Better Preaching and Biblical Authority

Monday, February 25, 2019

In a recent blog, I declared, since preaching is our priority trust, a commitment to improvement therein would be in order.  The work of feeding the sheep by preaching God’s word is a labor worthy of our most arduous industry.  As New Testament believers, we are continuing in “the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42), and as they, contending for the faith once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3).  The apostles are our examples of how to minister.  They were the original preachers of the New Testament message.  Thomas Armitage called them “comprehensive expositors of Him and His gospel.”  Preaching is lofty, challenging work.  Doing it well - better than ever - is worthy of our deliberate effort.

What does better preaching involve?  We are commanded to “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2) because it is “able to make thee wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15), it is “profitable for doctrine” (2 Tim. 3:16), and it is, to state the distinctive principle of the Baptists, the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.  It appears; consequently, the first necessity for better preaching is:

Routine remobilization of the axioms of biblical authority.

Often, the influence of extreme challenges to our ideological norms, move us imperceptibly toward positions once unthinkable.  This digression happened to preaching in the 20th century.  Many charge Harry Emerson Fosdick as a prominent influence in this regard.

Fosdick, the leading 20th-century liberal, famous for the sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalist Win?” and the book, The Modern Use of the Bible, brought a modernistic philosophy to sermonizing.  In his frustration with the difficulties of preaching, Fosdick “came to the conclusion that a new approach to preaching was needed.”  In an analysis of Fosdick’s methods, found in the book entitled Preaching As Counseling, Edmund Holt Linn said:

The highly regarded expository method seemed to him fraught with weakness.  It gave unwarranted importance to some passage in the Bible instead of to the business of living…”

Fosdick himself said, “Only the preacher proceeds still upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.”  It is this kind of dismissiveness for God’s word that led an admirer of Fosdick to say, “If any young man wished to learn what to preach, he might look elsewhere; but if he would learn how to preach, let him tarry here.”  Separating the how from the what is precisely how preaching took a downward trajectory in the last century.  Preaching that is pithy, inspiring and informative and yet without biblical content…is not preaching.

Fosdick’s humanistic, liberal approach was described as “personal counseling on a large scale” where “the scriptures seemed to afford a source of interesting materials other than any kind of authority for Fosdick.”  Sadly, some very influential fundamentalists, while rejecting Fosdick’s modernism, adopted an approach to preaching that is strikingly similar and theologically vapid.  It hardly matters what one professes to believe doctrinally if it never makes it into his sermons.

If our preaching is to improve, the authority of the scripture must be our overarching, regulatory principle.  When our preaching is shaped and informed by this conviction, that is, when we have remobilized the axioms of biblical authority in our preaching, some things will surface:
  1.   We will submit our own personal and fraternal agendas to the will of God.
The will of God is not, like some strategically located Easter egg, intended to be kept from us.  His will is clearly communicated in His word.  It is the plain thing that is the main thing, most of the time.  By striving to preach God’s word and only His word, to never be wise above what is written, we will find ourselves limited to a more sanctified message.  This determination keeps us trained on the goal of speaking what God has said, not so much what we want to say.  God’s agenda does not accommodate ours.  We are obligated to submit to His.  

The solution is not to say that in our avoidance of personal crusades, we should seek unity at all costs.  E. Y. Mullins said, “If denominationalism ever ceases to exist and all Christians become one it will be not by artificial schemes of union, but through the gradual growth of unity of view, that is, through the operation of the voluntary principle.”  The gradual development of this "unity of view" will only be produced through the preaching and teaching of the word of God.  Biblical persuasion is what produces the “voluntary element" upon which all genuine Christian profession depends.  Intimidation, ridicule and backroom politics will not do.

The chaffing effect of God’s applied authority is not just for those who are ideologically divergent.  His Providence and convicting work will resist our carnal impulses as well.  Through the years, I have found some of my own most cherished plans and ideas to be wholly personal and not of God.  Remobilization of the axioms of biblical authority will cause us to submit our will to His, in preaching, teaching, leadership, and ministry in general.
  1. The content of the word of God will be the message.
I wish I could recover the time and energy I burned each week in the first ten years of my pastoral work, searching for a “message,” or what I called, “something to preach.”  While I was aware of the command to “Preach the word,” I had my own ideas of how to do that.  It took years for it to sink in that whatever passage I studied laboriously and delivered faithfully on any given Sunday, would be light years better than the clever sermonizing I might produce.  I was commanded to preach the word with “longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:2), to hold “forth the words of life” (Phil. 2:16), but I was motivated by the desire to be sensational. I valued emotional contrivances over communicating truth clearly and sensibly.  There is no correlation between constancy to biblical study and spiritual deadness.  There is; however, a direct line between doctrinal ignorance and powerless, wild-eyed mysticism. 

It is common for some to make a distinction between a classroom and the pulpit.  They love to say, “Get out of the library and back to the pea patch.”  While I am not exactly sure what that means, I do know that the word of God commands the preacher to work hard in the field of study (2 Tim. 2:15)Paul requested, not only the parchments but the books as well.  Bible preaching (the bold proclamation of God’s word that demands a response) cannot exist without the component of teaching (the transfer of knowledge with attention to detail).  Doctrine is what is taught.  To “continue in the apostles’ doctrine” is to be devoted to strong, informative, theological preaching, teaching, and learning.  A commitment to the scripture as “the final authority in all matters of faith and practice” will, without a doubt, result in the distribution of God’s truth as our primary ministry commitment.
  1. Salient doctrines will not be trivialized by absurdity.
I have become increasingly alarmed by the distasteful, irreverent, undignified way in which God’s highest truth is being delivered.  I must say, I have been guilty myself.  I have preached about hell and resorted to sensational anecdotes to provide the “power.”  I have preached about holiness and utilized the ridicule of others as a means for challenging God’s people.  I have preached the gospel and relied upon gut-wrenching stories to bring people to a decision instead of exercising faith in His word and sending it out with painstaking clarity.

False ideas abound concerning the Godhead, eternity and the gospel.  How necessary it is for God’s men to preach every sermon with faithfulness!  We must preach, knowing that lost, confused, ignorant people will formulate their impressions of Christianity by how we handle the truth.  “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God,” (Rom. 10:17), not by stories, tantrums, tirades, comedy routines, mysticism and guilt trips.  

I offer these thoughts, not as a high-toned criticism of others, but as an expression of my painful realization that I have failed here myself.  While I am abundantly thankful for God’s merciful demonstrations of grace in using me to the extent that He has, I am loath to continue without careful examination of my own heart and habits.  With God’s help, I must preach better.

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  1. Thanks for the admonition. C. H. Spurgeon called preaching our craft and that we should labor to improve upon it.

  2. It is such an honor to have a pastor/shepherd with a genuine desire to teach and preach without apology the truth of the scripture, and at the same time demonstrate a pastoral love that is felt by every member of our church. Thank you for this article and commitment.