May 21, 2009

What is Christian Preaching?

Preaching has been a central part of Christian practice from the establishment of the Church down to the present day. The gospels indicate that Jesus’ own ministry was marked by proclamation (Matt 4:17), and the earliest documents in the New Testament attest the importance of the preached gospel (Gal 1:6-9; 3:2; 1 Thess 1:4-5). The witness of earliest Church history records that the day of Pentecost was marked by Peter’s address in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14 ff.). Even before the time of Christ the centrality of proclamation in the Christian tradition was prefigured by the public reading of God’s Law by Moses (Exod 19:7, 9) and the ministries of Israel’s prophets to proclaim the word of the Lord. Neither was the prominence of proclamation lost as Christian history progressed. From the teaching of Augustine to the reforms of Luther, from the homilies of golden mouthed Chrysostom to the field preaching of Wesley, from the doctrinal clarity of Athanasius to the expositions of Spurgeon, the ministry of proclamation has been the vanguard wherever Christianity has been practiced faithfully.

While it is easy to see that the ministry of proclamation must be understood as a central discipline in Christian ministry, the question remains as to the meaning and function of Christian proclamation. What is Christian preaching? How does it function? Why is it so important? These are but a few of the questions that must be addressed if we are to reckon adequately with homiletic theology. These are the questions that we will begin to address in this essay by arguing that Christian preaching is the Christocentric proclamation and exposition of the whole counsel of God which functions as a means of grace by which the Triune God brings people to salvation convicting of sin, enabling faith, and giving life to the dead.

Preaching at its most basic level is proclamation. But what or who is to be proclaimed? Is the preacher to give the congregation snippets of his or her own self-styled wisdom? What distinguishes Christian preachers from other orators? What is the difference between the preacher and the politician or the preacher and the motivational speaker? The difference is that the Christian preacher bears the mantle of proclaiming the word of the Living God.[1] The preacher is the steward of God’s word.[2] This can be understood in at least two ways.

First, Christian preaching proclaims the Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14).[3] The crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth is the central subject of Christian preaching. The Apostle Paul characterized his own faithful Christian ministry saying, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).[4] The task of preaching is not self-proclamation. It is not the proclamation of the preacher’s latest bight idea or the preacher’s own self-styled wisdom. It is not the preaching of steps to success. Christian preaching is first and foremost the preaching of Christ. If preaching is not Christocentric, then it is not Christian. This claim is evidenced repeatedly in the New Testament. Paul understands the gospel to be the gospel concerning God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1:3-4). Elsewhere he says that the message of the gospel is the message about Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:1, 3-4). Reflecting on both the false and true motives of various preachers Paul indicates that the most important thing is that Christ is proclaimed (Phil 1:15-18). Other apostolic authorities are consistent with Paul. 1 John indicates that the apostolic message includes the news that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from sin (1:5-7). The author of the letter to the Hebrews claims that God has spoken through his Son (1:2). Most certainly if God has spoken through Christ, then the preaching of the word of God ought to be Christocentric. The preaching of the Old Testament ought to be Christocentric as well. When Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke reports that, “beginning with Moses and all of the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27). The whole Bible is Christian scripture; its proclamation ought to be Christocentric.

Second, Christian preaching proclaims the whole counsel of God. If God has indeed spoken to us through the written words of the prophets and apostles in the Bible, then the faithful preacher must endeavor to be faithful to the whole of scripture.

Two problems often arise which hinder such faithfulness in preaching. First, the preacher’s time has more demands than ever.[5] Preachers are often seen as CEO’s of the church rather than the one whose task it is to proclaim and teach the word of God. Because of this time crunch, the preacher is easily tempted to go to his or her favorite passages again and again. The problem in so doing is that the preacher is not provided with opportunity to grow in understanding of the whole of God’s word. If the preacher is not learning and being continuously shaped by the word, then it will not be long before his or her preaching becomes lifeless and stagnant.

Second, there is often disconnect between the readings of text and the sermon. Franklin Kirksey has observed that, “All too often the biblical passage read to the congregation resembles the national anthem played at sporting events. It gets things started but it is not referred to again during the lesson. The authority behind preaching resides not in the preacher but in the biblical texts.”[6] What is the solution to these problems?

The solution is the systematic preaching of expository sermons. Haddon W. Robinson defines expository preaching thus:

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.[7]

In expository preaching, the sermon is determined by the biblical text. The biblical preacher realizes that the power of preaching lies not in what he or she has to say, but in what God has already said. Expository preaching is not presented as just another human philosophy. Instead, expository preaching presents itself as carrying divine authority. The preacher is subject to the text along with everyone else. What the text says is normative for the life of the whole church.[8]

The best method for expository preaching is preaching through books as wholes. This enables the preacher to preach the whole counsel of God without skipping over those difficult passages that require so much of the preacher or may even require the preacher to give up on his or her own folk or pet theology. Both preacher and congregation are forced to reckon with everything that God has said. This deals with both our problems outlined above. If the message is book-by-book, then the preacher will always be growing and learning and being shaped by God’s word. His or her preaching ought to demonstrate this growth and dynamism. This growth will also be translated to the congregation as they are brought face-to-face with tough texts. Further, expository preaching links the text to the sermon keeping it from being like the national anthem at a sporting event. When the text determines the sermon, there is unity of thought and intention in the worship service.

Further, the methodical preaching of expository messages through books-as-wholes provides both preacher and congregation time to soak in an entire book of scripture for a period of weeks or months. Passages within the book are not stripped from their original context and are safeguarded against being used as proof texts. The congregation can even learn how to study the Bible from the method of the preacher. If the preacher approaches the text inductively addressing the book as a whole, then the congregation may learn to study passages within their larger book context. A preaching ministry grounded in the book-by-book preaching of expository sermons will most faithfully represent the divine authority of the word of God and feed the people of God consistently over the long term.

We have seen then that the content of preaching should be Christocentric and that the method should be expository. But what is the function of Christian preaching? What happens when the preacher faithfully exposits the word of God to the congregation?

Christian preaching functions as a means of grace. That is, God has sovereignly decided to use the preaching of the word as an instrument of grace through which he convicts of sin, enables faith, and extends life. That preaching is a means of grace is clear in the New Testament. When Peter stood before the people of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and declared to them that the crucified Jesus had been raised from the dead and that God had made him both Lord and Messiah, Luke tells us that those who heard were “cut to the heart” and began to ask what they ought to do (Acts 2:36-37). When the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection was proclaimed, the Spirit of God went to work to convict the hearers of sin cutting them to the heart. The preached word was the means by which the Spirit extended prevenient grace to convict of sin and begin drawing these hearers to God through Christ.

That preaching is a means of grace is prominent in the writings of Paul as well.[9] In Romans Paul declares that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). He says further that the message of the gospel to the Thessalonians came “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:5).

Christian preaching is the chosen instrument of the Holy Spirit to work powerfully for salvation in those who hear. When the gospel is faithfully preached, then the Spirit uses it to bring conviction and enable the response of faith in order that those who hear might receive salvation. It is important to note the Trinitarian shape of this work as well. It is the Spirit that uses the message about Christ to bring people into right relationship with the Father which is the essence of eternal life (John 17:3). We can conclude, then, that Christian preaching is the means of grace by which the Triune God draws people to himself, enables faith, and extends life.

Christian preaching is not merely for those who need conversion though. 1 Cor 14 indicates that the upbuilding of the assembly is the primary function of the gathering of the Church.[10] This means that the preached word not only functions to extend life to the spiritually dead, but to nurture the development and growth in spiritual life of believers. Preaching is a means of grace for the continuing work of sanctification of believers. Through the expository preaching of biblical messages, the Spirit of God works to bring believers to maturity in Christ. So, preaching is a means of grace to convert as well as to sanctify.[11]

In conclusion, then, we have seen that faithful Christian preaching is Christocentric. The preaching of both Old and New Testaments ought to be centered in Christ or it is not authentically Christian. We have also seen that Christian preaching ought to work methodically and expositionally through the whole counsel of God. Preaching ought to embrace the whole text. This strengthens the possibility for continued growth on the part of both preacher and hearer while ensuring that the text is connected to the message. Expository preaching also gives the proper place of authority to God. This kind of faithful preaching functions as the means of grace by which the Triune God brings people into relationship with himself and provides growth and sanctification to the body of believers. It is for these reasons that the proclaimed word is so central to the biblical revelation and has been at the forefront of faithful Christian ministry throughout the history of Christianity.


[1] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, “But preaching has to do with a particular content, a certain message conveyed” (Preaching, Nashville: Abingdon, 1984, 17).
[2] Mark Dever et al., Preaching the Cross (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007) 21.
[3] Cf. Craddock, “In Jesus, says the Fourth Evangelist, God is revealed (1:18)” (56).
[4] All scripture quotations are from the NRSV.
[5] Craddock, 71.
[6] Franklin L. Kirksey, Sound Biblical Preaching: Giving the Bible a Voice (Charleston: BookSurge, 2004) 76.
[7] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: the Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) 21, italics original. Cf. Wayne McDill’s description of biblical preaching in which, “the purpose, the theme, the structure, and the development of the sermon are to reflect the text” (The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching, Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994, 14).
[8] Cf. Donald E. Demaray, Introduction to Homiletics, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Light and Life, 1990) 27.
[9] Cf. Demaray, “One of the marks of the Pauline preacher, in the first century or our own, is unwavering faith that God speaks through the preached Word” (35).
[10] Cf. Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005) 98.
[11] Cf. Demaray, “The task of the preacher is, therefore, twofold: to win and to nurture converts. To win converts the preacher proclaims the eternal truths of God’s Word, including sin and judgment, spelling out salvation through Christ and his cross, calling for the decision to accept Christ and to live accordingly. To nurture converts one must preach th substance of the Christian faith, explaining how Christians live and work in the world with God, themselves, and their fellows” (39).

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