The second in a series of three articles on the ministry of James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000)
The primary role of the pastor was very clear for James Boice. That role was to preach the Word of God. Yes, it is important to pastor the flock through the multiple activities of visitation, counseling, discipling, training, and so on. But for the senior minister or solo minister, his clear priority is to faithfully proclaim the whole counsel of God in the Scriptures. That is how he best fulfills his calling as pastor of God’s flock.
His view on the most faithful type of preaching was also clear. It is expository preaching. What is expository preaching? Simply put, it means to preach the message of the Scripture text. What does the Scripture have to say? That becomes the message of the preacher. And the best route of expository preaching is to preach through books of the Bible.
Boice commended preaching through books for several reasons. One is that it aids the preacher in getting to the meaning of the passage. Knowing context is the key to getting to the point of any scripture passage, and preaching through a book shines the clearest light for both preacher and hearer. Furthermore, moving through a whole book allows both preacher and hearer to see the overarching theme and secondary themes of that book. Choosing a passage here and another passage there disconnects the text from its context and makes it more difficult to detect the fuller lesson and story.
In response to the idea that the preacher ought to select topics that meet the needs of his congregation, Boice argued that expository preaching through whole books enabled the preacher to fulfill his obligation to declare ”the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Without the discipline of letting Scripture set the agenda, we preachers are more likely to preach our particular interests and to avoid the uncomfortable territory where Scripture will inevitably lead us into. More helpful to our congregation is to follow where God’s Word leads than to follow our perceptions of what our people want or we think they need to hear. And by preaching through whole books, we will cover a wider variety of topics that the congregation will discover are relevant and just what they needed to hear at the time.
This is not to say that there is no place for topical sermons and series. Tenth Church has morning and evening services, and Boice would occasionally use the evening service for shorter series on topics such as the parables, discipleship, and grace. He would not have been averse to using the morning service for such purposes.
Nor was he hesitant to elaborate on a topic that he came across while preaching through a book. Boice spent approximately eight years each on Genesis, John, and Romans. This was not because it took so long to work through the passages, but that he would at times camp out on a verse or a passage to address theological or topical subjects. For example, he opened up Genesis with a five-week presentation on the ways to interpret the creation account. In John, he spent four weeks on John 11:35-Jesus wept-discussing what it teaches about Jesus, God, ourselves, and Jesus’ love for us. And in Romans, he took ten weeks to explore what 12:1-2 teaches about mind renewal.
I think Boice’s popularity can be attributed to his ability to link exposition of text with life-application. Though he was careful to exegete a passage carefully, he did not do so drily. He might take time to explain different interpretations of a passage and how he came to his conclusion, but he did so only as a means to provide insight and to address perceived questions his people might have. Oftentimes I waited to see how he would tackle a knotty problem of interpretation, and he would simply give his version in such a way that I wondered how I could not have seen the solution before.
One feature of Boice’s preaching was extensive quoting of authors and commentators. This is a method that is difficult to do well, as too much reading can be tedious to listen to. Boice’s voice and skill as an orator helped him to succeed where most would fail. He had the kind of voice that caught and kept the listener’s attention. But I bring this up because it brings out a trait of Boice that served him well. He admired the gifts of other preachers, commentators, and writers. I asked him about all the quoting he did, and he replied that he wanted to expose his congregation to good authors and books. If someone said something better that he could, he would say so. He would at times take the outline of another preacher because of how well he thought they had approached the text. He always, always gave credit where it was due.
The final feature to note about Boice’s preaching is one that I discovered while working on a devotional drawn from his sermons. Boice regularly drew his sermons to a conclusion with an invitation to receive the gospel. Proper expository preaching is also Christ-centered, gospel-centered preaching. Whatever the passage, it needs to be understood and preached in the light of Christ and the gospel. But this can be done without making an appeal to the lost. Time and time again, Boice would turn to the unbeliever and issue an invitation to respond. He would not argue; he would appeal to the listener. Listen in on his call:
Invite Jesus into your heart now. Confess your sin, thank him for his great love and grace in dying for you, and promise to follow him from this time onward as your Lord. If you do that, the angels who sang in the skies above Bethlehem at Christ’s birth will burst into praise once again. For Jesus said that there is joy in heaven over even one sinner who repents of sin and turns to him. (from Mal. 5:2-5)
You can be that close to Jesus Christ and yet be lost. It would be a tragedy for that to be true in your case, but it is not necessary, especially if you have understood who Jesus is and what he came to earth to do. Like Mary, you need to look deeply into his eyes and learn to love him as the one who loves you and gave himself for your salvation. (from Matt. 26:6-16)
Tenth Church is a large congregation, and there are always visitors. But whether your church is large or small, remember that the gospel is always needed to be heard. More than a few Christian testimonies are of people who thought they were believers, but something the preacher said hit home into their hearts. Boice always concluded his sermons with the aim to hit the hearts of both the regenerate and the unregenerate. He understood that his task was not merely to inform but to move his listeners ever forward to glorifying God.