Indicatives and imperatives of the gospel

preachingUnderstanding the indicatives and the imperatives will help anyone identify what is effective and empowering preaching and teaching of the gospel. This is something many believers and preachers miss. Their criteria of good preaching hinges too much on peripheral issues of structure and style. What is crucial is the content. It distinguishes us from the professional motivational speakers, religious gurus and politicians.

Nowadays there are a great deal of “How to…” messages which give instructional, moralistic, practical, Readers Digest type advice albeit with a Christian makeover. While I admit there is a place for this, the diet of God’s people has to be balanced with apostle Paul ’s order of indicatives(what God has done for us) before imperatives(what we therefore ought to do in response).

Most churches in Singapore preach the imperatives and the result is that Christians may mistakenly or subconsciously think that Christianity is another set of do’s and don’ts like Buddhism, or Islam: a moralistic religion with pragmatic, adaptable and logical rules and advice for living.

One of the more insightful succinct books I have read on preaching is “A Primer for Preachers” by Ian Pitt-Watson, a Professor of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. I particularly like his emphasis that preaching the Good News is founded on, and driven by the ‘indicatives’ (who God is and what He has done). Here is an extract:

What is preaching? It is procalmation, not just moralizing. It is Good News, not just good advice; it is gospel, not just law. Supremely, it is about God and what he has done, not just about us and about what we ought to do. Logically and theologically(though by no means always chronologically) preaching is about God before it is about us; it is about what God has done before it is about what we ought to do. Our self-understanding must flow from our understanding of God. When we speak of what we ought to do(as of course we must, our moral imperatives must issue from our knowledge of what God has done. Otherwise our imperatives are no more than pious moralizings that refuse to face the facts of life: “When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach”(Rom 7:21). Or else, if the moral exhortations are seriously intended and seriously attempted, the consequence is simply to compound in our hearers their burden of guilt when, inevitably, they make the same desolating discovery that Paul made: “The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will”(Rom 7:19). Only through what God is and has done can I be what I ought to be and do what I ought to do. What I cannot do for myself, “what the law could never do, because [my] lower nature robbed it of all potency, God has done.” At heart, preaching is about what “God has done: by sending his own Son in a form like that of our own sinful nature”(Rom 8:3). That is the gospel.

The practical consequences of these theological conclusions are of immense importance to the preacher. Now that the “what?” question has been faced, the “how do you dos” of preaching can be answered with more confidence. If preaching is to be proclamation and not mere moralizing, then the ethics of our preaching must be rooted in the theology of our preaching. We cannot make sense of who we are and what we ought to do until first we know who God is and what he has done in Jesus Christ. The Christian ethic, severed from its theological roots, is no more than a new law, more demanding and therefore more burdensome than the old. That is why it is always so clear in the letters of Paul that the ethic flows out of the theology. We can be what we ought to be and do what we ought to do only because of what God is and has done. The theology empowers the ethic; it does not just accompany it with an encouraging, heavenly-father pat on the back. For every imperative of the Christian ethic there is an empowering indicative of Christian theology. In the Sermon on the Mount the imperatives are indeed there and inescapable in their demand. But they are more than imperatives; they are descriptions of life in the kingdom of God, indicatives of that kingdom. Perhaps that is why the Sermon begins, not in the imperative mood speaking of how things ought to be, but in the indicative mood speaking of how things are. “How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of heaven is theirs”(Matt, 5:3). This is how things are in the kingdom that in Christ is already in our midst. People are happy(makarios) with the special kind of happiness that comes from God alone. The most surprising people are happy in the most surprising circumstances. They are not told to be happy or trying to be happy. They just are happy. The blessed indicative of the Beatitudes precedes and empowers the demanding imperatives of the kingdom that are to follow.

“Don’t preach!” means “Don’t just tell me what to do; help me to do it.” That is precisely what authentic biblical preaching is all about. It is about action enabled by insight, imperatives empowered by indicatives, ethics rooted in theology, “what we ought to do” made possible by what God has done. (p21,22)

Preaching: ecstasy and agony

Preaching is both ecstasy and agony. It can happen over just two Sundays.

Ecstasy

One moment, I felt I was on Mount Everest. The anointing heightened all my faculties to another level. I knew I was connecting in an unusual, powerful way with the congregation. The thoughts were coherent and the words flowed with liberty and penetrating power. The people were attentive and attuned. God was at work. I bow my head and thanked God in prayer for the privilege of being used by God.

preachingAgony

However, other times, I was not in the zone. I fumbled for thoughts. I mumbled disjointed sentences. I struggled to connect with the listeners. They became distant. The more I tried to get into the zone, the more I ended in the pit. It does not turn out the way it should. I wished I could leave the pulpit after the second point, even though there were four points. Getting off the stage would be a mercy. I would settle into the chair stumped. “Lord, just where did it go wrong? Was my preparation inadequate in some way?” I reflected, evaluated, prayed. Often this absorption continued on Monday, my day off, and I would be absent mentally though present physically with my wife.

Just Grateful

Thankfully such extremes of emotion were not prevalent. Most times I communicated the message clearly and I was not on a super high or low after preaching. Just a glow of satisfaction that the work is done, the Word delivered. For this I am grateful, to be able to preach God’s Word. I feel pleasure whenever I do it well.

Evangelical discomfort with prosperity

Keep the change, son.
"Keep the change, son".

Evangelical Christians are okay with God’s spiritual blessings but are ill at ease with material blessing from God.

One reason is an over-reaction to the excesses of the “prosperity gospel”.  We look with disdain on some American television evangelists who raise millions from naive believers by twisting Scriptures to say what they do not say, to support grandiose projects, and flaunt a lavish lifestyle that Solomon would envy.

The PEST test

An easy way to check for “prosperity doctrine” quotient is to do a PEST test that I have developed:

P –  Presumption is “an assumption, often not fully established, that is taken for granted in some piece of reasoning.” “Prosperity doctrine” is built on assumptions that are not fully borne out by the whole counsel of God, and their tenets are flawed by tenuous interpretation of scripture passages.

E – Eternity: “Prosperity doctrine” have no regard for what is eternal, accusing others of “pie in the sky” irrelevancy.  Jesus told us not to accumulate wealth on earth but to lay our treasures in heaven. He had a high regard with living on earth with a view to eternity. Hold to our material wealth lightly and be contented and free from greed and hoarding.

S – Stewardship: “Prosperity doctrine” does not emphasize God’s ownership of all things and how discipleship entails the faithful and wise management of God’s resources and places all our resources at God’s disposal. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Money(Matthew 6:24).” This practically means the wealthy Christian should use his wealth to honor God, and care for the poor and needy, this good old earth and world missions.

T – Thanksgiving: “Prosperity doctrine” does not cultivate humility and gratitude and generosity. It has tendencies toward materialism, and unchecked consumption and pride. “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?” (Proverbs 30:8,9)

So we rightly say no to “prosperity doctrine” but sadly are hesitant to preach about God’s desire to bless us so that we can bless others. We do not want to be associated with “prosperity doctrine” and so we stay in the safety of the boat and do not risk teaching rightly what the Word says about God’s fatherly desire to bless his children.

God wants to bless

I preach that God wants to bless his children. He blessed Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and many may have missed this scripture: “When He had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”( Luke 24:39). It seems to me that every significant new beginning, was launched with the blessing of God, unmerited and free, and that blessing included material benefits as well as spiritual. He wants us to “put our hope in God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”(1 Timothy 6:17).

In the Old Testament, as in Abraham’s case, the blessing of God covered his family, finances, protection, guidance and did not exclude the spiritual for by faith righteousness was credited to his account, and he sought a city not made by hands. The promises of blessing to those who fully obey in Deuteronomy 28:1-14 would easily have had Abraham as an example of fulfillment.

Evangelical dis-ease must be cured

Evangelical Christians think that the New Testament blessings emphasizes spiritual blessings but not to the exclusion of the temporal and material.  I rejoice and thank God for all the spiritual blessings secured for us through Christ’s death and resurrection. However, the reluctance and neglect of preaching about how God loves to bless us with “daily bread”, a temporal and material blessing embedded in the Lord’s prayer itself, does a disservice to the church. Our heavenly Father is mistakenly regarded as one reluctant to bless us with material resources as well as spiritual. Paul declared boldly that God wants “to make all grace abound toward you so that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work”(2 Corinthians 9:8).

This evangelical dis-ease must be cured.

Let’s not junk the good with the part that’s spoiled.