Faithful Bible preaching is not always easy to find. In some churches the Bible is barely opened, much less preached. And even when it is preached, how do we know that what is happening is faithful and helpful by God’s standards? Things like our feelings or filled pews, for example, are not good barometers.
The following will make a few suggestions on where to start. This is not all that constitutes biblically faithful preaching, but a few things which we should observe as the Bible is opened and preached:
- A total submission to the Bible.
What the Apostle commanded Timothy, and, all who would stand in a pulpit thereafter, is pretty simple: “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). The “word” is that God-given body of Scripture.
The biblical idea of “preach,” comes from the role of a keryx, or “herald.” The job of the keryx was simple: in subjection to their sending superior and by the authority of their master, deliver the message, which did not originate with them, and do so authoritatively, without altering it in any way. He was merely an executive instrument and mouthpiece of his master, entrusted to deliver the message exactly as received (TDNT, 3:687). The herald/preacher demonstrated his subjection to his master by proclaiming the message.
Being a subject of God, the preacher understands that he is a subject of every word of God. He is a servant of the text.
The content of the sermon, then, should demonstrate subjection to the text of Scripture. It should be clear that things like outlines, explanation, illustrations, and applications are derived from the text. Any stories and illustrations, while not taking center stage, purposely serve the text, and not the opposite.
Helpful preaching will have content which also fits into the larger context of the Bible. It will be consistent with major, redemptive theological threads (e.g. God’s sovereignty, sovereign grace, depravity of man, the glory and supremacy of God, the Person and finished work of Christ).
Finally, faithful preaching will demonstrate a spiritual submission to the text. At times, the preacher demonstrates personal conviction of his own sin consequent of subjection to the text.
- An avoidance of aimless meandering.
Biblical preaching is like taking a group of hikers on a tour of a majestic mountain landscape. As far as the hike goes, the tour guide knows the route well. He has walked it himself, slowly, carefully, and observantly. He has wrestled with various cruxes. He
may have gotten lost a few times, but eventually found his way. And he is not interested in creating new landmarks and geographical features on the route, but simply and enthusiastically pointing out the already-existing features. He may move faster in some areas and slower in others, while observing a clearly-marked beginning and end to the hike.
So it is in preaching. As the preacher opens the word, he identifies the features of the text. Things like outline points in the sermon are akin to those significant junctures and landmarks in a hike. The preacher does not create them, but merely identifies the beauty of what is in the text, while bringing things to a close, transitioning, and moving to the next, and so on. All the while, the hearers, like those being led on the hike, have some idea of where they are going.
And like any good mountain landscape, we could continue on and on in the biblical text. It’s inexhaustible. But, the whole is traveled in smaller, more manageable chunks in order to miss as little as possible and profit as much as possible.
- An evidence of sitting under other faithful expositors.
The preaching will often contain words and wisdom from more seasoned saints who have traveled that particular biblical text before him. You can tell that he’s spent time reading good commentaries on the passage. The preacher knows that wisdom was not born with him. He wants the insight of men who, though dead, speak. Since the preacher is not interested in being the smartest guy in his study, he surrounds himself with commentaries from men of titanic giftedness and insight, and stands on their shoulders to get a better perspective of Scripture.
- A stretching of the hearer’s mind.
The preaching is generally able to be grasped. However, there are often times when the preacher necessarily places the cookies high up on the shelf, and maybe out of reach. Since preaching is expounding the words of our infinite God, this makes sense.
So, the preaching might cause some intellectual discomfort. You’re forced to think, take notes, and write down a few items for further inquiry. The preaching necessarily encourages further study. You might have to ask the preacher about some good systematic theology books and commentaries, and look up terms and phrases on your own. Your vocabulary, and, consequently, worship, should be enriched. A little swinging of the pick ax on our own time will bear great reward, both in private study, and in continuing to sit under faithful preaching.
- A focus on the Word, not other words.
Again, every preacher’s mandate is: “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). This means that the content of faithful preaching is not a variable, but forever fixed in the 66 books of Scripture. The “What should be preached?” is fenced in from Genesis to Revelation.
Consequently, the preaching should not feature or expound on things like, “Jesus spoke to me,” “God gave me a dream/vision,” or, “I heard God say,” for example. That would be like the mountain tour guide supposing he could add a mountain or river to the existing landscape. Even more, that approach goes against the simple command to “preach the word,” because it’s adding things outside of the 66 books of Scripture, and, therefore, not “the word.”
- A spotlighting of God, not the preacher.
Since preaching’s content is “the word,” then it’s pretty clear who and what is the star of the show when the preacher steps to the pulpit. The way the preacher maintains his privileged servant-position is by functionally subjecting himself to the word through biblical exposition.
As pastors, we’re called to preach expositional sermons so that we can stand up each week, open the word, and disappear underneath the text. That’s what a servant does. In subjection to his master, he works as hard as possible so as to showcase him by his own labors. So, time in the pulpit is not our time. It’s not our show. It’s not our gig. It’s God’s gig, for God’s glory, through God’s word, by the instrument of God’s servant.
Whether content or mannerisms, if the preacher has created a unique personality show, then there’s a problem. He’s something closer to an entertainer or a performer. The preacher is not called to be unique, but faithful.
- A willingness to offend if necessary.
God’s goal in giving the Bible was not to flatter the human race. He’s too holy and loving for that. If Jesus says things like, “If you then, being evil…” (Matt 7:11), and, “…say, ‘We are unworthy slaves…’” (Luke 17:10), then it’s safe to say that we’re going to get our feathers necessarily ruffled at times as we study Scripture.
As called to preach the word, the preacher cannot play textual hopscotch. Eventually there will be a verse that yanks the rug out from underneath us.
But faithful preaching has as its goal neither to offend nor avoid offending. The purpose is much higher and simpler: to unpack every verse.
- A deep care for the immediate audience.
The preacher’s own heart is intertwined within those of that local church. He can’t help it. It’s amazing and perplexing to him at times. But it’s just how God has designed the preacher so as to faithfully preach.
His God-given love colors his preaching in a thousand ways. The sins of the people pain him. The apathy of the people sorrows him. The hardening of the people depresses him. The trials of the people distress him. The repentance of the people thrills him. The sanctification of the people delights him. The joys of the people warm him. And the mere existence and presence of the people moves him. Each Sunday, this comes pouring out of him in the form of biblical preaching.
As the 17th century Puritan, John Owen said, “A sermon is not made with an eye upon the sermon, but with both eyes upon the people and all the heart upon God.” (Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 708). Thomas Brooks said similarly, “Ministers must so speak to the people as if they lived in their very hearts of the people; as if they had been told all their wants, and all their ways, all their sins, and all their doubts” (709).
- A frequent call to turn from sin.
The Bible is largely the story of sin. Sin is sandwiched in between the mere first two and last two chapters of Scripture. What’s more, the word “sin,” “transgression,” or “iniquity” occurs over 1100 times in the Bible in over 900 verses. Since faithful preaching’s content is the Bible, then sin is just going to come up a lot. We have to expect it. In fact, if it is not coming up a lot, we have to wonder if that preacher is preaching the word. A preacher cannot do the Bible justice and the audience good if he is not frequently preaching on sin.
But he’s not preaching on sin to whip the people but woo them. Like the Apostle Paul he groans and cries, “My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). Preaching preaches on sin but pleads to turn from it.
- A frequent call to embrace Jesus Christ.
One of the few things more prominent in Scripture than sin is the Savior. As such, the Bible’s message is the good news of God’s mercy on sinners through Jesus Christ. Every page of Scripture fills out the portrait of the Person and finished work of Jesus Christ. That’s why it needs to be exposited in full.
Biblical preaching shows Christ as God, Christ as Eternal, Christ incarnate, Christ as Healer, Christ as Wisdom, Christ as our substitute, Christ crucified, Christ as risen, Christ as Lord, Christ as our righteousness, Christ as Redeemer and Savior, Christ as Judge, and Christ as King.
As Richard Sibbes wrote, “Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ up and down the world” (Puritan Theology, 706).
And as faithful preaching chariots His Majesty up and down the world, the preacher cannot help but plead with sinners come to him, embrace him, bow to him, and follow him. In this, preaching serves one of its most noble purposes.
This list is not the final say on faithful biblical preaching. But if preaching features these things, you can be sure that its off to a good start in honoring God and serving the hearers.