Preaching and Scripture: Thus Sayeth Me

Name and Place for September 16 (’14)

9781433543135David Helm’s Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today, is a gem.  Short (only 116 pages and, literally, short: at about 6 inches by 4, it can fit in a small purse or suit pocket), clear, and on-target, it’s a book on preaching every Christian should read.  The war-weary pastor will find encouragement, the older pastor will find renewed vision to keep going, the young preacher will avoid countless stupid errors, and Christians having to listen to those pastors preach will know how to have a “renewed mind” to truly know if the preached Word is God’s instead of Brother Billy’s.

Let’s take as an example one of those wonderful kitchen-calendar verses, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

How do we approach this text?  We start with reading it personally, as though Paul wrote it directly to us.  Then we read “all things” as “anything.”  We think that of course this text is referring to anything.  When we are faced with any kind of obstacle, God gives us the strength to overcome.  Do I need this promotion at work? God gives me the strength.  Do we need a three-point shot in these last twenty seconds to win the game?  God gives the strength.  What an inspiration!  It’s perfect for any of those moments when we need to succeed.  And because we’ve understood the text devotionally, it’s tempting to get into the pulpit and preach it that way.

The problem is, digging just a little deeper reveals that Paul is not talking about “anything.” If we read just a few verses on either side, we realize that this verse is part of Paul’s discussion about suffering in jail.  He’s talking about survival.  He’s not talking about promotions and game-winning shots, but about enduring hardship so that the gospel may advance (cf. Phil 1:12).  It doesn’t take much to undo our very neatly inspired, very devotional reading.  It just takes two or three verses.

This kind of “inspired” preaching is a dangerous game to play. It is completely subjective.  When we stop the hard work of understanding the words that the Spirit has given us and work exclusively in the “mind of the Spirit,” we become the final authority on meaning.  We begin to lay down “truths” and “advice” that are biblically untestable or unsupportable.  We may do so for good reasons, such as our sense of the moral health of our people or a genuine desire to renew the world we live in.  But, nevertheless, we begin operating outside of orthodox doctrine.  We confuse “thus sayeth the Lord” with “thus sayeth me.”  We ask our congregations to trust us instead of trusting the Word.

Now, you and I probably do not hold to this theory when it comes to the Bible.  Yet subconsciously, we often work as if we do.

What does this look like?  A lot of preachers—particularly young preachers—go to the text first for their own edification or spiritual growth.  This is not an inherently bad practice, and devotional preaching is not inherently a bad thing.  We all should be spiritually convicted by and conformed to the image of Christ in the text.  The problem is that we are easily tempted to jump from the way the Spirit impresses the text upon us to how the Spirit must be working among our people.  In this way, it’s quite impressionistic preaching, but dressed up in piety rather than practicality (32-33).



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