By Chris Philbeck
In “The Urgency of Preaching,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler begins by asking, “Has preaching fallen on hard times?” The August 28, 2017, blog post goes on to talk about the centrality of preaching in the New Testament church and whether or not that has been diminished in a day when, using Mohler’s words, “some contemporary preachers now substitute messages intentionally designed to reach secular or superficial congregations—messages which avoid a biblical text, and thus avoid a potentially embarrassing confrontation with biblical truth.”
Some have called this “needs-based preaching.” And some promote needs-based preaching as the only way to reach a modern world. But the problem with needs-based preaching is it can make biblical truth and biblical authority secondary to making people feel good. That doesn’t seem to fit with Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” And so we’re left with these questions: What is the definition of biblical preaching, and how do I embrace biblical preaching in the modern-day church?
Biblical Preaching Defined
Let’s begin with a definition. Biblical preaching is what happens when the Scripture text is the driving force of the sermon. That may sound obvious, but that’s not always the case.
Let me pause for a moment. I recognize an article about preaching, to be read by preachers, has the potential to come across as overly authoritative, condescending, and dismissive to certain preaching styles, but I assure you, that’s not my intention. Instead, I intend to promote biblical preaching in a way that leads to more powerful preaching. That’s what happens when the text of Scripture drives the sermon. The more biblical our preaching, the more powerful our preaching. The specifics of how it happens, however, can vary.
Many preachers shy away from biblical preaching the way I’ve defined it, because they think of it only in terms of the strictest form of expository preaching (expository meaning to “expound” or “explain”). But biblical preaching does not have to be verse-by-verse, line-by-line, word-by-word. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.
Three Parts of a Biblical Sermon
As a young preacher, I remember hearing that a good sermon contained three things: explanation, illustration, and application. Years later, at a conference, I heard John Ortberg say, “We should always ask ourselves three questions when preparing a sermon: What do I want people to understand? What do I want people to feel? What do I want people to do?” That’s just another way to describe the importance of explanation, illustration, and application. All three are part of a good sermon, but don’t necessarily occur in equal measure.
I know of preachers who are masterful at explaining the details of a text in clear and simple terms that are easily understood by all. I appreciate that ability because I know how much study is required to accurately summarize historical, cultural, or contextual truth.
Some preachers are very good at illustrating the Scriptures; they have the unique ability to see illustrations in both the experiences of their individual lives as well as the bigger stories of life and the world. I appreciate that ability because of the intuition required to relate life to biblical truth.
And some preachers do an excellent job at applying biblical truth to the daily realities of life. I appreciate that ability because of the sensitivity and insight required to connect biblical truth to our everyday experiences and challenges.
I’m suggesting this: We use this skill, insight, and creativity to produce biblical preaching that speaks to the deepest needs of life.
Essential Principles for Preaching Biblically
In Choosing to Preach, Kenton C. Anderson wrote about Phillips Brooks, an American Episcopal preacher who is probably best known for writing the lyrics for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It seems Brooks was concerned about the lack of biblical authority and the rise of needs-based preaching all the way back in 1877. Brooks didn’t mince words when he said: “The preacher was a promiscuous caterer for men’s whims, wishing them well, inspired by a certain general benevolence, but in no sense a prophet uttering positive truth to them . . . whether they liked it or hated it.”
Brooks clearly believed in the importance of biblical preaching. At the same time, he understood there was no set formula for a sermon with biblical authority because he went on to suggest that preaching “is the presentation of truth through personality.” In other words, preaching needs to be personified. It needs to be prepared and delivered out of the overflow of our lives, our experiences, and who God created us to be. This kind of approach does not have to be separated from biblical preaching where the text of the Scripture is the driving force of the sermon.
On my desk, next to my laptop computer, I have taped a piece of paper containing statements that serve as reminders whenever I write a sermon. Here’s what’s written on the paper:
1. When the normal sense makes good sense, seek no other sense. That’s my number one rule when it comes to interpretation.
2. The text of Scripture can never mean to us what it didn’t mean to the original reader. That’s my reminder to focus on context.
3. We interpret the Bible with the Bible. The entire Bible is my number one source for understanding the biblical text.
4. Ask questions. When I want to understand a specific text of Scripture, I ask questions. Who is writing or speaking? Who is being written or spoken to? Is there a clear theme in the text? What questions are being asked or resolved? What instructions are being given? Are there words or phrases that are being used multiple times? These are some examples of the questions I ask. They aren’t original to me, but they help me understand the text.
5. The meaning of words matters. It’s helpful to me to search the meaning of specific words in the text, especially if that word is used multiple times or it plays a powerful role in the text. Sometimes these word studies find their way into the message and sometimes they don’t. But the research always enriches my study.
When I finish my research, I spend time prayerfully thinking about how I can teach the passage in a compelling way. Oftentimes I read what others have written or listen to what others have shared on the passage. I’m not nearly as creative as some people, so I sometimes struggle with the illustrations and I can get bogged down in the explanation, but in the end, I have a message that’s driven, first and foremost, by the text of the Scripture.
Several years ago, I attended one of Bob Russell’s mentoring retreats. One afternoon, Bob was talking about the importance of making sure the Bible is the centerpiece of our preaching because the Bible is . . . Bob paused while searching for exactly the right word, and I said, “supernatural.” He looked at me and said, “I believe that’s true!”
That leads to one more important principle for biblical preaching: On my best day, I can put together some good thoughts, but I don’t have the ability to say anything that is “supernatural.” No doubt that’s why Peter said this when writing about spiritual gifts: “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11).
The Need to Think Biblically
I began in full-time ministry in May 1980. Over the course of the time I have served in the local church, I—like every other pastor—have encountered trials, tragedies, and disappointments. I’ve dealt with them in my own life and in the lives of the people I have served. It’s not anecdotal Christianity that gives us the strength to survive life’s trials. It’s the deep, immutable, life-giving truth of God’s Word.
Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). The word Paul used for think means “to evaluate” or “to calculate.” It was an accounting word in ancient days.
In his commentary on Philippians, John MacArthur said Paul was teaching us that we need to think biblically. But for that to happen, we need to know the Bible. Biblical preaching gives people the opportunity to know the Bible. And while the form for how it’s delivered can and should vary, the commitment to letting the text of the Scripture be the driving force of the sermon is essential.
In chapter 1 of Choosing to Preach, Kenton Anderson offered this warning about preaching: “Don’t fall into the trap of believing that you have to choose between the Bible and your audience.”
We need to trust in the power of God’s Word. We need to remember Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
We need to make a commitment to biblical preaching.
Chris Philbeck serves as pastor of Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Indiana. In his 38 years of ministry Chris has had the privilege of planting a church, leading a turnaround church, and now a megachurch. He loves to preach and lead and finds great joy in helping people discover the greater life they can have in Christ.