H. B. Charles shares this lesson and story to encourage preachers to guard their hearts from pride in the pulpit:

The pulpit is a dangerous place. It can fill the preacher with pride that leads to his downfall. It can fill the preacher with discouragement that causes him to give up. It can fill the preacher with fear that prostitutes his divine message for human approval.

The old story is told about the young preacher who strutted to the pulpit, expecting to wow the congregation. He humbly walked out of the pulpit after the sermon bombed. “What happened?” he asked a senior minister. The wise, seasoned preacher counseled, “Son, if you would have gone up to the pulpit the way you came down, you would have been able to come down the way you went up.”

Is the average person today living in a post-Christian world really capable of understanding the theology of the Bible? Should a pastor avoid doctrinal themes and terms in favor of preaching messages that are less intellectually demanding and more relevant to his listeners?

Jim Hamilton offers an excellent answer to these questions in his helpful contribution to the book Text-Driven Preaching:

Can God’s people operate those complicated remote controls that come with everything from their new flat-screen TVs to their new cars? Can God’s people use computers; navigate grocery stores; hold down jobs; and acquire homes, cars, toys, and all the stuff they jam into the garage?

Let me be frank: I have no patience for suggestions that preachers need to dumb it down. Preachers need to be clear, and they need to be able to explain things in understandable ways. But human beings do not need the Bible to be dumbed down. If you think that, what you really think is that God the Holy Spirit did not know what He was doing when He inspired the Bible to be the way it is. Not only does the suggestion that the Bible is more than God’s people can handle blaspheme God’s wisdom; it also blasphemes His image bearers. People are made in the image of God. Human beings are endowed with brains and sensibilities of astonishing capacity.

Do you want people to think that everything that is interesting or artistic or brilliant comes from the world? Dumb down the Bible.

Do you want them to see the complexity and simplicity of God? The sheer genius of the Spirit-inspired biblical authors? The beauty of a world-encompassing metanarrative of cosmic scope? Teach them biblical theology.

Do not discount the capacities of God’s people. They may be stupid and uninformed when their hearts are awakened, but do not punish them by leaving them there. Show them literary artistry. Show them the subtle power of carefully constructed narratives. Show them the force of truth in arguments that unfold with inexorable logic. If they are genuine believers, they will want to understand the Bible. Show them the shouts and songs, the clamor and the clarity, the book of books. Let their hearts sing with the psalmist, weep with Lamentations, and ponder Proverbs. Give them the messianic wisdom of the beautiful mind that wrote Ecclesiastes. Preach the word!

Unleash it in all its fullness and fury. Let it go. Tie it together. Show connections that are there in the texts from end to end. Tell them the whole story. Give them the whole picture. Paint the whole landscape for them, not just the blade of grass.

So be clear in your preaching. Use rhetorical principles and strategies to explain the Bible in ways that make its teachings understandable and accessible to the common man. Know your audience and adapt to it appropriately (1 Cor. 3:1-2; Heb. 5:11-14). Don’t drag all your original language exegesis and historical-cultural findings into the sermon. But be careful that you don’t dumb down the Bible in the process.

For example, don’t avoid dealing with the doctrine of the Bible because you fear your audience won’t understand or appreciate “theology.”

The words of Martyn Lloyd Jones on Bible translations are relevant at this point:

The simple answer . . . is that people have always found this language [of the Bible] to be strange. The answer to the argument that people in this post-Christian age do not understand terms like Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification is simply to ask another question. When did people understand them? When did the unbeliever understand this language? The answer is: Never! These terms are peculiar and special to the Gospel. It is our business as preachers to show that our gospel is essentially different and that we are not talking about ordinary matters. We must emphasize the fact that we are talking about something unique and special. We must lead people to expect this; and so we are to assert it. Our business is to teach people the meaning of these terms. They do not decide and determine what is to be preached and how: it is we that have the Revelation, the Message, and we have to make this understood. (Preaching and Preachers, 142, emphasis mine)

Let God decide what needs to be said and what people need to know. Take pains to understand the message yourself. Then work hard to explain the message in ways that your listeners get it and see its relevance for their lives.

Pastors, don’t leave your congregation on the surface and in ignorance. Inspire them to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Whet their appetite for the meat of the Word.

Remember, however, that no amount of work in preparation and no amount of clarity in presentation can substitute for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. So prepare and preach in dependence on the Lord and pray along with Paul

that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give [those who hear your message] the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened (Eph. 1:17-18).

Jason Meyer has some good thoughts on the need for preachers to rely on the power of the Word and not on their artistry and personality:

Many a good book has suffered at the hands of a movie maker’s “artistic license” that does not stay true to what made the book good in the first place. In the same way, many a biblical text has suffered at the hands of a preacher’s “artistic license” that is not faithful to God’s intent for the text. . . . God does not need us to improve his word. Our part is to give the text a voice, not a makeover.

In my experience, too many people believe that making God’s word real takes creative license or a flamboyant personality. That is simply not true. . . . Many efforts to preach boil down to man-centered attempts to do something in the flesh that only God can do by his Spirit. Preachers must put their faith in the power of God’s word, not in their ability to make something drab into something attractive and appealing. God’s word is living and active, not drab. (emphasis original)

 

Questions for Discussion

  1. What does it take to make God’s word “real” in preaching?
  2. How do you know when you have crossed the line from depending on God and his words to depending on yourself in preaching?
  3. What role, if any, does artistry and creativity play in God-dependent preaching?
  4. What homiletical method(s) best reflect “faith in the power of God’s word”?

After 40 years of preaching Sinclair Ferguson took some time (on a airplane!) to write down his 10 commandments of preaching.

Though Ferguson admits his commandments are not “infallible” (as were the ones given to Moses on the mount) every preacher would do well to think carefully about these “ground rules” for preaching.

1. Know Your Bible Better

Often at the end of a Lord’s Day, or a Conference, the thought strikes me again: “If you only knew your Bible better you would have been a lot more help to the people.”

I need to be homo unius libri–a man of one Book.

2. Be a Man of Prayer

I mean this with respect to preaching–not only in the sense that I should pray before I begin my preparation, but in the sense that my preparation is itself a communion in prayer with God in and through his word.

3. Don’t Lose Sight of Christ

Know and therefore preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). That is a text far easier to preach as the first sermon in a ministry than it is to preach as the final sermon.

4. Be Deeply Trinitarian

Our people need to know that, through the Spirit, their fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. Would they know that from my preaching?

5. Use Your Imagination

All good preaching involves the use of the imagination. No great preacher has ever lacked imagination. . . . Imagination in preaching means being able to understand the truth well enough to translate or transpose it into another kind of language or musical key in order to present the same truth in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, feel its power–to do so in a way that gets under the skin, breaks through the barriers, grips the mind, will, and affections so that they not only understand the word used but feel their truth and power.

6. Speak Much of Sin and Grace

Sin and grace should be the downbeat and the upbeat that run through all our exposition.

We cannot build a ministry, nor healthy Christians, on a diet of fulminating against the world.

Spiritual surgery must be done within the context of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Exposing sin is easier than applying grace; for, alas, we are more intimate with the former than we sometimes are with the latter.

7. Use “the Plain Style”

Do not make eloquence the thing for which you are best known as a preacher; make sure you get the point of the passage you are preaching, and that you make it clear and express its power.

8. Find Your Own Voice

Some men never grow as preachers because the “preaching suit” they have borrowed does not actually fit them or their gifts.

The marriage of our personality with another’s preaching style can be a recipe for being dull and lifeless.

9. Learn How to Transition

[Preach in such a way as to show people] how to transition from the old ways to the new way, from patterns of sin to patterns of holiness.

Not “this is wrong . . . this is right” but by our preaching to enable and effect the transition.

How do we do this? To begin with by expounding the Scriptures in a way that makes clear that the indicatives of grace ground the imperatives of faith and obedience and also effect them.

The Scriptures themselves teach us the answer to the “What?” questions and also the answer to the “How to?” question.

10. Love Your People

This is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study.

 

Question: Ferguson remarks that “Once one begins thinking about this, whatever Ten Commandments one comes up with, it becomes obvious that this is an inexhaustible theme.” What other commandments for preaching would you add to Ferguson’s list?

Preaching for My Own Ego

February 23, 2015

Gary Burge shares this account in his book Interpreting the Gospel of John:

As a newly-ordained Presbyterian minister I served as interim pastor at a small church in Appalachian Tennessee. This was not difficult since church responsibilities fit well with my college teaching schedule. But since I only had begun to teach, I was enamored with the disciplines of the “academy.” My congregation heard far too much about New Testament theology and interpretation. This church was nestled in a scenic valley where a number of outsiders had summer homes. When they came to church, everyone–including the preacher–noticed. At the start of one service I noticed that the famous Old Testament scholar, James Mays from Union Seminary in Richmond, was in the congregation. Panic set in. The sermon seemed too simple for him. Before I knew it my sermon was explaining how the traditions of the halachah of first-century Judaism affected the transmission of the Synoptics.

I’m not sure if Dr. Mays was impressed (he never came back), but the congregation in its wisdom realized what was going on: I was preaching for my own ego rather than for the needs of the people. My hard-won insights from Jewish literature were being flagged before my audience like so many credentials. Fortunately the people of East Tennessee are gracious, patient and wise–they never held such excesses against me.

Exegesis is the scaffolding of the building, not the building itself. When used correctly, exegesis becomes virtually invisible from inside the cathedral.

I wish I could say I’ve never given in to the temptation to parade my exegesis, but I have.

That’s why I have to keep coming back to this fundamental and corrective question when deciding what to include and exclude from my sermon: Why am I giving my audience this information? Why am I telling them this? Is it for their benefit or mine? Is it intended to help them understand the text better or confirm their belief in a particular doctrine by helping them see how it is rooted in the text (and context) of Scripture? Or am I on a homiletical and mininisterial ego trip?

God, deliver us from preaching that is self-exalting, and give us more of the spirit of John the Baptist: He must increase, but I must decrease.

What is the best way to develop the idea of a text in a sermon? Often the idea itself becomes clear to us after we follow the standard exegetical process and consult the standard exegetical resources. But how to communicate that idea to a contemporary audience–that’s another story.

I’d like to suggest that the answer to the how question may be found in the text too.

Perhaps an example would help. Consider Paul’s rhetorical objective and strategies in Philippians 2.

Paul’s Objective (the Why)

Paul’s rhetorical objective is related to his pastoral concern for these believers. He is seeking to correct the natural tendency in his readers to “look…every man on his own interests” and not enough “on the interests of others” (2:4). And his larger concern (reflected at the end of 1:27 and 2:2) was the disunity that this kind of selfishness leads to. And his even larger concern is the damaging effect that this selfishness and disunity would have on the reputation of the gospel of Christ: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

That shift in orientation (away from my own things to the things of others) requires a fundamental change in the way I think. It requires a change of mind. It’s what Paul calls in v. 2 “lowliness of mind” or humility.

Paul’s Strategy (the How)

There are any number of legitimate rhetorical strategies Paul could have employed to accomplish his rhetorical objective stated in in 2:5, “Let this mind [ie., lowliness of mind] be in you.”

  • Paul could have presented reasoned arguments for why his readers must be humble (“for . . .”).
  • He could have cited an Old Testament text to reinforce his appeal.
  • He could have developed the opposite of humility (viz.  pride) to encourage his readers to see the beauty of humility by contrast.

But he doesn’t. He paints a picture of what humility looks like. He employs illustration, particularly in the form of example. Paul goes right to the example of Jesus Christ with these words: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: Who . . .”

In addition to the example of Jesus Christ, Paul provides three more examples of what humbleness of mind looks like. In addition to referencing himself, Paul points to Timothy (2:19-24) and Epaphroditus (2:25-30) as illustrations of humility, or the mind of Christ.

Notice what Paul says about Timothy in v. 20: “I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own.” Consider how Paul concludes the section on Epaphroditus in v. 30: “for the work of Christ he was made nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me.”

Not only are Paul’s example true but they are also relevant to the topic of humility. It’s apparent that Paul selects these examples and highlights these specific aspects of their example to move his audience toward his objective.

Homiletical Lessons (the So What)

So what does this mean for us as contemporary preachers of Philippians 2 and other texts?

  • Does it mean that the only way (the “inspired” way) to develop the topic of humility is through use of examples? No.
  • Does it mean that the best way to develop the topic of humility is through use of examples? No, not necessarily.
  • Does it mean that if I’m preaching through Philippians 2 the only way for me to develop the theme of humility is through use of example, because that’s what Paul employed? Again, no. The best way? Not necessarily.

So what is the significance of Paul’s rhetorical example for us?

It is suggestive. Ironically, it provides us with an example of how example can be used in a legitimate and powerful way. It reminds us that example is one of the rhetorical tools in our sermon construction toolbox. In other words, not every idea has to (or should) be developed through abstract, logical discourse.

Biographical example is a particularly powerful rhetorical strategy because it is concrete and personal. In the case of Epaphroditus, the fact that the Philippian believers knew his manner of life personally only heightened the power of his example. Instead of keeping “lowliness of mind” in the abstract, Paul brings it down to the “mind of Christ,” and the mind of Timothy, and the mind of Epaphroditus. The Philippians could visualize the concept of humility and would be more inclined to embrace it for themselves when they could see it in action as the beautiful virtue that it is. What is not to like about humility when it is packaged so attractively?

In my last post I talked about the need for our rhetorical forms to be consistent with the message they carry. In this case, the form–example–is very much consistent with the gospel since God chose to embody His message in His Son (Jn. 1:1, 14). Do you want to know what God is like? Look at the Son (Jn. 1:18), who is “the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3). God does not merely discuss His love in the abstract. He demonstrates it and illustrates it.

It is also consistent with Peter’s use of Jesus Christ as an example for believers: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (2:21).

If I were preaching through Philippians 2 I would necessarily deal with the historical examples found in the text. But as I think about developing the message of Philippians 2 for my target audience, do I need to use modern or extra-biblical examples as my primary rhetorical strategy? No, but I think it would be good for us as preachers to take our cue from rhetorical strategies employed by the original author and look for contemporary examples of humility, perhaps those personally known by our congregation.

Conclusion

There’s no doubt that preachers should be focused on the what (message) of the text. But there is much insight into the meaning of the text and into the development of a contemporary philosophy and methodology of preaching that comes from looking carefully at the why (purpose) and how (strategies) of individual texts of Scripture.

 

 

It’s easy to get in a rut. I know from experience. Sermon after sermon comes off the production line packaged in the standard format with little to no clear purpose driving their delivery.

Questions like “What is the goal of this sermon with reference to my audience?” or “What are the best methods for communicating and achieving that goal?” are often overlooked or undervalued. (Just for fun and to make a point, I will sometimes ask my homiletics students on the spot why they are preaching a particular sermon only to be met with a blank stare. To my own chagrin I can identify with that stare.)

Sermons that lack a sense of purpose also tend to lack unity, clarity, and fervency. In many cases, especially within the context of an expository book series, sermons without purpose degenerate into little more than informational lectures; listeners may leave with their heads full but with their hearts largely unchallenged and unchanged.

Just because we have a clearly identifiable purpose for preaching a sermon, however, doesn’t mean our objective is compatible with the original purpose of the Scripture writer. In some cases we end up cutting against the grain of authorial intent and tearing up the text in the process. Our sermon purpose must be informed by the text and consistent with the text.

So let’s say you have a definite goal in mind for preaching a particular sermon, and you’ve done your best to make sure it’s in sync with the passage. Great! You’re one step ahead of the pack. But that’s not enough. It’s at that point you should start asking yourself this question: “In light of my target audience, time constraints, and the nature of the occasion, what is the best way for me to accomplish that purpose from a rhetorical standpoint?” In other words, how do we get from point A (where we are) to point B (where we need to go, or in this case, where we want our listeners to go)?

I wonder how many preachers interact with this question when preparing a message, and to what extent. It’s an important question, one we don’t want to overlook. We need to be thinking carefully about our rhetorical strategies (i.e. the means we employ to accomplish particular objectives), because it’s possible to have a good sense of what we want to accomplish without having a clue about how to accomplish it (in concert with the work of God’s Spirit).

Of course, the fact that someone has given thought to his method doesn’t necessarily mean his method is legitimate. Pragmatism can easily influence the preacher when he wrestles only with the question “What works best?” and not with the question “What rhetorical strategies are exemplified and, therefore, sanctioned by the authors of Scripture?”

For example, a preacher presenting the gospel of Christ should have belief in Christ as one of his sermon objectives (cf. John 20:30–31). That does not mean, however, that because the goal itself is unarguably biblical that any old means of pursuing it will do. No. Any approach that employs deception or manipulation is clearly contrary to Scripture and must be rejected. In general, any rhetorical device that would undermine the character or compromise the integrity of the message itself should be rejected.

As expository preachers we may be passionately committed to saying what God said. And well we should. But are we also committed to saying what God said in a way that is consistent with why and how He said it?

 

Ignoring the Christ-centered canonical context of Scripture is no less reductionist and problematic than ignoring the immediate context of the human author. A wooden application of the grammatical historical hermeneutic that fails to account for the fact that the Scriptures are the supernatural word of a sovereign God errs in the same way allegory does: both approaches exclude indispensible context. One excludes the context of the human author; the other excludes that of the divine author. Christocentric preaching does not mean neglecting exegesis in order to slip Christ in the sermon; it is rather the exposing of authorial intent, both human and divine.

~ David Prince

Christocentric Preaching and a/Authorial Intent

(This post is the second in a two-part series. You can read Part 1 here.)

Sunday is over and another sermon is in the books. Now it’s Monday and you can take a break, right? Well, many preachers do take a “break” on Monday, but their minds never stop working, never stop thinking ahead to the next sermon. To modify a famous sermon from S. M. Lockridge, “It’s Monday, but Sunday’s coming.” And one of the first questions you end up wrestling with invariably is this: What am I going to preach on?

If you’re doing an expository book series, someone may say, “Well, that’s easy. Just preach the next paragraph. You’re text is already selected for you.” And in one sense, they may be right. As I argued in Part 1 of this series, you should begin your text selection process by simply determining the next consecutive thought unit. But the text selection process doesn’t end there, and it may not be as simple as it sounds.

Identifying the next unit of thought requires some work. You need to pray for wisdom and study the passage looking for its natural divisions. Beyond that, you need to confirm your conclusions by comparing the paragraph divisions of several modern English translations and by consulting the sections in various original language text editions. And just to make sure you’re not overlooking something, you should consult a number of reputable secondary sources (like commentaries and reference Bibles) to compare their outlines.

And even after all this work, you may encounter conflicting evidence. To continue the example from Part 1, if I am preaching from the beginning of 1 Peter 5, some sources advocate 5:1-4 as the next unit while others 5:1-5.

But even if you come to a conclusion about what the next thought unit is, identifying the next consecutive thought unit is not the end of the text selection process.

There are several additional factors that should influence your final decision.

1. What translation are you using?

What translation are you preaching from, and what (by-and-large) is your congregation looking at? If you’re using the NKJV to preach from and the majority of your congregation is looking at the same, well, then, maybe 5:1-4 would be the best choice for a preaching text.

This consideration, however, is probably the least influential for me. But perhaps it would play a small role in helping me make my final decision.

2. How much time do I have?

Like it or not, time is a factor. And like it or not, we can’t always cover what we’d like to in one sermon. (And frankly, in many cases, that’s a good thing, because what we’d like to cover and what our people are able to handle are often not the same.)

In the case of 1 Peter 5, the difference between 5:1-4 and 5:1-5 is not significant. Covering one more verse is certainly manageable.

But in other cases, when the difference consists of multiple verses, time may be a deciding factor in how much you choose to take on.

3. How would the divisions affect the theme and emphasis of the sermon?

In the case of 1 Peter 5, if I preach 5:1-4 I am only going to cover the responsibilities and the reward of elders.

To include v. 5, however, would be to cover the right response to those elders.

So in terms of theme and emphasis, yes, even one verse can make a difference.

4. Who is my audience and what is my purpose for preaching this message?

All of the aforementioned considerations and questions are subject in the end to this one fundamental question: What purpose do you have for preaching this particular message to this particular group of people?

By the end of the text selection process, you should move from thinking in terms of a thought unit (only) to thinking in terms of a purpose unit (see Jay Adams Preaching with Purpose, 26).

For example, if your purpose is to help your congregation understand the role of a church elder, then 5:1-4 might be your best choice. Perhaps a whole message could be preached the following week on 5:5 (informed by the immediate context) which focuses on the believer’s response to spiritual leadership.

However, if your purpose is to help your congregation see how humility should govern every relationship in the church from the top down, then 5:1-5 would be a better choice, because it fits your purpose better. (Keep in mind when I say “your purpose,” I am assuming that your purpose as a preacher is informed by and consistent with the biblical author’s purpose for writing the text in the first place.)

FAQS

1. Is it ever legitimate to have a preaching text that is not a thought unit?

For example, could I take as my text 1 Peter 5:2-3, knowing that the actual unit most likely consists of verses 1-4 at the very least? I would say yes, so long as your handling of those two verses is done in relationship to (and in a way that is consistent with) the larger unit and not apart from it.

Again, your prayerfully-informed perspective and purpose as a pastor, knowing, as you do, the needs of your particular flock, will guide you in making the final decision here.

2. Is it ever legitimate to have a preaching text that consists of more than one thought unit?

What about the other direction? Can my preaching text be larger than the one basic unit of 5:1-4 or 5:1-5? Absolutely. Because 5:6-11 continues the theme of humility, I might decide to incorporate those verses and preach an entire message on 1 Peter 5:1-11.

Obviously the bigger the chunks the faster the series will progress (“and end!” says your congregation).

Bigger units also necessitate less detailed exposition of the minutiae. That’s not necessarily a problem if your purpose is to do more of an overview of the book and keep the series moving rather than spend a great deal of time bogged down in the individual details.

Personally, I’m a strong advocate for both kinds of preaching. Big picture preaching and little picture preaching are both valuable and should be combined in pastoral ministry to give people a well-rounded diet of Scripture.

Conclusion

So avoid the temptation to arbitrarily choose your next preaching text simply because it constitutes the next thought unit in the book. While that is a good place to start, make sure that in the end your text is selected with a clear and compelling purpose.

 

Question: What other steps do you take to determine the length of your preaching unit in an expository book series? What questions do you ask yourself? What are the main factors that help you make your final decision?