What Makes Preaching?
By Fred Zaspel–
Martin Luther said, famously and with characteristic bluntness, “When the preacher speaks, God speaks. And whoever cannot say that about his preaching should leave preaching alone.”
This may strike you at first as a bit over the top, but the Reformer is emphasizing a point that is actually very important: a Christian preacher is one who expounds God’s Word and, thus, speaks for God. This is a decided emphasis in Luther, reflecting both his high view of Scripture and of preaching. To say it another way, our preaching must be content-driven. It must derive from Scripture and be characterized in its entirety by a faithful proclamation of what God has spoken. This is what makes preaching.
That is to say, preaching is not so much technique as it is content. Please, I don’t mean to imply that if you have good content, then technique doesn’t matter — I wouldn’t advise that you try that! But I do mean to say that preachers whose sermons are not driven by the biblical text, however gifted they may be in the techniques of public speaking, should leave preaching alone. It is God’s Word that is powerful to claim and transform God’s people. This is the means by which God works, and our preaching, then, above all else, must be marked by distinctly biblical content.
It is a happy mark of God’s grace that our generation has been reminded of the supreme value of expository preaching. An expository sermon is simply one whose point is clearly and demonstrably the point of the chosen biblical passage. Christian preaching is not the publication of the preacher’s opinions but the declaration of what God has said. And so that preaching is most faithful which opens the passage, in its context, and gives voice to God. Again, thankfully, many in our generation have made much of this point, and our churches have begun to see an “expository comeback” in recent years.
But let’s explore this just a bit. If we are preaching God’s Word, our application will arise, demonstrably, from the text at hand. We must not use the biblical passage merely as a launching pad for something else. We have all heard sermons that just do not seem to be grounded in the passage that was read at the beginning. We may be able to connect a thought here or there, but it is just not obvious that the sermon has arisen out of the text itself but from some other consideration. Perhaps the preacher had some particular axe to grind, and so he found a passage of Scripture that would somehow help get him there. Perhaps he feels pressured by people who want “practical” preaching, and so he skims over the passage by way of giving his hearers exciting “life tips.” Or perhaps his application is a bit closer to the text than that, and he draws practical observations that are somehow related to the passage in some secondary or tertiary way. Yet the passage itself seems to be talking about something else. This may be preaching from the Scriptures, but it is not really preaching the Scriptures. If we would claim that what we preach is, in fact, a message from God, then we must be careful that the driving consideration that informs our sermon is the driving consideration of the passage(s) at hand.
But there is more. Preaching is not merely application. It is theology. It is our deep conviction that in Scripture God reveals himself. We do not come to the Scriptures to learn about religion, merely; we come to hear God speak and make himself known. And this means that our sermons must have an obvious theological shape.
This works its way out in several dimensions. First, a given passage of Scripture may treat a specific point of doctrine. It may, in fact, treat several related points of doctrine. And so first on our agenda is to expound these points as the passage itself does. This again, is just “expository” preaching, but it is the kind that keeps an eye on important theological questions that are addressed in the passage — what it tells us about God, Christ, the fall, redemption, providence, restoration, and so on. And these considerations inform and direct the sermons in all its dimensions — instruction, exhortation, application, all.
Yet, further, we must recall that every passage has a context also. And so as we expound the passage at hand we do so in light of what precedes and what follows. And as we do this we not only preach God’s Word more faithfully, understanding and proclaiming it more accurately, but we simultaneously teach our people how to read their Bibles. And so, for example, if we are preaching Matthew 8-9, we will want to recall Matthew’s overall presentation of Jesus and note in these miracle accounts his emphasis on the King’s authority — a point made explicit both immediately before and after this passage also — and implicitly, at least, from the beginning to the end of Matthew’s Gospel. And as we do this, the burden of our sermon will not be how Jesus can help our problems (a very legitimate application) but on Jesus’ own greatness. That is, the point of our sermon will rise from the point of the passage at hand understood in its context.
But we are still not done, for a given passage has not just an immediate context but a larger biblical and theological context also. That is, a given passage has connections not just to the chapters preceding and following, and not just to the individual book or author, but to larger biblical and theological themes also. If we are preaching one of the Patriarchal passages, for example, we will want to keep in mind the overall “promise” (and providence) theme that stamps the larger narrative — and that is taken up in the still larger flow of Scripture. Or if we are preaching one of the Prophets, we will want to connect, say, its judgment or promise theme to the larger judgment and promise themes that run through Scripture from beginning to end. Or if we are preaching the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector we will not want to leave the impression that repentance alone brings justification. We will want to tie the passage to Luke’s larger narrative that culminates in the cross and resurrection of Christ, to the Lukan theme of righteousness and self-righteousness, and to the New Testament theme of sola fide, solus Christus, and so on. A given passage has its point to make and its own theological shape, but that passage is but part of a context which itself part of a still larger context. And genuinely expository preaching will account for the whole.
And this leads us to a still larger consideration: Scripture itself has a redemptive purpose and a Christological focus. Jesus made a point to say this (e.g., Lk. 44:47), as did other of the New Testament writers (e.g., 2 Cor. 1:20). The Bible is a book about Jesus. And so whatever the passage at hand, we want to maintain an awareness of its relation to Christ and the purpose and driving focus of Scripture itself. How does this passage point to Jesus? How does it anticipate him? How does it display our need of him? How does it present him or explain him? Whether we are preaching the patriarchal or prophetic or Gospel or passages — or whatever — we want to tie its own theme(s) to the larger expectation / manifestation / explanation / presentation / need of Christ themes that dominate Scripture from beginning to end. Sometimes the theme will be a redemptive-historical one. Sometimes it will be more of a “systematic” one. But they all lead us finally to the one about whom the Book was written. The patriarchal promise, the prophetic themes of judgment and promise, the righteousness of God, the fallenness of sinners, the brokenness of humanity, the ideals of godly virtue — all these are taken up in a larger flow that drives us inevitably to Christ. And if our preaching is to be genuinely and explicitly Christian, our sermons must consistently reflect this awareness.
This is what is meant by content-driven preaching. The controlling factor that shapes and drives the sermon — in its proclamation, applications, illustrations, and all — is the text itself, taken in its immediate and larger context.
There is no excuse for poor preaching, and we who preach should work at technique that enable us to be heard better. If we have a message from God, we certainly ought to try to say it well. But it will always be poor preaching if we do not work hard at learning Scripture “whole” and in its parts and proclaim each passage accordingly. Clearly, we all have our work cut out for us, but this is what we must strive to do. The passage itself — in light of its immediate and larger contexts, both theologically and redemptive-historically — must shape and drive the sermon. And as it does, we may be assured when we are done, that God has indeed spoken.
Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012).