Keeping the focus on God

July 13th, 2022

The winds facing the church in our era are as great as any the church has faced since the Reformation. The argument here is not that we need new sermon forms, new ideas to try, but rather that we need faithful sermons and approaches that help the gospel to be proclaimed. Since the church typically falls short in this regard, it might try preaching the gospel. Homiletics needs a grammar of the gospel that can be used with biblical preaching in any form. It needs to acknowledge formal elements that enhance gospel proclamation. Excellence in homiletics requires practical stan- dards that can be taught and evaluated, and can be geared to grammar and outcomes.

A historical perspective on lack of focus on God

Focus on God arises from biblical texts. The idea of what is a “text” has changed over history. In history, preaching texts were mostly Bible fragments. Scholarly preachers like Origen, Jerome, Luther, and Calvin wrote commentaries on books of the Bible, and in a sermon might exposit several verses. They normally spoke of God. Biblical stories in history were not commonly preached as narrative units; they were typically reduced to an abstract idea.[1] Most frequently in the past, a sermon text is a phrase or verse independent of its context. More recently texts have become textual units or pericopes understood in their literary and historical contexts. Neither of these latter approaches, on its own, ensures a theological reading.

For that, the church traditionally has relied on tools or lenses for reading scrip- ture that contribute to the regula fidei, the rule of faith. Texts offer meaning within a range of what the church commonly understands them to mean. Traditional creeds are keys to theological interpretation. To review, to a time beyond the Reformation, scripture was commonly interpreted using the “four senses of scripture,” what it said about past events (the literal/grammatical/ historical sense), moral behavior now (the moral sense), hopes for heaven (the anagogical/soul sense), and Christ (the allegorical sense). Preachers used these to focus on what I call the “God sense” or divine meaning.[2] Still, of the four, the moral sense was most valued because it gave simple people a route to improve the soul. It is anthropocentric; it focuses on human action. Luther and Calvin affirm that scripture only has one sense, the literal sense. The Reformers denied the multiple senses, and by implication the authenticity of a moral sense, yet preachers still use it nearly every week. Every time a text is read with a view to what people are to do, the old moral sense or trouble is invoked. Sermons that talk about the trouble in the text and the trouble in the world—in other words, nearly all biblical sermons—use the moral sense.

The Reformers understood that to discern God’s Word, scripture should be read for what it said about God and neighbor. Luther and Calvin in fact practiced a “double-literal sense.”[3] The true literal sense was not the grammatical meaning but what the text says about God. Theological interpretation was also supported by the ancient creeds and by five beliefs about salvation, known as the five “solas”: Sola Fide, by faith alone (not works); Sola Scriptura, by what scripture alone says; Sola Gratia, by grace alone (not merit); Solus Christus, through Christ alone (no other mediator); and Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone (not people—the narrow reading of this led to no clapping in traditional churches). Finally, theological reading was supported by systematic or dogmatic theology.

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John Wesley and others often used the sermon text as a springboard. He would take a single verse or phrase from the Bible and find a doctrine that he would then expound, using verses from anywhere in the Bible to support or proof-text the argument. Each church doctrine is based in many places in scripture, and preachers read the Bible through the filters of teaching categories (loci). In practice, for many preachers, the whole Bible was the text. This is an idea from which we might benefit to expand our own narrower approach, without losing the importance of historical critical honoring of the biblical text at hand. When the sermon was an hour and doctrines were the focus, pastors could lead their flocks into any pasture in the Bible that seemed green, with expectation of finding God. Our ancestors nonetheless were often not much better at preaching grace than we are. The dominant purpose of preaching in history was to save souls, trouble was almost always vertical, and good news was mainly for the saved.

The purpose of preaching today extends beyond salvation to the redemptive activity of God in our communities and the world around us. Today we use many different lenses to read scripture, provided by various theologies: black, feminist, liberation, narrative, Minjung, postcolonial, and others. These are mostly rooted in the experience of minority or silenced groups. They make important claims about human action, yet do not in themselves, for the most part, make inroads to reading biblical texts for God, much less for grace. Our starting question in dealing with the text is all the more essential: What is God doing in or behind the text?

Typical preaching practice

If preachers are asked if they preach grace, they typically answer yes. Yet if heard in actual practice, they speak little, if at all, of what God does to lighten the burden. Take a collection of sermons off the library shelf to see how many sermons speak about God’s action in the Bible and our world. If present, it is easily found: God, in one of the Persons of the Trinity, is the subject of sentences. God’s gracious actions on behalf of humanity are the focus.

For example, volume 1 of a fine series of collected sermons titled The Library of Distinctive Sermons [4] contains sermons from twenty American preachers, some well-known, and is remarkable because of its range of denominational representation, from Bible Fellowship to Episcopalian. Each sermon has its merit. Six of the twenty sermons do not mention God acting on behalf of people and cast listeners entirely on their own ability to change. Such preaching is anthropocentric, focusing on people, or mentioning God only in relation to human responsibility. This is “you-do-it” preaching, characterized by “must, should, and have to,” and is found in every theological camp of every denomination. Seven of the twenty sermons have brief passing comments referring to God’s actions, usually only a portion of a paragraph. The remaining seven focus on God’s actions in several paragraphs, still often only one-tenth of the total sermon. Only one sermon devotes half of its length to God’s action on behalf of God’s people. 

Of course, length of grace is not the only criterion; placement of it also matters. Often several paragraphs can prepare for just one powerful sentence. Overall, however, a sermon should build on grace, explore it, magnify it, apply it, and demonstrate how God continues to act in a similar manner. 

There is another problem: all seven sermons with some good news are on texts that have obvious grace or positive thrusts, such as Jesus appearing to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or the lost being found. In other words, the sermons preach grace only when the text is readily perceived as grace. One could argue that this is both natural and appropriate; they render the text as one finds it. 

On the other hand, interpretation is not neutral. The church has known this from the beginning with the “rule of faith.” Friedrich Schleiermacher argued that experience affects interpretation; he pointed to the back-and-forth movement between the reader’s experience of the text and the author’s circumstances.[5] In our present times, experience seems to have taken over: perspective is key and meaning depends on culture, race, gender, social location, and so on. What the church says a text means is in fact a range of meanings, and is no longer entrusted to a privileged party or hierarchy. At the same time, no group or individual can claim neutrality or objectivity in reading a text. Every reading depends upon assumptions that need to be identified, articulated, and reassessed—one of the lessons of postmodern philosophy. 

Preachers who preach grace but only when they find it in a text are not neutral or objective, as they might claim. They reflect a bad habit in the church of not looking for grace, or their own lack of experience in identifying it. It may be present, but they do not have the lenses to see it, and they unintentionally shut God out. God’s action may be found in or behind nearly all biblical texts. Trouble and grace, dilemma and gift, judgment and forgiveness, threat and promise, divine claim and succor, command and blessing are two sides of the same coin—yet even the metaphor of a coin suggests a simple binary relationship. Nonetheless, the word that binds can be the word that frees. Gospel requires both emphases. 

Another excellent collection, Best Sermons 7, edited by James W. Cox, demonstrates a further take on gospel.[6] Out of forty-one sermons, eighteen, or nearly half, have virtually no grace; ten have brief passing reference to grace; and thirteen have substantial grace, though rarely up to one-half the entire length. Once again, in nearly all cases where grace is preached, the text is obviously about grace (again like Jesus’s parables about finding the lost). By contrast, many texts that are obviously about grace, surprisingly, yield sermons on trouble. 

It is as though preachers have been taught exegetical skills but not the necessary use of theology in reading Scripture. Even testing sermons for grace, as we have been doing, is a novel idea in homiletics, though one might think it should be obvious. If preachers do not ask, What is God doing in or behind this text, they are not trained to see God in the biblical text, and they have fewer ways to speak about God, who may seem remote in their sermons. 

Collections with daring titles like Best Sermons presumably are among our best and form a reliable indicator of what is going on in churches from sea to sea. If God’s grace receives minimal attention, how can sermons be joyful and lead to lives of joyful service? No wonder the church is in trouble. Why do even evangelicals leave out the Evangel (i.e., good news) when preaching?


Excerpted from The Four Pages of the Sermon by Paul Scott Wilson. Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] See Hans Frei, The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974).

[2] Paul Scott Wilson, God Sense: Reading the Bible for Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).

[3] Ibid., see chapter 3 for the double-literal sense.

[4] The Library of Distinctive Sermons, vol. 1, ed. Gary W. Klingsporn (Sisters, OR: Questar, 1996).

[5] Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher, “The Hermeneutics: Outline of the 1819 Lectures,” New Literary History 10, no. 1, Literary Hermeneutics (Autumn 1978): 1–15.

[6] Best Sermons 7, ed. James W. Cox (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).



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