Chapter 75

Showing Promise

You want people to obey God's commands. Are you giving them faith to do so?

While reading Scott Hafemann's The God of Promise and the Life of Faith (Crossway, 2001), I came across a passage with profound implications for preaching:

To obey God's command fully, we must see the enabling promise in all its glory, and express our obedience as an act of faith.

God's promises and commands are the stuff of preaching. Most preachers default toward one or the other. Given the confusion in our culture over God's requirements, I probably lean toward preaching God's commands. I want to help people understand what God expects and save them from the terrible consequences of sin. In addition, I typically preach in an expository approach, and the selected text may not state both promise and command explicitly. If I'm not looking for the promise as well as the command, I may miss it.

But Hafemann's insight implies that to omit either promise or command is to break off one wing of the airplane. To obey God's command fully, we must see the enabling promise in all its glory, and express our obedience as an act of faith. And to respond to the promise fully, we must understand how to express our trust in obedience. That doesn't mean a fifty-fifty split between command and promise in every sermon, but each element is there, developed enough to make a significant impression, and connected to the other "wing."

We must learn to see both promise and command in the text (or context). For example, in a recent series on stewardship I preached one message on the faithful stewardship of our gifts from 1 Timothy 4:14-16, which includes these words: "Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress."

The commands in this passage are clear: "Do not neglect. Be diligent. Give yourself wholly." But where is the promise? What beliefs enable us to obey? This clearly had the potential to be a moralistic, "grit your teeth and do this" sermon.

In search of promise, I decided to focus on the word gifts. In order to be faithful managers, Christians must believe God has promised to give each believer spiritual gifts. So I began there, quoting from 1 Peter 4:10 and Ephesians 4:11-16. To ensure that this idea made an impression on hearers, I provided a visual illustration: On our 25th wedding anniversary I bought my wife a pair of diamond earrings. In his love, God gives each of us spiritual diamond earrings, valuable and intended to display his glory.

I decided to bore deeper still to another promise underlying God's promise to give gifts: God promises to make us fruitful. I quoted from John 15:5. With this promise, the images of a lush garden versus a dry desert were appropriate. (In retrospect, I see one additional avenue of theology I probably should have developed. The word gift is charisma, which implies the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.)

After laying the groundwork of God's promises, I turned to the commands. With the promises firmly in place, I and the congregation experienced the commands more for what they are: not burdensome but rather reasonable, righteous, and good. The feeling of synergy between promise and command was palpable. The commands "Do not neglect," "Be diligent," and "Give yourself wholly," told us how to follow through on the promises, how to avoid short-circuiting the loving and gracious promise of God. The promises brought joy, hope, and faith—and thus empowerment. My sermon felt more whole, more like gospel, than it would have otherwise.

In many ways, paying close attention to the relationship between promise and command resembles the classic indicative-imperative sermon form, or gospel-and-its-implications form. In these forms we state who God is and what he has done for us in Christ, and then apply that to how we should live for him. Although it may just be a difference in terms, seeing the relationship between promise and command, and our corresponding faith and obedience, definitely made lights come on for me. For me the emphasis on faith makes everything fit.

As my example from 1 Timothy 4 shows, at times we may need to broaden our horizon from the preaching text to the context of the book or Testament or entire Bible to fill out the theology of promise or command.

Suppose the sermon text is Philippians 4:19: "My God will supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." What is the obligation inherent in that promise? The immediate context of Philippians 4:10-18 shows us. We must be content in our relationship with the Lord, and we should be willing to give to support the work of God. That of course is specifically commanded in the wider New Testament context of Matthew 6:33 and Hebrews 13:5-6.

As we consider the promise side of the equation, the sort of truths that qualify as a promise are not just verses like Philippians 4:19 where God addresses us in the second person, "I promise to do this for you." Promise is broader than that. It includes the truth statements of Scripture that call us to trust. For example, in the affirmation "God is love," God promises "I love you." In the statement "God is righteous," God promises, "I will always act toward you in a righteous way."

Two questions give us the ability to see complementary promises and commands. The lens for finding promises is the question "What must we believe if we are to have the faith-ability to obey this command?" And the lens for finding commands is the question "How does God expect us to live based on faith in this promise?"

Answering these questions empowers hearers to obey.