It will be my privilege to teach a preaching class next semester, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the deeper levels of preaching. To me, it is the highest, most glorious calling a person can have. I magnify the office–meaning, I make a big deal about the task and position of preaching.
Aside from personal qualifications of a genuine life with God and a thick hide, it seems to me that you can’t preach well, and certainly not for the long haul, without two indispensable qualities. Okay, there are dozens of indispensable qualities, but here are the two I’m thinking about today:
1. A theological system. Preaching isn’t just about communicating, it’s about communicating “something.” Back in my youth pastor days, a guest speaker came to my church. I’m a pretty positive guy (though years in ministry can peck that out of you), so afterwards, I commented that the speaker might have been light on content, but he was very eloquent. My friend, Terry, shot back, “Yeah. So he said nothing… well.” He said nothing well.
Have a theology, and let that shine through your preaching.
Indulge me while I quote one of my favorite authors, the incomparable Dorothy Sayers (friend of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings)…
“It is a lie to say that doctrine does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let poeple suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.”
“It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealist aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.”
“If the average person is to be interested in Christ at all, it is the doctrine that will provide the interest. The trouble is that, in nine cases out of ten, he or she has never been offered the doctrine. What has been offered is a set of technical theological terms that nobody has taken the trouble to translate into language relevant to ordinary life.”
Can I get an Amen?
The problem, of course, is choosing which theological system to stick with. I grew up Dispensational and Fundamentalist. Today I would call myself Evangelical, though that word is going the way of Fundamentalist–I don’t know what word will replace it, not yet at least. You can be Reformed, Arminian, Calvinist, Pentecostal, Charismatic… about a half dozen Protestant, Evangelical categories.
I say, pick one. God works through all of them (when they uphold the authority of Scripture). There are godly followers of Jesus in all of them. There are great biblical scholars in all of them. Pick a system and master it. Learn it. Be able to defend it. Know its authors, its proponents. Know its alternatives and where you differ from other systems. Own it. Be it. Feel it. Live it.
You’re the preacher, master your content.
And when you preach, let it shape your preaching. Preaching is like chipping a sculpture out of a giant block of marble, and you only get one hammer blow per week… the rest of the week, you polish and clean and soothe where you chipped. It takes years. Unless you work from a master blueprint in your mind, you will undo tomorrow what you have done today. Your theological system keeps you from driving your hearers crazy with inconsistencies, whether subtle or grand.
Above all, when you preach, preach your “system” with passion, but stay charitable toward those in other systems. The Lord knows we Christians have enough intra-mural fighting going on… don’t add to it. God uses every system that upholds the supreme authority of Scripture for faith and practice. Pick a theological system, and tweak it if you must–it keeps you from reinventing the wheel.
The second indispensable quality is like the first:
2. A viewpoint on sanctification. Sanctification answers the question of HOW can I be a WWJD person? How can I do what Jesus would do? By what power? What is the process by which God conforms me to the image of Christ? How does a person become more and more Christlike?
If you can’t answer those questions, don’t preach.
Your flock gathers discouraged and weary from the weekly grind. They long to know the power of Jesus in their lives. Not another set of techniques to fix their budget or to ease hunger in Africa–though these are crucial. First and foremost they wonder how to live like Jesus. And you have to tell them. You have to disciple them. Or else their campaigns to fix the world’s problems will come across as just another failed Crusade.
Because preaching should contribute to sanctification. It should both motivate and contribute to your hearers’ spiritual growth. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” (John 17:17, NKJV).
Paul said, “So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32, NKJV).
We create endless frustration in the church of Jesus when we spout mutually contradictory fragments of an ill-formed view on sanctification. So one week, your listeners hear you say that you need to walk in the Spirit, or be filled with the Spirit, or else they can’t please God. And two weeks later, you’re telling them to tough it out and subdue their ungodly passions… and you never put that together with walking in the Spirit, and show how the two fit together. You drive your listeners crazy… and not only that, you make them give up on the WWJD ideal. They’re so frustrated they think it’s impossible.
J.I. Packer’s book, Keep in Step With the Spirit, outlines and critiques four or five views on Sanctification. I would describe mine as a modified-Keswick view. Then there is the Augustinian view (which Packer supports), and the Charismatic view. There are several views on the biblical path to holiness. Once again, I say pick one. Know it. Master it. Read its literature. Make a biblical case for it. Play nice with other views…
And let that view of sanctification shape every sermon you preach. This is the only way to build a coherent view of life with Jesus in the minds of your hearers.
It is an act of love and kindness not to confuse your flock. Don’t lead them south one week and north the next. They’ll get seasick. Mark out a course… theologically and practologically, and steer a steady course.
For many, many years.
And don’t hesitate to change your mind, and say so, when God’s Word brings you around to my way of thinking!!!