It is a hallmark and non-negotiable conviction of evangelical Christianity to ascribe to a high view of the Bible as the word of God. Since the Protestant Reformation, we have maintained a doctrine of Scripture that has taken the sixty-six canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as both authoritative, because they are “breathed out by God,” and also “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16, ESV). Long may this continue.
Given how tightly we hold to these convictions, it makes sense for us to think not only about how we can foster the same beliefs about the Bible in others, but also about how we can help others translate these good beliefs into the regular disciplines of Christian living. Of course, if we are pastors, part of our role is to shape the spiritual lives of our congregations; and if we are preachers, we need to be modeling good use of the Bible to others in addition to using the Bible well ourselves.
In many evangelical churches, preachers faithfully bring the word of God to their people week after week. They have a solid discipline of taking texts of scripture, carefully exegeting them, clearly expounding them, and insightfully applying them to the men and women of their congregations. This discipline is wonderful and worthy of commendation, and it does more than just teach those who hear the sermons what the Scriptures say. It also shows them how the Scriptures should be read. The expository style of preaching highlights the fact that the way we know God—and the way we know who we are to be as people made in his image—is by carefully studying the Bible and shaping our thoughts and actions accordingly. This is in contrast to a preaching style that offers only pondering reflections on vaguely religious ideas or one that relies on high-energy, high-impact emotionalism to engage the listeners. Hearers of these types of sermons may learn some helpful things, but they will likely not learn how to carefully study and faithfully apply a passage of Scripture.
In light of this, we have a question for evangelical preachers: What is the overall diet of Scripture passages that you expound for your congregations, and do these passages adequately reflect all that God has for us in his word? We ask this because we know that it is quite possible to preach faithfully and well every week and yet fail to train our people to study the whole Bible, because we are only preaching from a limited portion of it. For example, a preacher might have delivered many excellent sermons from the Gospels and yet, when they are all added up, these sermons may not have taken the congregation through every chapter and verse of even one entire Gospel, let alone have done that in sequential order as part of a sermon series or several series of sermons. Moreover, it could be that 75 percent of this fine preacher’s sermons have been from the New Testament—including several that have been preached from the same passages over the years—with the result that the congregation has a great understanding of select parts of the Bible but has not been taught many others. Week by week the preacher has been faithful; however, over an extended period of time, their congregation has been undernourished from the whole counsel of God. Each individual sermon has been strong, but the overall pattern of preaching has championed and favored some parts of the Bible at the cost of minimal engagement with others.
Apart from the fact that such a congregation will have missed out on much that God has to say to us from the fullness of his word, it will also have missed out on seeing good, whole-Bible reading modeled to them. Although the pastor regularly and rightly exhorts them to read their Bibles, what they experience Sunday by Sunday is a focus on certain sub-sections of the Bible, which may in turn cause them to conclude that this reflects an adequate interaction with the word of God.
Our conviction is that this approach to choosing sermon texts—and the range of outcomes for the people of God—can be improved upon. By committing to a different pattern of preaching, pastors can deliver and model for their congregations an engagement with more of the Bible, and they can do this without giving up on any of their doctrinal commitments. They can, in fact, even work toward preaching through the entire Bible over the course of their ministry and, in doing so, show their people what methodical study of the whole Scriptures looks like. This will not require preachers to do any more preaching than they currently do—it can all happen through a carefully planned, long-term program of Sunday sermons. However, it will require putting aside some proper time for that extra work of careful planning. It will also necessitate coming up with a helpful way of tackling the big books of the Old Testament, carefully working the sermons of visiting preachers into the church’s calendar, figuring out how to avoid preaching the same text every Christmas and Easter, and other dilemmas such as these. It will especially require preachers to ensure that each sermon is cast within the overarching paradigms of biblical theology and the gospel itself, which will do a great deal to show the congregation how the message of the entire Bible centers on Jesus.
Having flagged some of the additional effort that will be required in taking this new approach, it is important also to note some of the great benefits. For the preacher, sermon preparation should actually become easier as they are able to work from a clear long-term plan, let each successive passage speak its own priorities (rather than the preaching coming up with focal topics themselves each week), and receive great value out of concentrated preparation for preaching whole books of the Bible. Moreover, the people of God will benefit as they come to love new and different parts of the Bible through learning to engage entire books and different genres of Scripture. They might find that having a sense of Isaiah as a whole builds their understanding of God’s purposes in a way that only knowing a few short passages from Isaiah did not. They might be excited that the poetic writings of the Old Testament speak to them in ways they had not heard God speaking through narrative. They might have fresh enthusiasm for reading through each Gospel as a whole to learn about parts of Jesus’ ministry and teaching that they had not heard much before. In short, a preaching program that seeks to take churches through the whole Bible will not only result in God’s people hearing more and more of God’s gracious special revelation, but will also grow them as people who have a better understanding of how to read, understand, and live out the fullness of that revelation for themselves. And as they do that, we can only imagine that they will love God’s word and his Son more too. This, we believe, will ensure that our pulpits are known and loved as places where preachers ‘did not shrink from declaring . . . the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27, ESV).
Tim Patrick is principal of the Bible College of South Australia, an affiliated college of the Australian College of Theology, where he lecturers in theology and practical ministry. Before moving into theological education and ministry formation, Tim served in local church ministry for ten years, where he worked with a number of congregations and led a number of revitalization projects.
Andrew Reid is the inaugural principal of the Evangelical Theological College of Asia in Singapore. He previously served as the lead pastor of several churches in Australia and as lecturer in Old Testament, hermeneutics, and Hebrew at Ridley College Melbourne. He was one of the founding council members of the Gospel Coalition Australia and is editorial director of the ministry, training, and leadership channel of TGCA’s website.
Tim and Andrew are the coauthors of The Whole Counsel of God, available from Crossway.