Book Review: The Imperative of Preaching, by John Carrick
If you love biblical theology, if preaching in light of redemptive history is your jet fuel, if the gospel is life to you and not just a trendy buzzword, then you really need to read John Carrick’s book The Imperative of Preaching. Hang on and I’ll tell you why. But first things first.
Carrick advocates for what he calls “sacred rhetoric.” Essentially he has given us a theology of grammar. You heard it—a theology of grammar—which doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but is actually surprisingly helpful. The Bible, as you know, has sentences in it, and those sentences have moods, and those moods work on us in various ways. Why, therefore, shouldn’t sermons follow the same grammatical path? The preacher who has an ear, let him hear.
Take the indicative, for example, which is the mood of declaration. The New Testament brims with indicatives. This should come as no surprise, since the New Testament is full of gospel declarations. Likewise, sermons should have their fair share of indicatives. The text must be explained, truth must be unpacked, news of the gospel must be announced. The indicative appeals to the mind, and Christianity falls without it.
Exclamatives are also prevalent throughout the New Testament. “What…! O…! How…!” The Bible authors not only declare truth, they feel it. They aren’t averse to letting their emotions give shape to the indicative. Preachers must do the same. Whether explaining or applying the text, exclamations have an important function in sacred rhetoric. They appeal not only to the mind but to the heart.
Carrick also discusses interrogatives. The New Testament asks analytical questions, rhetorical questions, and searching questions—each of which affects us in a different way. Analytical questions draw us into the truth, rhetorical questions hit us with the force of exclamation, and searching questions probe our consciences. All are useful to the preacher. With regard to application, the searching question in particular is an indispensable tool.
The imperative is the mood of direction. The gospel calls for a response in both believers and unbelievers. The unbeliever must repent and believe; the believer must adorn the gospel with good works. In the New Testament, this entire range of response comes not merely through description but by command. Imperatives offer a direct challenge to the will of the hearer. Good preaching will not shy away from this mood.
Thus far I’ve only summarized Carrick’s sacred rhetoric, but now the fun begins: Analyze your preaching. Do your sermons reflect an array of moods? Which moods do you tend to utilize the most? The least? The preacher who speaks almost exclusively in the indicative will be a bit heady. If he loads his sermons with exclamations and imperatives, he is likely relying too much on emotion. If he rarely uses the searching interrogative, his application may be lacking in power. Carrick says more, but you get the idea. The Spirit uses all of these moods to form people in Christ. A good preacher, in reliance on the Spirit, will therefore seek to use all of these moods too—not in equal measure, but in measure appropriate to the text in particular and the Christian faith in general.
Speaking of “the Christian faith in general” brings us to the heart of Carrick’s book. Carrick rightly insists that “the essential pattern or structure which God himself has utilized in the proclamation of New Testament Christianity is that of the indicative–imperative” (5). Here is where grammar turns into theology, and it is at this point, in my opinion, that Carrick’s book shines brightest. The gospel comes to us in the indicative, whereas the call to respond to the gospel and live in light of it comes in the imperative. The whole of Christianity encompasses both moods. Consequently, preaching is sub-Christian that emphasizes what God has done in Christ but fails to say what people must do in response. The corollary is true as well: preaching is sub-Christian that emphasizes gospel-shaped living apart from declaring the gospel itself. This latter problem is characteristic of liberalism. Yet even in more conservative circles, when application is divorced from clear gospel explication, moralism and legalism have been the sad result.
Carrick’s predominant concern, however, is with the former problem. As a Presbyterian, Carrick is well acquainted with biblical theology and redemptive-historical preaching. His experience has revealed a tendency of some in these camps to focus so heavily on the indicatives of the gospel as to neglect the imperatives that result from the gospel. Such sermons are ruled by explication while application is manifestly neglected. For some preachers this imbalance is unintentional, and Carrick’s book will prove immediately corrective. For others, however, the imbalance is principled, as if imperatives are intrinsically dangerous, or using character examples is inherently wrong.
Carrick devotes an entire chapter to dismantling this false notion. Judging by its length and the energy of the writing, this concluding chapter seems to be the driving motive behind the whole book. The title itself bears out what Carrick believes is lacking: The Imperative of Preaching. The gospel has come, and people must be told how to respond.
A NEEDED ALARM
In sum, Carrick has written a uniquely useful book. I haven’t read anything quite like it. His theology of sacred rhetoric provides a helpful method of evaluating Christian preaching. Preachers of all stripes would benefit from Carrick’s discussion of moods and why they are important. However, the preachers who will benefit the most from the book are those, like me, who love the redemptive-historical approach to preaching. Without trashing the method itself, Carrick sounds a needed alarm. And we must listen, because if he’s right, our faith itself is at stake.