Preachers should let the bible do the talking!

Preachers should let the bible do the talking!

 As I write this blog I am sitting in front of the TV watching the European Team Championships in Leiria Portugal.  Some good performances by Brits, particularly the 4 x 400metre relay team, and Wayne Chambers, of course.

 At the end of a busy 6 days in Wycliffe, I do feel a bit like I have come to the end of a marathon.  But isn’t Christian ministry supposed to be exhausting and energy expending?  It requires discipline, self control and a focus on the end game:  Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (1 Cor 9:25)

 But there is also the caution that success will only be awarded to those who do God’s work in God’s way: An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. (2 Tim 2:5).

 This blog is not intended to be purely about preaching.  But, as I reflect on the last 6 days, it has renewed my conviction that the hope for the future of the Church lies in its preachers.

 Monday to Friday this week the students received a sermon from Vaughan Roberts of St Ebbe’s Oxford on Daniel 6.  I preached on James 4 and gave them a lecture on the Nooma teacher Rob Bell and considered the power of ancient rhetoric.  Archie Coates of Holy Trinity Brompton preached on the subject of ‘joy’ from Philippians 4 and we had two full days of teaching from Greg Haslam of Westminster Chapel which were under girded by his conviction that faithful expository preaching should be carried out with a sense of expectation that God will act when his word is preached, and we should look for divine activity from the Holy Spirit in bible-preaching churches.

 On Saturday 20th June we had the inaugural conference of the Wycliffe School of Preaching, with Greg as well as seminars from Wycliffe Tutors, Michael Green, Justin Hardin and Peter Walker.  About 40 delegates from the Oxfordshire area came for a stimulating and challenging day on the subject of Evangelistic Preaching.

 Too much happened over these last 6 days to attempt to summarise them in a blog.

However these three convictions were reinforced for me:

 Preachers must let the bible speak

 Healthy congregations do not gather primarily to see the preacher display his oratory or rhetoric.  For sure, Paul warned that a time would come men and women would gather around them preachers who would titillate their itching ears, giving soothing and comforting words.  But this will do congregations no good.

 In this passage in 2 Tim 4 there is a warning to congregations.  But there is also a warning to preachers:  have we heard from God in his word before we dare to stand before the congregation?  This requires patient, careful listening to the Bible in all its fullness.

Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.  (Job 38:2-3)

 Job was castigated because he seemed to assume that he knew more than God and could presume to tell God how he should act.  Preachers must not be guilty of this sin.

 Preachers must let the bible loose

 Apologetics is a key part of Pauline preaching and an important part of our preaching training.  We should be able to give compelling reasons for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15).  However, the preacher’s job is not to defend the bible but to preach the bible

 Spurgeon’s comment on this matter is well known.  “Scripture is like a lion. Whoever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose; it will defend itself.”

 I have learnt so much from Dick Lucas’ preaching over the years.  Most significant for me was the way in which Dick would preach a passage in such a way that whenever I came to read that passage again I understood what it meant and means.

 Yes, it is good to learn how to speak articulately, to formulate messages memorably and illustrate and apply the message engagingly (see blog “Make a House a Home” below).  All this is needed.  But the central task in all this is to “let the bible loose” so that people are confronted by the living God through his living word.  It takes time and self-deflecting effort to ensure that the preacher does not stand as a mediator between the living God and God’s people.  His job is to let God do his work through his word.

 Preachers must let the bible convert

 By this I don’t just mean the first challenge of coming to faith.  I also mean that the bible should ongoingly be converting attitudes, emotions and outlooks.  The bible should be confronting and dealing with sin in the life of the preacher and in the life of the congregation.

 At the end of 1 Thessalonians Paul prays:

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (1 Thess 5:23)

 The context of this prayer is significant:

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies. 21 Test all things; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.  (1 Thess 5:19-22)

 I take it that to be “sanctified through and through” (NIV) is a work of Word and Spirit.  I also think that J. I. Packer was right when he said, “The only proof of past conversion is present convertedness.  If my preaching is faithfully biblical then over and over again I should be being persuaded by my preaching:  “Yes Lord, if I was hearing this for the first time, I would hungrily grasp it for myself!”

 There is so much more to preaching that these three things, but I am convinced that preaching is not less than letting the bible speak; letting the bible loose; and letting the bible convert and this is a great place to start!

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8 thoughts on “Preachers should let the bible do the talking!

  1. John June 22, 2009 / 9:04 am

    Isn’t the fundamental problem with this (as with Barth’s theology of the word of God) an inadequate pneumatology?

    I’d be happier if the headings were “seeing the Spirit speak through the word”, “letting the Spirit have free rein through the word” (with the primary focus of this being in the heart and mind of the preacher) and “letting the Spirit convert through the word”.

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  2. metamorphe June 22, 2009 / 9:27 am

    Point taken – although I see no dichotomy here.
    “Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) equates “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly” (Colosians 3:16). I think that point is that the operative mode of the spirit in this regard is the preached word; and word without spirit is dead.

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  3. Richard June 22, 2009 / 12:20 pm

    I am a simple lay person so I just went through the Bible looking for occurrences of when “Be filled with the Spirit” is mentioned. In more or less all cases it appears to me that the words are used when someone is given by God the ability simply to speak, or to speak more clearly, or speak more authoritatively. Sometimes it is used in the context of good quality craftsmanship as well. In all cases they were not given the Bible but instead given an ability to allow the Spirit of God to speak through them.

    I am not convinced that “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly” equates to the same thing. The word cannot be equated to be Spirit. The Spirit after all is God, where as the Word is from God. I don’t want you to think that I am denigrating the word in any way here but I believe that the word only comes alive to people when the Spirit speaks through it and obviously therefore from a preacher when they allow the Spirit to speak through them.

    I would prefer to agree therefore more with Johns headings which are more engaging not only with the heart and the head but more engaging with God as well.

    To limit preaching to the word of Christ living in you misses an important understanding in our dependence on God as the giver of life.

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  4. Justin June 22, 2009 / 1:21 pm

    Here are my observations on the broad types of evangelical preaching I have heard:

    1) Believe the Bible, but do not really preach it.
    In my experience, I have heard this type of preaching very often.

    2) Believe the Bible, but proof text.
    Most–but not all–‘thematic’ preaching that I have heard has fallen safely into this category.

    3) Believe the Bible, preach expositionally, but cherry pick a verse or two in the passage.
    I’ve seen this happen often, even in churches where they are preaching through books (or large sequential chunks) of the Bible. Usually, those who preach these sermons are more educationally grounded and are openly doctrinal, which I think has some real strengths over #1-2 above, but which sometimes is at the expense of the original context.

    4) Believe the Bible, preach expositionally, but ‘theologise’ the text by ignoring the author’s intent.
    Much of the preaching I’ve heard on Paul’s letters (not just Romans, either) has safely fallen into this category.
    This category and #3 above are very similar, but the difference between them is that in this type of sermon the preacher doesn’t cherry pick verses; rather, (s)he tends to go verse by verse, or at least paragraph by paragraph, through the passage. So although it is a very expositional sermon, it lifts the entire passage out of its context and makes it timeless–at the expense of its original context. I should hasten to add here that often the ‘original context’ is ironically discussed in the sermon, but the preacher does not preach how this context is crucial for understanding the author’s intent of the passage.

    5) Believe the Bible, preach expositionally, but ‘apply’ it before understanding the ‘original application’.
    This category is probably best understood as a corollary to #3-4 above, but I have listed it separately only because it is so very common even for #2 above. Here, the preacher will either proof text the Bible, cherry pick within a passage, or exposit an entire passage, but (s)he will then disregard the original application and will simply apply it straightaway. In other words, the preacher does not ask: ‘Why did the biblical author write this passage; what was it supposed to accomplish in his argument?’ What often results in this type of sermon is that the modern application–even if it is ‘truth’–is often entirely foreign to the original intent of the passage. Thus, it may be the right application, but from the wrong text–which of course leaves the text they are actually discussing ‘unapplied’, as it were. Another result of this preaching is that the application often ends up becoming (esp. with #4) more about ticking all the right theological boxes than about seeing how this passage is meant to transform contemporary listeners.

    6) Believe the Bible, preach expositionally, explain a) the original context, b) the author’s intent, and then c) re-cloth the passage for today.
    I think what sets this category apart from all the others is that the preacher explains the author’s intent. And so I think it is this element that makes the category the best one for preaching. With this type of preaching, the people begin to understand 1) that the Bible is a book for transformation and not simply for information; 2) that the Bible had a whole lot to say to the original audience and that we are most faithful to the text when we understand this before seeking to apply it today. In my experience, I have only precious few preachers who have preached in this category, but every time I have heard this category of sermon, I go away either comforted, challenged, or rebuked, in the most powerful way as I am taught God’s word for all its worth (to use Fee and Stuart’s phrase). Having said this, I recognise that I’m primarily talking about ‘letters’ and that the intent of a biblical passage will vary according to genre.

    As I reflect on the solid, evangelical preaching I have heard, I would say that most of it has fallen either in category #3+5 or #4+5. And I am convinced that moving to #6 is perhaps one of the biggest challenges in evangelical preaching today and is therefore an urgent task for those preparing ministers for teaching and preaching ministries.

    But despite my detail in the above, this is just a first stab, and I know I have room for tweaking. But do these categories resonante with others’ experiences?

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  5. Stephen Milford June 22, 2009 / 10:03 pm

    Ex Opere Operato, a phrase that sends shivers down any decent evangelical’s spin. The thought that sacraments can, by themselves, confer divine grace is not only alien to an evangelical’s way of thinking, it is down right offensive. Yet for some reason evangelicals often fall into the very same trap. I have often heard spirit filled people say that “the bible is the word of God” and while this is, in itself, not necessarily wrong (nor do I disagree with this statement), this concept is often severely misunderstood.
    We do not believe in the doctrine of mechanical inspiration. God did not write the bible for us, nor did he dictate every word/letter contained within the scriptures. This is not the Koran, we are not Muslim. Yet evangelicals often use the bible as a mechanical tool, a converting hammer so to say; preaching from it as if it had power to save by itself. The bible did not save us, Jesus did.
    When we read Spurgeon’s words: “Scripture is like a lion. Whoever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose; it will defend itself.” We may be in danger of going too far on this point. I have sat through countless sermons where “scholars on ice” (to quote Greg Haslam) used a bible text as a blunt instrument, as if it would convert the masses by itself. Having said that, I have heard even more sermons where “fools on fire” used the bible to support their own idiotic theologies, believing that their energy and enthusiasm would do what the bible fails to do by itself.
    While on the whole I agree with Dr Vibert’s blog on bible based preaching and fully support his contentions that the bible should be let loose to speak to and convert the sinner’s heart, I feel that it may be skirting close to the edge of Ex Opere Operato. I know that Dr Vibert has no intention of making this mechanical claim and is well aware of the importance of the spirit in the work of converting the lost. Nevertheless I feel it may be good to balance this discuss with a word of caution (or perhaps radicalism).
    As the bible was organically inspired, man and God working so closely in unity with each other that it is impossible to distinguish the two, so too should our preaching be organically inspired. After all, the scripture only becomes the living word of God when it is brought to life by the Holy Spirit within the heart of the hearer. These three aspects (scripture, spirit and human heart) must all be present before the bible can become living.
    If it were not so, then we would be left with countless practical dilemmas. For example: If the bible itself were the word of God the next question would simply be: which version? Many version blatantly contradict each other (such as is the case of the death of Ahab in 2 Chronicles 18:20 where the/a spirit becomes a lying spirit. This is often mistranslated in our English versions yet the German and Afrikaans use a different translation-is it God who lies or his messenger?). Furthermore, how would it be possible to destroy the living word of God, yet many bibles are destroyed each day.
    If the bible is to be set loose, so that it can speak to and convert the heart of the hearer it must become the living word of God. To do this the preacher must bring together the Spirit of God, the word of the scripture and the heart of the hearer. This threefold task is more complicated than simply: let the bible speak for itself. For one thing it must first have spoken to the preacher (through spirit, scripture and human heart) before it can speak to the hearer.
    We could write books on this topic, but since this is only a short blog I will conclude with the follow: if the bible is to be let loose to speak and convert it must be combined with the spirit of God, the heart of the preacher (who has heard it first) and the heart of the listener. Anything less will simply not work.

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  6. metamorphe June 23, 2009 / 3:17 pm

    Some interesting discussion here.
    I wonder whether we have got sidetracked by polorising the work of the Word and the work of the Spirit.
    Surely there should be no tension here.
    John Woodhouse is surely right when he says “In biblical thought, the Spirit of God is as closely connected to the word of God as breath is connected to speech.” (p.55 “The Preacher and the Living Word” in When God’s Voice is Heard, IVP 1995).

    Note these Scriptural examples:
    – The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters before God speaks creation into being (Genesis 1);
    – The Spirit of the Lord anointed Isaiah in order to preach good news to the poor (Isaiah 61:1);
    – When Jesus is full of the Spirit, out of his mouth comes the words of Scripture to defeat the temptations of the devil (Luke 4:1-4);
    – “The one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spiirt without limit” (John 3:34);
    – “… The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life” (John 6:63);
    – And, of course, the Scriptures are theo+pneustos (2 Timothy 3:16).

    It is possible to have the Word preached without the Spirit present, but it won’t be efficacious.
    It is possible to have the Spirit present without the utterance of intelligible words (1 Corinthians 14).
    But, Word and Spirit belong together.
    Hence I am glad to be chairman of an orgnisation called “Fellowship of Word and Spirit”!

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  7. John June 24, 2009 / 1:46 pm

    Of course I don’t mean to drive dichotomy between the word and the work of the Spirit. My point is that when (especially conservatives) talk exclusively about the word working, it makes it sound as if they don’t really believe in the Spirit’s work which is actually primary.

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  8. Richard June 24, 2009 / 4:27 pm

    Again I have to agree with John here. I have been desperately trying to understand the more conservative evangelical point of view on the Spirits importance for several years now having myself previously been in a more charismatic church (labels are not necessarily going to be able to explain where I have been or where I am here).

    The problem I really see in the conservative evangelical church I currently attend is as I tried to explain earlier that the “talk” is almost exclusively of “the Word” and very rarely mentions the Spirit and on several occasions has gone so far as to mock or even deny the Spirit. Probably this is because the preacher feels more comfortable in his understanding of the Word than letting the Spirit inform his understanding.

    Although I would never want to deny the importance of the Word and would happily refer to it wherever possible, I believe as John says that the Spirit is the primary “force” (if that isn’t too nebulous a word) from which preaching comes alive and changes peoples lives.

    Personally I find the denial (if that’s what it is) really difficult, it almost feels like a physical pain goes through my whole being when the Spirit is mocked. For me this pain is not so strong when the word is mocked – somehow this seems less personal. I wonder how God, Jesus and the Spirit feel about what we preach and how we do it. It’s probably worth remembering to consider how the Godhead would feel about what is said when it is preached.

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