Preach the gospel in the performative mode of unconditional promise—let’s call this the proclamatory rule of the gospel. It comes into play when the gospel-speaker is declaring the good news of Jesus Christ to one or more individuals, with the intent to convert, liberate, regenerate, encourage, empower, and edify the hearer. This form of preaching is often called kerygmatic, in contrast to didactic, catechetical, and exhortational sermons. The preacher doesn’t just speak about Christ but, at least implicity, in the name of Christ. He or she intends to actually give the life that only the risen Jesus can give; he intends to bestow the Spirit and bring his hearers into the Kingdom. Underlying the kerygmatic sermon is the unconditional promise of Jesus Christ. Why unconditional? Because in his love Jesus offers eternal salvation as pure gift, apart from works. As we saw in the previous article of this series, “The Grammar of Apokatastasis,” transactional preaching necessarily generates a response and spirituality of performance: we must do something in order to obtain the promised reward. To put it bluntly, salvation becomes that which we must earn.1 Only the unconditionalist sermon does the gospel to the congregation. Because the risen Christ assumes the responsibility for the fulfillment of the stipulated conditions, the kergymatic homily creates and supports faith. The gift of Christ is bestowed in the proclaimed Word. There’s nothing left for the hearer to do, no necessities and prerequisites he must fulfill. There is only the freedom to live on the basis of the promise. This does not mean that there are no consequences for not living into the promise. To flee Christ in pride and offense—the proud and selfish are always offended by the gospel—is to turn away from the Good toward the starvation and misery of nothingness. Nevertheless, the crucified and risen Jesus remains faithful. He never takes our “no” as our final answer.
Back in 1985, when I was still struggling with the notion of peaching in the mode of unconditional promise, I wrote the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde and asked him for clarification. His letter proved so helpful and illuminating that I gladly share it with you in full:
Dear Rev. Kimel,
Thank you for your letter of March 14. I write what I fear will be a rather hasty reply, but I hope it will be better than putting it off and perhaps neglecting it altogether as I fear I have done in the past, for which I must apologize!
Is not the act of belief in “some sense” a condition for salvation, at least in the sense that without it one will not be saved? When we arrive at that question, I think, we arrive at what might be called the limits of language in this matter, the point at which the language is likely to trick us if we are not careful. So we can get on with the problem, I believe, by making a couple of moves. The first would be to note carefully what the language is doing and perhaps make some helpful distinctions and the second would be to shift to more personal categories like the language of love. The distinction I like to make is one between descriptive language and declarative language. Descriptively it is quite true to say that unless you believe you shall not be saved. But that is just description of what is the case, and even though it is quite true in and of itself, it is not legitimate to jump immediately to the conclusion or the inference that belief is a condition for salvation, because the description says nothing about how such belief is to come about. Descriptive language is always tricky in theology especially and tricks us because it is so easy to translate it immediately into law language, conditional language. It is the unconditional language, the proclamation, that creates the belief, the faith, without which one cannot be saved. Faith is not a condition for salvation, it is salvation already, since it is created by the living address.
Perhaps this becomes more evident if we make the second move and shift to the more personal language of love, or the language of relationship between persons. Descriptively it is quite true to say that without love the relationship between, say, husband and wife, parent and child, is not likely to be a happy or perfect one. But if the relationship goes sour and I immediately translate the (quite true!) descriptive language into conditional language, I would then turn it into law, and turn on the alienated one with a demand. I would likely say, “Look here, you are supposed to love me.” Again, that is quite true, but of course it only makes matters worse. It creates the mistaken impression that love is a condition to be fulfilled, a means to an end which the alienated one is supposed to accomplish. But if I know the difference between law and gospel, I will immediately realize that the only proper move is to direct, unconditional declaration: “I love you! No ifs, ands, or buts!” I would realize that love is not a condition, that it cannot be commanded, it can only be given as best and as unconditionally as one can.
Love is not the condition for the relationship, it is the relationship. To assume it is a condition is to assume that I can, by some means or other, master the situation, indeed, master and control the other. But that is not the case. Hans Urs von Balthasar has some helpful things to say on this score (in Love Alone, The Way of Revelation, p. 44): “No I has the possibility or the right to master intellectually the Thou who encounters him in his own freedom, nor can he understand or deduce his attitude prior to their meeting. For love granted to me can only be understood as a miracle; I can never account for it, either empirically or transcendentally—not even from knowledge of our common human nature. A Thou meets me as an Other.” The moment I think that I have understood the love of another person for me—for instance, on the basis of laws or human nature or because of something in me—then this love is radically misused and inadequate, and there is no possibility of a response. True love is always incomprehensible, and only so is it gratuitous.
Perhaps that is why we say we simply “fall in love.”
Faith, belief, is like that. More deeply, according to Paul, it is like dying and being raised to new life. I simply cannot say to Our Lord that I have fulfilled “the conditions” so that I now am a proper candidate for salvation. Indeed, without faith, I am lost. That is a true description. But it is the declaration, the unconditional word that raises the dead!
So I always counsel my students that descriptive language is indeed true and useful, but they should beware of translating it into conditional language or law. Especially is this true for preaching—for if we find ourselves preaching a description as though it were gospel we will find ourselves in big trouble!
I hope this may be of some help to you and not muddy the waters too much! I don’t know how much counsel I can give you on books to read on the matter except to say that I draw most of my sustenance on such problems from Luther and writings about him. Perhaps most helpful on a secondary level would be Gerhard Ebeling’s little book on Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, from Fortress.
Grace and Peace!
Preachers attend! If only Forde’s letter could be put into the hands of every pastor who desires to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
I know that many of you are now silently protesting: “We have never heard of such a proclamatory rule. It must be a Lutheran invention.” George Lindbeck has a ready rejoinder: “Rules can be followed in practice without any explicit or theoretical knowledge of them.”2 Homer was a supreme master of Ionic Greek long before the grammatical rules of the language were codified. One may speak a language well without being able to state the rules that govern the language. Hence it is at least possible—and I would argue highly probable—that from Pentecost on Christians have lived, known, celebrated, preached, and sacramentally enacted the unconditionality of grace, even in the absence of an explicit regulative canon. It is also certain that at various times and places pastors and preachers have compromised the gospel by reducing the free gift of salvation to a work that must be earned.
I invite you to consider the proclamatory rule in light of the eschatological nature of the Holy Eucharist. In recent decades Fr Alexander Schmemann and Met John Zizioulas have powerfully argued for a recovery of the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. Schmemann speaks of the Eucharist as the “sacrament of the Kingdom”; Zizioulas, “the icon of the Kingdom.” Zizioulas loves to quote the words of St Maximus the Confessor: “For the things of the Old Testament are the shadow; those of the New Testament are the image. The truth is the state of things to come.”3 The Church lives from the future. The Kingdom causes the Eucharist and confers upon it its true being. The Divine Liturgy does not merely commemorate the events of the past: it blesses, invokes, and anticipates the future; it even remembers the future.
- “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the celebrant intones at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy.
- At the Great Entrance he declares to the assembly: “May the Lord God remember all of you in His kingdom, now and forever and to the ages of ages.”
- And the anaphora of St John Chrysostom strikingly recollects not only the cross and resurrection of Christ but also his “second and glorious Coming.”
In the Mystical Supper the risen and ascended Son comes to the Church from his eternal futurity; or, to make the same point in different imagery, in the Supper the Church is lifted up by the Spirit into the Messianic Banquet. The kingdom is Jesus Christ, risen, glorified, returning. Zizioulas elaborates:
What we experience in the divine Eucharist is the end time making itself present to us now. The Eucharist is not a repetition or continuation of the past, or just one event amongst others, but it is the penetration of the future into time. The Eucharist is entirely live, and utterly new; there is no element of the past about it. The Eucharist is the incarnation live, the crucifixion live, the resurrection live, the ascension live, the Lord’s coming again and the day of judgment, live.4
As the Metropolitan of Pergamon elsewhere states, “In the Eucharist, we move within the space of the age to come, of the Kingdom.”5
To proclaim the gospel in the mode of unconditional promise is to speak the language of the parousia. The words of the preacher become words of prophecy bearing the living reality of the eschaton. The gospel is nothing less than the final judgment proleptically let loose into history. It thus confronts us with decisive authority, an authority not of law and condemnation but of blessing, forgiveness, and hope—the authority of apokatastasis. When the preacher obeys the proclamatory rule, he moves from talking about salvation to giving salvation. This move from second-order exposition to present-tense proclamation is crucial. As long as the preacher restricts himself to description, explanation, and exhortation, the eschatological Word remains unsaid. Every homily is of course informed by the preacher’s own exegetical reflections about the appointed biblical text, as well as by his reflections on how the text has been interpreted within the doctrinal and pastoral tradition. But at some point he needs to move from saying words about God to actually speaking gospel in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.6
Consider the difference between the language of lovers and the language of psychologists. Psychologists can tell us all about what lovers experience, what they feel and do, how love changes and energizes them. It’s all quite informative. But when you are in love, this kind of information is not what you want to hear from your lover. What you want to hear, what you need to hear, is “I love you.” This simple declaration makes all the difference.
Gospel-preaching occurs when the message of Pascha becomes salvific deed and act. The Word of God effects what it announces and does what it proclaims—ex opere operato. By the unconditional promise of Christ Jesus, the preacher converts, justifies, and deifies his hearers. He communicates salvation. He establishes his hearers within the eschatological life of the final future. He doesn’t just speak about salvation—he does it; he performs it; he enacts it. By the gospel of resurrection the preacher re-creates the world in the power of the Spirit. Sinners are absolved, new life is bestowed, saints are made, the Kingdom is made present. The homily thus becomes eschatological event that slays the old being and births the new. “The proclamation of the Word,” Schmemann writes, “is a sacramental act par excellence because it is a transforming act. It transforms the human words of the Gospel into the Word of God and the manifestation of the Kingdom. And it transforms the man who hears the Word into a receptacle of the Word and a temple of the Spirit.”7
All this is made possible because God the Holy Trinity is absolute Love, because Jesus the Christ is risen from the dead, because the Eucharist is the manifestation of the Kingdom:
If Jesus died and lives, the fulfillment of his life opens unconditionally to him. But his life was speaking the promise of Israel’s Kingdom to other men, acting it out with them, and doing both in a way that removed all conditions and refused all social and religious distinctions. Therefore the fulfillment now promised to Jesus, is exactly that the promises of Israel will be fulfilled for his fellows, and that his fellowship will reach to all men. “The Word of God” is first of all the word by which the man Jesus now lives; and what that word says to him is: “All men will be your brothers, despite their alienation and unconditionally, in the new order that will fulfill Israel’s hope. Just so this word is equally addressed to us, without distinction; it is the word that each of us may speak to the other in Jesus’ name, and in this form it says: “Israel’s hope will be fulfilled for Jesus’ sake, and for you; despite all past or future failed conditions, despite all alienation, and despite the death that rules in both.”If Jesus died and lives, the fulfillment of his life opens unconditionally to him. But his life was speaking the promise of Israel’s Kingdom to other men, acting it out with them, and doing both in a way that removed all conditions and refused all social and religious distinctions. Therefore the fulfillment now promised to Jesus, is exactly that the promises of Israel will be fulfilled for his fellows, and that his fellowship will reach to all men. “The Word of God” is first of all the word by which the man Jesus now lives; and what that word says to him is: “All men will be your brothers, despite their alienation and unconditionally, in the new order that will fulfill Israel’s hope. Just so this word is equally addressed to us, without distinction; it is the word that each of us may speak to the other in Jesus’ name, and in this form it says: “Israel’s hope will be fulfilled for Jesus’ sake, and for you; despite all past or future failed conditions, despite all alienation, and despite the death that rules in both.”8
That for Jesus death is past and not future, means that the future from which he comes is the last future, that the spirit in which he is present is the Breath of the Kingdom, that the gospel-word that is his address is an eschatological judgment. For whereas all the promises we make one another are rendered conditional by the future of death, Jesus’ resurrection makes his intention for us unconditional. All my commitments are iffy, for I commit a future I do not surely have. Jesus’ commitment to us is rescued from conditionality and cannot but triumph utterly; such a triumph, vice versa, must be the conclusion of the entire human enterprise.9
When the preacher instead presents the good news of Christ in the form of conditional promise and synergistic transaction, he violates the eschatological reality of the Eucharist. It doesn’t matter if he does so for moralistic, ascetical, or doctrinal reasons. The result is the same—the good news is reduced to law. The gospel tolerates no conditions, for in the kingdom there is no longer time for the fulfillment of conditions. The kingdom has come and is now present as Church. After partaking of the Body of Blood of Christ, the congregation sings:
We have seen the True Light!
We have received the Heavenly Spirit!
We have found the True Faith!
Worshiping the Undivided Trinity,
Who has saved us.
In response to the gracious self-giving of the living Savior, there can only be faith or offense. We either find ourselves joyously celebrating eternal life in the Kingdom or cursing the uncreated radiance.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus is risen! He comes to us in his Word in utter grace, infinite charity, unmerited forgiveness, startling generosity, omnipotent benevolence, transforming holiness, deifying triumph—this is the good, good, very good news we are commissioned to declare. Amen.
(3 December 2014; rev.)
 George Lindbeck, The Church in a Postliberal Age, p. 43.
 John Zizioulas, The Eucharistic Communion and the World, p. 44.
 John Zizioulas, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, p. 155.
 Eucharistic Communion, p. 57.
 Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise, pp. 49-50.
 Robert W. Jenson, “Toward an Understanding of ‘… is Risen’,” dialog 19 : 31-32.