Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Expository Preaching, Revivalism, and Biblical Fidelity

There are plenty of bad sermons out there where a pastor just picks a topic and goes hunting for verses to support his topic. When the verses are read in context, it becomes obvious that these passages are not trying to teach what the pastor is trying to teach.

So many opt for "expository" preaching. Often the pastor will go verse by verse through the Scriptures trying to tease out every little nuance of the Greek or Hebrew. In some cases a sermon may be on three words at the beginning of a sentence. The pastor may take one year or even several years going verse by verse through a particular book of the Bible.

But is this the point of preaching? Is the pastor primarily a teacher that is supposed to teach you about all the nuances of the Greek and Hebrew? Do the Scriptures provide any examples of preaching?

In Luke 4:16-20 we find the shortest recorded sermon:

He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. He entered, as was his custom, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. The book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began to tell them, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus reads from the lectionary reading assigned for that day and then explains it in a single sentence. In Luke
Luke 24:45-47 we read:

Then he opened their minds, that they might understand the Scriptures. He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Jesus opened the minds of his disciples and showed them that all the Scriptures are all about Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul says:

For I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
In 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 Paul says:

But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Paul believes that the central message of every sermon should be Christ-crucified--at least that is how Paul preached. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself and its Paul's job as an ambassador of Christ to make that reconciliation known. That's exactly what Paul does in his letters. Each one of Paul's letters was originally intended to be read in the churches as a sermon. These are infallible and inspired sermons and so we should use them as a point of reference to determine what a sermon should look like. The length of Paul's sermons vary from very short to very long. Paul's letters address a variety of problems in the church. But they are all centered on Christ-crucified--in every single sermon Paul is acting as a minister of reconciliation.

Historically in the church there has been a reading from the Epistles and a reading from the Gospels. Historically, the sermon has generally been on the Gospel and if someone wants to preach like Paul this seems to be the best practice. If you preach on few verses or part of a verse from one of the Epistles you are really preaching on a small portion of somebody else's sermon. Because this is just a small selection from a sermon, if you preach on it, it is very likely that your sermon will have entirely different focus from that of Paul.

This is what you find in John MacArthur's sermons. He doesn't understand the Scriptural distinctions between Law and Gospel so he even takes objective Gospel statements and turns them into Law even when he's preaching on one of the Gospels. He'll preach on John 15 where Jesus says that He it the vine and we are the branche where Jesus promises that if we abide in Him we will bear fruit and makes the sermon all about internal self-evaluation to determine if your life is on a general trajectory of fruit-bearing to determine if you are a "for-real" Christian. Expository pastors give you the impression that they are just preaching the Bible. But in reality they are reading their own pietist traditions into the Bible. They are always taking objective outward-looking Gospel statements about what Jesus has done and turning us inward to our own experience.

It's even easier to make this same mistake when you are just preaching on a short selection from the writings of Paul. Our natural man's inclination is always trying to look away from what Christ has objectively done for us and instead look for life principles or rules that we can do or a mystical experience that we can have. The lectionary is helpful because it keeps pastors off their hobby horses and focuses our attention on the life and work of Jesus rather than our own works.

Good preaching will explain the text well but with a certain goal in mind. The goal is not a geography lesson, a Greek or Hebrew lesson, or even a doctrinal treatise. The goal is the forgiveness of sins. The sermon must be about Christ-crucified. The sermon must declare that we have been reconciled to God in Christ. Different passages of Scripture will lead to sermons that focus on specific sins and different aspects of our reconciliation. But ultimately if the sermon is about something other than Christ-crucified for sinners it is not a Christian sermon. The central message of the Scriptures is not Christ in you but Christ for you.

This type of preaching will not turn a pastor into a superstar. Subjective preaching that focuses on  inward transformation and "feeling" the pesence of God will always be more popular. The individual pastor's personality and his ability to be a dynamic speaker will take center stage. The more he can work people up into an emotional frenzy, the more people will talk about how they wish that  their pastors were more like this revivalist.

But popularity does not equal Biblical fidelity. We don't find the Apostle Paul trying to scare people into heaven by providing emotional descriptions of God hanging people over the flames of hell. We don't find Paul calling on everyone to examine themselves to see if they are "real" Christians.

Instead, we find Paul faithfully preaching Law, Gospel, and Christ-crucified. Faithful pastors who do this are loved by real sinners but will not be opening up satellite churches. Because if Biblical fidelity is the goal, the pastor down the block can do that too. He doesn't need to be skilled in the art of manipulations. The pastor becomes interchangable in a good way. He faithfully carries out the taks given to him by Christ. He doesn't draw attention to himself or try to impress those who don't know any better with his amazing Greek skills. He delivers Jesus.

The real Biblical church is a multi-site church. But it's not a multi-site church where everyone stares at a screen and talks about how great the pastor is. The real multi-site church is one in which we all gather at our local church and receive the same Jesus in the preaching in the Gospel and are given the same Jesus to eat and to drink while we worship with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

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