Recently, I received an email asking how to incorporate biblical theology in the church. If you are familiar with this blog, you know the value I place on this discipline and how it impacts so much of what I do in preaching, writing, and all of ministry. (If you want an introduction to biblical theology, read this.)
What follows here are seven pastoral cautions for bringing biblical theology to church. Tomorrow, I’ll add seven pastoral admonitions for bringing biblical theology to church
Seven Things *Not* To Do with Biblical Theology
1. Don’t overload your sermons with biblical theology, but sweeten your preaching with threads from the whole Bible.
As long as I have been preaching, I have loved tracing biblical themes from one side of the Bible to the other. But one thing I have learned over time is that such “road trips” in redemptive history are not easy follow, especially for those who are just entering the wide and wonderful world of God’s Word.
With that in mind, I would encourage making biblical theological connections where appropriate, but don’t overload your sermons with them. One such canonical connection in a sermon is usually sufficient. Beware of turning a text into a springboard for biblical theology and chasing down passages from all over the Bible. Biblical theology should illumine the text you are preaching; the text should not serve as a caddie for your typological fancies or biblical theological interests.
2. Don’t think of biblical exposition as strictly explaining one verse at a time, but preach the whole Bible in various ways and at various times.
In preaching, exposition should not get stuck in the rut of verse-by-verse-by-verse teaching. Not only do various genres and literary structures make it necessary to avoid preaching, as if every verse is a new paragraph (like the NASB formats the Bible). Instead, you should help show how parts of a book hang together, and then how books of the Bible do the same.
Expositional preaching can focus on a single verse (sometimes even a word), but it can and should also tackle whole books. As a preacher, you should look for ways to preach bigger chunks of Scripture. To be sure, you can make mistakes here — like when I preached 150 psalms in 5 sermons — but the bigger mistake is not preaching larger sections of Scripture. More positively, when you preach smaller sections, always help your people see the bigger picture of the book. This means studying books as whole literary units, and helping your people see how the trees fit into the forest.
3. Don’t decide a preaching calendar only by what your congregation wants; consider what they need in the short term and the long term.
In most cases, those who go to church in our modern, sound-byte world want what they want, what they already know, or what is most entertaining and quickly applicable. Yet, is this what they need? Pastors must prayerfully consider what their church needs in the near and far term. Preaching series and books should be chosen for the purpose of providing a healthy diet, more than placating the wishes of semi-mature sheep.
To speak biblically, every church needs the undiluted word of God—all sixty-six books of the Bible. Sadly, it is possible to be lifelong expositor and only give the church one testament, or those parts of the Bible that are most familiar. Yet, this misses the mark. Mature disciples of Christ are formed by the whole Bible, which presents the whole character of God in Christ. Pastors should find a way to preach that whole Bible, even if congregations are not craving this (yet!). In time, a congregation led by the Spirit of God will desire the whole counsel of God’s Word, especially when it is preached with clarity.
4. Don’t ignore the condition of your flock; let the maturity of your church set the pace for preaching with biblical theology.
If preaching the whole counsel of God’s word is your goal, as it should be, this doesn’t mean you should start with a two-year trek through Exodus or a Martyn Lloyd-Jones-paced exposition of Romans. Be wise. Just as Scripture speaks of milk and meat for various levels of maturity, so pastors must understand what kind of exposition their people can digest.
To a church that has never had exposition, smaller letters from Paul, a short series in the Psalms, or a selection from a Gospel (like the Sermon on the Mount) would be better than tackling a long book. As churches grow in their delight in God’s Word, they will grow in stamina. Pastors should preach such that their church can follow along.
When we go through a book of the Bible at our church, we aim to make it a whole-congregation endeavor. As a pastor, I don’t want to preach at my people; I want to lead them in God’s Word on a journey towards the Lord. Just as a wise trainer knows the pace and length that he prescribes for his runners, so pastors should equip the saints with God’s Word at a pace that will stretch them, but not sideline them.
5. Don’t be satisfied with preaching the whole Bible; show how the whole Bible relates to Christ and relates to your people.
To preach Christ from all corners of the Bible is hard work. It takes time to learn how each book of the Bible fits into a canon that leads to Christ. It also takes time to understand how each part of a book makes up the message of a book and how to move from text to Christ and from Christ to us.
In practical terms, Simeon Trust has been most helpful for me here. The principles provided by that ministry have furnished tools to turn the terms “textual, epochal, canonical” into a weekly exercise for seeing Christ in all the Bible. For those who preach regularly, Simeon Trust is a trusted resource for improving your ability to read Scripture and preach the gospel from all parts of Scripture. For everyone, the most important part of making connections in Scripture, however, is not a program, but a lifetime of saturating yourself with Scripture.
Most of the connections I see in Scripture do not come from commentaries—although, they often help. Most come from years of reading the Bible and looking for the ways in which Scripture presents the gospel through type, shadow, promise, and fulfillment. In short, biblical theology is important for preaching, but it must always lead to Christ, who is the Life and Life-Giver in any sermon.
6. Be patient; don’t demand your people to get biblical theology quickly.
My wife grew up in church, but not in a church that taught her how the whole Bible fit together. In short, it was Bible-rich, but biblical theology-poor. When she came to Bible College, it took her years of sitting under seminary professors and different pastors before she began to see how the whole Bible fit together. In short, understanding and appreciating biblical theology takes time.
With that in mind, don’t let your passion for biblical overwhelm others. Let your passion for biblical theology stir curiosity and interest. With patience and gentleness, introduce the way in which the Bible fits together, but don’t be surprised if people don’t see it right away or even express skepticism. The dearth of biblical theology is generational in most churches and it will take time to introduce.
7. Don’t give up!
For anyone who has come to understand biblical theology, you know it is one of the most important spiritual disciplines for reading the Bible, worshiping God, walking in truth, counseling others, et cetera. For that reason, bringing biblical theology to the church is imperative, because biblical theology is necessary for the ongoing health of the church.
That said, it is important to clarify that biblical theology that is going to serve the church must not be a purely, academic discipline. Biblical theology for the church must be a steadfast—and often slow—endeavor of helping people to read the Bible with eyes to see, know, trust, and follow Christ. For that reason, steadfastness in bringing biblical theology to the church is vital.
I pray these seven cautions might help you bring biblical theology to your church. For indeed, the church needs the full counsel of God and pastors are called to work and pray and preach to that end. May God be pleased to fill his pulpits and his churches with Christ-centered biblical theology.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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