About Mark Johnston

Mark Johnston is the pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia (http://www.proclamation.org). He was previously the pastor of Grove Chapel in London. He is married to Fiona and has two children.

Preaching and Biblical Theology

Seminary seems as though it belongs to a different lifetime! It’s almost 30 years since I attended Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and it is curious to look back on those days and reflect on how much they meant to me.

One thing that stands out about them is the sense of perplexity I and other students felt as to why certain courses were included in the curriculum and why certain emphases seemed to run through many of them. For me, one of the most perplexing of these was the emphasis on Biblical Theology – the technical term for that branch of theology that is not merely ‘biblical’ in that it is self-consciously drawn from Scripture; but which charts the progression in divine revelation and, more specifically, the history of Redemption.

At one level I could see its importance in the grand scheme of the discipline of theology in general and how it relates to hermeneutics. It provides a healthy and necessary connector between exegetical theology and historical theology en route to a full-blown Systematic Theology. But my problem was, ‘How does it relate to Practical Theology – especially in the realm of Homiletics?’

Westminster at that time placed a high premium on this particular theological discipline. This was hardly surprising, given the roots of Westminster theology in that of Princeton and the fact that Geerhardus Vos was such a significant figure in the development of Biblical Theology. However it seemed to some students it was an emphasis that was being pushed too far and its relationship with preaching was a case in point. The then President of the Seminary immortalized the link in his book, Preaching and Biblical Theology (P&R; Philipsburg, NJ) 1961, and it featured prominently in his preaching classes as much as in his own preaching.

The point he was making is that the grand storyline of the Bible is Salvation. From beginning to end it relates the history of God’s redemptive purpose from eternity past right through to its consummation in the world which is to come and its supreme focus is Jesus Christ. If that is indeed the case, then it calls into question any sermon that is ostensibly rooted in a text but never gets beyond mere moralizing and, worse than that, never gets to Christ.

This approach to preaching still has its own inherent weaknesses. It can become very mechanical and predictable in the way it controls a preacher’s handling of the text. It can also lead to the delivery of a sermon being like ‘constructing a house out of which the occupants cannot escape and into which those on the outside cannot enter’. (For years I thought that was a quote from John Frame, though he assures me it wasn’t, but nevertheless said he would be happy to claim it if its provenance cannot be established!)

For me, it was almost a full ten years into the ministry that the full positive significance and benefit of this dimension of preaching really began to come home. Only then did I start to appreciate that it is the key to genuinely gospel-centred preaching – addressed to believers as much as to unbelievers – that is the heartbeat of healthy preaching. More than that, it is the key to ensuring that over and above the voice of the preacher heard during a sermon, it is the voice of Christ that is heard most clearly.

Every detail of every part of Scripture flows out of the overarching message of Scripture which is all about Christ and the great salvation found in him alone. Or, as Sinclair Ferguson has noted in a number of addresses recently, ‘It is almost as though the entire message of the Bible is a footnote to Genesis 3.15!’

Learning to factor in this component to our sermon preparation and cultivating the art of doing it well will not only inject freshness into our ministry, it will also ensure that we are preaching every text in light of its most glorious horizon: the story of Redemption.

Out of the Word; into the World

A friend of mine once said, ‘You can tell the colour of a preacher’s sermons by the colour of the spines of the books in his library!’ He was being a little facetious, but there is more than a grain of truth in his observation. Too many sermons belong to a bygone era because their composers have spent too much time living in that era – at least in a virtual sense through what they choose to read. Their sermons may be exegetically accurate and doctrinally orthodox, but they can be utterly divorced from the world their congregations live in.

It brings us into the realm of the preacher’s self-understanding in terms of who he is and how he’s called to function. The long-hand answer to that is found in some measure in the range of Greek and Hebrew words associated with preachers and preaching (and that may be the basis of a future post), but there is a more succinct answer as well. It is captured in the title of John Stott’s book published in the UK as I Believe in Preaching. Its US title is Between Two Worlds.

The rationale for the decision to publish under a different title came from Stott’s reference to John Chrysostom in one of its chapters. There he highlighted the fact that the ‘Golden Mouth’ of preachers in the 4th Century church saw himself as a bridge between two worlds: the world of the Bible and the world(s) in which his hearers lived.

On the one hand his labours in the first of those worlds, the Word of God, was constrained by all the disciplines of careful exegesis with all its many facets, how it was communicated was constrained by the world into which he was speaking. In that sense, the ‘what’ of his message was fixed, but the ‘way’ it was delivered was not.

It’s not hard to see illustrations of this principle at work in the ministries of Christ and of the apostle Paul. In the case of Christ, a glance at how he ‘preached’ – albeit one-on-one – to Nicodemus and to the woman at the well in two consecutive chapters in John shows how the same essential message was conveyed in two very different ways to two extremely different people. With Paul, the same can be seen in Acts 17 in three preaching opportunities recorded there. The first two, addressed to Jewish, biblically literate audiences, were very different from the third addressed to the Areopagus. In all three he preached Christ; but in the third he preached him without naming him.

So for preachers in all ages; those who have had the greatest impact are those who have not only connected deeply with the text they proclaim, but who also connect deeply with the people and culture into which they speak.

What does that mean in practical terms? Pastor A.N. Martin codified it in his counsel to preachers in relation to their reading habits. Of the six books that were supposed to be on the go in any given week, one at least had to have a secular bent – and this on top of having a weekly subscription to Time or Newsweek! Or, for those who prefer British role models, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones would saturate himself in the weekend papers as part of the finishing touch to his sermon preparation for Sundays. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that his sermons caught the attention even of the unbelieving world of his day.

The point is this: if we are going to be not only faithful, but also increasingly effective preachers, then we need to cultivate the art of not just speaking out of the Word, but into the world!