Archives For Philosophy of Preaching

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”?

I recently listened to an audio recording of Sinclair Ferguson addressing the topic of “Preaching Christ in All the Scriptures.”

In the following excerpt he explains why he chose to address this particular topic. What he says raises a really important question: What is the one thing you want to be known for as a preacher? Or perhaps even more hard hitting, What (in reality) are you known for?

The issue of preaching Christ has (for me at least) has become a matter of increasing concern. And I say that for a number of reasons.

If Alistair [Begg] were already here, I’d probably ask him to tell us the story, but I remember him telling me on one occasion that very shortly after he came to United States he was playing golf with somebody, just one other minister, they were there, locked together for eight hours in a golf buggy, and at one point this man turned to him and said to him, “So, Alistair, what’s your thing?”

“What’s your thing?” And the implication was–I mean, Alistair thought, they never told me before I came to the United States if I was going to be a minister of the gospel here–that I needed a “thing.”  You know, something that was distinctive.

But to me it is a very striking thing the extent to which that is true. That if you’re going to be a model minister in these days people expect that you will have your thing. You will have your special emphasis.

And if you think about the people who are held before us, the people who are interviewed in the preaching magazines that you either get free or perhaps subscribe to. The models that are held up to us of ministry, there is usually something distinctive about their ministry.

It would be an interesting exercise . . . if we just went round the tables, and those of you who are married, I asked your wife, “What is the distinctive thing about your husband’s preaching ministry?” Or your associates–“What is the distinctive thing about your ministry?”

Now the thing that concerns me (and this is just an arrow shot at a venture from a relatively little exposure to the entirety of North American evangelicalism) but my concern is—that one might hear all too infrequently on these occasions—“His thing is to preach only Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

And actually if you think of the dominant models of ministry in our time—just flash a few names through your mind of people who perhaps you greatly admire and respect, and I say this very conscious of the fact—that God gives particular individuals particular burdens. Granted that God gives particular individuals particular burdens–Peter’s burden and Paul’s burden were different. Isaiah’s burden…or Ezekiel’s burden were different. Granted that, and the patterns of their ministries were different. I don’t think Isaiah could have been lying on his side anymore than he would have flown in the air. He just wasn’t a lie-on-your-side kind of individual. Different burdens.

But to me the great question is, no matter what the particularity of my burden may be, often that is related to the context of my regeneration and conversion and the location of my ministry, it ought to be possible to say of every gospel minister, and especially those gospel ministers we most admire, the thing that is manifestly, absolutely at the core and center of this ministry, that makes it apostolic, is that you can never sitting under that ministry, you can never escape from the centrality of Jesus Christ.

And I say that’s a concern to me, because I am not convinced that that would universally be said. And I think it’s worth us asking ourselves whether we suspect that it would be said of our ministry. “The thing about him in his ministry (now I recognize he has a special burden, and he’s got unusual gifts in this area,” but over the piece [?] you sit under that ministry, and the thing that you will be persuaded to say is, “This ministry is Christ-centered, Christ-dominated, and Christ-full.” And if anything else (and this might well be the secret) this minister is Christ-intoxicated. (personal transcription; formatting and emphasis added)

So, preacher, what’s your thing?



Sometimes when I tell people I teach homiletics, they reply, “I remember when I took a class on Bible interpretation in college.” At that point I know they have confused homiletics (the science of preaching) with hermeneutics (the science of interpretation).

The confusion, of course, comes from the fact that the two words are similar in sound. However, they are two distinct disciplines. But not unrelated disciplines. In fact, there is the closest possible connection between them.

So what exactly is the relationship between interpretation and preaching, between hermeneutics and homiletics?

How you answer this question most likely depends on your understanding of the nature and task of preaching. If I believe that my primary responsibility as a preacher is to say what God said, then the central, governing question that fills my mind (at least initially) is this: What did the A/author of this text mean when H/he said what H/he said?

I want to know the answer to that question. I must know the answer to that question.

And, so, how do I come to that point where I know (or at least think I know)? Well, I must apply the generally-agreed-upon (at least in theologically conservative circles) principles of biblical interpretation. That is hermeneutics.

And that is why someone like David Allen would make the claim,

There is no good preaching apart from good interpretation.

Or to put it another way, David Jackman writes,

Where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard.

Jackman’s statement is quite good and warrants our attention. There is one, huge key word here: faithfully. Here’s why I think that. Let’s take the word faithfully out of Jackman’s statement and see what we get.

Where the Word of God is . . . taught, the voice of God is authentically heard.

True or false? Well, it depends, right? It depends on what kind of teaching is going on. The mere fact that someone is standing up and preaching from the Bible doesn’t guarantee that God’s voice is being heard clearly and unobtrusively. The fact is–the guy may be misrepresenting what the Bible says. In that case, are we really hearing God’s voice? That’s why Jackman insists

Where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard. (emphasis mine)

So if our objective is to let God’s voice be heard clearly and authentically, then we must be faithful in our teaching. And in order to be faithful in our teaching, we must first be right in our interpretation. That’s how hermeneutics and homiletics are related, at least in part. To be right in our homiletics we must first be right in our hermeneutics. Or to put it another way: there is no right homiletics apart from right hermeneutics.

Okay, so what? Someone says, “That’s nice. They’re related. Who cares?” Well, let me give you some implications of this vital and important relationship between hermeneutics and homiletics:

Implications for Teaching Homiletics

As a teacher of preaching, I have realized that a big part of my job is teaching guys how to think about texts and interpret them properly. If they don’t get that, it doesn’t matter how good they are at communicating. It doesn’t matter how likeable and effective they are as public speakers. If they are not saying what God said, they have missed the point of preaching.

Implications for Sermon Preparation

Though I am certainly for designing a logical and well-prepared sermon, I really need to discipline myself to make sure I am comfortable with the point of the passage before I start sermonizing. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how symmetrical and parallel my points are if God’s voice is muffled in the process.

Here’s a comparison that might help. Let’s say I pop a brand new CD into my car’s stereo system, but when it plays it sounds terrible. So I take the CD out and look it over for scratches and defects. Nothing. In fact, when I play it on my home system, it sounds amazingly clear and beautiful. So I take my vehicle to a car audio store and have them check it out. It’s then I find out that the speakers are bad. In other words, there was nothing wrong with the electronic signal coming from the CD. Rather, it was the speaker’s translation (or mistranslation) of that signal that resulted in the poor audio quality.

You see, there’s nothing wrong with God’s Word. The signal emitted is just fine. But we as the speakers can sometimes so muffle and distort that signal (through misinterpretation–perhaps due to a flawed hermeneutic) that what is being heard may not be clear, or even worse, it may be totally distorted and unrecognizable.

That is why careful interpretation is foundational for quality proclamation.

Implications for the Preacher’s Personal Reading

In addition to reading books on preaching, a preacher should also be reading books to help him interpret the Bible. Though there are many good works available in this area, here are a few that come immediately to my mind (in no particular order).

  1. Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics – Kaiser & Silva
  2. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible – Duvall & Hays
  3. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation – Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard
  4. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth – Fee & Stuart
  5. The Hermeneutical Spiral – Osborne
  6. Invitation to Biblical Hermeneutics – Kostenberger & Patterson
  7. Exegetical Fallacies – Carson
  8. Getting the Message – Doriani
  9. Understanding and Applying the Bible – McQuilkin
  10. Basic Bible Interpretation – Zuck

Implications for the Sermon

At times we want to rush to the application for the sake of our audience. And though I certainly don’t suggest that we dump all our heremeutical findings on our listeners, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t take the time to establish that our applications are really based on the authentic and therefore authoritative voice of God. In other words, the foundation of our sermon application has to be a well-established and clearly communicated interpretation of the passage.  To bypass this critical step is to undercut our authority.

Implications for Sermon Evaluation

I am concerned that my students be able to employ principles of effective speaking in communicating God’s Word. I do think we should be concerned with how we say what we say. (In fact, a big portion of my dissertation is taken up with the rhetoric of preaching.) But the how is irrelevant if the what is not what it ought to be. When I evaluate a sermon, my first and primary question must be, “Did this guy say what God said?” If not, it doesn’t matter how well he said it.


Again, in the words of Jackman, “Where the Word of God is faithfully taught, the voice of God is authentically heard.” Here we have hermeneutics (faithfully) and homiletics (taught) brought together to accomplish something beautiful and powerful (the voice of God . . . authentically heard). And that’s what Christ’s true sheep really want: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

I recently heard John MacArthur relate an experience he had during his seminary days with scholar-extraordinaire Charles Feinberg. It is quite humorous (especially when you hear MacArthur tell it), but it conveys a deadly serious message about preaching.

I preached my first year in seminary in chapel before the whole student body. And [Feinberg] chose the text, and he gave me 2 Samuel 7, the great Davidic promise. And, you know, I preached on presuming on God. You know, Nathan said, “Go build it.” And God said, “Nathan, I don’t want him to do it. He’s a man of blood,” and so forth.  And I preached on presuming [on] God, which was like a massive missing of the point, because the point was the Davidic covenant, not presuming on God. That was trivial. So . . .when I finished he gave me a sheet and he wrote in red, “You missed the entire point of the passage. See me in my office.” And I went into the office, and I’m telling you, he shredded me as only he could, and, you know, that was the greatest lesson I ever learned (it really was)–to get the point of the passage. That’s all we’re asking out of you.  That’s all we’re asking. We don’t want your creativity. Just get the point of the passage.

Here are three (tongue-in-cheek) lessons I learned from Feinberg’s example:

  1. I’m going to start grading with a red pen. It seems to have more impact psychologically.
  2. I’m going to radically simplify my assessment of student preaching—either (a) “You really nailed it. Keep up the good work.” or (b) “You totally missed it. See me in my office.”
  3. If I tear a student sermon to shreds, he may become one of the premier biblical expositors of his generation.

Seriously, though, the message is clear—get the point of the passage in your preaching. And if you’re preaching a subpoint within a given passage, then preach it in relationship to the point of the passage. But don’t miss the point. That’s all we’re asking of you.

The Adventure Called Preaching

September 7, 2013

Preaching is an adventure. It really is. It’s an exciting, somewhat risky enterprise, because you never know what’s going to happen when you preach. There’s no way to predict it. There’s no way to control it.

Perhaps you can identify with what David Larsen writes in The Anatomy of Preaching?

Every preacher has discouraging moments when the whole enterprise seems futile and precarious. Some sermons come rushing and surging in the study, like molten lava flowing from a Vesuvius. Other messages cause indescribable difficulty. A few have been for me as close to childbirth as I shall ever come. And what burns and lives in preparation does not always ignite in the pulpit. On the brighter side, what seemed stillborn in preparation may resuscitate in delivery. (12)

That’s why preaching cannot be reduced to a mere science. Nor is it simply an art. No, it truly is, in addition to those things, an adventure.

Part of the joy of preaching is the very adventure of it. No matter how carefully I prepare, there is a serendipitous element to my preaching that is formed and guided by the Holy Spirit. The well of my mind—a lifetime of Scripture that has been poured into my soul—is so much deeper than what is in my notes. Informed by the Word and energized by the Holy Spirit, the preaching experience is a dynamic adventure. (John MacArthur, Preaching: How to Preach Biblically, 314)

So, yes, craft and deliver your sermon according to the well-established principles of hermeneutics and homiletics, but as you do, remember that God is at work through his Word and by his Spirit to accomplish his purposes, and, therefore, there’s no telling what might happen.

Question: Have you ever been surprised by what took place as you preached? 

When you preach do you preach primarily to impart information to your listeners or to make an impact and impression on your listeners?

This is an important question, the answer to which may reveal what you truly believe about the purpose of preaching.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones weighs in on this question while discussing the preaching of Jonathan Edwards.

The first and primary object of preaching… is to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently… Edwards, in my opinion, has the true notion of preaching. It is not primarily to impart information; and while [the listeners are taking] notes you may be missing something of the impact of the Spirit. As preachers we must not forget this. We are not merely imparters of information. We should tell our people to read certain books themselves and get the information there. The business of preaching is to make such knowledge live. . . . What we need above everything else today is moving, passionate, powerful preaching. It must be ‘warm’ and it must be ‘earnest’. (“Jonathan Edwards and the Crucial Importance of Revival,” in The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, 360, emphasis mine)

Here’s what Edwards himself writes about the matter:

The main benefit obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind at the time, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after-remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart at the time; and the memory profits, as it renews and increases that impression. (Vol. 1, 394, emphasis mine)

I think this is an important issue that needs to be discussed, and here are some of the relevant questions related to the discussion.

  1. What is the proper relationship between information and impact in preaching?
  2. How concerned should preachers be that their listeners remember and retain the information presented in a sermon?
  3. Should we encourage our listeners to take notes while we preach? Does this encourage an informational view of preaching?
  4. Should an expository series through a book of the Bible consist of individually-packaged, self-contained sermons, or is it okay for one sermon to bleed into the next?
  5. Should we view preaching primarily in terms of content or as an event?
  6. Should our objective in preaching be shaped to some degree by the occasion or setting of our preaching?
  7. What is the measure of a successful sermon?
  8. In what sense, if any, should the preacher view himself as a teacher?
  9. Does biblical exposition consist primarily of providing commentary on the text along with pertinent historical and cultural background information?
  10. What is the place of rhetoric in preaching? How much attention should preachers give to their rhetorical strategies?
  11. What difference does one’s view on this issue make in terms of delivery and style in preaching?

My concern is that those who are committed to expository preaching (unpacking the text in its context) often lack a clear and forceful purpose for communicating all that good exegetical and contextual information.

Are we asking ourselves on a regular basis “Why am I giving people this information? What effect or impact do I hope it has on the way they think, feel, and act?”

And then, just how passionate am I that people respond biblically to this information? If I am seeking to impact my audience with the truth, I cannot be like the mailman who delivers the mail but doesn’t really care if anyone reads it. He simply delivers the goods. If he manages to get the right mail in the right box, he’s done his job successfully.

Preachers who are seeking to make an impression with the truth, on the other hand, are not content until the mail is delivered faithfully and read and understood and responded to.

Question: How would you answer one or more of the questions above?

Related Post:

Preaching to Impress: Conveying a Superlative Sense of God’s Glory

Do you ever long to sense the pleasure of God as you preach?

Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:4,

Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.

R. Kent Hughes, editor of the Preaching the Word commentary series, argues in the introduction to that series that

the pleasure of God is a matter of logos (the Word), ethos (what you are), and pathos (your passion).

Logos (The Word)

This means that as we stand before God’s people to proclaim his Word, we have done our homework. We have exegeted the passage, mined the significance of its words in their context, and applied sound hermeneutical principles in interpreting the text so that we understand what its words meant to its hearers. And it means that we have labored long until we can express in a sentence what the theme of the text is—so that our outline springs from the text. Then our preparation will be such that as we preach, we will not be preaching our own thoughts about God’s Word, but God’s actual Word, his logos. This is fundamental to pleasing him in preaching.

Ethos (What You Are)

There is a danger endemic to preaching, which is having your hands and heart cauterized by holy things. . . . Though we can never perfectly embody the truth we preach, we must be subject to it, long for it, and make it as much a part of our ethos as possible. . . . When a preacher’s ethos backs up his logos, there will be the pleasure of God.

Pathos (Your Passion)

David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, was once challenged as he was seen going to hear George Whitefield preach: “I thought you do not believe in the gospel.” Hume replied, “I don’t, but he does.” Just so! When a preacher believes what he preaches, there will be passion. And this belief and requisite passion will know the smile of God.

One word of caution. I’m not sure that we should turn Hughes’ comments into a formula–if I do X then I get Y. As if God now owes me this sense of his pleasure as I preach because I was or did (fill in the blank).

However, like Paul, we should make it our great ambition to please God in our preaching. This means we should give careful attention to our logos, ethos, and pathos, all the while realizing that God’s pleasure in me and my preaching is ultimately due to the pleasure he has for his Son. Any offering of a spiritual sacrifice that is acceptable to God must be “through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

What kind of preaching stimulates true growth and vibrancy in a local church?

In his book Center Church Tim Keller gives 5 characteristics of preaching for gospel renewal or revival.

1. “Preach to distinguish between religion and the gospel.”

In our preaching we should raise and address the “why?” question in our applications. It is critical that we encourage our listeners to do the right thing for the right reason, or else we may only serve to foster the religious idolatry and self-sufficiency in their hearts. Go after their heart motivations not just their behavior.

2. “Preach both the holiness and the love of God to convey the richness of grace.”

People need to be confronted with the transcendence and immanence of God. They need to know that God is just and must judge their sin. They also need to know that God is love and made provision through Christ to justly judge that sin. Preaching that magnifies God’s holiness and love simultaneously keeps us from pride and despair.

3. “Preach not only to make the truth clear but to make it real.”

The point of preaching is not simply to convey information to our hearers, to add more facts to their repository of religious knowledge. Rather our goal is to impact with those facts. So bring the truth from the text to the surface with clarity, and then drive it home to the heart. Help your listeners experience the truth in high definition.

4. “Preach Christ from every text.”

If we don’t preach Christ, then what will we end up preaching or conveying? We may inadvertently communicate that the Bible is about us. It’s our story, our life, our effort, our Christianity, our church, and so on. But the Bible’s not about us. It’s about God and what he is doing to reclaim his fallen creation through Christ for his own glory.

5. “Preach to both Christians and non-Christians at once.”

Here’s one that needs further exploration and discussion in our day. Are we making the mistake of assuming our church members are true believers? And our we assuming that true believers are beyond the gospel, that they no longer have need of hearing it?

As Keller puts it, “Evangelize as you edify, and edify as you evangelize.”

Question: Which of these characteristics do you think is most critical in encouraging spiritual renewal? Is there anything else you would add?

In his book 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching, Wayne McDill gives seven qualities of effective expository preaching:

  1. The preacher’s first aim is to discover the text writer’s intended theological meaning in the selected text.
  2. The preacher seeks to let the text speak again through the sermon with the same theological message.
  3. The preacher of expository sermons discovers the meaning of the text through a careful exegetical analysis of the text in all its particulars.
  4. Expository preaching calls for careful consideration of the contexts in which the text was originally written.
  5. An expository sermon is organized with due consideration to the structure and genre of the selected passage.
  6. The expository preacher will seek to influence the audience through the use of the rhetorical elements common to persuasion.
  7. Expository preaching aims for a response of faith and obedience to the biblical truth on the part of the audience(8-9, numbers added; other formatting original; discussion between points removed)

It’s entirely too easy for preachers to be governed by a fear of man. “What will people think?” “Will they like my message?” “Will I get in trouble with so-and-so for making this particular point from the text?” And on and on the struggle goes.

In the context of concern for how the Corinthian Christians would respond to Paul’s earlier letter, he relates that people will always respond in one of two way to the preaching of Christ.

  1. To “those who are being saved” the “aroma of Christ” is “a fragrance from life to life.”
  2. To “those who are perishing” “the aroma of Christ” is “a fragrance from death to death.”

It will always be this way. Preach Christ and it will be a stumblingblock and foolishness to some and the power of God to others. That’s why we can’t be governed ultimately by the response of people to our preaching. Should we be concerned about how people respond to the gospel message? Sure. But listener response is not the ultimate gauge of success in preaching. The approval of God is.

Paul writes in v. 15, “we are an aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”

Being a faithful minister of the gospel can be a grueling and burdensome task. Just read 2 Corinthians. A negative response to your preaching could break you if human response is your primary barometer of effectiveness in ministry.

But there is another audience member to factor into your assessment—God. Paul writes in vv. 14-15 that as we “spread the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ] everywhere” we are “we are an aroma of Christ to God.

In other words,

Irrespective of the human response to the gospel, its proclamation delights God’s heart, because it centers on the Son whom he loves. (Murray Harris,The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 250, emphasis mine)

That’s what I really want as a minister of the gospel—the delight and pleasure of God. It’s like Martyn Lloyd Jones once said: “To me there is nothing more terrible for a preacher than to be in the pulpit alone, without the conscious smile of God.” And, according to Paul, “the smile of God” is present whenever His Son is faithfully proclaimed.

Charles Simeon reminds us that “God is pleased to speak of himself as delighting in the ministry of his Gospel”:

That which his servants labour to diffuse, is, the knowledge of Christ. They set forth incessantly his name, his work, and offices: and exalt him as the only Saviour of the world———This, like the sacrifice which Noah, and which Christ himself, offered, is to God “an odour of a sweet smell.” It is to him “as ointment poured forth.” (Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae Vol. 16: 1 and 2 Corinthians, 436)

Is human response to the preaching of the Gospel important? Yes. Eternally so. It truly is a life or death matter. But in the end the verdict that ultimately matters is God’s.

Colin Kruse notes that “in the Roman victory procession the incense was offered to the gods, even though it was the people who smelt its aroma” (2 Corinthians, 87). Even so our preaching is to be offered first unto God as a sacrifice. And we can be assured and encouraged that whenever and wherever we “spread the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” we are “an aroma of Christ to God.

I have a friend who recently preached a powerful message from this portion of Paul’s letter. As an aspiring church planter he determined before the Lord that if he ever showed up to church and no one else was there, not even his own family, that he was going to do the service from beginning to end “for God’s pleasure.” That’s good. Real good.

Here are the questions, then, that I need to be asking myself:

  • Am I convinced that God loves to hear the gospel preached?
  • Do I preach ultimately for the pleasure and glory of God?
  • Is my chief concern in the pulpit to enjoy “the conscious smile of God”?
  • Am I unduly influenced in my preaching by the human response to my message (positive or negative)?

Question: How do you personally deal with the fear of man in preaching? What part should (or does) “human response” play in your preaching?