What’s central when you preach?

July 13, 2008

As I worshipped with a group of God’s people this morning (not my usual church family since I’m away teaching this week) I thought again about the importance of preaching. Here are some comments I wrote some time ago about preaching. They are but a small part of a larger essay. I’ll append a few related thoughts below.

In its biblical portrait, the central focus in pastoral ministry is the public proclamation of the Word of God. Preaching. There are certainly other aspects of pastoral ministry, both in the NT model and in the traditional (and faddish) models of ministry that have developed in the church. I don’t intend to imply that ministry is only about preaching. But it can be no less than preaching if it is to be a biblical pastoral ministry.

I have some serious concerns about the state of the pulpit these days. My concern could be stated fairly well in the words of 1 Sam 3:1. As the old King James says, “the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision”—which, as I’m sure you know, is better translated, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent” (NASB). I would adapt that wording and suggest that biblical preaching is rare in our day, a word from God is infrequently heard from our pulpits. That is not just my cantankerous opinion; some of today’s best known preachers echo the same sentiment. John Stott says that “true Christian preaching … is extremely rare in today’s Church” [1] and Kent Hughes bemoans the fact that “dis-exposition … is a serious problem that deserves careful thought. At least in my part of the world [says Hughes], these abuses increasingly dominate the pulpits” [2]

Pastors have the same charge as that with which Paul charged Timothy: “Preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2). That is an awesome responsibility. The apostle Peter reminds us that “if anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God” (1 Pet 4:11). John Wycliffe, the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” described preaching as “the highest service that men may attain to on earth.” [3] The Word of God is a most precious treasure—equal to our very salvation in worth, for if we had no Bible we would know nothing of God’s Son, the forgiveness that his crosswork provided and the new covenant relationship which that work inaugurated.

As John Stott has said so well,

Preaching is indispensable to Christianity. Without preaching a necessary part of its authenticity has been lost. For Christianity is, in its very essence, a religion of the Word of God. No attempt to understand Christianity can succeed which overlooks or denies the truth that the living God has taken the initiative to reveal himself savingly to fallen humanity; or that his self-revelation has been given by the most straightforward means of communication known to us, namely by a word and words; or that he calls upon those who have heard his Word to speak it to others. [4]

Although the Word of God has been given for all, the pastor is entrusted with the Word of God in a special sense due to his primary responsibility of proclaiming that Word to a congregation. Handling the Word of God correctly is an enormous responsibility. As James exhorted his hearers, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (Jas 3:1). There ought to be a very real sense in which we recognize and acknowledge our inadequacy for such a great task. I sense little of that in many preachers. Some are quite confident—even proud—of their ability in the pulpit. Others treat it rather flippantly. Richard Baxter, the famous 17th century preacher, saw it quite differently. He said,

The public preaching of the word … requires greater skill, and especially greater life and zeal, than any of us bring to it. It is no small matter to stand up in the face of a congregation and deliver a message of salvation or condemnation, as from the living God, in the name of our Redeemer. [5]

Indeed, “the pulpit is a perilous place for any child of Adam to occupy”! [6] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London for many years, was of the opinion that

It seems to be the case that the greater the preacher the more hesitant he has generally been to preach…. A man who feels that he is competent, and that he can do this easily, and so rushes to preach without any sense of fear or trembling, or any hesitation whatsoever, is a man who is proclaiming that he has never been ‘called’ to be a preacher. The man who is called by God is a man who realises what he is called to do, and he so realises the awfulness of the task that he shrinks from it. [7]

One of the books that you need to read carefully and thoughtfully is D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies. Let me cite part of his introduction and adapt it to my homiletical concerns. The issues of the biblical languages, exegesis, homiletics, and church ministry, are closely related (though one might not suspect that from many sermons!). Addressing the focus of his title, Exegetical Fallacies, Carson acknowledges that,

To focus on fallacies, exegetical or otherwise, sounds a bit like focusing on sin: guilty parties may take grudging notice and briefly pause to examine their faults, but there is nothing intrinsically redemptive in the procedure. Nevertheless, when the sins are common and (what is more) frequently unrecognized by those who commit them, detailed description may have the salutary effect of not only encouraging thoughtful self-examination but also providing an incentive to follow a better way. I hope that by talking about what should be done in exegesis [and, I would add, homiletics], we may all desire more deeply to interpret [and “preach”] the Word of God aright….

… This study is important because exegetical fallacies [and, I would add, “homiletical fallacies”] are painfully frequent among us—among us whose God-given grace and responsibility is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God. Make a mistake in the interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays … and there is unlikely to be an entailment of eternal consequences; but we cannot lightly accept a similar laxity in the interpretation [and preaching] of Scripture. We are dealing with God’s thoughts: we are obligated to take the greatest pains to understand them truly and to explain them clearly. It is all the more shocking, therefore, to find in the evangelical pulpit, where the Scriptures are officially revered, frequent and inexcusable sloppiness in handling them. [8]

Ministry in general and preaching in particular are directly influenced by our theology. If we really believe, not just as a matter of academic statement, but as genuine convictions that the Bible is God’s revealed truth, inspired and inerrant in the originals, then our preaching and teaching of that revelatory corpus must, of necessity, be based on our careful study of the text in the original languages. There is no other way to have the immediate confidence necessary to undergird our proclamation of “thus says the Lord” if we cannot read what he said how he said it. If you cannot read the OT in Hebrew and the NT in Greek you will always be at the mercy of those who claim to be able to do so.

That’s what I wrote some time ago. In a similar vein, I would add these thoughts.

When you preach, focus attention on the text, not on what you say about the text. Always make sure that your audience knows when God is speaking and when you are speaking. Read Scripture in big chunks. Read it well. Emphasize that what you are reading is God’s Word and authoritative. I like the pattern of some preachers (I first heard it listening to D. A. Carson), who when they read the Scripture at or near the beginning of their message, say something to this effect: “This is what Scripture says: …” Then they read Scripture. (And some add at the end of the text, “This is the Word of the Lord.”) The exact phrasing isn’t important, but the emphasis is good.

I heard another preacher recently who intended to expound about a dozen verses, but he never read them all together. After a fairly long introduction, he read two verses so quickly that if someone yawned, they would have missed it altogether! He read some other scattered verses in the text during the sermon (and some other verses from elsewhere), but the net impact seemed, at least to me, to detract from the priority and authority of Scripture. And that despite the many good things that he said.

Fellow ministers: Preach the Word! And be sure your people hear it as God’s Word.


[1] Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 15.

[2] Kent Hughes, “The Anatomy of Exposition: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 3 (1999): 45–46. “Dis-Exposition” is Hughes’ term: “Though the term is new, you have all experienced dis-exposition as a listener. You can easily recall a Sunday service in which the biblical text is announced and you settle back, Bible in hand for a good Sunday meal, only to find out that the text is departed from, never to return. Dis-exposition causes Sunday indigestion” (ibid., 44).

[3] Cited in Stott, Between Two Worlds, 22.

[4] Between Two Worlds, 15.

[5] The Reformed Pastor, abridged (Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace, 1971), 17.

[6] Stott, Between Two Worlds, 320.

[7] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 107.

[8] Exegetical Fallacies, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 15–16.

[Edited to add the notes.]

4 responses to What’s central when you preach?

  1. Dr. Decker, I had just finished a post reflecting on a personal study of 1 Tim 4:1-5 when I wandered over to your post to find my very thoughts expressed in your words. I am a 20-something who has a heart for deep study of the Word and its proper teaching/application. Thank you for your post. And on the bright side, I know a handful of young men who think these thoughts, too. Perhaps God would grant that a generation of faithful preachers be raised and that revival would fall on a needy church. I’m convinced it must begin with men of God who have a hunger for the study of God’s Word.

  2. Josh, I hope God raises up many young men with the same concern for biblical preaching. Not just preaching about the Bible, or using the Bible when preaching, but actually preaching the Bible–what the Bible says.

  3. Doc,
    Last year as we were beginning to make preparations for adding onto our current church building, our church, on Sunday morning, read through the entire books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Our pastor would ask a different man or boy each week to read one chapter and in about three months time, we read through these two books.
    Though it has been well over a year since we read Ezra and Nehemiah, we have continued to read one chapter a week as a gathered body. Currently, we are reading through the gospel of Mark.

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