Brother preachers, Sunday morning has come upon you again. The call to proclaim God’s word beckons you to the pulpit, and what a mighty summons it is.
We are dispatched to our people with a word from God that aims to facilitate worship and be an act of worship. This is what is called expository exultation. Every week, brother, you are burdened with the glorious task to offer “both a rigorous intellectual clarification of the reality revealed through the words of Scripture and a worshipful embodiment of the value of that reality in [your] exultation over the word [you are] clarifying” (Expository Exultation, 16).
As I mount the pulpit, I am keenly aware of at least four realities reflected on the faces of my people as they look to me.
1. Weight of the Task
Pastors have the unique task of feeding the flock that Christ has obtained with his blood (John 21:15; Acts 20:28). Regular, healthy portions of God’s word constitute an essential food group in the church’s diet. The onus on the preacher as a chef — to prepare, cook, and serve an excellent faith-nourishing meal for his people — lends significant weight to the task at hand.
The weight becomes greater with the awareness of whom we prepare this weekly meal for. “Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). They are not strangers that have wandered into a random restaurant looking for food. Each Sunday morning, brother preacher, you stand before Jesus’s precious possession with the responsibility of shepherding “the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). Who is sufficient for these things?
2. Preacher as Herald
The identity of a preacher takes various shapes so that his responsibilities might be clearly illustrated. The preacher, as chef, lays aside his culinary hat and assumes the garb and posture of a sent herald (Romans 1:15).
The preacher is not tasked with giving a lecture or a nice talk on Sunday. While he must tell the Story, he is no mere storyteller. Inherent in his task as herald is delivering divinely sanctioned announcements with due urgency, and calling the people to respond appropriately to the God who has spoken and who speaks now in the preaching moment.
The preacher has a message from the King. As David Bauslin writes, “The gravity and importance of this vocation, as outlined in the sacred Scriptures and amply illustrated in the church’s history, surpass those of any other calling among men” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2433). Who is sufficient for these things?
3. Great Need of Your People
Every week there are as many needs in the congregation as there are people sitting in the pews. As the people of God gather, we come into worship with the smell and strain of the week on us. As you ascend into the pulpit and look at your people, tiredness, frustration, disappointment, joy, sorrow, brokenness, addictions, dreams, desires, hopes, desperation, longing, thankfulness, perplexity, boredom, and ten thousand other conditions look right back at you. Some had a good week. Others made a herculean effort just to show up. Not to mention what you, preacher, bring with you.
What does this vast array of people need every time our Lord’s church gathers? Do some need counsel for a better marriage? Yes. Do some need encouragement to persevere in holy singleness? No question. Are there some who need mercy for their doubt (Jude 22), admonition for their slothfulness, instruction for training in righteousness, and countless other tasks the word performs on its hearers (2 Timothy 3:16)? Absolutely.
Amid the great diversity of needs, however, the one unifying need of our people is to see glory weekly. If “the great aim of preaching is the white-hot worship of God’s people” (Expository Exultation, 14), the task can be accomplished only by regular sights of the beautiful glory of God.
“Amid the great diversity of needs, the one unifying need of our people is to see glory weekly.”
The preacher’s great aim in sermon preparation is to see glory and savor glory so that he can share glory with his people (“A Simple Formula for Effective Preaching”). He ascends into the pulpit as worshiper-in-chief and calls his people to behold their God. He teaches and proclaims as one who has seen something glorious and will not rest until his people see the same. Though he calls his people to see and savor glory, however, he knows that the power is not his. He is entrusted with a humanly impossible task. Who is sufficient for these things?
4. You Are Not Enough
The weightiness of the task, the call of the herald, and the great need of our people are three realities that enter the pulpit with preachers every week. Many more factors, like late Saturday-night preparations, a broken boiler when you arrive at the building Sunday morning, arguments in the car on the way, a weak manuscript, the dangers of a well-done manuscript, fear of others’ responses, a clamor for recognition, and countless more all point to another great reality every preacher feels down to his bones. We are not enough.
We are not sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us (2 Corinthians 3:5). We can bring the most outstanding manuscript into the pulpit, and it has no power in and of itself to meet the need of the preaching hour. If God does not show up and pour out his Spirit on us and our people, we have no resources in ourselves to accomplish the task or goal of preaching.
Preach by Faith
What is a preacher to do under the weight of such realities? Where do we find resources week in and week out to herald? How do we not find ourselves crushed under the weight of our inadequacy?
John Piper is fond of saying, “Books don’t change people, paragraphs do — sometimes sentences.” I would add that acronyms also change people. A.P.T.A.T. is one such acronym, and it has fundamentally altered the way I enter the pulpit.
These five steps have proven to be one of the most cherished preaching practices that assist me in standing behind the sacred desk by faith. It has also proven instrumental as I sit down by faith once the message has been delivered, fully confident that God’s word will accomplish what he intends in the lives of my people. A.P.T.A.T. is a strategy of awareness as it reminds me where my sufficiency is found. It lifts my eyes from the insufficient resources of my own supply to the one who grants me help (Psalm 121:1).
What is A.P.T.A.T.? In a Look at the Book session entitled “Practical Steps to Walk by Faith,” Piper shares the discipline he has implemented for decades.
A stands for admit (John 15:5). This first letter sets the stage as a strategy of awareness. The preacher acknowledges that he is not sufficient for the task at hand. Who is adequate for the act of preaching? We admit up front that the grace to preach is found in the strength God supplies (1 Peter 4:11).
P, the second letter, stands for pray (Psalm 50:15). Inadequacy is swallowed up in dependent prayer, where humility is furnished with grace (James 4:6).
“Inadequacy is swallowed up in dependent prayer.”
T is trust (2 Chronicles 20:20). Preachers enter the pulpit in many ways. Some come with entire manuscripts, while others come with chicken scratches they call notes. Regardless, what preachers must take into the pulpit every time are precious blood-bought promises. Often, the promise my heart rests upon comes from Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
The second A, which stands for act, carries me into and out of the pulpit (Philippians 2:12–13). Once the preacher has admitted his need for help and prayed for a supply of grace as he trusts precious promises, he acts by faith.
He speaks as one who speaks the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11). Once he has done his task, he acts by faith again: he goes and takes his seat. Sitting down by faith, resting in God’s ability to work through weakness, is one of the most challenging actions for the preacher. Monday-morning blues are a regular occurrence as preachers reflect on their perceived performance in the pulpit. Acting by faith in both the preaching moment and the moments afterward is a means of soul-sustaining grace. Grace carries you into the pulpit. Grace sustains you in the pulpit. Grace carries you out of the pulpit to your seat.
The second T points to the thankfulness that is appropriate for God’s faithfulness to supply all needed in preaching (Psalm 106:1). On the other side of admitting, praying, trusting, and acting is abundant thanksgiving for the grace of God. Thankfulness turns Monday-morning blues into Monday-morning blessings, as the preacher reflects on how his need was once again faithfully met to the glory of God.