The Christian church was built by powerful preaching. In apostolic days it was preachers, not politicians, that "turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6). The Reformation was fought and won by consecrated preachers of spiritual power. Preaching has changed social structures, shattered tyrannies, and set the masses free from slavery and superstition. Every great day in the history of the church has been a day of Spirit-filled preaching. Nothing, then, is more important to today's church than having kindled, consecrated personalities with the ability to interpret God's message to this generation.
Small wonder the devil seeks to minimize the power of the pulpit! He makes preaching a sideline rather than a main line, fearing ministers less in the role of administrator, supervisor, counselor, financier, and organizer than as preacher. For in this role the minister is an ambassador representing the court of heaven, and hence stands a spokesman for God. We preachers today stand at the end of a noble line of witnesses—men who have moved multitudes for God. What a privilege to venture forth to herald the ad vent of the kingdom of happiness to a world of sadness and desperate need!
Under Spirit-filled preaching, the kingdom is even now established in the heart; men and women are remade into fit citizens of that realm. The power of the Word that spoke creation into existence flashes forth from the pulpit when the congregation hears not merely something about God, but the voice of God Himself speaking through His ambassador. In this perspective and this power lies the difference between a sermon and a lecture, an oration, or a political speech.
Purpose of preaching
The sermon has two fundamental purposes: It reveals the character of God for man's redemption, and it contributes to refinement of character through response to the story of redemption. It is not how much man knows, but who he knows and how he transmits knowledge of this acquaintanceship that invests the sermon with recreative value. The sermon, then, should be both a symbol of divine power and a corrector of evil. Powerful preaching will reveal God at work in the world, shaping not only nations but also the individual. It will as sure bewildered men and women, blasted by circumstance and blinded by grief, that their Saviour has engraved them on the palms of His hands (Isa. 49:16). Their future is certain in the light of Christ's everlasting love. The sermon should flow as living water from the Rock, bringing healing, love, comfort, and grace for the hearers. To accomplish this, the message must be plain, purposeful, winsome, and moving.
Sermons are not works of art for the purpose of display, but tools to achieve specific results. Roman oratory in the classical age had three aims: 1. To please, so as to create interest; 2. To teach, by imparting beneficial knowledge; 3. to get action. The primary aim of preaching is step number 3; the preacher stands in the pulpit hot so much to inform as to transform and to inspire action.
Test the sermon you plan to preach by these questions: Will it help your listeners to live better? Will it lead them to be more kind, more honest, more Christlike? Unless the preacher is helping his people to don the robes of Christ's righteousness, he is helping them not at all.
Ultimately, your sermons' value will be tested in the character of people who must stand at last before their Redeemer at the consummation of the ages. What a day of unexcelled glory that will be, when in the presence of the greatest assemblage of all ages the redeemed of Adam's race will crown Christ the Lord of glory, the Lord of all! To prepare a people for that day is the purpose of all true preaching—indeed, of all witness by Christ's followers. More important than the time or manner of His coming is our preparation for that mighty event. Mere theological understanding will not suffice us in that great day. Those who proclaim the message of the judgment hour are "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." Thus real preaching must not simply excite or inform, but transform—make saints out of sinners.
The preacher's message, then, is a life-and-death issue and should be delivered in the name of Christ and by the authority of Heaven. The congregation must see "the Son of man . . . lifted up." Unless they do, the brilliant arguments, the winsome language, the impressive illustrations all will be to the preacher's shame. "Ichabod" might well be written over his pulpit.
In no type of sermon are the people more likely to hear God's voice than the expository, for the preacher finds his message in the Inspired Word itself. He may—and should—relate it to some cur rent situation, permitting it to bring light to a present-day problem or personal need, but the listener must know that he is hearing God's counsel.
Sadly, expository preaching seems to have become a lost art. Contributing to the loss are Biblical illiteracy and the critical approach to Scripture. How refreshing it would be, for both pulpit and pew, to seek for God's solution to a current issue not from reason but from revelation! Nothing will do more for a congregation spiritually, evangelistically, culturally, or socially as real expository preaching.
Churchgoers are tired of discourses that give merely the preacher's views and arguments on social issues. They want to know, "Is there any word from the Lord?" "What has God said to past generations in similar circumstances?" Such queries can best be met by the exposition of some book of the Bible. The outstanding preachers—and, not incidentally, soul winners—of the centuries were all expositors. And it should be noted that the preaching of such men as John Wesley, Martin Luther, and John Calvin changed the social outlook of their hearers.
Expository preaching, admittedly, is demanding. It is much easier to present a particular topic or doctrine, setting it forth as a proposition and possibly sup porting it with Scripture texts, than it is to expound a chapter of a book. Al though propositional preaching is not to be rebuked, it does increase the risk of taking texts out of context. Less study and less scholarship are needed for topical preaching than for the expository. To take a book or chapter of the Bible and let the message flow naturally from it requires much more preparation. But the method is also generally more effective. The challenge is not what a single text says, but what that text says in its con text.
The expository preacher is a teaching preacher. Expository preaching does not consist of slavishly following a passage phrase by phrase, but rather in gathering that which conveys the theme. There should be system and logic. Exposition is only analysis brought to synthesis—always, of course, in the framework of Biblical context. Just as the scattered facts of nature have to be systematized to understand their meaning, so it is with the Bible, which was written not as a systematic theology, but as a divine rev elation.
The preacher must abridge his exegesis, bringing into focus only pertinent ideas. Practiced too little is the art of omission. Pity the congregation whose minister seeks to include in his sermon everything he knows about the text or context. Even most dictionaries (certainly those that are referred to most often) are abridged.
The preacher should never attempt to expound a chapter or a book until he knows it thoroughly. G. Campbell Morgan once told a group of ministers that he never began to analyze the message of any book in the Bible until he had read it at least fifty times. Ability to read the Scriptures in the original languages is helpful, but don't overload your sermon with foreign terms. Paul once asked for comprehensible speech, arguing that one who spoke in an unknown tongue could be regarded as a "barbarian," or foreigner.
Yes, expository preaching is hard work. And woe to the man who tries to make it easy. A French proverb says, "We cannot have omelet without breaking eggs." Nor can we have expositors without diligent work and application. David's reply to Araunah, the Jebusite, who offered him oxen and wood for a burnt offering, was: "Neither will I offer burnt offerings unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing" (2 Sam. 24:24).
Know your congregation
The hard work embraces study not only of Scripture, but of one's congregation, for the preacher must mold his message to meet specific needs. He must live with his people, see through their eyes, and feel with their hearts. Worth while sermons grow out of contact not only with God but with people. Sermons found in homes are more heartwarming than those found in stones. The preacher may be described as a marksman whose efficiency increases when he determines the exact range between himself and his hearers.
The stepping down of electricity from high-tension lines to make the power us able to the consumer is a good illustration of the preacher's function. He is the instrument in God's hand through which "all power" is brought to the level of individual homes and lives. He is not the source of the power, but the trans former.
Finally, a sermon is more than saying something; it is doing something. It must do something to the preacher and some thing to the people. No matter how pro found the reasoning or how eloquent the phrasing, only the sermon that is truly "the sword of the Spirit" will be powerful "to the pulling down of strong holds."