The Homiletical Cart and the Hermeneutical Horse
Preaching what God said is profitable.
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It's as ironic as it is frightening—a biblical text that preachers are suitably familiar with, as well as celebrate, is also one they are tempted to butcher weekly. "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Two words in this sentence are particularly significant, yet often ignored. What would happen if we took out the two words "by God"? It's merely two words. However, it changes the foundation of its assertion. No faithful preacher would deliberately exclude these two words, but often (maybe more than often) the preacher is lured to separate them from the rest of the sentence, as a butcher would separate the meat from the fat.
The application temptation
Why would any preacher be tempted this way? In a word, application. When application is the chief objective of the sermon, over and against correct interpretation, it becomes easy to overlook the, "by God" part. Here's how the sentence would read without "by God": "All Scripture is breathed out and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." This sentence is much more expedient when discerning how a particular text can be beneficial for the congregation. Paul asserts unequivocally, that Scripture is beneficial—that Scripture completes and equips. However, the two missing words make the difference between a preacher grounding his sermon in hermeneutics or homiletics.
I recently preached a sermon series titled "The Difficult Teachings of Jesus." All the passages selected were fairly well-known, but often misunderstood. One of the five passages I selected was Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says, "You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet." If I'm honest, I entered my study that week with the assumption that I already understood the meaning of the text, as well as the application for God's people. Why wouldn't I? It's the "Be Salt" passage. Everyone knows this about evangelism, right?
During my study, it became clear that my assumption was incorrect. If I wouldn't have done the hermeneutical work to first discover Jesus' intent and instead jumped straight to application, I would have taught God's people, whom I've been entrusted to teach and care for, the wrong meaning of the passage. I would've gone straight to "BE SALTY!" and "SHOW THE WORLD WHO CHRIST IS!" I would've missed that Jesus says "you ARE the salt of the earth." He didn't say "Go be the salt," He said "you already are the salt … I've made you salt, now act like salt." I would've overlooked the fact that salt can't really lose its saltiness, it can only lose its overwhelming effect by being mixed with other minerals. Jesus' teaching had a deepness to it that I had never seen before in my cursory study of the passage. After the hermeneutical work, I could see clearly what Jesus was teaching his disciples: "You are the salt of the earth. You are different. I've made you different. If you are so mixed with the world and its ways, you will cease to be the influencer for the gospel that I have designed for you to be."
Every faithful preacher reminds his people of the glory of Christ's cross and the redemption that it has produced. The preacher also wants to help their flock understand what it looks like for adopted children of God to start resembling their heavenly Father. However, practically speaking, sounding like a broken record is a palpable fear. They want to offer real and practical application. But, this is where the trap lies. It's all too easy to unintentionally take out the "by God" in sermon prep in an attempt to shove the square peg of felt needs into the round hole of loyal Bible interpretation. In doing so, the preacher puts the homiletical cart before the hermeneutical horse.
Paul says two main things about Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
1. It's breathed out by God
2. It's profitable
Notice that it's the Word of God—the Word that he spoke—that is profitable to make one complete. The Bible is not a magical book where one gets to search and find support for all the things they'd like to teach. It's specifically what God said that is profitable. Paul tells us that there is authorial intent behind the text. The implication is two-fold: 1. What is profitable is what God said and, 2. What God said is profitable. We must not confuse these two as equal. They are different. The promise of Paul is that what God said is profitable, not what someone says about the text. Second, Paul says that what God did say is profitable. This means that the preacher ought not feel the pressure to deter from the authorial intent of the text for fear of irrelevance. Likewise, the preacher ought to believe, no matter the text, that preaching what God said is profitable.
Cutting useless holes
It's possible, even common, for a preacher to deliver a good speech or pep-talk on a Sunday morning that falls exceptionally short of a biblically faithful sermon. The unfortunate reality is that people may be intrigued by it, people may be convicted by it, and for exactly none of it to be "by God." Last year my wife and I bought a fixer-upper. We took about four months and did nearly all the labor ourselves before we moved in. I found myself tempted with every new task to cut corners. I just wanted to move into our new home that we'd invested so much sweat, energy, and money. We couldn't move in until the house was safe and livable. One of the tasks that required the most labor was the electrical updates. The previous owner built the house himself thirty years earlier. He cut a lot of corners and code was not met. We fixed the problems we knew about, but more than that, we updated. We put in new can lights, outlets and switches, and ceiling fans. I cut many holes in the drywall. I had to be very precise as I chose where to cut. I had to keep a couple of things in mind: I had to make sure I wasn't cutting a wire behind the drywall, and I had to make sure I was cutting in the right place, as to make the hole useful. I could have cut some nice holes—ninety-degree angles on the square cuts and perfect circles for the can lights—but if I didn't cut them in the right place, they would be useless. People might have come to see our newly finished remodel and said, "Wow Ryan, those are some great holes! Did you cut those yourself?" They might have admired my drywall cutting skills, but if I didn't accurately measure before I cut, then the hole would be useless, no matter how nicely cut the hole. They might have said, "Great holes, but what purpose do they serve? Why aren't they being used for anything?"
Keeping the horse in front of the cart
You've heard the saying, "measure twice, cut once." This goes for preaching as well. For the faithful preacher, the hermeneutics must come first. The measuring must come first, making sure authorial intent is at the center. Then, and only then, should one proceed to homiletics. As every hermeneutics professor has said, "A text can never mean what it never meant." A handyman can measure accurately without cutting, but they will never cut properly without measuring. A preacher can study the text, do the work of a pastor-scholar and not preach a word of it, but he cannot preach a "by God" sermon without doing the hard work of hermeneutics first.
When homiletics comes before hermeneutics, it both neglects God's intended meaning for his church and teaches God's people bad Bible interpretation method.
Ask yourself, "Am I saying this or did God say this?"
Ryan Welsh is the Preaching Pastor at Redeemer Church in Bellevue, WA and Adjunct Professor of Bible Studies and Homiletics at Corban University in Salem, OR.