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What Theology Looks Like in a Sermon (part 1)

Everyone does theology. Do you do it right?

This article is part one of a two-part series.

The bones and marrow of the sermon are composed of theology. Yet theological preaching is rare. Listeners fear that too much theology will make the sermon impractical. Many preachers shy away from theological content. Aware of the small window of opportunity given to capture the interest of the audience, preachers are tempted to rush to application. The result is a sermon that begins with the need of the audience, touches lightly on the biblical text, and then moves to concrete application. In the process, the sermon skips the important step of identifying and stating theological principles on which the practical application is based. Haddon Robinson has wryly observed: "More heresy is preached in application than in Bible exegesis."

The term theology is popularly used to refer to the content of the Bible. By this definition, everything in Scripture is theological. Any truth statement about the nature of God or man or salvation—such as, "God is love"—is theological. Defined more narrowly, however, theology is primarily a matter of doctrine. A doctrine is the teaching of all Scripture on a significant subject—for example, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of salvation, or the doctrine of healing. Theology has been defined as "a system of beliefs," meaning all doctrines are integrated.

Three Types of Theology

Three interrelated categories of theology contribute to the theological content of the sermon: exegetical theology, biblical theology, and systematic theology.

Exegetical theology is the theology of the biblical text itself. It is the theological product of the preacher's exegetical analysis of a passage in its context. For example, the exegetical theology of Colossians 3:12 includes statements like, "Virtue is both an outcome and an obligation of God's grace." Or, "Those who have been chosen by God to experience the grace of Christ reflect God's transforming power in the way they live, fellowship, and worship." While the passage is itself application oriented, its exhortation to "put on" the virtues of the Christian life is grounded in the theology of grace and election. The Colossians are not told to do these things in order to become God's children, but because they already are "God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved" (Colossians 3:12). Timothy S. Warren defines exegetical theology as "the statement of universal theological principle that the preacher has discovered in the text through the exegetical and theological processes."

Biblical theology is also exegetical theology, but practiced on a larger scale. If exegetical theology examines a facet of a doctrine from the microscopic view of the sermon text, biblical theology takes a satellite view of the same doctrine. Biblical theology lifts itself above the text and notes the progressive unfolding of a particular doctrine throughout the Scriptures, in a portion of Scripture, or in the words of a single biblical writer. It is the product of collective exegetical analysis.

The preacher's first task is always to explain, prove, or apply the biblical author's idea in its context.

The biblical data needed to formulate a complete theology of the Holy Spirit, for example, begins with the Book of Genesis and continues through the Book of Revelation. However, not every book refers to the Spirit and some passages merely describe his activities. At the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, the Spirit is portrayed as brooding or "hovering" over the waters (Genesis 1:2). He was an agent of creation. The Old Testament prophetic books describe how the Holy Spirit empowered select believers to speak on God's behalf. The New Testament has a fuller revelation of the nature of ministry of the Spirit. It is there that he is most clearly shown to be a divine person (John 14:16-17). Paul's epistles, especially 1 Corinthians 12-14, describe his relationship to the church and its ministries.

Systematic theology is a study of doctrine organized by theme. Instead of looking at the progressive development of a particular doctrine, it attempts to synthesize the theological content of Scripture into a unified summary of the whole of Christian doctrine.

John Calvin's classic Institutes of the Christian Religion is a good example of a systematic study of biblical doctrine organized by theme. It is organized into four major divisions. Book one deals with the knowledge of God the Creator and focuses on the nature of God and the ways he has revealed himself to mankind. Book two is concerned with the nature of redemption, highlighting both the problem of sin and the work of Christ. Book three looks at the subject of applied redemption by showing how believers receive the grace of Christ. Book four discusses the nature and ministry of the church. Throughout the Institutes, Calvin supports his assertions with citations from Scripture and interacts with many ancient and (in his day) contemporary theologians.

Each approach has its limitations. The weakness of exegetical theology is its narrow focus. Theological reflection that is limited to what is explicitly stated in one text often results in a one-sided or distorted theology. For example, a theology of works that is based solely on James 2:14-20 will tend toward legalism and may even result in a works-based gospel. On the other hand, a theology of works that is limited to Ephesians 2:8 may not do justice to the transforming potential of the gospel.

The challenge of biblical theology is its immense scope. Few, if any, pastors have the time to do a comprehensive exegetical analysis of every passage that deals with even one of the theological ideas found in a given text.

The danger of systematic theology is it may be used in a way that drowns out the voice of the text. A theological system may incorrectly force the text into a mold it was not intended to fill. The theological system, like a child's Play-Doh Fun Factory, pares away everything in the text that does not fit.

Because of these limitations, the preaching task requires attention to all three types of theology.

Poor Uses of Theology

There is more to theological preaching than adding a few prooftexts to the sermon. Some preachers attempt to provide a theological rationale for the sermon by reading a portion of the biblical text, often in support of a main point or subpoint, and then directing the audience's attention to some other passage to explain what has just been read. Instead of discussing the logic and theological implications of the sermon text or showing how its reasoning fits into the bigger picture of revealed truth, the cross-reference is presented as a self-evident explanation.

This approach gives the impression that the preacher's reasoning is circular, and creates the potential for bad theology by lifting the meaning of the sermon text out of its immediate historical, grammatical, and literary context. The preacher's first task is always to explain, prove, or apply the biblical author's idea in its context.

Theological preaching isn't a matter of attaching one's pet doctrine to the sermon. Like a congressman attaching special interest legislation to an unrelated bill, this approach is exemplified by the caricature of the preacher who ends every sermon, regardless of the text, by saying, "Now for a few words about believer's baptism …"

Theological preaching is not an abstract theological discourse that has little thought for the life situation or felt needs of the audience. It demands more than simply restating the great doctrines of the Christian faith. In his book Preachers and Preaching, Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells of a speaker who gave an address on the Trinity at an evangelistic meeting that targeted elderly women from the poor district of London. "Here was a man, an intelligent trained professional man whom you would have thought would have some idea of addressing people," Lloyd-Jones writes, "but he clearly had not given even a thought to that and probably had been reading an article or book on the Trinity recently." Lloyd-Jones points out that, even though it was sound theology, it was "utterly useless" to his listeners. "You do not give 'strong meat to babes,'" he explains. "You give them milk."

Theology must be applied. This is the pattern of the biblical writers, who regularly move from theological construct to concrete application. For example, Paul's appeal in Romans 12:1 that his readers offer their bodies as living sacrifices, flows out of the theological constructs that have been laid out in the first 11 chapters. It is also grounded in an understanding of the theology of sacrifice outlined in the Old Testament. Peter's first epistle follows a similar pattern, repeatedly moving back and forth from theology to application. This same movement should be reflected in the sermon.

This is part one of a two-part series.

John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

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