FORGET NONE OF HIS BENEFITS
volume 19, number 16, April 9, 2020
“Prophesy over these bones.” -Ezekiel 37:4
Not since World War II has the entire world been so adversely and strikingly affected as we now are with COVID-19. We are told that this week we will likely reach the peak of deaths in the United States, resulting in the earthly demise of many more thousands of Americans due to this novel coronavirus. In a time such as this, our nation needs a certain kind of preaching to sinner and saint alike. And what kind of preaching is worthy of C0VID-19?
On the one hand, by way of contrast, it must not be man centered, deistic, psychotherapeutic, semi-pelagian, redemptive-historical, casual, antinomian, moralistic, without exhortation, or information only preaching. On the other hand, however, it must be God centered, Christ exalting, Spirit anointed, man debasing, exemplary, urgent, passionate, law filled, grace filled, exhortation filled, heart directed, three fold evangelistic, prophetic, and revival preaching.
Okay, that’s a mouth full. What does it mean? Before I go there let’s remember that God raised up the prophet Ezekiel around 620 B.C. to preach repentance and covenant renewal to the nation of Judah as they faced impending judgment at the hands of the Babylonians. Judah had long lived in abject rebellion through idolatry, and Yahweh was seeking to bring them back to the covenant of grace by the preaching of men like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Yahweh provides Ezekiel with a vision of what can be and will be. In chapter 37 of Ezekiel Yahweh shows the prophet a valley of dry bones and He asked His servant, “Can these bones live?” To which the prophet replies, “Lord, you know.” Ezekiel seems to be hedging his response. Then Yahweh tells him to prophesy, to preach to these dry bones in the valley. This, of course, is a vivid picture of the impossibility yet necessity of following God’s appointed means of converting sinners. They are dead. Very dead. There is no flesh, no muscle, no organs. All that remains are the bones, bleached white by the hot sun. Yet Yahweh commands His servant to preach to the bones. How foolish! What a waste of time! But Ezekiel obeys and we know that the bones put on flesh, muscle, sinew, organs, and God breathed life into the bones and a whole nation of them arose.
Our task of preaching today is no different than in the day of Ezekiel. The unconverted man is dead in his sins. He has no appetite for God. He cannot understand. He does not seek God. He delights in his sin. He is blind to the truths of the gospel. He is like the valley of dry bones. Yet the preacher is to preach to them. What must he say? How must he preach?
Business as usual preaching will not get the job done. Preaching worthy of COVID-19 must not be man centered. The tendency of far too many preachers today is to begin with man and not with God. Is man lonely, is he depressed, does he need friends, is he in financial trouble, has he experienced rejection? If so, then the preacher tends to focus his message on massaging these needs of his auditors. So in this context we tend to hear sermons like “Ten Easy Steps to a Better Marriage,” or “Five Ways to Really Love Your Child.”
This preaching must not be deistic. Deism has some vague notion of a god, a sort of benevolent grandfather, who is really happy with everyone except maybe Adolf Hitler or Ted Bundy. In deism almost everyone is assured of heaven as long as he lives a pretty good life and helps others. Deistic preachers make everyone feel really good about themselves. They make no effort to discriminate between the believer and unbeliever. He tends to use inconclusive language, “We are all good people here in this church.” All of us are going to be just fine when this COVID-19 thing is over.”
It must not be psychotherapeutic. This kind of preaching is rampant today. It focuses on self-esteem, self-actualization, self-improvement, and eight steps to a happy and prosperous life now. It majors in psychotherapeutic terms like codependency, dysfunctional, inner child, and boundaries. It has no transforming power.
It must not be semi-pelagian. This aberrant theology believes that man has not been totally and adversely affected by the fall into sin. It believes that a vestige of goodness is within the heart and will of each person and therefore, appealing to the emotions and will through heart-rending or anecdotal stories devoid of Biblical doctrine is acceptable and even advisable. Semi-pelagian preaching is even practiced by Reformed pastors. How so? I have seen pastors or apologists in a hostile or secular environment soft-pedal or massage the true teaching of the Scriptures on hell, creation, abortion, and homosexuality, seemingly for the purpose of being liked or accepted by the audience.
It must not be redemptive-historical. Many Reformed preachers have jettisoned the tried and true historical, grammatical method of Biblical interpretation which, in the Old Testament context, looks first at what God is doing in the life of a Biblical character and only if the passage clearly points prophetically to Christ does he “see” Christ in it. Instead the redemptive-historical preacher sees Jesus in every Old Testament story and glosses over the immediate “blood and gore” of the text to get to Jesus as the hero of the story. Often the result is a grand overview of Biblical theology but lacking in practical application. Such preaching fails to move the person to some specific action demanded from the text.
It must not be casual. Much of this preaching comes across as a fireside chat, a TED talk, a hands in the pockets posture, or like the smiling, happy dialogue in a Hallmark movie. Casual preaching forgets the reality that everyone of us is to stand before the judgment seat of God and give account of all our deeds. It forgets that there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. There is little sense of urgency in this preaching.
It must not be antinomian. This word is formed by two Greek words we translate “against” and “law.” So an antinomian preacher does not emphasize the law. He fails to proclaim the three-fold use of God’s law—as a tutor to drive the unbeliever to Christ, as a warning for the civil magistrate and for citizens to live by the law of God, and as a standard for believers to show them their need daily to repent and seek the work of the Holy Spirit in their sanctification. It lacks the punch of conviction which levels the wretched sinner as well as the wretched saint.
It must not be moralistic. Telling people to try harder, to be good, to be a good husband, father, wife, mother, or child is weak preaching. It frustrates those who seek to live up to the moral proclamations of the preacher. In due time the hearers will either continue their charade of hypocrisy or give up the faith altogether because they cannot live up to the expectations of the church or pastor.
It must not be without exhortation. Because pastors tend to be good students of God’s word and theology they are good presenters of Biblical truth. So far so good, but they tend to be content in merely disseminating Biblical data, a kind of information dump. Every sermon, however, must ask the question, “So what? What am I supposed to do with what I have just heard?” Preaching without exhortation tends to leave the people hanging without clear direction on where to go from there.
And it must not be information only preaching. Many preachers today do a wonderful job of exegeting and expounding the Scriptures. Their people become very good students of the Bible and have a great deal of Biblical knowledge. This, of course, is very important but information is never enough. There must come a place in the sermon where the people literally or figuratively cry out, “Now, what must I do?”