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.


Preaching Out of an Event

The first two sermons in the book of Acts were, in the fullest sense of the term, occasional. That is to say, they arose out of and were addressed to an occasion. On Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit, with all its outward effects, brought together a crowd of curious and interested listeners:

When this sound was heard, a crowd gathered . . .They were astounded and amazed . . . saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:6, 7, 12).

This intense interest provided the introduction to Peter’s message.

Similarly, on the second occasion, Peter spoke to a crowd that was already anxious to hear him. On this occasion it was God’s healing of the cripple at the temple gate that drew them:

So they were filled with amazement and astonishment at what had happened to him … all the people were amazed and ran together to them [Peter and John] at the portico called ‘Solomon’s.’  (Acts 3:10, 11)

And later on in the book, Paul at Lystra (and to a lesser extent, at Athens) found himself addressing audiences that had already become curious about his mission and anxious to hear what he had to say prior to the message itself.

In all of these instances, the introduction to the sermon was an event. Wouldn’t it be great if every week, when you rose to preach, you too had before you a crowd of people, already stirred to the marrow to hear what you have to say? “Sure, that would be great. But such events don’t take place every week in my congregation. In fact, few things ever happen that stir my congregation’s interest. If they did, I think I could preach with more enthusiasm, and people would listen more eagerly with better results.”

I think you are right. As a matter of fact, in my book, How to Help People Change, I compared and contrasted teaching in the counseling context with teaching in the preaching context, pointing out that

… the counselor has one great advantage over the preacher: the counselor teaches in the milieu … Teaching in the milieu, addressing the actual situations people are facing, makes a great difference.

What is that difference? The counselor, like Peter and Paul, teaches the counselee about matters that he already considers important. That is to say, a counselor teaches the counselee about something that has already captured his interest and concerns him. Like the Jews gathered on Pentecost, when the sermon begins, he already is asking such questions as, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12) He already is stirred to his roots. And if he gets the right answer, it probably won’t be long before he is asking, “What should I do?” (Acts 2:37).

In a sense the movement of an effective sermon may be described by the change in concern expressed in those two questions. From curiosity and interest at the outset, it should lead the congregation to the point where they say, “Where do we go from here?” It is a movement from desire to know God’s will to desire to do it. A good preacher always seeks to satisfy both concerns. He is interested in teaching what God requires and how to conform to His will. He moves from explanation to implementation. He will never settle for less.

“But,” you ask, “how do I bring this off? I don’t have events like Pentecost taking place every week.” That’s true. As a matter of fact, you don’t even have the starting advantage of the counselor who addresses his teaching to a present concern of the counselee. No. You begin with the most difficult task of all. You must speak week by week to people who are often apathetic, whose concerns are elsewhere, who see no immediate application of your message to their lives, etc. That is not an easy task.

How do you handle such a task? The answer at once is both simple and complex; simple in that it is easy to say and complex in that it takes time and effort to do. The answer is: you must create an event.

“Create an event? What do you mean by that? Am I to stage some happening in the congregation that will capture them? I don’t understand. You’d better explain.”

God seemed to think that this was a good way to open a sermon, because He used it so frequently in Acts to give an occasion for addressing crowds of people with the gospel. Every counselor knows how much easier it is to interest a person in a biblical passage when its message bears upon a recognized problem in his life. That is why the wise preacher creates an event for the members of his congregation at the outset. He does not presuppose that people who have been thinking all week long about something else will be interested immediately in what he is about to say. He knows that he must stir them out of their other interests, out of their lethargy, and out of their indifference. And he must get them so interested and concerned before he actually begins to preach the body of his message that, like the Jews on Pentecost, they will be asking to hear more. One way to do that is to create an event.

The ‘event’ I am talking about is not an objective event occurring in space and time. Rather this event is subjective, occurring in the mind. It is a mental milieu. Properly described, such an event will be just as real as if it were actually happening. When someone cries “Fire!” in an auditorium, the concern and the resulting action of the audience may be exactly the same whether there is an actual fire or not. Only one fact is necessary for the speaker to get action-he must be convincing. The same is true for the preacher. When Whitefield, Spurgeon, and Edwards spoke, they were so convincing, and people became so involved that they gripped the pews for fear, reached out to keep others from falling over a cliff, rushed to man lifeboats, etc. These preachers verbally created events to which their congregations responded.

That is what you to some extent must learn to do in the introductions to your sermons. Time and thought must be spent in discovering how to involve your congregation in the truth of God that you are about to proclaim. “But I am not Spurgeon or Whitefield or Edwards!” you protest. No, of course you are not, and you never will be unless you are willing to do the hard work of preparation that they did. The biggest problem is not the lack of native ability or proper training. It is simply this: many preachers do not take the time or give the thought in preparation of sermons that is necessary to create an event in the mind of the hearer. To capture the interest and arouse the concern of listeners take effort.

“But if I am willing to give the time and effort, how do I go about it?” Much more could be said in response to that good question, but for now let me simply suggest the following guidelines:

  1. Do not begin with the text; begin with the congregation as Peter and Paul did. Turn to the passage of Scripture only when you adequately have oriented the congregation to what you expect to find there and only when you sufficiently have stirred up a concern to know what God’s Word says. Acts 2:12 should precede Acts 2:17.
  2. Take enough time to create the event. Many introductions that are heading in the right direction are terminated before they can accomplish their purposes. While there is nothing worse than a poor introduction dragged out, a good idea aborted before it is born is not much better. So when you have worked hard on a good introduction to your sermon, take the necessary time to include enough detail to enable the congregation to visualize and become concerned about what you are saying. Usually it takes more than one or two sentences to bring that off. But, of course, filler, unnecessary repetition and all other dead, inoperative content must be excised.
  3. Learn how to describe events. Practice telling stories on other occasions. Work on using vivid, concrete nouns and verbs. Tape and listen to others who are adept at description. Analyze what they do to discover their techniques. Then incorporate the principles you discover into your work (don’t copy theirs). Write out introductions, choosing key words and phrases you plan to use. This sort of thing can be learned if you will only put sufficient time and effort into it.
  4. Use dialog whenever appropriate. Dialog is one way of involving the listener—it brings him up close to what is happening and makes him a participant in the conversation.
  5. Test the introduction before using it. If you cannot feel (I mean physically feel) what you are talking about in your own body, then it is not going to do the job. Keep working on it until you can describe what you are talking about in such a way that you experience the event whenever you tell it. The chill up your spine will give you assurance that you are on the track toward creating an event for the congregation. If the introduction doesn’t grip you (i.e., if it doesn’t become an event for you) it will not grip the congregation!

Why should sermons be boring or dull? Certainly those apostolic sermons were not! It is we who have made them so. Think again—every passage of Scripture is a word from God! And it is important to every member of the church. Your job is to convince him of this and show him how he may implement it in life to the honor of Christ. How dare we make God’s Word dull! There should be nothing more exciting in a Christian’s week than to hear once more what God has to say to him. What would you call it if you received a phone call from the President of the United States? Why, most of us would call that an event! Then what should one’s weekly word from God in the sermon be? Tell me.

People Listened!

Yeah, they came in goodly numbers to listen to Ezekiel. Sounds good—eh?

Not so good. Listen to why they came and what they were getting out of his messages:

My people come to you in crowds, sit in front of you, and hear your words, but they don’t obey them. . . . Yes, to them you are like a singer of love songs who has a beautiful voice and plays skillfully on an instrument. They hear your words, but they do not obey them.    (Ezekiel 33: 31,32; HCSB)

There was nothing wrong with the prophet’s preaching—the problem lay solely in his listeners! They were interested in how he preached—not in what he preached.

Today, people flock to popular preachers, some of whom preach well, and truthfully, but the listeners fail to live changed lives. The reason might be the same as it was in Ezekiel’s day.

If all those who attend popular preaching were to go out and live as they are told in the preachers’ messages—even for one week—what a difference it would make!

Truth must be mixed with faith, and faith with obedience.

Obedience is a lost concept today in some circles. All one must do to grow by grace is to listen to and contemplate the Gospel. This quasi-mystical and quazi-monastic viewpoint is dangerous. It also leads to listening to preachers “sing!”

Think about why you go to hear preaching. It may be because the preaching you hear doesn’t demand much of you. But even if it does—as in Ezekiel’s case—you must come in the right attitude. Listening to love songs won’t cut it.

Position in Preaching

Position in preaching is an important matter about which all too little is said—and yet it can make all the difference. What am I talking about? What is ‘position’ anyway?

Position represents a preacher’s relationship to a passage as well as to the persons who are involved with it. With whom does one identify as preacher, and with whom does he identify his congregation? The answer to those two questions tells one what his position is.

There are several possible positions that one might assume. Various names may be assigned to each, and possibly more than the three that I shall mention might be distinguished, but in order to raise the question and to point toward the desired biblical position of the preacher these three will do:

  1. The loving, learning SPECTATOR
  2. The faithful, listening RECIPIENT
  3. The ordained, sent HERALD

There clusters about each of these positions a number of factors that are consistent with the position itself. Take the SPECTATOR, for instance. Such a preacher doesn’t identify with any one particular in the preaching portion. He does not speak as does the writer of the epistle or as the preacher in the gospel; he is an outsider who is looking in on what is happening and who sees his task as enabling the congregation to look in along with him. He is, in effect, the cameraman, whose sole job is to paint the picture for the viewer. As such, for instance, he looks in on the events of the text to view Jesus at work in His redemptive-historical tasks. Largely he speaks in third person language. His prevailing response, and that of his congregation, is worship, awe, gratitude. His temptation is to be merely a listener, a viewer, a spectator. There is little that is ethical or doctrinal about his preaching. The preacher who is most likely to take this position is the biblically-theologically oriented preacher.

Then there is the RECIPIENT. This preacher stands in the crowd, along with the congregation or the individual receiving the letter, book, or message in the preaching portion. He identifies himself with those receiving truth or an exhortation or rebuke. In the gospel he identifies not with Jesus but with the crowds or Nicodemus or the man born blind, and he puts his congregation as well as himself in the same position. Whereas the spectator uses “they, he, she,” the recipient’s favorite preaching pronoun is “we.” He is no bystander, as the first preacher tends to be; he is a participant, faithfully hearing Christ’s Word to him and to his congregation, feeling its impact in his life and going out to do it. Though some ‘expository’ preachers may identify most closely with the spectator position, most would be lured into identifying with the recipient.

In contrast to the other two, the HERALD assumes a position of authority (conferred, not inherent) and exercises it in the name of the One Who sent him. He stands with Christ and the biblical writers and preachers, speaking to the congregation in the name of God and with His message and authority. He identifies with the messenger in the passage, so his favorite pronoun is “you.” This position encompasses the other two as well; the benefits of the other two positions are his and are conveyed to the congregation as well. However, he assumes the other two positions in the study and not in the pulpit. As he studies the Scripture he wants to look in, in order to be struck by the greatness of the redemption that is in Christ; and when he is, he will prepare and preach differently than if he had not been. In the study he also wants to identify with those receiving the message, so that he may experience its benefits in his own life. That too will affect how he prepares and preaches his message when he gets into the pulpit. But when he stands before the congregation, he is neither recipient nor spectator; he is an ambassador of Christ, a herald of the good news. As such, he says to his congregation (whom he views as participating observers, required to be hearers as well as doers of the Word), “Thus says the Lord!”

How do you preach? Throughout the previous articles on preaching I have stressed the need for a preaching rather than a lecturing stance, and a focus on the Holy Spirit’s telos, or purpose, in the preaching portion. Such emphases are consistent only with the third position. The herald preaches not about the Bible, or about the Amalekites or Paul, but from the Bible, about the congregation present and about God. He is not a mere onlooker or one who enables others to see what happened long ago and far away. Nor is he concerned with interpretation and meaning as ends in themselves. He is one who believes that Scripture was recorded for the admonition of his congregation and that, as he proclaims it to his people, God still deigns to effect changes in the thoughts and lives of His congregation. As a herald of the Spirit’s Word, he views true preaching as an occasion during which God and His people meet in the Word.

Occasional Preaching

imagesWhen Chrysostom arose to preach that day, he was ready—even though he had had less than twenty-four hours to prepare. And when he preached, he delivered one of the most famous sermons of all time.

The occasion was the fall of Eutropius, the imperial minister in Constantinople who had attacked the church and had even forbidden her to offer refuge to political prisoners. Yesterday he broke his own law and fled to Chrysostom’s church for sanctuary. Chrysostom admitted him, and when the soldiers in hot pursuit reached the door of the church, they were met by Chrysostom, who declared, “You enter here over my body” (the origin of our expression ‘over my dead body’). Now one day later, the entire town has gathered to hear Chrysostom preach. What will he say?

Many standing in the tightly packed crowd are furious. They are convinced that Chrysostom missed a great opportunity to rid the community of one of the church’s vilest enemies. Why has he received Eutropius? What can he say in his defense? They have come to find out.

From the front of the church, those who are regular attendees notice a curtain has been drawn across the altar. What does that mean? Ah, here comes Chrysostom; we shall find out soon.

After normal proceedings according to his usual custom, Chrysostom takes his place at the ambo, the reader’s desk, so that he may be closer to the congregation when he preaches. He is ready to speak. No, wait a moment! The curtain—they’re drawing it aside and—listen to that crowd! They all understand now. There he is! There’s Eutropius clinging to a post supporting the altar. Is Chrysostom going to preach with him there like a pinned butterfly … like that?

“Vanity of vanities; all is vanities” declares the preacher. And then he continues, preaching … not to the crowd, but … to Eutropius! He asks him where all his fair-weather friends are now, shows how vain all his pursuits were, pleads with him to repent, and then turns to the congregation and addresses them. He tells them that he has done this not to rub salt in Eutropius’ wounds but to offer them a living demonstration of his text. This he does as a warning to all who are yet afloat, that they may not sink as this poor wretch has. He shows how the trembling tree, clinging to the altar post, has shaken loose all its leaves and is barren, and then urges rich and poor alike to take heed.

Then he takes up objections. Why did he receive this fugitive? Because he represents the Lord Jesus Christ in whom there is mercy and forgiveness. Eutropius does not defile the altar any more than did the sinful woman who touched the feet of Jesus defiled Him. Indeed the Holy Savior can forgive even an enemy like him and make him pure. Others may have no pity, but Christ’s church will show pity and receive him into her bosom. On and on he goes, until at last tears stream from the cheeks of the people and Chrysostom knows that their hearts have been softened.

What a sermon!

Read it sometime. It will be worth your while. And, by the way, it will be worth studying the preaching of Chrysostom to see how he met other occasions (see, for example, the sermons on the statues).

“But no one ever enters my church with soldiers chasing him,” you say. “How, then, can I do occasional preaching?” In his sermons on the statues, Chrysostom had no such dramatic episode within his church auditorium either. But he saw danger, warned about it from the pulpit (he urged the congregation not to follow foreign agitators against the unfair tax levied on the city) and, when his advice was not heeded and the emperor’s statues were destroyed, preached repentance and faith. You may warn and urge too when you perceive dangers into which your people possibly might fall.

“But Chrysostom preached about every day affairs in the city.” Yes, and he did so from an expository stance that was aimed at the people to whom he was speaking. He preached to people on significant occasions—biblically. And there is no reason why you cannot do the same.

There are many occasions about which the people in your congregation would like to hear what God has to say—so that they will know how He wants them to respond. When a president is shot, everyone (rightly) expects the preacher to say something about this from God’s Word. The newspaper and the telecasters have all had their say; shouldn’t God have His? When tornadoes or floods devastate a community, should the preacher keep silent? Of course not. He must bring God’s message of the hour to bewildered believers.

Christians expect, and should expect, a word from God on all such occasions. You must not disappoint them. Perhaps sometimes they are more prepared to listen than at other times. I am not suggesting that you should preach occasional sermons regularly—or even often. What is regular is not occasional; what is occasional is not regular. But when a significant occasion arises, the congregation expects to hear God’s Word to them about the stance they should take toward, or the part they should play in, the event.

How did Chrysostom preach a sermon that was so powerful in pathos and cogency on such short notice? He did what every other great preacher would do in times like that: he didn’t choose a preaching portion that was unfamiliar to him (see his opening remark about sermons on his text always being appropriate). He used appropriate to the occasion a passage on which he already had done the exegesis and had preached a sermon or two. He spent what time he had working on the adaptation, weaving into the material already at hand the facts of the occasion and how the Bible passage pertains to them. He also worked on form. The sermon shows that you can do the same.

Look for occasions. Don’t miss them. Surely this year there will be more than one occasion nationally, locally, or in your congregation (the death of an entire family in an automobile accident, perhaps) that will be so much on the minds of the congregation as they meet that they will hear nothing you say unless you speak to them about their relationship to the occasion (from the Bible, of course). That is when you must do occasional preaching. And that is how you do it. Will you be ready?

Translating the Outline

In in my book on homiletics, Preaching with Purpose, I have pointed out in some detail that most supposed preaching outlines, like the conception and stance of the sermon itself, are actually lecture and not preaching outlines. We have been taught wrongly.

A lecture outline is the division of a subject, topic, idea, or theme that is discussed during the lecture. It is usually abstract, third person, and concerns facts and persons long ago and far away. Because of the use of this format, the Bible has become a book that seems irrelevant to the average churchgoer. A preaching outline is the divisions of a biblically based address to and about a congregation in relationship to God and to their neighbors. It is second person, here and now and concrete. The lecture form sounds like this: “God told the Amalekites that they …,” while the preaching form sounds like this: “God says that you …” In the lecture outline the speaker talks about the Amalekites and about the Bible. In the preaching outline the preacher talks about God and the congregation from the Bible. There is a great difference.

But, suppose one is concerned about the matter and wants to change his practice so that he preaches instead of lectures. How would he go about it? The answer to that question is the purpose of this article.

Perhaps the best way to begin is to look at a couple of samples of lecture outlines (of course, you probably could provide ample examples yourself from your own barrel since that is the standard method of sermonic outlining that has been taught for generations). Consider two. The first is found in Zondervan’s 1983 Pastor’s Annual, a volume published every year with enough sermon outlines for preachers who don’t care to do their own work to use throughout the year. The outline was composed by T. T. Crabtree, a Baptist. The second comes from James Daane, a Christian Reformed writer, and is found in his book, Preaching with Confidence. Notice the similarity between the two, in spite of the radical difference in theology and denominational backgrounds. Here is Crabtree’s outline on 1 Cor. 12:31:

“A More Excellent Way”


  1. Its Ministry of Healing
  2. Its Simplicity of Language
  3. Its Competency for Problem-Solving
  4. Its Superiority of Value

Here is Danne’s outline on John 3:16:

“The Greatness of God’s Love”

  1. Its Costly Expression
  2. Its Unworthy Object
  3. Its Saving Purpose

Consider both of these. Notice what is discussed—love. It is not the congregation or God or one’s neighbor that is discussed but love in the abstract. Notice the abstract language. The word “Its” stands out like a sore thumb. How can one discuss such a warm topic as love—whether it be God’s or man’s—under the term “its” and expect to reach his congregation with anything like an adequate appreciation of the subject? But, should love be discussed abstractly as a ‘subject’? That is the real question. And the answer is no. In neither passage (we will not go into exegesis since we are concerned only with outlining; we shall accept both authors’ exegeses as a given) is love presented that way. It is a distortion of the passage to discuss love like that.

What can be done to turn these lecture outlines into preaching outlines? They must be ‘translated’. I shall translate Crabtree’s for you:

“Take the More Excellent Way”

  1. Your Love can Heal
  2. Your Love can Speak
  3. Your Love can Solve Problems
  4. Your Love is of Great Value

Now, that outline preaches! There is nothing that might be said about the exposition of the passage under Crabtree’s lecture format that also cannot be said under the translated, preaching format. But everything you say will be said from a present-day, God-is-speaking-to-you-from-His-Word perspective rather than from a stance in which a lecturer is discussing a subject abstractly. The preacher is discussing the congregation! He brings the congregation and God together through the Word in a meeting in which the member is aware of the fact that God’s Word is addressing him.

Now, in the space below, try your hand at translating Daane’s outline into a preaching outline. One way to do it is to include the words “God” and “You” in each point:





Now, having discovered that you can translate, take out some of your old lecture-sermon outlines. Play around with the main heads first (when you get to the subordinate points you do the same thing anyway) and see what you can do. There are other ways of translating, but if, at least to begin with, you include the words God and You in each point, that should force you to construct a preaching outline.

Try this out for several Sundays. You will be surprised at the reaction you will get from the congregation if you truly follow your outline and use “you” throughout the sermon as the outline suggests. You also will discover there is no need to tack an application on to the end of your lecture-sermon to turn it into a true sermon; you will be applying truth to the congregation—just as it was applied when it was given in the passage—throughout.

Take some of your old lecture-sermons and re-preach them translated. You will be interested to discover that they will sound like entirely different sermons. If they are recognized by your congregation as sermons you preached before, that probably will be due to illustrations and examples they remembered (stories are the one part of a sermonic lecture that is remembered, if any part is at all). If you change these, the likelihood is that you could preach sermons from two or three years ago without anyone ever knowing the difference.

Well, there you have it. You know what to do. Give it a try and notice the difference; you will be preaching at last!

The Choice of a Preaching Portion

As a pastor you struggle with important decisions in choosing the preaching portions for your weekly sermons, or in determining the books of the Bible from which those sermons will be preached for some days to come. It is not a matter to be handled lightly because in those choices the welfare of God’s congregation is very much at stake. How can you reach the best decisions?

There are a number of factors that might be considered, but the one that I shall address in this article is the welfare of the congregation itself. In making such decisions any pastor who truly cares about the flock will seek to divest himself of his own interests and hobbies, will refuse to allow his fears and apprehensions about consequences to dictate the choices, and will think only of his obligations toward God and the welfare of His people.

But how does he know what is best for his flock? Often, the pastor is stymied right here. It is not always easy to arrive at an answer to that question. That is why I should like to look at some of the determining factors that may help you to arrive at good decisions.

Gaps, Imbalances, etc., in the Past

One of the determining factors in reaching good decisions about preaching material is the past. If you can discover what the previous pastor preached about during the last three years (I am now assuming that you have recently come to your present pastorate) you will soon recognize areas that he traversed rather thoroughly as well as those to which he never seemed to travel. You must learn something about his hobbies, idiosyncrasies, emphases, and concerns; otherwise you will fail to recognize the gaps, imbalances, and teachings to which the congregation has been exposed. You will look for these things not to criticize but to find out what is necessary for you to do over the next few years to balance things out for the congregation.

Obviously, you yourself may be the preacher whose preaching the congregation has heard for the past three years. What do you do then? Exactly the same thing—look for the hobbies, etc. that you have been pursuing during that period of time. The bulletins for the past three years will clue you in on what you have done if you happen to have forgotten. In evaluating the past, you must be every bit as critical as if you were looking at the preaching of another who preceded you. Be tough. Ask the same questions you would of another’s work. Don’t spare yourself; learn to be truly self-critical. Don’t close your eyes to obvious gaps or attempt to rationalize your omissions. If you find that you are having a hard time being objective about it, take the results of your findings to another pastor whose judgment you trust and ask him to give mercilessly his best opinion of the matter (and don’t get angry with him when he does).

Immediate Problems, Issues, etc.

In addition to the past, you must take a look at the present. You must not be so concerned about achieving some theoretically correct or exactly balanced approach to teaching scriptural truth—as desirable as that may be—that you fail to take into consideration the many current problems, dangers, issues, or threats that your people are confronting at the moment. Are the Mormons active in the community? Then surely something about them, their doctrine, etc., would be appropriate, regardless of the fact that (according to some ideal, theoretical plan of yours) it is the time for a study of the Amalakites. Is the congregation threatened with family difficulties? Then certainly it would not be amiss to forget the Amalakites for now and, instead, to conduct a series on the Christian family.

Current issues and concerns may often supersede other plans made some time before. Like Jude, you may find it necessary to change the emphasis of your instruction.

Growth Areas

The past and the present figure largely into decisions about what to preach, but so does the future. There are certain concerns that every pastor ought to hold regularly before his congregation with a view toward affecting growth or edification among the members of the body individually, and for the building up of the congregation as a body. These areas of preaching have to do with the great doctrines and the great truths of the faith and their implications for daily living. It is important to respond to immediate need and to attempt to fill in gaps that remain from past deficiencies, but even the old timers, who have heard it all before, along with the children and new converts, need to be reminded of the great facts of the faith. And they need to be challenged afresh about witnessing, prayer, Bible study, church attendance, etc.

So, any plan for preaching ought not merely respond to outside factors, lest it become reactionary rather than responsive, but must include a regular diet of growth material that will help any congregation, no matter what its other needs and problems may be.

Issues on the Horizon

Continuing to look into the future, you must be able to anticipate problem areas in the society and in the Christian community in which your members live. For instance, it is not too difficult to discern that the church/state issue is becoming a live one, not only from the point of view of what is happening in the interface between the two but also from the perspective of various viewpoints that are being propagated widely within the Christian community itself. You must anticipate your congregation’s questions about the issues and some of the difficulties that they may encounter, so that when they do, the biblical perspectives that you have developed for them will enable them to handle whatever happens. This is preventive, preparatory preaching.

In his sermon to the elders who had come to Miletus to see him (Acts 20), Paul took pains to warn about the future and to prepare the elders for problems arising both from within as well as from without their midst. All too few pastors do preventive, preparatory preaching like this.

So, in determining what to preach, consider the welfare of the congregation and blend concerns from the past, the present, and the future so that you will preach in balance, serving proper proportions of each to the congregation to which God called you to minister His Word. In that way, you will proclaim the “whole counsel of God” and “hold back” nothing that is “beneficial” (Acts 20:20).

Exposition—Is That What’s Needed?

To hear some pastors speak, one would think that ‘exposition’ was the cure-all for modern preaching. Personally, I don’t agree. To set exposition over against other elements in preaching, as these men are inclined to do, is a great error that has lead to the rise of the Bible teacher who lectures in the place of the herald of God who proclaims. In Scripture we are called heralds, not expositors.

Of course I believe in exposition; without adequate exposition there is nothing to herald. Without proper exposition, the divine authority of the message is undercut. Now exposition is only a part—a very important part—but only a part of heralding; it is a serious mistake to equate the two. It is not because I am against exposition that I am issuing this warning. My concern is to counter the notion that preaching may rightly consist of exposition without, or instead of, heralding.

Now, I have been using the word ‘heralding.’ I must explain this currently neglected term. The common Greek word for preaching in the New Testament is kerusso. This word means “to speak like a herald, to cry out, to proclaim.” In the Greek city-states, which were true democracies (i.e., every citizen voted on every issue), the population was made up of three kinds of persons: slaves, freedmen, and citizens. In many places the citizens, those who alone had the power to vote, were in the minority. When a public question demanded a vote, therefore, it was the task of the kerux, or herald, to travel around the city proclaiming the fact and calling out the citizens from among the general populace. They then assembled at the call of the herald, discussed the issue, and voted.

The word for ‘church’ that is used in the New Testament is ekklesia, which means “the called-out ones.” It was first used to designate these Greek assemblies which consisted of the persons called out from the general populace by the herald. Thus, it expressed exactly the idea that God wanted to convey—that His people are called out of the world by His heralds to transact the business of the city of God.

The word kerusso, and its cognate, kerux, are used of both the preaching of the gospel to the lost and of the proclamation of God’s Word to believers. These basic terms appear in every sort of preaching context.

It is not my concern to discourage Bible teaching (in Scripture the herald is also called a teacher); I am interested instead in preserving the concept of heralding. The stance of the teacher-who-is-not-also-a-herald is the stance of a lecturer rather than preacher. He enters the pulpit to talk about the Bible rather than about God and the congregation. Moreover, he tends to put himself up front rather than the One who sent him. He is tempted to become the great expositor, the magician who knows how to open the Word and pull gospel rabbits out of it. His efforts are directed not so much toward changing people as toward explaining Scripture. His mission is to inform. While the herald also informs, he does so as a means to an end. Exposition is not a thing-in-itself; it is a part of something larger. Exposition is done with a focus. For him, exposition is a means of persuading the members of his congregation to believe or disbelieve something as well as a means of moving them to action. He is concerned about bringing God and the congregation into confrontation with one another in Scripture.

While what I have just said is not true of all who call themselves expository preachers, it is frequently true and in some respects—having to do with stance—true of just about all. The stance of the so-called expositor is that of someone talking about the text: “This passage naturally falls into three parts.” The stance of the herald is that of one who is talking to a congregation about their relationship to God from the Bible. The expositor says, “God told them …” whereas the herald says, “God tells you …” The stance of the former is that of a literary and theological analyst whereas the stance of the latter is that of one ministering the Word to the persons before him in order to bring their lives into conformity to God’s will. One speaks primarily of the long ago and far away in the Bible; the other speaks primarily of the present from the Bible.

Well, then, how much exposition does the herald do anyway? Just as much as the expositor. But he does it in a context. It is his concern that the purpose for which the passage was given by the Holy Spirit be uppermost in what he says and does when preaching. Therefore, he makes the Spirit’s purpose the purpose of the sermon. The exposition is not a thing apart; it is made to serve the telos, or intention, of the Holy Spirit in producing the passage. Exposition is done in the service of something else, not for its own sake.

I know that I will be charged with caricaturing expository preaching, but I have been careful to point out that what I am criticizing is a tendency growing out of a wrong understanding of the place of exposition that too often, but not always, characterizes it. To call preaching exposition rather than proclamation is a decision that, in itself, is clearly indicative of the tendency of which I have been speaking.

What, then, is the place of exposition in heralding? If it is not an end in itself, if it is not the goal of preaching and is not to be equated with preaching, then what part does it play in heralding? Exposition plays two important roles. First, exposition is the means by which the preacher explains what God has to say to the congregation about their relationship to Him and to their neighbors. Apart from exposition, there is no message to herald. The Christian herald proclaims the message of Another, not his own; exposition makes that message known. It is by exposition, when done within a context in which the congregation (rather than the Amalakites) is addressed as the subject of the passage, that God speaks His Word to His people today. Secondly, exposition which successfully enables people to understand what God is saying lends authority to the herald’s words. Listeners see where he got the message that he proclaims; they see plainly that it is not his message, but God’s, and that the herald is simply there to help them to understand what God is saying, to urge them to comply, and to show them how to do so. That is the place of exposition.

So, then, preacher, “herald the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2). Don’t merely expound it; herald it. Preach for correction, reproof, encouragement as well as to inform. Herald the Word! That is to say, proclaim it clearly, fully as God’s Word to men and women today and you will see life and growth as well as knowledge among those to whom you preach.

What Preachers Need Today

Throughout the Book of Acts there is an ever-occurring term that stands out. Indeed, this descriptive term is so characteristic of the apostles’ preaching of the Gospel that Luke is careful to use it even up to and including the very last verse of his book!

“What is it?”

Let me quote that verse an see if you can pick it out.

“OK. Go ahead.”

Speaking of Paul’s house arrest, here is what he writes:

He stayed two whole years in his own rented house . . . proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with full boldness and without hindrance (HCSB).

Do you see the word that I have in mind?

“Not sure… is it ‘proclaiming?'”

A great word—shows us how he never stopped preaching. But that’s not the word I had in mind.

“How about ‘teaching?'”

Another good choice— but not what I had in mind.

“Then it must be ‘boldness.”‘

Bingo! You got it.

“Thought I never would. Why do you point this out? Isn’t boldness a bit careless? You know what the word means—’he boldly jumped over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle’—and so on?”

No! No! No!

“What do you mean, ‘NO?'”

I mean NO!

“Why say NO?  Everyone knows that boldness can lead to carelessness—why would Luke characterize Paul’s teaching that way?”

Glad you raised that question. You see, this isn’t the ordinary word for boldness—it is a special word.

“How does it differ?”

This word means “to speak the truth without fear of consequences.  How we need that sort of preaching today!

“You’re right.  Thanks for clearing that up.”

You’re welcome.