Does Your Theology Drive Your Exegesis?
Today a preaching question for you, Pastor John. As you have worked through entire books of the Bible as an expositor, how did you think about the prominence of Christian Hedonism in your sermons? (1) Did you think of every sermon as an opportunity to make a beeline to joy, at some point, as Spurgeon said of the cross? (2) Did you try and make connections to joy thematically (perhaps in texts that talked about the nature of personal faith or that speak of God’s glory) even when joy was not explicitly mentioned in your primary text? (3) Or did you wait until texts explicitly used joy language, to let those sermons become your opportunity to talk Christian Hedonism?
That is complicated. There are two ways to answer this question. One is to do a statistical analysis of what I really said in 35 years of messages, and that would be the most reliable way to answer it. And, of course, it is all there, available for anybody who wants to do that (though I can think of more profitable things to do with your time). The other way is to ask me what my intentions were: What were my homiletical strategies or hermeneutical convictions that governed the way I handle texts? And that is what is being asked, I think. And it is not a very reliable way to know, because my memory of how I approached thousands of texts is not very good. But I will do my best to say what I think today, and others can judge whether 30 years ago I actually practiced this.
Let Every Text Speak
When a preacher comes to a text, he never deals with it in isolation from what he knows from that author in other texts or other biblical authors on that same theme. Texts have deeper and wider meaning and significance the more clearly you see how what it teaches relates to the rest of what Scripture teaches. For example, Jesus says in Mark 10:45 that he did not come to be served, but to serve. Now knowing Acts 17:25, at this very point, may have a profound impact on how a preacher deals with Mark 10:45 and vice versa. Acts 17:25 says that God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
In other words, Christ’s coming not to be served is an expression of a wider, larger, deeper divine trait that God is of such a nature he cannot be served by man. And taken together, these two texts unleash a river of thoughts about the nature of God and of Christ and salvation and discipleship. And my point is that to know those things is going to affect the way you preach on either of those texts. So the point is that the more connections you know from the Bible, the richer and deeper you will go with each text.
And the trick is to let each text make its real contribution to the whole, rather than letting the whole squash the text into what you already know from other texts. That is the trick. That is the catch. One must be utterly honest with every text, and over time, the spiritually discerning people in our churches will see whether we are honest with every text, or whether we are squashing them all into our little systematic desire, whether it is Christian Hedonism or whatever you happen to love.
Four Goals for Preaching
So here is how it works with me in Christian Hedonism — namely, the truth that God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. And I will put it in three or four principles.
1. Understand the Bible’s greatest commandment.
I know that the greatest commandment in the Bible is that we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And I know that because Jesus said it is the greatest and because numerous texts on loving God teach it. And I also have learned from the Bible that loving God means treasuring God above all things, finding him to be our all-satisfying treasure. That is a piece of Christian Hedonism. In other words, I don’t just use the word: “The main commandment in the Bible is to love God.” I want to know: What do you mean love God? What does it mean to love God? Do you work for him because he is a needy God or does it mean finding him all-satisfying, a supreme treasure?
And I conclude the latter, which means that this goal — bringing people to obey the greatest commandment every Sunday, because it is the greatest commandment, and you want people to do it and you want them to be pointed toward that greatest commandment in everything you say — that will inevitably cause me to lean toward displaying God as all-satisfying, displaying God as the greatest treasure in the world under, in, behind every text. If it is explicit, I hope I can make that plain. If it is not explicit, I hope the sermon will have that flavor. And the people will have to judge whether I am succeeding in imposing or inferring.
2. Know humankind’s greatest aim.
I know from 1 Corinthians 10:31 that God aims for us to glorify him in everything — everything. From the moment this sermon is over till people show up again, everything they do is to be done for the glory of God. And I know from years of reading the Bible and study that this is God’s supreme passion — not just mine or Paul’s. I have also learned that God is not so much glorified in people and their attitudes if they are not satisfied in him, if they don’t find pleasure in him, if he is not their supreme treasure.
So very close, beneath or behind every sermon, is the aim to help people delight in God all the time, including horrible times, because glorifying God is supremely important in the Bible, and that is the way we do it.
3. Highlight God’s greatest gift.
I have learned that the gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection is both the supreme demonstration of the gift of God’s glory — it is the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Christ — and the death of Christ is the price paid so we could have that glory, see that glory, receive that gift.
And, therefore, I have tried in recent decades, especially, to keep the cross close, beneath and behind, all preaching, because the cross is the price that was paid for God’s glory and the ultimate presentation of God’s glory for our everlasting enjoyment.
4. Always show what’s really in the text.
I am deathly afraid of imposing alien meanings on texts. I think imposing alien meanings from outside a text —even from other texts in God’s word — is the death knell of authority in preaching, the death knell of trustworthiness as a preacher, the death knell of being interesting as a preacher, and the death knell of growing in our understanding of the Bible.
So my aim in preaching has always been: Show the people what is in the text, what is really there. I want them to see what is really there. And if there is more than meets the eye regarding the glory of God, loving God, the cross of Christ, Christian Hedonism, then it better be really visible to people when you are done.
It needs to grow out of the text organically rather than being imposed on it. If the people don’t see the bigger points organically growing out of a text, they will start to feel, “This guy can’t really be trusted with the Bible,” and they will start to be bored because they can expect what is coming every week.
So that is my goal. And whether I succeeded, others will have to judge.