Is God Gagged in Your Pulpit?
by Dudley Foord
Interact Magazine 1998
Volume 9 Number 1
The Australian Pulpit Today
Recently in three Bible-believing, evangelical churches I have heard sermons which really marginalised God’s Word.
The first sermon was based on a chapter in Philippians. The preacher selected three little phrases from that chapter and treated them like three slogans or pegs on which to hang his preaching. But the content of the sermon bore no relationship to the main point that Paul was making. The second took an episode in one of the Gospels. The preacher’s main point focussed on a tiny but very dubious inference in the text and had nothing to do with the main point of the passage. The third was based on a single text mentioned once at the beginning, and then the sermon bore no relation to either the text or its immediate context, having as little connection as a postage stamp on an envelope does to the contents of the envelope. It could be said that God was being gagged in those three pulpits.
It is not overstating matters to make the distressing observation that in the majority of Australian pulpits the Bible is not being faithfully taught. This is a great tragedy! Little wonder that there is an overall decline in church attendance. We must all humble ourselves in repentance so that God will be merciful and raise up a new breed of great preachers of the Word of God.
It must be stated plainly that preaching rests on three great pillars: God has spoken, His words are now recorded in the Bible, and He commissions preachers to proclaim, preach, teach and explain those written words as the words of the living God, to meet the needs of congregations today. It is the chief function of the sermon to unleash the Word of the Lord in the midst of His people! [D Lewes & A McGrath, Doing Theology for the People (Appollos, 1996) 219]
Expository Preaching – The Urgent Answer
Preaching is biblical when it imparts a Bible-shaped word in the Bible-like way [S Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (IVP, 1988) 10]. The expositor is to open up a section of the Bible in such a way that it speaks its message clearly, plainly, accurately and relevantly without addition, subtraction or falsification.
The exposition of the Bible, therefore, is that process whereby the meaning of a specific portion is so proclaimed, explained and then applied to the needs and circumstances of the hearers that they understand what God is saying to them as that passage is unleased as the very voice of the living God.
As such, expository sermons are to be the norm in pulpit preaching. Sadly today, under the pressure of a hundred less important things, preachers often lose a correct sense of priorities and resort to topical preaching which is much easier. Expository preaching is a demanding enterprise requiring hours of hard work in the study. Little wonder that in describing the six characteristics of the pastor/teacher, Paul defines one as a workman (2 Tim.2:15). Two types of workmen are envisaged—the ashamed and the unashamed. What constitutes the difference? The workman ‘who correctly handles the word of truth’ is the one approved of God. It is this task of correctly handling God’s Word that requires concentrated, painstaking work in the study and much prayer.
The Three Worlds of the Expositor
Biblical expositors deal with three different worlds.
There is firstly the need to understand the world of the Bible – the literary, historical, theological and cultural situations associated with that world when the biblical texts were first written. This understanding is necessary to help them in the task of exegesis and hermeneutics. With the advent of the New and Radical hermeneutics, books have multiplied at an alarming rate; it is a ‘major growth industry’ [G Bray, Biblical Interpretation (Appollos, 1996) 7, 584].
Biblical interpretation has become increasingly complex, to the point where the preacher in the study can become bogged down in the hermeneutical morass. But God cannot be gagged by the sceptical presuppositions of the radical hermeneutic. God is one whose voice can still be heard when the text of the Bible is clearly and compellingly preached. We stand with the apostle Paul: ‘Let God be true and every man a liar’ (Rom.3:4).
The expositors’ second world is the present one in which they and their hearers live. Preachers must know their own world in order to correctly apply God’s Word to the contemporary scene. With the increasing secularisation of Australian culture, the emergence of post-modernism, pluralism, and the enormous shift in the thinking and morals of our culture, the preacher is presented with bewildering changes. This is further complicated by the great religious diversity in Australia occasioned by our amazingly multicultural society. Consequently it is now not ‘politically correct’ to talk of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Multiculturalism and multi-faith are to be affirmed and nothing must be said to create any sense of division in the area of religion. Tolerance is now to be worshipped. Buddha, Mohammed, Hindu gods and Christ are placed on an equal footing. Conservative observers estimate that about 30% of all ordained ministers/pastors no longer hold to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
But biblical expositors need not be intimidated by these massive changes. They must proclaim the God-inspired Word into the confusion of a hurting world with a fresh, dynamic vigour and relevance.
The preachers’ third world is that of their own mindset. We all bring to the reading and study of the Bible our own ‘pre-understandings’. Since neutral exegesis is impossible we need to recognise that our own different presuppositions may hinder our objectivity in determining the writer’s intended meaning. We need, therefore, to disentangle ourselves from applying to the text some cherished personal dogmas or prejudices.
How to Ungag God in Your Pulpit
There are nine necessary components in the preparation of sermons on biblical passages.
1. A Recognition of Our Preunderstandings
This is a plea that we will be at pains to recognise that we bring to the reading and study of the text of Scripture a whole range of presuppositions, prejudices and preunderstandings. All interpretation of Scripture is controlled by the theological mindset of the person who interprets. Whilst particular preachers may not always have a consistent theological position, their theology and worldview nevertheless always control their interpretation. Many factors in life combine to form an unconscious mindset in each preacher. Our culture, family background, education, theological prejudices, harsh experiences and the like become deeply embedded in the subconscious. These unwittingly exert a powerful influence on a preacher’s hermeneutic.
These preunderstandings and prejudices become the hermeneutical controlling grid which so easily distorts careful exegesis and interpretation. We must learn to distinguish ‘presupposition’ from ‘prejudice’. We must always sit under the authority of biblical text. It must have priority—not our preunderstandings. We must allow the text to reshape and modify our presuppositions.
2. Disciplined Meditation on the Biblical Text
The art of meditation on the Bible has almost been lost because of our noisy, over-busy and activated society where stress plays havoc with our preparation to preach. This, therefore, is a clarion call to the preacher to spend at least 30 minutes each day reflecting on the biblical passage which constitutes the basis for the Sunday sermon. Take time to allow the text to interact with you. Let it reshape your attitudes, your ways of relating to people, your daily behaviour. Let the text further modify your theological presuppositions and preconceptions. Meditate until you are gripped by the importance of the text’s message. Let the fire burn within you.
Make prayer an integral part of your sermon preparation. As you wrestle with the text, let your heart be constantly lifted up in prayer, asking God for His gracious illumination and inspiration.
Our task is to determine what the text is actually saying. There are three gulfs separating us from the ancient text—language, culture and history.
Time needs to be devoted to these three aspects of the text:
Literary. Observe the genre of the text, ie whether it is poetry, parable, narrative, apocalyptic, etc, as the literary type influences how we understand the text and therefore how we preach from it. Reflect on the grammar, syntax, literary structure and repeated words.
Historical. Research the author, culture, the audience, the purpose in writing.
Theological. Understand the text in light of the immediate text. Then move out in ever-increasing circles, eg chapter, book, New Testament, whole Bible. Allow Scripture to interpret Scripture [P Adam, God’s Words (IVP 1996) 37].
Keep asking these questions: What is the author driving at? What is his intent? Some preachers find it helpful to write in their own contemporary words what the text is saying.
4. Biblical Theology
Biblical theology provides the basis for understanding how texts in one part of the Bible relate to other texts [GGoldsworthy, According to Plan (IVP 1991) 37]. The task of preaching ‘the whole will of God’ (Acts 20:27) as Paul did can only be accomplished with the aid of a robust biblical theology which will help us make sense of the unity and diversity of the Bible, and provide us with an awareness of the framework of salvation history. It will furnish a Christocentric perspective on the whole Bible, it will save us from moralism apart from the transforming power of Christ’s gospel and it will also prevent a misuse of the Old Testament.
5. Historical Theology
Historical theology studies the way the challenges, heresies and needs of the church have been handled by the church at the various stages of its historical development, for example, the Christological debate defined in the Council of Nicea 325 A.D. and Chalcedon 451 A.D. An extended study is not envisaged in sermon preparation, but rather a quick side-glance to gather any relevant insights from church history pertaining to the main point of the sermon. Many modern errors of interpretation could be avoided if we were aware of similar mistakes in the past.
The goal of hermeneutics is the sermon. There are three main steps in a sermon: exegesis – discovering what the passage says; hermeneutics – determining what the passage means; and homiletics – preparing the sermon. The second step of biblical interpretation is crucial. A misinterpreted Bible is a misunderstood Bible which will lead us out of God’s way rather than in it. Interpretation must be right if biblical authority is to be real in our lives and in our churches [J I Packer, Truth and Power (Eagle 1996) 121].
Again we need to thoughtfully proceed through the process as we do in exegesis. Look at the whole context of the passage, at grammar, semantics and syntax, at the historical/cultural setting and at biblical, historical and systematic theology.
7. Systematic Theology
Again this is not an extended process but rather a quick side-glance to be aware of whether there is conflict or coherence in respect to systematic theology in terms of the main point of the sermon. However, it must be noted that theology (biblical, historical, systematic) helps the preacher just as a coach helps tennis players by extending their performance and drilling them in the art of making strokes correctly. Thus one preaches better—more perceptively, more searchingly, more fruitfully— when helped by theology [C Green & D Jackman, When God’s Voice is Heard (IVP 1996) 93].
Preaching is a very serious business; the glory of God and the issues of eternity are bound up with the preaching of God’s Word. Listen to what Charles Simeon said nearly two centuries ago:
‘It is easy for a minister to prate in the pulpit, and even to speak much good matter; but to preach is not easy—to carry his congregation on his shoulders as it were to heaven; to weep over them, pray for them, deliver the truth with a weeping, praying heart; and if a minister has grace to do so now and then, he ought to be very thankful.’
[J I Packer, Truth & Power (Eagle 1996) 155]
To take preaching seriously is a demanding and draining activity. Expository preaching has many advantages over topical preaching and ought to provide the staple diet for pulpit ministry in a local church [J R W Stott, I Believe in Preaching (Hodder 1982) 126-133].
Considerable time and effort is required in the determination of the Big Idea in the passage, the structure, the wording of the points, illustrations, application, introduction and conclusion [H W Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Baker 1980) 31-45]. The following formula has proved to be an effective preaching device:
a) state the point
b) explain the point
c) illustrate the point
d) apply the point.
One suggested pattern would be to preach a series of consecutive expository sermons through, for example, the Epistle to the Philippians. After study divide the letter into its units, say twelve. Set up a file for each of the twelve in your filing cabinet or computer. Continue to reflect on the text, constantly adding to each of the files relevant ideas, illustrations and clippings. Ensure that each sermon is a complete entity with its own sharp aim and purpose. Begin each Monday with a review of the work already done, steadily building as the week proceeds in the development and the delivery of the expository sermon [G Osbourne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (IVP 1991) 339-358].
9. Sermon Delivery
I make an earnest plea for passion and relevance in our preaching. Unless we genuinely love people it is likely that our preaching will achieve little.
To resort to a lecture style, lacking in warmth and passion, is to marginalise God’s Word. The truths of the Bible are not bare propositional statements, but powerful influences. We are to feel the force of these truths and become so familiar with them that they fill our minds and hearts and move our emotions. When doctrines are preached with feeling, warmth and passion they will move people. It would be good to see congregations thrilled and excited by the Word of God. Such emotion is exhilarating, infectious and God-honouring—truth on fire in the pulpit.
Where the Bible is preached and taught with clarity and passion, God’s voice is heard, and where His voice is heard, sinners are converted, Christians grow in Christ-likeness, churches grow, and the Word of God is unleashed. No longer is God muzzled and gagged.
Bishop Dudley Foord has a wide itinerant and consultancy ministry.
© Bishop Dudley Foord (1 March 1998)