It happens every week—at the same time and in the same place. After Scripture is read and before preaching, I stand at the edge of the platform, look out upon the congregation, and proceed to sing the Doxology. Then, at that precise moment, the thought crosses my mind: “You are nuts, Chris, if you think your sermon this morning will have a lasting effect—that your words will penetrate souls, lift people from the mire of sin, impart hope, and engender heartfelt worship. Audacious. Presumptuous. Ludicrous.” “Nevertheless,” I think, “here goes.”
In those brief moments before I begin to preach, as the arrows of doubt arrive from every direction, I have a few counterattacks ready. I repeat the words of Spurgeon, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” which is exactly what I need to remember when I imagine that the impotence of my words is a barrier to the work of God. The other mantra I repeat is directly from our Lord Jesus, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). The words of Scripture, precisely because they are the words of God, are inherently authoritative. Indeed, this is why we have the audacity to preach. Since God has appointed his word as the means by which humanity is drawn into the light of his presence, it does everything that I cannot. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
The Aversion to Authority
But the authority of Scripture also presents a problem to those whom we serve. While humanity’s rebellion against authority is currently on full display, it is a longstanding tradition of our race. Ever since Adam and Eve tasted the forbidden fruit, people have demonstrated an unwillingness to submit to God’s direction. With this resistance escalating and deepening over time, even previously accepted forms of delegated authority have been increasingly held in contempt: family, education, law, and church. All of this is a reflection of humanity’s disdain for the world’s ultimate authority—God.
So how does this affect the sermon, as one of the primary ways God speaks to the world? “Don’t preach at me,” is a popular idiom that expresses the moral autonomy we have claimed for ourselves since the fall. Used this way, to “preach” is to harangue someone with tedious or unwanted demands. We may not hear churchgoers openly flaunt such an attitude, but evidence of its influence is tangible, especially when preachers retreat into delivering feel-good homilies devoid of scriptural substance. It is equally noticeable in the degree of biblical illiteracy among contemporary Christians. Too often, if Christians do not hear God’s word preached, they will not hear God’s word at all.
Before we biblical expositors get too proud of ourselves, it is good to remember that we all have room for improvement in this area. Even those of us who attend exposition workshops and have, in our office, a picture of Martin Lloyd Jones or R. Kent Hughes (I have the latter), must be reminded again that authority comes from God, through his word, and we are simply the stewards who have the privilege of defending and proclaiming it. As P.T. Forsyth wrote in 1907, “It is authority that the world chiefly needs and the preaching of the hour lacks an authoritative Gospel in a humble personality.” Therefore, all of us need to consider how to so balance our confidence in Scripture and suspicion of ourselves so that we exposit God’s word in a way, and with a spirit, that magnifies its authority. Here are four ways to achieve that balance.
1. Expectation. While much doctrinal discussion rightfully deals with the authority, inspiration, and sufficiency of Scripture, we must remember that God’s word is also effective. For this idea we may look to the locus classicus, 2 Timothy 3:14–16.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.
On account of Scripture’s inspiration, Paul maintained a deep and profound expectation that its communication would be effective. It is in this context, of course, that Paul issues his famous admonition, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season…” (2 Tim. 4:2). This is good news for preachers. The effectiveness of our proclamation does not come from persuasive oratory, which is to say that we are not responsible for making God’s word effective. “By the open statement of the truth,” Paul insisted, “we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” The word, alive with God’s purpose for it, is inherently effective; and we may preach it with expectation.
2. Exposition. For a preacher to prepare an expositional sermon—a message that elucidates the meaning of a text from its particular context, historical background, literary style, relationship to the rest of Scripture, and significance for the mission of Jesus Christ—assumes something about the character of the text. It recognizes that God, by his own authority, moved these writers to record his intended message for humanity (2 Pet. 1:21). Not only is this the assumption of the expository preacher, it is the motivating force that drives him to fulfill his weekly responsibility of sermon preparation. Because God both inspired the biblical text through particular men who lived in particular contexts and supervised the relationship of each part to the whole, preachers devote time and energy to study those particulars in order to effectively apprehend God’s intended message. At the bottom of this activity is the authority of the divine source, which ensures that study is not just worthwhile; it is essential.
3. Relevance. If the previous point underscores that preaching must be based on thoughtful exegesis, the testimony of Scripture also illustrates that preaching must be relevant, that is, it must entail exhortation and application. This is not a human addition to preaching, since exhortation and application is frequently the intended purpose of God’s word. Yes, biblical preaching should inform the mind, but it must also encourage and admonish the heart. Following from the above quoted statement in 2 Timothy 3, Paul explains how God’s word is profitable: “so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (17). Like Paul, we preach the word as shepherds seeking to nourish the flock under our care. This growth happens by the authority of God who leads us into deeper levels of sanctification through his word.
4. Unction. The Bible envisages heralds who passionately announce the good news after they have been personally gripped by it. In the Old Testament, for example, Jeremiah said of his preaching, “If I say, ‘I will not mention [the Lord], or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 20:9). This burning appears in the New Testament with the day of Pentecost, about which Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8). An important aspect of this gift is what the Puritans called “unction.” How does unction function? It is an anointing that a preacher perceives in the straight line from God’s throne to the authority of the text, through the authority of a preacher’s call, to the divinely appointed moment when that preacher announces the good news, to the instant when a human heart is penetrated by its truth and beauty. In that moment, the soul only sees God and forgets all the stages in between.
The Authority of Preaching
There can be no recovery of biblical preaching if we do not first recover the conviction that the preacher’s task is enabled by God’s authority. The nature of the inspired text, the expectation of its effectiveness, the exposition that yields insight, the supreme relevance for people, and the unction in which it is proclaimed are all predicated on this truth. Yes, the fiery darts will come, especially in the moments immediately before we open our mouths. But that is also the very same moment when divine authority from heaven works through the servant and steward of the word to transform human hearts. Therefore, with confidence and humility, we will continue to preach.