the impeccability, the crucifixion and resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of God, then your sermon may be many things but it wasn’t a Christian sermon (I Corinthians 2:2). No matter how well we may understand an OT truth, apart from Christ it cannot be applied to a New Covenant believer. Examples of this error abound. Any of the commands to care for a fellow Israelite or stranger/alien in the camp without Christ would be moralistic. Referring back to Psalm 73, a moralistic sermon would simply exhort the hearer to be satisfied in God when faced with injustice without explaining how this occurs in Christ.

The last error to avoid is jumping to Christ too quickly. This inappropriate use of typology (or symbolism) ignores the uniqueness of the OT text and its textual context (the red arrow from bottom left to top right). This most often happens when we try to find Christ in the minutia of OT details. For example, an exegete attempts to describe how Christ fulfills the staff in Abraham’s hand, or how the scarlet cord from Rahab is like Christ’ blood. Looking back at Psalm 73, a facile connection between Asaph and Christ, or God’s presence and Christ, would miss the rich experiential thrust that Asaph makes.

Hopefully, this chart, and the ideas it espouses, will be helpful for preachers and teachers of God’s Word. Don’t forget to dig more deeply into works by Clowney and others, but perhaps most recent and most comprehensive is Dennis Johnson’s Him We Proclaim, a masterful look at Christ-centered preaching. He explains his chart on pp. 230 – 31. May we all resolve with Paul to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified.

3 thoughts on “Redemptive Historical Preaching: Christ at the Center

  1. Great article. I tried to write a similar one myself, but I like yours better. I just found it by searching for Clowney and RHM on the internet. I appreciate the time you put in to writing this.

  2. Pingback: yetomak

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