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Originally published in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction in the winter of 1975.
Preaching has an important place in God’s purpose, and it is basic to the life and health of the church. If the church is faltering or straying, the preaching is clearly at fault. If the church is lukewarm, sterile, or dead, the preaching again is at fault. True preaching cannot leave men unconcerned: it will either arouse them to repentance and to godly action, or it will arouse them to ungodly hostility as they see themselves in the light of God’s Word.
While Scripture often applies terms of great importance to the preachers, it also uses very homely language about them. Their function is compared to that of a watchdog in one instance, whose duty is to bark a warning, and false preachers are said to be “all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber” (Isa. 56:10).
Others are compared to “greedy dogs, which can never have enough, and they are shepherds that cannot understand: they all look to their own way, every one for his gain, from his quarter” (Isa. 56:11).
To illustrate fallacious preaching, let us invent a text, and then approach it from various preaching perspectives. Our text thus shall be, “Man, your house is on fire.” This is a good text, because, like all of Scripture, it is an urgent text, and Scripture as a totality carries God’s urgent word to man.
Clearly, no one approaches a text with more scholarly seriousness than the traditionally orthodox pastor. He takes his text with an earnestness that few others manifest, but it is the seriousness of the classroom, not of the world and life. The seriousness of the scholar is a necessary one and has its place in the study, but not in the pulpit, where the results, not the mechanics, of study must show. A theory of combustion is an important scientific fact, but, with a burning house, something more relevant is needed. The theory of combustion should tell us, in the study, how to cope with fire; in the pulpit we must cope with fire itself.
The orthodox pastor, however, carries the study into the pulpit. The text, as he sees it, has three key words, man, house, and fire. The etymology of each is given, the history of their use in Scripture, their Hebrew and Greek forms, and a survey from Genesis to Revelation of their usage and development. The result is a long and sometimes interesting treatise on the Biblical doctrine of man, and the history of the word. House, too, proves to be a rich word: the house or temple of God, the houses built by man, the house of man’s body, the church as God’s house, and much more provide a mine of material for our thorough preacher. Fire, too, gives us a long history from Sodom to the Lake of Fire in Revelation. By the time the sermon is ended, those still awake know a great deal about what Scripture teaches about man, house, and fire, but they have been left too stupefied to get the urgent message, Man, your house is on fire. They leave grateful that they have not been given a history also of the types of architecture used in Biblical houses, their floor plans, modes of construction, and much more of like character. They feel guilty, on leaving, because they were bored. Why should a man be bored with God’s Word, the faithful ask themselves, and answer, perhaps because I am too much the sinner to appreciate God’s Word. Meanwhile, their house, city, and civilization burn down around them.
The modern evangelical preacher comes to the text, “Man, your house is on fire,” with a different approach. Neither in the pulpit nor in the study has he any desire to be scholarly; such a perspective is anathema to him. For him, it is important to reach man’s heart, not man’s mind. He must speak from his heart to the hearer’s heart; experience must be stressed, and the personal witness. “I want,” he declares earnestly, “to give you my personal testimony about fire. Once, when my wife and I were newlyweds, and our dear little baby had just arrived, our little house, our first possession, caught on fire. We grabbed our baby and fled into the night and stood helplessly by as the fire devoured our house and all our precious though humble possessions. As I stood there in the chill of the night, watching that fearful blaze devour our sweet little cottage, I felt suddenly ashamed of my tears when I thought of our precious Lord. How much He gave up for us, and how much we have in Him, treasures in heaven, and how wrong to weep over a house that is destined to perish. The house is nothing, the fire is nothing, I told myself, compared to what I have in our precious Savior. Why worry about a house which the fire of judgment will finally consume anyway? Thus, dear friends, this was a precious experience. I lost a house and all my worldly possessions, but how much more I gained from that experience, I cannot begin to tell you. And so, dear friends, if your house is on fire, do not be dismayed. Out of this, the Lord may give you a more wonderful witness. Are you ready to look at the fire and say, How good of the Lord to burn my house of wood and to save my soul; how good of the Lord to give me this joyful witness in the face of a burning house. Beloved in Christ, can you say this? Do you have this witness in your heart?” Thus, for such preachers, when your house, city, or civilization burns down, its purpose is to give you a nobler and more spiritual witness.
The modernist preacher comes to the text, “Man, your house is on fire,” with a variety of anti-Scriptural presuppositions. “Fire,” he tells us, “must be viewed very seriously, but not literally. We are here in the domain of holy history, not real history, and we lose the whole point of the text if we insist on a literally burning fire. Fire is a symbol, a sign of judgment. Fire has great cleansing properties, and the fear of fire by the superstitious and the reactionaries has led to a depiction of a supposed hell as the ultimate in fire and burning. For some cultures, however, hell is a place of ice and cold, an insight Dante had in his depiction of the final circle of hell. For the Eskimos, for example, fire is heavenly and a sign of paradise. Thus, we must disabuse ourselves of any medieval or fundamentalist horror of fire. Hellfire and damnation preachers should have embraced what they damned. Above all, fire is a symbol of revolution, of purging and refining. Remember the wisdom of Thoreau: ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world.’ Fire is wildness, revolution is wildness, and the faint of heart fear it. We begin to see now why reactionary and fascistic religionists have had a pathological fear of fire. They refuse to live in terms of the future. They fail to see that the past is dead, and the present must be destroyed. They try to put out the fires of revolution, but they cannot. No man can arrest history. Therefore, the wise man will not seek to halt history: he will welcome it and speed its course. We must thus see as God’s Word, as the meaning of history, that the fires of revolution must be welcomed. If your house is not yet on fire, light a match to it! If your neighbor’s house is not yet ablaze, burn it down!” Thus, such preachers see hope in destruction, and they want total destruction as the means to freedom, and perpetual war for perpetual peace.
The new school of reformational preaching is sharp in its denunciation of these other schools, and often rightly so. Its own answers, however, worsen the situation all too often. The so-called reformational preacher, as he approaches the text, “Man, your house is on fire,” will begin by denouncing all other preachers. Now at last we expect to hear the clear word of God. What shall we say about the statement, “Man, your house is on fire,” asks the reformational preacher? “First of all,” he assures us, “we are not here dealing with truth in a propositional form. Again, we must not see this as a moralistic warning to save our houses. The Bible is not rationalistic nor is it moralistic. It is not in the least bit interested in our middle-class virtues and our Victorian pride in our homes. No! God in this world crisis is confounding your homes. He has raised up the blacks in the ghettos, with the cry, ‘Burn, baby, burn,’ to put a match to all your middle-class structures, and you sin against Yahweh if you try to throw water on your burning house. You show thereby that you love your middle-class possessions more than the covenant God!”
“Second,” the reformational preacher declares, “Scripture is an account of the mighty acts of God, and man’s response to those acts. When God sets fire to your house and world, say Amen! We have here a law-word of God, but we must not read it humanistically or moralistically as a warning designed to save our houses. God despises your houses and your middle-class virtues! The law must always be read as the constitution of God’s Kingdom. It is the law of justice, and it requires us to help the poor, aid the widows and orphans, work for racial brotherhood, and to be a faithful partner to God and our neighbor. The law means love. Thus, the word, Man, your house is on fire, means that your middle-class virtues are on fire, when you instead should be on fire with love for everyone (except the orthodox and evangelical church people whom we detest). The question thus is, where is the fire? If it is not in your heart and action to create a truly reformed world of racial and industrial love and brotherhood, then there will be fire in your house. Burn, baby, burn, or your house will burn. We have the match and the gasoline. Where do you want the fire? Hear the word of the Lord!” These preachers thus no more declare the word of the Lord than the evangelicals and the modernists, while the orthodox declare a sterile word.
What is faithful preaching? When God says, Man, your house is on fire, we declare that, simply and directly, and then we say, with God’s help, let us work to put it out!
Instead of endless reinterpretation, explanation, and long-winded analyses, God’s Word needs rather simple and direct declaration. It summons men to hear and obey, to listen and to act. Anything else is preaching that stinketh.