QUESTION: I know you taught in a seminary classroom for nearly 50 years, but have you done much preaching over the years? If so, what have you learned about preaching that might help the rest of us?
ANSWER: Actually I have been preaching for over 60 years. Since grade school my career ambition was to be a preacher; I enrolled in Bible College with that goal. I preached my first sermon when I was 18 years old, at Corinth Christian Church (referred to then as the Skullbuster church) in Scott County, Kentucky. My text was James 4:7-8, which gave me my three points: “I. Submit yourselves to God. II. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. III. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” I remember from that sermon the first words I ever preached from a pulpit: “Job was a wealthy man.” I have the sermon outline somewhere in a folder labeled “Sermons I’ll Never Preach Again.”
In my sophomore year in Bible College, around 1956, I began a weekend ministry in Florence, Indiana, and continued preaching regularly almost every Sunday until around 1972—all during my college and graduate school days, and for a few years after I began teaching. In those days churches had both Sunday morning and evening services, so preachers had to prepare two sermons every week. Since 1972 I have done a lot of supply and interim preaching.
What follows here is not a lesson on “how to prepare a sermon,” but lessons I have learned about the role of preaching in the minister’s profession, and the kind of sermons to be preached.
ONE. Do not be afraid of DOCTRINAL preaching. I know the word “doctrine” is scary to a lot of people, but it simply means “teaching.” All good preaching includes teaching, and teaching IS doctrine. We should not confuse Bible doctrine, which is simply teaching the contents of the Bible, with history of doctrine. (When some think of “doctrine,” they think of the teaching of historical figures such as Origen, Augustine, Anselm, Calvin, Kierkegaard, Barth, and Bonhoeffer. But these are writers a preacher may study for his own background knowledge, not as sources of quotations for sermons.)
In converting the contents of the Bible into preaching, we shape it so that it answers three questions. First is the information question: “WHAT’S SO?” Here the preacher addresses the mind, and communicates knowledge or truth. This IS doctrine (i.e., teaching) in its purest form. Second is the application question: “SO WHAT?” Here we also address the mind, but we use wisdom (James 1:5) in showing how specific doctrines relate to life on a personal level, to church issues, to cultural problems, and to national and international affairs. This also IS doctrine. Third is the exhortation question: “NOW WHAT?” This addresses the will (volition) and emotions, and encourages and motivates the hearers to action. Here we suggest what they can DO, based on the doctrine as explained. (This is the element that distinguishes preaching from teaching alone.)
TWO. Do not be afraid of TOPICAL preaching. A common idea is that all preaching should be exegetical or textual, i.e., selecting a text and exegeting it. That’s a good idea, but it’s a bad idea to think this is the ONLY “right” kind of preaching. This is the same error as condemning systematic theology (studying the Bible subject by subject). Topical preaching, like systematic theology, is actually required by the nature of the Bible. The Bible has unity and consistency regarding everything it teaches, because all of its parts come ultimately from the same author: the Holy Spirit. Thus you can never get the full story about any specific subject without examining everything the Bible says about it. (This does not mean we have to present it all in every sermon!)
Good topical preaching will also include exegesis, because it will focus on the key text or texts that deal with a specific subject or issue.
THREE. Do not be afraid to expose and condemn FALSE TEACHING in your preaching. In fact, you MUST do so, if you are going to be true to Scripture. Many have the false idea that a preacher should never criticize the beliefs of others, or never say anything negative about other churches. They cower before the hypocritical judgment that says, “Judge not!” and “Who are you to sit in judgment on others?”
But you cannot be a faithful preacher without exposing false teaching. Titus 1:9 says an elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” I believe this must be applied to all church teachers, as indicated in Ephesians 4:11-15, which says that leaders must not only speak the truth in love but must protect the flock from “every wind of (false) doctrine.” See Acts 20:25ff. for Paul’s example.
So to those who say “Who am I to judge?”, I say “Who are you NOT to judge?” There is such a thing as TRUTH, i.e., sound (true) doctrine. And if there is truth, there must be falsehood or false doctrine. To be true to Biblical truth, we MUST expose and condemn falsehood.
I say this against those who want to take the easy, LAZY road of relativism. In our churches the most common form of relativism is found in those who assign most doctrines to the category of “opinions” – and thereby excuse themselves from the laborious—and risky—task of serious Bible study. We simply must not be afraid to teach and preach against all false doctrines.
FOUR. Where do we start? We start by acquiring and formulating a good, solid, comprehensive, confident understanding of the broad scope of TRUE Bible doctrine. How can we expect to preach and teach Bible truth and expose religious errors if we have not solidified our understanding of important doctrines such as the nature of the Bible, the nature and works of God, the nature of created beings, the nature of sin, Christology, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the church, and eschatology or the end times?
To all preachers I say: What are you feeding your sheep? Junk food? Sawdust sandwiches? Consider this: the theme of the January 2013 issue of Christian Standard was leadership. Page 19 listed “Resources for Developing Leaders,” the list being formulated thus: “We asked . . . 43 churches what they’re using to develop leaders.” Nearly 40 books were named, all but one of which were about methodology. Just one was about sound Bible doctrine.
I close with this question: How can we speak confidently for sound doctrine and against false doctrines unless our own theology is deep, solid, and straight?