Archives For Self-Evaluation

Before I preach I nearly always ask God to cleanse my heart and purify my motives. It’s so easy to preach the right message for all the wrong reasons (cf. Phil. 1:15-17).

In a section dealing with division within the church at Corinth, Paul writes,

11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I followApollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. . . . 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Cor. 1:11-17)

Paul was called to preach the gospel not to win people to himself. In other words, “he was not sent to start a cult of people baptized by him” (MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, 33).

But even in his primary calling of preaching he sought to direct people away from himself and toward the cross. He says his preaching was “not with the words of eloquent wisdom.” That means Paul’s preaching of the gospel wasn’t characterized by “clever, skilled, educated, or rhetorically sophisticated speech” (Garland, 56). For Paul preaching wasn’t about “winning arguments and impressing an audience by rhetorical display rather than content” (Witherington, 103-104).

Why not? What’s the problem with that kind of preaching? It’s found in the reason Paul gives at the end of v. 17: “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”

Leon Morris explains that preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom”

would draw people to the preacher. It would nullify the cross of Christ. The faithful preaching of the cross leads people to put their trust, not in any human device, but in what God has done in Christ. A reliance on rhetoric would cause trust in men, the very opposite of what the preaching of the cross is meant to effect. (1 Corinthians, 48)

Or in the words of David Garland,

The problem with this style is that it earns the preacher the crowd’s golden opinions. Consequently, Paul is not defending his apostolic power in spite of his speaking deficiencies but attempting to undercut one of the values that has contributed to their divisions: the thirst for honor. Eloquence that elevates the status of the preacher cancels the power of the cross. (56)

Paul bent over backwards, as it were, even in his rhetoric, to point people away from himself and toward the cross and thereby foster unity within the body of Christ.

Perhaps we should do some self-assesssment in order to bring ourselves more in line with Paul’s cross-centered philosophy and practice of preaching:

  1. Does my preaching draw more attention to me than to Christ?
  2. Am I more concerned about how I preach than what I preach?
  3. Am I preaching to secure the approval of Christ or the approval of my listeners?
  4. Am I preaching in such a way that it encourages people to follow me or to follow Christ?
  5. Does my preaching encourage unity within the body of Christ or disunity?

Questions: What does preaching “with words of eloquent wisdom” look like today? What can we as preachers do to avoid emptying the cross of Christ of its power?

In a chapter entitled “Less Joe, More Jesus,” Joe Stowell reminds us that it’s easy to become preoccupied with ourselves as preachers.

Preaching has a way of sucking us down into the bog of To whom am I preaching? Will they like me? Will they listen? That’s the pre-agony. The post-agony is Did I do well? Did I get my point across? Oh, I should have said it this way; I should have said it that way.

If we’re not careful, preaching becomes all about the preacher. (in The Art & Craft of Biblical Preaching, 313, emphasis mine)

Though we say “It’s all about Jesus,” our answers to these questions may reveal that it’s mostly about us. Now, there’s certainly nothing inherently or necessarily wrong with asking questions like “To whom am I preaching? Will they like me? Will they listen?” and so on. Those are natural questions to ask going into any speaking situation. Audience analysis and exegesis is an important part of the sermon construction process. But if my focus and priority in preaching is primarily on how I am perceived or how I will be received by the listener, I am already bent in the wrong direction.

My bent as a preacher must be that of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Our egocentricity must give way to a Christocentricity. Instead of highlighting the big “I” as we evaluate our preaching, we must

concentrate on issues like: Did I lift Jesus up? What would he have thought about my sermon? Did my listeners see him more clearly? Do they find him more compelling because of my sermon? Did I represent him and his calling in our lives in a winsome and yet authoritative way. (313-314)

So one of the ways we know if our preaching is ultimately about him or about us is by the preliminary questions we ask as we look forward to a sermon and by the evaluation questions we ask as we look back on a sermon. Are they predominately “I”-centered questions or “him”-centered questions? If I’m honest, I think I’ll find that the kinds of questions that preoccupy my mind reveal whether my preaching is really all about him or mostly about me.