The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric

The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric

John Carrick commences with a declaration from Dr. J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism: “Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative” (7). The truth of this statement is a leading premise of this “theology of sacred rhetoric.” Carrick is Assistant Professor of Applied and Doctrinal Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is also one of its preaching instructors. He graduated from Oxford University and has had pastorates in the U.K. and in Greenville, North Carolina. This is his first book.

Clearing away confusion over abuses about the current connotation of the word “rhetoric,” Carrick asserts that it is “the preacher’s duty to persuade” (3). And, he is to do this “in absolute dependence upon the Spirit of God” (3). Yet, this does not preclude the use of means which God has ordained to move men. He claims that the indicative-imperative method was utilized in the Scriptures and is mandated as a pattern for preaching by God Himself as a theological axiom. God has also used the exclamative and the interrogative, which are forms of the indicative that Carrick treats separately. The work of preaching, according to Carrick, is about these four grammatical or rhetorical categories. .

Carrick defines the above terms, illustrates, and exemplifies them from the Bible, and then from the sermons of five well-known preachers (Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, Asahel Nettleton, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones—all highly effective “experimental Calvinists”). Finally Carrick considers “the indicative-imperative structure of New Testament Christianity in relation to a particular genre of preaching within the Reformed tradition, namely, redemptive-historical preaching” (5-6).

Machen, the author explains, differentiated between liberalism and true Christianity through the grammatical moods presented in their divergent preaching styles. He believed that “liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood” (7) rather than the indicative. “The liberal preacher offers us exhortation . . . . The Christian evangelist . . . offers . . . not exhortation but a gospel” (7). In other words, we are under obligation to get the order right because God’s message is about facts.

The indicative or declarative then is the foundational mood in the Scriptures. As R. L. Dabney offers, “I remark that every good sermon is instructive” (15). Carrick quotes Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

The Bible is not a book with just an appeal to us to do this, that, or the other—to accept certain ideas and put them into practice. It’s not a book teaching morality or ethics or anything else. I’ll tell you what it is—it’s not a book, I say, that asks us primarily to do anything—it’s a great announcement of what God has done! It’s God acting! (17).

The exclamatory and the interrogative mood are subsets, in a way, to the indicative. The exclamatory is the indicative in a highly emotional state. The Bible writers use such words as “how,” “what,” “Oh,” and “Woe” to express the indicative in vibrant emotive tones. A sermon is more than delivering a paper. Although the interrogative is part of the indicative, it “does not so much assert objective fact as question objective fact” (57). J. W. Alexander, Carrick reminds us, describes interrogation as “a sure method, when employed at the proper time and place, of startling the hearers, and agitating the heart” (68). Using C. S. Lewis’ metaphor, Carrick sees the interrogative as a means to “put man back in the dock” (81).

Two chapters are dedicated to the imperative in preaching. The first is an expansion of earlier comments, with special attention to both Scripture and the five preachers of his study. The second chapter is wrestles with the “redemptive-historical” method of preaching introduced in The Netherlands Reformed churches in the 1930s and 1940s. Carrick concludes that the redemptive-historical position “leads to objective sermons, mere explication, lectures on redemptive history, sermons without tangible relevance” (113).

This work is not so much a novel look at homiletics as it is a succinct, reachable presentation analyzing the art of preaching from a theology that believes God has done something in redemptive history. We explain, then we command. It is the indicative, “Christ died for our sins” ( 1 Cor. 15: 3), then the imperative, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1: 15). It is the indicative, “We . . . died to sin” (Rom. 6: 2), then the imperative, “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin” (Rom. 6: 11) (23). Carrick’s approach is didactic but not pedantic. It is not designed, interestingly, to move the reader, that is, it does not itself use the imperative (though he does illustrate it). His plan is not to inspire, or to give homespun counsel from a veteran, or to provide steps to prepare a sermon, nor is it to present the all-purpose workbook for preaching. He does force the reader to think of fact/application as something more than device. It is mandated by the activity of God in history and the Word of God itself.

Though the book is not intended to stand alone as a comprehensive preaching text, it is a valuable supplemental study for discerning how sermons might be better aligned with orthodox Scriptural method and the patterns of some of the world’s most effective preachers. And, it is presented clearly enough that any thinking pastor might find it useful. It could, for instance, be among those book choices for a pastor who wishes to take a special season, once a year or so, to evaluate his preaching—not a bad idea for most of us. The only chapter that might provide a challenge to the average pastor is the section on the opposing argument of the redemptive-historical school.

The book has the effect of balancing the preacher. The man who leans heavily, almost exclusively on the imperative will no doubt see both his theological and tactical error; and the man who is only an instructional preacher will understand that the Scripture authors and some of the world’s finest preachers labored at the imperative for good reason. This is its best use.