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A NEW LOOK AT BIBLICAL PREACHING
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By Dr. Mervyn A. Warren
 
His pulpit presence was impressive as ever.  Audience anticipation soared high in expectancy.  His reputation for preaching prowess preceded him with popular acclaim. You could even feel every beating heart asking optimistically: “Is there any word from the LORD?” (Jeremiah 37:17) Far from a rhetorical question, this query intended an answer. We knew the preacher. We knew his track record. We were early in our seats to assure ourselves choice space to witness his usual success in gospel discourse. For sure, light from God’s lamp would truly shine once again.

Thirty minutes into the hour, the answer indeed arrived. My personal thoughts went unexpressed but, nevertheless, confirmed by the comment of my preacher friend sitting next to me. Tinged with a note of disappointment, he remarked respectfully: “I thought we were supposed to preach from the Bible.”  We both wondered quizzically at what had just happened before our very eyes.  So unlike the preaching to which we were accustomed time and time again from this notable speaker, on this particular occasion he went through an entire “sermon” without a single Bible passage or Scriptural interpretation or life application. Quite frankly, we scratched our heads and searched for reasons.  Did the preaching appointment slip upon him without preparation time?  Had he prepared the sermon but somehow suddenly lost his sermon notes? Was his presentation for the occasion an accurate index of willful neglect or innocent unawareness of  “Biblical Preaching”?

Whatever the case, that type of experience should remind us that if the primacy of Scripture and the centrality of the Word are priority for Christian worship and gospel discourse, our review of basic principals of expository preaching from time to time might serve us well as a gentle reminder. Hence, the purpose of this brief review. For the already well-versed in homiletic theory, our  “new look” here may not be so new after all and, moreover, might come across as rather elementary. Nevertheless, in the name of clarity and practicality, we shall run the risk of being too simple rather than too vague or obtuse. Such an approach might assist toward unearthing a fundamental preaching principle too important to be forgotten or ignored and too crucial for Spirit-filled delivery of biblical truth. Let us proceed now to attempt a clear definition of biblical preaching and then illustrate in brief sermon outline form three alternative examples of sermon-text relationships using John 3:16 for the sermon text.     
                                             
                                                                        To Be or Not to Be
Homiletic theory can sometimes be elusive just like any other body of learning. For that reason, our linking the practice of preaching to a “body of learning” itself throws some preachers off track, because they seem to believe sincerely that delivering “God’s word” is a matter between them and God alone.  It was God who called them to preach, and it is God alone who teaches and enables them to fulfill such a holy function. No one will argue with that view if  in a general sense you mean that “all of God’s biddings are enablings” while also comprehending further that all divine assignments for the gospel commission allow for God’s cooperation with appropriate human training and development for the advancement of His cause. Further discussion, of course, on how God participates in the preparation of human instruments deserves more attention than here permitted.

How, then, should we define biblical preaching? Known also by the term “expository,” biblical preaching calls for an integral relationship between the sermon and its main text from which the sermon is developed. This sermon-text relationship differs from looking at the sermon according to its “design” (structure, form, overall plan whether points, questions, classification and so on) or its “purpose” (inform, convince, persuade, inspire) or its “content/subject matter” (moral, doctrinal, social, evangelistic, prophetic, philosophical and the like). “Biblical or Expository” relation between sermon and text usually comes more into focus when contrasted with two other less desirable relational choices known as “Topical” and “Textual.” Under the umbrella of these three choices, we shall now proceed to explain briefly each one in the paragraph below. Our journey will follow from there with a quotation defining the “Biblical” sermon. Finally, we take a tour of three concise sermon outlines all on the same passage, John 3:16, to illustrate Topical, Textual, and Biblical/Expository relations for a simple approach to “taking a new look” at biblical preaching.
 
As commonly defined, Topical preaching (or the topical relation between sermon and text) is not
recommended inasmuch as it limits itself to receiving only a subject or topic from the biblical text and then takes off in any direction of its choosing without interpretation or without saying what the text says.
 
By a similar token, Textual preaching as usually defined also falls short of the ideal goal while repeating words and phrases of the sermon text but ignoring responsible interpretation. Congregants are invariably comforted and encouraged to hear scripture quoted and referred to in a sermon; however, the goal toward which we are inspired to strive reaches beyond the sole repetition of Scripture. For a definition and description  of the Biblical/Expository sermon, take a look at the following pithy statement by R. W. Stott which begins by clarifying the misconception of requiring an extended bible text for the best route to quality preaching:

                        “Expository preaching is not a verse-by-verse explanation of a lengthy passage.
            Expository has a much broader meaning. It refers to content of the sermon (Biblical truth)
            rather than its style (a running commentary) . . . .
 
                        “The expositor pries open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure,
            unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is
            ‘imposition,’ which is to impose on the text what is not there. . . .
 
                        “The text in question could be a verse, . . . a sentence, or even a single word. It could
            equally be a paragraph, or a chapter, or a whole book. The size of text is immaterial, so long
            as it is biblical. What matters is what we do with it. Whether it is long or short, our responsibility
            as expositors is to open it up in such a way that it speaks its message clearly, plainly, accurately,
            relevantly, without addition, subtraction or falsification. In expository preaching the biblical
            text . . . dictates and controls what it said.” (Quoted in Anointed Expository Preaching by Stephen     Olford, p. 3 )
 
In the domain of gospel preaching, the bible text remains king. The written word of God rules with its scepter ever pointing towards truth, the truth of the bible writer, the truth of the God behind the bible writer.

Let Us Be Clear: Seeing Is Believing
Take a look at these thumbnail examples of sermon outlines portraying “Topical,” “Textual,” and “Biblical or Expository” relations which sermons customarily sustain to their main text, that is, if they use a text at all.

EXHIBIT A: THE “TOPICAL” SERMON
Sermon Topic:  “LOVE”
Scripture Reading: (To be selected)
Sermon Text:  John 3:16      “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes
                                                in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
 
INTRODUCTION
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
 
BODY
  1. Our Love of Country
  2. Our Love of Church
  3. Our Love of Companionship
  4. Our Love of the Cosmos
CONCLUSION
…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
           
You should notice here that true to topical preaching in its most literal form, the sermon message whose main divisions occur here in the body fails to reflect the obvious message found within its text, John 3:16. That is not to overlook the grand and glorious things the preacher might say about “love of country” or “love of companionship” and its other leading points. The problem typified here reveals the disjunct between what the sermon text says and what the speaker or sermon itself is saying, hence, the derivation of the name “Topical” inasmuch as all the sermon gets from its main text is a TOPIC (or SUBJECT). In this particular case, that topic is “LOVE.”  However, the message of love expressed in John 3:16 differs starkly from the sermon. The exegetical message of John 3:16 is God’s own salvation act of loving humans and providing Jesus Christ as their atonement and gift of eternal life but not our loving so many other things be they so ever worthy of our affectionate attention.
 
EXHIBIT B: THE “TEXTUAL” SERMON
Sermon Topic:  “LOVE”
Scripture Reading: (To be selected)
Sermon Text:  John 3:16  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
INTRODUCTION
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
 
BODY
I.          “God”
II.         “So loved the world”
 
III.       “That He gave His only Son”
 
IV.        “That whoever believes in Him should not perish”
 
V.         “But have everlasting life.”
 
CONCLUSION
 
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
 
 
At first blush, repeating the exact words of your sermon text alone would seem an automatic conveyance of the inherent message of the passage. But not necessarily. Without splitting hairs here, serious preachers of biblical truth recognize the need for responsible interpretation of the text and the need to go beyond its mere literal words and thereby avoid misconstruing the intrinsic meaning of the text. Earnest sermon preparation does well to include the guidance of the Holy Spirit through certain hermeneutical procedures which bring the preacher into contact with the Bible writer of his or her sermon text, the person(s) to whom he was writing, the purpose, contextual setting, and situation being addressed, and other factors that shed light on the road to better understanding of the text. What a rich backdrop such study provides for the stage of the preacher’s own insights! Although the so-called “Textual” relation quotes literally the words of the sermon text, it nevertheless faces the responsibility of interpreting those words without which the truth of the passage might become short-circuited.
 
EXHIBIT C: THE “BIBLICAL” OR “EXPOSITORY” SERMON
 
Sermon Topic:  “LOVE”
 
Scripture Reading: (To be selected)
 
Sermon Text:  John 3:16      “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son that whoever believes
 
                                                in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
 
INTRODUCTION
 
          ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………...
 
 
BODY
 
I.          God’s Love “In the beginning” (John 1:1-14)
 
II.         God’s Love for Israel (John 3:14; Numbers 21:9)
 
III.       God’s Love for Nicodemus (John 3:1-21)
 
IV.        God’s Love for You and Me (John 3:16)
 
V.         Our Love for God (John 3:19-21; 1:5)
 
 
CONCLUSION
 
……………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
 
You will observe that in the “Biblical/Expository” sermon outline above the exegetical development of John 3:16 attempts to grasp the message of the passage according to its environmental setting which considers other verses of chapter 3, an earlier chapter of John, another Bible book (Numbers) to assist in understanding one of the sermon divisions, and finally a twist in the direction of the movement from “God’s” love for us to “Our” love for God located later in the same chapter 3 of John.  Is this specific treatment of John 3:16 the last and only word (so to speak) if you biblically preach this text? Far from it! Although the basic message of John 3:16 may remain constant, you will develop that message in your own armor. Other pathways to the probable message of this or any other Bible text will open themselves to you in your  responsible textual research and study and in your openness to the influences of the Holy Spirit. Our three homiletic approaches toward determining sermon-text relations should be understood as principles to help escort you along the way of having something to say in the pulpit and not just having to say something.
 
Preaching is a mystery which God entrusts to us, “earthen vessels,” for the spreading of His gospel. We are continually searching for ways and methods that will improve our feeble efforts “to get the Word out.”  By His grace, let us bring to God our best selves for His purposes. Our proclamation pilgrimage will always allow pause now and then to take a fresh new look at how to do it better.
                                                                       
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Dr. Warren is Dean of the School of Religion and Professor of Preaching at Oakwood University.
 
His publications on the pulpit function include:  King Came Preaching, (InterVarsity Press, 2003) and Ellen G. White on Preaching (Review and Herald Publishing Assn., 2010).
 
RECOMMENDED READING
 
Edwards, O. C.  A History of Preaching. Nashville: Abindon Pess, 2004.
 
George, Timothy,  James Earl Massey and Roberft Smith, Jr. Our Sufficiency Is of God (Essays on       Preaching in Honor of Gardner C. Taylor). Macon: Mercer University Press, 2010.
 
Olford, Stephen R. F. and David L. Olford. Anointed Expository Preaching. Nashville: Broadman & Holman
            Publishers, 1998.
 
Perry, Lloyd. Biblical Sermon Guide. Grand Rapids: Baker Book  House, 1970.
 
Robinson, Haddon and Craig Brian Larson, General Editors. The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
 
Stott, John R. W.  Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids:
            Baker Book House, 1982.
 
Warren, Mervyn A.  Ellen G. White on Preaching. Hagerstown: Review and Herald Publishing Association,
            2010.
 
Willimon, William H. and Richard Lischer, Editors. Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching. Louisville:        Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
           
 
  
 
                                                                        --         Mervyn A. Warren, Ph.D., D.Min.
                                                                                    Dean of the School of Religion
                                                                                    Professor of Preaching
                                                                                    Oakwood University
                                                                                    Huntsville, Alabama
                                                                                    February, 2014