>> = Important Articles; ** = Major Articles
Has preaching fallen on hard times? An open debate is now being waged over the character and centrality of preaching in the church. At stake is nothing less than the integrity of Christian worship and proclamation.
How did this happen? Given the central place of preaching in the New Testament church, it would seem that the priority of biblical preaching should be uncontested. After all, as John A. Broadus—one of the great preachers of Christian history—famously remarked, “Preaching is characteristic of Christianity. No other religion has made the regular and frequent assembling of groups of people, to hear religious instruction and exhortation, an integral part of Christian worship.”
Yet, numerous influential voices within evangelicalism suggest that the age of the expository sermon is now past. In its place, some contemporary preachers now substitute messages intentionally designed to reach secular or superficial congregations—messages which avoid preaching a biblical text, and thus avoid a potentially embarrassing confrontation with biblical truth.
A subtle shift visible at the onset of the twentieth century has become a great divide as the century ends. The shift from expository preaching to more topical and human-centered approaches has grown into a debate over the place of Scripture in preaching, and the nature of preaching itself.
Two famous statements about preaching illustrate this growing divide. Reflecting poetically on the urgency and centrality of preaching, the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter once remarked, “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” With vivid expression and a sense of gospel gravity, Baxter understood that preaching is literally a life or death affair. Eternity hangs in the balance as the preacher proclaims the Word.
Contrast that statement to the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps
the most famous (or infamous) preacher of this century’s early decades.
Fosdick, pastor of the
These two statements about preaching reveal the contours of the contemporary debate. For Baxter, the promise of heaven and the horrors of hell frame the preacher’s consuming burden. For Fosdick, the preacher is a kindly counselor offering helpful advice and encouragement.
The current debate over preaching is most commonly explained as an argument about the focus and shape of the sermon. Should the preacher seek to preach a biblical text through an expository sermon? Or, should the preacher direct the sermon to the “felt needs” and perceived concerns of the hearers?
Clearly, many evangelicals now favor the second approach. Urged on by devotees of “needs-based preaching,” many evangelicals have abandoned the text without recognizing that they have done so. These preachers may eventually get to the text in the course of the sermon, but the text does not set the agenda or establish the shape of the message.
Focusing on so-called “perceived needs” and allowing these needs to set the preaching agenda inevitably leads to a loss of biblical authority and biblical content in the sermon. Yet, this pattern is increasingly the norm in many evangelical pulpits. Fosdick must be smiling from the grave.
Earlier evangelicals recognized Fosdick’s approach as a rejection of biblical preaching. An out-of-the-closet theological liberal, Fosdick paraded his rejection of biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility—and rejected other doctrines central to the Christian faith. Enamored with trends in psychological theory, Fosdick became liberal Protestantism’s happy pulpit therapist. The goal of his preaching was well captured by the title of one of his many books, On Being a Real Person.
Shockingly, this is now the approach evident in many evangelical pulpits. The sacred desk has become an advice center and the pew has become the therapist’s couch. Psychological and practical concerns have displaced theological exegesis and the preacher directs his sermon to the congregation’s perceived needs.
The problem is, of course, that the sinner does not know what his most urgent need is. She is blind to her need for redemption and reconciliation with God, and focuses on potentially real but temporal needs such as personal fulfillment, financial security, family peace, and career advancement. Too many sermons settle for answering these expressed needs and concerns, and fail to proclaim the Word of Truth.
Without doubt, few preachers following this popular trend intend to depart from the Bible. But under the guise of an intention to reach modern secular men and women “where they are,” the sermon has been transformed into a success seminar. Some verses of Scripture may be added to the mix, but for a sermon to be genuinely biblical, the text must set the agenda as the foundation of the message—not as an authority cited for spiritual footnoting.
Charles Spurgeon confronted the very same pattern of wavering pulpits in
his own day. Some of the most fashionable and well-attended
Spurgeon and Baxter understood the dangerous mandate of the preacher, and were therefore driven to the Bible as their only authority and message. They left their pulpits trembling with urgent concern for the souls of their hearers and fully aware of their accountability to God for preaching His Word, and His Word alone. Their sermons were measured by power; Fosdick’s by popularity.
Authentic expository preaching takes the presentation of the Word of God as its central aim. The purpose of the preacher is to read the text, interpret the text, explain the text, and apply the text. Thus, the text drives the sermon from beginning to end. In fact, in too many of today’s sermons, the text plays a subordinate role to other concerns.
Real exposition takes time, preparation, dedication, and discipline. The foundation of expository preaching is the confidence that the Holy Spirit will apply the Word to the hearts of the hearers—explained by the Reformers as the ministry of Word and Spirit. That ministry—so vital to the people of God—is missing or minimized in many evangelical congregations.
The current debate over preaching may well shake congregations, denominations, and the evangelical movement. But know this: The recovery and renewal of the church in this generation will come only when from pulpit to pulpit the herald preaches as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological
Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
The life of the preacher is a life of study, and it has been so from the very beginning. The Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to study so that he could present himself to God as an approved worker, “a worker who has no need to be ashamed” [2 Timothy 2:15]. This instruction came within the context of Timothy’s call as a preacher and teacher of God’s Word, and Paul’s instruction to Timothy is our Lord’s instruction to all who would preach and teach the Word of God.
A word of honesty is necessary at this point. Any honest assessment of the contemporary church would indicate that vast numbers of ministers serving Christ’s church are derelict in this duty. They are intellectually lazy, biblically illiterate, slothful in their study habits, and they often steal the learning of others in order to hide their own disobedience. This is a scandal that robs the congregation of the learned and faithful ministry the people of God so desperately need and deserve.
The preacher’s lifetime of study begins with the moment of his call and properly ends only when the preacher breathes his last breath. Between the call and the grave lies a long and rewarding journey of learning – learning that will be put at the disposal of the congregation until we see our Lord face to face. On that day, we dare not be ashamed of our lack of study.
Thomas Murphy, once of the great faithful pastors of the nineteenth century, described the minister’s calling of study with these words: “The pastor must study, study, study, or he will not grow, or even live, as a true workman for Christ.” The minister’s life is “one of incessant study,” Murphy explained, and “mere genius” will not suffice – this is a life of constant and rewarding study.
The preacher’s first task is to know God – personally. The Bible has no conception of an unconverted ministry. The preacher is first of all a man who has come to know God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and who find his greatest fulfillment in knowing God personally and redemptively.
God told the prophet Jeremiah, “let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me” [Jeremiah 9:24]. Our fundamental knowledge is a knowledge of God, and this is the central goal of all true theological education and ministry preparation. The preacher must be one who sets his sight on a vibrant personal knowledge of God. Otherwise, theological knowledge becomes a ground for personal pride and intellectual pretentiousness.
As J. I. Packer reminds us, “To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception. We need to guard our hearts against such an attitude, and pray to be kept from it.”
Furthermore, Packer correctly reminds us that we are indeed to be urgently concerned for theological orthodoxy and biblical truth, but “not as ends in themselves, but as a means to the further ends of life and godliness.” In other words: “Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know God himself better. Our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance, not simply with the doctrine of God’s attributes, but with the living God whose attributes they are.”
This approach to the minister’s life of study brings a godly sense of balance. Our central aim is to know God, and the aim of our ministry is to lead our people to know God also. The other aspects of knowledge are useful only in so far as they lead us into a deeper knowledge of God. A healthy theological education inculcates a deeper love for God, even as the minister grows in the knowledge of God’s Word and the comprehensiveness of God’s truth.
Studying God’s Word
Paul’s instruction to Timothy was very clear. The young minister was to study in order that he would be found “rightly handling the word of truth” [2 Timothy 2:15]. A deep and growing knowledge of God’s Word is the indispensable ground of all other true knowledge.
Put simply, the preacher is to be a devoted and skillful student of the Scriptures. This is the most important field of knowledge for the preacher, for his primary task is to preach the Word “in season and out of season,” [2 Timothy 4:2] and to teach God’s people from God’s Word.
Clearly, this strategic call represents a stewardship of truth, of souls, and of calling. Failure in this task is beyond tragedy, and the consequences are eternal. God has given us his Word and has commanded that we preach the Bible with skill, even as Ezra was “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” [Ezra 7:6].
This requires skill in the tasks of biblical interpretation, hermeneutics, exegesis, biblical languages, and the history of interpretation. This is a demanding calling, but nothing less than the most serious life of study will do. Those who can gain access to Bible colleges and theological seminaries that are biblically and theologically orthodox and faithful should take full advantage of these opportunities—knowing that this is a matter of faithfulness to our calling. At the same time, we must remember that many faithful preachers never had access to formal theological education. Yet, if they were faithful, they were no less studious or committed to a life of godly learning.
The centrality of the Bible is essential. As Charles Spurgeon encouraged his students: “Study the Bible, dear brethren, through and through, with all the helps that you can possibly obtain: remember that the appliances now within the reach of ordinary Christians are much more extensive than they were in our fathers’ days, and therefore you must be greater biblical scholars if you would keep in front of your hearers. Intermeddle with all knowledge, but above all things meditate day and night in the law of the Lord.”
If this was true in Spurgeon’s time, it is even more so in ours. The preacher must be more knowledgeable and more skilled than his congregation. Spurgeon’s other emphasis—that the knowledge of the Bible exceeds all other forms of knowledge in importance—also takes on a new urgency in our times. While there are many fields of knowledge and intellectual stimulation to which we could give our attention, we must keep ourselves first and foremost students of the Bible.
Learning God’s Truth
A true theological education stands on the unquestioned authority and truthfulness of the Bible and then moves to display that truth in all its comprehensiveness and to apply that truth to every dimension of life. Thus, the fields of systematic theology, historical theology, ethics, church history, and other theological disciplines all play their part in the preparation of the preacher.
A resistance to systematic theology reflects a lack of discipline or a lack of confidence in the consistency of God’s Word. We are to set out the great doctrines of the faith as revealed in the Bible—and do so in a way that helps to bring all of God’s truth into a comprehensive focus. The preacher must be ready to answer the great questions of his age from the authoritative treasury of God’s truth, and to teach, defend, and proclaim the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” [Jude 3].
Serving God’s People
Ultimately, the preacher’s calling is a call to serve the people of God. That’s why a consideration of the call should include a careful analysis of the man’s ability to preach, to teach, and to love the church for whom Christ died.
Once that is established, the preacher is set on a lifetime of studying in order to improve his preaching, to teach with even greater effectiveness, and to serve with even greater faithfulness.
This is no easy task. That’s surely why Paul used the metaphors of the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer as he described this calling to Timothy [2 Timothy 2:3-7]. We are called to the obedience of the soldier, the discipline of the athlete, and the patient endurance of the farmer.
We should note carefully that Paul describes the ministry this way just before commanding Timothy to study in order to show himself faithful. May we, like Timothy, do our best to present ourselves to God as workers who have no need to be ashamed.
Evangelical Christians have been especially attentive to worship in recent years, sparking a renaissance of thought and conversation on what worship really is and how it should be done. Even if this renewed interest has unfortunately resulted in what some have called the “worship wars” in some churches, it seems that what A. W. Tozer once called the “missing jewel” of evangelical worship is being recovered.
Nevertheless, if most evangelicals would quickly agree that worship is central to the life of the church, there would be no consensus to an unavoidable question: What is central to Christian worship? Historically, the more liturgical churches argued that the sacraments form the heart of Christian worship. These churches argue that the elements of the Lord’s Supper and the water of baptism most powerfully present the gospel. Among evangelicals, some present a call for evangelism as the heart of worship, planning every facet of the service—songs, prayers, sermon—with the evangelistic invitation in mind.
Though most evangelicals mention the preaching of the word as a necessary or customary part of worship, the prevailing model of worship in evangelical churches is increasingly defined by music, along with innovations such as drama and video presentations. When preaching retreats, a host of entertaining innovations will take its place.
Traditional norms of worship are now subordinated to a demand for relevance and creativity. A media-driven culture of images has replaced the word-centered culture that gave birth to the Reformation churches. In some sense, the image-driven culture of modern evangelicalism is an embrace of the very practices rejected by the Reformers in their quest for true biblical worship.
Music fills the space in most evangelical worship, and much of this music comes in the form of contemporary choruses marked by precious little theological content. Beyond the popularity of the chorus as a musical form, many evangelical churches seem intensely concerned to replicate studio-quality musical presentations.
In terms of musical style, the more traditional churches feature large choirs—often with orchestras—and may even sing the established hymns of the faith. Choral contributions are often massive in scale and professional in quality. In any event, music fills the space and drives the energy of the worship service. Intense planning, financial investment, and preparation are invested in the musical dimensions of worship. Professional staff and an army of volunteers spend much of the week in rehearsals and practice sessions.
All this is not lost on the congregation. Some Christians shop congregations in order to find the church that offers the worship style and experience that fits their expectation. In most communities, churches are known for their worship styles and musical programs. Those dissatisfied with what they find at one church can quickly move to another, sometimes using the language of self-expression to explain that the new church “meets our needs” or “allows us to worship.”
A concern for true biblical worship was at the very heart of the Reformation. But even Martin Luther, who wrote hymns and required his preachers to be trained in song, would not recognize this modern preoccupation with music as legitimate or healthy. Why? Because the Reformers were convinced that the heart of true biblical worship was the preaching of the word of God.
Thanks be to God, evangelism does take place in Christian worship. Confronted by the presentation of the gospel and the preaching of the word, sinners are drawn to faith in Jesus Christ and the offer of salvation is presented to all who so respond. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper and baptism are honored as ordinances by the Lord’s own command, and each finds its place in true worship.
Furthermore, music is one of God’s most precious gifts to his people, and it is a language by which we may worship God in spirit and in truth. The hymns of the faith convey rich confessional and theological content, and many modern choruses recover a sense of doxology formerly lost in many evangelical churches. But music is not the central act of Christian worship, nor is evangelism, nor even the ordinances. The heart of Christian worship is the authentic preaching of the word of God.
Expository preaching is central, irreducible, and nonnegotiable to the Bible’s mission of authentic worship that pleases God. John Stott’s simple declaration states the issue boldly: “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity.” More specifically, preaching is indispensable to Christian worship—and not only indispensable, but central.
The centrality of preaching is the theme of both testaments of Scripture. In Nehemiah 8 we find the people demanding that Ezra the scribe bring the book of the law to the assembly. Ezra and his colleagues stand on a raised platform and read from the book. When he opens the book to read, the assembly rises to its feet in honor of the word of God and their response to the reading is to answer, “Amen, Amen!”
Interestingly, the text explains that Ezra and those assisting him “read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). This remarkable text presents a portrait of expository preaching. Once the text was read, it was carefully explained to the congregation. Ezra did not stage an event or orchestrate a spectacle—he simply and carefully proclaimed the word of God.
This text is a sobering indictment of much contemporary Christianity. According to the text, a demand for biblical preaching erupted within the hearts of the people. They gathered as a congregation and summoned the preacher. This reflects an intense hunger and thirst for the preaching of the word of God. Where is this desire evident among today’s evangelicals?
In far too many churches, the Bible is nearly silent. The public reading of Scripture has been dropped from many services, and the sermon has been sidelined, reduced to a brief devotional appended to the music. Many preachers accept this a necessary concession to the age of entertainment. Some hope to put in a brief message of encouragement or exhortation before the conclusion of the service.
As Michael Green so pointedly put it: “This is the age of the sermonette, and sermonettes make Christianettes.”
The anemia of evangelical worship—all the music and energy aside—is directly attributable to the absence of genuine expository preaching. Such preaching would confront the congregation with nothing less than the living and active word of God. That confrontation will shape the congregation as the Holy Spirit accompanies the word, opens eyes, and applies that word to human hearts.
Tomorrow: What is Expository Preaching?
R. Albert Mohler,
Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in
If preaching is central to Christian worship, what kind of preaching are we talking about? The sheer weightlessness of much contemporary preaching is a severe indictment of our superficial Christianity. When the pulpit ministry lacks substance, the church is severed from the word of God, and its health and faithfulness are immediately diminished.
Many evangelicals are seduced by the proponents of topical and narrative preaching. The declarative force of Scripture is blunted by a demand for story, and the textual shape of the Bible is supplanted by topical considerations. In many pulpits, the Bible, if referenced at all, becomes merely a source for pithy aphorisms or convenient narratives.
The therapeutic concerns of the culture too often set the agenda for evangelical preaching. Issues of the self predominate, and the congregation expects to hear simple answers to complex problems. Furthermore, postmodernism claims intellectual primacy in the culture, and even if they do not surrender entirely to doctrinal relativism, the average congregant expects to make his or her own final decisions about all important issues of life, from worldview to lifestyle.
Authentic Christian preaching carries a note of authority and a demand for decisions not found elsewhere in society. The solid truth of Christianity stands in stark contrast to the flimsy pretensions of postmodernity. Unfortunately, the appetite for serious preaching has virtually disappeared among many Christians, who are content to have their fascinations with themselves encouraged from the pulpit.
One of the first steps to a recovery of authentic Christian preaching is to define exactly what we mean when we discuss authentic preaching as exposition. Many preachers claim to be expositors, but in many cases this means no more than that the preacher has a biblical text in mind, no matter how tenuous may be the actual relationship between the text and the sermon.
I offer the following definition of expository preaching as a framework for consideration:
“Expository preaching is that mode of Christian preaching that takes as its central purpose the presentation and application of the text of the Bible. All other issues and concerns are subordinated to the central task of presenting the biblical text. As the word of God, the text of Scripture has the right to establish both the substance and the structure of the sermon. Genuine exposition takes place when the preacher sets forth the meaning and message of the biblical text and makes clear how the word of God establishes the identity and worldview of the church as the people of God.”
Expository preaching begins with the preacher’s determination to present and explain the text of the Bible to his congregation. This simple starting point is a major issue of division in contemporary homiletics for many preachers assume that they must begin with a human problem or question and then work backward to the biblical text. On the contrary, expository preaching begins with the text and works from the text to apply its truth to the lives of believers. If this determination and commitment are not clear at the outset, something other than expository preaching will result.
The preacher always comes to the text and to the preaching event with many concerns and priorities in mind, many of which are undeniably legitimate and important in their own right. Nevertheless, if genuine exposition of the word of God is to take place, those other concerns must be subordinate to the central and irreducible task of explaining and presenting the biblical text.
Expository preaching is inescapably bound to the serious work of exegesis. If the preacher is to explain the text, he must first study the text and devote the necessary hours of study and research necessary to understand the text. The pastor must invest the largest portion of his energy and intellectual engagement (not to mention his time) to this task of “accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). There are no shortcuts to genuine exposition. The expositor is not an explorer who returns to tell tales of the journey, but a guide who leads the people into the text and teaches the arts of the Bible study and interpretation even as he demonstrates the same.
Moreover, because the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God, the shape of the biblical text is also therefore divinely directed. God has spoken through the inspired human authors of Scripture, and each different genre of biblical literature demands that the preacher give careful attention to the text, allowing it to shape the message. Far too many preachers come to the text with a sermonic shape in mind and a limited set of tools in hand. To be sure, the shape of the sermon may differ from preacher to preacher and should differ from text to text. But genuine exposition demands that the text establish the shape as well as the substance of the sermon.
The preacher rises in the pulpit to accomplish one central purpose—to set forth the message and meaning of the biblical text. This requires historical investigation, literary discernment, and the faithful employment of the analogia fidei to interpret the Scripture by Scripture. It also requires the expositor to reject the modern conceit that what the text meant is not necessarily what it means. If the Bible is truly the enduring and eternal word of God, it means what it meant as it is newly applied in every generation.
Once the meaning of the text is set forth, the preacher moves to application. Application of biblical truth is a necessary task of expository preaching. But application must follow the diligent and disciplined task of explaining the text itself. T. H. L. Parker describes preaching like this: “Expository preaching consists in the explanation and application of a passage of Scripture. Without explanation it is not expository; without application it is not preaching.”
Application is absolutely necessary, but it is also fraught with danger. The first danger is the temptation to believe that the preacher can or should manipulate the human heart. The preacher is responsible for setting forth the eternal word of Scripture. Only the Holy Spirit can apply that word to human hearts or even open eyes to understand and receive the text.
Every sermon presents the hearer with a forced decision. We will either obey or disobey the word of God. The sovereign authority of God operates through the preaching of his word to demand obedience from his people. Preaching is the essential instrumentality through which God shapes his people as the Holy Spirit accompanies the preaching of the word. As the Reformers remind us, it is through preaching that Christ is present among his people.
Tomorrow: Three characteristics of genuine expository preaching.
R. Albert Mohler,
Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in
Authentic expository preaching is marked by three distinct marks or characteristics: authority, reverence, and centrality. Expository preaching is authoritative because it stands upon the very authority of the Bible as the word of God. Such preaching requires and reinforces a sense of reverent expectation on the part of God’s people. Finally, expository preaching demands the central place in Christian worship and is respected as the event through which the living God speaks to his people.
A keen analysis of
our contemporary age comes from sociologist Richard Sennett of
Some homileticians suggest that preachers should simply embrace this new worldview and surrender any claim to an authoritative message. Those who have lost confidence in the authority of the Bible as the word of God are left with little to say and no authority for their message. Fred Craddock, among the most influential figures in recent homiletic thought, famously describes today’s preacher “as one without authority.” His portrait of the preacher’s predicament is haunting: “The old thunderbolts rust in the attic while the minister tries to lead his people through the morass of relativities and proximate possibilities.” “No longer can the preacher presuppose the general recognition of his authority as a clergyman, or the authority of his institution, or the authority of Scripture,” Craddock argues. Summarizing the predicament of the postmodern preacher, he relates that the preacher “seriously asks himself whether he should continue to serve up monologue in a dialogical world.”
The obvious question to pose to Craddock’s analysis is this: If we have no authoritative message, why preach? Without authority, the preacher and the congregation are involved in a massive waste of precious time. The very idea that preaching can be transformed into a dialogue between the pulpit and the pew indicates the confusion of our era.
Contrasted to this is the note of authority found in all true expository preaching. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones notes: “Any study of church history, and particularly any study of the great periods of revival or reawakening, demonstrates above everything else just this one fact: that the Christian Church during all such periods has spoken with authority. The great characteristic of all revivals has been the authority of the preacher. There seemed to be something new, extra, and irresistible in what he declared on behalf of God.”
The preacher dares to speak on behalf of God. He stands in the pulpit as a steward “of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1) and declares the truth of God’s word, proclaims the power of that word, and applies the word to life. This is an admittedly audacious act. No one should even contemplate such an endeavor without absolute confidence in a divine call to preach and in the unblemished authority of the Scriptures.
In the final analysis, the ultimate authority for preaching is the authority of the Bible as the word of God. Without this authority, the preacher stands naked and silent before the congregation and the watching world. If the Bible is not the word of God, the preacher is involved in an act of self-delusion or professional pretension.
Standing on the authority of Scripture, the preaching declares a truth received, not a message invented. The teaching office is not an advisory role based in religious expertise, but a prophetic function whereby God speaks to his people.
Authentic expository preaching is also marked by reverence. The congregation that gathered before Ezra and the other preachers demonstrated a love and reverence for the word of God (Neh. 8). When the book was read, the people stood up. This act of standing reveals the heart of the people and their sense of expectancy as the word was read and preached.
Expository preaching requires an attitude of reverence on the part of the congregation. Preaching is not a dialogue, but it does involve at least two parties—the preacher and the congregation. The congregation’s role in the preaching event is to hear, receive, and obey the word of God. In so doing, the church demonstrates reverence for the preaching and teaching of the Bible and understands that the sermon brings the word of Christ near to the congregation. This is true worship.
Lacking reverence for the word of God, many congregations are caught in a frantic quest for significance in worship. Christians leave worship services asking each other, “Did you get anything out of that?” Churches produce surveys to measure expectations for worship. Would you like more music? What kind? How about drama? Is our preacher sufficiently creative?
Expository preaching demands a very different set of questions. Will I obey the word of God? How must my thinking be realigned by Scripture? How must I change my behavior to be fully obedient to the word? These questions reveal submission to the authority of God and reverence for the Bible as his word.
Likewise, the preacher must demonstrate his own reverence for God’s word by dealing truthfully and responsibly with the text. He must not be flippant for casual, much less dismissive or disrespectful. Of this we can be certain—no congregation will revere the Bible more than the preacher does.
If expository preaching is authoritative, and if it demands reverence, it must also be at the center of Christian worship. Worship properly directed to the honor and glory of God will find its center in the reading and preaching of the word of God. Expository preaching cannot be assigned a supporting role in the act of worship—it must be central.
In the course of the Reformation, Luther’s driving purpose was to restore preaching to its proper place in Christian worship. Referring to the incident between Mary and Martha in Luke 10, Luther reminded his congregation and students that Jesus Christ declared that “only one thing is necessary”—the preaching of the word (Luke 10:42). Therefore, “for Luther the most important reform needed in the worship of the Church of his day was to reestablish the centrality of the reading and preaching of the Word in public worship.”
That same reformation is needed in American evangelicalism today. Expository preaching must once again be central to the life of the church and central to Christian worship. In the end, the church will not be judged by its Lord for the quality of its music but for the faithfulness of its preaching.
When today’s evangelicals speak casually of the distinction between worship and preaching (meaning that the church will enjoy an offering of music before adding on a bit of preaching), they betray their misunderstanding of both worship and the act of preaching. Worship is not something we do before we settle down for the word of God; it is the act through which the people of God direct all their attentiveness to hearing the one true and living God speak to his people and receive their praises. God is most beautifully praised when his people hear his word, love his word, and obey his word.
As in the Reformation, the most important corrective to our corruption of worship (and defense against the consumerist demands of the day) is to return expository preaching and the public reading of God’s word to their rightful primacy and centrality in worship. Only then will the “missing jewel” be truly rediscovered.
“The Bible was not written against the cultural background of Africans,” Adeyemo told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “The Bible came through from Western missionaries, and the interpretation they gave was based on their own cultural background.”
That prompted the Nigerian-born Adeyemo and other scholars and theologians to create Africa Bible Commentary, a 1,600-page book released this summer by Africans, for Africans, using African proverbs and idioms to apply the Bible’s teachings to contemporary problems such as AIDS, corruption and female genital mutilation.
The tome was 12 years in the making and provides explanations of verses from all 66 books in the Protestant version of the Bible.
Some of the book’s essays give guidance on Christian behavior in today’s world.
Muriithi, who teaches at the
“God created the human body and female sexuality and declared them both good,” Muriithi writes. “Therefore, to abuse the body in a way that destroys the ability to appreciate one of God’s gifts is an insult to his creation.”
There are also passages denouncing witchcraft.
“The Bible does not
support the doctrines of demons, evil spirits and witchcraft that derive from
traditional beliefs, but many professing Christians are unaware of what the
Bible teaches on this subject,” writes Samuel Waje Kunhiyop, a professor at the
Evangelical Church of West Africa Theological Seminary in
And a commentary on the Book of Job by Tewoldemedhin Habtu, an Eritrean Baptist at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, urges Christians not to lose their faith when confronted with the hardships of living on the world’s poorest continent: “God has not promised that because we are believers we will not die a violent death or suffer disaster.”
director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity in
Except for parts of
northern Africa and
The Bible has been translated into several African languages, and African scholars have established themselves as major theologians. But most commentaries on the Bible and general books on Christianity available in African bookshops are written by Europeans or Americans.
Africa Bible Commentary “is a matter of critical mass. Now you’ve really got the biblical scholars and the Protestant and evangelical churches that can do this work,” Carpenter said. “And the Bible is really hot literature.”
Africa Bible Commentary was published in English but there are plans for versions in Swahili, Amharic, Yoruba, Zulu and other languages.
A question remains: Shouldn’t the ancient, enduring Bible be relevant to readers even without hundreds of pages of explanations?
“I wish that is possible,” said Adeyemo, who served as the book’s general editor. “But we’ve had the Bible for at least over 100 years on this continent, and the problems we are dealing with are still here.”
Preach the Word! That simple imperative frames the act of preaching as an act of obedience. That is where any theology of preaching must begin.
Preaching did not emerge from the church’s experimentation with communication techniques. The church does not preach because preaching is thought to be a good idea or an effective technique. The sermon has not earned its place in Christian worship by proving its utility in comparison with other means of communication or aspects of worship. Rather, we preach because we have been commanded to preach.
Preaching is a commission—a charge. As Paul stated boldly, it is the task of the minister of the gospel to “preach the Word,…in season and out of season” [2 Tim. 4:2]. A theology of preaching begins with the humble acknowledgement that preaching is not a human invention but a gracious creation of God and a central part of His revealed will for the church. Furthermore, preaching is distinctively Christian in its origin and practice. Other religions may include teaching, or even public speech and calls to prayer. However, the preaching act is sui generis, a function of the church established by Jesus Christ.
As John A. Broadus stated: “Preaching is characteristic of Christianity. No other religion has made the regular and frequent assembling of groups of people, to hear religious instruction and exhortation, and integral part of divine worship.” The importance of preaching is rooted in Scripture and revealed in the unfolding story of the church. The church has never been faithful when it has lacked fidelity in the pulpit. In the words of P. T. Forsyth: “With preaching Christianity stands or falls, because it is the declaration of the gospel.”
The church cannot but preach lest it deny its own identity and abdicate its ordained purpose. Preaching is communication, but not mere communication. It is human speech, but much more than speech. As Ian Pitt-Watson noted, preaching is not even “a kind of speech communication that happens to be about God.” Its ground, its goal, and its glory are all located in the sovereign will of God.
The act of preaching brings forth a combination of exposition, testimony, exhortation, and teaching. Still, preaching cannot be reduced to any of these, or even to the sum total of its individual parts combined.
The primary Greek form of the word “preach” (kerusso) reveals its intrinsic rootage in the kerygma—the gospel itself. Preaching is an inescapably theological act, for the preacher dares to speak of God and, in a very real sense, for God. A theology of preaching should take Trinitarian form, reflecting the very nature of the self-revealing God. In so doing, it bears witness to the God who speaks, the Son who saves, and the Spirit who illuminates.
The God Who Speaks
True preaching begins with this confession: we preach because God has spoken. That fundamental conviction is the fulcrum of the Christian faith and of Christian preaching. The Creator God of the universe, the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Lord, chose of his own sovereign will to reveal Himself to us. Supreme and complete in his holiness, needing nothing and hidden from our view, God condescended to speak to us—even to reveal Himself to us.
As Carl F. H. Henry suggests, revelation is “a divinely initiated activity, God’s free communication by which he alone turns His personal privacy into a deliberate disclosure of his reality.” In an act of holy graciousness, God gave up His comprehensive privacy that we might know Him. God’s revelation is the radical claim upon which we dare to speak of God—He has spoken!
Our God-talk must therefore begin and end with what God has spoken concerning Himself. Preaching is not the business of speculating about God’s nature, will, or ways, but is bearing witness to what God has spoken concerning Himself. Preaching does not consist of speculation but of exposition.
The preacher dares to speak the Word of truth to a generation which rejects the very notion of objective, public truth. This is not rooted in the preacher’s arrogant claim to have discovered worldly wisdom or to have penetrated the secrets of the universe. To the contrary, the preacher dares to proclaim truth on the basis of God’s sovereign self-disclosure. God has spoken, and He has commanded us to speak of Him.
The Bible bears witness to itself as the written Word of God. This springs from the fact that God has spoken. In the Old Testament alone, the phrases “the Lord said,” “the Lord spoke,” and “the word of the Lord came” appear at least 3,808 times. This confession brings the preacher face to face with Scripture as divine revelation. The authority of Scripture is none other than the authority of God Himself. As the Reformation formula testifies, “where Scripture speaks, God speaks.” The authority of the preacher is intrinsically rooted in the authority of the Bible as the church’s Book and the unblemished Word of God. Its total truthfulness is a witness to God’s own holiness. We speak because God has spoken, and because he has given us His Word.
As Scripture itself records, God has called the church to speak of Him on the basis of his Word and deeds. All Christian preaching is biblical preaching. That formula is axiomatic. Those who preach from some other authority or text may speak with great effect and attractiveness, but they are preaching “another gospel,” and their words will betray them. Christian preaching is not an easy task. Those who are called to preach bear a heavy duty. As Martin Luther confessed “If I could come down with a good conscience, I would rather be stretched out on a wheel and carry stones than preach one sermon.” Speaking on the basis of what God has spoken is both arduous and glorious.
A theology of preaching begins with the confession that the God who speaks has ultimate claim upon us. He who spoke a word and brought a world into being created us from the dust. God has chosen enlivened dust—and all creation—to bear testimony to his glory.
In preaching, finite, frail, and fault-ridden human beings bear bold witness to the infinite, all-powerful, and perfect Lord. Such an endeavor would smack of unmitigated arrogance and over-reaching were it not for the fact that God Himself has set us to the task. In this light, preaching is not an act of arrogance, but of humility. True preaching is not an exhibition of the brilliance or intellect of the preacher, but an exposition of the wisdom and power of God.
This is possible only when the preacher stands in submission to the text of Scripture. The issue of authority is inescapable. Either the preacher or the text will be the operant authority. A theology of preaching serves to remind those who preach of the danger of confusing our own authority with that of the biblical text. We are called, not only to preach, but to preach the Word.
Acknowledging the God who speaks as Lord is to surrender the preaching event in an act of glad submission. Preaching thus becomes the occasion for the Word of the Lord to break forth anew. This occasion itself represents the divine initiative, for it is God Himself, and not the preacher, who controls His Word.
John Calvin understood this truth when he affirmed that “The Word goeth out of the mouth of God in such a manner that it likewise goeth out of the mouth of men; for God does not speak openly from heaven, but employs men as His instruments.” Calvin understood preaching to be the process by which God uses human instruments to speak what He Himself has spoken. This He accomplishes through the preaching of Scripture under the illumination and testimonium of the Holy Spirit. God uses preachers, Calvin offered, “rather than to thunder at us and drive us away.” Further, “it is singular privilege that he deigns to consecrate to Himself the mouths and toungues (sic) of men in order that His voice may resound in them.”
Thus, preaching springs from the truth that God has spoken in word and deed and that He has chosen human vessels to bear witness to Himself and his gospel. We speak because we cannot be silent. We speak because God has spoken.
“In the past,” wrote the author of Hebrews, “God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways. But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe” [Heb. 1:1-2]. The God who reveals Himself (Deus Revelatus) has spoken supremely and definitively through His Son.
Carl F. H. Henry once stated that only a theology based in a vision of “divine invasion” could lay claim upon the church. The same holds true for a theology of preaching. All Christian preaching is unabashedly Christological.
Christian preaching points to the incarnation of God in Christ as the stackpole of truth and the core of Christian confession. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself” [2 Cor. 5:19]. Thus, preaching is itself an act of grace, making clear God’s initiative toward us in Christ. Preaching is one means by which the redeemed bear witness to the Son who saves. That message of divine salvation, the unmerited act of God in Christ, is the criterion by which all preaching is to be judged.
With this in mind, all preaching is understood to be rooted in the incarnation. As the apostle John declared, God spoke to us by means of His Son, the Word, and that Word was made flesh and dwelt among us [1:14]. All human speech is rendered mute by the incarnate Word of God. Yet, at the same time, the incarnation allows us to speak of God in the terms He has set for Himself—in the identity of Jesus the Christ.
Preaching is itself incarnational. In the preaching event a human being stands before a congregation of fellow humans to speak the most audacious words ever encountered or uttered by the human species: God has made Himself known in His Son, through whom He has also made provision for salvation.
As Karl Barth insisted, all preaching must have a thrust. The thrust cannot come from the energy, earnestness, or even the conviction of the preacher. “The sermon,” asserted Barth, “takes its thrust when it begins: The Word became flesh…once and for all, and when account of this is taken in every thought.” The power of the sermon does not lie in the domain of the preacher, but in the providence of God. Preaching does not demonstrate the power of the human instrument, but of the biblical message of God’s words and deeds. Barth’s theology falls short of biblical orthodoxy, but on this point, he understands the character of true preaching.
Jesus serves as our model, as well as the content of our preaching. As Mark recorded in his gospel, “Jesus came preaching” [1:4], and His model of preaching as the unflinching forth-telling of God’s gracious salvation is the ultimate standard by which all human preaching is to be judged. Jesus Himself sent His disciples out to preach repentance [Mark 6:12]. The church received its charge to “preach the good news to all creation” [Mark 15:15]. Preaching is, as Christ made clear, an extension of his own will and work. The church preaches because it has been commanded to do so.
If preaching takes its ground and derives its power from God’s revelation in the Son, then the cross looms as the paramount symbol and event of Christian proclamation. “We preach not ourselves,” pressed Paul, “but Jesus Christ as Lord” [2 Cor. 4:5]. That message was centered on the cross as the definitive criterion of preaching. Paul understood that the cross is simultaneously the most divisive and the most unifying event in human history. The preaching of the cross—the proclamation of the substitutionary atonement wrought by the sinless Son of God—”is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God” [1 Cor. 1:18].
Any honest and faithful theology of preaching must acknowledge that charges of foolishness are not incidental to the homiletical task. They are central. Those seeking worldly wisdom or secret signs will be frustrated with what we preach, for the cross is the abolition of both. The Christian preacher dares not speak a message which will appeal to the sign-seeker and wisdom-lovers, “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” [1 Cor. 1:17]. As James Denney stated plainly, “No man can give at once the impression that he himself is clever and that Jesus Christ is mighty to save.”
Beyond this, Paul indicated the danger of ideological
temptations and the allure of “technique” as threats to the preaching of the
gospel. Writing to the church at
To preach the gospel of the Son who saves is to forfeit all claim or aim to make communication technique or human persuasion the measure of homiletical effectiveness. Preaching is effective when it is faithful. The effect is in the hands of God.
The preacher dares to speak for God, on the basis of what God has spoken concerning Himself and His ways, and that means speaking the word of the cross. That underscores the humility of preaching. As John Piper suggests, the act of preaching is “both a past event of substitution and a present event of execution.” Only the redeemed, those who know the cross as the power and wisdom of God, understand the glory and the burden of preaching. To the world of unbelief, such words are senseless prattle.
To preach the message of the Son who saves is to spread the world’s most hopeful message. All Christian preaching is resurrection preaching. A theology of preaching includes both a “theology of the cross” and a “theology of glory.” The glory is not the possession of the church, much less the preacher, but of God Himself.
The cross brings the eclipse of all human pretensions and enlightenment, but the empty tomb reveals the radiant sunrise of God’s personal glory. If Christ has not been raised, asserted Paul, “our preaching is useless” [1 Cor. 15:14]. This glimpse of God’s glory does not afford the church or the preacher a sense of triumphalism or self-sufficiency. To the contrary, it points to the sufficiency of God and to the glory only he enjoys—a glory He has shared with us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The reflection of that revelation is the radiance and glory of preaching.
The preacher stands before the congregation as the external minister of the Word, but the Holy Spirit works as the internal minister of that same Word. A theology of preaching must take the role of the Spirit into full view, for without an understanding of the work of the Spirit, the task of preaching is robbed of its balance and power.
The neglect of the work of the Spirit is a symptom of the decline of biblical Trinitarianism in our midst. Charles H. Spurgeon warned, “You might as well expect to raise the dead by whispering in their ears, as hope to save souls by preaching to them, if it were not for the agency of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit performs His work of inspiration, indwelling, regeneration, and sanctification as the inner minister of the Word; it is the Spirit’s ministry of illumination that allows the Word of the Lord to break forth.
Both the preacher and the hearers are dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit for any adequate understanding of the text. As Calvin warned, “No one should hesitate to confess that he is able to understand God’s mysteries only in so far as he is illumined by God’s grace. He who attributes any more understanding to himself is all the more blind because he does not recognize his own blindness.” This has been the confession of great preachers from the first century to the present, and the absence of a conscious dependence upon the Holy Spirit is a sign that the preacher does not understand his task and calling. Tertullian, for example, called the Spirit his “Vicar” who ministered the Word to himself and to his congregation.
The Reformation saw a new acknowledgement of the union of Word and Spirit. This testimonium was understood to be the crucial means by which the Spirit imparts understanding. This Trinitarian doctrine produced preaching that was both bold and humble; bold in its content, but uttered forth by humble humans who knew their utter dependence upon God.
John Calvin described the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit as absolutely necessary in order for the individual to receive the Word: “For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in His Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.”
Martin Luther had affirmed this same truth in various ways, most famously in his exhortation to his young students that they must preach the Word faithfully in order to get the Word to the ears of the congregation. Nevertheless, Luther also insisted that only the Holy Spirit could take the Word from the ear into the human heart.
Luther had another important point to make as well. Even as the preacher is dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Word, Luther insisted that the Father had willed that the Spirit should work uniquely through the Word, and not independent of it. He rejected the notion that the Holy Spirit would impart spiritual life through sacraments or other actions apart from the Word.
In Luther’s own words: “Therefore no one desiring comfort should wait until the Holy Spirit presents Christ to him personally or speaks to him directly from heaven. He gives His testimony publicly, in the sermon. There you must seek Him and wait for Him until He touches your heart through the Word that you hear with your ears, and thus He also testifies of Christ inwardly through His working.” This quality of confidence in the Holy Spirit’s work through the Word, and only through the Word, would be a much-needed corrective in today’s confused church.
The same God who called forth human vessels and set them to preach also promised the power of the Spirit. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was aware that preachers often forget this promise: “Seek Him always. But go beyond seeking Him; expect Him. Do you expect anything to happen when you get up to preach in a pulpit? Or do you just say to yourself, ‘Well, I have prepared my address, I am going to give them this address; some of them will appreciate it and some will not’? Are you expecting it to be the turning point in someone’s life? That is what preaching is meant to do. . . . Seek this power, expect this power, yearn for this power; and when the power comes, yield to Him.”
To preach “in the Spirit” is to preach with the acknowledgement that the human instrument has no control over the message—and no control over the Word as it is set loose within the congregation. The Spirit, as John declared, testifies, “because the Spirit is the truth” [1 John 5:6].
J. I. Packer defined preaching as “the event of God bringing to an audience a Bible-based, Christ-related, life-impacting message of instruction and direction from Himself through the words of a spokesperson.” That rather comprehensive definition depicts the process of God speaking forth His Word, using human instruments to proclaim His message, and then calling men and women unto Himself. A theological analysis reveals that preaching is deadly business. As Spurgeon confirmed, “Life, death, hell, and worlds unknown may hang on the preaching and hearing of a sermon.”
The apostle Paul revealed the logic of preaching when he asked, “How then, can they call upon the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” [Rom. 10:14]
The preacher is a commissioned agent whose task is to speak because God has spoken, because the preacher has been entrusted with the telling of the gospel of the Son who saves, and because God has promised the power of the Spirit as the seal and efficacy of the preacher’s calling.
The ground of the preaching is none other than the revelation which God has addressed to us in Scripture. The goal of preaching is no more and no less than faithfulness to this calling. The glory of preaching is that God has promised to use preachers and preaching to accomplish His purpose and bring glory unto Himself.
Therefore, a theology of preaching is essentially doxology. The ultimate purpose of the sermon is to glorify God and to reveal a glimpse of His glory to his creation. This is the sum and substance of the preaching task. That God would choose such a means to express His own glory is beyond our understanding; it is rooted in the mystery of the will and wisdom of God.
Yet our God has called out preachers and commanded them to preach. Preaching is not an act the church is called to defend, but a ministry preachers are called to perform. And as we are well reminded, we are not called to accomplish this task alone. The Holy Spirit is the seal and promise of our preaching. Thus, whatever the season, the imperative stands: Preach the Word!
The State of Preaching Today
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of
wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the
epoch of incredulity. . .” With those famous words, Charles Dickens introduced
his great novel A Tale of Two Cities. Of course, Dickens had the two
In some sense, that remains true as we consider the state of preaching today. To a large degree, this depends upon where one chooses to look.
On the one hand, there are signs of great promise and encouragement. On the other hand, several ominous trends point toward dangerous directions for preaching in the future.
In surveying the current state of preaching, my primary concern is for
preaching in the evangelical churches of
Signs of encouragement include a large number of younger evangelical pastors who are unabashedly committed to biblical exposition and represent a resurgence of genuine biblical exposition from the pulpits of churches situated in every part of the country, from the inner city to the suburbs and beyond. This new generation is proving once again that the effective and faithful exposition of the Word of God draws persons to Christ and leads to spiritual growth and to the health of the church. A generation of young ministers, along with others making their way through college and seminary education, may point toward a renaissance of biblical preaching in coming years.
On the other hand, several trends represent issues of genuine concern. In the main, the last few decades have been a period of wanton experimentation in many pulpits and preaching has often been redefined and reconceived as something other than the exposition and application of the biblical text.
1. A Loss of Confidence in the Power of the Word.
Contemporary Americans are surrounded by more words than any previous generation in human history. We are bombarded with words delivered to us in every conceivable form—sung, broadcast, electrified, printed, and spoken. Words have been digitalized, commercialized, and subjected to postmodern linguistic theories.
Taken together, all this amounts to a significant loss of confidence in the word as written and spoken. Several years ago, the photographer Richard Avedon declared that “images are fast replacing words as our primary language.”
This certainly appears to be the case. In The Rise of the Image, the
Fall of the Word, author Mitchell Stephens of
Since preaching is itself a form of “mental transport,” any loss of confidence in the word leads to a loss of confidence in preaching. Ultimately, preaching will cease to be Christian preaching if the preacher loses confidence in the authority of the Bible as the Word of God and in the power of the spoken word to communicate the saving and transforming message of the Bible. The preacher must stand up and speak with confidence, declaring the Word of God to a congregation that is bombarded with hundreds of thousands of words each week, many of them delivered with a soundtrack or moving images. The audacious claim of Christian preaching is that the faithful declaration of the Word of God, spoken through the preacher’s voice, is even more powerful than anything music or image can deliver.
2. An Infatuation With Technology
Jacques Ellul was truly prophetic when he pointed to the rise of technology and technique as one of the greatest challenges to Christian faithfulness in our times. We live in a day of technological hubris and the ubiquity of technological assistance. We are engaged in few tasks, physical or mental, which are now unassisted by some form of technology.
For most of us, the use of these technologies comes with little attentiveness to how the technology reshapes the task and the experience. The same is true for preachers who have rushed to incorporate visual technology and media in the preaching event.
The effort is no doubt well intended, driven by a missiological concern to reach persons whose primary form of “mental transport” has become visual. Thus, preachers use clips from films, dynamic graphics, and other eye-catching technologies to gain and hold the congregation’s attention.
The danger of this approach is seen in the fact that the visual very quickly overcomes the verbal. Beyond this, the visual is often directed towards a very narrow slice of human experience, particularly focused on the affective and emotional aspects of our perception. Movies move us by the skillful manipulation of emotion, driven by soundtrack and manipulated by skillful directing techniques.
This is exactly where the preacher must not go. The power of the Word of God, spoken through the human voice, is seen in the Bible’s unique power to penetrate all dimensions of the human personality. As God made clear, even in the Ten Commandments, He has chosen to be heard and not seen. The use of visual technologies threatens to confuse this basic fact of biblical faith.
3. An Embarrassment Before the Biblical Text
Through the experience of hearing innumerable sermons from evangelical preachers, I note the tendency of some to appear rather embarrassed before the biblical text. The persistent attacks upon biblical authority and the sensitivities of our times have taken a toll on the preacher’s confidence in the actual text of the Bible.
On the theological left, the answer is quite simple—just discard the text and write it off as patriarchal, oppressive, and completely unacceptable in light of an updated concept of God.
Among evangelicals, we can be thankful that fewer preachers are willing to dismiss or discard the text as sub-biblical or warped by ancient prejudices. Instead, many of these preachers simply disregard and ignore vast sections of Scripture, focusing instead on texts that are more comfortable, palatable, and nonconfrontational to the modern mind. This is a form of pastoral neglect and malpractice, corrected only by a comprehensive embrace of the Bible—all of it—as the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God. All of it is for our good.
4. An Evacuation of Biblical Content
The last point was concerned with passages of Scripture that are never preached—but what about the texts that are preached? Are today’s preachers actually studying for the content of the passage? In far too many cases, it seems that the text becomes a point of departure for some message—no doubt well intended—which the pastor wishes to share with the congregation. Beyond this, the text of Scripture is often evacuated of biblical content when, regardless of a passage’s textual form or context, the content is uniformly presented as a set of pithy “points” that come together in a staple outline form.
Every text does have a point, of course. The preacher’s main concern should be to communicate that central truth, and design the sermon to serve that overarching purpose. Furthermore, the content of the passage is to be applied to life—but application must be determined by exposition, not vice versa.
Another problem that leads to an evacuation of biblical content is a loss of the “big picture” of Scripture. Far too many preachers give inadequate attention to the canonical context of the passage to be preached and of its place in the overarching story of God’s purpose to glorify Himself through the redemption of sinners. Taken out of context, and without clear attention to biblical theology, preaching becomes a series of disconnected talks on disconnected texts. This falls far short of the glory of true biblical preaching.
5. An Absence of Gospel
The preaching of the apostles always presented the kerygma—the heart of the gospel. The clear presentation of the Gospel must be a part of the sermon, no matter the text. As Charles Spurgeon expressed this so eloquently, preach the Word, place it in its canonical context, and “make a bee-line to the cross.”
The approach of many churches—and preachers—has been to present helpful and practical messages, often with generalized Christian content, but without any clear presentation of the Gospel or call to decision and accountability to the text or to the claims of Christ. The apostles should be our model here, consistently preaching the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Of course, in order for the Gospel to make sense, authentic preaching must also deal honestly with the reality of human sin and must do so with a candor equal to that of the biblical text. All this presents the preacher with some significant challenges in our age of “sensitivities.” But in the end, preaching devoid of this content—preaching that evades the biblical text and biblical truth—falls short of anything we can rightly call Christian preaching.
These are indeed the best of times and the worst of times. I am thankful for a renaissance of expository preaching, especially among many young preachers. I am thankful for stalwart pulpit examples who now serve as mentors to a generation hungry to see how biblical exposition constitutes the very center of effective and powerful ministry. I am thankful for a number of outstanding programs in seminaries directed towards encouraging and equipping this generation for that task.
At the same time, I am also concerned that dangerous trends and many popular examples threaten to undermine the centrality of biblical exposition in evangelical pulpits. In the end, the Christian preacher simply must confront the congregation with the Word of God. That confrontation will be at times awkward, challenging, and difficult. After all, this is the Word that pierces us like a sword. The evangelical preacher must set his aim at letting the sword loose, neither hiding it nor dulling its edge.