In Between Now and Then: A Preacher’s Life

In every sermon I write and preach, I feel the tension between the “now” and “then.” One way to describe it is to talk about the tension between exposition and application, between “text” and “today,” as I heard David Helm describe it once. It is the difference between “getting it across” (application) and “getting it right” (exposition). As a preacher, I live in between the poles of this dynamic each week.

What is the danger? It is that I might do inadequate work in either sphere. Perhaps I deal with the text but I do so in a way that never brings it to bear on what should be done in response to the text. Perhaps I don’t do an adequate job of dealing with the text and as a result lapse into moralism. My sermon then bears no marks of being distinctively Christian and gospel-centered but rather becomes a collection of behavioral directives. In this way, I violate the indicative/imperative structure of the New Testament. Yes, I must get my sermon across but not at the expense of getting it right.

Here is an assertion with which you may agree or disagree: if I can get to the “then” (text), then I can get to the “now” (today). Why do I say that? It is because of my belief in the timeless of Scripture. What God inspired as Holy Writ, though it might be language-specific, is not culture-specific. It applies to all peoples in every age.

John Stott wrote a classic and helpful book on preaching, Between Two Worlds. Most evangelical preachers have read it and been influenced by it. It is with great reticence that I critique the writings of John Stott because of my respect for most of his teaching but I’m afraid we have misunderstood a metaphor he uses in his book. He pictures preaching as bridge-building (p. 137ff), an activity which connects the ancient world to the modern world. While Stott did not, to the best of my knowledge and reading, imply this, a common understanding of this concept seems to assume that the more difficult task is moving from the then to the now. I believe the opposite is true. I live in the now. I understand the age in which I live. What is needful, yes, even paramount, is that I move from the world in which I reside into the world of the Scriptures.

This is more difficult task. Let’s say that I pastor in Balko, Oklahoma and I am teaching 2 Timothy, the letter Paul wrote to his young protégé who was in Ephesus. Here is what I am saying: if I can get to Ephesus and understand it, then I can get to Balko and communicate that understanding.

Stott was correct in asserting that a gulf exists between the modern world and the ancient one. I’m not sure however that he clearly described the current flow of movement. It is not so much that we move from “then” to “now” but rather that we must move from “now” to “then.” Getting it right is the challenge of the expositor. Once again accomplished, getting it across is much easier.

Agree or disagree?