Chapter Review: Preaching the Indicative

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Over the next couple weeks I will do a series of blog posts on preaching as I read through John Carrick’s book “The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric.” Today, I will work through his introduction and his first chapter.

Carrick introduces his book with a discussion as to whether the use of the terminology “sacred rhetoric” is appropriate when speaking of preaching. He comments on how our culture sets rhetoric in antithesis to action. He also comments on the words of the Apostle Paul where Paul contrasts the preaching of himself and his colleagues with human wisdom of the Greeks (I Cor. 2:4). Of course, the abuse of a thing does not invalidate its proper use and so he points out how the Apostle Paul did use rhetoric, just not in the dishonest and manipulative way that it was used by the Greeks. The preacher’s task is one of persuasion. Carrick points out that the four main rhetorical voices that are used in Scripture are these: indicative, exclamative, interrogative, and imperative. He then points out the two sides to preaching: the crucial use of the means (the Scriptures) and the crucial role of the Holy Spirit. These two are necessary for good preaching when we consider the “rhetorical voices” of preaching.

His first chapter turns to the indicative, which as Machen remarks in his classic Christianity & Liberalism is central to the proclamation of the gospel. He writes that “Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative.” This matter is no light matter but comes down to the contrast between Christianity & Liberalism itself: “The liberal preacher offers us exhortation… The Christian evangelist… offers… not exhortation but a gospel.” Carrick points that in much of the preaching of the Apostles and of course the great preaching of history, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ are presented in the indicative. We can see the many indicative statements of triumph throughout the New Testament. Just consider the message of the Apostle Peter in Acts 2. The imperative ‘repent and believe the gospel’ rests on historical fact, what really happened. Preaching is not primarily application, but it is explication of historical facts.

This is also the difference between Augustinianism and Pelagianism. Augustine argued that man is morally dead, whereas Pelagius argued that he is simply morally sick. Augustine then had to begin with the indicative, whereas Pelagius could begin with the imperative. 

Carrick quotes Murray: “The indicative underlies the imperative, and the assurance of the indicative is the urge and incentive to the fulfilment of the imperative.” Or to quote John Stott: “The invitation cannot properly be given before the declaration has been made. Men must grasp the truth before they are asked to respond to it.” Again, Stott writes: “So the true herald of God is careful to make a thorough and thoughtful proclamation of God’s great deed of redemption through Christ’s cross, and then to issue a sincere and earnest appeal to men to repent and believe. Not one without the other, but both.” 

There are fatal consequences to not taking this route. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes about certain ministers: “…they spend the whole time ‘getting at’ their people, and slashing them and exhorting them, calling them to do this and forcing them to do that.’ They start with the imperative rather than the indicative. The indicative and the imperative are inseparable: the indicative must move to the imperative, the imperative needs the indicative. What God has done must move men to respond. 

I appreciate Carrick’s grammatical approach to preaching. It puts into clear language the difference between Arminian preaching and Reformed preaching. It grounds all Biblical exhortation in the gospel and it bases the evangelical call of Christianity in the evangelical truths of Christianity. It is a reminder to preachers to begin with the gospel, the historical fact that Jesus died and rose again. But of course, when Paul was standing before Festus, he pointed out that these facts of the gospel were compelling reason for Festus to bow his knee to Jesus Christ: “For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” (Acts 2:26-27).

I trust that this is helpful food for thought. Next week I will reflect on Carrick’s 3rd chapter on the exclamative in preaching. 

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