Five Lessons Learned From Decades of Preaching
1. You never preach well enough to convert a single person. That is, unless you believe that faith is an ability of man generated to decision by the persuasive abilities of the preacher. But I don’t believe that saving faith is a natural ability of man. Faith is a sovereign grace-gift of God which comes to those who hear the Word of Christ (Eph 2:8-9; Phil 1:29). Therefore, I must not try to use my oratory gifts or unbiblical strategies to push a hearer into decisionism. Rather, because I believe that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ, I must use all my ability to preach the Word of Christ with clarity, to preach Christ with sincere unction, but always relying upon the sovereign work of the Spirit to bring faith and the new birth.
This is what made Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones such great preachers. They knew that their calling was to proclaim Christ and Him crucified; but they also knew that only truth made plain and applied by the Spirit would convert a single soul. They were not men of ego. They were amazed that God would use them at all as the conduit of truth applied by the Spirit to men’s hearts. There is no room for ego, bragging, or pride in preaching. Such an attitude betrays the true heart of the preacher. Preaching is the most humbling thing a man can do. It is foolishness to the unbeliever unless God regenerates him/her. It is humbling to the preacher that he is powerless to change anyone unless God decides to have mercy by His Word and Spirit in the sinner’s heart. Truly the foolishness of preaching Christ gives glory only to God. You never preach well enough to convert a single person.
2. You cannot preach well to others unless you first preach to yourself. The preparation of a sermon or a teaching calls the preacher to be honest with himself first. Paul warned about the peddlers, the hucksters, who gain from using the Word of God without sincerity in their hearts: 2 Corinthians 2:17 says, “For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.” In our preparations, every sin in the text against God’s law must go to the preacher’s conscience and life first in sincerity; every promise of God’s grace must be embraced with humble joy in the sight of God.
One of the hardest things I do each week is to search my own heart with the text to reveal my own remaining sins and failures; my own sinful thoughts and motives and words; my own failure to edify others. Yet, that very exercise from the text points me to the glory and sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, thus renewing my zeal to proclaim Him to saints and sinners. This self-examination with law and gospel makes you humble in your preaching and makes the sermon sincere, instead of contrived. It speaks to the saints about the things going on in their own hearts each day. It speaks to the unbeliever with true unction showing that you believe what you preach. Such sincere open-hearted study, with deep awareness of your own sin and of God’s grace, makes you preach Christ, not yourself. You cannot preach to others unless you first preach to yourself.
3. True expository preaching always preaches Christ. I had to learn this from Paul and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Paul’s epistles were read in their totality to the congregations gathered. Paul could not give encouragements or commands without reminding them of Christ and Him crucified as the motive and power to live as a Christian. That wholeness of the message must be kept in mind in each sermon. Hebrews, which is a full-length sermon, is another example of preaching Christ expositionally from the Old Testament. Lloyd-Jones made much of the fact that we have been commissioned to preach (herald) the Gospel of Christ, a whole message. Each text and sermon is simply the vehicle to do this, both for saints and sinners. All the Scripture is about the coming, the appearance, and the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man in one Person. Therefore, every Scripture speaks of Him— His Law and His Gospel in some way. Sadly, not all agree with this.
Sincere open-hearted study, with deep awareness of your own sin and of God’s grace, makes you preach Christ, not yourself. You cannot preach to others unless you first preach to yourself.
I am thankful that expository preaching has regained a foothold in the last 60 years. However, some do not understand that one’s hermeneutic determines how he expounds the text. For instance, if you have only a literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic, you will tend to think you have preached expositionally when you may have only explained the grammar, the context, the historical background, and the basic meaning of the text in its context. Comparing Scripture with Scripture is a noble part of this hermeneutic, but there is more to be done for a full exposition.
4. Our hermeneutic determines whether we preach Christ. The literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic self-consciously does not include “the analogy of faith” and “the scope of Scripture,” even when comparing Scripture with Scripture. The “analogy of faith” and “scope of Scripture” is Paul’s “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). This is the self-consciously Reformed hermeneutic which is more than the literal-grammatical-historical exegesis and exposition of the text. The distinctive hermeneutic of the Reformed faith is the grammatical-historical-theological interpretation of the text. While Christ is not mentioned specifically in every text, the “analogy of faith” and “scope of Scripture” are the overall theological meaning of the Bible applied from the broadest context to each text. This final theological element of exegesis is not eisegesis (reading into the text) as some argue. Rather, it is allowing “the whole counsel of God” to illuminate every text from which we preach Christ with theological integrity. To expound any text in the Scripture without using the broadest context, which is Christ revealed to man in the entire Bible, is to mistake running commentary for preaching Christ to men. Expositional preaching must always preach Christ as the center of the Father’s creational and redemptive revelation to man. You cannot preach Christ in all the Scriptures unless you have the “whole counsel of God” as the final source of your exegesis.
5. A preacher’s personality must never dominate the proclamation of Christ. There is a tendency in preachers today to use their personality to persuade men. Good storytellers, comedians, contrived vocalists, and cool clothes may gain the attention of some hearers. But we must ask ourselves: “At the end of the message, do they remember the preacher or the Christ whom he preached?” The modern fad of celebrity preachers may gain much attention and even, by God’s kindness, actually save sinners whenever Christ is finally preached. But the priority of pastors in local churches preaching to saints and sinners must never result in hiding Christ behind the preacher instead of hiding the preacher behind Christ. A preacher’s personality must never dominate over the proclamation of Christ. Rather, a man’s personality must retreat under the shadow of the Cross that Christ may be seen in plain view.