For Preachers

Here’s an interesting little book: The Imperative of Preaching by John Carrick (Banner of Truth, 2002). Carrick is a professor of theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and teaches on the topic of this book.

The target audience for the book is given away somewhat by the critique he offers of the preaching method of the Redemptive-Historical school within the Reformed/Presbyterian community. In a nutshell, this school sees a minimal role for imperative instruction from the pulpit. Its is not the function of the preacher, so they say, to make the Bible relevant to people. Rather the method seeks to draw people into the text where they see themselves. Carrick rightly asks what this means!

Carrick’s purpose, then is to show what the essential elements of preaching are, and to show how they are used in Scripture. There are four:

  • The Indicative: stating the glorious truths of the gospel
  • The Exclamative: the use of exclamation to add ‘heat’ to the indicative statements
  • The Interrogative: the use of questions to analyse indicatives, or as rhetorical devices, or as a means of searching the hearts of hearers.
  • The Imperative: giving instruction to the hearers.

Many examples are given from Scripture of all these elements, as are many from the recorded sermons of well known preachers spanning the time from Jonathan Edwards down to Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It is a pretty thorough approach.

As such the book is a useful tool for analysing how one constructs and delivers a sermon. The danger, as with any book that deals with homiletics, is that one can become formulaic in one’s preparation and delivery without possessing the heart and fire of the gospel. Without this the endeavour of preaching is pointless.

The niggling question I have, though, is one for Carrick’s method. Is it valid to infer from the teaching methods in the writings of Scripture what the nature of the preaching should be? Written records of sermons often do not read very well as writing simply because they should be heard. Similarly, attempting to read a theological book as a sermon will be stilted because it is intended to be read not heard. So, is it possible that Carrick mis-states, possibly overstates, the case for the role imperative in preaching?

For Preachers

5 thoughts on “For Preachers

  1. Alastair says:

    Surely preaching must be redemptive historical in the sense that it does draw us into the story. We should read the story of Israel and realize with Paul that these things were ‘written for our admonition’ (1 Corinthians 10:11). We certainly should ‘find ourselves within the text.’ This, of course, does not leave us without the imperative. Rather, it is a recognition of the fact that the Bible is an authoritative story that we have to confess as our own and be made part of within the Church.

    My fear is that Carrick’s approach will all too easily ‘substitute slogans for narrative.’ We will be taught about justification and sanctification, but we will not be told a story of justification and sanctification. The danger is that we think that the story is merely the vehicle for truths about God and salvation. No longer is the gospel the eschatological proclamation about the universal Lordship of the Israel’s Messiah Jesus of Nazareth. Instead it becomes a timeless message about how people can go to heaven when they die.

    I might be totally misrepresenting him here (I haven’t read him at all), but story does have a particular way of addressing us and drawing us into itself. There is a way to preach story with power (e.g. Acts 7) that is all too easily overlooked by those who want to follow the approach of Carrick. The Bible is an authoritative story, but Carrick and others like him do not seem to think in categories that make the term ‘authoritative story’ meaningful. They forget that an ‘authoritative story’ leaves us with an ‘imperative’ and not merely a group of ‘indicatives’.

    Carrick may suffer from the modernistic lack of appreciation for the role of narrative. The categories of ‘indicative’ and ‘imperative’ are simply not designed to apply to a well-told story. In a well-told story application may be self-evident. It may be interwoven into the story. The story may have brief application appended to it. A further method is to bring the story up to date, telling it up to the point in which your hearer finds himself. Effective sermons in this style may be rare, but I think that this is more attributable to certain misconceptions we have about what Scripture is than it is to any great inherent difficulty in this approach.


  2. Stephen says:


    A jumble of thoughts – Greek beckons:

    Thanks for your comments. These add a slant to the topic that I didn’t detect in Carrick – the role of narrative. Having read Carrick, where the language of Scripture is dissembled into the four chunks I listed, I am left with a pile of bits!

    Perhaps this is down to my reading of him. He does emphasise the interwoven-ness of scriptural indicatives and imperatives in his discussion of the former. But he does see this interweaving gathering around two focii: firstly, the Person and Work of Christ (Ind: Christ died for our sins; Imp: Repent and believe) and, secondly, the new status of the believer (Ind: we died to sin; Imp: reckon yourselves dead indeed to sin). This an important basis.

    It is my concern however that having established that basis, it is lost in the subsequent analysis of scriptural language such that what the reader takes away from his book is a bag of components with which to construct sermons e.g. It has to have the requisite number of exclamations – ‘O how marvelous…’, ‘What a great truth…!’ etc. – an ample sufficiency of searching questions, rounded of with a full helping of directive statements. I can see how this may miss the power of narrative as you point out.

    Finally, what do you mean by ‘substitute slogans for narrative’? Are you saying that the distillation of systematic statements of doctrine from Scripture, and the teaching thereof, is a form of sloganeering?

  3. Alastair says:

    By speaking of substituting slogans for narrative I was criticizing those who throw around phrases like ‘justification by faith alone’ in a manner that detaches them from the story of Scripture.

    Justification by faith alone, as it is explained in Romans and elsewhere, is inseparable from the promise of seed to Abraham. It is bound up with the bringing together of Jews and Gentiles. It is an eschatological message based upon what the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has done in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. The truth of justification by faith alone is that which underlies the Church as a community where barriers between man and man, and man and God, are broken down.

    Our justification is connected with our Baptism into this new community. In this new community we have a common confession that is the fulfilment of the Jewish Shema that marks us out as the justified people. Justification is bound up with resurrection; it is the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah that underlies our vindication.

    When people speak of ‘justification by faith alone’ as nothing but the timeless ‘way of salvation’ they do great damage to the manner in which Paul and the other NT authors treat justification. For Paul ‘justification by faith alone’ is bound up with the climax of Israel’s story in the person of Jesus the Messiah.

    In the same manner, when people talk about ‘the law’ in a detached manner, as if it were just some general moral code, they do violence to Paul. For Paul, ‘the law’ was always ‘the Jewish Torah’.

    To properly understand Paul (or any of the NT authors for that matter) you have to understand the biblical story that their writings everywhere presuppose. As you begin to understand the story you begin to see the true weight of their teaching on salvation.

    Some may think that this leaves us somewhat detached from the message. However, this can never be the case. In the Church we are made part of the story.

    Every first day of the week (or eighth day — as a result of the resurrection) we look forward to and have a foretaste of the new creation. We assemble together as the people who have pledged allegiance to Jesus the Messiah, the new Lord of the world. Assembled together we renew covenant with Him.

    We start our service with the forgiveness of sins, by which we are granted access into God’s presence to worship Him. Here the minister applies the blood of the new covenant to our dirty consciences. The blood of the new covenant is that whereby rebels in Adam such as us have been granted a general amnesty. As a result of this forgiveness, grounded upon God’s reconciling of the world to Himself in Christ we can enjoy fellowship with God.

    This absolution brings to our remembrance the deliverance that we experienced in Baptism. In our Baptism we were formally brought into the eschatological kingdom of Christ and granted full access to the new Temple — indwelt by the Spirit — that is being constructed of living stones on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. In our Baptism we were baptized into Christ’s death. As a result of our union with Christ in His death we are freed from the rule of Death and Satan, which Christ Himself died to in the great victory of His death and resurrection (Romans 6:9). We are now people who belong to the Lord, Jesus the Messiah.

    In our Baptisms we were set apart as priests — holy warriors — who are to do liturgical battle with the Evil One. We yield our members as weapons of righteousness, putting on the armour that God Himself wears to bring about His restorative justice (cf. Isaiah 59:15f.). Each day on the first day of the week, after we have received absolution, we are called to come up into God’s presence — ‘lift up your hearts!’ — to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, where we are permitted to participate in the worship of an innumerable company of angels and just men made perfect in the festal gathering of the church of the firstborn (Hebrews 12:22-23).

    We address God as the Father of the church as the new family (Ephesians 3:14f.) in corporate prayer, presenting ourselves before Him. Jesus the Messiah, our great High Priest, stands in our midst as the one who leads us in worship (Hebrews 12:2). By Him, the theanthropic man, we are, by the Spirit in Christ, drawn to participate in the relationships that exist between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. We sing with joy in God’s presence giving Him the praise of our lips.

    The Lord, Jesus the Messiah, then addresses us in the person of his ordained symbol and representative. His Word, which proceeds from His mouth as a two-edged sword, dissects us and renders us naked and bare in the presence of God. We then proclaim the covenant that we have come to renew and confess our faith in God the Father and in Jesus Christ His Son. We may also recount our covenant history in song or some other form.

    The sermon addresses God’s Word to us, helping us to understand. It applies the Word to us as a living voice. Through the preaching of the Word we become better aware of our place in God’s cosmic drama and our God-given vocation.

    In the Lord’s Service we present our offerings to God, along with the bread and wine of communion as tokens of our labour. Through God’s receiving of the sacrifice of thanksgiving that is offered in Christ in the Supper our culture can be restored. In the Supper the covenant that God has made with us is sealed as we are permitted to eat at the King’s Table. The privilege of eating in God’s holy Temple was formerly granted only to the priests. The privilege of drinking wine in God’s presence in the Temple was never granted until Christ completed His work. At the Table we have a foretaste of the future wedding feast and we memorialize the great victory that the Lord won over the ruler of this world, upon which our identity as the Church is founded. By feeding on the flesh and blood of the Messiah by faith we are knit into His body, being made one with one another also.

    As we leave God’s presence He commissions and blesses us, sending us out as His colonists, ambassadors and warriors into the old world order. In our worship we learn to think as those who belong to a distinct political, social and cultural entity. We have peculiar rituals, we have certain habits of posture and speech that we are trained in. In worship we learn how to speak the Pentecostal language that triumphs over Babel. We learn to speak and name the world using God’s language rather than the language of psychology, marketing, or some other competing language. As the Church in Christ we are the solution to the problem of the old world order.

    What I am trying to argue here is worship is a drama that makes us part of a story. Much as the celebration of Passover knit the OT Israelites into the story of the Exodus, so our worship knits us into the cosmic story that reached its fulfillment in Christ.

    Here lies the danger of any systematic theology that would speak in terms of timeless truths rather than in terms of the story. We never know God as some timeless being. Rather God is the One who has revealed Himself in His incarnated Son and brings us near to Himself by making us part of the Body of the Messiah by the gift of His Spirit. God is revealed in His dealings with Israel and in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. We only know God through the story. In order to know God in a very personal manner we ourselves have to be knit into the story. God knits us into the story in the Word and the sacraments in worship. The danger of systematic theology and such preaching as Carrick speaks of, is that we become increasingly detached from the story. The story can merely become a vehicle through which we learn what we must do to be saved or learn truths about God. However, we can forget that being knit into the story in worship is salvation.

    Preaching that leaves us feeling detached from the story, merely trying to salvage a few ‘imperatives’ from it, is IMHO, failed preaching. True biblical preaching should present the Bible story as our story and, as part of the drama of covenant renewal worship, should deepen our connection to the story. True biblical preaching should certainly apply the story by showing us how we ought to live out the story in our day-to-day lives. However, there is a big difference between teaching people to live out a story and merely giving people imperatives that have been abstracted from the narrative. Whilst I am well aware that Carrick and others would not want to see the imperatives as wholly detached from the story, this, I believe, is the tendency and danger of their approach.

    Sorry for rambling so much.

  4. Stephen says:

    OK! OK! …ah!…ah!…I submit…ah!…ah!…gerroff!!!

    Er, Al, I’m not avoiding your comment – how can I? It’s so BIG!! I just need time to digest it. You’ve taken this post in a direction I didn’t expect, and I don’t have a lot of time to deal with it at the moment. Pathetic, huh? 😉

    Will you be around at ETCW next week?

  5. Alastair says:

    Yes, I will. I’m sure that we can discuss this there. As it is, I have far too many things to distract me from Greek revision at the moment.

Comments are closed.