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The Three Questions of Preaching


The great burden of my heart is to cover what I call Christian expository preaching. I'll explain these three words and the significance of them as we go along: Christian, expository, preaching. Christian expository preaching is that which introduces the living God of the Bible and his saving work in Jesus Christ. I'd like to take a few moments to set out three questions that I find practical and helpful in the process of preparing to preach.

Does this sermon say what the text says?

The first is this: does this sermon say what this text says? In the process of preparing a message I have my Bible open in front of me. I'm asking this question: Does what I'm putting together say what this text says? This, of course, relates to Christian expository preaching. The word expository is key here.

Believing that God uses his Word to accomplish his work in the lives of his people, I want to make sure that my preaching is indeed a communication of the Word of God. After all, God has never promised to bless my words. But he has promised to bless his word. So if I am wise, I will seek to fill my words with his Word, so that the people may be blessed.

I preached last fall through the Book of Micah, and eventually came to chapter 7. "What misery is mine. I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard. There is no cluster of grapes to eat. And none of the early figs that I crave." So here again, my creative mind was off and running. Disappointment—"What misery is mine." What does God have to say into your life when your life doesn't work out as you have hoped? What do you do when you don't see the fruit that you have hoped for? It's a great message, but not like this.

Actually, my enthusiastic mind was running on a completely wrong track. And it was this question again that brought me up short. The reason of course for Micah's misery is that the godly had been swept from the land. I'm so struck on this occasion on how near I was to heading off in completely the wrong direction. I decided that it might be useful and edifying for the congregation to confess to them so that they can learn something more about being careful in interpreting the Scripture. Boy, I tell you, we had more folks then with their Bibles open than ever before. And they're all going, "If he got it wrong once, we've got to make sure he's not got it wrong again."

When we got to it, we saw that the reason Micah was miserable was because what he saw in the land was the loss of godly character, the rise of self-interest, and the breakdown of family life among God's people. We saw that what was happening among God's people was a mirror image of what was happening in the unbelieving world, which lead to a situation in which God's people were precious little different than people that did not believe, and that broke Micah's heart. This of course speaks into our society today and raises the question: do we care about the fact that the Christian church is often so little different than the world? What do we know of Micah's misery? So I want to argue for Christian preaching that is expository. Does this say what this text says?

Is this a sermon?

There's a second question that I find helpful: Is this a sermon? Now here we're focusing in on Christian expository preaching. Let's talk a little bit about preaching. It seems to me that this question, "Is it a sermon?" is every bit as important as the first question, "Does this say what this text says?"

From time to time, I have the opportunity of encouraging another preacher, sometimes through listening to a sermon, or listening to a series of sermons on tape, or even interacting over the telephone. From the privilege of that limited experience, I want to offer this impression: rarely have I been asked to review a sermon that has failed the test of the first question. But many times it has seemed to me that the message I've heard has failed the test of the second question. In other words, the material presented was an excellent presentation of the content of a particular passage. It would have made a fine lecture. But it simply was not a sermon. Biblical preaching is more than a collage of biblical information.

Preaching, as John Stott put it so well, builds the bridge from text to life, from there and then to here and now. From the third person in the story—he or they, Micah or Noah or whoever—to the first or second person application in the pew—we and you. Preaching is more than a word about God. It is indeed a word from God. It is God speaking in and through his Words to these people who have come into his presence today.

Warren W. Wiersbe has a delightful passage in his book Preaching and Teaching with Imagination in which he describes a fictitious character he's invented called Grandma Fatcher. Grandma Fatcher he pictures coming to church on a Sunday morning. She's in pain, and her husband has sent her off to church with curses wringing in her ears. She has prayed that the fuel prices won't go up with the winter coming. And if it wasn't for the Lord and the Bible, she would have given up long ago. Pastor Bowers steps into the pulpit, and as he does Grandma Fatcher prays silently, "Lord, give him something special for me today. You know I need it." Pastor Bowers's sermon, Wiersbe says, is from Genesis chapter 9, and bears the title "God Speaks to Noah."

Now straightaway, you're into the world of the lecture—the world of the there and then. Then Wiersbe gives the headings that I think he must have had great fun making up. The genius of this is, if you look at Genesis chapter 9, the outline is absolutely accurate. It is the most brilliant analysis of the content of chapter 9 that you could imagine:

I. Creation Presented, vv. 1-3

II. Capital Punishment, vv. 4-7

III. Covenant Promised, vv. 8-17

IV. Carnality Practiced, vv. 18-23

V. Consequences Professed, vv. 24-29

Brilliant! All these themes are there. Bowers's message was expository, but it was not a sermon.

Preaching involves building the bridge between the world of the Bible and the world of the people who hear us speak. And the bridge needs to be firmly rooted at both ends. Erwin Lutzer asks the question, "How is this going to change anybody's life?" He says, "If you can't answer that question, you don't yet have a sermon." So I want to argue for the recovery, not just of exposition, but of expository preaching. For this reason, I think of it with some urgency.

Does this say what this text says? Expository preaching. Is it a sermon? Expository preaching.

Is it Christian?

Here's the last question. Is it Christian? Christian expository preaching. Now to ask this question of your almost-complete material at 9 o'clock on a Saturday night, may be somewhat alarming if you decide the answer to this question is no. But let me explain the significance of it. I've found it to be a helpful and searching question. Is it Christian?

I've been greatly helped by a definition of a Christian sermon that I found years ago in a little book by Jay Adams, Preaching with Purpose. Adams says that a Christian sermon is one that will cause you to be thrown out of a synagogue or a mosque. That is a brilliant definition. A Christian sermon is one that will cause you to be thrown out of a synagogue or a mosque. Of course, that is exactly what happened in the course of the Book of Acts when people began to understand what the apostles were really saying about Jesus Christ. They soon threw them out of the synagogues. So I do actually find it helpful to look at what I'm preparing and to ask this question: Is there anything in this that would get me thrown out of the synagogue? If a sermon does not lead you in some way to the person and work of Jesus Christ, it is not Christian.

When I first came across this litmus test, I went back over a good number of my old sermons and came to the astonished and sobering conclusion that a number of them did not in fact pass this test of being authentically Christian. They were moral and spiritual and said good things about God in general terms, but they did not pass this test. I've lived with this litmus test and tried to use it ever since.

Sometime ago I preached a sermon on Psalm 1. Afterwards, a godly old man came up and thanked me. "Pastor, thank you for what you said. Thank you for the Word." Pause. And you always know that when there's a pause from a godly old man who thanks you for the Word, there's something more coming. "Thank you for the Word," he said, "but you didn't tell us who the blessed man is."

Is it me, going on and on for half an hour about how to be a blessed man? Has such a man ever existed, who did not walk in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers whose delight was in the law of God and who was indeed like a tree planted by streams of water yielding fruit in season?

Now, this sermon had been full of good things about Bible meditation, guarding your heart against cynicism and so forth. But it was a dimension short. It missed—and maybe this only needed to be the simplest and briefest of things—but it missed a wonderful opportunity to identify the man who lived under the blessing of God par excellence, and to say through him you may enter into this blessing too.

I am, of course, well aware, and especially in this company, that Psalm 1 is not usually classified as a Messianic psalm. To which my very simple answer is, Yes, but it is in the Bible, and my preaching is to show how every part of that is related to the whole. Our calling is not to present general truths about God or morality or even about spirituality. Our calling is to proclaim Jesus Christ in all of his grace and in all of his glory. Preaching that does not bring us to Jesus Christ is sub-Christian.

Paul established this priority in 1 Corinthians 2:2, when he said that he resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians except "Jesus Christ, and him crucified." Clearly he does not mean by this that this was the only subject on which he would speak. But what he is saying is that he's not interested in any subject that is disconnected from the person and work of Jesus. It seems to me most importantly that this focus will deliver us from preaching that is little more than moralism, or at best, sustained exhortation.

This came home to me a number of years ago when I had the opportunity for a sabbatical that we spent in my home city of Edinburgh in Scotland. We worshiped for three months in my home church, hearing different preachers every Sunday because they were involved in a pastoral search at the time, so we had folks bringing their best sermon week after week. We heard some fine preaching.

But after a while I began to notice a pattern that became more and more striking the longer it went on. It was interesting as a pastor to listen for three months, to a whole range of other preachers. Every week we were exhorted: What God calls us to be, what God calls the church to be. Are we living this life? Are we putting it into practice? I was exhorted, but I was not led to Christ. Even in three months, the diet of exhortation soon wore thin. I needed to be fed, and the food that I needed was the bread of life.

Colin Smith is pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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