Why are dispensationalists often left out of the conversation?!! Two years ago I went to the National ETS conference because I wanted to see an epic debate between John Piper and NT Wright over the biblical concept of justification. I was a little disappointed when Piper was replaced by Schreiner, but I was still amped up to see NT Wright and he did not disappoint. BUT . . . you know what I walked away thinking? Where were the dispensational voices? You had Wright and you had reformed voices, but no real dispensational thinkers. Aren't they allowed to have an opinion?
It seems to me that the same type of prejudice is in the new gospel Centered preaching movement, made popular by the T4G conferences and the Gospel Coalition. As a Progressive Dispensationalist, I think this movement represents an awesome move away from moralism and toward the gospel, but again it seems like many in the movement tend to diminish dispensationalists or try to push them out of the discussion. Do reformed people have a corner on gospel centered preaching? Is their way of articulating it consistent with dispensationalism and and/or a dispensational hermeneutic? Here are my two cents, and you are getting exactly what you pay for!!
1. What is the Gospel?
First of all, we need to address the question, "What is the Gospel?" Is the gospel merely a belief in the penal substitutionary atonement? Is the gospel just the doctrine of double imputation? Is the gospel a belief in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ? Or . . . is the gospel the entire story of what God is doing in history? Scot McKnight in King Jesus Gospel makes (in my opinion) a very helpful distinction between the gospel and the plan of salvation. When we talk about the gospel we are often reductionistic and apply it only to the plan of salvation (Admit your sin, believe in the sacrifice of Christ, and confess him as Lord). The gospel, however, is the story of what God is doing in the world. He is seeking to re-establish his kingdom on earth and to redeem a people for himself. As I have read gospel centered preachers' writings they tend to struggle with this idea. They want to include the second coming in their gospel preaching, but the way they define gospel (double imputation) makes them have to jump through hoops in order to allow it. If we broaden our definition of gospel to what God is doing in history, culminating in Jesus, it will help us to fit our preaching into the story of God's word rather than to impose the plan of salvation on every text. Which leads us to our next question . . .
2. Is there continuity or discontinuity between the testaments?
This is a very complicated hermeneutical question. I don't want to dive overly deep into it here; I just want to point out that there is a major difference in how reformation thinkers, traditional dispensationalists, and progressive dispensationalists view the relationship between the testaments. Reformed thinkers tend to focus on the continuity between the two testaments, traditional dispensationalists tend to focus on the discontinuity, and the progressives tend to focus on both continuity and discontinuity. Now, with the advent of thinkers like NT Wright, I think there is a more helpful way of articulating the relationship between the Testaments and that is the idea of story. The gospel story binds the two testaments together. The story of what God is doing in history, culminating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This story is the good news!
God created man in his image and made him a steward of his creation. Man transgressed the one boundary that God put in place and mankind fell into sin, and because of that relational breach God cursed not only mankind but the entirety of creation. God, however, did not give up on man. He pursued him through covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Palestinian, Davidic, and New), culminating in Jesus who is the ultimate answer and fulfillment of those covenants. Jesus, the eternal second person of the trinity, willingly became a man, lived a perfect life, called men to repentance, gave his own life as a sacrifice for sin, and rose again from the grave putting a nail in the coffin of sin, death, and the devil. Then he ascended to heaven where he now reigns as king in the hearts of his people as he awaits the time when he will return to earth to establish his kingdom in its full form and judge the world, condemning unbelievers and rewarding his own. This is the story of what God is doing in the world. This story is the good news.
If this is the story of what God is doing, then there is continuity between the testaments because both testaments are part of God's one story, but there is also discontinuity because each testament was written by people who were fully invested in their own part of the story. True gospel preaching then will recognize the part of the gospel story every event and author was a part of and then ask the question, "What does this text mean in its own part of the gospel story, and what does it mean to me in my part of the story?" True gospel preaching should never impose my part of the story onto another text at least at the level of meaning (perhaps at the level of extrapolation). Which leads us to perhaps the distinguishing hermeneutic that divides reformed brothers and sisters from their dispensational conterparts, the analogy of faith.
3. The Analogy of Faith hermeneutic
Since reformed people see continuity between the testaments, many of them often feel free to impose later New Testament truth back onto Old Testament passages. This can be helpful at times, but it all depends on how you phrase what you are doing. Modern dispensationalism does not lead to this type of hermeneutic (Classic Dispensationalists and to an extent Revised Dispensationalists were prone to similar thinking, they just called it typology).
I think I am going to have to give an example to explain what I mean. Let's use the story of David and Goliath as an example. Here is a good video from Matt Chandler, exemplifying how gospel centered advocates believe we should approach this Old Testament narrative when we preach.
If you followed the link, you will find that Matt believes that when we preach about David and Goliath, we should really preach about how Jesus slayed the giants of sin, death, and the devil. That, to him, would be gospel-centered or Christ-centered preaching. What I learned from this is that when reformed people say that Gospel Centered preaching will lead you away from dispensationalism, that is what they are referring to. Dispensationalism will lead you away from a hermeneutic that allows you to read the story of Jesus back onto the story of David and Goliath. Was the original intent behind the telling of story of David and Goliath to prefigure the work of Christ? Of course not. If we preach that as the intent of the passage, we are not exegeting the text, but imposing a foreign idea onto it. Now, does that mean that we can't both find out the original intent of the story, preach that intent, AND focus on the gospel? Of course not!.
So, how should we preach the original intent AND focus on the gospel story at the same time. First we have to discover the original intent. I believe as you look at the book of 1 Samuel as a whole you will find that it is a mainly a contrast between two personalities, David and Saul. David was a man of faith in God who depended on him for success. Saul was a man of pride who depended on himself for his success. These two personalities convene in a very telling way in the story of David and Goliath. Saul will not fight Goliath, because he is afraid. He looks at Goliath and his strength and he looks at himself and his lack thereof and makes the logical choice that fighting him would end in death. This reaction is just part of who he is, a man dependent on himself. David, on the other hand, is a man of faith. He believes that God is active and wants to save his people, he is just waiting for a faith filled servant to use.
The author was trying to hold David up as a model of faithfulness to God and his covenant. He was in essence teaching through story that we should be like David and not like Saul. If we want to be faithful to the text, our sermon should also focus on the faith of David. In other words, if we interpret the text properly, it does lead to a moral. Christ centered preaching (as enumerated by many reformed thinkers) tries to tell us that if we preach a moral, then it is somehow not Christ centered or gospel centered. The Bible does, however, teach morals and ethics for God's people to live by. Preaching a moral is not moralism, especially if the point of the text we are studying is to get across a moral. Moralism is when we teach that God loves us more for following the moral, or loves us less if we don't. The Bible is absolutely filled with morals. I believe that we can both hold to a dispensational/progressive dispensational hermeneutic (not imposing NT theology on OT texts) and still be gospel centered when we preach them. Gospel centered preaching allows me to preach a moral, but at the same time it does NOT allow me to just leave it at that. Here is where you need to put the story of David and Goliath into the gospel story.
Like David and Saul, we are fallen people and live in the midst of other fallen people. That fallenness leads us to be afraid of the circumstances of life, like Saul. We too have an option of how to react to those circumstances. We can trust ourselves or we can trust in God. Therefore, the proper way to preach this text is to call people to faith in God no matter the circumstances of life.
We also need to understand that because we live in a different part of the story, that our application is going to need to be re-contextualized. We do not live under the Mosaic covenant any more. Under the law, faith and faithfulness to the covenant resulted in physical blessings, while unfaithfulness led to curses. That is different between our situation and David and Saul's. We cannot then preach that if we have enough faith in God, that he will enable us to slay all of our personal giants. So, when we preach David and Goliath, we, like the author, should call people to have big faith in a big God who loves his people and wants what is best for them, while at the same time not promising the people that they can manipulate God by their faith. If they just have enough faith, that God will do whatever they ask of him.
Which leads us back to our initial question. Can people hold to a dispensational hermeneutic and still be gospel centered in their preaching? Yes!! If we focus on the story of the gospel and let it inform our preaching. We don't just preach the moral, "Have faith!" We also must preach the why. Why should we have big faith in a big God? Because that God loves us, pursues us, and ultimately sent his own son to free us from sin and death. It is not moralism to understand that certain passages of Scripture teach morals. It only becomes moralism when we at the same time preach that the goal of the Christian life is to be moral. The goal of the Christian life is to have a relationship with God, and we can only do that when we see everything through the lens of the gospel.
So, when gospel centered preachers say that being gospel centered will lead them to be reformed, that really isn't the case. Using the analogy of faith and reading the plan of salvation into the meaning of Old Testaments texts might, but that hermeneutic is not the only way to be gospel centered and reject moralism.