Stories

Stories—Their use in preaching, SS classes, etc. can be good or bad, depending . . .

When they are used instead of going to the Bible as the source of belief and action, they are a real detriment. They become a source that may or may not be in accord with God’s Word. And when they are simply accepted as authoritative, exemplary, etc., people are usually led astray. If they are interesting, compelling or otherwise seemingly helpful, they are especially dangerous.

On the other hand, if they are used to illustrate some text that has just been faithfully exegeted they can clarify, they can illustrate, they can show how to follow its teaching, they can demonstrate how something is possible, or (sometimes) even prove something to be true.

Most speakers use stories (illustrations)—but how do you do so?????

Preaching Isn’t Counseling!

Unfortunately, some fail to recognize the fact. Or, at least they seem to do so from the way in which they write about the two.

When they utter or write the old worn-out phrase “The primacy of preaching,” for instance (as indeed some still do in spite of all that’s been said to refute that foolish notion), they betray their misunderstanding of the difference between the two ministerial activities.

What these traditional old-line pulpit orators are saying—whether they realize it or not—is that preaching is more important than other ministries of the Word—including counseling. Is not all ministry of equal importance?

Some of these “thinkers” have gone so far as to declare that their people don’t need counseling because of the excellence of their preaching which adequately deals with all of their problems! One would have thought that Paul would not have spent so much time counseling if that ever could be true. Yet, he tells us that he counseled each one of the Ephesians during his pastoral ministry there in Ephesus, and that he engaged in the activity day and night (Acts 20:20). Do they think his preaching was so poor that he had to make up for it by counseling? Do they think their preaching superior to the apostle’s?

Away with this talk! Counseling and preaching are distinct activities. One ministers the same Word, it is true, but I quite different ways. Let young preachers understand this and take heed. They should learn how to counsel—not merely learn to preach. The preacher, for instance, knows (or ought to) what he is going to talk about when he preaches. His knowledge quotient need be less than the counselor’s who never knows what issue may arise in any session, and so must be prepared for everything!

Windbags

A windbag comes and invents lies:
’I will preach to you about wine and beer,’
He would be just the preacher for this people.  (Micah 2:11)

Well, well, well—–there’s nothing new under the sun: for sure!

People like to hear preachers talk about the things in which they are interested rather than what God wants them to hear. Especially, when a preacher makes it easy to sin by the garbage that he spews forth!

The preachers that Micah referred to didn’t actually preach about these subjects; what Micah was saying is that they might as well have done so, because they were not interested in the Word of God—but only in carousing.

Today, many congregations are interested in almost everything else but what God has to say. So, instead of preaching what they ought, contemporary windbags get up and air their trite little essays on all sorts of subjects that they think will interest them.

Paul also knew about this tendency in his day and warned Timothy

For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will accumulate teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new.   (2 Tim 4:3)

Do you have a preacher like this? Then if he can’t be helped, if the denomination won’t censure him, you probably ought to look elsewhere for a solid church that teaches “sound doctrine.” There are too many of the sort Micah describes around!

Thump the Tub!

It’s time for some to begin to thump the tub!

“What on earth are you talking about?”

Well, in the 17th Century the pulpit of nonconformist preachers was called a “tub.” And, so, preachers were designated “tub thumpers!” The problem is that we don’t have enough tub thumpers today.

“Oh . . . but why do you want them to “pound the pulpit” as the expression seems to be today?”

There is too little preaching with conviction. So many preachers have lost all the authority of the office. No wonder people see no urgency in doing what God says. I know there are some who overdo the matter of hitting the pulpit with their fists. I’m not talking about that. What I have in mind is more preachers who will unequivocally state biblical truth with all of the authority of the Scriptures themselves.

“I see. But what do they do instead?”

All sorts of other things.

“Such as?”

Using weak words like “share.” When you share, you only give people a part of what is shared. If I share my pie, you only get a slice, not the whole thing. So, too, weak preachers convey the idea that it is not only they who have e something to say, but that the members of the congregation will also have something to contribute (share) as well.

“Is that bad?”

Yes, when it comes to preaching. In the pulpit a man is to set forth God’s truth—the whole truth—and not add either his ideas or those of others. People today are getting thin, watered down, stuff instead of the thick beef noodle soup that they deserve. Listen to Paul: “I didn’t hold back in declaring anything that was beneficial to you” (Acts 20:20). Some preachers need to get an Acts 20/20 vision of preaching!

“Are you talking about the lack of authority in preaching?’”

Yes. We must proclaim the truth of God as such—and when we do, we must do so with all the authority that it possesses. Nobody ever nailed a preacher to the door for “sharing.” It is when he declares, proclaims, and so on, that they go after him! Preachers are afraid to take such a stand for fear they might be criticized for doing so.

“Do you think they ought to literally . . .uh . . .thump the tub?”

Not too often—but their preaching should be powerful, and as authoritative as is the truth of God that they ought to be preaching.

“Doesn’t that mean they will always go about insisting on negative things?”

Absolutely not! They should authoritatively proclaim the wonderful, comfortable, truths of the Bible with as much vigor and conviction as they do when preaching about the need for repentance. No wonder the pulpit has lost its authority when preachers “share” instead of proclaiming. They are in the tub (I guess you could say) as God’s representatives, ordained to confront people with truth that will change their lives.

“If they stop using the word ‘share’ will that solve the problem?”

No. That’s just one example of weak preaching. It is symbolic of the larger problem.

“So, they need to change their pulpit practices across the board?’

Yes, if they are caught up in the attitude conveyed by the word “share.”

“And preach with authority what God’s Word teaches.”

Yes. It would make quite a difference in many congregations.

Provision Needed

The modern church, while excelling in every other convenience, has overlooked one that ought surely be supplied. A cloakroom for brains. Many people like to check their brains at the door when they enter a church.

This is understandable, of course. All week long they have been stretching their brains at work and home and its time they found a place where they could rest them. Since the average sermon preached today requires little or no thought, this is the ideal place to give your brain an hour’s rest once a week.

Unfortunately, there are those old fogies who want the preacher to stretch their brains even more, when everyone knows that isn’t the reason for the sermon. The smooth little essays, or the repetitious Gospel message wrung out of every passage preached from, is designed to relax and sooth the brainless.

Moreover, the songs sung are not composed for brains to tackle. Having but three or four notes, and messaging-like words that were chosen for rhyme rather than sense, they help lull one into unconsciousness. After all if emotion is the order of the day, every part of the service should aptly contribute to this end.

It is most disconcerting to go to church and discover that there is no place to park the brain, that there are others also looking for such a place. It disturbs the entire purpose of the service when one has to stuff his brain into the pew rack, and keep picking it up when it falls out! Brain rooms aid composure.

The invitation at the end of the service can be disrupting too, unless it is carefully orchestrated. The preacher must use it carefully to determine how well he is doing. But the church officers will use it too, to determine how long they want him to remain. If he doesn’t want to undergo the inconvenience of leaving every three years, he must encourage them to leave their brains home (in the absence of a cloakroom). But, if he is truly wise, he will lobby for the cloakroom, and then urge them to set a good example for the congregation by checking their brains there.

Apophthengomai

The sermon brought people to faith in Christ. Why? Because it was biblical, it was timely, it was personal, it was used by the Holy Spirit Who empowered Peter to preach it. That’s the reason why you should study it. In Acts 2:4, 14 the word apophthengomai occurs. If you don’t know Greek, don’t try to pronounce it! This rare word means “to speak revelatory words by inspiration” (usually loudly and with authority). Peter, himself, lets us in on the fact that without this assistance, he would not have been able to preach as he did, the fact that his words were given by the Spirit of God.

“Since I can’t expect to get such revelatory help when I preach, I can’t see why I should study it.”

Ah! But that’s precisely the reason to do so.

“Can’t see it.”

The point is that this sermon demonstrates some of the ways that the Holy Spirit wanted a preacher to preach. From examining it in that light, you can learn a lot!

“Oh.”

Yep. Indeed, you can learn how to raise and answer questions, how to speak to people who are curious, how to deal with opposition, how to present the Gospel, how to . . . I could go on, and on, and on.

“Glad you didn’t. I’m curious enough to dig in and find out what I can for myself.”

Great. And when you’re through doing so (shameless plug alert), you might want to check out my book, Preaching According to the Holy Spirit for more suggestions about how to learn to preach from analyzing the Apostles’ inspired sermons.

Always Alliterate Accurately

If you must alliterate (and this seems now to have become a perpetual pastoral problem dating back at least as far as the ministry of Morgan), then for Heaven’s sake (literally) be careful about one thing: accuracy.

Apart from the ‘cutesy’ qualities of carelessly crafted clauses, curiously cultivated by conceited curates, there seems to be no earthly reason for passionately pursuing ponderous pairs of preaching points partially proclaiming previously plain propositions.

We are told, however, that this confusing custom is calculated carefully to cause congregations more readily to collect, consider, and contemplate correctly cogent concepts of conscientious clergy than common colloquialisms. In my opinion, however, the practice, perennially pursued by prattling preachers, potentially promotes parishioner passivity and pastoral pride.

One of the greatest dangers of dangling dazzling declarations before dazed disciples desiring decisive definitions of duties is to draw distinctions dimly, distort duties decidedly, and dismiss differences deftly. At the same time alliteration allows alteration, abuse, or absolute abolition of truth by adverting attention from arguments, answers, and admonishments to astonishing articulations and artificial adornments, alternately amazing or amusing, aggravating, or alarming audiences, but rarely accurately attesting to apostolic articles. The fact is, acceptable accounts, accurately aligned with and according to actualities, arouse to action; but announcements appealing to arrant attitudes lead astray, are of no advantage, create antipathy and avail only to put people asleep.

So, in conclusion let me call on you to:

  1. Correct your Custom
  2. Consider the Consequences
  3. Convert to Colloquialism

Then, rather than disobeying due to disgusting, deceiving drivel that defeats, deprives, denies, and distorts dependable doctrine, you and your congregation will delight in doing desirable deeds!

Some Neglected Subjects

The efforts that I have exerted in trying to get pastors of Bible believing churches to become practical in their use of the Scriptures, and in attempting to get them to speak about subjects that in a previous period were neglected, may have had some influence in turning the preaching of the pulpit around. It is incumbent on me, therefore, to do whatever I can to stop what I perceive to be an unwarranted retreat from the doctrinal teaching that is also a necessary part of the Christian’s weekly pulpit diet.

It has been a long time, for instance, since I have heard sermons on the Bible’s teaching about hell, judgment, wrath, and other such themes. “You travel in the wrong circles,” you may reply. Well, perhaps. But my circles are rather wide, and I hear a lot of preaching. I did not say that it was extinct, but I do think that preaching on these topics is being neglected. The dark side of things is taking a back seat to many of the brighter truths of Scripture. While it is wrong to neglect the latter as a previous generation did, it is also wrong to neglect the former. The biblical balance between the two must always be maintained.

The problem in the church historically has been a problem of balance. The problem is not in the Scriptures—there you will find a perfect balance in every area that is treated by its divinely inspired authors. No, the problem isn’t in the Bible; it is in the church. The history of the church could almost be written in terms of swings from one unbiblical extreme to the other. In one era love is emphasized over truth to the extent that truth is lost and love becomes nothing more than sticky sentimental nonsense. In another era, the opposite problem appears—usually as a reaction to the overemphasis of the former age: truth becomes the great concern, so great that love is stamped out in the pursuit of error. In the attempt to flush out every vestige of error hiding in the bushes, theological bloodhounds usurp the authority of the judgment angels whose appointed task is to separate the wheat from the tares. Certainly error must be dealt with—but in biblical ways; we do not have any right to invent novel ways of doing so.

The problem today seems to be a turning from the sterner teachings of the Scriptures to the more encouraging and happier ones. This is proceeding apace; preachers like to preach positively; people like to hear it. While teaching the latter, it is essential to maintain the former as well. Mount Gerazim, with its blessings, was paired in balance with Mount Ebal and its cursings; the tree of life was set over against the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God is the God of perfect balance; we must seek to approximate Him in this in all our preaching.

Along with extremes comes another problem. When a generation plummets headlong in one direction, heedless of the balancing truths in the other direction, all sorts of false ideas, imported from the outside, seemingly (but not really) saying the same thing are bought and sold as if they were the genuine biblical article. It is easy to do this because the correctives inherent in the neglected balancing truths are missing. That is why the increased concern for teaching about the image of God in man (to the exclusion of preaching about man’s sinful nature and propensities) by so many has been wedded to many false concepts gleaned from psychologists like Maslow and others concerning self-image and self-worth. In discussions of the area, the doctrine of sanctification has been eclipsed by the doctrine of justification.

“Surely I’m not guilty of an overemphasis on the happy side of the faith to the near exclusion of the grim side,” you may reply. Don’t be too sure. Check out your preaching for the past three years; you may be surprised at what you find. You may discover that the emphasis of the era in which you are living has had a greater impact on your ministry than you realize. At any rate, even if you are one of those rare, balanced persons who preaches away year after year, unaffected by the changing extremes all around him, it will not hurt you to do the examination anyway, since it will give you a greater perspective on the sort of emphases that you need to make over the next year or two. It is a good policy to plan broad sweeps of preaching anyway, so that you may stay in balance. And, even you, balanced as you may be, are a sinner who—if you are honest—must admit that you tend to ride your own hobbies to the neglect of biblical truths that balance. I dare you to try doing a three-year study without finding some!

Where’s Your Edge?

Lasso any ten seminary students and ask them, “What do you plan to do when you graduate?” Chances are at least four or five will say something like this:

“Oh, I’m not quite sure. Maybe I’ll take a graduate course. Perhaps I’ll work as an assistant pastor for a while. Possibly I’ll do some youth work. I really don’t know.”

Whatever the answer, it likely is to be spoken quite casually. Many students today have very much of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the Gospel ministry. For them it seems the ministry of the Word has become merely another profession like business, dentistry, law, etc. There is no compelling passion motivating them.

That isn’t how it used to be. Most of my fellow seminarians and I were ‘chomping at the bit’ to get out and get into the pastorate; we couldn’t wait to preach. We didn’t even consider the idea of an assistantship after graduation; most of us had already been working in that capacity while going to seminary.

“Adams is getting old and has started to reminisce,” you say. Perhaps. But even that isn’t always bad. Continuity with the past can help today’s young men gain a little perspective. And frankly, there has been a definite, discernable change in attitude that is easily detected by any observer who has lived through the last five decades. It began in the 50’s and grew throughout the 60’s, probably reaching its nadir during the Vietnam war. At that time, one suspects, there were numbers who went to seminary to escape the draft; that was when the big shift in attitude occurred. While there has been some improvement since, we have never recovered fully from the effects of that period.

The strong modern emphasis on grades rather than on competence as the goal of studying, fostered not only by public education but also by Christian schools with their near-fanatical emphasis on “academic excellence,” also has had an impact. Far too many Christian college students as well cannot tell you what they plan to do upon graduation. Many students no longer prepare for some specific life-work but simply “go to college.” Thus persists this spirit of getting good grades to get into the college or seminary of one’s choice. Then comes graduation, when one holds in his clammy little hand a transcript more-or-less filled with high grades but has no purpose in his life!

This change in attitude has had its effect on the church. Ministers, reared in such an easy-going milieu, have carried this casual approach over to their tasks in the local congregation. While zeal can be overdone so that it supercedes solid study for reasoned ministry, the problem today is not that scholarship has overtaken practical work but that there seems to be less passioned devotion to theology and exegesis. Many ministers today are too laid back about ministry, seemingly unacquainted with the drive that compelled Paul to write:

Woe is me if I preach not the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)

No wonder so many who do enter the pastorate quit when the going gets mildly difficult—certainly before it gets tough! Years of learning and instruction are wasted on men who leave the ministry to sell insurance. If the apostle Paul had acted like that, he probably would have given up in Damascus when he found himself in humiliation, escaping from the city in a smelly fish basket! But he didn’t. What made the difference? What motivated Paul so that he was able and willing to go on in spite of the trials enumerated in 2 Corinthians 6 and 11? He tells us:

Therefore, since we have this ministry to perform as the result of mercy, we don’t give up. (2 Corinthians 4:1)

Ministers who must minister the Word in preaching and counseling are motivated like Paul by gratitude. They remember God’s mercy and see their calling as a gracious privilege that overwhelms them. Even the plight of the lost does not motivate men to ministry as powerfully as the amazing, unbelievable goodness of God in choosing them for this task.

Pastor, what motivates you? When Mrs. Jones objects to your prophetic viewpoint, when Mr. Smith wants to know why you won’t remarry his improperly divorced son, and when the Greens are sitting there week after week with pencil in hand, waiting to catch you in some misstatement, what keeps you faithful to the ministry of the Word? When half the congregation doesn’t seem to care about much else and yet expects you to visit every other day in each of their homes, what drives you on? Nothing will—nothing less than a sense of debt and gratitude similar to Paul’s. It was that, and that alone, that carried him from one triumphant tragedy to the next!

If you have lost your sense of mission (or never really had one) take the time to ask why. Do you really belong in the ministry? Doubtless there are many who don’t, and it is no disgrace to leave if that is the case. If, however, you know that God has called you, then spend time properly set aside for the purpose to kindle the fire you once had (or should have had). How? Reflect on God’s mercy and goodness in you and His putting you into the ministry, beginning perhaps with a consideration of 1 Timothy 1:16. When you get hold of the reality of mercy and grace that has been lavished on you, it will make the difference; it will give you an edge!

The Proper Use of Biblical Theology in Preaching

The various popular approaches to biblical theology affect preaching—some for good, some for ill. I would like to discuss one danger I have noticed and to suggest a corrective to it.

The general problem is that the sermons of some who become enamored with biblical theological preaching turn out to be journeys that follow the trail of a word, metaphor, theme, or concept from Genesis to Revelation. Clever interpretations and interrelationships between the Old and New Testaments are noted and ‘deep’ insights are uncovered that the average listener would never have discovered when left to his Greek text and commentaries. These biblical-theological trips are like a one-week tour of Europe: very little time can be spent at any one location. That means that little justice is given to particular passages. The big picture is held constantly before a congregation; the emphasis is on the forest, not on the trees. Such preaching tends to by-pass the telos of these passages in favor of a few, great concerns. This sort of thing perhaps is useful to hear from time to time from a pastor or a visiting preacher, but it is hardly the fare on which to feed a congregation twice a week, year after year.

Moreover, such a use of biblical theology tends to lead to purely devotional responses to preaching. Since the great object is to find how Christ is central in all of Scripture rather than how He is involved in the particular telos (purpose) of any given passage, sermons tend to be very much alike. They all elicit the response, “Christ is wonderful! Praise Him!”

That is, of course, true. He is wonderful and we shouid praise Him. And it is important to be led into an ever growing appreciation of the Lord and His work of redemption. That is not what is wrong. The problem is that in loving and pleasing the Lord it is important not only to affirm His glory but also to glorify Him by “observing all things” that He commanded. But to do that means focusing on small, particularized passages rather than running all over the Bible in a sermon, searching out variations on a few major themes. Even when the starting place happens to be a particular passage, those who preach so globally tend to use the passage merely as a springboard for such larger concerns.

“But isn’t Christ in all of Scripture? What of Luke 24:27, 44–46, for instance?”

Of course He is.

“And do not such interrelationships between Old and New Testament passages exist?”

Yes, but probably to an appreciably lesser extent than some biblical-theological preachers think.

“Well, then, why not preach as you have described?”

For several reasons, all of which boil down to one thing: it is wrong to become a biblical-theological preacher. A preacher should be a biblical theologian just as he should be a systematic theologian. But, a systematic-theological preacher?

Let’s pursue the analogy to systematic theology for a while. Perhaps doing so will point up what I am trying to say.

I know from a systematic study of the Scripture that includes James 4:2–3; 5:15–18, etc., that there are conditions for praying effectively. So when preaching on John 14:13, “I will do whatever you ask in My Name,” I know that getting answers to prayer is not so simple as John seems to be saying. So when preaching from John, I keep in mind my systematic understanding of prayer in the whole of the Bible. This does not mean, however, that in the sermon on John 14:13 I must mention all that James and many other writers had to say on the subject. After all, John himself didn’t! Evidently the Spirit, Who moved John to write as he did, did not think it necessary to go into the whole teaching about prayer either in the gospel of John or elsewhere. And, to boot, what John wrote was a record of Christ’s own teaching in the form of an address to His disciples. In that address Jesus thought it acceptable to state the truth with relatively few qualifications in the context for the purpose for which He mentioned it.

What I must do when preparing and preaching a message from John 14:13 is keep in mind a systematic knowledge of prayer (as Jesus and John certainly did) so that what I say from that passage does not contradict or preclude what James, et al say. That means that I will preach John 14:13 in a manner that is informed and influenced by the other passages, without necessarily mentioning or referring to any one of them. If I were to try to say all there is to say about prayer when preaching from any given passage, I wouldn’t have time to concentrate on the passage before me. I’d say too little about too much to have said well any one thing. Moreover, all my sermons on prayer would tend to be alike.

Now it seems to me that the use of biblical theology in preaching is something like the use of systematic theology in preaching: the preacher must know of God’s progressive revelation and take note of where any preaching portion occurs in the history of redemption. That is important for interpretation. Moreover, to be Christian every sermon should be preached from this side of the cross in the bright light of the fullness of revelation that is ours. When preaching from any portion of Scripture, proper interrelationships between various Old and New Testament passages should be kept in mind, along with themes that persist and grow as they are enlarged with more and more revelation. But when preaching it is not necessary, and usually not desirable, to mention all of these things any more than the whole teaching on prayer when preaching from John 14:13. Biblical-theological study, then, like systematic-theological study, is primarily for the sake of the preacher.

That Christ’s death and resurrection pertain to everything else that is preached is certainly true. Any sermon that would be acceptable in a Synagogue or Unitarian church is surely sub-christian. But it is also true that sermons should not always (and probably should only rarely) recount the history of redemption. Rather they ought to be moments in which a preacher presents to a congregation some particular from that history in a focused and concentrated way in order to enable them by God’s grace to love God and their neighbor better. Christ should be central in Christian preaching, but not the history of redemption as such. The cross should be central in a sermon because it bears upon everything in the Christian life as well as provides the only means of forgiveness, not because the sermon is an historical survey of redemption.

Preaching that wrongly uses the insights of biblical theology, bringing into the pulpit what belongs in the study, can be inspiring—for a while. But it will grow old fast when every sermon sounds like the last. The task of biblical theology is to keep the preacher on track. It should keep his preaching truly Christian. But preaching is not merely tracing the past history of redemption over and over again from various perspectives and under various themes. Rather it is preaching redemptively today. It is preaching in such a way that the effects of that great redemption may be experienced by God’s people as the particulars peculiar to each passage are underscored and its truths are taught and applied for the purposes for which the Holy Spirit gave it.