Against Exemplary Preaching

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The nature of the sermon, I firmly believe, must reflect the nature of Christ’s mission on earth. Over a lifetime most Christians will hear many sermons preached badly, and perhaps many also that, because they fail to expound the mission truly, are not proper sermons. This is a problem, and it’s this problem that I now confront.

A four-minute announcement of Operation Christmas Child, commendable as the project may be, is not a proper sermon. Now this is an egregious example, but it isn’t hard to find others like it. A sermon, first and foremost, deals with what Christ’s mission is to conquer: sin and its effects. Often a sermon can discover in life what one’s own private reading of Scripture fails to discover. Its purpose is to lay the Scriptures before and above those who listen, that through these Scriptures the Holy Ghost may judge the heart. Operation Christmas Child is in its own way related to sin, as (properly) an act of love to which sin is opposed, but by itself this kind of giving love, even as a virtue followed, will not ultimately be the means of healing the giver’s soul.

Similar are the sermons that merely present exempla (moral anecdotes) to our memories. These show us, even inspire our minds, with what virtue is, but they too will fail at the last. Such is the case even with a sermon that brings to mind the highest exempla, the exempla of Christ. The purity of his life may move me, but the heart I inherit from Adam is desperately opposed to good. Though I’m not as evil as can be, there is no part of me, pristine and incontaminate, to bring all the other parts to love virtue and not wickedness. A sermon that gives me only Christ’s exempla, then, cannot save me from the cycle of sin that begets greater sin by smiting the sinner with an increasing and hardening and cataractic love of perversion.

This is something missed even by many evangelical sermons, and it is, I think, one reason so many evangelicals are starved for decent preaching. The New Testament says that all the Scriptures, including the Old Testament books, are about Christ. A sermon, then, needs to have Christ in the unique capacity of Christ, not just Christ in the capacity of moral teacher. It needs not only to present him as the embodiment of justice but also to reveal him as the one who through his death and resurrection confers this justice on us. For aren’t there unregenerate minds in the congregation, and forgetful and slow, even when Christian? Don’t these minds need constantly to confronted with the real grace of Christ, which produces signs of an undying goodness? Mustn’t Christ then be preached evangelistically every time, that Christian as well as pagan may hear and believe?

Here, then, is where the theme of union with Christ is so important. Yes, his active life of righteousness is very important, and it should often figure in sermons. But the crux of the sermon (that is, in Latin, its Cross) is Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, in which by faith we share. It’s this partaking that the sacraments, together with preaching, must proclaim, for then our lives are tied to that of Jesus Christ, not by the shifty bonds of a sinful heart’s sentiment but by the steadfast bonds of regeneration with the Holy Spirit. It’s crucial that this tie the sermon together – that this hold together man and God in Christ – in order that we may have, so to speak, spiritual and not exemplary preaching.

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