As a preacher, I work hard to maintain good habits in preparing a sermon. Translating from the original Greek or Hebrew text, engaging with the commentators, creating a clear structure for the sermon, and finally, figuring out how to communicate God’s word in an enlightening fashion (as opposed to a dry and boring one).
The ultimate goal—to clearly present the word of God. The desired result—to give the hearer a fresh insight into Jesus so that, God willing, the hearer is both convicted of their own sinfulness and, simultaneously, overwhelmed by the graciousness of God towards us in Christ.
Now, before I get to my dilemma, I’ll need to fill you in on the background. The other week, I spent minimal time in the early stages of sermon preparation (translating and understanding the text) which is a very big shortcut I take only very rarely. I had to fast-track the preparation cycle because I was running a three-day conference midweek while living in what I call ‘crazy baby land’—the world of sleep deprivation that comes with the joy of having a newborn. So I pretty much compressed my usual sermon preparation cycle from four or five days into two days.
What was the outcome for the sermon on Sunday? People loved it. According to the feedback on the comment cards, and through personal conversations, the sermon was simple, clear, engaging, and had really good ‘application’.
Now, I suspect the major factor was the grace of God. It was the right message for his people to hear at that moment in time. And yet, it could also be that the compressed sermon preparation time acted as a catalyst for clarity in my preaching. But something rankled within me; something wasn’t sitting comfortably with my soul.
And so, as I reflected on this week, a dilemma formed in my mind. On the one hand, my biblical instincts drive me to do the hard yards of ‘correctly handling the word of God’ (2 Tim 4:15)—working hard on the text to deepen my own understanding and communicate that understanding. On the other hand, stories, illustrations, and application grounded in ‘real life’ seem to have the best return for my preaching investment. So much so, that there seems to be a gaping chasm between ‘understanding’ the text (large effort, little return) and ‘applying’ that same text (little effort, large return).
So what is the way forward? How can I preach the word without sacrificing the text upon the altar of ‘application’? Alternatively, how do I preach the word without turning understanding the word into the dry arid wasteland of intellectualism?
There are also parallel questions for those hearing the sermon. How do we ‘hear’ a sermon, as opposed to merely being entertained by one? Why do we prefer the ‘application’ of the text, to the ‘understanding’ of the text? And why do we yearn for the ‘take home’ message?
Part 1—The Preacher’s Dilemma
The first part of this discussion will tackle these questions from the preacher’s perspective—which doesn’t mean that I advise you to skip to the second part if you’re not a preacher. It is important for hearers to understand the preacher’s role, because preaching is unlike any other form of oral/aural communication. Preaching is not like a comedy routine, aiming to entertain the audience with a few laughs. Nor is preaching like public speaking, which uses rhetorical techniques, robust argument and eloquent words as ends in and of themselves. Preaching is an activity by which both the preacher and the hearers seek to submit themselves to God as he speaks through his word. Therefore the hearer needs to view things from both perspectives—keeping the preacher accountable to God’s word, as well as submitting themselves to the same. Similarly, the preacher is both a preacher and a hearer of God’s word simultaneously, motivated to communicate as clearly as possible, but also seeking to practice what they preach. Preachers shouldn’t gloss over the hearer’s perspective, for they are in the gold-class section of the audience as they preach the message to themselves first, before every other hearer of their sermon.
1. Unnatural enemies: Understanding the text and applying the text
Stepping into the arena of the preacher, my starting point is the false dichotomy between understanding the text and applying that text. Setting up understanding and application of a text as polar opposites is fundamentally flawed. Understanding Scripture, by its very nature, is, and always will be, applicable. That is, the end point of reading Scripture is not to know how to live our lives, but to know God. Therefore any time we read Scripture it will be applicable to us, because it will tell us about God.
Now, on the preacher’s side of the fence, it is all too easy to undermine this principle. It is very easy to make exegesis1 extremely boring. Making exegesis of the text interesting requires a great deal of thought and effort, whereas making ‘application’ interesting is relatively easy. Recounting a pastoral anecdote, telling a story with a punchy, simple point, or giving a series of personal directives requires far less effort, particularly if there is prior personal and emotional involvement from the preacher.
Certainly, there are those gifted preachers who can hold the audience in rapt attention for the whole sermon without a witty story, or even any illustrations, and it is precisely these preachers from whom we novices need to learn. For it is these preachers who lead the way in demolishing the unnatural enmity between understanding and applying the text. Sadly, there are few such preachers—and for each one of these there are a hundred ‘razzle-dazzle’ preachers. The razzle-dazzlers keep the audience in rapt attention with their slick storytelling, charisma, rhetorical sophistication, and every other trick in the preacher’s playbook. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is a place for charisma, rhetorical sophistication, and the like, so long as they are slaves to the word of God, not masters over it. For the test of a ‘razzle-dazzler’ is whether they reinforce a dichotomy between understanding the text and applying the text. For example, does the audience walk away with their take-home application point, without having any real grounding in the text itself (if there is one)? Or even worse, does the audience walk away having satiated their entertainment appetite, paying homage to their razzle-dazzler with platitudes like, “they were so engaging”, and “that preacher is a gifted communicator”? If the answer is ‘yes’ then sadly, the iron curtain between applying and understanding the text has been reinforced.
The bottom line, however, for the rest of us preachers, is that we must never reinforce an unnatural divide between boring exegesis and interesting application, for it is a lose-lose situation for both the preacher and the hearer.
2. God’s word-driven power vs. our profound selfishness
Digging even deeper, I think what lies at the heart of the matter is the difference between God’s word-driven power and our profound selfishness.2 God’s word-driven power changes preaching from merely a formal address, like any other business presentation, into a life-changing encounter with the living God. More specifically, God’s word-driven power should drive preachers to clearly delineate between their own responsibility and God’s. The preacher’s responsibility is to be faithful to the text; transforming human hearts to see the word of God as it actually is (2 Thess 1) is God’s prerogative. Not only so, but the preacher must themselves have an inherent trust that God will work, by his Spirit, through the word of God, to change lives. For without this trust in God, the preacher is susceptible to all sorts of error.
Now, every preacher would surely agree in principle with what I’ve just expressed. And yet, something that sounds so clear in principle becomes muddied by sin in practice. In our results-driven need for success—where growth must be evidenced in people on seats, and an upward trajectory of financial giving—the temptation is to shy away from a total reliance on God to work through his word, and to start tinkering with other aspects of the gathering. Setting the right mood, turning down the lights to create an experience (even when the word of God is being read!), creating the right packaging (coffee carts, newspapers, music, interactive presentations, dramatic readings, videos, etc.), ensuring that the typical member is the ‘right’ sort of person—and none of this has even impinged on the preaching yet!
When it comes to the preaching of God’s word, the shift from boring exegesis to interesting application typifies a shift from trusting in the word of God, to ‘enhancing’ it via our own sinful inventions. For example, one of the latest trends is ‘contextualization’. This sounds like a strongly evangelical term. Who wouldn’t want to put God’s word into the language of the people, so that they can understand the great news of Jesus? And yet, what is actually meant is totally different.
I’ll explain what I mean through an illustration. Paul’s address in the Areopagus in Acts 17 is the classic text used to justify ‘contextualization’. Paul is portrayed as a bridge-builder who engages with the Greek culture, and then uses that culture and quest for understanding to preach the gospel: “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). So, it is claimed, Paul simply provides the Greek intellectuals with the knowledge they are lacking. This conclusion then justifies any form of ‘cultural engagement’ and world-view interaction, because Paul allegedly talks to these intellectual Greeks at their level, and then moves forward to the gospel.
However, this could not be further from the truth. In verse 23 the word for ‘unknown’ is not a neutral term for someone who simply doesn’t have the right information at their disposal. The word is actually ‘ignorant’. Ignorant here has the sense of being without knowledge, without wisdom, without insight and understanding. Paul gets up in the faces of these Greek intellectuals with all their sophisticated learning and says that they know nothing. Paul doesn’t accommodate their intellectual sensitivities, he rubs the philosophical Greek nose in the dirt. The true contextualization here is Paul’s declaration that the Greek philosophers are starting from ground zero—and even worse, that those who think they know something actually know nothing. The implication is that all their intellectual pursuits have been a waste of time and effort.
Now, this is the difference between a preacher who trusts in God’s word-driven power, and the preacher who feigns a trust in God’s word-driven power, but really has pandered to their own sinfulness, and the sinfulness of the hearers. The gospel message is a culture-confronting one. Paul confronts the ignorance of the Greek philosophers, and calls them to repent and to understand God’s wisdom in Jesus. Similarly today, the preacher needs to confront our comfortable western culture, and call people to repent. Confronting our western culture will mean confronting our obsession with the ‘entertainment’ factor in preaching. Confronting our culture will mean not giving people their ‘take home application points’, but calling them to bring their own lives into line with the gospel. Confronting our culture will mean challenging the hearer to figure out what they need to confess to God and repent of in their own lives. Confronting our culture will mean not pandering to the slick, story-driven, warm-and-fuzzy preaching model that is readily available on the television and the internet. And finally, confronting culture will mean lifting the spiritual eyes of our hearers from the introspective navel gazing we are so enamoured with, to the majestic glory of the Son of God dying on the cross.
So how does the preacher overcome this dilemma? How does the preacher actually put Paul’s instruction to Timothy—“Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2)—into practice, rather than just paying lip-service to Paul?
Charles Spurgeon gives a fantastic answer to this question:
It is infamous to ascend your pulpit and pour over your people rivers of language, cataracts of words, in which mere platitudes are held in solution like infinitesimal grains of homeopathic medicine in an Atlantic of utterance.
Better far give the people masses of unprepared truth in the rough, like pieces of meat from a butcher’s block, chopped off anyhow, bone and all, and even dropped down in the sawdust, than ostentatiously and delicately hand them out upon a china dish a delicious slice of nothing at all, decorated with the parsley of poetry, and flavoured with the sauce of affectation.3
So if the preacher prayerfully prepares and delivers God’s word to the audience, understanding the demarcation between their part (to set forth the truth plainly) and God’s (to work through his powerful word to convict people of their sin and the grace found in Jesus Christ), then what about the hearer? How does the hearer move from being entertained by the preacher, to actually listening, comprehending and engaging with the author of the text, God himself?
Part 2—The Hearer’s Dilemma
Have you ever noticed the body language of an audience during a sermon? As a preacher I’m acutely aware of old Jim who’s fallen asleep down the back, or the welcome sound of Glenda flicking the pages of her Bible at the right junctures in the sermon. There are certain indicators that signal when you have people on board, or when they’re lost in space. In a similar vein to the ‘tell’ of a card player, as hearers, our body language often gives away what is going on internally. We’ll sit forward and laugh at a funny anecdote, then we’ll lean back and cross our arms under the scrutiny of the preacher’s not-so-rhetorical questions. Even eye contact will indicate that we’re more interested in the number of bricks on the back wall than the words in the Bible in front of us.
More pertinently for this discussion, why do we drift off during the ‘understanding’ of the text and then perk-up for the ‘applying’ of the text (irrespective of the communication skills, or lack thereof, of the preacher)? And why do we yearn for the ‘take home’ message? How can we really ‘hear’ a sermon, as opposed to merely being entertained by one?
1. Unnatural enemies: Understanding the text and applying the text
The first part of the answer to these questions comes from the cultural air that we inhale and exhale without a pause for thought. We live in a fast-paced world of instantaneous news, fast food, and information at our finger tips, in the shape of smart-phones, computers, or whatever the latest gadget might be. In this world, we are perpetually busy. Gone are the days of the shops shutting down on Saturday afternoon, to reopen on Monday. Now we can obtain anything and everything 24/7 with a credit card and an internet connection. The global village is no longer a prophecy of crazy post-modern philosophers, but a reality in the interconnectedness of the internet.
The same is true when it comes to the Bible. We want a sermon that’s like a home-delivered pizza. We want the preacher to have done all the hard yards, so that we can walk away with our ‘take home’ application. Often we’ll say that because our lives are so ‘busy’ we outsource the study of the Bible to the expert, so that we can just get the finished product. And, consequently, we judge the preacher’s pizza on the basis of the presentation. Did they engage us? Was the sermon emotionally moving? Were there three directed ‘life-changing’ applications?
The remedy to this spiritual laziness is to remember that hearing a sermon is an active process, rather than a passive one. Hearing a sermon is like going on a hike, rather than downloading information on the internet. Going on a hike requires preparation, and it requires exertion, including engaging the mental faculties. Hearing a sermon requires the same. Preparing to hear a sermon means reading the passage before arriving at church. Being familiar with the passage, and even having questions worked out in your head, means that you will benefit exponentially from the sermon, because you’ll hit the ground running rather than trying to start cold. Hearing a sermon requires you to engage your mental faculties.
For example, just as the guide on a hike walks you along the path, so the preacher walks you through the passage. But you need to check that you’re on the track, that you’re engaged with what the guide is showing along the path, and even that the guide is sticking to the map—or that what the preacher says matches what the Bible says. Who knows, you might even be able to ask the guide some questions along the way (and avoid those deathly silences when the preacher calls for questions).
2. God’s word-driven power vs. our profound selfishness
But again, if we dig deeper into our dilemma, we run into the heart of the matter for the hearer, which, funnily enough, is the same as the preacher’s dilemma. The heart of the matter for the hearer is the difference between God’s word-driven power and our profound selfishness. In our selfishness we would prefer the preacher to tell us what to do and what to think, even though we have the very words of God sitting in our lap. We would prefer to disengage our brains, and go along for the ride, rather than bringing all our mental faculties to bear on the most important message from the most important source in the universe. Our sinful hearts desire the path of least resistance, least change, least sacrifice, least effort of obedience required to submit to God’s word. We do not want the word of God to illuminate the darkness contained within us, and we certainly don’t want to have to confront it.
Yet the darkness of the human heart is but a fleeting shadow compared to the blazing light of God’s sovereignty in the gospel of Jesus. For without the power of God active in the preaching of the word, there would be no preachers, and no audience. The word of God is sharper than any double-edged sword as it pierces hearts and minds (Heb 4:12). And not only does God’s power act through the word of God to bring about conversion, God’s word-driven power continues to work in the heart of the believer so that they can live up to the status they have been given in Christ.
And so, when we hear the word of God preached, there is a supernatural process taking place, whereby the word of God is applied by the Spirit of God, so that we can truly know the Son of God as our Lord and Saviour. Therefore, as we hear a sermon, God is at work, already changing and transforming us. But this does not mean that we sit back, kick up our feet, and take it easy. There is no autopilot button on the armchair of the pew. In fact, God issues a dire warning against the hardening of one’s heart as we hear the word of God: “Do not harden your heart” as they did in the wilderness (Heb 3-4). Complacency is not a ‘tick-box’ option available to the hearer.
Paul helpfully phrases it for us—“work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you” (Phil 2:12-13). Applying this principle to the specific situation of hearing the sermon, we must actively trust in God’s word-driven power, that he will apply his word to our hearts, so that we will become more like his Son. We must do so with diligence, earnestness, prayer, humility, and reverence. For it is as we seek to understand, to comprehend, repent and change our lives, that God will actually work to this end.
As a preacher, one of the most encouraging pieces of feedback I receive is when someone engages with the text. “I didn’t quite grasp what you were saying at this point, what does this mean?”, or “I used to think X about God, but now I see that Y is the case, in light of the passage, have I understood this correctly?”, or the best feedback of all, “I now understand that Jesus died for my sins, and I’ve put my trust in him. How do I need to change my life?” This kind of feedback shows that the hearer hasn’t been won over by the ‘razzle-dazzle’, but, far more importantly, has grasped the word of God, and in some way has been convicted by it. Hearing the word of God is both stimulating and challenging. It challenges us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness, and it stimulates us to say ‘Yes’ to Jesus. And it is only by God’s word-driven power that we can do either.
This shift in the dynamic of hearing the word of God is the difference between getting drive-thru McDonalds and going to the gym. Due to the passive nature of hearing a sermon, our producer-consumer mentality, and our sinful laziness, we too readily equate the sermon with the drive-thru: Drive in, get your spiritual junk food hit, and drive away. However, this kind of attitude to hearing a sermon is as spiritually deficient as a McDonald’s burger is nutritionally deficient.
Hearing a sermon is like going to the gym. It will require hard work. It will require pain and anguish, particularly due to the conviction of sin in our own lives. The preacher is like the instructor indicating the number of reps on each piece of equipment. They point you to the text, and you need to employ your mental and spiritual faculties to engage with it. However, the gym metaphor only takes us so far, because unlike the gym, where your own effort determines your performance, the hearer of God’s word has the added dimension of the sovereign God working out his own purposes for his own glory, and for the good of his people. We are caught up into a supernatural process when we hear the voice of God.
3. The biblical revolution
I think the right way to move forward through this dilemma for both the preacher and the hearer is to grasp the revolution God’s word-driven power brings about. Once the preacher and the hearer move past this false dichotomy of ‘exegesis’ and ‘application’ there is a new world of deeper and more profound understanding of God which opens up to us. Seeing the glory of God in the text is an end in and of itself. Grasping the profundity of Jesus’ words on the cross, “It is finished”, not only enlightens the mind, but it nourishes our souls. Glimpsing the mind of God in his plan for this world through the promises he made to Abraham (“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”) shifts our finite small perspective of our individual lives, into a mind-blowing infinite perspective of the universe.
- Exegesis is the technical word for explaining the meaning of a biblical text. It comes from the Greek words ex (out of) and gnosis (knowing)—hence bringing knowledge out of the text. The opposite is eisegesis, which is reading knowledge into the text. ↩
- By ‘God’s word-driven power’ I mean God’s sovereign power to act through his word. God in his infinite wisdom and power has chosen to reveal himself to us through his word. And it is through this word that God chooses to act. This term is more precise than the general category of God’s sovereignty, because it expresses the way in which God engages his sovereign control over his world. ↩
- C Spurgeon, “Lecture 5: Sermons—their matter”, Lectures to my Students, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1954. ↩