When Tacoma, Washington, Child Protective Service case workers walked through the front door, up the stairs, and into a back bed-room of 53 year old Retha Skyles’ rented house, they found exactly what they’d been told. A 6-foot-long, 3-foot-wide, 2-foot-tall, coffin-like box. And inside the box, an eight-year-old boy, Skyles’ grandson.
Kept in this box 24 hours a day, the boy had no toys, no books to read, no radio or television to stimulate his ears or eyes. Of course, there were no friends for play and no schooling for his mind. He lived . . . imprisoned in that box.
The grandmother explained to bewildered authorities why she had kept the boy in the box. She believed that he had suffered brain damage when his mother had used drugs during her pregnancy, and she didn’t want to send him out into the world where he might be harmed, or do harm. He was, Skyles had concluded, retarded. And she was afraid and ashamed to let him out.
Caseworkers found, however, that the boy was mentally stable. He lacked social skills and was behind in information and experience, but they quickly determined he was a fairly normal boy. One psychologist revealed that the child was overwhelmed to learn that not all little boys are kept in boxes. He had never tried to escape because he had never known any other life (Dallas Morning News, 1987, 4A).
Many voices that influence our contemporary culture disregard Christian preachers, the way that grandmother disregarded her grandson. They believe evangelical Christians are damaged goods, spiritually retarded, harming society by evoking guilt, causing shame, and stimulating distinction. No one, they claim, should believe in a holy god who demands such strict paternalistic obedience, especially if he is a god who promises to bless only those who adhere to his schizophrenic, self-serving demands. Christianity, they argue, is too certain, too dogmatic, too exclusive. Amazingly, some who call themselves Christian agree (Jones, 2001, 50, 164).
And so our culture, embarrassed by our beliefs and afraid we might harm the open-minded wants to box us up in our church buildings and lecture halls.
But we know the true source of this marginalization of Christian preaching. We are neither ignorant of nor surprised by Satan’s renewed resistance. And this is no time to hesitate or stutter, to stop and negotiate. This is a time to preach. We must preach in this missionary age to a world of people with astounding spiritual longings, yet existing in rebellion, doubt, and spiritual darkness.
The goal of this International Congress is that we might find encouragement for our heaven sanctioned, time-honored, biblical calling to “Preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2a).
We preach in yet another missionary age because our world, especially the once “Christian” West, has transitioned. How people think, the way they experience, what they believe, and on what basis they believe it; all this has shifted. We are told that people have shorter attention spans and process simpler ideas. They prefer to learn experientially, judge subjectively, and respond emotionally. And we preachers no longer enjoy the advantage that our listeners hold to a Christian worldview. Most who live outside the Christian faith view it as intolerant and divisive.
I propose, therefore, to return to the basics of preaching, in light of its persisting necessity. I will review eight statements that constitute a common understanding of our task. I will also recall stories that, I trust, capture the passion of our preaching. During the course of this week we will develop these concepts in greater detail. The purpose of this address is to give us a common ground from which to provoke one another to faithful preaching. The first thing I want you to see is that . . .
Preaching is Communicational.
Great preaching presumes communication knowledge and skill. We work diligently so that our preaching might be heard. One of the great ironies of God’s plan is that He entrusted to feeble mouths the glorious Gospel message.
With our missionary age in mind, I want to emphasize just three strategies for communication: argument, image, and identification.
Communication means argument. Preaching always has, and always will, provided reasons for believing. Through good reasons the communicator seeks to convince, to persuade, to win over. Christian preaching should not coerce or manipulate, but it should argue.
We are told that since postmodernity has dethroned reason, we must repudiate the intellectual, the logical, the rational (Veith, 1994, 27-29; Hinkson & Ganssle, 2000, 68-89).
Reason, which modernity improperly defied as rationalism, has been, or is being properly dethroned. But we would be mistaken to eliminate thinking from our quest to know God. He made us rational beings; and the Spirit works through our minds. We must continue to argue.
Communication also means image. Much has been made of our moving from a word to an image culture. Newspapers affirm that trend. Formats have changed significantly; more color, larger print, graphs, and pictures. Not only that, most people no longer get their news from a newspaper, but from the television and the computer. The news is image (Johnston, 2001, 47-50; Henderson, 1998, 70-82).
Back before the printing press, the church used physical images to communicate the Christian message. With Bibles inaccessible, pictures carved into the doors, woven into the tapestries, and stained into the glass of church buildings told the story of redemption. Today, mental images communicated in words – illustrations, stories, and emotional word pictures – help us reach not only the minds of our listeners, but also their hearts and wills (Smalley & Trent, 1991, 17; Chapell, 2001, 39). Since our missionary age craves images, we must offer them alongside our arguments.
Communication also means Identification. People attend to speakers with whom they identify. If we stand off from our listeners in such a way that they believe we do not know them, do not understand them, do not care about their joys or struggles, they will not hear our preaching.
If, however, we, as aliens and strangers in this world, commit ourselves to the work of identifying with those we hope to influence, speaking to their longings, needs, and dreams, we just might experience a meeting of minds, and a meeting of hearts and wills.
For years American radio commentator, Paul Harvey, told “The Story of the Birds” to help his listeners understand the significance of Christ’s incarnation. A man, who did not believe, sent his family off to church for the Christmas Eve service. As he sat alone by the fire, a blizzard raging outside the house, he heard a pounding, a thudding at the window. He pulled back the curtain to discover a flock of birds, disoriented by the storm, flying desperately toward the light within the house.
The man raced outside to the barn, flinging wide the doors and turning on the lights in an effort to provide shelter. To no avail.
He retreated to the house for bread, tore it into pieces, and laid a path to the open barn. The birds didn’t follow.
He could think of no other way to communicate with these feathered creatures. If only he could become one of them. If only he could fly up into the storm and take the lead and bring them into the safety of the barn!
Just then, the church bells rang. And for the first time, he understood why Jesus had left heaven to take on human flesh and identify with us.
We, too, must move into our missionary age with good arguments, vivid images, and genuine identification because Preaching is Communicational.
Second, Preaching is Biblical.
If we could characterize our anti-modern culture in a single term, it might well be “anti-authority” (Veith, 1994, 16-20; Sims, 1995, 324-43). This isn’t news. Mankind has, from the beginning, been anti-authority, always opposed to God and His supremacy.
Adam and Eve resisted God’s authority. That got us started. In Jesus’ day the question was, “By what authority do you do (and say) these things?” (Matthew 21:23). When Christ passed authority on to His disciples, He warned them that powerful, spiritual enemies would challenge their authority in speaking the Words of God (John 17:14).
Today, Satan’s challenge to God’s authority, especially as revealed in His Word, has reached a new intensity. Biblical preaching, preaching that communicates the Bible as God’s inspired Word, is being attacked by philosophical deconstructionists, professional deniers, and even practical devotionalists.
The deconstructionists insist that the Bible is merely a fabrication of power-hoarding male chauvinists who invoked the name of God to solidify their own superiority and force their will upon their inferiors (Jones, 2001, 160-6). These unbelieving, intellectual elitists tear the Bible from heaven and make it the worst work of abusive, all too human, males.
The deniers ask, not so innocently, “How can we know God?” Their skepticism comes as a reaction to rationalism, and would be a fair question if asked by genuine seekers. But it has become a loaded question, asked and answered by professional atheists. They do not want to know. They choose to reject Revelation as a way of knowing, and that for personal reasons. They want to sin without shame or retribution. They have abandoned the concept that God has spoken from on high (Jones, 2001, 172).
The devotionalists stumble in their method. They have, often unwittingly, eliminated the distinction between meaning and application. It is helpful to ask, “What does this passage mean to me?” when doing application. But, following the reader-response method of asking, “What does this passage mean to me?” when seeking meaning, bypasses an understanding of what the author (in the text) intended to mean. The reader-response approach to interpretation undermines the authority of the Bible and places it within the experience of the reader (Greidanus, 1988, 78-9, 137, 268; Sandy & Giese, 1995, 282; Clendenen, 1995, 132-4, 143-4).
As apologists we must listen to and refute these heresies and pathologies. But as preachers we must never be intimidated by them, and as disciples we must resist falling for their deconstruction of God, denial of truth, and devotional interpretation.
When the mayor of Puebla, Mexico, took office this February, he took a drastic step to stop corruption in his city of 1.4 million citizens. And in fact, after just one month in office, bribery had tapered off 98 percent. How did the mayor accomplish this social phenomenon? Easy. Violations of the law, from prostitution to zoning, no longer carry a penalty. All tickets are “virtual” tickets. With fines eliminated, bribery has disappeared. The city is free from corruption (Iliff, 2002, 1A).
When the prevailing philosophy of our age disowns God’s revelation of judgment and hope, it does the sinner no favor. In our missionary age sinners need to know the truth of God’s Word. Preaching is Biblical.
Third, Preaching is Propositional.
Even in our times of indirection and story, many a novel, movie, and television drama expresses its essential message propositionally. Those that do not put words into the mouths of the characters still express values and beliefs in ways that even casual consumers cannot miss. The Prime Directive of Star Trek, that “No one may interfere with the development of another culture,” is patently propositional, a truly universal meta-narrative. Entertainment may be about money; it is also about ideology.
Preaching, too, is about ideology, about propositional truths that govern all cultures and times universally. Propositional statements not only bring focus to our preaching, they also imply a moral certainty that cannot be ignored (Ehninger, 1968, 215-222). For that very reason – because they are biblical truths – many critics of preaching insist that our use of propositions is outdated, tasteless, and even abusive. Interestingly, many who contend for the deconstruction of all meta-narratives do so with propositional imperatives. “You shall not preach absolutes” (Phillips, 1995, 254-266).
When I say that preaching is propositional, I have in mind at least two notions.
The first has to do with our style. Propositions are single sentence expressions of a subject and its complement that give our preaching unity and direction (Robinson, 2001, 35). Too many sermons scatter fragments like birdshot, barely getting notice from distracted listeners. Propositions, like bullets, focus their power on strategic targets.
The second notion about propositions has to do with our philosophy. We are talking about authority here, the foundational truths that rule peoples’ lives. God is the standard by which all things are judged and to whom all people will give account.
We must continue to propose a comprehensive worldview. Our preaching must relate reality from God’s perspective. Doubtless, God’s Revelation cannot be reduced to simplistic aphorisms. It is multi-dimensional (Adam, 1996, 95-9). However, just because the Bible is more than propositions does not mean we need to abandon the use of propositions to express its truth. “God is sovereign.” “God is love.” “The wages of sin is death.” These are universal propositions that Christians cannot abandon. They are reality despite the discomfort, tension, or rejection they may cause.
It has been said that propositions are the substance of the lived-out world and from propositions burst forth all the other things; painting, music, architecture, the loving and the hating of men in practice . . . and equally the results of loving God or rebellion against Him. Where a person will spend eternity depends on his or her reading or hearing the propositions, the facts of the Gospel (Schaeffer, 1982, 312-3).
We have a meta-story to share and truth to tell. God’s message must not be lost while we sit silently, kept by “knowing” caretakers. Preaching is Propositional.
Fourth, Preaching is Spiritual.
More than a mere human exercise in persuasion, preaching involves the Spirit of God. If He is not present and active, our preaching is futile. Preaching is not merely an art, or a science, or a discipline. It is a relationship with the personal and dynamic Spirit of God. That gives us hope as we preach in this missionary age.
Revelation is the work of the Spirit. The Spirit inspired the Scriptures. The Spirit has preserved the Word of God. The Spirit also regenerates, calls to service, and gifts the preacher for ministry. The Spirit illumines the preacher to understand how what is written applies to life. And the Spirit empowers the preacher to speak the words of God. We often call this anointing.
A portion of preaching is truly supernatural. We may not be able to explain it, but God has promised His help, and we have experienced it. And it is more than simply “being in the zone.” In preaching, we reach out, we speak out, trusting Someone beyond ourselves, that He will come and carry us.
We submit ourselves to the Spirit, and the text comes alive. We turn ourselves over to Him, and our preaching exceeds human ability and effect. One of our stories about preaching reminds us of the impossibility of our task, except for the Spirit’s intervention.
A young man was convinced God had called him to preach. He sought out his pastor and asked if he might give a trial sermon before the congregation. The pastor agreed, on condition that the novice would take some instruction. The young man consented and a date, six weeks from that time, was set.
At first, the young man felt totally inadequate to stand and preach. But then, after careful instruction from his mentor, he began to feel competent. In fact, the pastor detected an attitude of prideful self-confidence.
So, at sunrise on the morning before the aspiring preacher was to enter the pulpit, the instructor took his apprentice on a field trip . . . to the cemetery. When they had arrived the pastor told him, “Alright now, preach to them. Tell the dead to get up. Really preach. Tell them to get up out of their graves.”
Confused, the young man stood silent. Then at his mentor’s insistence, he spoke. But he found his effort entirely futile. He felt inept and ashamed. Anguish flushed his face. Tears filled his eyes.
Finally his teacher spoke. “We are so foolish to think that we can transform the dead. And your preaching will be foolish and powerless unless you invite God in to make the difference. Then, He will make the dead live.”
If we are going to preach powerfully in a missionary age we must preach prayerfully in Spirit-dependence. Preaching is Spiritual.
Fifth, Preaching is Theological.
When I talk about preaching, whether with eager students or veteran preachers, the question always comes up, “How do you go from text to sermon?”
Almost everyone seems more or less confident that they can get at the meaning of the text. We’ve been trained to do exegesis of a passage. And almost everyone seems more or less confident he or she can hold his or her own on the homiletical side. At least we know what we aspire to homiletically.
Accordingly, we feel comfortable preaching the Epistles, because they allow us to move from text to sermon so unremarkably. But take us into the Gospels or the various Old Testament genres and our confidence dissolves. We struggle with the theological bridge that connects the ancient text with the contemporary audience (Warren, 1999, 337). We may have been trained in a system of theology, but most of us have not been trained in, and, therefore, do not practice, doing theology. We break down between exegesis and homiletics.
As a result we end up preaching moralisms, psychologisms, and imitations. David’s laments become, “Pray with honest emotion.” Elijah’s retreat from faithfulness becomes, “How to maintain mental health.” Jephthah’s superstitious pledge becomes, “Keep your marriage vows no matter the cost.” Such “talks” fall short of biblical authority because they miss the theological essence of their texts.
Before we can preach in terms of our immediate audience, we must answer, “What does this text tell me about God and His relationship with His creation? What does this text tell me that is true in all times, in all cultures, for all people?” (Ross, 1988, 44).
I’ve been preaching through Joshua recently. I looked forward to preaching the promised victory of God’s people at Jericho. But preaching the utter destruction of every man, woman, child, and animal held little appeal. I would have preferred to skip that part of the story. Passages like that cause many in our day to reject the “small and mean” God of the Scriptures (Allen, 1997, 67, 117-22). But failing to address the doubts of my listeners, would have sold God short.
I needed to do more than merely explain what happened, back then, so strangely and apply it, somehow, to today. I needed to identify, so as to preach, the theological meta-narrative of Joshua 6. I couldn’t preach this text in terms of a contemporary holy war against our terrorist enemies be they political or religious. I had to preach it in terms of transcendent and universal truth about God and His relationship with both unrepentant sinners and obedient children.
I found the answer only by viewing the entire perspective of Joshua and by referring to the entire Revelation of God, especially up to that time in history. God is holy. He will, therefore, judge sin as He did in the flood and at Sodom. If God did not judge sin, its contaminating effects would seduce His children away. So, Joshua 6 is teaching us about more than the “nuking” of our enemies. It is teaching us how seriously our holy God takes sin, and how He used His people as His instruments of execution so that we might grasp its seriousness.
Now, I wouldn’t expect to resolve all the issues this passage raises in three minutes’ time. I do trust, however, that you will see how we must provide a theological interpretation of our preaching text. Our postmodern, missionary age needs preaching that is theologically grounded. Preaching is Theological.
Sixth, Preaching is Personal.
One classic definition of preaching calls it “Truth through personality,” (Brooks, 1989, 26). We esteem that expression of our calling because we know it to be true. We simply cannot be “one kind of person and another kind of preacher” (McDill, 1999, 36-7). The preacher, who falls short of progressive transformation, possesses little hope that his or her listeners will be transformed.
The founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, Lewis Sperry Chafer, counseled his students, “You can be as clear as ice, and just as cold.” And my preaching mentor, Haddon W. Robinson, advised, “The first changed life should be the preacher’s.”
God must be at work in our lives. We are sinners. But God regenerates us, transforms us from darkness to light, from death to life, from shame to glory. In the overflow we become transparent, earthen vessels filled with God’s glory.
When the wise Apostle wrote his protégé, encouraging him in his work of preaching, he reminded us all that personal integrity will gain a hearing for the truth. No one could possibly look down on Timothy’s youthful lack of experience as long as he lived out a godly example of divine transformation in his personal speech, conduct, love, spirit, faith, and purity (1 Timothy 4:12).
We live in the agonizing tension of not yet having reached perfection. It is painful to stand, so short of holiness, and call others to holiness. Regularly we sense the futility of our words. In those times we fall back on the assurance that God gives the words, and we merely serve as His voice.
However, we cannot use this knowledge, that we are merely God’s voice, as an excuse for disobedience. Our world will not demand perfection of us when it understands clearly the holiness of God and the sinfulness of every man. But they will demand an integrity of life that takes seriously the call to and promise of transformation.
We must stand before our age and testify with Wesley:
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast-bound in sin and nature’s night.
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose went forth and followed thee.”
(And Can It Be That I Should Gain? by Charles Wesley).
We must say, “By God’s grace, His truth has changed me. I now go His way. Will you join me?”
There are times when we speak the Words of God, not because we understand clearly and fully, not because we feel the burning of emotion, at that moment. But we speak the Words of God in faith because He is still forming us. In those moments, His glory shines through us – perhaps just a glimpse – but giving enlightenment to our understanding and warmth to our passion. Preaching in a missionary age must emerge as the overflow of a spiritual transformation that is personal. Preaching is Personal.
Seven Preaching is Applicational.
Not until our listeners have applied God’s truth will our preaching accomplish its immediate goal. The Scriptures never stop short of obedience, merely expressing theological propositions as abstract truth. The Bible always applies truth, shows us how to infuse truth into our thinking, feeling, and doing.
However, our listeners do not readily sense its relevance. So an essential part of a preacher’s task is demonstrating the Bible’s application to life.
Although Luke was not trying to teach us how to preach, he captured this aspect of preaching by showing how Jesus masterfully took His listeners all the way through truth to application (Luke 10:30-37). When the subject of the day was, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus referred His listeners, first of all, to the Scriptures. “What is written in the law?” To the answer, “You shall love the Lord your God with your entire being and your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus commended, “Right.” And then added, “Do that, and you will live.” But He didn’t stop there. Evoking the question, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with a story. His parable demonstrated who a neighbor is and what a neighbor does. But He didn’t stop there. He asked His audience, “Who do you think, in my story, was the neighbor?” When the correct answer was given, Jesus didn’t stop there. He continued, “Go and do likewise.” Truth applied (see Adams, 1988, 9).
So, every sermon should answer the question, “What must I do?” based on the prior statement, “Here’s why you must do it.”
I mention briefly three demands of faithful application.
First, it must be credible. Our listeners must see clearly the connection between our exegesis and our theological proposition, the universal truth expressed in that text. Then they must see clearly the connection from our theology to the application. If they miss these connections, they will disregard our application.
Second, application must be adapted to our audience. While the message of our preaching remains the same, the form in which it is sent and received, must be appropriately fitted. We understand adaptation when it comes to language. We speak Spanish in Spain. We understand adaptation when it comes to illustrations. We allude to their music or their movies when we preach to 20 year olds. Applications, as well, must be adapted for the audience before us. “‘You must not steal’ means you have to write your own term paper.”
Third, application must be specific. When it comes to obedience, most of us are resistive enough that we need the challenge of specifics. Haggai didn’t merely say, “You need to get right with God.” He told the people to go up to the mountain, bring back wood, and build the Lord’s house (Haggai 1:8). It may seem unnecessary, and perhaps condescending, but sinners need specifics.
The task of the preacher is to evoke life change. Passing on the baton of obedience is difficult, but necessary work. And if we do not pass on the baton of obedience, if we merely pile up knowledge, our listeners will not run race of life, toward Christlikeness, success-fully. Preaching is Applicational.
Eighth Preaching is Doxological.
Preaching that does not begin and end with worship of the one, true, and living God is not faithful preaching. God’s receiving glory is our ultimate goal in preaching. This is perhaps the most assumed, yet least expressed and reflected upon, and, therefore, most forgotten concept in preaching.
God’s reputation is at stake. His great and good name is being challenged. Preaching guards His reputation, defends His character, gives, and gets Him the glory He is due.
Ironically our world languishes, starving for a God worthy of their worship. They long to know Him. But they look in all the wrong places.
The rapid changes in our world, from technology to philosophy to spirituality, have left our hearers feeling disconnected from God, themselves, and one another (Bibby, 1987, 259-71). Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to understand and respond, many preachers have failed the challenge, giving way to culture and offering mere fragments of meaning, personhood, and fraternity. We have been reminded that preachers today are speaking to independent, insignificant, and isolated listeners in search of transcendence, significance, and community (Stott, 1988, 123-32). The people of our missionary age are independent as a result of abandoning God, insignificant as a result of losing themselves in the machine of production, and isolated as a result of consuming as a means of existence. Yet they long to find God, to find themselves, to find their neighbors.
Preaching the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is the means by which men and women everywhere reconnect with the transcendent God above, their “image of God” significance within, and the eternal community of the faithful.
When our world treats the God of the Bible as just another god to choose from, when they miss His transcendence, His differentness, His “otherness,” they miss their only hope. A god of his or her own imagination or creation cannot provide life after death.
When we preach, we are recruiting worshippers who will join us in spreading God’s name throughout this world. Our job is to fill up the numbers of those who, in this missionary age, will give recognition, and honor, and glory to the One, Who alone, deserves it.
We must ever struggle against corrupting this message. Our preaching is not about ourselves, our reputation. It is not about our denomination or affiliation. It is certainly not about our nation or race or culture. It is about God’s nature, character, attributes, actions, and promises.
Our task comes down to this. Proclaim the truth about Who God is. Tell of His claims, His covenants, His boast. Tell His record; how He does what He says. Give them a glimpse of His glory. Then invite people to join in the celebration. Preaching is Doxological.
Preaching, then, is the communication of a biblical proposition discovered from a Spirit directed theological interpretation of a text and applied by the Holy Spirit through a preacher to a specific audience for the glory of God.
This missionary age presents us preachers with yet another, ongoing, opportunity. Some preachers have retreated to the seductive comfort of compromise in their personal lives or in their message. They have surrendered to sin, or doubt, or politically correct, but unbiblical, tolerance. They are boxed in.
We have come, God granting us grace, to recommit ourselves to the challenge of faithful preaching. And will it be worth it?
When Henry the Fifth gathered his army before the battle of Agincourt, he did not focus their attention on past victories, nor did he emphasize their present struggle. Rather, as Shakespeare recounts it, he cast before them a vision of the glorious future.
He that shall live this day and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his friends,
And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian”:
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
. . . .
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhood’s cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
(The Life of King Henry the Fifth, Act IV, scene iii by William Shakespeare).
That day will come when we see clearly and experience fully the promise of God. In the in-between time we will preach, free of the confining box fabricated by unbelieving critics.
We will be glad, in that coming day, for having preached the Word of the Lord in a missionary age.
Timothy S. Warren is Professor of Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary.
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