Preaching is hard. Preaching with theological precision is harder. We all desire to be biblically faithful and theologically orthodox in our proclamation, but with some texts and doctrines, the possibility of confusion and misrepresentation is high. Take the cry of dereliction for example.
How does preacher faithfully communicate Christ forsaken in our place without unintentionally communicating heresy? The helpful pieces by Donald Macleod and Matthew Emerson speak to the difficulty of preaching Jesus’ famous words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Macleod tells us that the cry cannot mean:
- That the eternal communion between the Father, the Son, and The Holy Spirit was broken.
- That the Father ceases to love the Son.
- That the Holy Spirit ceased to minister to the Son.
- That the words are a cry of despair. According to Macleod, “Despair would be sin.”
Matthew Emerson helpfully provides parameters for speaking about the cry of dereliction when he says, “In my view, any statement about it needs to be thoroughly Trinitarian, non-Nestorian, and Messianic.”
The existence of these two posts (and perhaps many others) tells us two things. Preaching the cry of dereliction is difficult and some preaching of the cry of dereliction has failed in its biblical fidelity and theological precision. Preaching doctrinally complex passages can be intimidating.
The Pursuit of Precision in Preaching
Given these warnings, it is important that pastors like myself prioritize the pursuit of theological precision. As I am preparing to preach Mark 15:21-16:8 I need to choose my words carefully as I pray and depend on the Spirit’s guidance. Preaching the cry of dereliction in a faithful and nuanced way is difficult. Even when we pursue precision there is room for misunderstanding.
I want to humbly suggest that precision should be prioritized before passion, popularity, or polemics. I use the word “before” because we are talking about priority not categories that are necessarily mutually exclusive. Furthermore, I’ve identified this as a pursuit because we should be always learning and growing as preachers.
Prioritize Precision Before Passion: I love preaching with passion. When I am proclaiming Christ I want my flock to hear me speak of him as a treasure, the object of my affections, the one who is worthy of honor, glory, and blessing. I want my tone of voice to match the majesty of the text when speaking of God’s glory and the justice of the text when speaking of God’s judgement.
Precision must still take priority over passion. If biblical fidelity and theological orthodoxy does not describe my content then my passionate presentation is in vain. As a pastor, I do not merely want the appearance of faithfulness. I want to be faithful. I want my private labor to result in public a proclamation that is faithful to God’s Word and the Christian tradition.
Therefore, when preaching on the cry of dereliction I am right to emphasize the gravity and seriousness of sin. A parallel to the cry is Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” The self-substitution of God in our place needs to be proclaimed with a level of gravitas. In my passion I must be careful not to communicate that because the Son became sin he was separated as we were separated from the Father. As Macleod and Emerson reminded us: the communion of the trinity cannot be broken.
Prioritize Precision of Language Before Popular Language: My words need to prioritize precise language over popular language. By popular language I just mean the general way people talk about the cross. I am not advocating pretentious sermons that give no thought to the audience. That isn’t love. I simply mean choosing the words of the sermon with a degree of care. Ideas may need to be fleshed out and terms may need to be properly defined.
For example, in an otherwise good song we hear, “The Father’s wrath completely satisfied.” It is easy to regurgitate this language in preaching and imply that the Son isn’t wrathful toward sin. If this is communicated while preaching the cry of dereliction, hearers may misunderstood and think the Son is in disunity with the Father: enduring a wrath on the cross he doesn’t share.
To assist with this pastors should avail themselves of the best resources. We should be careful not to assume the popular language we know from sermons, songs, or books is the most faithful way to communicate the atonement simply because it is familiar. God has gifted the church with some wonderful biblical scholars and theologians whose writings are accessible. Why not take advantage of their labors? While at ETS last week I was sure to buy a copy of The Deep Things of God for this very reason. I need to grow in my theological precision.
Once we’ve prioritized precision of thought we can labor to communicate those truths in an accessible way that isn’t pretentious or arrogant. This is about priority not pretension. For example, when speaking of the cry of dereliction we might say something like: “It is important to remember that even in this moment the cross is a united work of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I don’t have to use technical language.
Prioritize Precision Before Polemics: In our divided culture it is all too easy to think about everything as an argument. If precision is not prioritized our polemical posture may lead to being careless with words. Unfortunately, in my short Christian life i’ve heard a number of sermons that were almost exclusively polemical. A sermon should aim at the heart of the hearer so that the Spirit may use the Word of God to conform the hearer into greater Christ-likeness.
As a pastor who treasure the doctrine of penal substitution, I should be careful not to allow any defenses I would offer for the doctrine communicate an unbalanced or distorted version of it.
There is a lot more that could be said, but it is important to note that I am talking about primarily about a desired goal. As a pastor I want to pursue theological precision (when it is possible) in order to avoid perpetuating theological misunderstandings. Whether I will achieve this goal Sunday after Sunday is a different question. I simply want to strive to be careful with my language that I might be biblically faithful and theologically orthodox.
There are many times when we must appeal to mystery or allow ambiguities and tensions in the biblical text to remain. There are other times when even in our best effort we may miscommunicate or be out of balance. In these moments we remember the sufficiency of Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit. We remember that God’s work is not ultimately dependent upon us, that our errors can be corrected, and if we cultivate a teachable spirit there is always grace to grow.
What a privilege it is to preach God’s word. May we be in a persistent pursuit to preach with precision for the edification of God’s people and for the glory of God.