The Power and the Story
Something about Easter cuts through mere religious profession. At other times of the year and on other subjects the outwardly religious person can mask an empty spiritual life without words. Not on Easter. At Easter we proclaim the resurrection, which is difficult to do if we have not had a personal encounter with the One who rose form the dead 2,000 years ago.
Salvation rests upon it. Jesus declared that he would die for his people. But when he died there was no real certainty that his death was effective in saving us-until the resurrection.
So also with the other great doctrines: Our own resurrection from the dead; the possibility of living a victorious Christian life now; the final judgment. These and other doctrines are linked in one way or another to Jesus' resurrection.
We should expect preaching to declare this good news faithfully and with power, at Easter and at other times too. But this is not the case. Instead of the courageous, reasoned, joyful proclamation that most churchgoers expect and deserve, they will be served a watered-down version — if the narratives of the resurrection are even dealt with. It is the same with the other doctrines. Most pulpits do not proclaim the great and true teachings of the Word of God.
Is this not the chief reason why Christianity in America is so weak? George Gallup has indicated that 18 percent of Americans consider themselves to be religious. (Only Italians, with 83 percent, exceed that figure.) Ninety-five percent of Americans believe in God. Seventy-one percent believe in life after death. Eighty-four percent believe in heaven. Sixty-seven percent believe in hell. Only 8 percent have no religious affiliation.
But that is only one side of the coin. Only 12 percent say that they would consider sacrificing everything for religious belief or God. Only 26 percent believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, and even among self-described evangelicals that figure climbs to only 43 percent.
Not long ago an observer pointed out that in the last 20 years we have seen a more rapid acceleration of the numbers of Americans professing Christianity and even getting involved in Christian activity than at any time in our nation’s history. Yet in those same 20 years we have seen a more rapid deterioration of our moral standards than at any other time. Obviously something is wrong. Many are tracing it to the churches. Values come from religious commitment. But commitment is weak because the churches are weak, and the churches are weak because of the abysmal weakness of today's preaching.
To be a faithful and successful proclaimer of God's Word the preacher needs to meet these four criteria.
1. Belief in the Bible as the authoritative and inerrant Word of God. The failure of most of today's preaching probably begins at this point. Preachers have been subjected to attacks on the Bible, many from liberal professors during their days in seminary. As a result they are not sure if they can stand in the pulpit and honestly declare, "Thus saith the Lord." As a result the power that should stand behind his preaching is not there. This is an abnormal situation. It was the glory of the church that in the first 16 or 17 centuries of its existence all Christians exhibited at least a mental allegiance to the Bible as the supreme authority for the Christian in all matters. True, there were disagreements about what it actually taught. But it was still the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
Unfortunately, in the post-Reformation period the orthodox view of Scripture came under increasingly devastating attacks. Already weakened by centuries of appealing to the Fathers rather than to the Scripture in defense of a point of doctrine, and in violent reaction to the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church in 1546 took the step of officially placing the tradition of the church alongside Scripture as an equally valid form and source of Christian doctrine.
The Protestant Church, as the result of its heritage and its sharp polemic against Catholicism, held on longer — for 200 years. But in the eighteenth century and particularly in the nineteenth century, a critical appraisal of the Scriptures, backed by a naturalistic rationalism, succeeded in dislodging the Bible from the place it had previously held. For the church of the age of rationalism, the Bible became man's word about God rather than God's word about man.
The Roman Catholic Church weakened the orthodox view of the Bible by exalting human traditions to the stature of Scripture. The Protestant Church weakened the orthodox view of Scripture by lowering the Bible to the level of traditions. Neither position is tenable. Thus, the confusion that haunts today's religious scene is a chance for all who believe God's Word. The Protestant Church is finding that without a valid basis for religious authority, theology withers and the church becomes increasingly powerless to preach the gospel. The Roman communion is discovering that although two sources of authority are better than none. Scripture and tradition often conflict, and the deep human preference for traditions rather than Scripture inevitably shifts the balance of authority away from the written Word.
2. Knowledge of the great themes and doctrines of the Bible. It is not enough merely to believe that the Bible is the Word of God. To be effective the preacher must also know what the Bible contains. This is not merely a matter of knowing the Bible's stories, still less of being able to list its kings or number its apostles. It is knowing the great themes of theology, beginning with the doctrine of God himself and continuing through the Bible's teaching about man, sin, salvation, the Holy Spirit, the Christian life, the church, and the last things.
Are these what preachers speak of? Not in the majority of cases. To see this one only need to pick up one of the Saturday papers listing the topics to be preached on the next day in some city. The crisis in the Middle East will be discussed. There will be sermons on racism, the economy, Mothers Day, and the danger of nuclear war. Some may retell a biblical story, but many more will use a text to deliver an essay on ethics. But where is this long list of topics are the expositional sermons that set forth the great themes of grace: Gods sovereignty, the unchangeable love of God, God's hatred of sin, the atonement, redemption, irresistible grace, the keeping power of God, divine forgiveness, God's plan for the ages, the invisible war, the plans and ultimate defeat of Satan, the future return and victory of the Lord Jesus Christ, and other fundamental doctrines?
3. Hard Work. A strange thing about the current state of preaching is that most seminaries (even liberal ones) exhort their students to be faithful expositors of the Word of God. They are told to spend as many as 20 or 30 hours on each sermon. They are to give the people God's Word and not merely their own opinions on some subject. But even with this encouragement most ministers do not actually exposit the Scripture once they are out of seminary and into the pulpits. Why?
Part of the answer is that instruction in the seminary's preaching department is often undercut by instruction in its Bible and theology departments. But that is not the whole answer; at least it not the answer where conservative seminaries are concerned. One important cause is that many ministers are just too lazy to do the necessary work. It requires hours of study and much hard thought to teach the Bible accurately and well.
4. Cultivation of a devotional life. There was an age when set times for prayer and Bible study by a minister could be assumed as axiomatic. Today this has changed. In a recent survey of a theological college in the United States, 93 percent of those students preparing for the ministry confessed to no devotional life at all. It is a sad situation. Without deep communion with God, preaching lacks power and will inevitably be despised.
What must happen if our churches are once again to recover a proper sense of the importance of expository preaching?
First, ministers and congregation members alike must recognize that the primary task of the church and of the Christian minister is preaching the Word of God. Other ministries are important-counseling, seminary teaching, writing, and so on — but the faithful teaching and preaching of the Word is primary. In a sense, only it is essential.
Second, ministers (and lay people) must get clear in their own minds that the Bible really is the inspired and therefore the totally authoritative Word of God. True preaching comes from an awareness that God has spoken in the Bible, and that, by means of the Word, continues to renew and transform people's lives.
Third, preachers must resist the temptation merely to moralize on the biblical stories, or worse yet, extrapolate from them in order to deal with the so-called "real" events of our world. The biblical events must be treated as real events, the biblical people as real people, and the specific teaching of the Bible must itself be communicated accurately and forcefully to our age.
Fourth, all Christian must be certain of their own relationship to Jesus Christ and, if necessary, take the required steps to rekindle the altar of their devotional life.
Fifth, we must be aware of the effect of the example, however prominent or inconspicuous it may be, upon the next generation of preachers and Bible teachers, many of whom are now sitting in our pews. Nothing so moves young people into the ministry as the example of an effective and God-glorifying ministry on the part of older persons already effective in that work. Many who teach the Word today have themselves been so stimulated. This should happen again as God uses our examples to prepare a better day.
This article was originally published in Eternity Magazine, March 1986.