Home > Biblical Theology, Preaching > Redemptive-Historical Preaching and Application, Part 2

Redemptive-Historical Preaching and Application, Part 2

In my last post I cited John Frame’s comments about biblical theology and the need for application.  I asked, how can we do justice to the redemptive-historical nature of Scripture in our preaching while applying the Bible in a responsible fashion?  Before I get to this question I want to provide some points for us to ponder.

1.) The Bible is supremely about the Jesus Christ and the gospel.  Therefore, the Bible is not a textbook on economics, parenting, weight loss, or any social or political topic.  The Bible first and foremost is a book about the gospel.  Every person, event, and institution is subservient to the greater purpose of Scripture, which is God’s salvation.  I often hear people quote 2 Timothy 3:16 as justification to talk about how the Bible touches on all of life’s issues (e.g., parenting, debt, science, education, politics, etc.).  While that may be true in one sense, Paul’s point is that the Scriptures are meant to lead someone to salvation (2 Tim 3:15).  We must ask the questions the Bible asks and provide the answers that the Bible provides.  The primary question that Scripture asks is what is wrong with the world and humanity and what is God’s solution to the problem?  Thus, we must adopt this perspective of Scripture and understand that the Bible is supremely about the good news of Jesus Christ. 

2.)  Because the Bible is about the good news of Jesus Christ, we must seek to understand the Bible on its own terms.  The Bible understands itself in a redemptive-historical way and we must adopt this way of understanding and interpreting it.  If we fail to interpret our Bible the way Jesus and the apostles did, then our conclusions about the text will always be incomplete.  In other words, no text can be rightly understood or applied without first understanding how each individual text fits within the greater context of redemptive-history and points to and finds its fulfillment in Jesus.  If we skip over the cross and seek to apply individual texts to the modern hearer we will not only give an incomplete picture of Jesus, but our applications will always be arbitrary.   Let me provide you with two examples (one each from the Old and New Testament) of how these two points are often ignored.  A.) The story of Isaac re-digging the wells of his father Abraham is often used to encourage young men to return to the faith of their fathers (Gen 26:18-25).    B.) The story of Jesus calming the storm is often used to talk about how Jesus can calm the storms in your life (Mark 4:35-41).  While it is true we should look at the faith of those who have come before us and be encouraged to press on (cf., Heb 11) and while it is true that Jesus brings peace in our lives, these sort of applications really do not get at the heart of what the Bible is saying in either of these texts as they fit within redemptive-history and serve the greater purpose of the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Our perspective (the gospel) and interpretation (redemptive-historical) of the Bible should always guide and control our application to modern hearers.  If passages in Scripture do not allow for certain applications then we must be willing to resist the urge to make arbitrary connections.  Furthermore, even if the text does seem to make certain applications we must be willing to provide the proper redemptive-historical context to understand those applications. 

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6:2 that today is the day of salvation (cf., Isa 49:8).  Paul is not saying that “today” (the day you are reading this post) is the day of salvation or that when the preacher gets up and preaches is the “day” of salvation.  Rather, Paul is saying that the day of salvation that Isaiah foretold has now come in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In other words, the time or age of salvation has come.  This age spans from the first coming of Jesus to the end of the age.  Now that this salvation has come God has given you magnificent promises and the power to be holy; therefore, resist sin and fear God (2 Cor 6:14-7:1). 

Paul’s words are instructive on a number of fronts. 

1.) If the day of salvation spans from the first coming of Jesus to his second, then the Bible is just as relevant today as it was then.  Obviously no biblical thinker would deny this point, but Paul is saying much more to us.  If we share the same day of salvation with Paul and his hearers then the promises of God and the application that Paul spoke to his hearers is just as relevant today.  In other words, I don’t need to create separate applications from the text for the modern day hearer, rather we all (the early church and us) partake of the same salvation and the applications of that salvation.  Elsewhere the writers of the New Testament proclaim that with the coming of Jesus the last days have dawned (Acts 2:17; 1 Cor 10:11; 2 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; 2 Pet 3:3).  While we live in this age of promise and blessing (the already) we await the full consummation of God’s purposes (the not yet).  This already-not-yet dynamic is important because it demonstrates that we share in the last days just as the early church did.  Because we all share in the same eschatological age (the already or last days) the applications for them hold the same relevance and power for our lives today.  Thus, I don’t need to create “other” applications; rather, I need to carefully understand the Bible on its own terms, both in regard to its interpretation and application. 

2.) For Paul the foundation for application is always the magnificent promises that are found in Jesus Christ.  Paul constantly points his hearers back to the realities of what they have and who they are in Jesus Christ as the means to encourage them (e.g., Rom 5-8; Gal 3-5; Eph 1-3; Col 1-3).  If you carefully read Paul’s letters you notice that he does not give people “rules” to follow, but reminds them of the truth and power of the gospel that has come into their lives and then admonishes them to live in accordance with that reality, which is summed up in loving God and loving each other (Gal 6:2; cf., Matt 22:36-40).  While the ethical implications of the gospel are clear, they are not formulated in a nice and neat list of do’s and do not’s.  The fruit of the Spirit is very clearly laid out in the book of Galatians (5:22-26), but how we demonstrate this fruit in our lives toward God and others is varied.  Loving God and loving my neighbor is very broad and this often makes us uncomfortable because we want specific commands for every situation to know how to live or to tell other people how to live.  The New Testament does not present the Christian life as lists or formulas, but it calls us to reckon in our hearts and minds who we are in Jesus and then to respond with gratitude and love. 

3.) When we read Paul’s letters (or any letter of the New Testament) doctrine and application or preaching and application are never separate, both are tied together (1 Tim 4:16; Titus 2:10).  I often hear people say that the beginning of Paul’s letters provide the theology whereas the end of his letters provide the application.  This dichotomy is false and dangerous.  The letters of the New Testament clearly teach application, but that application is never divorced from sound doctrine.  Even when doctrine and application are not separated, we still see a misunderstanding of how the two fit together.  Often preachers will teach a text, but then assume the application is different because the original audience lived two-thousand years ago.  One example is head coverings (1 Cor 11:2ff).  Because head coverings are not part of our society, preachers often make some strange application (e.g., women should wear hats), but usually these applications are forced and unbiblical.  Certainly there are cultural challenges to consider when interpreting the text, but we must recognize that some passages in the Bible may not apply to us.  I think we should understand and teach the situation that Paul was addressing with head coverings, but why do we feel like we must make some application with this text?  I don’t think we need to.  We are not undermining the authority of Scripture, but simply recognizing that Paul was addressing a certain situation that doesn’t apply to us.  Another assumption we make about doctrine and application is that the problems Christians faced then are not the same problems we face today.  Therefore, preachers must change the application that Paul made to fit with our day. Aside from ignoring what I presented about the already-not-yet, this sort of thinking fails to take seriously the fact that the problems of past generations are the same as today, which is sin.  People have always and will always have a problem with God and each other because of sin, but Jesus has come to fix that problem.  Thus, if the problem has remained the same, so has the solution and the application of that solution in our lives.  Furthermore, the need for sanctification remains the same as it did two-thousand years ago.  If that same salvation was preached then as it is today then the identical need and path of sanctification remains unchanged, which makes the Bible truly applicable to all believers in every generation.

I have decided to extend this topic to three posts.  In my final post I will offer some examples from the Bible with respect to the points I made above. 

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  1. May 6, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Love it. Totally agree. new preacher. Preached a few sermons and thought would get an A from this writer. A for using lots of scriptures, application

  2. Lacie
    March 30, 2010 at 6:34 am

    Ok, preacher. I’ve been a Reformed Christian for 35 years. Do you think preaching sermons on ‘how to be saved’ might fall into the category of milk (necessary for the young or newborn)? Are you not to go on to meat? What is the purpose of our being saved? Is it not to obey? (“created in Christ Jesus for good works” comes to mind). 2 Tim. 3:16 is a word to preachers on how to preach. Yes, Christ is the point of the OT. Obviously (to us), but the disciples on the Emmaus road didn’t see it. Nor do most Jews and many non-Christians. But does that mean that people who have professed faith need to hear every week to trust in Jesus (as if this was the first time). R-H has some problems, the most obvious of which is that Luke’s Emmaus road passage doesn’t teach a method of teaching, it shows Jesus declaring Himself to the subject of OT prophecy, law, and psalms. And BTW, churches should sing, not just read, the Psalms and they’d be more “R-H”.

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