September 8, 2005

Sermons with an Address

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

On a mailing list I’m on, someone cited Charles Bridges on the pastoral ministry:

…so that sermons (like letters put into the post-office without a direction) are addressed to no one. No one owns them. No one feels any personal interest in their contents. Thus a minister under this deteriorating influence chiefly deals in general truths devoid of particular application – more in what is pleasing that what is direct and useful.

and asked for our reflections on this comment. Here are mine:

It seems to me that it’s possible to preach passages of Scripture as if our goal is to explain certain doctrines instead of to administer that passage to the congregation sitting in front of us.

An example: Suppose our text for Sunday includes 2 Thess. 2:13 (“We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth….”).

It’s tempting to make that sermon a series of mini doctrinal lessons. First, we could talk about the obligation of thanksgiving. Then we could talk about the doctrine of God’s love (“beloved by the Lord”) .Then we could talk about the doctrine of election (“God … chose you”) — possibly making a swipe or two at the Arminians along the way — and the doctrine of sanctification (“through sanctification by the Spirit”) and the doctrine of faith (“belief in the truth”) and so forth.

Now what we might say in those doctrinal lessons might be orthodox and fully biblical. But I submit that in preaching that way we are doing what Brown warns against. More that that, I would say that instead of preaching this text, we’re simply trying to show how this text teaches certain doctrines. And the crucial matter here is that we’ve left out part of the text.

What part? The pronouns and the address. Paul doesn’t say, “Let me tell you now about the ethical duty of gratitude and the doctrines of God’s love, God’s election, sanctification, and faith.” Rather, he addresses a particular congregation and says certain things to them.

And that is our calling as pastors, it seems to me: not simply to work out doctrines and to show how this passage contributes to our theologies (as if our goal in preaching is to help the congregation develop a comprehensive systematic theology) but rather to tell the congregation what Paul tells the Thessalonians.

That means that as pastors we ought to be saying to our congregations (i.e., to the real people sitting in front of us as we preach): “I am bound to thank God for you always, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth….”

We may not simply present doctrinal statements. We must rather tell the congregation that they are “brothers beloved by the Lord.” We need to tell them, “God chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”

Our goal as pastors must be that every member of the congregation knows that we, as pastors, are thankful for them, that they are brothers, that God loves them, that God chose them for salvation (instead of destruction: see the context of 2 Thess. 2:13), that God has sanctified them by the Spirit, and so forth — and that they therefore live with the kind of confidence and assurance that Paul wants the Thessalonians to have in the face of all the opposition that surrounds them.

I would add that preaching sermons with an address on them (to use Bridges’ metaphor) would also include preaching to the particular congregation we’re addressing in its particular circumstances, so that a particular sermon may not be immediately and directly transferable to another congregation (with its different circumstances) or even to another time. It’s not bad if our sermons, read some years later, sound a bit dated.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:47 pm | Discuss (0)

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