Often we think of theology as content to be delivered. It is the message we deliver to those sitting in the seats on Sunday morning. The sermon is the bag, theology is the content. Theology is more than content to deliver, and sermonic form is more than a morally neutral container.
Theology, especially a practical theology, is not merely content, it is reflective action. Theological reflection on how we do what we do is one of the greatest lacks in ministry.
Currently any reflection on how we do what we do in church is primarily done through social science research in the form of statistics and surveys resulting in sociological principles for best practice. These things are neither bad nor unnecessary. They are strengthened, deepened and enriched however by theological reflection. It is one thing to have rules of thumb for when to add a service based on attendance, it is another thing to reflect theologically on the why and how of that service’s style, form, and liturgical commitments. Most preachers decide what to preach theologically, they decide how to preach sociologically.
Over the next few weeks I want to consider what a Wesleyan theology of salvation has to teach us about how to preach even more than what to preach. Below is a brief diagram of what is often called an ordo salutis (order of salvation).
1. Divine Foreknowledge 2. Prevenient Grace 3. Convicting Grace 4. Justifying Grace (Initial Sanctification) 5. Regeneration 6. Growth in Grace 7. Complete Consecration 8. Entire Sanctification 9. Growth in Grace 10. Glorification.
Each of these phases of spiritual development in a Wesleyan understanding of full salvation builds upon the previous. It is not as though the grace of conviction is left behind once we are justified and reborn. Rather, as all things are made new every moment of temptation turned to intentional or unintentional sin becomes more painful not less to the Christian whose heart of stone is becoming a heart of flesh. In the same way, we are saved by grace, we grow in grace, we surrender our selfishness only by God’s grace, and we are filled with the cleansing empowering spirit only by God’s grace. They build upon each other.
This week, though, I want to focus on divine foreknowledge and what divine foreknowledge can teach us about how to preach, not just what to preach.
Divine foreknowledge is rooted in passages such as Romans 8:29 “those whom God foreknew he also predestined to become conformed to the likeness of his son.” It is new testament teaching that before all time, since God had not yet created time by creating space, God knew our hearts and our actions and saw them with eyes of grace. Ephesians 1 tells us “he chose us in him before the creation of the world.” He decided before the beginning of time to set about our creation, knowing we would fall–fully recognizing the cost to redeem.
Some believe that divine foreknowledge puts predestination in the land of deterministic salvation. In other words God chose in advance those he would redeem and those he would damn. Wesleyans rather believe that God foresaw our choices, our hearts, our willingness to respond to God’s grace and in that knowledge named those who would believe as his own. Then, he predestined them not to justification but to sanctification. God foreknew our response to his grace and our reception of justification, he did not predestine it. he predestined us to be conformed to his likeness (see Romans 8:29 above). The rest of Ephesians 1:4 reads this way “he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Foreknowledge is a full view of our sin and response to grace, predestination is the decision to make us like himself in keeping with our willingness to receive the grace God eagerly gives.
Before we move toward conclusions about how to preach, allow me a few simple reflections on the nature of God based on a Wesleyan view of foreknowledge.
- God begins with the end in mind.
- God is willing to pay a high personal cost to accomplish our salvation.
- God does not want to merely save us but to sanctify us.
- In all of this, God is love more fully than we can comprehend.
What do these brief conclusions regarding the nature of God based on the doctrine of divine foreknowledge teach us about how to preach? Surely, your preaching mind has already started its wheels turning on what to preach. But how?
I suggest that we follow God’s example in the disposition of our preaching life. In other words, we seek to become in our preaching selves what God is in God’s self.
1. Begin with the end in mind
The wrong end will lead to the wrong disposition. We all begin with the end in mind, either subconsciously or consciously. God consciously chose in complete foreknowledge what the end would be. He could see the infinitely branching web of dominoes separating and then converging into one destination in the eschaton.
We most often have a much shorter view. We may envision having “something to say” by Sunday morning. In our most stretched weeks God’s grace condescends to our smallness of view and delivers. We may extend that vision to something more personally gratifying such as “great sermon, preacher. Wow! Best I ever heard” or a scattering of raised hands, even a lined altar. More crassly, but more long term, we may envision a larger church, a growing platform, an array of ministries, or the accomplishment of some other concrete dream for “our” ministry. When we begin with these ends in mind, we determine the way of our preaching to some degree.
Let us, by God’s grace, as much as is humanly possible seek God’s end…a holy people from every tongue, tribe, and nation worshiping God in his holiness. What will help these people, in their diversity, increase in Christlikeness for eternity’s sake? What is the gap for them between here and there? How can it be bridged one step at a time. What can this sermon do to give them opportunities to choose Christ’s better way out of a heart motivated by love. The end is a worshiping community who willingly, joyfully worship God in his holiness, and seek to be ever more like him as a result. The aim of preaching is a diverse eternally worshiping community.
Some practical suggestions:
- Some preachers seek to accomplish this greater end by planning their sermons not only year by year, but five to seven years at a time. They want to cover the grand sweep of God’s intentions and plans for their people. Review your preaching and see what part of God’s end vision for his people is going uncovered.
- Ask yourself three questions about every sermon as you write it:
A) What is the focus of the sermon (what it says)
B) What is the function of the sermon (what does it do to the listener)
C) What is the hoped for future (how will your people be different if they live it out and how does that future relate to God’s future).
These three questions will help you begin your sermon with the end in mind, preach with the end in mind, and evaluate your preaching with the end in mind.
2. Pay the personal cost for transformative preaching.
God’s willingness to pay the highest cost inspires us to pay a higher cost than we otherwise might. Why go through the agony of preaching week in and week out for something less than the salvation and sanctification of human souls? Once that end is in view though, another hour in sermon preparation and practice makes more sense. We always give greater investment for greater returns. Not every pastor can afford fifteen hours of sermon preparation in a given week. There is no legalistic rule, though a half hour of preparation for every minute of sermon delivery is not a bad rule of thumb. Whatever you have been able to do, is it fitting with then end in view? Perhaps you have allowed some other end (pleasing people for example), to keep you from pursuing God’s end as fully as you want. Say no to something, to say yes to more time for preaching.
3. Keep searching for a better way
God’s decision to accomplish our salvation in Christ was a decision for a particular way. Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, was always the second person of the trinity in one way or another. By anticipation or by incarnation, the Word was always embodied in Jesus and his coming sacrifice. Think about this, if all God needed was a sinless sacrifice Herod could have been allowed to kill Christ. It wasn’t justification alone that God was after however, but sanctification by a great high priest.
What is the best way you can discern to bring your message to God’s people? Do not settle for just a way to say what you have to say. How we say what we say is often as determinative of the message received as the content. Give thought to the way. If the way seems difficult, pray a Gethsemane prayer of surrender, and ask God if there may not be a better way.
Some practical suggestions:
- Let your preaching preparation transform you first. Always ask yourself this key question “how can these passage(s) change the way I live (think/act/feel) this week? Until you have answered that question, it will be difficult to deliver a transformative sermon. After all, you have not found your path of transformation. Analyze the path of your intellectual/psychological transformation and you have your first clue to the better way. What made your light bulb finally come on?
- Analyze the structure of your transformation for good news. Whatever makes it more possible or more likely for people to live in ways that are congruent with the gospel is good news. How does the grace of God enable a shift in thinking, acting or feeling for you? Is it transferrable? Are there other ways you can offer? Don’t just add loads to shoulders, lift gospel-led fingers to help.
- Know the flow of your sermon from A to Z. Whether you manuscript or outline, you need to have internalized the sermon enough to be capable of sketching it’s flow from memory. If not, you may have the end in mind but not the way. Determine the best way you can find, and commit it to soul.
- Practice the sermon. Have you noticed how many times the gospels mention the suffering of Christ before it happens? Christ seemed to be visualizing and rehearsing with his disciples what was about to happen and what they should do. The garden of Gethsemane was in part a full facing of the “way” and a mental preparation for following it exactly. How else would Christ have been able to remain silent at the right moment, to speak at the right moment, to quote the right scriptures, and to refuse even the slightest departure from the chosen way?
4. Above all else, view your people with love.
Perhaps the phrase “love never fails” is appropriate here (1 Cor. 13). Not only does love preservere (it never stops loving) it never fails or falls (piptei). When we preach with a foreknowing vision of love we preach with a vision that sees all the kinds of evil our people are capable of and loves them anyway. If have this, if God gives us this, then we cannot fail. No matter how small the ministry, how apparently ineffectual the sermon, or how awkward the moment, she who preaches from a heart of love cannot fail. For love is the point of it all.
– David B Ward, © 2013