Studies or Sermons

Everyone recognizes that, with all-too-few exceptions, preaching needs improvement. There are many reason for this. Today, I want to address only one change—one that you can incorporate into your preaching with but a little thought and practice.

Unfortunately, in our time several “schools” of preaching have developed in order to rectify some of the problems. These center around one concern which then, tends to be the all-in-all of preaching. Each has its chief proponents and a host of followers. I’m going to take up the views of two of these schools which are (or are becoming) most prominent. I shall refer to them as The Biblical-Theological School and the Exegetical-Expository School. In each, the problem is that, rather than preach a sermon, the preacher has brought his studies into the pulpit.

The Biblical-Theological School

More and more we are becoming aware of biblical-theological “preaching” since many seminaries have become enamored with it. The text chosen (if there is one—some of these “sermons” are more topical that textual) becomes a source for showing how it fits into the history of redemption. In doing so, excessive typological (and even allegory of sorts) often prevails. Every passage is interpreted in the light of how Jesus Christ may be seen in it. The listener comes away saying something like, “Isn’t Jesus Christ wonderful!”

“Well, what could be wrong with that?” you ask. Jesus is wonderful, of course, and I have no intention of taking anything away from that fundamental truth. And it is essential to relate the cross to every preaching portion. Moreover, there must be no moralism. The grace of God must be apparent in all we say. And above all, self-help must be eschewed!

“So, then where’s the problem? Those are all things that are emphasized by this school. It would seem that the Biblical-Theological view is a valid method—if not the only method that properly proclaims Christ. Right?”


“Wrong? How can it be wrong for preachers to declare the grace of God and exalt Christ?”

Well, exalting Christ, is itself, is to be commended. We should do so in all of our preaching. But, when that and that alone, becomes the thrust of message after message, so that the listener leaves with nothing more, somehow a good—even “wonderful”—truth has been misused. Marriages fall apart, people make wrong decisions in life. What is there about it that’s wrong? Well, this marvelous message of God’s grace in Christ has become the all-in-all, whereas the Scriptures deal with much more. Indeed, some (perhaps much) of what is decried in Biblical-Theological circles as “Moralistic Preaching,” may not be so at all. If Jesus is all-in-all (and He certainly is) He must be preached as the all-in-all of one’s marriage, family and child training. He must be proclaimed as the all-in-all of a believer’s job, social life, and so on (including all the matters that the Scriptures are concerned with). It is not possible to preach the whole counsel (plan) of God in the biblical-theological mode so often adopted by some of its proponents. Some, despite scriptural data to the contrary, even decry all exhortation in sermons!

The Exegetical-Expository School

On the other hand—as carried on by some—at the opposite extreme—is Exegetical-Expository preaching. In this approach one seeks to make clear the meaning of the passage by ticking off one fact after another about verses as he “preaches” through a given portion of the Scriptures.

“Again, what could be wrong with explaining the meaning of Scripture? Don’t people need a much greater understanding of biblical truth? Are many not like the Ethiopian Eunuch who said he couldn’t understand Isaiah 53 unless there was someone who could teach him its meaning? In this day of unparalleled ignorance of God’s Word—not to mention the cults and other false teachers who abound confusing many—isn’t exposition exactly what is needed?”

Certainly. There is great need for exposition—for the opening of the Scriptures to those to whom much is a closed book through neglect, muddled interpretation, and so on. And every Christian—however much he knows already—needs to know much more of God’s truth from His Word.

“What then is the problem with exposition?”

The answer? Well, it’s wrong for exactly the same reason that much Biblical-Theological preaching is. As unlikely as it may seem both begin at the same wrong starting point. Each school thinks that explaining the process,  and reaching conclusions about the text is preaching. In the true sense of the word, neither preach. When true to their presuppositions (which, fortunately, isn’t  what they always do) they talk about the text and about Jesus Christ, but they fail to adequately take the listener into consideration. After all, preaching is the proclamation of God’s truth about Christ to His people so that they may understand not merely what passages mean, but from these passages what He and has done for them, and requires of them in such a way that by grace they do (or believe) what He commands. When a person from each of these schools understands this, he may actually merge the separate views of these two schools, sharing what is best in each.

The basic problem is that they mistake studies for sermons. The studies that both do are necessary for good preaching, but are not, in themselves, preaching. Vos’ Grace and Glory, held by some as the epitome of Biblical-Theological preaching, for instance, contains no sermons, but is a compilation of marvelous essays. Numerous verse-by-verse expositions, exegetically sound, with a bit of exhortation tacked on to the end (if time allows) abound, but are not messages either. They are commentaries in verbal form.

The best of each school, as I said, is essential for good preaching. Work done in the preacher’s study ought to yield a passage’s place in the history of redemption—and how Jesus Christ is in it (so as to show how He is deeply involved in whatever is enjoined on God’s people). And this biblical-theological insight ought to emerge not from “clever” speculation, but from careful exegetical study that places it in the context of the lives of God’s people in one or another of their relationships to Him. The general purpose of the sermon ought to be to honor Christ. But becoming faithful to its specific purpose, the preacher should always talk to the listener about how God expects him to carry out those things that the preaching portion enjoins upon him, so as to honor Jesus Christ as he goes about his life day by day.

A sermon, properly prepared and preached, therefore, will embody the results of the work done in the preacher’s study. There will be careful exegesis of passages; there will be full consideration of their places in the history of redemption. But these materials, in raw form, are for the pastor’s study! He should no more attempt to preach a “Biblical-Theological” sermon (as they are sometimes called) than he would attempt to preach a “Systematic-Theological” sermon! Both studies are tools for preparation of a sermon. The message should no more be an theological treatise than a verse-by-verse commentary on the text. All of this work is done in preparation for making a sermon. It, in the end, should be a Christ-honoring expository message that faithfully applies the purpose of the preaching portion to the particular congregation to which it is delivered.

Exegesis and Biblical Theology are two of the vital tasks in which every true preacher of the Word must engage in the preparation of a message. But what is done in the study should stay in the study. However, all of the work done should be appropriately incorporated into his sermon. Studies—no matter how exciting to the preacher—are not enough. They must be put in preaching form with preaching content. Choosing one of these schools of “preaching” over the other is where the error lies. They should never be placed in opposition. Harmony between what is right in each ought to prevail. This thinking may involve a large paradigm change for you, but I urge you think about to making it. It’ll be worth it! Trust Me!

Focus in Preaching

In Luke 16:16 we read,

The Law and the Prophets [what we call the Old Testament] were preached until John; from his time on, God’s kingdom has been preached, and everybody has been pressing into it.

From those words of the Lord Jesus, we understand that there came a time when preaching changed. Before John appeared in fulfillment of prophecies in Isaiah and Malachi true preaching had focused upon the coming of the Messiah and His kingdom (see Daniel 2:44,45; 7:13,14 for predictions of the Messianic kingdom). But when the kingdom came (as, indeed, it did at the first coming of Christ), the issue was not whether it would come, but now that it’s here, what will be your response to that fact? What does that mean to you?

Upon the preaching of Jesus and John many repented, and a great many “pressed” into it.  This seeming “revival” (or as the Septuagint in Malachi 4:6 calls it, “restoration”), however, like the revival under John’s predecessor, Elijah, though causing temporary excitement (as on Mt. Carmel), didn’t last. Zechariah foretold that at Messiah’s coming mourning of sins would be private (12:12-14). That is to say, there would be no national repentance (as there was under the preaching  of Jonah by Nineveh). Individuals and families participated, but early on the rulers rejected the Lord (Matthew 23:13) and, ultimately, the people followed their lead (Matthew 11:11-19). Neither John’s nor Jesus’ preaching saw lasting, national fruit.

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