The redemptive-historical preaching fad...

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... way: 

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 fifteen grandchildren.


 I think this post hits on one of the great failings of modern reformed preaching: it is very weak on any application other than "believe in Jesus" or "believe more in Jesus” or “tell people to believe in Jesus.”   Three men I have read recently have critiqued this non-applicational preaching in various ways. Peter Leithart talks about the head and body in preaching. The head is Christ. The body is the Church. David and Goliath is about both the Head, Jesus, and the body the Church and I would add the individuals in the body. One does not exclude the other. And some passages focus more clearly on Christ (Isaiah 53 or portions of Leviticus) while some focus more clearly on the body of Christ (Proverbs, the Law). All passages should have some application to the believer in the pew.  Also, Kevin DeYoung, in a series of preaching lectures at WTS, used the story of David and Bathsheba to illustrate this same point. He said that the passage is about man's sinfulness and need for Christ. But that is not the center. The center is about adultery and the ways we fall into that sin. A sermon from II Samuel 11 should talk about adultery and how it displeases God and how we shouldn’t do it. To simply sit there and say that this passage shows that all of us, even the great ones, are sinners and need to turn Christ really misses the point. Dale Davis also takes a gracious shot at those who find Christ in every passage of the OT in his book "The Word Made Fresh." He notes that to bring Christ into every OT passage does a disservice to Christ. Despite its claim, this type of preaching, ultimately impoverishes the people of God by giving them little exhortation to growth in holiness.  Thanks of the good word. I am looking forward to listening to the conference.


I'm not an either or but a both and. Show the context both on the large scale and immediate context but also the example of faith and moral. Only one emphasis can lead to error which Christ rebuked. There is room for both RH and application. There is no reason to discard one. The scriptures do not. How glorious to find an expositor doing both. The Puritans did this well. I think of Edwards and Sibbes and Owen.

You have articulated a lot of my recent thinking on this subject.  Initially attracted to and drawn in by this type of teaching, I became frustrated trying to replicate it.  I felt like I was increasingly having to make forced connections with little to no guard rails to know whether I was preaching the point of a passage, or preaching what I WANTED the point of the passage to be.  And, every message ended the same way and sounded the same.  A million texts to teach from, but only one message!  Yes, I understand Paul says that he only preached "Christ...and Him crucified."  But as we read Paul's letters, he gave more moral instruction than most reformed preachers are apt to give these days.  And your referencing of 1 Corinthians 10 is spot on!  If we want to know how the early church preached the Old Testament texts, Paul tells us right there--as examples.  Dare we say it--as moral instructions--"do's" and "don'ts"!  We need not fear preaching classic "application."  Jesus seemed to do quite a bit of it Himself!

Yes, both/and. Glad I read this as we come to the story of Joesph of Arimathea this week and his "taking courage." Mark is definitely putting Joseph before us a model of discipleship.

Do realize, though, how helpful Keller, etc.'s Jesus-centeredness was to those of us who were brought up on preaching that was 100% man-centered ... every text was solely about how "they were awesome and you can go be, too!" Especially the David and Goliath story.

But thankful for the reminder of our tendency to swing too far in one direction or the other.

John Frame (see point 2. on the Historia Salutis) and John Carrick are balanced voices on this issue.

I also wonder if Pastor Bayly is reacting to a studied over-reaction on the part of men like Keller, Horton, and Chapell. In American evangelicalism taken as a whole, my experience makes me fairly certain that moralism is a bigger problem than a redemptive-historical method which leaves out ethics—simply because Arminianism is more prevalent than Calvinism. Perhaps the homileticians (and systematician) I just mentioned felt that it would take a hard push to get the pendulum back to the middle, and that an overcorrection might be necessary.

But this is not a new issue, and Reformed folks have resources in their tradition to handle it.

At heart, of course, we are talking about divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility. The only way we're going to get this one right, I think, is by a constant spiraling of ST and BT. We preach the passages in front of us, allowing them to correct our ST. And then we use that ST to guide us as we preach the passages in front of us. If we preach the whole Bible, and if (as I'm certain!) the Bible gets it right, then we'll by God's grace get it right, too.

>>In American evangelicalism taken as a whole, my experience makes me fairly certain that moralism is a bigger problem than a redemptive-historical method which leaves out ethics...

My conviction is that Reformed is Biblical, and therefore the ecclesiastical community I work to reform is the Reformed church. Within that church I've rarely heard moralistic preaching. This isn't to say it doesn't exist, but only that it's never been my experience. Rather, I've heard sermons from both Evangelical dispensationals and Keller/Clowney/Chappelites that avoid the Law and Judgment and repentance and sanctification like the plague, speaking only of conversion and grace.

Hope that explains my post, dear brother.


Good day. I found your blog via the website. I don't know what redemptive-historical preaching you're talking about but it seems to me that you haven't read or heard a lot of it. Redemptive-historical preaching was a very necessary corrective to the Christ-less moralizing that went rampant for a hundred years or more. Did it sometimes go too far in the opposite direction? Undoubtedly. I grew up on a diet of redemptive-historical preaching and was unfailingly challenged to believe and walk in the way of godliness. I think it's really important to say that  the stories of David are not in the Bible primarily as examples to us today. Yes, some aspects of his life are exemplary for us, but that's not the main point of the narrative. 

Is that really true, though, that "the stories of David are not in the Bible primarily as examples to us today"?  Isn't that exactly what Paul says in the 1 Corinthians passage?  1 Corinthians 10:6 -- "Now these things took place as EXAMPLES for us that we might not desire evil as they did."

To all who have read the Bayly Blog's caricature of my father and his preaching, I would ask that you listen to just a few of the 140 or so sermons/lectures/Sunday School classes by Edmund Clowney that are now available on  in order to test the thesis. Tim - you first!


>>Bayly Blog's caricature of my father and his preaching...

Dear Rebecca,

I'm sorry to grieve you by my opposition to your Dad's brand of preaching but the redemptive-historical fad has had enough time to do its damage and I'm hoping to light a little candle for a return to historic Reformed preaching of the sort modeled by the Geneva Bible and John Calvin.

Speaking of caricatures, being an editor you know there's a difference between opposing a man and his own practice, and opposing a movement whose headwaters most everyone traces back to him. If the distinction is foggy to Baylyblog readers, I simply note it's the second kind of opposition I've engaged in here. Which is to say I've not meant to say anything critical of your father, personally.

The Holy-Spirit's account of David and Goliath is the locus classicus for redemptive-historical proponents which is the reason I focused my critique there, showing the sort of false dichotomy that's at the heart of the movement I've witnessed for decades, now.

Concerning your Dad's preaching, it would do us all good to listen to his sermons at Sermon Audio and I hope your pointing us to them causes many to do so.

As always, love to you and Peter,

I have to be honest - I found this post to be misleading (caricaturing) and offensive.

Having studied under Dr. Clowney (and Dr. Horton) at WSCA, I recognized neither of these men or their teaching in your description.

And likening them to Dispensationalists?  That just seems like a cheap shot (and a cheap shot towards Dispensationalists as well).

Did Dr. Clowney eschew all application or law in his preaching and teaching?  I think not.  I do not believe that he preached through the epistles (for example) and made the application sections (e.g. Ephesians 4-6) sound like mindless repetitions of John 3:16.

I think the general point of this post could have easily been made without dragging the names of godly men through the mud.  Frankly, I think that many of us could have benefited from such a post on your blog.

If you have a legitimate beef with a particular pastor or professor, shouldn't you be specific and back it up with more than generalities?  That should not be too difficult (if true), given the amount of written material by the respective men that is available, right?

Respectfully, Andy

I have been so blessed by Rayburn's teaching which I get via the church's website (FaithTacoma). It is very rich and I growing in grace by it.

>>likening them to Dispensationalists?

Again, I didn't liken *them* to dispensationalists, but the monotone preaching of John 3:16/salvation/grace/redemption, as in "redemptive-historical. My own experience is that redemptive-historical preaching produces a similar fruit to the sort of dispensationalist preaching my Dad warned against, albeit through a different vocabulary. That's why Dad's article has always come to mind as I've observed the state of Westminster/Covenant/Keller preaching today.

I'm sorry to offend you concerning your seminary profs. I'm sure there were many ways they were very helpful. Nevertheless, they are the men at the headwaters of what I'm opposing and it's helpful for readers to know it.

Concerning the ethical parts of epistles, we're not talking redemptive-epistolary, but redemptive-historical. Concerning specificity, it can't get more specific than David and Goliath, and the quote I opposed is precisely how the issue is normally framed.


Well said Pastor Andy!

Can you please give this newby just a little refresher on what this is all about?  Is it the style of preaching Christ everywhere in the OT and NT?  That is how my pastor preaches.  And I have to admit I thought it was right on because it was different from the drivel of the church I left.  But it does seem like there are a thousand passages and just one message. 

I am the other Peter Jones, husband of Rebecca, and as a courageous patriarch, I need to stand alongside her.

Ethical application of OT texts is not easy. It is never one to one. We do not kill Philistines, even in Indiana! The ultimate meaning of the OT law is its intensification in the teaching of Jesus (Matt. 5), and the personnification of the law in his life. The Law we apply is thus "the law of Christ" (Gal.6:2). Therefore, christological preaching of the OT necessarily includes law and grace as understood through their fulfillment in Christ.

It is not the fault of Ed Clowney nor the method he expounded if preacher A or B does not give enough place to ethical application--so your article is a healthy warning if that is taking place. But it is not a simply matter. Law and grace are so organically fused in the person of Jesus that it is sometimes difficult to separate them. In any case, the method of Christological preaching necessarily includes them both. It is the whole person of Jesus we are to see and preach in the OT, as Clowney so magisterially showed.

Well said, and love to you.


Dear Peter,

I whole-heartedly agree with your post. It is my personal observation, however, that in many cases the redemptive-historical method is used as a replacement or substitution for even attempting to apply the marrow of God's laws to our modern day setting. In other words, in those cases I have been witness to, and upon discussion with said brothers, it was a matter of them resorting to allegory and typology, much of which seemed strained and artificial in my estimation, and which was spurred by a degree of embarrassment regarding something that the Older Testament Scriptures said on the topic of socio-political ethics. These brothers did not want to toss the Older Testament Scriptures out the window like some kind of higher critic, but on the other hand, they could never envision themselves advocating for the civil magistrate doing something so far out of step with the zeitgeist of our day (i.e. looking at something as rampant in our time as adultery as a civil offense even for today, and not just a personal matter of private importance only).

All of that said, I have sometimes found myself wondering how, exegetically, some of the connections between the stories and accounts in the OT are linked with Christ beyond a kind of gut level association. I am fine with the conclusion that I simply am not as gifted at exposition as others in the church, but I would like there to be a hermeneutical principle that can be pointed to, and I frequently don't see one.

As you pointed out, none of this is under the direct control of Ed Clowney, although I second the concerns expressed on this blog that the fruit currently being manifested raises some eyebrows (at least mine).

God bless you.

I think you bring up a legitimate concern about emphasis (or rather over/underemphasis). I agree, however, with other commenters who have pointed out that it is not necessarily a methodological necessity that the HR approach leads to a lack of ethical concern. 

I believe that it is possible to balance these concerns and remain solidly biblical as I have argued elsewhere (although while addressing a slightly different question).

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