The redemptive-historical preaching fad...

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This coming February, Clearnote Fellowship will hold our annual Pastors Conference titled "Preach the Word." One of the subjects we'll address is the negative impact Ed Clowney's promotion of "redemptive-historical preaching" has had on Reformed preaching this past half-century as it's been passed on by men like Tim Keller, Bryan Chapell, and Michael Horton. Moses and the Prophets do preach Christ, of course! But every pious man who's ever read the account of David and Goliath has known he ought to trust the power of God to overcome the wicked blaspheming giants who scoff at his God and threaten to overcome him. Both together.

Concerning David and Goliath, one seminary professor who's publishing redemptive-historical manuals these days issues this warning:

[I]f we make a sermon on the narrative of David and Goliath, we may not isolate this narrative from the flow of redemptive history and hold David up to the congregation as a hero.…

Holding David up as a hero is to isolate this narrative from the flow of redemptive history? Really? "Only a boy named David, only a little sling" is out the window now? Everyone all through church history has been wrong to speak well of David's courage and faith? We must only speak well of God's power and plan? To hold David up as an example to the young men and little boys of the church is to "isolate" the story of David and Goliath "from the flow of redemptive history?"

Bunk and double bunk.

Another proponent of redemptive-historical, Gospel-centered, or Christocentric preaching puts it this...


In [the story of David and Goliath], God was communicating to us and to Israel that a Savior was going to come and was going to slay the giant of sin and death once and for all.

Well duh! Every fear in our lives points the believer to the fear of God and the Day of Judgment, and every rescue and savior in our lives points to the redemption of the People of God through the Cross of Jesus Christ. But what about the boy named David? What about the men named Stephen and Paul? Are we really to tell our sons not to allow themselves to think of any of the great cloud of witnesses personally, as heroes? Are men not to imitate these men as they themselves imitated Christ?

The failure of men who take pride in being Christ and Gospel-centered isn't that they're wrong in affirming how types and examples point to Christ. Reading, teaching, and preaching Christ in all of Scripture is foundational. Obvious.

Their failure is that they deny the morals and virtues of the types and examples--the flesh and blood of history, if you will. It's as if no one is capable of loving David as a man and desiring to be like him while also loving the God Who made him as he was and worked through him to accomplish his sovereign decrees, including the very public execution of blaspheming Goliath, the very public vindication of His Name resting on Israel, the eventual replacement of King Saul with this man whose Davidic Line would end with our Messiah, and so on.

To speak of courage and faith together does not tie even, or especially, very young boys' brains in knots. They get it. God has made man capable of amazing intellectual feats and those feats are often seen at their most brilliant in little people who haven't yet had blinkered professors tell them they can't think that way. Those possessing wisdom rather than degrees are fully capable of thinking both ways at the same time, and for intellectuals to tell them that they must choose one way and delete the other from their mind, also deleting all those obvious paths criss-crossing between both ways, is for professors of hermeneutics and exegesis to chain Scripture to the same pulpits the Roman Catholics had chained it to back at the time of the Reformation.

Rob Rayburn puts it this way:

[I]n my opinion, the men of this (redemptive-historical) school of thought and preaching in the 20th century have not been strong on practicalities of living the Christian life, such wisdom as the Puritans were master teachers of. The redemptive-historical men so fear moralism they seem afraid to draw out of the text the perfectly obvious lessons that may be found in it on obedience and disobedience, sin and temptation, faith and doubt, the life of prayer, and so on.

For, the fact is, the biblical history is a "thick" history. That is the term the literary scholars have invented and I like it. It has layers. It can say many things at the same time and teach many lessons. If the first lesson here is about Israel’s deliverance through a deliverer that God supplies her, the second lesson is surely that the way of that deliverance is the way of faith. David is an exemplar of the believing man just as he is the exemplar of Jesus Christ himself.

Redemptive-historical browbeaters are scholastics out to destroy the Reformation doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. If you think that's overstating the case, take the story of David and Goliath and trace how our fathers in the faith have preached that story since the Reformation. Were all of them wrong?

Here's the Reformers' Geneva Bible commentary on 1Samuel 17:33, "And Saul said to David, Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou [art but] a youth, and he a man of war from his youth." 

Here Satan proves David's faith, by the infidelity of Saul.

How could any believer read the account of David and Goliath without thinking about David's faith? About God raising David up to shame his outward-appearance brothers and their head-and-shoulders-above-other-men King Saul? Without thinking about the wrath of God against those Philistines mocking the people upon whom His Own Name rests? Without thinking about all the giants in our lives and how we need to face them rather than allowing them to get up each morning and mock us and our God, throwing our impotence in our face? Without remembering that King David was a man after God's Own heart partly because he took insults against God and His people personally and partly because he killed wild carnivores and giants?

Our Lord Jesus Christ is everywhere in Scripture. This is true and we must always read Scripture in such a way as to find the shortest path to Christ. Preaching should help us in that. Who among us hasn't wished he had been there on the road to Emmaus with our Lord when, "beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures (Luke 24:27)."

But nowhere and never does such lifting up of Christ require silence concerning the many vices, virtues, morals, and laws these same stories record. Think about it: the stories of the Israelites grumbling against God, giving themselves to idolatry and fornication and being slain by God, were recorded in the Old Testament as examples so that we Christians would not give ourselves to fornication and idolatry and come under God's judgment, perishing as they perished.

Yes, of course the rock they drank from was Christ. But the recounting of the Old Testament story done under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for the people of God in the New Covenant ends this way:

Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play." Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.

Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall. No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.(1 Corinthians 10:6-14)

Forty-five years ago, Dad wrote an article against the same sort of abuse of Scripture, but back then the abuse was mostly the product of dispensationalist Evangelicals. It had not yet been popularized by Ed Clowney and spread across the Reformed pulpits of our land, but it's always struck me how similar both dispensationalists and Reformed preachers are in strumming on the harp of ten thousand strings without ever using any string but John 3:16. Here's an article Dad published on this failure back in 1966.

The Teaching We Have Neglected

January, 1966

Twelve or fifteen years ago, the late Canon T. C. Hammond of the Church of England visited the United States. Toward the end of his trip, in which he visited many parts of the country, I asked Canon Hammond for his predominant impression of evangelical Christianity in America. The author of Inter-Varsity Fellowship’s Reasoning Faith and In Understanding Be Men, and authority on Roman Catholic theology (The Hundred Texts, published by Irish Church Missions) seemed unusually qualified to render an objective judgment on such a matter.

His answer was prompt: He was impressed by our shallow treatment of the doctrines of sin and law. We seemed to introduce children and adults to grace and salvation without laying any adequate foundation in the knowledge of personal rebellion and sin.

The result, he said, was a low view of Christ and grace and righteousness, for our appreciation of salvation is in direct relation to our understanding of the pit of sin from which we were dug.

In answer to a further question, Canon Hammond agreed that a low level of personal righteousness and sensitivity to sin among American Christians might be related to the same cause. Wasn’t that what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he said, “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Romans 7:7).

*  *  *

Who’s responsible for the present erosion of American morality and personal ethics? It’s easy to blame the days in which we live: ...Hugh Hefner and his Playboy philosophy ...the end times.

When the shoe is on the other foot, whether in England after the Wesleys, or America after the Great Awakening, we know the answer: revival in the Church brought about a quickening of the world’s standards of morality. The salt had its effect on society.

And today? The Church that takes credit for heightened social morality must acknowledge its responsibility for society’s moral depression. Perhaps the salt has lost its savor (Matthew 5:13,14).

This brings us back to Canon Hammond’s thesis. If the children of the Church have not been taught God’s standards of righteous living, the children of the world have nothing against which to measure their conduct.

*  *  *

But why has this teaching been neglected? Why have children grown up in the Church and in Christian homes without a solid foundation in the biblical doctrines of law and sin?

At the risk of being misunderstood, may I suggest that it has been because of our obsession during the past 30 or 40 years with the immediacy of salvation. We have had one continual message for our children: “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7). Every Sunday school lesson has been turned into a salvation lesson; decisions have been the response constantly sought.

We have not taught the Bible with integrity: John’s Gospel as John’s Gospel; Proverbs as Proverbs; Judges as Judges; Exodus 20 as Exodus 20. Instead we have taught John’s Gospel as John’s Gospel; Proverbs as John’s Gospel; Judges as John’s Gospel; Exodus 20 as John’s Gospel ...if we have taught the latter at all.

Recently I had a letter from a woman who related her experience teaching Ruth to junior highs the Sunday before:

Suddenly it came to me that what my girls needed wasn’t that they should love Christ as Ruth loved Naomi, but that they should be the sort of women when they grow up that Naomi was to stir such a response of love in her daughter-in-law. Ruth was profitable as Scripture itself, not just as a type of Christ—valid though that might be.

What our children (and we ourselves) need is exposure to the whole Bible in its integrity, “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2Timothy 3:16,17).

In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Presbyterian Church taught children those doctrines it considered necessary to glorify and enjoy God. The doctrines were arranged according to the pattern of biblical revelation. Thus the sweep and scope of God’s revelation in history became the sweep and scope of God’s revelation to the child.

A few years ago, Dr. J. C. Macaulay, president of London (Ontario) Bible College, told of an incident when he visited the Scottish islands of the Hebrides, where revival had been endemic for some time. Dr. Macaulay was on his way to a church service, and heard a low wailing noise from a cottage.

In response to the visitor’s question, a man with whom he was walking replied, “That’s William, finding his way to God. He’ll come through.”

If we trust God’s Spirit to bring our children through to salvation His time ...we will with patience teach law and depravity and sin and providence and all the other doctrines of Scripture, as the foundation of salvation that means something in moral living, and of an exalted view of Christ.

If, on the other hand, we seek above all else the security of knowing that our children have made a decision, on the basis of which we can reassure them of their salvation from a very early age, we shall probably continue to have spiritual mediocrity and a-nomianism (if not antinomianism) in the Church.

I believe that some children will be saved early in life. But others—even in the same family—will come later. In God’s providence, all fruit does not ripen at the same time.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!