It has become a fad to see preaching as primarily as a retelling of the Gospel. Pastors are story tellers. We stand up each Sunday and retell that old, old story. This approach is used in some gospel-centered churches and missional churches But it is also a common approach in more liturgically and sacramental churches like mine. We are past the fire and brimstone preachers of yesteryear. We are past Calvin calling out the Libertines (and the Pope and the Anabaptists) and Chrysostom calling out women who beat their maids. We are past Jonathan Edwards declaring with authority that Judgment Day is coming. Now we believe that just retelling that wonderful story is enough. We are afraid of being moralists. We are dread that awful phrase, “legalism.” So we pander in our sweaters telling the world that Jesus died and rose again, but never telling them to repent. We never tell them that the sexually immoral do not inherit the Kingdom. We just keep telling the story and trust the Holy Spirit to apply the Word. We have the sword, but instead of using it we just remind people that it is there and they should really think a lot about cool it is and how it gleams in the warm sunlight.
There are several problems with this approach.
First, the examples of preaching and exhortations to preaching in the Bible are not like this. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is not simply a retelling of the Old Testament. It is a proper interpretation and extended application of the OT. Paul often takes OT passages and tells us what they mean and how we are to apply them. For example, in I Corinthians 10:1-13 he does not just tell us what happened to Israel. He tells what it means and how it applies to the lives of those at Corinth. He doesn’t just say, “Look the Israelites grumbled.” Or in I Corinthians 15 he doesn’t just say, “Look Jesus rose from the dead. Remember that.” When Paul tells Timothy what to do he does not say, “Tell the story.” He says, “Reprove, rebuke, exhort with all patience.” (II Timothy 4:2)
Second, if all we need is the story, then we don’t need preachers. We need readers. Reading the text and going over it is not preaching. Preaching is the text interpreted and applied with authority to the congregation. This is what Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and John did. This is a preacher is to do.
Third, this approach may leave the congregation feeling fed, but it does not actually feed them. This type of preaching can leave a warm glow. The pastor talks about Jesus, grace, the forgiveness of sins and the glory of redemption. But he never exhorts, warns, rebukes, challenges. So people don’t grow, but they leave thinking they have.
I am not saying there is never a place for preaching on grace and forgiveness. Obviously there is. And pastors are to leave their people with a proper view of Christ as welcoming repentant sinners. But pastors are not here to retell the story. We are here to interpret and apply the story. We here to tell our people what the Bible means, why it means what it means, and what our congregations should do about it. In doing this we are not being arrogant or proud, we are fulfilling our office. If we aren’t doing that then we are not doing our job.