Nothing Can Replace Preaching
Our Glorious and Dangerous Calling
Preaching, what I call expository exultation, is a unique kind of communication. It is something not brought from the world into the service of the church. Nor can the world take it from the church and use it for its own purposes. It is different, radically different, from anything in the world.
First, there is God. Then, there is his work and his way in the world — his creation and redemption and providence. Then, there is his book, his infallible book, the Bible, written by mere men, carried along by the Holy Spirit. Then, there is a divine calling, a mystery of providence, family, church, desire, delight, duty. A preacher comes into being.
“As I look back over four decades of preaching, I bear witness that it has been worth every effort and every cost.”
Then, there is the sweat and prayer of preparation — the pounding on the closed door of the text, until it cracks, and beams of light shine out. Then, there is the seeing of truth and wisdom and power. And then, there is the laughter of joy and the tears of repentance, and in both, the savoring — oh, the savoring — of the glory. Then all day, and if necessary all night, the work of reason and imagination, praying, toiling, weaving dark and bright strands of truth into a fathomable fabric, a message to enfold the people.
Then, while praying (again and again), there is the opening of the mouth, the heralding of the horrors and the glories. There is the explaining, the clarifying, the showing, the amazement, the rejoicing, the exultation, the offering, the pleading, the looking in the eyes. And all the while, there is the utter self-engagement, and, please God, the utter self-forgetting in the brightness of the truth. And then, God knows, the everlasting fruit, and weariness and thankfulness.
And it all begins again. There is nothing comparable to this. Expository exultation is unique.
We Are Here for Him
For all its essential value in the service of evangelism, expository exultation is God’s design and gift for his people gathered in worship. No other form of speech is as beautifully fitting in this God-exalting wonder called “worship.”
God exists as one who knows himself perfectly in the eternal image of his Son. And he exists as one who is infinitely pleased by the one he thus knows. And we, the creatures of this glory-knowing, glory-loving God, are made in his image. We too exist to know God and to be pleased with God — to see and savor and show his glory. This is the essence of what it means to be human.
The gathering of God-seeing, God-savoring, God-showing human beings in one place to join their hearts and minds and voices in making much of this God is a miracle, and a miracle in the making. About to come into being is the miracle of corporate worship. And one indispensable flame that the Spirit uses to ignite that miracle, and make it burn, is the preaching of the word of God.
“The ripple effect of this hour is unfathomable in its depth and extent.”
By grace, the light and heat of worship spread. The preacher has come burning and shining. In his preaching, he is worshiping and awakening worship. He has come seeing and savoring and showing the beauty and worth of God. He is overflowing with the truth of exposition and the warmth of exultation.
The preacher is aware, and his people are aware, that the miracle of Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting, God-treasuring worship is a God-pleasing end in itself. God is being enjoyed here not as a means of making the budget. We are trembling in God’s presence not as a means of political impact. We are exulting in God’s power not to impress visitors. God is an end in himself. And our delight in him is our end, or it is not in him.
Thousands of Good Effects
And yet the preacher knows, and the people know, that the ripple effect of this hour — this authentic, miracle hour of meeting God in worship — is unfathomable in its depth and extent.
Because of this encounter with God, and this Spirit-anointed expository exultation, a thousand problems that had not yet come into being are solved in people’s lives. A thousand decisions are shaped for good without any conscious forethought. A thousand relational corruptions are averted. And hundreds of hearts are softened in the presence of God so that impossible obedience suddenly seems possible — like saying, “I’m sorry; I was wrong.”
And yet we do not gather for this. We gather to see and savor God. He is the end. And where we try to make him a means, worship begins to die.
The preacher knows, and the people know, that preaching and worship services are not the totality of the life of the church. There are a hundred worthy ministries for the children and the young adults, the men and the women, the singles and the married, the grieving and the aged. There are untold possibilities of reaching out to the unbelieving world. There are countless good deeds to show the glory of our Father in heaven. There are more ways to meet in small groups than we can imagine, to encourage each other and pray for each other and care for each other. The preacher knows this, and makes no pretense that preaching is all people need.
All Replacements Will Fail
But the preacher also knows this: if he fails in his expository exultation, if corporate worship languishes in lifelessness because the word of God does not come with clarity and faithfulness and soul-satisfying power, all the ministries suffer.
“Because of this encounter with God, a thousand problems that had not yet come into being are solved in people’s lives.”
Preaching is not everything, but it affects everything. It is the trumpet of truth in the church. And it echoes in every ministry and every household, for joy and strength and love and perseverance — or not. If every part of the engine is in working order but the spark plug fails to fire in its appointed rhythm, the whole car lurches or stops.
Nothing can replace preaching. Books are wonderful. Who has not been deeply affected by a great book? Lectures and discussions and drama and poetry and film and paintings are powerful. But any effort to replace preaching with anything else will — sooner or later — fail.
People have tried experiments that replace preaching. Marginal, disillusioned people flock to the experiment. It lasts a few years. And it dies. Meanwhile, preaching goes on from decade to decade and century to century. Why? Because God has created and appointed this unique, anointed embodiment of his word for the explanation and celebration of his glory and his worth.
God Will Stand by You
If God has called you to preach, the task, of course, is humanly impossible. Preaching is worship. And preaching aims to awaken worship. Both worshiping and awakening worship are miracles. They are not mere choices. You cannot worship at will any more than you can be thrilled at will. It is a work of God, opening our eyes to the ultimately thrilling.
But he who called you is faithful. He will do it. I testify from forty years in the ministry of the word, through the best and the worst of times, God loves to help the preacher who is desperate to make the word plain for the holy happiness of his people, by the blood of Jesus, for the glory of God. He will help you.
“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14). If you accept this calling, and fear him and trust him, you will know an intimacy like no other. He will take you into his counsel and show you things you could not have seen any other way. He will work wonders for you.
“If the word of God does not come with clarity and faithfulness and soul-satisfying power, all the ministries suffer.”
After a full day’s “fruitless” labor over his word, distressed at the lateness of the hour, on your knees, through tears, in one five-second flash you will see the reality of the text. You will apprehend in an instant how the text works. It is a gift. He will make sure you know this. Again and again. Your labor for his glory, in the name of Jesus, for the good of his people, will never be in vain.
How many times have I trembled that I was not sufficient for this moment, or this great crowd, or this tiny gathering, or this painful topic, or this inscrutable text? And, as I have ventured on, trusting that his word never comes back empty, he has stood by me. He is faithful. “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed” (2 Timothy 4:17). He will do this for you, if you trust him and give yourself utterly to his word, confident in the cross, loving your people, and glorying in the worth and beauty of God.
Worth Every Cost
Every calling of God is good. To be sure, faithfulness in every calling — even in the smallest task — is greatness in heaven. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). But some callings, because of their potential for helping and hurting so many, are dangerous and glorious in a special way. “Not many of you should become teachers [or preachers], my brothers, for you know that we who teach [and preach] will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
If you hear this call and accept, you will embark on a great and dangerous work. Ambassadors of the king are not safe in enemy territory — unless they are protected and empowered by the king himself. But safety is not our goal. Our King will keep us, and use us, as long as he pleases. That will be a perfect term of service. We are, as Henry Martyn, missionary to Persia, said, immortal till our work is done. And, of course, he would agree, we are immortal after our work is done and we are gone.
As I look back over four decades of preaching, I bear witness that it has been worth every effort and every cost.