Chapter 3

A Preacher's Temptation: To Preach Something Other than the Bible

When the Bible is preached, God's voice is heard.

I used to cheat in Algebra. Math has always been difficult for me, and so when I was assigned to the honors Algebra class, which was very much over my head, I adjusted this discrepancy by "borrowing" some answers from the best mathematician in the school, and a fellow starter on the varsity basketball team.

I wasn't a Christian at the time, but I had a strong conscience, one which initially burned within me each time I broke the school's law, God's law, and my own moral law. But after a while, as the teacher himself turned a blind eye to what was going on, and my heart hardened toward this sin, this fire of conscience cooled. The guilt subsided. The teacher didn't care. My friend didn't care. I didn't care. I passed the class.

When I became a Christian a year after graduating high school, everything changed on the inside, and eventually on the outside. So when I transferred to Wheaton College to major in Bible/Theology, I vowed never again to cheat on anything.

This vow, however, was quickly tested. In my second semester of New Testament Greek (which, I'm convinced, uses the same mental muscle as math), I missed the mid-term exam due to the flu. My professor graciously allowed me to take the test on my own time. He told me he would leave a copy of it in his mailbox outside of his office. I could pick it up and take it whenever I felt better.

A few days later, in good health, I stood before his mailbox. I saw the test and grabbed it. Yet, as I looked down in the mailbox again, I noticed another exam, one completed by the best student in the class. I looked around. The hallway was empty. I cautiously lifted the other exam. It felt as heavy as a thousand fat devils dancing on it. Yet as heavy as it felt, it was as if a calm, reasonable voice whispered from it, "Take and copy. Take and copy." I heeded that advice. I placed both exams in my backpack and hurried across the street to the library. I zipped opened the backpack, placed the blank test on the right, and then I lifted slowly the other exam.

Then … I stopped. I didn't place it down on the left. Instead, convicted by the Spirit—that God sees all, that cheating is a sin, that such a sin would be offensive to God, my teacher, and my classmate—I placed the completed exam in my backpack again. I walked back across the street, and I placed it back in the professor's mailbox. I returned to the library and took the test on my own. I passed the test! What a victory for me, one among many. For by God's grace I never cheated in college, graduate school, or seminary.

When the Bible is preached, God's voice is heard.

Now as a pastor, however, every week I'm tempted to cheat in another way. I'm tempted to disregard either the Bible or the principles of rightly interpreting God's Word. Or both! I'm tempted, as all pastors are, to bypass the Bible and biblical exegesis in an effort to wow the congregation with anything and everything but the Bible.

In this essay I want to challenge you to prepare sermons based on the conviction that no sermon is God-glorifying if it ignores or mishandles God's Word. I will do so by briefly walking us through four temptations we preachers face on a weekly basis. For each temptation, I will offer a truth that we can use to uphold us when enticed to leave aside or compromise our fundamental convictions and practices of sound Bible preaching. I will conclude with a summary word from that rightfully famous preacher's text, 2 Timothy 2:15.

The First Temptation

Our first temptation is to preach something other than the Bible as the source and essential substance of our sermon. These days the biggest evangelical churches are often the ones who have embraced church growth models. Often, included in such models (indeed part of the success), are sermons that are based less on Bible texts than on cultural topics. Having been raised as a Roman Catholic, where the Bible was rarely preached but often read in church, I find it quite ironic that these days you would likely hear more Bible on a Sunday morning in the Catholic liturgy than from a Protestant pulpit. We must protest such new Protestantism, and resist its lure.

The conviction to ward off this temptation is that when the Bible is preached, God's voice is heard. When I lead a workshop on biblical exposition for the Charles Simeon Trust, my first lesson usually begins by answering the question, Why does expository preaching matter?[1] At my most recent workshop in Dublin, Ohio, I included some quotes from two authors that nicely solidified my thoughts (and personally re-convicted me!).

The first author is John Owen. In his classic Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (first published in 1656), he writes (and I paraphrase):

Sometimes as we read the Word, God makes us stay on something that cuts us to the heart and shakes us as to our present condition. More frequently it is as we hear the Word preached that God meets with us, for preaching is God's great ordinance for conviction, conversion, and edification. God often cuts us by the sword of his Word in that ordinance, strikes directly on our bosom-beloved lust, startles the sinner, and makes us engage in the mortification and relinquishment of the evil of our hearts.

Is that your conviction? Do you think "sacramentally" about preaching—that it is God's "great ordinance" for conviction, conversion, and edification?

The other author I quoted was Frederick Dale Bruner. In his lecture, "The Shy Member of the Trinity: Expository Preaching Gives the Filling of the Holy Spirit" (published in The Holy Spirit: The Shy Member of the Trinity), Bruner adds some fire to his usual light. Let the two quotes below burn within:

Preaching and teaching that is born of a prayerful wrestling with the biblical texts in an almost athletic attempt each week to find the real meaning of these authoritative scriptural sentences—that is evangelical-catholic preaching and teaching. Such preaching and teaching is, when it pleases God to honor it, filled with the Spirit …. If believing Christ is the way we ourselves are filled with the Spirit … then interpreting Scripture is usually the main way that pastors are means of grace to the greater part of their people each week …. [2]
I love exegesis. But exegesis may not be every pastor's or teacher's main gift (1 Corinthians 12). Am I wrong, however, in believing that exegesis is almost every preacher's, and many church teachers', main responsibility?[3]

Bruner is not wrong. It is our main responsibility to join the nearly thirty centuries of Bible-expositors before us to cohabit with the divinely inspired texts Monday through Saturday in order to speak on Sunday "the honest truth about the words of God to the real needs of the people of God,"[4] believing that "the Sunday morning sermon has been the ordinary conduit of the life-giving Spirit to the people of God through the ages,"[5] and that God's voice is heard when his Word is opened, explained, and applied.

In part two of this series, we look at the second temptation we must overcome if we are to pass the preacher's test: sermon-prep procrastination.

1. Below are two good definitions of expository preaching: "Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers" (Haddon W. Robinson, Expository Preaching [Leicester: IVP, 1986], 20); "Expository preaching is 'Bible-centered preaching.' That is, it is handling the text 'in such a way that its real and essential meaning as it existed in the mind of the particular Biblical writer and as it exists in the light of the over-all context of Scripture is made plain and applied to the present-day needs of the hearers'" (Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988], 11, quoting from Merrill Unger, Principles of Expository Preaching [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955], 33. Cf. Richard L. Mayhue, "Rediscovering Expository Preaching," TMSJ 1 (1990): 119.

2. Frederick Dale Bruner and William Hordern, The Holy Spirit: The Shy Member of the Trinity (repr. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2001), 24-25.

3. Ibid., 26.

4. Ibid., 30-31.

5. Ibid., 21-22.