Pastors labor under the biblical imperative to “preach the word.” We face many obstacles in the ministry, which is why Paul exhorted pastors to preach “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). Surprisingly, though, some of the roadblocks to an effective preaching ministry are ones we lay on our own because we preach in ways that undermine the Bible’s authority in unintended and subtle ways. Here are five ways we unintentionally undermine the authority of Scripture in our preaching.
1. By Preaching a Sermon in Search of a Text
A sermon in search of a text begins with an idea: “I want to talk about _______.” Then the pastor searches out a text that makes reference to the thing he wants to talk about and uses it as the launching pad for the rest of the sermon. Instead of getting his message out of the text and letting the text govern his sermon, he reads his message into the text and allows his sermon idea to govern the text.
When a pastor preaches this way, he sets himself up as an authority over the biblical text. He may not mean to do this, but this is what he accomplishes. The model he shows to his congregation is one where we make the biblical text say what we want it to say rather than listening to what the text actually says.
In his book 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever offers a simple and clear definition of expositional preaching. He says that the point of the text should be the point of the message. Genuine, biblical sermons start with the text of Scripture, seek to understand what that text teaches, and then proclaim that message to people so their lives will be changed by it.
2. By Abandoning the Text During the Sermon
Closely related to the sermon in search of a text (see above) is the sermon that starts with a passage, but then abandons the text after reading it. This can happen by either running with one thought from the text or by talking about the text in generic ways without pointing people back to the actual words of the text.
John Piper once said in a lecture on preaching that pastors should consistently use the phrase “look at this” in their sermons. He encouraged pastors to point their hearers back to the actual words of the text so that they can see how what we are saying comes directly from Scripture and also so that they can learn how to read the text themselves.
3. By Letting an Illustration Drive the Sermon
Most pastors love telling good stories, especially if those stories illustrate biblical truths. Wise pastors look for illustrations in all of life because good illustrations help people better understand the message of the Bible. Unfortunately, preachers can so fall in love with an illustration that it becomes the main point of the message (instead of the biblical text). We’ve all heard these sermons: they begin with a short talk about the biblical text, then the lengthy illustration takes center stage, and eventually the preacher arrives at his application, not of the text, but of the illustration.
Good, appropriate illustrations are a hallmark of sound biblical preaching. Done rightly, they shed light on the truth and drive us back to the Bible. They don’t determine the content of the sermon, but rather serve to illuminate the sermon’s content.
4. By Only Giving a Running Commentary on the Text
There is one imposter that masquerades as expositional preaching, but falls far short of the goal of preaching. Expository preaching, rightly done, proclaims the message of the biblical text and exhorts people in light of the text’s message. Forgive the expression, but an expositional sermon should have oomph. Pastors in older days called it “unction.”
A sermon that only gives a running commentary on the meaning of the text could be called biblical in the sense that it explains the text, but it lacks a crucial note that must characterize every sermon. There must be an “oughtness” about the message. The Bible doesn’t just tell us a story or teach us theology. It also calls us to trust in Jesus, to worship the Father, to live by the power of the Holy Spirit, to love our neighbor, and to look forward to the return of our great King. We don’t only teach these truths; we proclaim them.
5. By Failing to Appreciate the Mood of the Text
“Why is it so quiet in here?” I had just preached on “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10) and a friend asked me why there seemed to be a hush over the room. The text we had just considered together was heavy, so the quietness of the room made me think, “mission accomplished.”
We should preach to produce affections that correspond to the mood of the biblical text. If we are preaching on heaven, we want people to be overcome with a great sense of joy. If, on the other hand, the sermon is on the reality of hell, then we would be foolish to pack the sermon with funny stories. We want people to feel the weight of God’s judgment. The ethos of the sermon should convey the ethos of the text.
I bring up this final point with trepidation because I do not want to give the impression that capturing the mood of the text is like putting on a performance. Rather, understanding and conveying the text’s mood emphasizes the role of heart preparation and the power of the Holy Spirit in preaching. We cannot and should not try to produce these affections. Instead, we pray that God would give us affections that have been shaped by the message of the text we are preaching. We also ask the Spirit to use our words to produce these affections in the hearts of the people who hear us.
My goal in pointing out the errors above is not to nitpick the sermons of others. This is a plea to pastors to preach the Bible so that men, women, boys, and girls would come to trust in Christ and grow in their daily walk with him. Because we tend to undermine this great ambition in subtle ways, we must take a careful look at our own preaching to that we do not unintentionally tear down what we are seeking to build.