by Phil Newton
By listening to some of the preaching of those who profess belief in biblical inerrancy, one might ask, “Why all the fuss over the inerrancy of Scripture?” Beating the drum of inerrancy means little when it fails to connect to the pulpit. Affirming inerrancy in writing and conversation appears lame if it does not change the way that the preacher handles the biblical text in the pulpit.
I have sometimes been shocked at how little the Word is opened at conferences and conventions of those who claim to stand firmly on the authority of God’s Word. I recall attending a SBC pastors’ conference a number of years ago and listening to at least ten sermons. Only two of the ten were expositional. Yet the others were held up as models of biblical preaching. It is not that the other sermons said nothing of moral value, but they lacked authority and power and spiritual value because they were not grounded in the biblical text. Those sermons did not move me to Christ, as faithful biblical sermons should do.
But I need not point at others. The same can happen to me in my own pulpit if I get careless with God’s Word. I can stand, read a text, preach for forty-five minutes, and end up saying nothing of eternal value, and nothing to transform lives, if I fail to let the text of God’s Word speak to the congregation. So how do I avoid falling into the trap of trying to impress others with my self-perceived cleverness or homiletical skills or oratorical abilities? Let me offer a few questions to help preachers and teachers to better prepare to “preach the Word.”
(1) Is the biblical text the centerpiece of the sermon or merely an accessory to the preacher’s topic? I sat for many adolescence years in church services where the pastor read a text and departed therefrom. Piecing together newspaper clippings, stories from “old doctor so-and-so,” and a string of moralistic aphorisms do nothing for the people of God or those without Christ! Give them the Word—nothing more and nothing less!
(2) Does the preacher search for a text to validate his ideas or does the biblical text shape and form his ideas in the sermon? Before my exposure to biblical preaching, I can recall sitting around trying to think up a topic on which to preach when I filled the pulpit for someone. How I wish that I could recall those sermons! Dare they even be given that special title of sermon? Those sloppy attempts at preaching gave evidence of how shallow my regular reading of the Word was at the time. They also exposed my presumption in thinking that my ideas were worthy to foist upon a waiting congregation. Poor study of the Word results in scrambling to find a text to fit one’s ideas. Let us ban that from our pulpits!
(3) Has the preacher grappled with the text’s historical, grammatical, and theological underpinnings? Does his understanding of the text in light of these inform and shape his sermon? I know that these two questions just required a lot more work before stepping into the pulpit! Yet knowing that we who shepherd the flock are entrusted with the very ones purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28) means that we dare not skip the hard work—the so-called “spade work”—when it comes to preaching. I recall talking to a young man who said that he was called to preach and eager to do so, yet he admitted that he did not like to read and study. I told him to go back and recheck his calling. If he did not enjoy studying, digging, and reading in preparing to preach, then he had no business ever stepping into a pulpit. Is that too much to ask for those shepherding God’s flock? Lash yourself to the study. Work through the historical, grammatical, and theological tools. Understand the text’s canonical, cultural, and doctrinal contexts. Then develop the sermon out of the fruit of studying the text.
(4) Is the main point of the biblical text the theme of the sermon? I have been so often reminded of this question as I’m working through the book of Genesis with my congregation. One can easily drift into very helpful and useful moral lessons when preaching Genesis, and yet in the process miss the entire point of the text. Consequently, the sermon could fit well in a civic club meeting due to its moral content while offering little to nothing of the aim in Genesis to show us the Creator’s work in setting apart and redeeming a people for Himself. The OT character can become the focal point instead of the Lord God who works providentially to bring about the redemption of His people.
(5) Does the homiletic structure of the sermon unfold the point of the biblical text or simply demonstrate the cleverness of the preacher? I like a good sermon outline. But unless the outline derives from the text, it may have great verbiage and catchy phrases, but it serves to turn the hearers’ attention away from the Word of God and onto the preacher. Does that mean that the outline must only use phrases from the Scripture in order to be accurate? Certainly not, but instead, the outline must be faithful to what the text is saying.
I imagine that you can add more questions to this little personal inventory for the preacher as he weighs the use of his time in preparing to teach and preach. But I hope these five questions will serve as gracious friends to encourage and sometime goad the preacher to faithfully expound God’s Word.