The Use and Abuse of Scripture

How Christian Preachers Wield the Word

It was a long, shameful walk back to the hunting cabin.

For well over an hour, I had sat in the deer stand, happily reading and enjoying the quiet morning. Then I felt the loose bullets rattle in my pocket. I turned and looked. Oh no.

I had forgotten my rifle.

No choice now but to go back for it. The rest of the men in our extended family were tucked away in their own stands. They wouldn’t see me go back for my gun. But they would hear about it. Oh, would they. The cabin, teeming with our wives and children, would all too gladly report on my “hunt.” I could see pairs of eyes gawking through the window as I came up the dirt road. They gathered around and met me with barbs and laughter at the door.

Years later, I’m yet to live it down (and rightfully so). Now every fall we hear, “Remember the time Uncle David . . .”

Hunting Without a Rifle

I’m a terribly amateur hunter. I easily smile and chuckle about once forgetting my rifle. For me, the real joy in that quiet deer stand is unhurried Bible meditation and prayer. Getting the big buck is a distant second.

As a pastor, however, it would be a serious shame if I took the stand without my weapon. That is, if I entered the pulpit without the sword — without the staff, the wand, the scalpel for the most exacting of operations, the singular instrument of our holy calling. Without the Book, a Christian preacher is unequipped and incompetent. He is left, tragically, to preach his own ideas, his own preferences, his own lifehacks, his own self. When the act does not begin, persist, and conclude with faithfully delivering the message of another, it is, in reality, pretend preaching, not the real thing.

But with the Book in hand, with the Scriptures, with the word of truth about Christ and his work — and with the one weapon well-worn and cherished, internalized and rightly handled — the mere man, finite and fallen, is God’s man for the preaching moment. This blade, well-known and well-handled, can take the head off an evil giant, and perform the most delicate of surgeries on saints. With it, take to the pulpit with a holy and humble confidence. Without it, take a long walk back to the cabin.

Put the Word to Work

As the apostle Paul ascends the mountain to that great “preach the word” peak in 2 Timothy 4:2, he charges his protégé and dear friend to use Scripture to fulfill his calling.

Use Scripture — that might sound strange. But this is not the use of exploitation or abuse. Rather, this is the use of attention, reverence, and trust. Take it up. Put it to work. God gave us his Book not to file it away on the shelf, but to use it. Read it, explain it, preach it. Repeat. And don’t dare pretend to preach without it.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable . . .

Scripture is profitable, beneficial, useful (to greatly understate it!) in the pastoral calling. With Scripture in hand, and in his mouth, the preacher is competent, capable, proficient for the various aspects of his calling — “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). But without it, he is incompetent, incapable, inept — no matter how elegant he sounds or what a “good communicator” he is.

How, then, might preachers today, both current practitioners and those who aspire, answer this timeless call to use the Book?

1. Handle It Privately

First, we hold it, touch it, taste it for ourselves, in private — and ideally for some years before regularly taking it into a pulpit. And then, once preaching, we continue to handle it privately in all the times and seasons we endure as pastors, and as Christians.

We learn to use Scripture to help others by using it to feed and restore our own souls morning by morning. First, we learn — over time, not overnight — how to handle Scripture for ourselves, leaning on God’s Spirit. He may be pleased to give early flashes of insight and sovereign protection from error, but he doesn’t make preachers without putting them to work and conditioning them for the long haul. The arc of good preaching is years in the making, beginning with understanding and applying God’s word rightly in our own minds and hearts and lives. The competent pastoral use of the word emerges not mainly from study sessions prior to public messages but from long-standing patterns of being conformed to God’s word in secret.

So, first, long before preaching, we quietly learn to handle God’s word for ourselves. We meditate on it and enjoy it — and enjoy God in it. We steep our souls in Scripture for years. We seek to know God’s word, as much as we can, inside and out, and have it take root, and bear fruit, in us.

2. Handle It Publicly

We then turn and make God’s word explicit in public teaching. In our sermons, we show God’s word to be our authority and driving inspiration — not our own ideas and opinions and observations and cleverness. We get our key insights from lingering in Scripture, and then we work to show our hearers where we got them. We don’t assume they will see it without our help, so we labor to make them see it for themselves.

Saturating a pulpit ministry in Scripture happens both directly and indirectly. Directly: by drawing attention to particular words and phrases, and quoting chapter and verse. Indirectly: by preparing and preaching from the kind of soul that is constantly shaped by Scripture over time, to think and feel in God’s cast of mind, rather than the world’s and our own.

3. Handle It Rightly

Now, when any modern man, in this age of the triumphant self, embraces the personal preciousness of God’s word and resolves to preach that Book, not his own thoughts and self, he has crossed the first critical hurdle. He becomes indelibly persuaded to handle the word, to use it at the heart of his preaching, and he does. This is a glorious start. The miracle has begun. Yet to fully instantiate the apostle’s vision in his final epistle, a second critical hurdle comes: rightly handling the word.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

That is, with a studied, steady hand, guide the word along a straight path. No distortive twists, no gratuitous incisions, no clever detours, no sleight of hand. With the skill of holy familiarity, take the blade from its scabbard, and wield it with precision, care, and self-control.

Handling Scripture rightly — that is, using it, without abusing it — can happen in countless ways, but here consider just two challenges among them.

Understand Truly

One, rightly handling means not cutting corners in the work of understanding what this text means (and does not mean). Study your passage for yourself long before you’re up against the deadline, and long before you check commentaries and other’s insights. Make time to steep in and ponder the text well before preaching it. And as you move from broad study to the narrow outline and presentation for this message, build your sermon on what you have seen for yourself, or can genuinely own as yours if another voice said it first.

Apply Duly

Two, rightly handling entails not cutting corners in the work of appropriate application, which can be the more challenging labor for many of us. We will not be content to have the message remain distant, and not bridge the gulf from the biblical to the present world.

This too will require planning ahead, giving ourselves space, and having the patience to discover what this particular text really means for our church (and not). We will not content ourselves with preaching right ethics from the wrong texts. We will yearn to do justice to the particular passage in front of us. We won’t make a habit of or excuses for forcing square Scriptures into round pegs of application. If the desired application is not there, we’ll find a faithful way to address it, and apply the text and/or another text that genuinely addresses the felt need of the congregation. We seek to work with the grain of God’s Spirit, not against him.

Whom Does the Sermon Exalt?

We could consider other misuses. A preacher might use Scripture, but too sparingly, garnishing his own ideas with verses out of context. He may abuse Scripture when the moral burden of his sermon originates elsewhere, with Bible texts then artificially pressed into a subordinate role, to show God on the side of whatever cause. Scripture also may be in use technically and yet without fitting priority and centrality. Opportunities for error are endless.

Good and faithful preaching is not only science but art. It’s a lifetime skill learned over years and decades, not weeks and months. Make a list of all the possible requirements in Christian preaching (including appropriate focus and sufficient brevity), and no single sermon will check all the boxes. In the complexities of the art, and the diversities of biblical texts, and vast variations of congregations around the world and throughout history, producing one single litmus test for preaching is likely impossible. But perhaps one check would come close: Whom does the sermon exalt?

We might ask, in the end, does the preacher himself look best? Do the hearers feel themselves raised up above all? Or is Jesus supremely exalted? Preachers, young and old, who aspire to use Scripture rightly, in their devotions and in their pulpits, can scarcely ask themselves enough, Who is supreme in this sermon?