Monday, May 02, 2005


Preaching Towards Maturity, With Wisdom, And Without Legalism

Unveiled Face looks at my post from Saturday on preaching and asks
The question is, how do we go about preaching the Wisdom Literature (especially Proverbs, but also Ecclesiastes, Job) in a way that leads believers towards maturity, but also avoids legalistic moralism and accounts for the fact that Christ has come?
Isn't that the great tension of Christian life? And more on point, isn't that the great difficulty in preaching -- how do you get the audience to keep in mind the whole when you are going to concentrate on one small portion?

Being a scientist, I think very mathematically. One thing leads to another, leads to another, quite logically and quite sequentially. Thus, if I were going to write a blog post about measuring viscocity, I would start by writing down the fundamental equations of motion and friction that I would use to derive the equations of viscosity. It would take one paragraph, and assume that my reader knew much, but it would lay the groundwork, and remind the reader where we come from before we continue the journey.

First of all, I think this points to the great wisdom in preaching from a full lectionary. Whenever the text for a sermon is just one passage and not several, from a variety of sources, Old and New Testament, I start to worry before the sermon even begins.

If one is going to preach a series on Proverbs, why not begin by examining Jesus' claim that he came "not to abolish, but to fulfill." Then examine Paul's discussions of grace and the law. Maybe this could be done in one or two sermons. The object would be to lay goundwork so that this context could be provided in a single paragraph at the beginning and end of each sermon out of Proverbs. For those coming in on the middle of the Proverbs series, these groundwork sermons could be provided in writing or tape versions. Piper does this kind of thing very well.

With Proverbs in partciular, I think little stories about how it is done right and wrong are most helpful. "When the Pharisees did this, they were true to the letter of this Proverb, but when Jesus did this He was true to the Spirit." I love Scotwise because he always has a great story about some hero of the faith, and they are most useful in these situations.

I also would not be afraid of legalism to some extent. The church in general has been so afraid of it for so long that it has largely lost its ethical moorings. Faith in Christ demands our best efforts at ethical living. I not sure there is anything wrong with saying there simply are rules.

Most importantly, though is discipleship. If a pastor is actively involved in discipling his congregation, and that congregation sees in him the tension between grace and the law lived out in its proper balance, then any particular sermon will be have a living context in which it will be understood.

This, ultimately gets to where Adrian and I differ on preaching. Some lessons simply cannot come through the pulpit -- even through scripture. The Holy Spirit must indeed write them on our hearts. Which takes me back to my science analogy.

In science, we attempt to tie various ideas together. We build a theory of viscocity based on the basic theories of motion as laid out by Newton. In recent times, Newton's great framework has proven insufficient and been replaced by quantum mechanics and relativity. And now we seek to tie these together in a giant theory called the "Grand Unified Field Theory."

Christianity is full of theories and tensions and seeming contradictions. I am a calvinist largely because it puts all the mystery and all the tension in God's character. It makes perfect sense to me that I cannot explain fully God, I am comfortable with His mysteriousness. Most other theological schools leave mysteries hanging out there like an unanswered question, responded to with a shrug.

The "Grand Unified Field Theory" of Christianity is the Holy Spirit. He ties together the seemingly contradictory strings of grace and the law. So, if I am preaching on Proverbs, I will invoke the Holy Spirit in prayer at the beginning and end of each sermon. I will ask the Holy Spirit to specifically indwell us all and to unify the tension. I would avoid the common, but meaningful, "May the words of my mouth and meditations of our hearts...," and say, "Holy Spirit, keep us ever mindful that you call us to grace and behavior. Create in us the proper balance between the lessons of Proverbs and the grace of the cross."

But most of all, I would preach boldly on Proverbs. It needs to be done.


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