The dangers of valuing preaching

Can a commitment to expository preaching cause us to deviate from biblical ministry? William Philip draws our attention to three areas where we are likely to shift.

At a preaching conference I attended, there was a bookstall run by some-one from the local Bible college. As I browsed, it struck me that here was a plethora of books on every aspect of what might be called the art or science of biblical preaching: there were books on effective preaching, power preaching, arresting preaching, anointed preaching, Christ-focused preaching, and every other aspect of preaching you could imagine. Many of them—if not all of them—were sound, orthodox, biblical and evangelical, and most of them were probably very helpful books. Nevertheless, as I looked at them, I could not help but feel some disquiet.

Why should this be? Surely the fact that so many books are appearing on all aspects of preaching must indicate there is now a greater appetite for preaching among evangelicals, and we should be encouraged by this. As I reflected on this, however, I began to realize how careful we need to be lest our enemy should take us unawares: we know that often the most effective way the devil gains a hold is not through out-and-out denial, but through surreptitious perversion and distortion of the truth. How could a zealous focus on expository preaching ministry actually lead us astray? I think there are at least three areas where subtle shifts can take place in our thinking, whereby we may find ourselves on a diverging course from healthy, vital, biblical ministry.

1. A shift from content to form

First, there is the danger of the focus moving gradually from the content onto the form of the preaching itself. This may be quite inconspicuous at first, and indeed, the danger lies in the very fact that it may seem to be a wholesome and welcome development. We work hard on our preaching, and we seek to develop the craft of giving better sermons for our people—in terms of handling the text, using helpful structures, finding the right language and so on—and all of this is, of course, very good, in and of itself. But the danger is that because we are still sinful people, we are constantly (albeit often unconsciously) caught in a drift that seeks to re-orient our focus away from the divine and onto the human. As we develop as preachers, the natural tendency is for the emphasis to move away from the text and onto us the preacher, and to drift away from God himself onto what we are doing with the text in the sermon. As we become more familiar with handling the Scripture responsibly, we can all too easily begin to focus more on that ‘correct handling’ than on what is being handled. We can inadvertently find ourselves stepping back from the text, or stepping above the text—talking a lot about ministry, the gospel and the text before us, rather than actually spending our time in the text (and therefore on the gospel), opening it up, unwrapping it, expounding its meaning, and showing it in all its fullness and richness so that it can be taken in by the hearer, not as the words of man, but as it really is—the word of God (1 Thess 2:13).

We must be honest and recognize that this is a real danger. The more we come to preaching conferences and the more work we do in preaching workshops, the more we can be lulled into becoming absorbed by the form and the method of the preaching rather than the content and purpose of the actual message.

When we turn to church history, it is chilling to observe that this very pattern of drift from content to form is played out repeatedly. The time of the Reformation was marked by a rediscovery of the Scriptures, which had long since been locked up in the language of academics and clergy, and kept out of the reach of ordinary people. The result was an enormous renewed outpouring of expository preaching, with quite dramatic results. One reads, for example, of Ulrich Zwingli starting to minister in the great Minster in Zurich just as the Reformation was beginning in 1519: that huge building was crammed day after day, week after week, as he started preaching through the Gospel of Matthew verse by verse for a whole year. Throughout the continent of Europe during the 16th century, the emphasis was the same: it was all on the content of the preaching—the message of Scripture—rather than on the vehicle, the preaching process.

However, by the end of the 17th century and into the early 18th century, the attention moved more towards the vehicle of preaching. There was an increasing emphasis on the ‘science’ and ‘art’ of preaching and, little by little, the simple homiletic style of the Reformers was lost. Preaching took on more of a developed sermonic style—so much so that one historian notes that during the course of the 17th century, the sermon became “almost a province of literature, in so far as conformity to prevailing literary standards was required also from the preacher”.1

A good case can be made that this increasing interest in the form and style of preaching (all of which initially gained momentum through a desire to expound the Scriptures themselves) led, ultimately, to the formal and arid intellectualism of the later Puritan period.

During the latter part of the 20th century, there was within evangelical churches a renewed confidence in God’s word proclaimed in preaching. But the danger for those of us who have benefited from this (which is the same for any such ‘second generation’ of those who rediscover the power of the living word of God) is that we may also begin to move on—‘progressing’ to the science, the strategy, the practice of preaching, and so, gradually, take the substance for granted. In the light of this, I think we need to make it very clear (to ourselves as well as to others) that when we say our chief focus is on preaching, what we really mean is that our chief focus is on the Scriptures themselves.

It is no accident, for example, that in describing their life-transforming experience on the Road to Emmaus, the two hitherto dejected and dispirited disciples testified “Did not our hearts burn within us… while he opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32). Surely this must have been the most exegetically perfect, theologically coherent, Christologically focused preaching from the Old Testament on the death and resurrection of Jesus ever! But their response looked straight through the ‘preaching’ as though it were transparent; all the focus was on the message itself—the living Word, the ‘opened Scriptures’—because it was this, and this alone, that caused hearts to burn, to change and to come alive with the glorious hope of the gospel.

Nothing has changed for disciples today. What we are really doing is seeking to bring one another constantly back to the word of God, to immerse ourselves together in the Scriptures, to wrestle with them, to ingest them, and, by so doing, to keep the only true God, the God of these Scriptures, at the heart of our lives and ministries.

2. A shift from vertical to horizontal

There is a second subtle change that can gradually creep in among those of us who are committed to expository Word ministry. It is the shift from the vertical to the merely horizontal in terms of our understanding of what is actually happening as we open up the Scriptures. Too easily we begin to think of Bible ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ as merely mutual edification along the horizontal axis. We forget the vertical axis. We forget the presence of the living God himself, whose word is not just being heard as if from a distance, but who is present by his Spirit and who is breathing out his living word as the Scriptures are opened up today.

If this was not true, preaching would be no different from mere lecturing, teaching, arguing or reasoning. I say ‘mere’ because true preaching does, of course, aim to teach, inform, reason, admonish, rebuke and so on. But it is also much more than this: it is different from any other kind of communication that exists in this world because its origin is beyond this world. It is revelation from God. Furthermore, it is revelation of God.

God gave the Scriptures not just so that we might know things about him, but that we might truly know him. This is the function of biblical preaching—to create this living relationship and to sustain and nurture believers within it. God’s purpose is not merely that believers be well taught; he wants them to be well taught in order that they may know that they are well loved, and that they may rejoice in his love, respond to it, live in it, and overflow with this love both one to another and to a world that does not yet know him. We are servants of this message—ambassadors of a ‘vertical’ word from a God who speaks today.

3. A shift from the corporate to the individual

A third danger we must beware of is a shift in focus from the corporate to the individual. In essence, of course, this is just another expression of the general drift from a God-centred, Kingdom-oriented mentality to the man-centred, self-preoccupation that is the hallmark of our natural condition, and to which we constantly naturally regress if left unchecked by the correction of God’s word. This same basic root of idolatry always puts man in the centre of the picture and pushes God to the circumference, and is behind the two shifts we have discussed already. But in our post-enlightenment, highly individualized western culture today, it is particularly important that we realize just how easily we have become children of our age.

In a large measure, this individual rather than corporate focus causes us a great deal of confusion when we try to articulate what it is that makes the proclamation of the word of God different from other means of communication. In particular, we struggle to define where the ‘power’ in preaching resides, and just how it is made manifest in the preaching. But because we focus so much on the individual, we often find ourselves trying to explain this in terms of the preacher alone, and so get ourselves into all kinds of difficulties.

Much of the reason that we become tangled up in this way is precisely because of a failure to consider the overwhelmingly corporate context in which the Bible deals with these matters. We are focusing on the individual—the preacher—on what they possess (in terms of gifting and learning) and what they do (in terms of their preaching). In the New Testament, however, the focus is entirely different: it is not on the individual in this way, but on the corporate—not on the Word gifts themselves, but on the sphere of service of these gifts (that is, the whole church) and on the purpose of the gifts, that the one body, “joined and held together” as it is in Christ, might grow into full maturity in Christ (Eph 4:1-16). The preacher, therefore, can never be thought of as a ‘gifted Bible teacher’ in vacuo; he is “given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” so that “the church may be built up” (1 Cor 12:7, 14:4, 5).

A proper corporate focus also liberates us from the wholly mistaken notion that the rest of the congregation are passive in the process of the preaching—merely recipients of Bible teaching, accruing knowledge and information, but not otherwise involved. The writer to the Hebrews, in particular, makes much of this in his great theme of ‘drawing near’. As New Testament Christians, the reality is that we have drawn near to God through Christ—nearer, that is, than even the people of Israel were able to come as Old Covenant people. We have ‘drawn near’ not to the lesser thing of Sinai but to the greater reality—to Jesus now unveiled as the great King enthroned in the heavens—to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith (Heb 12). How can we realize in our experience the benefits of this reality—this life which is ours now in the heavenly realms? We do so together by ‘keeping on drawing near’, and as we do so, in our still frail flesh, we find “mercy and grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16), and our weak, feeble hearts may nevertheless experience “full assurance of faith” (Heb 10:22-23).

The context makes clear that this ongoing drawing near to God is a corporate experience—one characterized by ministries of mutual edification and gospel exhortation (Heb 3:12ff, 10:19-25), yet the central focus is, nevertheless, the God who is speaking and warning us from heaven (Heb 12:25).We are warned, therefore, with all seriousness not to “[neglect] to meet together” in this way, nor to “refuse him who is speaking” (Heb 10:25;12:25). We should not miss the vital connection between corporate meeting together and God speaking in our midst. Indeed, the whole people of God have work to do. The corporate context of preaching emphasizes the corporate responsibility for prayer: the whole congregation together must “take… the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer” (Eph 6:17-18). God’s promise is that he will be a hearing God who speaks to answer his people’s request. This great simplicity lies at the very heart of true biblical faith. The prayers of the saints, rising up before the throne of God, are what brings down the fire of God on behalf of his people (Rev 8:4-5). The Lord is a God who hears and speaks in answer with words of grace and power. The same message of God’s power through the prayers of his saints is repeated through Old and New Testaments in many ways and in many places. I wonder if we take this nearly as seriously as the Bible does?2

Arresting the drift

We must be alert lest our enemy, the father of deceit and lies, beguile us and our churches by causing us to drift, gently unawares, in the very area where we believe our strength lies: the preaching of the Word. Let us determine to resist him. We shall do so if we consciously strive in our prayers, resolving not to drift in any of these ways as far as our own ministry as pastor-teachers is concerned. The congregation must play a full part. Our preaching is not just part of a corporate ministry, it is itself a corporate event, in which God hears and answers the cry of his people, and delights to dwell among them in power.


1. WWF Mitchell, English Pulpit Oratory, SPCK, London, 1932, p. 46.

2. It is instructive to look to the example of preachers at times of spiritual revival. Few were great orators; even Jonathan Edwards is said to have preached in virtual monotone, a cushion under his elbow as he propped his head above the dense script, which he read word for word. But the focus was not on them or their sermon; it was on God and his voice. Because they rightly understood their work of preaching and prayer, and God’s work of speaking with power in their midst, people gathered with great expectations of God. They eagerly anticipated his presence among them in power through his word, put to work as it was through prayer. They earnestly implored him to work similarly among their partners in mission at home and abroad. And the Lord did, with mighty effect.

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