Redemptive-Historical Preaching and the Decline of the Preaching of Repentance
‘God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent.’
— Acts 17:30
A few weeks ago I raised the question of why there is so little preaching of repentance in the modern, western church when the Scriptures are replete with references to it. I suggest three reasons for this. The first has to do with our tendency to preach a truncated gospel, a justification-only gospel which fails to stress the need for regeneration to go along with the beautiful truths of justification by faith alone, through Christ alone, and reconciliation through Christ’s atoning death. A second reason for so little preaching on repentance is redemptive-historical preaching.1
Redemptive-historical preaching originated with Dutch Biblical Theologians like Klaus Schilder and B. Howerda in the 1940’s, and the question was, how shall we preach the Old Testament narratives? Until then, the predominant Reformed view was the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. That is, the expositor of the Biblical text was bound by the grammar, language, history, and context of the passage to seek the central idea of the text, and to turn that central idea into a sermon faithful to the word of God. What flowed from this, concerning Old Testament narratives, was what some call ‘exemplary preaching’.2 So, in a story like David committing adultery and murder, the exemplary preacher would use this text as an example of what not to do, of how to steer clear of such sin by studying what caused David to fall. Conversely, in the story of David killing Goliath, the exemplary preacher studies the courage of David and urges people to follow David’s example as a man of courage and conviction.
The redemptive-historical preacher, on the other hand (basing this concept largely on Jesus’ walk to Emmaus where he explained the Scriptures to his fellow sojourners, Luke 24:13-27) sees these stories as the unfolding of Old Testament types which point to Israel’s Messiah being revealed in the person and work of Christ. To put it another way, the redemptive-historical preacher sees the Old Testament as the book of Jesus, while the exemplary preacher, recognizing the many prophecies of Jesus in the Old Testament nonetheless views the Old Testament as the book of God the Father, the gospels as the book of God the Son, and the Acts and Epistles as the book of God the Holy Spirit.
Here is the major problem with redemptive-historical preaching. It is a general failure to apply specifically and directly the passage preached. In fact Schilder and Howerda taught that the preacher is to leave the application of the sermon to the Holy Spirit, that to suggest specific steps of application is unbiblical.3 I am sure there are some exceptions to the norm, but the redemptive-historical preachers I have heard are pretty light on application. The result is anemic application. Instead of preaching for a verdict, making clear a specific course of action which is demanded, drawn from the text itself, the congregation is left with something akin to going to Starbucks and being asked by the Barista, ‘Would you like the latte with decaf or regular coffee?’ In other words, the issue for the redemptive-historical preacher is more about new information about Jesus, making Jesus the hero of every text, than getting one’s life straight. I have heard contemporary Reformed, redemptive-historical preachers say things like ‘Maybe you ought to check out Jesus… you might want to consider not sleeping with your boyfriend… thinking about giving your bitterness to Jesus may be a good thing…’ The emphasis in such preaching is on the indicatives of material in the imperative mood which calls us to ethical and holy living. We are commanded by God to do something with what we hear. Often doing that demands repentance.
The converse of this is what John Carrick calls the exemplary form of preaching. It takes both Old and New Testament characters and says that we are to learn from them, that we either follow or resist their examples of life and character. To the redemptive-historical preachers this is anathema. They see it as atomistic (lifting a specific ‘atom’ or detail from its context and the thrust of the passage) and arbitrary (picking and choosing applications to suit the preacher). To be sure this can be a problem for the exemplary preacher. I have heard preachers indirectly but obviously grind an ax with a church member from the pulpit in sermon application. This is always reprehensible. However, the fear redemptive-historical preachers have of atomistic and arbitrary application leads too many of them from making any specific, direct, discriminating application of calling people to repentance and faith. This, I suggest, is a major problem with many preachers today. It yields sermons which fail to convict people of sin, righteousness, judgement, producing church members who perhaps have a good grasp of Biblical theology, but who also have an antinomian view of the Christian walk.
And redemptive-historical preachers resist the exemplary method of preaching because they fear they might move towards moralistic preaching. We have all heard sermons from Old Testament narratives like 1 Samuel 17, urging us to be like David against the giants in our lives. Moralistic preaching? No. But exemplary preaching? Yes.
One young redemptive-historical preacher I heard said, ‘Don’t even think about being like David, you can’t do it.’ So how is moralistic preaching different from exemplary preaching? One is engaging moralism when he says ‘be like David’ without making clear that one cannot be like David without drawing upon the riches of the indwelling Christ by the Holy Spirit. Certainly moralistic preaching can go far afield. Isn’t it true, however, that Paul urges the Philippians to imitate him and others who walk faithfully in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:17ff), and James cites Rahab (James 2:25) and Elijah (James 5:17-18) as examples of great faith so that we may follow them? The danger in moralistic preaching is in being selective or arbitrary in application, not drawing it specifically from the text being considered. Without sanctified restraint any preacher can take any text and make application to any of his favorite topics. And because the application in moralistic preaching is not always derived from the text, the body of the sermon lacks authority and unction. It comes across as a self-help manual, often denying the God-centered reality the preacher should be urging us to follow. This further undermines the need for Christ’s penal atonement in preaching. Moralistic preaching leads to preachers simply telling their congregants to ‘clean up your life, be kind to your neighbor, and do good to the poor.’ It robs Christ of the glory due to him in his person and work.
I get it. Moralistic preaching is not an option. However, simply to leave application ‘to the Spirit’ is falling short of the preacher’s job of calling all people everywhere to repent. Preachers are to preach for a verdict and this always requires discriminating application.
Al Baker is an Evangelistic Revival Preacher with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
- For a short, succinct, and accurate definition of redemptive-historical preaching, see the article by this name at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redemptive-historical_preaching
- John Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching, p. 101
- Ibid, p. 108ff
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