Redemptive-historical Preaching

Lee Irons*

According to the Biblical view of reality there are two ages: this present evil age, and the age to come (Matt. 12:32; Gal. 1:4, Eph. 1:21). These two ages provide an overarching framework for understanding our identity as Christians. The unbelieving world around us denies that there is any such thing as an age to come, and invests all of its energy in attempting to improve this present evil age. Unbelievers therefore find their identity in and have their thinking shaped by the earthly-minded values and fleeting prospects of this age.

We, as Christians, on the other hand, live not for this passing world but for the glory of the age to come, the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness dwells, and where the glory of the triune God will engulf the cosmos that God may be all in all. Our minds and our identity are shaped by a transcendent reality the eschatological glory of God's eternal reign in heaven. These two ages, then, are all-encompassing in their scope and determine our ultimate priorities. Every individual is living in and for one of these ages pursuing the glory of self or the glory of God, living for earth or for heaven, for the city of man or the city of God.

This two-age view of reality takes on an additional twist in the New Testament. According to the teaching of Jesus in the gospels, the age to come (or the Kingdom of God) has arrived earlier than expected (Mark 1:15; Luke 17:20-21). The powers of the age to come have intruded into history in the person and work of Jesus Christ, in his incarnation, death, and resurrection. And those who by faith are united to Christ have been transferred from this present evil age into the power of the eschatological age of the Spirit. They have entered the Kingdom of God.

The Tension of the 'Already' and the 'Not-Yet'

As real and life-changing as the arrival of the eschatological Kingdom is, however, we who are believers in Christ have not yet arrived to its fullness. For those who have been transferred into the age to come by the Spirit still dwell on earth in the flesh. This creates a tension in the Christian life. On the one hand, we have been raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). On the other hand, we are yet groaning in mortal tents as we suffer in this present age, longing for the glory of the resurrection (2 Cor. 5:1-5). In other words, the age to come overlaps the present age, creating a temporary eschatological tension in the period between the two comings of Christ. Paul speaks of this tension in the following terms: "Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day" (2 Cor. 4:16).

Sound and Unsound Approaches

Redemptive-historical preaching begins with this two-age understanding of the Christian life. It strives to bring the hearers into a fuller awareness of their position in Christ: already raised with Christ, yet groaning in this present age and longing for the second coming of Christ. The implications of the believer's eschatological and Christ-centered identity are comprehensive and practical. It is the redemptive historical preacher's goal to bring out those implications ("applications") from every text of Scripture.

This approach differs dramatically from the contemporary preaching method I call "the application bridge." This is the misguided attempt to make Scripture relevant by crossing the chasm between the ancient text and the modern world by building man-made application bridges. Redemptive-historical preaching denies the existence of the chasm in the first place, thus eliminating the need to "make" Scripture relevant or applicable. The text does not contain certain abstract principles or ideas that can be extracted, processed, and then applied to our situation. Rather, the text itself is an extension of the incarnation. In the history of redemption in the Old Covenant, God has ordained a typological anticipation of the coming of Christ in the flesh. And the text of the New Covenant is the apostolic proclamation of the fulfillment of the Old Covenant history and the inauguration of a new creation by Christ. United to Christ by means of the text, we live and move and have our being, not in this present evil age which is passing away, but in Christ himself.

If we take the application bridge approach, we are in effect denying that our lives are hidden with Christ in God. We would be saying that our lives are ultimately tied to this passing evil age, rather than to the eschatological Kingdom to which we are bound by our union with the crucified-but-now-exalted Christ. The application bridge denies union with Christ with the Christ in whose death we were severed/crucified from this corrupt, present evil age (Gal. 6:14) and in whose resurrection we have ascended into the incorruptibility and glory of the age to come.

The application bridge says that we must derive certain timeless principles or moral applications form the text, then process them through a Kantian grid that enables them to be conveyed in a contemporary form applicable to our current needs as modern men and women. Thus, the people of God are united not to Christ and his death and resurrection, but to a philosophical system of principle, extraction and translation.

Most evangelical preachers today have succumbed to the problematic of the application bridge and thus they essentially deny that the text is the God-ordained means of uniting us with Christ by faith. Their preaching method belies a spirit of unbelief. For them the text is insufficient unless it is periodically updated or made relevant to the contemporary situation. But they fail to realize that this contemporary situation will ultimately pass away and is therefore itself doomed to irrelevance. The redemptive historical preacher, by contrast, believes that the age to come is abiding, and therefore it alone is truly relevant.

Hebrews: A Case Study

I have found that when I discuss my philosophy of preaching with those who take an application-bridge approach, the issue of the Epistle to the Hebrews often emerges. Hebrews is clearly an example of a sermon from the apostolic age. The author identifies his epistle as "a word of exhortation" (Heb. 13:22), a description applied in Acts 13:15 to Paul's sermon at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. If Hebrews is a sermon, then we ought to consider the kind of application that Hebrews employs. I would argue that the applications of Hebrews should not be characterized as the building of application bridges, but as redemptive historical applications. There are at least three differences between Hebrews and modern preaching.

(1) REDEMPTIVE-HISTORICAL POSITION: The application bridge method assumes that there is a profound and ugly chasm between the ancient text and the modern world. The author of Hebrews assumes that the saints of the Old Covenant and those he is addressing stand in the same redemptive-historical position pilgrims between the exodus and the inheritance, that is, between two ages, the already and the not-yet. (There is a difference, to be sure, since the church stands at the end of the ages, and her "already" is the realized eschatology of fulfillment, rather than the realized eschatology of typology and promise. But that difference only serves to underscore our fundamental unity with the Old Testament saints Heb. 11:39-40.)

(2) VERTICAL vs. HORIZONTAL: The application bridge method strives to develop applications that are contextually relevant to the contemporary situation in this passing age. The author of Hebrews applies his sermon by taking his hearers and placing them in their heavenly environment and situation, that is, to the age to come. He tells them that they have come to Mount Zion, that they have a Great High Priest in the heavenly sanctuary made without hands, that they have here no abiding city but one which is to come, whose builder and maker is God, etc. The difference here is as antithetical as the two ages themselves. Thus, the direction of the application bridge is horizontal (from ancient text to modern world), while the direction of the author or Hebrews is vertical (from this passing world to the heavenly world above).

(3) INDICATIVE-GROUNDED IMPERATIVE vs. BARE IMPERATIVE: The application bridge method, having erected the bridge, then invites the hearers to cross that bridge by means of acts of obedience (that is, by works). The author of Hebrews calls, warns, urges, and exhorts his hearers not to do something in the first place but to lay hold of their heavenly position by faith. The constant exhortation/application of Hebrews is to faith, that is, to enter the heavenly Sabbath rest (4:1-11) of that inheritance which has already been achieved by Christ's meritorious works. Only once this faith-application has been established with crystal clarity in the first twelve chapters, does the author then make specific calls to live in light of that heavenly reality by loving the brethren (13:1), honoring marriage (13:4), obeying their leaders (13:17), etc. In other words, the call to obedience is grounded in and flows from their heavenly position which has been grasped by faith. Obedience does not cause one to enjoy one's heavenly position. Only faith does. But if one's heavenly position is a reality, then one's life must be in accord with that reality.

A Specific Example-Hebrews 10:25

Let's apply what we have said by looking at the specific example of the command to "not forsake the assembling of yourselves together" (Heb. 10:25). The application bridge method might argue something along these lines: In the ancient world of the Old Covenant people of God, believers would go to an ornate temple of gold and precious stones to worship God. But now, in our modern world, we no longer have temples. Therefore, the modern application of Old Testament temple worship is to go to church. Now you people tend to be late to church. So make sure you set your alarm clock and give yourself plenty of time to get ready! What is missing in the above? The awesome statement in vv. 19-22 that "we have boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which he consecrated for us through the veil, that is, his flesh . . . ." The author of Hebrews does not tell his hearers that they are unlike the Old Testament saints in that they do not have a temple. No, he tells them that they are just like them, since they are entering the inner sanctuary itself by the blood of Jesus (point 1 above same redemptive historical position).

But he goes a step further, for in fact, they are in a better position than the Old Testament saints: they have a heavenly (not an earthly) temple, to which they (not just the high priest once a year) may enter with boldness (not with fear). The application is not horizontal but vertical (point 2). And thus, the call to go to church is really a call not to do something that they really don't want to do (getting up early on Sunday morning), but to lay hold of their heavenly position in Christ, thus doing by faith what they already are. The application then is to faith to believe that they have a new and living way, and a great High Priest in heaven; to believe that their hearts have been sprinkled from an evil conscience and their bodies have been washed with pure water and thus to enjoy this heavenly position by not forsaking the assembling of themselves together (point 3).

What, then, is redemptive historical preaching? It is preaching which strives to imitate the preaching of the New Testament itself by making applications that are determined by the redemptive historical, eschatological, and Christocentric nature of the text. Applications which merely build a bridge from the ancient text to the modern world leave the people of God still in the hopelessness of the present age. Applications which show them who they are in Christ (indicative), and which exhort them to live in light of the implications of that union with Christ (imperative), bring the people of God into the heavenly arena of the glory of the age to come.

Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Chapel
Van Nuys, California


* Reprinted with permission from The Presbyterian Banner, magazine of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, August 2000.