The Protestant Reformation was a recovery of the pulpit, and yet five hundred years later there are ways Protestant preachers unwittingly fail to honor the Bible in the pulpit. Which leads to today’s question from an anonymous church leader. “Pastor John, I am on staff at a church, and over the past couple of months, I have noticed a trend in my pastor’s preaching. Let me first say that nothing he says would ever be considered wrong. He uses points from the overarching theme of Scripture in his sermons. Bottom line, he preaches the truth, but those points rarely derive from the sermon text he reads at the beginning of his message. Is this a problem? What’s at stake? And is this a common phenomenon or an anomaly?”
In summary, the answer to those three questions is (1) yes, it is a problem, (2) it’s far too common, tragically, and (3) what’s at stake are at least six things.
The Text Speaks
First, preaching that does not show the people what the text means and what those implications are for our lives is failing to honor the nature of the text as God’s glorious revelation of what we need to know and how it relates to our life.
“The more difficulty the people have in seeing the pastor’s points in the text, the less warrant they have for believing him.”
It’s failing to honor the text, and he is failing to honor the people in the congregation who should be shown by preaching how they themselves can see glorious truth from the text that is relevant for their lives.
Paul said in Ephesians 3:4, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ.” Preaching that is heralding the fruit of reading — that sees the mystery of Christ in the text and helps others see it — is real preaching. Preaching is the heralding of the fruit of reading that sees the mystery of Christ in the text and helps other people see how we saw it.
Pastors who don’t preach this way are missing the thrill of being an instrument in the hands of God to help people actually see for themselves the glories of the mysteries of Christ and their relevance to life.
An Unhealthy Sign
Second, preachers that don’t exult over the exposition of what they’ve seen in the biblical texts are bearing witness to (1) their own laziness because they haven’t taken the time to see it, (2) their dullness because they’re not able to see it, or (3) their own emotional incapacities because they see it, and they can’t feel anything special about it. So why would they talk about it? They’re going to make up things they feel special about. This is not something to be proud of. This is not a token of creativity.
These are weaknesses that need to be corrected and overcome. We should pray for our pastors earnestly that the laziness or the dullness or the emotional incapacities would be overcome. In other words, this is not only unhealthy for the church; it is a deeply unhealthy sign for the pastor.
Who Has Authority?
Third, to preach by making points that hover above the text and are not manifestly rooted in the text diminishes the authority of the passage and the authority of the message. Manifestly rooted or obviously rooted is the key phrase here. The only authority that a pastor has derives from his faithful delivery of God’s word. It doesn’t come from himself.
“The only authority a pastor has derives from his faithful delivery of God’s word. It doesn’t come from himself.”
This is important. Take note here. The more difficulty the people have in seeing the pastor’s points in the text, the less warrant they have for believing what he says. Because it’s the text that has final, decisive authority. If they can’t see what he’s saying in the text, there’s no warrant for why they should believe him.
The situation may be worse. The pastor may in fact want to shift authority from the text to himself and thus enlarge his own personal power. Then nobody can really question because he has shifted the authority from the word, which everybody has access to, to himself, which nobody can question.
Oh, I love leadership rooted in the council room and in the pulpit with the pastor saying, “I am not the decisive, final authority. Anybody that can see the word more clearly than I can correct me.”
Waves of Doctrine
Fourth, a pastor who preaches by making points that are not manifestly in the text is preparing his people for biblical and doctrinal defections in the days to come.
If the people become accustomed to making their biblical and doctrinal judgments about what is true and right and beautiful based on the declarations of a man rather than based on what they see in Scripture, these folks will — as Ephesians 4:14 says — be blown off course by the various winds of doctrines that blow in our culture.
Fifth, to put it differently but almost the same as number four, a pastor who preaches without drawing attention to the details of the wording of the text as the warrant for his points will train the people to be careless and inattentive to the specificities of the moral and spiritual claims of Scripture on their lives.
This produces a people (I’ve seen it) who are loose and careless in their moral judgments. They have become accustomed to generalities and vagueness. And generalities and vagueness on tough moral issues produce wishy-washy saints who do not have the backbone and the specific insights to stand up for the specific teachings of Scripture regarding controversial matters.
Finally, sixth, this kind of preaching that makes its points without clear warrant from the specific wording of the text robs the people of a kind of joy that Jesus intends for them to have when he says, in John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
That text does not mean that the incomparable, divine joy in the heart of Jesus Christ will become our joy because of the pastor’s interesting comments about important things in the world that are not manifest expressions of the intention of Jesus when he spoke. Jesus’s words with his meaning will impart his joy.
Yes, the stakes are very high when a pastor regularly builds his message with points that are not plainly from the actual wording and intention of the text.