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What Biblical Preaching Is and Isn’t

To answer the question we must turn to theology.
What Biblical Preaching Is and Isn’t
Image: Lisa R. Howeler / Getty

[Editor’s Note: Haddon Robinson passed away in 2017.] Some questions people ponder all their lives. Einstein wrestled with the question of gravity till his dying day. On the subject of preaching, one of the elemental questions is "What is biblical preaching?" Everyone who takes Scripture seriously says we need to preach the Bible, but even the most ardent disagree widely about what that means exactly.

The purpose of the Bible is to reveal God to us in such a way that the revelation of God cuts into my life today.

You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has spent more time thinking about the question than Haddon Robinson. It has been his lifelong pursuit. His classic homiletics text, by no coincidence, carries the title “Biblical Preaching.” Haddon is senior editor of PreachingToday.com and Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. At a large conference table in a suite at the O’Hare Airport Hilton, PreachingToday.com editor Craig Brian Larson and Christianity Today International vice president Kevin Miller sat down with Haddon to discuss his signature quest.

PreachingToday.com: When Jesus taught, he didn't go verse by verse through an Old Testament Book. Neither did Peter or Paul, at least in their epistles. There aren't any Scriptures that tell us how to preach biblically. How do we decide what that means?

Haddon Robinson: We don’t have many sermons in the Bible. We have five or six in Acts and the Sermon on the Mount. But the sermons in Acts are primarily evangelistic sermons. We don't know what happened when believers gathered to be taught, so we don't have any models. The answer to “What is biblical preaching?” has to come out of our theology of Scripture.

To what theological principles should we appeal?

First, is what you're preaching true to the Word of God? You may be preaching theology on a Sunday morning, but ultimately is that theology really true to the Word of God?

Second, is it true to the purposes of the Bible? This is more tricky. The major purpose of the Bible is to reveal God. The Bible is not a book about me and my problems. I am secondary. The Bible is a revelation of God. If a sermon ends up being all about me and my problems and what I want, it may be popular, but it is not true to the purpose of the Scriptures.

Even if it draws upon 50 verses, it's not fully biblical.

Right. A sermon may be "profitable" but not biblical. It can be profitable if I give you verses that appear to talk about how to invest your money. Is it profitable? Yes. You learn how to invest your money. But if it doesn't tell you anything significant about God, it isn't profitable for godliness. God may not give a rip about increasing the size of our portfolios. Biblical preaching is God-centered, not person-centered or wallet-centered.

Third, biblical preaching touches the great issues of the Scriptures. I have to be careful about finding things in the Bible that the Bible never addresses.

For instance, no passage in the Bible tells us how to "find the will of God" about common decisions we make — whether we ought to move to Cincinnati to take that new job. Those are bothersome questions — and they were the basic questions the pagans asked of their gods. Yet, it is noteworthy that no biblical writer addresses those questions, and therefore no biblical passages answer them. So even though I have some pressing questions, they may not be biblical questions. If we ask the wrong questions of the Scripture, we may come up with false answers.

If the Bible doesn't address my questions directly, then I might ask, Are there subquestions behind my question that the Bible does speak to? The Bible doesn't say anything about abortion. How do I work with that? Well, there are subquestions: What is the nature of the fetus? Certainly there are passages that seem to speak to that. If the presenting question is not biblical, are there subquestions that would be biblical? Sometimes the subquestions can be bothersome. The Bible says a great deal about coveteousness — wanting more and more of what I have enough of already — and that may speak to why I want to change jobs.

Fourth — and this is the toughest one — is the application I make to people today in line with what the biblical writer says to his readers?

Since sermons must deal with application, they have to deal with how I take a truth given in a particular situation in the ancient world and apply it to men and women in a different situation today. We have to see the purpose of the passage, the purpose of the writer, as well as the similarities and the differences in the situation today.

Some sermons start with application and then go back into the Bible for support. It's instructive to look at the sermons preached — on both sides — about slavery in the nineteenth century. The preachers started with a position on holding slaves or freeing slaves and then went back into the biblical text — and were absolutely sure the biblical text supported it.

What's the starting point of a biblical sermon: human need or the biblical text?

You can start in the present and go back to the biblical text. You can start with the biblical text and take it to the present.

If you start with current needs, you may get back to a biblical text that you were sure talked about that problem and discover it doesn't, and it's now Saturday night! That's when you're tempted to make the Bible say what you know it doesn't say. You end up saying in the name of God something God's not saying at all. In the Old Testament they were told to slay false prophets who did that.

If you start with the biblical text, your big problem is, "How do I relate this to listeners in the twenty-first century?"

You can start either place.

Is the sermon structure determined by the text or the hearers?

The sermon should reflect the flow of the text. An expository sermon is true to the text both in its idea and also in its development. That doesn't mean I have to start the sermon with verse one and proceed through to verse ten. I may begin with verse ten, because that's where the idea is summed up, and then go back and show how I got to that. So my sermon outline needs to reflect the flow of the text, but it doesn't necessarily have to be the flow of the text.

Does a biblical sermon appeal to any authority outside of Scripture?

Yes. A thing is not true because it's in the Bible. It's in the Bible because it's true. Therefore, though my ultimate authority rests in the text, I will use quotes and illustrations that demonstrate that what the text says is true of our common life. I'm appealing to the authority of your experience as well as the authority of the text.

The Bible doesn't exist in some heavenly realm and our hearers in another. So I bring supporting material to underline the truth of the text. I cannot demand that my listeners have a high view of Scripture before I preach to them. But secular listeners are often taken off guard to discover that the Bible reflects their experience.

Why is it biblical preaching for you to quote from someone like Peter Drucker?

Because the Bible reveals God to us in such a way that God cuts into life today. Many times somebody is speaking about life today more eloquently than I can by simply talking about the text.

The Bible says the pagan world is without hope, without God. I underline that truth when I quote from an entertainer, a modern philosopher, or an atheist who says, "The awful thing about atheism is it has no hope and no future." That is testimony to what the Bible teaches.

What modern authorities can't do is support the Bible in its revelation of God. For that I am completely dependent on the Scriptures. But for what the Bible says about common life, I can often find contemporary quotes — just as Paul quotes a Cretan prophet (Titus 1:12). That's better authority than Paul saying, " I've noticed this. "

Must the main point and subpoints of a biblical sermon be grounded on one biblical passage, or can they be grounded on several?

They can be grounded on several, provided you do your work in all of them. That's topical preaching. To do that I must exegete each of those passages or at least know what those passages are about. The difficulty in taking several different passages is that you may not take the passages in their context. As a result, you end up using texts to say what you want them to say. The Bible cannot mean what it has not meant, no matter how many verses I quote.

In general, if I do a sermon on the Trinity, for example, it's usually a better sermon if I orient it to a single text and use other texts to support it.

What do you say to pastors who feel a biblical sermon, as you define it, will not bring new people into the church?

The idea that if I've got to be attractive, that I've got to give hearers topics like "How to get along with your wife.” Does the Bible speak to that? Yes. But if I just give hearers the same thing they get from a good psychologist, I have failed in my mission.

People don't have to believe the Bible when they come to church. I can't ask that of my audience. But I'd better believe the Bible. There's a world of difference. I have to recognize that the hearer out there is not thinking the way I'm thinking. He or she comes with a set of presuppositions. What I am banking on, though, is if I can open up the Scripture and relate it to where that person is living, the Bible can do its work in his or her life.

People say the Bible is no longer sufficient, and therefore what we will do is attract people. I'll attract people to church by telling them we're going to preach about how to deal with your in-laws. I preach from the book of Ruth. Helpful? Yes. Is it what God is talking about? No.

What I reject is the idea that the Bible is basically irrelevant. It's as relevant as water is to thirst, as food is to hunger.

To respond to the editor, click here.

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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