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Of First Importance (part 2)

Eight words that help us preach the gospel correctly.

This is part two of a three-part series. In part one, the author explained two of the eight key words that help us preach the gospel correctly, based on 1 Corinthians 15. He resumes here with the third descriptive word.

D. A. Carson: The gospel is biblical. "Christ died according to the Scriptures" (vv. 3–4).

It's important that our hearers see that we preach the gospel from the Bible. An expository sermon demonstrably explains what the Bible says. Demonstrably—that's the crucial word. So at the end of the day people say, In truth that is what the Bible says. If someone wants to disagree with what I've said, they have to disagree with my understanding of the Bible, which they have every right to challenge me on, but the authority finally is the Bible and not me.

Defending the Bible is not the first responsibility of the preacher; preaching it is.

There is something wonderfully freeing about being a biblical expositor. The preacher of the gospel stands under the authority of God's Word, and everybody sees that the preacher stands under the authority of that Word.

When Paul says that Christ died and was raised from the dead "according to the Scriptures," I don't think he is simply saying that there's a typological connection between the Old Testament and Christ, so that the Resurrection is biblical in that sense. He is saying that, but he's saying something more than that. He has a theology of the Word of God in his mind, and that needs to come across in the way we do our preaching as well. In other words, the apostle does not think he is merely saying true things that happen to be in alignment with Scripture; rather, he wants to teach what Scripture teaches, and he wants his readers to see for themselves that this is what Scripture teaches. Biblical preaching of this sort will always be pointing back to the text; it will always be driving the attention of believers back to the text so that people can see for themselves what God is saying in his Word.

How does the state of our culture affect our work of showing the biblical rooting of the gospel?

On the one hand we're dealing with massive biblical illiteracy, so that people don't know what the Bible says. Choose a person at random on the streets of any of our big cities and ask them what the Bible says, and you will probably get some allusion to the Ten Commandments or "judge not that ye be not judged," which they wouldn't really understand, contextually-speaking, at all.

Secondly, because of the pervasiveness of some forms of post-foundational epistemology, a standard comeback when you start handling the Bible is, "That's just your interpretation." The presupposition is that meaning finally resides only in the interpreter. It's important to keep fighting that endless subjectivism. You have to keep going back and saying: No, look at it again. What does this text mean? We must help people wrestle with what Scripture says by putting their finger on the text and working it through. The best preaching does that.

That means it's not enough just to summarize accurately what the Bible says. That's a good and important thing to do, but it's not enough. Preaching the gospel has to be done in such a way that everything of significance that is said is demonstrably tied to the text. The preacher must constantly say, "The Bible says," or words to that effect. Look at the text itself. Cite it again. Show that the connection is to be made. In other words, there is some preaching that is biblically faithful but does not make the truth demonstrably biblical. In a biblically illiterate age, one of the things that must be done is to show that what is being said is demonstrably the Word of God.

When we preach the gospel, in addition to showing what the Bible says, do we need to defend the reliability of the Bible?

Undoubtedly if you're next door to a major university that has a religion department undermining the Word of God, then something apologetic has to be done about the nature of Scripture. But I think of Spurgeon's one-liner: "Defend the Bible? I would rather defend a lion." That is not to say that there's no place for a robust defense of the Bible in some contexts, but defending the Bible is not the first responsibility of the preacher; preaching it is.

Fourth, the gospel is apostolic. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul stresses again and again the mediating role of the apostolic witnesses. When we speak of the apostolic gospel, we don't mean what is commonly meant in Catholicism, where there is alleged to be an authenticity to the apostolic gospel through a putative apostolic descent all the way down to bishops today. Rather, the gospel is apostolic precisely if it is faithful to the gospel preached by the apostles, the message Paul has in mind in Galatians 1 when he says, "If we apostles or an angel from heaven preach anything other than that which we have preached to you, let them be anathema."

We have access to the apostolic gospel through the apostolic writings. That brings us back to the authority of the Bible itself, which was mediated by certain Christ-ordained people. Apostolicity is bound up with faithfulness to the apostolic gospel rather than to a particular ecclesiastical structure.

So when I stand up and preach the gospel this Sunday, how does it help me to appeal to the apostles? How does that have particular traction with postmoderns?

Let me answer that by linking the apostolic character of the gospel with the fifth feature of the gospel: its historical nature. Not only is Christ a figure in history, but certainly the events in 1 Corinthians 15, such as the Resurrection, take place in real-time history, such that, Paul says, if the events had not occurred, then the gospel is not the gospel, and your faith is futile.

As long as young, relativistic postmoderns think they are perfectly free to choose which spiritual heritage they want, that the choice is merely a comparison of abstract systems as they understand them, then the choice becomes a merely subjective one, and faith itself becomes defined in subjective fashion. Faith becomes a personal, subjective, religious choice. On that understanding a preacher can only say, I'd like to commend this gospel to you. This is what we've discovered, and perhaps you'd like to join us if you've discovered the same thing, too. That's as much authority as you can have.

By contrast, the early Christians—who themselves were preaching in highly pluralistic cultures in the Gentile world (for the first three centuries the dominant charge against Christians was they weren't pluralistic enough)—the early Christians kept preaching on the facticity of the historical Resurrection. This is something that happened in history, and it's bound up with apostolic witness. It was attested not only by the apostles themselves but by five hundred others. You have to come to grips with that! If Christ has risen from the dead, it transforms what we think about him in every domain.

It's not a comparison of an abstract system called Christianity with an abstract system called Buddhism. You have this brute fact that God has disclosed himself in history, witnessed by people as part of the broader theological truth that this is God's means for reconciling a God-damned world to himself. Though many people don't like to hear truth spoken so boldly and are even turned off by it, it's something we cannot afford to lose. Otherwise we're merely recommending another sort of spirituality.

Not for a moment should thoughtful Christians align themselves unreservedly with modernism; by the same token, we should not align ourselves unreservedly with postmodernism. In its milder forms, postmodernism rightly reminds us that because we are finite, our grasp of truth can never be the kind of grasp that belongs to omniscience alone. There are two kinds of perspectivalist: those who confess to being one, and those who don't. The only non-perspectivalist is God: one must be omniscient to belong to that camp. Nevertheless there is something in the more radical forms of postmodern epistemology that has to be challenged right down to its socks. It's wrong. It's too narrow. You have to come to grips with the fact that God disclosed himself in history in the God-Man, in what was achieved on the cross, in the Resurrection. It's important to understand how we need to be sensitive to some of the cultural drifts in our day, but we also must understand where such cultural drifts need to be confronted. This is one of the places.

When Paul is preaching to the intellectuals of Athens, he knows full well that by bringing up the Resurrection, he's going to turn some of them off. But he also knows if he doesn't bring it up, he's not faithful to the gospel. He knows what's nonnegotiable. So he brings it up and loses some of his hearers. That's the price you pay.

The truth of the historical Resurrection, of the apostolic gospel taught in Scripture—these things are tied together; we cannot duck them. We try to make them as winsomely attractive as we can. That's what we can all learn from Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York. At the same time some things are nonnegotiable; you don't trim your gospel to fit the culture.

In the final part of this series, the author will address the final three features to keep in mind for preaching the gospel correctly.

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway).

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Of First Importance (part 1)

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Eight words that help us preach the gospel correctly
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