Why would a preacher endeavor to write about preaching? I considered that question at length before deciding to do so. The definition, purpose, and power of preaching has never needed more ongoing clarification than now. In a culture (and church culture) of normative oscillation there is a need for steadying truths. My hope is that the series of posts that follow will provoke thought about what preaching is, why preaching exists, and how preaching thrives.
There are at least three different vantage points from which we can draw out a definition of preaching. Some see this sacred mandate from a secular position, others from a religious position, and the third viewpoint with which we will be most concerned is the biblical position. Even within these three basic categories there are disagreements regarding definition and purpose. Nevertheless, it will help to understand these three viewpoints and build upon the definition sculpted from the very words of God.
First, it is helpful to understand what connotation preaching takes in the mind of an unbeliever or unreligious person. It is most simply defined as delivering a religious discourse. This very vague explanation does little to inform us about the motivation, subject, or results of preaching. From this standpoint Charles Spurgeon, Billy Graham, Joel Osteen, Barack Obama, Gandhi, and even Adolf Hitler have preached. Certainly the average person wouldn’t label all these men as preachers, though the definition given above is so broad that they might be included. Such an imprecise explanation will not point us to the true purpose of preaching; however, it does serve to teach us the dangers of unclear terms. Dictators, politicians, religious figures, and pastors should not all fit into a proper perspective of this means of grace. An unregenerate heart cannot truly understand the implications of proclaiming God’s word (1 Corinthians 2:14). Since preaching is spiritual in nature, only one who is born of the spirit could truly draw out a biblical definition. A secular view of preaching would paint a far more dismal picture of spiritual maturity and doctrinal competency within the church than actually exists; so this definition will not be used as the foundation to move forward.
Another viewpoint from which preaching can be defined is the religious perspective. For our purposes we will limit the scope of this definition to the realm of Christianity. This differs from the secular perspective because there are certain guidelines that frame this definition. With this mindset, preaching could be defined as addressing an assembly or congregation with a spiritual theme in mind. Within these guidelines, denomination, emphasis, style, and focus are not considered. Contemporary examples which would fit this mold are T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, David Jeremiah, Rob Bell, Kenneth Copeland, John MacArthur, and a host of others. Notice that this list is very diverse in beliefs, though technically all categorized as Christian. The common link that would pull all of these together, and subsequently title them as a preacher, is that they speak about God from an evangelical (term used loosely) viewpoint. However, an evangelical viewpoint doesn’t necessarily incorporate what God’s word says. To put it simply, all of these people say things about the God which happens to be mentioned in the Bible. They say them in different ways, with different distinctives and personalities; nevertheless, speaking about God in such unclear parameters does not adhere to the biblical definition of preaching, which is what must be accepted and built upon.
The final and most important view of preaching is the biblical view. Sadly, far too few define this high calling in biblical terms. As laid out in Scripture, there are at least five phrases that point towards a biblical basis of proclaiming God’s word. Preaching the gospel (Mark 1:14, Luke 9:6), the preaching of Jesus Christ (Acts 11:20, Romans 16:25), preaching of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18), preaching of the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14, Acts 20:25, Acts 28:31), and preaching the word of the Lord (Acts 8:4, Acts 15:35) are all statements from the Word which direct us to a Bible-based definition. These simple phrases should help to bring clarity to what it truly means to preach by emphasizing four principles that can be drawn out.
First, from each of these phrases we should see the centrality of Jesus. From Genesis to Revelation, a common thread woven throughout the tapestry of the Word is Jesus Christ. From him whose heel which will bruise the serpents head (Genesis 3:15) to he who will return in glory, the only begotten son of God is the focal point of Scripture. Jesus Himself illustrated this on the Road to Emmaus. As he walked and talked with the blinded men, the word tells us that Jesus interpreted the scriptures from Moses and all the prophets the things concerning himself. He was the focus of his teaching. Is it any wonder that the men said later in the passage, “Did our hearts not burn within us when he opened to us the Scriptures?”
Second, the finished work of Christ should be emphasized. Our part in the Christian life is absolutely dependent on Christ having finished his part. If he is not crucified, risen, interceding, and soon returning, then we have little hope indeed. Doing what God alone can do is the business of preaching. The good news is that it has been done through Christ.
Third, there needs to be a focus on the heavenly pattern and not Earthly living. The Kingdom of God doesn’t merely point us towards practical living on Earth, but rather to the glories displayed in the realm of the divine. Therefore, preaching is not simply verbalizing morality. This does not exclude the teachings of scripture as they relate to Christian morality; however, this should not be the overarching emphasis of the preached word.
Finally, all proclamations should be drawn from the well of the Word. His words alone can change, rebuke, purify, and heal. The Word of God is the God-breathed means to fulfill the great commission and obey the mandate to equip the saints for the work of the ministry. Our call is to read it well, study it well, interpret it well, and preach it well. Anything less is merely delivering religious discourse.
Does defining preaching really matter all that much? The stakes are eternal (Romans 10:14). All preaching should be done in dependence on God, in obedience to God, and with his ultimate glory in mind. Stating rules is not preaching. Correcting bad behavior is not preaching. Outlining Scripture for data alone is not preaching.
So what is it?
From these principles a biblical definition of preaching might be: proclaiming the glory, grace, and Gospel of God, seen most clearly in the person of Jesus, from the word of God and by the power of God. A biblical definition leads to the biblical purpose. This will be the topic of the next post in this series.
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