TGC Asks About Cautions for Christ-Centered OT Teaching

During The Gospel Coalition's national conference in April, the plenary addresses modeled Christ-centered preaching from the Old Testament. TGC has also maintains a website permanently dedicated to helping you preach and teach Jesus from the various genres and books of the Hebrew Bible. We hope the conference and website excite and equip you to introduce nonbelievers and fellow Christians alike to the God who reveals himself from Genesis to Revelation.

We recognize, however, that there are many different ways to teach Christ from all of Scripture. We also recognize that in their exuberance to preach Christ from the Old Testament, some teachers are tempted to forget their exegetical bearings. As much as we can learn from positive examples, we must also be warned by negative ones. So I turned to three seasoned preachers and asked, “How would you caution teachers intent on preaching Christ in the Old Testament?”  

Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York and vice president of The Gospel Coalition:

1. Don't “get to Christ” so soon in the sermon that you don't unfold the meaning and application of the text to the original hearers. If you “jump to Christ” too soon that often means you inspire people but you don't give them concrete application for how they are supposed to live.

2. Don't “get to Christ” so late in the sermon that he seems like an add-on, a mere devotional appendix. If you wait too long to get to Christ listeners won't see how Jesus' work is crucial if the listeners are going to obey or heed the text.

3. Don't get to Christ artificially. This is a big subject of course, but I believe two of the best ways are (a) by identifying in your text one of the many inner-canonical themes that all climax in Christ (Don Carson's language), and (b) identifying in your text some “Fallen Condition Focus,” some lack in humanity that only Christ can fill (Bryan Chapell's language).

Don Carson, research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and president of The Gospel Coalition:

1. Study constantly how the NT writers use the OT. That will give you insight into how you should move from the Old to the New.

2. Make good use of available tools, not least the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. For even when you are preaching from the OT, the indexes in the volume will alert you to any use of your OT passage within the NT.

3. Ensure that this sort of study does not overlook or set aside complementary disciplines—e.g., understanding what genre of literature you are dealing with and how it makes its appeals, where this literature falls along the axis of redemptive history, and so forth.

David Murray, professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan:

I'm massively encouraged by the church's renewed interest in preaching Christ from the Old Testament, and especially by the increased willingness to see how Old Testament people, places, events, etc., point forward to Christ. This “types and trajectories” (or redemptive-historical) hermeneutic has many strengths. However, I'm a bit concerned that an overuse of this tool can give the impression that Christ is merely the end of redemptive history rather than an active participant throughout.

Puritans such as Jonathan Edwards were masters of balance here. In his History of the Work of Redemption, Edwards shows Christ as not only the end of redemptive history, but actively and savingly involved from the first chapter to the last. He did not view Old Testament people, events, etc., as only stepping-stones to Christ; he saw Christ in the stepping-stones themselves. He did not see the need to relate everything to “the big picture”; he found the “big picture” even in the “small pictures.”

I'd also like to encourage preachers and teachers to be clear and consistent on the question: “How were Old Testament believers saved?” The most common options seem to be:

1. They were saved by obeying the law.

2. They were saved by offering sacrifices.

3. They were saved by a general faith in God.

4. They were saved by faith in the Messiah.

Unless we consistently answer #4, we end up portraying heaven as not only populated by lovers of Christ, but also by legalists, ritualists, and mere theists who never knew Christ until they got there. Turning back again in order to go forwards, may I recommend Calvin's Institutes Book 2 (chapters 9-11) to help remove some of the blur that often surrounds this question.

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