Archives For Philosophy of Preaching

Regardless of what you think of Roger Olson’s theology, this excerpt from his book The Story of Christian Theology serves as an important reminder for preachers to fact-check their sermon illustrations.

A popular misconception—perhaps a Christian urban legend—is that the United States Secret Service never shows bank tellers counterfeit money when teaching them to identify it. The agents who do the training, so the legend goes, show bank tellers only examples of genuine money so that when the phony money appears before them they will know it by its difference from the real thing. The story is supposed to make the point that Christians ought to study truth and never heresy.

The first time I heard the tale as a sermon illustration I intuited its falseness. On checking with the Treasury Department’s Minneapolis Secret Service agent in charge of training bank tellers to identify counterfeit money, my suspicion was confirmed. He laughed at the story and wondered aloud who would start it and who would believe it. At my request he sent me a letter confirming that the Secret Service does show examples of counterfeit money to bank tellers.

I believe it is important and valuable for Christians to know not only theological correctness (orthodoxy) but also the ideas of those judged as heretics within the church’s story. One reason is that it is almost impossible to appreciate the meaning of orthodoxy without understanding the heresies that forced its development.

I won’t ask for a raise of hands, but I wonder how many of you have heard the counterfeit money illustration in a sermon? If you have, I hope it wasn’t one of mine.

Even though the principle we are seeking to illustrate may be valid, we have to be careful that our illustrations are not, uhm, . . . counterfeit, right? If our listeners know the facts, our phony illustrations will only undermine our credibility.

Question: What do you do to maintain integrity and credibility in the use of sermon illustrations?


What is the difference between preaching that works the crowd and that which awakens God-honoring emotions?

That’s the question Voddie Bauchum, John Piper, and Miguel Nunez tackled in a recent TGC podcast.

As John Piper says, “Every human being is wired with a heart and a head.” That’s why we preach to both. It’s not one or the other.

The danger, of course, is preaching to the heart in a way that is manipulative.

But how do you know when you have crossed that invisible line between God-honoring emotion on the one hand and emotionalism on the other?

Here it is. This one question will help you sort through the difference: Have the emotions been stirred by the truth of God revealed in Scripture?

So there’s a sense in which I don’t preach directly to the affections. I preach to the mind in such a way that the affections are awakened powerfully by the truth.

The ditch on the other side of the road is intellectualism. That happens when a preacher targets the mind at the expense of the heart. The careful, line by line analysis of a text in expository preaching is good, but it is often done in such a way that hearers are left empty and un-affected.

Where’s the balance then? Piper quotes Jonathan Edwards as saying,

I consider it my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided I raise them with nothing but the truth, and in proportion to the truth.

Why is it our duty? Because God is not boring. Sure, some who hear us preach may be dull of hearing. But let’s hope they are not bored with God because of the way we represent him in our preaching.

If we ever hope to to convey the emotion of a text authentically and powerfully, we must first be moved and affected by the truth of that text ourselves.

In Piper’s words,

Preaching this stuff to ourselves so that we are moved is going to be key to whether people are awakened to that truth. Because if I preach like what I’m saying is of modest importance, that’s what they’re going to think; that’s what they’re going to feel.

So go ahead–“raise the affections of [your] hearers as high as [you] possibly can.” But do so “with nothing but the truth, and in proportion to the truth.”

You can listen to the entire 13:45 podcast here.


How would you answer the question, “What is the difference between preaching that works the crowd and that which awakens God-honoring emotions?”

For a number of reasons 1 Peter has suffered from neglect of interest. In 1976 John H. Elliot wrote these classic words regarding 1 Peter which still ring true today (though perhaps to a lesser degree):

To judge from appearance, 1 Peter suffers second-class status in the estimation of modern NT exegetes. Along with the other relatively neglected documents such as the remaining Catholic Epistles, Hebrews, and the Johannine Apocalypse, it is generally treated as one of the step-children of the NT canon. (JBL 95:2, emphasis mine)

Many preachers who are committed to preaching through books of the Bible consecutively are more inclined to preach from one of Paul’s rich doctrinal epistles, like Ephesians or Romans.

Perhaps you resonate with the testimony of Welton Gaddy who has written one of the few journal articles designed to provide preachers with help in preaching 1 Peter.

Previously 1 Peter has not been an integral part of my personal canon for preaching. I fear that I am not alone in having turned regularly to the Gospels and the Pauline epistles for intensive study with only occasional sermonic forays into the prophets and the Pentateuch. Unfortunately, the smaller non-Pauline writings in the New Testament, like 1 Peter, have served me primarily as source books to which to turn with sermon topics in search of appropriate biblical texts. I repent!  Preaching from 1 Peter,” Review and Expositor 79:3 (1982): 472

It is not surprising, then, that more has been written in the area of the Pauline letters, and, therefore, more help is available for preachers when preaching from that section of the New Testament. There are, of course, a number of good commentaries and helps available for understanding the text of 1 Peter; however, very little has been written to help preachers preach through this neglected epistle.

Let me give you some reasons why you should consider preaching through 1 Peter in 2016.

Its Rich Theological Contribution

1 Peter needs to be highlighted for its rich theological contribution.

The preacher who preaches through this letter will end up covering some of the great themes of Christian doctrine and living:

  • salvation
  • the new birth
  • Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension
  • trials
  • suffering
  • holiness
  • faith, hope, and love
  • the word of God
  • evangelism
  • submission to authority
  • marriage relationships
  • spiritual gifts
  • Satan
  • church structure
  • relationships

Its Value for Our Contemporary Situation

New Testament scholars have suggested that 1 Peter is overlooked because of its apparent irrelevance to our contemporary situation as Christians in the West.

Karen Jobes (2005) poses this question:

What significance could this ancient letter have for Christians for whom social alienation and suffering for the faith are generally unfamiliar experiences? . . . Classroom discussion of 1 Peter has raised the suggestion that perhaps 1 Peter is for the church in another time and place and that its message of suffering is not necessarily applicable to the church today. The relative neglect of 1 Peter in sermons and Bible studies may attest to the truth of that thought in practice, if not in principle.  (1 Peter, BECNT)

Scot McKnight (1996) concurs:

I must admit I have never met any Christians in the United States who have told me that 1 Peter was their favorite book or even high on the priority list. Most Christians enjoy Psalms and Proverbs, many Christians enjoy Philippians or 1 John, active countercultural types like the teachings of Jesus (especially the Sermon on the Mount), academic-theological types like Romans, charismatic types like Acts, practical types like James—but few people raise their hands in Sunday school classes and ask the teacher to expound 1 Peter. Why? The answer is simple: Too much of it is centered on aspects of Christian existence that are far from most Western Christian experiences: social marginalization and suffering. (1 Peter, NIVAC)

The situation for the American church, however, is fast becoming parallel to the situation of Peter’s first-century readers. Peter wrote to a group of believers who were marginalized and ostracized for their faith in Jesus Christ. Persecution for them came primarily in the form of verbal slander, not imprisonment or physical abuse.

  • “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (2:12).
  • “When [Jesus] was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
  • “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (3:9).
  • “Having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (3:16).
  • “With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (4:4).
  • “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (4:14).

In response Peter gives them pastoral help for navigating in a society that is generally intolerant of their counter-cultural beliefs and lifestyle.

Christians (especially in the West) today need to know how to live well and wisely in the world and yet remain faithful to Jesus Christ. They need to know how to respond like Christ to the increasing marginalization and public slander of biblical Christianity. That means there may be no greater time than now for more interest in and preaching of this valuable and relevant letter.

Its Connection to the Life and Ministry of Peter

In addition, preaching through 1 Peter will necessarily involve interaction with the life and ministry of one of the most engaging characters in all of the New Testament—the apostle Peter. First Peter, though not biographical in content (like Galatians), nevertheless grows out of and reflects Peter’s life story and, in particular, his relationship to Jesus Christ.

Many Christians identify with the rash, impetuous Peter of the Gospels. They also connect with his failure to remain loyal to Jesus during His trial and crucifixion. Yet, here in 1 Peter the reader encounters a transformed Peter, a Peter full of hope and confidence. In the Gospels Peter struggled to embrace the cross along with the crown. Yet, in 1 Peter he appeals to his readers to embrace both suffering and glory as it was patterned by the Lord Jesus and predicted by the Old Testament prophets.

Preaching from 1 Peter, then, highlights the transformation of Peter and serves as an encouragement to all those who identify with his personality and struggles as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Its Pastoral and Homiletical Value

Lastly, there is a need to encourage the systematic preaching of 1 Peter for its pastoral and homiletical value.

Since Peter is addressing suffering Christians in a negative social context, it is instructive for today’s preachers to analyze how he approaches this situation with pastoral sensitivity and care.

  • How does one give hope to those who are disadvantaged and dishonored in the world?
  • What theological truths need to be highlighted to encourage Christian joy even in the midst of trials?

These questions will be answered through a careful analysis of the letter.

Preaching through 1 Peter will give pastors instruction in helping those who are suffering, and it will also educate their listeners who may be involved in counseling and discipleship efforts.

I think it’s time for preachers to resurrect interest in 1 Peter and to highlight its increasingly-relevant message in order to equip believers for the coming days.

Why don’t you give some prayerful thought to the possibility of preaching through 1 Peter in 2016.


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”?

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.

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?


Popery in the Pulpit

March 25, 2014

The preacher has neither authority nor right to use the pulpit as a place to express his own opinions on anything: the pulpit is not a soapbox. Too many preachers have exaggerated, arrogant, and unscriptural notions of their office whereby they assume the prerogative of dictating the consciences of their people in every sphere of life. That is popery, and there is no place for it in the Church of Christ. (Michael BarrettThe Beauty of Holiness: A Guide to Biblical Worship92)

This quotation from Barrett raises some good questions that need to be discussed:

  • What is a rightful use of one’s authority in the pulpit?
  • How should a preacher view himself in relationship to the Word he preaches and the people to whom he preaches?
  • Do personal opinions have any place in preaching? If not, why not? If so, why? And if so, how should they be presented in a sermon?
  • What is the relationship of Christian preaching to the conscience of a believer? When has a preacher crossed the line of his God-given authority?
  • Is it legitimate for a preacher to apply the Scripture to “every sphere of life”?