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Three Challenges to Sound Preaching

We must understand what preaching truly is.

Editor's note: One of the rich payoffs of reading a seasoned preacher, observer, and scholar like Don Carson are the crucial distinctions he makes when discussing the essentials. What follows is an excerpt from a book chapter titled Challenges for the Twenty-first Century Pulpit, and we pick up here with what Carson sees as three of the challenges to sound preaching that characterize every age. First, there is the challenge to understand correctly the nature of preaching.

The first challenge: An adequate grasp of what preaching is

Countless volumes have been written on this subject, of course. Here I shall restrict myself to five observations.

First, preaching is more than the oral communication of information, no matter how biblical and divine that information may be. Rather, we should think in terms of what might be called "re-revelation." Across the centuries, God disclosed himself—he revealed himself—in great events (e.g., the burning bush, the exodus, the resurrection of Jesus); he disclosed himself supremely in the person of his Son. But very commonly he revealed himself by his words. Perennially we read, "The word of the Lord came to such-and-such a prophet." So when that Word is re-announced, there is a sense in which God, who revealed himself by that Word in the past, is re-revealing himself by the same Word once again. Preachers must bear this in mind. Their aim is more than to explain the Bible, however important that aim is. They want the proclamation of God's Word to be a revelatory event, a moment when God discloses himself afresh, a time when the people of God know that they have met with the living God. They know full well that for the Scriptures to have this revelatory impact, the Spirit of God must apply that Word deeply to the human heart, so that preaching must never be seen as a mere subset of public oratory. Both the content (the Bible is God's Word) and the transformative empowering (the Spirit himself) transcend any merely mechanical view of preaching.

There is a kind of "biblical" preaching that is not so much unbiblical as trivial.

Second, to remain true to this basic understanding of what preaching is, the preacher must be committed to the primacy of expository preaching. We must take pains to debunk what many people think "exposition" and "expository" mean. They associate exposition with a style that takes not more than half a verse per sermon and casts around widely for every conceivable association, biblical and pastoral. Certainly that is one form of exposition, but that form is not the essence of the matter. Exposition is simply the unpacking of what is there. In a narrative text (e.g., 2 Samuel) or major epic (e.g., Job), fine exposition may focus on several chapters at once. If a sermon takes two or three short passages from disparate parts of the Bible and explains each of them carefully and faithfully within its own context, it remains an expository sermon, for it is unpacking what the biblical text or texts actually say. If we expect God to re-reveal himself by his own words, then our expositions must reflect as faithfully as possible what God actually said when the words were given to us in Scripture.

Third, there is an heraldic element in preaching. The Bible sometimes envisages other forms of oral communication, of course: we may be invited to reason together with the Lord (Isa. 1:18), for instance, or enter into a dialogical confrontation with him (e.g., Mal. 1:2-8; Rom. 6:1-2). Yet in the oft-repeated "Thus says the Lord" of the Old Testament, or in the proclamation so common to the New Testament, there is an unavoidable heraldic element—an announcement, a sovereign disclosure, a non-negotiable declaration. As ambassadors, we are tasked with making known the stance and intentions of our Sovereign; we do not have the authority to tamper with his position.

Fourth, preaching is never an end in itself. It is not an art form to be admired, still less mere high-flown rhetoric that so captures the audience's imagination that the content is of little importance. This is not to deny that artistry and rhetoric may be traced in sermons; rather, it is to keep ultimate ends in constant view. The faithful preacher will care little what folk think of his oratorical skills; he will care a great deal about whether he has faithfully represented the Master and his message. This includes a passionate commitment to make the Word wound and heal, sing and sting.

And that means, fifth, that we must study our own people, the culture of the people to whom we minister. Inevitably there are commonalities from culture to culture, but there are countless distinctives as well. To communicate effectively we must address the people of the time and place where God has placed us.

The second challenge: A firm and growing grasp of Scripture

This is implicit in Paul's injunction so to advance in "life' and "doctrine" that others see our progress. Yet two further reflections may be of use:

First, what we mean by teaching "the whole will of God" needs some probing. When Paul attests that this is what he proclaimed to the believers in Ephesus, the Ephesian elders to whom he makes this bold asseveration know full well that he had managed this remarkable feat in only two-and-a-half years. In other words, whatever else Paul did, he certainly did not manage to go through every verse of the Old Testament, line by line, with full-bore explanation. He simply did not have time. What he must mean is that he taught the burden of the whole of God's revelation, the balance of things, leaving nothing out that was of primary importance, never ducking the hard bits, helping believers so to grasp the whole counsel of God that they themselves would become better equipped to read their Bibles intelligently, comprehensively. This doubtless included not only what to believe but how to act. It embraced God's purposes in the history of redemption (truths to be believed and a God to be worshiped), an unpacking of human origin, fall, redemption, and destiny (a worldview that shapes all human understanding and a Savior without whom there is no hope), the conduct expected of God's people (commandments to be obeyed and wisdom to be pursued, both in our individual existence and in the community of the people of God), and the pledges of transforming power both in life and in the life to come (promises to be trusted and hope to be anticipated).

Second, to pursue a firm and growing grasp of Scripture ideally demands an improving grasp of Scripture, of historical theology, of biblical theology, and of systematic theology. These disciplines may be distinctive, but they are certainly not mutually exclusive: growth in any one of them deepens growth in all of the others, and sustained ignorance of any one of them hampers growth in all the rest of them.

The third challenge: A deep commitment to making the important things the important things, to making the central things the central things

There is a kind of "biblical" preaching that is not so much unbiblical as trivial. Not long ago I heard a sermon on Luke 1:26-38, in which the angel Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. The entire sermon focused on how God sometimes does unexpected things in our lives. After all, Mary didn't expect to become pregnant in this way. The rest of the "exposition" focused on Mary's psychological and spiritual profile in all of this. A fair bit of what was said has some sort of relation to the text; reasonable inferences were made. But none of the "exposition," none of it at all, focused on Jesus! Whatever interest Luke has in saying something about Mary is minor compared with his interest in telling us who Jesus is. Five minutes of the sermon reserved for some reflection on Mary's outlook might have been appropriate; the loss of Jesus was not.

Recently I skimmed a book that included a chapter on "Mrs. Noah." Same problem: the author was so desperate to get the text to answer contemporary questions that virtually the entire account of the flood merely served to help us understand Mrs. Noah's outlook. As it happens, this essay was more restrained than most popular writings of this sort. Even so, the author was terribly far removed from making the main thing the main thing.

Another sermon I recently heard, this one on John 2:1-11 (the changing of the water into wine, in Cana of Galilee), included some interesting comments on the social customs of Jesus' day and reflected for quite a while on the way in which Jesus meets us in the commonplaces of life. Somehow or other, the preacher failed to tie this passage to the other "signs" in John's Gospel, or say much about the miracle itself, or reflect on the "glory" theme (with which this passage ends, 2:11) in the Gospel of John, or comment on the many, many ways in which Jesus in John's Gospel transcends the law, showing himself to the true temple, the true vine, the true bread of life, and so on—even though the passage carefully mentions that the six stone water pots full to the brim were used for Jewish ceremonial washings, and that it was Jesus' work that brought about the miraculous transformation, not observance of the law. Moreover, the miracle itself prepares the way for the declaration, in the next chapter, that Jesus himself is the bridegroom: the miracle anticipates the messianic banquet. All of this and more was left out. The preachers' comments could not legitimately be charged with false doctrine. They could have been legitimately slipped into a faithful sermon. But as it was, they made the "exposition" merely trivial.

Republished with permission. From Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes. Copyright © 2007 by Leland Ryken and Todd A. Wilson. Published by Crossway Books.

D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway).

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