Moralism vs. Christ-Centered Exposition
We have said that you must preach the gospel every week–to edify and grow Christians and to convert non-Christians. But if that is the case, you cannot simply ‘instruct in Biblical principles.’ You have to ‘get to Jesus’ every week.
For example, look at the story of David and Goliath. What is the meaning of that narrative for us? Without reference to Christ, the story may be (usually is!) preached as: “The bigger they come, the harder they’ll fall, if you just go into your battles with faith in the Lord. You may not be real big and powerful in yourself, but with God on your side, you can overcome giants.” But as soon as we ask: “how is David foreshadowing the work of his greater Son”? We begin to see the same features of the story in a different light. The story is telling us that the Israelites can not go up against Goliath. They can’t do it. They need a substitute. When David goes in on their behalf, he is not a full-grown man, but a vulnerable and weak figure, a mere boy. He goes virtually as a sacrificial lamb. But God uses his apparent weakness as the means to destroy the giant, and David becomes Israel’s champion-redeemer, so that his victory will be imputed to them. They get all the fruit of having fought the battle themselves.
This is a fundamentally different meaning than the one that arises from the non-Christocentric reading. There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done? If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship). For example how can I ever fight the “giant” of failure, unless I have a deep security that God will not abandon me? If I see David as my example, the story will never help me fight the failure/giant. But if I see David/Jesus as my substitute, whose victory is imputed to me, then I can stand before the failure/giant. As another example, how can I ever fight the “giant” of persecution or criticism? Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others. Unless I see him as forgiving me for falling asleep on him (Matt.27:45) I won’t be able to stay awake for him.
In the Old Testament we are continually told that our good works are not enough, that God has made a provision. This provision is pointed to at every place in the Old Testament. We see it in the clothes God makes Adam and Eve in Genesis, to the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Tabernacle and the whole sacrificial system, to the innumerable references to a Messiah, a suffering servant, and so on. Therefore, to say that the Bible is about Christ is to say that the main theme of the Bible is the gospel–Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9).
So reading the Old Testament Christocentrically is not just a “additional” dimension. It is not something you can just tack on – to the end of a study and sermon. (“Oh, and by the way, this also points us to Christ”.) Rather, the Christocentric reading provides a fundamentally different application and meaning to the text. Without relating it to Christ, the story of Abraham and Isaac means: “You must be willing to even kill your own son for him.” Without relating it to Christ, the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel means: “You have to wrestle with God, even when he is inexplicable-even when he is crippling you. You must never give up.” These ‘morals-of-the-story’ are crushing because they essentially are read as being about us and what we must do.
A BASIC OUTLINE FOR CHRIST-CENTERED, GOSPEL-MOTIVATED SERMONS
The following may actually be four points in a presentation, or they may be treated very quickly as the last point of a sermon. But more generally, this is a foundational outline for the basic moral reasoning and argument that lies at the heart of the application.
The Plot winds up: WHAT YOU MUST DO.
“This is what you have to do! Here is what the text/narrative tells us that we must do or what we must be.”
The Plot thickens: WHY YOU CAN’T DO IT.
“But you can’t do it! Here are all the reasons that you will never become like this just by trying very hard.”
The Plot resolves: HOW HE DID IT.
“But there’s One who did. Perfectly. Wholly. Jesus the—. He has done this for us, in our place.”
The Plot winds down: HOW, THROUGH HIM, YOU CAN DO IT.
“Our failure to do it is due to our functional rejection of what he did. Remembering him frees our heart so we can change like this…”
a) In every text of the Scripture there is somehow a moral principle. It may grow out of because of what it shows us about the character of God or Christ, or out of either the good or bad example of characters in the text, or because of explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle must be distilled clearly.
b) But then a crisis is created in the hearers as the preacher shows that his moral principle creates insurmountable problems. The sermon shows how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end.
c) Then a hidden door opens and light comes in. The sermon moves both into worship and into Christ-application when it shows how only Jesus Christ has fulfilled this. If the text is a narrative, you can show how Christ is the ultimate example of a particular character. If the text is didactic, you can show how Christ is the ultimate embodiment of the principle.
d) Finally, we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our rejection of Christ as the Way, Truth, and Life (or whatever the theme is). The sermon points out how to repent and rejoice in Christ in such a way that we can live as we ought.
Tabeltalk (TT): How did you become a Christian, and how were you called to ministry?
Steven J. Lawson: I grew up in a Christian home and was brought to faith as a young boy through the consistent witness of my father and mother. Specifically, it was through the reading of the Bible by my father each night that the seed of the gospel was planted, which God caused to germinate in my heart. Regarding my call to the ministry, I actually began preaching and teaching while in college in various ministries and churches. Upon graduating, I sat under the strong preaching of Adrian Rogers at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., and strongly felt God summoning me into full-time ministry. His bold preaching electrified my heart and served as the catalyst that launched me to seminary, where I would be prepared for a lifetime of ministry.
TT: What are the biggest challenges you have faced during your ministry? How have you faced these challenges?
SL: In my earlier years, the greatest challenges I faced were preaching the doctrines of grace to congregations that were theologically untaught. To say the least, it was difficult and demanding to try to establish God-centered truth and a biblical philosophy of ministry where there had previously been a stronghold of man-centered thinking concerning the work of God in salvation. Though it was obviously a painful process, the only way to meet such an obstacle was head-on, unashamedly preaching the full counsel of God. This required much prayer, pastoral discretion, patience, and perseverance, which God honored. Over time, God established His truth in the minds and hearts of many, though it came at a high price personally.
TT: What advice would you give to a young man who aspires to be a pastor?
SL: First, any man aspiring to the pastorate needs to be sitting under strong expository preaching. He needs a role model who exemplifies what is in his heart to do. Second, he needs a personal ministry whereby he can use what he is learning, test his giftedness, and cultivate what has been entrusted to him. Third, he should surround himself with a small circle of spiritually mature men who can provide wise counsel in helping steer his life and ministry as important decisions arise. Fourth, he must begin to inquire of various seminaries regarding his future theological education. He needs to contact some institutions, visit their campuses, and talk to some of the faculty. Fifth, he needs to become an avid reader of important Christian books, including the spiritual biographies of noted men who have been mightily used by God.
TT: How does a pastor remain faithful to his calling over the long haul?
SL: In order to persevere in ministry, a pastor needs to be, first and foremost, deeply rooted and anchored in God’s Word. The more he studies, learns, teaches, and preaches God’s Word, the greater will be his staying power in ministry. Further, reading Christian biographies of men who have faced great adversity in their ministries provides greater drive and endurance. Reading the heroic accounts of martyrs and missionaries who have faced great persecution should be at the top of his reading list. Likewise, being surrounded by a small group of laymen who will encourage him in God’s work is a necessity. Pastors can be vulnerable to severe bouts of discouragement. Having the edifying feedback of trusted individuals helps him remain steadfast in doing God’s work.
TT: Who has most influenced your preaching?
SL: There have been multiple influences upon my preaching—Adrian Rogers,W.A. Criswell, James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, and S. Lewis Johnson. Each of these men has contributed something vitally important to my preaching ministry. Over many decades, John MacArthur has most shaped my approach to biblical exposition. He has influenced me in preaching through entire books of the Bible sequentially. I have learned from him the need for sound exegesis, word studies, historical background, crossreferences, theological precision, sermon outline, and manuscript writing. Moreover, Dr. MacArthur has demonstrated the need for guarding the gospel and teaching sound doctrine.
TT: Why have you focused so much of your attention to the practice of expository preaching and to helping both preachers and laypeople see its importance?
SL: I strongly believe that no church can rise any higher than its pulpit. As the pulpit goes, so goes the church. The deeper the preacher takes his flock into the Word of God, the higher they will rise in worship. The stronger they are in the Scripture, the stronger they will be in the pursuit of holiness. Likewise, strong preaching leads to sacrificial service in the Lord’s work. Strong exposition kindles hearts for the work of evangelism and the cause of worldwide missions. Every great movement of God in church history has been ushered in by a renewed commitment to solid preaching of the Word. If we are to see a spiritual awakening in our day, the church must recover the primacy of preaching. I desire to be used by God to help equip a new generation of preachers and laypeople in recognizing the importance of this primary means of grace.
TT: Can you describe for us what your sermon preparation looks like?
SL: I begin each week by photocopying everything that I need to read in order to prepare my sermon. This includes study Bibles, commentaries, expository sermons, linguistic and historical tools, and the like. I first read the passage and discover its literary unit, determining what verse or verses I will preach. After writing a block diagram and reading the passage in the original language, I identify the central theme of these verses. I then read all of my photocopied information, thoroughly marking it up. I draft the beginnings of a working outline for the sermon. I will start writing the sermon—with a fountain pen, I might add—beginning with the first homiletical point. I then move systematically through the text, creating a manuscript that explains and applies each successive part of the passage. I will then add transitions, illustrations, and quotations as needed. The final step is to write the introduction and conclusion. I will compose this manuscript as though I can hear myself preaching it. At last, I will review my manuscript for length, balance, and quality, praying over its truths.
TT: What is the purpose of OnePassion Ministries and how does it seek to accomplish its goals?
SL: OnePassion Ministries was created to help bring about a new reformation in this day. It has a website in which most all of my preaching and writing resources are found (www.onepassionministries.org). We are hosting conferences both nationally and internationally in order to train preachers, teachers, prospective pastors, and interested laypeople in the art and science of expository preaching and teaching. I want to define what it is, what it is not, and show how to effectively carry out this divine calling. I desire to help take people to the next level in their skills of handling and ministering God’s Word. Also, I want to motivate those who attend our conferences to be fully committed to preaching the Word expositionally. Moreover, we want to host conferences for all people in order to introduce them to Christ and encourage them in their Christian walk. Finally, we will be hosting church history tours in which I will take people to important historical sites around the world.
TT: Why did you decide to establish the book series A Long Line of Godly Men, and what other men do you hope to profile individually in this series?
SL: The Long Line series was birthed in my teaching ministry at the church that I pastor. As I was teaching the men of my church sound doctrine from Scripture, I wanted them to see that what we believe in the doctrines of sovereign grace has been the mainline position by great men and movements down through the centuries. Out of this Friday morning teaching series has arisen these books so that these essential truths may be made available to a wider audience around the world. There is much instruction and inspiration to be drawn from this profile study. In the future, I need to write volume three of the larger books, which will move from John Knox to this present hour. In the smaller books, there are other key figures who I want to address such as William Tyndale, John Wycliffe, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and, yes, R.C. Sproul.
Steven J. Lawson is founder and president of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to bring about biblical reformation in the church today, and former senior pastor of Christ Fellowship Baptist Church in Mobile, Ala. He has served as a pastor in Arkansas and Alabama for twenty-five years and is author of many books, including The Evangelistic Zeal of George Whitefield and In It to Win It: Pursuing Victory in the One Race That Really Counts. He is a teaching fellow for and serves on the board of Ligonier Ministries and the Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies, and is professor of preaching at The Master’s Seminary.
Source: www.ligonier.org (June 1, 2014)
Tim Keller Interview Conducted with Colin Adams
In great faith, I have written to a number of better-known preachers on both sides of the Atlantic. Each of them has been sent ten questions on the subject of preaching. The following is Tim Keller’s response. For those of you who don’t know, “Timothy J. Keller is an author, a speaker, and the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City, New York.”
1. Where do you place the importance of preaching in the grand scheme of church life?
It is central, but not alone at the center. Pastoral ministry is as important as preaching ministry, and lay “every-member” ministry is as crucial as ordained ministry. I wouldn’t make a hierarchy out of these things—they are interdependent. But pastoral ministry and lay ministry are not substitutes for strong preaching.
2. In a paragraph, how did you discover your gifts in preaching?
I preached about 200 different expositions a year for the first nine years of my ministry (when I was age 24 through 33). During that time I was considered interesting and good but I never got a lot of feedback that I was anything special. I’ve grown a lot through lots of practice.
3. How long (on average) does it take you to prepare a sermon?
I pastor a large church and have a large staff, and so I give special prominence to preparing the sermon. I give it 15–20 hours a week. I would not advise younger ministers to spend so much time, however. The main way to become a good preacher is to preach a lot, and to spend tons of time in people work—that is how you grow from becoming not just a Bible commentator but a flesh and blood preacher. When I was a pastor without a large staff, I put in six to eight hours on a sermon.
4. Is it important to you that a sermon contain one major theme or idea? If so, how do you crystallize it?
I don’t know that I’d be so rigid as to say there has to be just one Big Idea every time. That is a good discipline for preachers in general, because it helps with clarity. Most texts have too much in them for the preacher to cover in one address. You must be selective. But sometimes a preaching-size text simply has two or three major ideas that are too good to pass up.
5. What is the most important aspect of a preacher’s style and what should he avoid?
He should combine warmth and authority/force. That is hard to do, since temperamentally we incline one way or the other. (And many, many of us show neither warmth nor force in preaching.)
6. What notes, if any, do you use?
I use a very detailed outline, with many key phrases in each sub-point written out word for word.
7. What are the greatest perils that a preacher must avoid?
This seems to me too big a question to tackle here. Virtually everything a preacher ought to do has a corresponding peril-to-avoid. For examples, preaching should be Biblical, clear (for the mind), practical (for the will), vivid (for the heart,) warm, forceful, and Christo-centric. You should avoid the opposites of all these things.
8. How do you fight to balance preparation for preaching with other important responsibilities (e.g., pastoral care, leadership responsibilities)?
See my remarks on #3 above. It is a very great mistake to pit pastoral care and leadership against preaching preparation. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be—someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership are to some degree sermon prep. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Prayer also prepares the preacher, not just the sermon.
9. What books on preaching, or exemplars of it, have you found most influential in your own preaching?
British preachers have had a much greater impact on me than American preachers (Dick Lucas, Alec Motyer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones). And the American preachers who have been most influential (e.g., Jonathan Edwards) were essentially British anyway.
10. What steps do you take to nurture or encourage developing or future preachers?
I haven’t done much on that front at all, and I’m not happy about that. Currently I meet with two other younger preachers on my staff who also preach regularly. We talk specifically about their preaching and sermon prep.
Colin Adams is the pastor of Ballymoney Baptist Church, Northern Ireland. For six years he had the privilege of serving as an Associate Pastor with Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh. Before coming to Edinburgh he studied theology for four years at International Christian College in Glasgow.
More from Colin Adams or visit Colin at unashamedworkman.wordpress.com/
By Phil A. Newton
George Barna, the guru of statistics among evangelicals, seems to be influencing today’s pulpit more than the apostles Peter and Paul. Barna, whose popularity began with his book Marketing the Church, has assumed the position of telling preachers how they are to preach in order to “reach” certain segments of society. His basic thesis of “marketing the church” continues in his profusion of books. While no one can doubt the importance of Barna’s statistical data to the strategies of evangelicals, it seems that he continues to cross the line of offering data to pontificating changes that ignore God’s Word.
In a recent article in Preaching titled “The Pulpit-meis-ter: Preaching to the New Majority,” Barna departs from his role as a sociologist and assumes the role of professor of preaching. He does state that “the core of our message must never be compromised,” but the paradigm he proposes can lead only to compromise. He suggests that “the new majority,” the group of so-called Boomers and Busters (those born from 1946 to 1964 and 1965 to 1983, respectively), have certain characteristics which prevent them from being attentive to typical, traditional preaching (George Barna, “The Pulpit-meister: Preaching to the New Majority,” Preaching [January/February], 11).
I recognize that preachers must develop their individ- ual styles and that preaching in certain parts of the world may vary due to particular cultural influences. But when the preacher must change his use of language to purge it of any hint of the theological or judgmental, he finds himself positioned to be more of an inspirational speaker than a preacher of God’s Word. When he must keep his sermons under twenty minutes, filling them with stories, avoiding “moral absolutes,” and going light on scriptural references, he has no hope to teach and explain the doctrines of the Word. Barna goes so far as to state, “Increasingly we find that the entire approach of ‘talking at the audience’ is an ill fated form of communication.” He suggests that preaching in any kind of series will not work since the audience may change from week to week (The Pulpit-meister, 11-13).
The question Barna’s article raises for me is this, What are we trying to do in preaching? Are we trying to placate the self-centeredness of man? Or proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord”? Preachers must reckon with the biblical basis of preaching rather than the sociological observations of barn. Barna is fallible. God’s Word is not.
In His classic work Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need in the world also.” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1971], 9). Assuredly, Lloyd-Jones did not have drama, entertainment, or pulpit chats in mind when he pressed the need for “true preaching.” In his mind, true preaching was nothing less than the exposition of God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. “What is preaching?” Lloyd-Jones queried:
Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! Are these contradictions? Of course not. Reason concerning this Truth ought to be mightily eloquent, as you see in the case of the Apostle Paul and others. It is theology on fire. And a theology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man’s understanding of it is defective. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire (Preaching and Preachers, 97).
The issue in preaching is proclaiming faithfully, accurately, and clearly the Word of God, so that the truth of the Word penetrates the mind to affect the heart, rather than the cleverness of the preacher impressing the hearers. At the core of all a preacher does is to dig deeply into a given text of Scripture, seeking to understand it grammatically, historically, and doctrinally. He must then apply himself, in the power of the Spirit, to let the text speak through him. J.I. Packer explained what true preaching is when he wrote:
The true idea of preaching is that the preacher should become a mouthpiece for his text, opening it up and applying as a word from God to his hearers, talking only in order that the text may speak itself and be heard, making each point from his text in such a manner “that the hearers may discern how God teacheth if from thence (J.I. Packer, God Has Spoken [Grand Rapids, Michagan: Baker, 1979], 28; Packer quote from Westminster Directory, 1645).
With much grief, I listened recently to a man who filled the pulpit with jokes, clever stories, and talk-show one-liners. But he never proclaimed God’s Word. He read a text and even referred to it, albeit eisegetically. Yet the truths of the Word were never expounded for the congregation to be confronted with the living God and his truth. That is entertainment. it is not preaching in a biblical sense. I fear that such pulpit-abuse (or perhaps I should say, congregation abuse) is all too common.
We must consider what we are attempting to do in the pulpit. It seems that some preachers have a goal to be enjoyed by the hearers rather than to help the hearers understand God’s Word, and, consequently, come to know God in truth. Surely the shallowness in the pew is primarily due to the neglect in the pulpit. I agree with James Montgomery Boice: “The church has to rediscover who God is, come to know him, and fellowship with him. The avenue for that has always been Bible exposition and teaching. There’s no shortcut.”(Quoted by Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church [Chicago: Moody, 1996], 59). Yet the popular methods of the day fall short of “Bible exposition and teaching.”
What does the Bible have to say about all this? There’s no more forceful nor clear passage addressing the subject of preaching than that which Paul wrote to Timothy in his last epistle:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and kingdom; preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5 [Scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible]).
Whatever the preacher is to be doing in the pulpit, at the very minimum he ought to be dictated by the teaching of God’s Word. Anything less than this is a compromise of his ministry and calling. The example and exhortation of the Bible points back to the priority of preaching. Don Whitney expresses it well:
Regardless of how inefficient some may think preaching is in our technological, mass media society, regardless of how much more exciting or entertaining or even successful other methods may appear, the most effective way of communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ is still through the means God was pleased to choose—preaching (Spiritual Disciplines, 64).
With these things in mind, I offer some of the chief issues raised by the apostle Paul in his exhortation to Timothy.
BIBLICAL PREACHING IS A SOLEMN RESPONSIBILITY
The apostle Paul was nearing the end of his life as he penned these words to Timothy. We can call them “Final Instructions,” for the apostle knew the pressures of the ministry which his young disciple faced. He understood that nothing short of biblical preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit will have the needed effect upon his congregation. So we see him reminding Timothy of the gravity facing him in the discharge of his responsibilities. For Paul, being a preacher was not a matter of fun or popularity. It was a divine calling that must be fulfilled in a God-ordained fashion.
We see that biblical preaching is a solemn responsibility…
Because of the Audience. “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus,” he begins. Paul wanted Timothy to understand that while he had a congregation who listened to his preaching, they were not his chief audience. Instead, God and Christ Jesus were.
This is a shocking thought to consider: The God of heaven listens in on the preaching of the pastor! There is no more important thing for me to remember when standing at the pulpit than the fact that the ears of heaven are attuned to every word I speak. The Greek of the prepositional phrase, “in the presence of,” literally means “in the face of” (Gk. enopion). The solemn charge to preach and the discharging of the duty is given “in the face of” God and the Redeemer.
When I first spoke this truth to my own congregation there were a few people who were repulsed at the thought. They argued against such a proposition that God himself is the primary audience in preaching, while the congregation is secondary. Yet this is exactly what Paul spoke to the church at Corinth: “Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do beloved, is for the sake of building you up (2 Corinthians 12:19). The solemnity of preaching demands that the preacher realize that he is speaking “in the sight of God,” yet for the “upbuilding” of the congregation.
Because of the Accountability. The reminder that the Lord Jesus Christ is “to judge the living and the dead” should stem the endless jokes and cute stories that pollute the pulpit as a substitute for preaching. Those seated before the preacher will one day face a Judge who executes his judgement in righteousness. In light of this, can the preacher be trivial in the pulpit? If he truly loves those under his charge, can he neglect to expound the Word of God which addresses the “real need” of sinners rather than offering up sermonic ditties for the “felt needs” of his hearers?
Because of the Appearing. The imminence and gravity of Christ’s return is held before Timothy as he is charged with preaching the Word of God. The preacher of the Word must keep in mind that we do not await clever timetables for Christ to return. He can end this life in a moment. The preacher must so live and so preach as if today is the day of Christ’s appearing. The urgency of the messenger delivering the right message to his hearers is pressed upon us by this charge.
Because of the Authority. The mention of Christ’s kingdom reminds Timothy of the sovereign rule of Jesus Christ over him and the affairs of his King. His duty is to his King. His energies are to be expended for his King. When he stands before a people to deliver the Word of God, he must keep in mind that he stands as a representative of his King. And he is confronting his hearers with the lordship of Christ over their lives as well. His message must not be muddled by a blend of self-help and psychobable. As Paul expressed it: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
BIBLICAL PREACHING IS A SPECIFIC RESPONSIBILITY
The three key words of our text, “Preach the word,” drive home to us the specific nature of the preaching task. The preacher must expound the Word of God or else he has failed in his calling. He may be a wonderful administrator, a winsome personal worker, an effective leader. But if he fails to expound the Word of God, he is a failure to his calling to “preach the Word.”
Before considering the specific elements involved in biblical preaching, I offer some observations on the trends that seem to be affecting the hearing of the Word in our congregations. These trends have an impact upon preaching and hearing.
First, there has been a popularizing and Americanizing of the Word to make it more palatable and acceptable to the masses. Rather than seeking to understand a text as God gave it, the preacher seems to be more intent on appealing to people. Often the goal is to increase church membership. But if that membership is gained at the expense of a genuine work of God through biblical preaching, can it really be worthwhile?
Neither Jesus nor the apostles sought to make the truth of God more palatable to their hearers. They laid the truth out with force and clarity. Paul assessed that his preaching of the cross was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). They preached the truth and depended upon the power of God to drive it home to the hearers’ minds and hearts.
Perhaps one of the problems that has necessitated a watering down of truth in the pulpit is a shallow theology of the Holy Spirit. Rather than believing the Spirit of God can penetrate calloused minds with the Word of God, preachers have sought to use clever devices and techniques to persuade hearers. A failure to understand the biblical doctrine of regeneration has led to untold harm in the name of evangelism, all because preachers do not trust the Holy Spirit to do his work.
When we try to use the latest methods of communication we may have a ready audience, but they pay more attention to our cleverness than to the cross. They are impressed with the speaker, not the Savior (1 Corinthians 1:17). While a seminary student, I had two different professors for preaching. One taught biblical exposition. The other encouraged preachers to offer fifteen-to-twenty-minute dramatic presentations to their congregations. One method communicates divine truth. The other draws attention to the preacher.
Second, the attention given to the “electronic preacher” has shortened the attention spans and changed the appetites of congregations. I am thankful for the many wonderful media broadcasts that faithfully proclaim the Word of God. But I am appalled at the equally large number which claim everything but biblical truth. Some media preachers water down truth in order to be popular and secure good ratings. They know what sells. Marketing has driven them to change their content to appeal to the masses in order to gain a larger following.
Another effect of media preachers is that even those who faithfully preach the Word have their messages edited to fit a twenty-five-minute broadcast format. certainly this is understandable with the cost of airtime. But when you add to this the lack of hunger for the purity of the Word and the typical church member’s shortened attention span, you find complaints about Sunday sermons that last longer than thirty minutes.
I have been preaching since 1970. Since I started preaching exposition ally, about 1974, I have found that I will normally spend forty to forty-five minutes for each sermon. I’ve tried to shorten my outlines and change my notes, but nothing seems to have a real effect on my sermon length. And rightly so! The goal should never be just to get through. It should be to expound the text of God’s Word.
A few years ago I found myself facing some disgruntled people who wanted shorter sermons. They really did not care what I preached as long as it was shorter! But I took time to explain, that in my understanding, I could not adequately deal with a text of Scripture in less than forty to forty-five minutes. I found a kindred mind in this with John MacArthur. He wrote:
If you are going to be a Bible expositor, forget the twenty and thirty-minute sermons. You are looking at forty or fifty minutes. In any less than that, you can’t exposit the Scripture. The purpose is not to get it over, but rather to explain the Word of God. My goal is not accomplished because I am brief. My goal is accomplished when I am clear and I have exposited the Word of God (John MacArthur, Jr., Rediscovering Expository Preaching [Dallas, Texas: Word, 1992], 339-40).
Third, proclamation has been replaced by a “talk-show-host” mentality. Because of a fear of offending or due to an audience’s appetite, the “herald” no longer is concerned with speaking “thus saith the Lord,” but “Whatever you want, I’ve got” and “Listen to me and feel good.”
Don Whitney offers a personal vignette that illustrates this problem:
Your soul will only be fed from the Word of God. Without it, you will be undernourished and suffer spiritual marasmus. That’s what happened to a man I’ll call whom I spoke with not long ago. When I talked with Chris he had been in seminary for a few months and was working for a para-church ministry that specializes in teaching the Bible and theology. Prior to enrolling in seminary, he had for several years been associate pastor in charge of drama and music at a church a couple of miles from me where the pulpit ministry was based on topical preaching aimed at people’s felt needs. The church had grown from very few to hundreds in a short time.
Chris had plenty of budget money and many talented actors, singers, musicians, and other workers as resources for his ministry. Afterward, however, he said to me, “I didn’t know it when I resigned, but the following Sunday I realized that my soul was as dry and withered and empty as it could be. I had been running on the spiritual fumes of the pressure of preparation for each Sunday’s drama and music. I was so busy that I hadn’t realized I had dried up spiritually. It was because I was not hearing faithful, biblical exposition, but topical sermons aimed at felt needs. Everything was based upon marketing strategy. Only when I got away from all that did I realize that I was all be dead spiritually.” (Spiritual Disciplines, 66-67).
I visited a church in Atlanta during a vacation and listened to a sermon that was really more of a “talk.” It could easily have been given at a Kiwanis Club. My children quickly recognized that we had not heard the Word preached, but only a preacher trying to impress his hearers.
My family and I took a relative with us to another church in a southern metropolitan area. The church has a great reputation and has recently constructed a large facility to accommodate its rapid growth. When the service was over I asked the relative, who rarely attends church, what she thought. Without any kind of prompting from me, she said, “I got the feeling that they were trying to entertain me.” I thought that such a comment spoke volumes, especially coming from one is unfamiliar with “felt-needs” or mega-church thinking. The evangelical pulpit has shrunk into the mire of entertainment, thinking that it has to compete on the same level as the world, while hungry hearts are waiting to hear a word from God.
Fourth, we’ve lost our appetite fro truth, and instead would rather appeal to people’s interests or felt needs in our preaching. Rather than longing for truth to set us free or truth to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, or truth to expose the thoughts and intents of the heart, we want something to make us feel better about ourselves. We want something that does not make radical demands or us, something that does not disturb the way we’re living our lives, something that won’t challenge what we want to think or believe the truth to be. This is precisely what the apostle warned:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
On one occasion a man came up to me after a service and stated, “I’ve had everything figured out in a neat box, and your preaching challenges it. I don’t like it, but I need it.” The unfortunate thing is that his box kept getting challenged and he ran away from what he admitted that he needed. Biblical preaching will apply the truth of God’s Word so that it judges “the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Unless the Spirit of God is working in a person he will have difficulty sitting under a steady diet of biblical exposition (Cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 for the biblical basis of this statement).
Too many fail to have interest in the content of sermons. They want only an appealing delivery so they can feel good about themselves. In contrast to this, Don Whitney has written, “And no matter how enthusiastic or passionate the presentation, it is still the content, not the physical force of delivery that determines faithfulness to the message” (Spiritual Disciplines, 65).
John Piper, who is known for books with superb content, wrote in the introduction of his book, Future Grace, one of the best statements on the need for content rather than mere appeal to itching ears. His statement concerns reading, but it is equally true of preaching:
Every book worth reading beckons with the words, “Think over what I say.” I do not believe that what I have written is hard to understand—if a person is willing to think it over. When my sons complain that a good book is hard to read, I say, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.”
I have tried to write as I preach [and I believe he has succeeded] with a view to instructing the mind and moving the heart… [After giving the example of John Owen’s writings being difficult to grasp, yet for 300 years his twenty-three volumes are still in print and still feeding hungry souls] The lesson is that biblical substance feeds the church, not simplicity (John Piper, Future Grace [Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1995], 16-17).
Fifth, we want the truth to be popular with everyone, enjoyed by sinner and saint alike. Yet this is foreign to both Old and New Testament teaching regarding the truth. Just look at the prophets, apostles, and teachers captured in God’s Word. Was Jeremiah’s preaching popular? Did Paul seek to “win friends and influence people” through his preaching? Did the multitudes persevere with our Lord in His declaration of truth? Paul expressed it well, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Perhaps a bit of amplification on precisely what is involved in biblical exposition will be helpful. It begins with understanding the text which the preacher desires to expound. I believe that the best approach on selecting a text begins with preaching consecutively through books of the Bible. That way a preacher is forced to deal with the “whole counsel of God,” and his congregation will be exposed to the breadth of biblical truth. The preacher may also deal with topics or themes, but he should always be expository in his approach; that is, he should be a mouthpiece for the text (Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 255ff.)
The preacher must diligently study the text he selects in its contextual setting. This involves a thorough study of the language and grammar used, the historical purpose of the text, the cultural factors that bear weight upon its meaning, and its connection to the balance of Scripture. Reading and meditating upon the text allows the preacher to consider its implications and truths, as well as feeding his own mind and soul with its life-giving truth. Depending upon the illuminating power of the Spirit in the study is essential. He will find that prayer must accompany his study or else he will be engaging in mere academics. He must seek to rightly explain “the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), so that he arrives at a proper interpretation. The use of research tools such as word studies, commentaries, theologies, and sermons can be helpful aids to the preacher in grasping the message of the text.
Once he understands the essential message of his text, the preacher will need to organize the message of the text into salient parts for proclamation. The starting point will be development of a theme, which has been called “the essence of the sermon in a sentence,” or “the proposition,” or “the dominating theme.”At this point I have found it helpful to develop an outline, complete with points and subpoints, all of which help to amplify the dominating theme of the text. This gives structure to the sermon so that the preacher is not guilty of offering an incoherent collection of random thoughts on a text. Some preachers have the mistaken notion that if they can have a nice outline, perhaps fully alliterated, then they have done an exposition until the doctrines and principles of the text are expounded (I have been greatly helped in biblical exposition by numerous books and preachers. My thoughts in this section will reflect their influence, though it would be difficult to footnote every detail. I mention a few: Drs. Stephen and David Olford maintain ongoing, short-term preaching institutes through Encounter Ministries Biblical Preaching Institute in Memphis, Tennessee, (800) 843-2241; they have coauthored a book on expository preaching, Anointed Expository Preaching [Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998]. John MacArthur’s book, Rediscovering Expository Preaching, is a superb course in sermon-building and the exercise of preaching. Bryan Chappell’s book, Christ-Centered Preaching [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1994], offers a thorough self-study approach in preaching).
The preacher’s goal should never be to impress a congregation with his great outlines! He should seek to explain and apply the text to his congregation. He will need to develop supporting thoughts that assist him in the exposition. He should use Scripture that show the relation of the theme and integrating thoughts to the whole of God’s Word. He will need to illustrate certain truths to help with the understanding process, being careful not to allow the illustration to become the sermon (I disagree strongly with my former preaching professor who taught me biblical exposition. He has changed his thinking, even to the point of implying that “illustrations are no longer just the ‘window’ to the sermon, they are becoming the ‘truth’ of the sermon…’They are being used to tell the story…Sermon points are being related to the illustration’” [Facts & Trends, vol. 39, no. 8,4]. While illustrations can be used effectively, preachers will do well to spend more time studying the text instead of trying to find the latest, clever illustration). By all means he will give attention to explaining the doctrines found in the text (Martyn Lloyd-Jones stated in many sermons that unless a preacher deals with doctrines in a text he has not dealt with the text! It is interesting that many Puritans and writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries typically highlighted the doctrines found in their expositions. The unfortunate lack of doctrinal preaching in our day has given rise to the weakened state of the Christian church throughout the world. We do well to heed the need to deal thoroughly with doctrine. I commend Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers and John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1990], as two volumes to stimulate your thinking on doctrinal preaching).
The task of proclaiming the truths of the text will demand all of the spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical energies the preacher can give to this work. He must approach the proclamation of the Word prayerfully, pleading for the fulness of the Spirit to endue him with power, recognizing that apart from divine power he will flounder in the waters of his own weakness. Tony Sargent has rightly stated, “The most humbling and wonderful experience for any preacher as he enters the pulpit is to know that God is with him. The most frightening for him is to be in the pulpit and feel he is on his own” (Tony Sargent, The Sacred Anointing: The Preaching of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1994] 79.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones exhorts the preacher to seek the power of the Spirit for preaching God’s Word. “Seek this power, expect this power, yearn for this power; and when this power comes, yield to him. Do not resist. Forget all about your sermon if necessary. Let him loose you, let him manifest his power in you and through you” (The Sacred Anointing, 57).
The Greek word for “to preach” (kerussein) referred to the responsibility given to a herald. He may have been in the service of an ancient king, serving as a herald to deliver the king’s word to the people. His chief responsibility was to faithfully proclaim the words of the one who sent him. He heralded the king’s message with authority. To deny the herald’s message was to deny the king who sent him. It is with this background that we see Paul exhorting the preacher to “herald the word” faithfully and authoritatively as one sent by the King. He must do so with clarity and passion for the message he is delivering. He must not take liberties with the King’s message, but deliver it as the King intends. This is the preacher’s job in the act of proclamation (I again commend Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers to address this subject. This book will help remind the preacher of the God-given privilege he has and how he is to carry out his role with holy passion).
BIBLICAL PREACHING IS A SERIOUS RESPONSIBILITY
The apostle gives imperative counsel for the one who preaches the Word. He is to be constant in duty, “be ready in season and out of season.” A preacher cannot let his guard down or neglect his spiritual life. He must live with a constant sense of readiness to deliver the message of God to waiting ears. Many preachers have negated their pulpit ministries by their personal lives. Their love of the world, materialism, flirtatious looks, neglected family life, and laziness have discredited the message they seek to preach. He must exercise discipline of mind and spirit to be constant in his work. Be ready in the pulpit and out of the pulpit!
The preacher must not fear being confrontational in his ministry. He will need to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” as he proclaims God’s Word and as he deals with individuals. An unbelieving woman who had come from a cult background visited our church. She approached me after a sermon on “The Bread of Life” from John 6, with some striking comments. She told me she did not understand why she kept coming back, but she felt compelled. Then she commented, “You don’t give any options.” By that she meant that the preaching has a solitary impact of demand, not a take-it-or-leave-it approach. It confronted her and gave only one option: God’s.
Confrontation is especially needed in a day when people are craving for pre-digested “applications” on the sermon that will make it “relevant” to every day life. What most people mean by “applications” is, “Give me some options so that I can pick and choose what I want to do and not feel bad about what I don’t want to do.” We need not worry about going to extremes on applications. The Holy Spirit is adequate to apply the Word to the hearts of sinners and saints alike!
The preacher has the task of delivering God’s Word “with great patience.” He is to be consistent with his exposition, faithfully delivering God’s Word week-by-week to his people. All will not appreciate the Word, nor will all respond immediately to the challenges applied by the Word proclaimed. Some may even get angry and leave. Yet the preacher is to be patient with his flock, realizing that their spiritual ears must be opened by the Holy Spirit. Some will be dealing with deep-seated sins. Others will feel mired in traditions. Still others will have a poor appetite for spiritual truth, the appetite that must be slowly cultivated. Short pastorates normally do not allow a preacher the time to develop a patient pulpit ministry.
A sermon worth listening to must have content. Content does not mean that the preacher has plenty of stories and interesting quotes. Rather, it means that the sermon deals with doctrine. The word for “instruction” in the NASB translation of 2 Timothy 4:2 is that common New Testament term didache. It is elsewhere translated as “teaching” or “doctrine.” Doctrine must never be confused with impossible-to-understand discussions by intellectuals. Good doctrine is the life of the church; it is the heart of the sermon. It is simply the “teachings” of God’s Word understood in relation to the balance of Scripture. John MacArthur wrote:
A true expository message sets forth the principles or doctrines supported in the passage. True expository preaching is doctrinal preaching (Rediscovering Expository Preaching, 288).
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century Baptist preacher in London, wrote in his Lectures to My Students:
Sermons should have real teaching in them, and their doctrine should be solid, substantial, and abundant. We do not enter the pulpit to talk for talk’s sake; we have instructions to convey important to the last degree, and we cannot afford to utter pretty nothings. Our range of subjects is all but boundless, and we cannot, therefore, be excused if our discourses are threadbare and devoid of substance…[T]he true minister of Christ knows that the true value of a sermon must lie, not in its fashion and manner, but in the truth which it contains. Nothing can compensate for the absence of teaching; all rhetoric in the world is but as chaff to the wheat in contrast to the gospel of our salvation. However beautiful the sower’s basket it is a miserable mockery if it be without seed (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students [Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim Publications, 1990, reprint of the 1881 Passmore and Alabastor edition), 72.
After giving such clear instruction on preaching Paul warns Timothy that everyone will not want such biblical exposition:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
When this happens, does the preacher simply give people what they want? This is precisely the error of the current trend of “felt-need” preaching. The unfortunate thing is that many evangelical preachers of good standing have fallen into the trap of delivering cute sermons, warm fuzzes, feel-good messages rather than proclaiming truth. We must be conscientious of the calling of God to herald the truth, so that we do not get pulled into the vortex of congregations wanting to have their “felt-needs” met.
The preacher is not to take an opinion poll on what he should preach. While there are some exceptions, most congregations do not have enough spiritual understanding and discernment to know what they need. They will point to the direction of “felt-needs” every time, simply because they can be comfortable with that kind of preaching instead of having to deal with their own sin and the God-centeredness in true, doctrinal preaching. The problem of which Paul warns is that of falling prey to the “desire” (epithumia) of those who have no desire for enduring sound doctrine.
What is a preacher to do if the congregation cries for “felt-need” preaching? Stand firm. Remember your calling. Remember your Audience. Herald the truth. And seek to patiently instruct people in sound doctrine.
Biblical preaching is demanding work. The preacher will find himself expended int he study as he labors over the biblical texts and all the works which address them. He must recognize the adversary’s subtle temptations to neglect the study, water down the message, and appeal to the desires of unregenerate people. he faces a constant warfare, both in the pulpit and out of the pulpit. He will be stretched, challenged, criticized and attacked, while at the same time loved and appreciated by those who hunger for the truth. He must live in dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit to enable him to “preach the word” and “to be ready in season and out of season.”
Ron Owens has written a song particularly for preachers. I believe its message and refrain are a fitting conclusion:
We’ve a gospel to preach, we’ve a message to share—
The eternal Truth is what we declare.
It’s the power to save, it’s the Spirit sword,
It’s the heart of God, it’s the Living Word.
We must study to learn and not be ashamed
To proclaim God’s truth in the Savior’s name.
With no compromise, but consistently
We must PREACH THE WORD with integrity.
What is made by man will one day be gone,
But God’s Holy Word marches on and on.
Though the flower will fade and grass will die,
The Eternal Word ever will abide.
We must pay the price, we must take our stand
With a heart on fire and God’s Word in hand.
On the brightest day, in the darkest hour
We must PREACH THE TRUTH in the Spirit’s power.
PREACH THE WORD! PREACH THE WORD!
Won’t you purpose in your hearts to preach the Word?
PREACH THE WORD! PREACH THE WORD!
Won’t you purpose in your heart to PREACH THE WORD?
It’s our call as His disciples to pass on what we’ve received.
Make up your mind and take the time to PREACH THE WORD!
Author: Dr. Phil A. Newton is the Senior Pastor, South Woods Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of Elders in the Life of the Church: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Leadership; Elders in Congregational Life: Rediscovering the Biblical Model for Church Lunch; The Way of Faith; and Conduct Gospel-Centered Funerals: Applying the Gospel at the Unique Challenges of Death.
Source: Adapted from Reformation & Revival: A Quarterly Journal for Church Leadership, Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 2000.
Preparing a sermon is one of the most gratifying and the most difficult tasks you’ll ever face. There is joy in finding meaning in the text, in finding structure, in developing just the right outline, in discovering the perfect illustration. But there is also labor and, at times, intense spiritual warfare. I am a relative newcomer to preaching and as I’ve prepared sermons I’ve relied on others to teach me how to pray and how to prepare. Here are two lists that have been very helpful to me. I combine them into what I affectionately call my Preacher’s Cheat-Sheet.
PRAYING FOR A SERMON
A couple of years ago Mike McKinley shared 8 Ways to Pray During Sermon Preparation. I found those 8 ways to pray tremendously helpful and have been following them ever since. I pray in these ways at the beginning, middle and end of my time of preparation.
- Lord, please help me to understand the meaning of this text and how it points to Christ.
- Lord, please increase my love for the people who will hear this sermon.
- Lord, please give me wisdom to apply this text to the lives of the people in our congregation.
- Lord, please use this passage to help me grasp and love the gospel more so that I might help my hearers do the same.
- Lord, please help me to see how this passage confronts the unbelief of my hearers.
- Lord, please help me to be obedient to the demands of this passage. Help me to enter the pulpit having already submitted my life to this truth before I preach it.
- Lord, by your Spirit please help me to preach this sermon with the necessary power and with appropriate affections.
- Lord, please use this sermon to bring glory to your name, joy to your people, and salvation to the lost.
PREPARING FOR A SERMON
Along with praying during sermon preparation, I also wanted to develop a checklist of sorts—not a guide to help me exegete the text or make sure I have properly found and preached Christ from it. Rather, I wanted something to use as I near the end of my preparation and want to ensure that what I have prepared is well-structured and that it will avoid missteps that may prove hindrances to my listeners. I spoke to seasoned pastors to find what they do and developed this checklist which I like to run through when the sermon is nearly complete, and return to shortly before I preach the sermon.
- Have you prayed for yourself and your listeners?
- In one sentence, what is the point of the sermon?
- Does the sermon have a clear, easy-to-follow outline?
- Can you express your outline in a way that makes sense and explains the big point?
- Has every theological concept or term been defined or explained?
- Is there a clear gospel call that expresses the gospel in a fresh way?
- Have you spoken to the children?
- Are there places you have planned to pause, or to decrease or increase volume?
- Is there anything that can be removed for the sake of clarity and concision?
- Does every point have at least one helpful illustration?
- Have you included some good turns-of-phrase?
- Have you considered how the sermon will speak to people who are: discontent, divorced, abused, addicted, mourning, in a difficult marriage, or other difficult circumstances?
- Is there something to jolt the regular, committed sermon-listener?