A Word to Preachers

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. (2 Corinthians 4:7, NKJV).

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!!!


12 thoughts on “A Word to Preachers

  1. Dear Dr. G: I praise God (Amen!!) for your ministry and the desire of your heart to make known the Gospel and then describe how to “walk in it.” My background is very similar to yours and even though I have matured beyond that particular “legalism” (thanks in part to my parents and then to the HS for enlightening me), your ministry has touched my deep soul with freedom and joy which has been sorely lacking in the preachers I have sat under – and that’s quite a few!! You have been so loved and appreciated by me and my family. Thank you; and Thank God for giving you the calling of “preacher.”

  2. Hi Dr. G. & Jean
    Amen & Amen!! We are so blessed to be fed “spiritual meat” every week. Thank you, dear Dr. G., for sharing God’s glorious Word with His children. We love and appreciate YOU 🙂

  3. Bill,
    The 2 key elements you describe, theological system and viewpoint on sanctification, capture the essence of our frustration with finding a “good” church! We’ve spent a couple years trying to find a “grace oriented” (theological position), non legalistic (sanctification viewpoint) church. We found something fairly close, but bump into issues, from time to time, that leave us scratching our heads. No wonder. We’re ruined.

    Hey, just a thought…real estate is REALLY cheap in the land of Lou Malnati’s, Portillo’s, Central Gyros, Smokey Bones, Maggiano’s, Buona Beef, SuperDawg, Rosati’s, et al. Plus, the Bears, the Cubs, the Sox are all good now. The Bulls are improving, and the Hawks are on Channel 9…all games including home games!

    Nah. Never mind. I keep forgetting…it’s a DRY heat…


  4. Bill…

    I am with ya.

    I have looked at the Covenantal and Dispensational worldviews and have settled on one conclusion. A fascinating and exhilarating approach to the Word is the true incontrovertible “Kingdom of God,” which will have its full consummation in a political rule on earth by our Lord. It’s going to happen.

    The sanctification and the power of the concept awe me. I am currently plodding through G.H. Peters book, “The Theocratic Kingdom,” (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1972). Another book I have read (several times, in fact) is Alva J. McClain’s book, “The Greatness of the Kingdom.” I wish I had read this latter text upon becoming a Christian many years ago!

    With much awe I say this: This is the “point” of God’s Word–i.e., God’s expanding representation, power, and glory within an unsaved world (currently — but temporarily — under the domain of the Temptor) and that same glory in my (and your) life…

    [For BG — The Itialian Beef… Did you forget that as well? (:-))]


  5. Thanks for the advice Bill ~ I wish I had had you for a prof in seminary. I’m grateful for the chance to learn now.


  6. Joe,

    Please, for the love of a brother in Christ, refrain from using anything that sounds like “It’s gonna happen.” Some wounds are still tender. While I do believe that Jesus is coming back, I no longer believe that certain other things are “gonna happen.”

    And I love a Buona, but it’s too expensive. Malnati’s, thumbs down. Here’s my plug fro Giordano’s stuffed spinach pizza.

    Everyone else,

    There are two excellent related discussions of preaching elsewhere. A podcast called “The Whitehorse Inn” is discussing the importance of what happens at church, chief among them being the Sunday sermon. They lament the dearth of good preaching and lack of demand for it. This is critical in light of Barna encouraging people to use technology for their growth and Willow Creek telling Christians to be self-feeders. They may be inaccurate in their characterization of the reports (I did not read the source material), but the points are valid.
    I feel your pain, Bob (bg, right?), about trying to find good preaching. Bill made it very difficult on us. That’s a backhanded compliment, but I mean it.
    That’s why I know I am so blessed to be at the church I am. It’s hard to believe that God chose to bless Las Vegas, of all cities, with this preacher, Vance Pitmann. I guess if Corinth can have Paul, LV can have Pastor Vance. Really, I’m not exaggerating or feeling like I’ve just settled. This is the best church I’ve been to since Windy.

    Another resource is a discussion on a website called Isaiah Six. That master there raises the question “Is Evangelism the Main Purpose for Local Churches?” I came away from that thinking that, while church preaching should primarily feed believers, if a pastor truly does preach the whole counsel, I dare that church to NOT evangelize.

    The purpose of all this is not to change the subject or draw people away from Maxgrace, but to reinforce the importance of preaching (and to put my two cents in on pizza).

  7. Bill,

    Real estate is REALLY, REALLY inexpensive in the land of Cirque du Soleil, Caesar’s Palace, the Spearmint Rhino…never mind.

  8. Cheri

    I attend Hope Baptist. I never thought I’d be attending a Southern Baptist Church, but this church has none of the stereotypes, like big hair, etc. Well, everyone on staff does sound like Jeff Foxworthy and NASCAR is big, but it is big in the city anyway. If they’re looking for a church, tell them it’s on Pebble about 2 blocks east of LV Blvd.

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