Contrary to popular wisdom, good preaching has little to do with eloquence, fashion, or the length of a sermon. Good preaching is all about content and posture. By content, I mean, “What is the message about?” and by posture I mean, “How is it about it?”
Film critic Roger Ebert has said that a movie is not what it is about, but how it is about it. In other words, what makes a movie bad or good is how it presents its content. Similarly, a preacher can preach on nearly any subject found in the Scriptures so long as he does so in a scriptural posture.
Good preaching goes with the grain of the Bible. So we are not flippant where the Bible is not flippant. We are not angry where the Bible is not angry. We smile where the Bible smiles, and we yell where the Bible yells. (Some preachers only preach smiling sermons or angry sermons, which shows they aren’t really preaching the Scriptures faithfully.) Good preaching is dependent on content (the Scripture’s words) and posture (in their scriptural sense).
That is what good preaching is. But what is preaching itself? Lots of theologians and ministers define preaching in different ways, but I tend to think that preaching is proclamation that exults in the exposing of God’s glory.
Preaching can employ conversation and laid-back chit-chat, but preaching cannot be typified by conversation and chit-chat because it is first and foremost declarative. The Bible does not come with fill-in-the-blanks. It isn’t Mad Libs. Preaching in essence declares, “Thus saith the Lord.”
Because the gospel is good news, not good advice, we come proclaiming “It is finished,” not “Get to work.” Because the gospel is a God-authored story, we come proclaiming his wisdom revealed in Christ, not our wisdom revealed in fortune-cookie bon mots. With our sermons we are to deliver what we’ve received, not what we’ve created:
The soundest and safest Christian reflection consists in “what you have received, not what you have thought up; a matter not of ingenuity, but of doctrine; not of private acquisition, but of public Tradition; a matter brought to you, not put forth by you, in which you must not be the author but the guardian, not the founder but the sharer, not the leader, but the follower.”29
Preachers approach God’s word as its recipient, its servant, and its deliverer, not its author, manager, or marketer. Because our triune God is holy, infinite, almighty, and wise, we preach like he is. Preaching assumes authority from God and from his infallible word. So we don’t preach like ninnies, as if every sentence ends with a question mark. And we preach like we’re at a pulpit even when we’re at a music stand or plexiglass lectern. These words from Lloyd-Jones offer powerful wisdom:
God is not a subject for debate, because He is Who He is and What He is. We are told that the unbeliever, of course, does not agree with that; and this perfectly true; but that makes no difference. We believe it, and it is part of our very case to assert it. Holding the view that we do, believing what we do about God, we cannot in any circumstances allow Him to become a subject for discussion or of debate or investigation. I base my argument at this point on the word addressed by God Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-6). Moses had suddenly seen this remarkable phenomenon of the burning bush, and was proposing to turn aside and to examine this astonishing phenomenon. But, immediately, he is rebuked by the voice which came to him saying, “Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” That seems to me to be the governing principle in this whole matter. Our attitude is more important than anything that we do in detail, and as we are reminded in the Epistle to the Hebrews, God is always to be approached “with reverence and with godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).
To me this is a very vital matter. To discuss the being of God in a casual manner, lounging in an armchair, smoking a pipe or a cigarette or a cigar, is to me something that we should never allow, because God, as I say, is not a kind of philosophic X or a concept. We believe in the almighty, the glorious, the living God; and whatever may be true of others we must never put ourselves, or allow ourselves to put, into a position in which we are debating about God as if He were but a philosophical proposition.30
I don’t believe we ought to forbid talking about God in any position, whether it be from an armchair or from a ditch on the side of the road, but as it pertains to preaching, Lloyd-Jones’s point is sound and important. We do not approach preaching casually unless we approach God casually. We can make jokes about ourselves and be self-deprecating when we preach, because we do not “preach ourselves.” In the preaching ministry, we take ourselves lightly and the word of God heavily.
We preach the terrors of God’s wrath as if they are terrifying, we preach the joys of God’s salvation as if they are joyful. We preach hell in serious, sober ways, neither being glib about it nor speaking as if it is the only word. And we preach the gospel in declarative ways, bold and certain and full of Christ’s glory.
Proclamation That Exults
Preaching is proclamation that exults. As I’ve said, preaching takes the content of the text and proclaims it according to the posture of the text. Preaching is fundamentally an act of worship. We don’t stop worshiping when the music is done. We keep worshiping during the preaching of God’s word, and we hope our preacher is worshiping as he’s preaching God’s word.
Preaching is a kind of singing in itself. Not literally, of course, but in its declaration of God’s worth and work, it is a worshipful projection of God’s anthem of his own awesomeness. When we preach with exultation, we are out-singing the enemy and giving voice to the wordless groaning and declaration of creation.
Preaching that exults necessarily entails a preacher who understands his sermon text in the spiritual sense. His affections have been charged and shaped by the text. He feels the Scripture he is preaching. In the crucible of his daily life dedicated to the Bible generally, and his prayerful, watchful, thoughtful study and preparation in his office specifically, his heart is broken by and filled with the text. This is a Spiritual work, and the preacher has been praying all along that it will happen for him and for his hearers.
He ascends to the pulpit, then, carrying the mantle of God’s call and prepared to joyfully work and seriously play, to preach what John Piper calls “gravity and gladness,” but not to mess around.31 He’s not throwing things out to see what will stick. He is playing his instrument and launching arrows. Like Nehemiah’s men, he is building the wall with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.
The gospel-centered preacher is not blasé or boisterous. He is exultational. If he is impressed with himself, this won’t work. But if he is awed by God, he might find the jet stream of the text and ride it into rapture. The Spirit may grant him unction, but even if the Spirit doesn’t, the gospel-centered preacher knows he has not exulted in vain. God’s word will have its purposed effect according to the wisdom of God.
29 Vincent of Lerins, quoted in Christopher Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Intervarsity, 2002), 27.
30 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 58.
31 John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).
Taken from The Pastor's Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry, by Jared C. Wilson. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.