Why do we preach? Twenty centuries of Christianity have been so branded by preaching that we rarely question its place or purpose. Yet, if we consistently engage in an endeavor that requires such a costly investment from churches and pastors, we ought to articulate clear reasons for doing it. Everett Wilson claims: “Preaching is the most undemocratic of routines. Week in, week out, people come and listen for a half-hour at a time to someone [similar to] themselves. They do not interrupt; they do not walk out. They can’t switch channels. Sometimes the speaker scolds them, and they sit still for it.
“They are not students in a university, intimidated by a professor’s power. They are not employees dependent upon the speaker’s power over their income. Many of them, in fact, are giving sacrificially to keep the speaker’s family fed, clothed, housed and educated. Those of us who have assumed such an undemocratic prerogative had better believe we are engaged in the ministry of the Word of God; otherwise there is no hope for us!”
Indeed, Scripture admits to the foolishness of preaching, but insists on its power (
We Preach to Press God’s Truth
Paul’s thoughts on preaching occur immediately after his convictions on Scripture, and they closely correspond. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and for training in righteousness” (
Paul reinforces the point in
Homileticians sometimes couch this confrontational characteristic of preaching into a category called application, which is a necessary component of biblical preaching. As Howard Hendricks said, “observation plus interpretation without application equals abortion” —a process left incomplete. Preachers must apply eternal truth to the fallen condition and temporal situations of listeners.
Indeed, what are reproving, rebuking and exhorting if not forms of application? Without caution, though, one can pare out application and conceive it as a mere addendum to the sermon that provides a handy to-do list for the audience. In light of Paul’s claims, however, application is not an endeavor that exists apart from explaining and illustrating the text, but is itself characteristic of preaching. We preach to press God’s truth!
John Broadus, elder statesman of American evangelical preaching, encapsulated all of preaching within its confrontational dynamic. He claimed, “When a man who is apt in teaching, whose soul is on fire with the truth which he trusts has saved him and hopes will save others, speaks to his fellow men, face to face, eye to eye, and electric sympathies flash to and fro between him and his hearers…there is a power to move men, to influence character, life, destiny, such as no printed page can ever possess.”
We Preach to Provide the Applicational Force of the Text
If preaching is characteristically confrontational and applicational, how does a preacher convey this quality throughout a sermon? How does one integrate explanation, illustration and application so the manner of preaching matches Paul’s charge?
The key lies in a basic principle of biblical interpretation. The first step to understanding any passage of Scripture is grasping why it was written in the first place. What problem was being addressed? What sin was being confronted? What pain was being comforted? The way in which the text spoke to its original audience is the way in which it must be preached now. Identifying the original purpose of the passage supplies the applicational force for the sermon.
With the historical situation clarified, the purpose—and applicational force—of Colossians 1:15-20 comes plainly into view. We must not try to go beyond Jesus in our spirituality, because no one can go beyond Jesus! He is the image of God, the firstborn and agent of creation, the center of the cosmos and head of the church! Twenty-first century believers face the same temptation. Culture presents a myriad of options for filling the soul’s deepest longings, and Christians need a strong reminder that Jesus is enough. Instead of a merely informational sermon titled “Four Facts About Jesus,” the applicational force of Colossians 1:15-20 takes the message in an imperatival direction: Don’t go beyond Jesus!
The applicational force of a biblical text always should form the central idea of a sermon. By introducing this main idea at the outset, the audience more readily understands the importance of every component of the sermon—even portions of detailed textual explanation. In this way, the preacher never has to pause and address the ever-present “So what?” question, because the audience already knows the answer. Introducing, explaining and carrying out the applicational force of the text embodies Paul’s ideal that we preach by reproving, rebuking, exhorting and teaching.
We Preaching to Present People Complete in Christ
Providing the applicational force of the text is not, however, the end goal of preaching. Instead, a fully applicational approach is the means to accomplishing preaching’s final purpose: presenting people complete in Christ—whole, perfect and mature (Col. 1:28). Paul’s words make a clear correlation between the proclamation of the gospel and its saving effect evangelistically and sanctificationally. Evangelistically, preaching confronts the unbeliever with the good news of Jesus and brings him or her to the point of decision. Sanctificationally, preaching refines the believer by reinforcing and deepening the faith through which one is saved.
Craig Larson said, “When our purpose is to reshape people into the image of Christ…nothing has greater potency than biblical preaching…While other useful forms of ministry and media can present the Word of God, it is preaching that brings the full weight of the Word of God to bear on the soul and spirit.”
Preaching is God’s way of doing His saving work! Obviously, the fruit of this work is beyond the ability of the preacher. No preacher and no sermon can save a soul. Salvation belongs to God. However, if Paul’s apostolic model for preaching is normative for all preaching—and it is—then preaching is God’s method of achieving His own goals. When conceived and carried out as a confrontational encounter that presses the applicational force of the biblical text, preaching remains fiercely congruent with God’s gospel purposes: the salvation of men!
Chuck Fuller is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. He is author of The Trouble with Truth Through Personality: Phillips Brooks, Incarnation and the Evangelical Boundaries of Preaching.