What is biblical preaching? This is an important question, make no mistake. But maybe a better one is: What is driving the sermon?
When I listen to a sermon, this is the question I’m most concerned with. I care about how a preacher exposits the text, but I’m not listening for that as much as I am listening to see what is at the heart of the message—the driving force behind it.
I’ve heard some messages in which it sometimes seems like an illustration is driving the sermon and it just happens to bump into scripture along the way. Or maybe an idea is driving the message, one that just needs the right text to support it. Or there’s something that’s clearly on the preacher’s heart. Something he “needs” to say to the people.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea.
We’ve all heard sermons that would fit into this list. Perhaps some of us have even preached them. Now, all of them are important: our illustrations help our hearers connect. Our ideas can be helpful, especially as we seek to apply a text. And anytime we preach, of course it should be something that is on our hearts. But none of these should be driving the sermon. Only Scripture can do that.
In 2 Timothy 3, it says that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness.” “All Scripture,” Paul wrote. Not “some”—all. There is nothing more profitable for us than to hear from the Word of God. So, as preachers, we are to “preach the Word,” as Paul charged Timothy (2 Tim. 4:2).
This brings us back to the question: What should be driving a sermon? I believe that whatever you want to call it—whatever style or method you hold to—every sermon must be driven by the text of scripture. Every sermon we find in scripture is structured this way. Even Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost was driven by the text of scripture.
As he preached to the masses in Jerusalem that day, he didn’t exegete on specific passage of scripture, but rather said, “Let me tell you what you’re seeing.” Scripture drove everything he said. The text is what drives our preaching. We don’t need to go somewhere else looking for what to say, because God has given us everything we need in this book. And when we look for the Holy Spirit’s leading as we prepare to preach, He is going to lead us to the scriptures.
On Sunday mornings, I typically work through a text. During our midweek services, I will sometimes teach on a specific topic. About a year ago I was teaching on spiritual warfare, and through it all, my goal was to bring forward what the Bible says about images, demons, the devil, and so on. I didn’t pick one specific text, but the messages were all driven by the scriptures. They started with biblical context, not my own ideas. So it doesn’t matter if we are strictly expository or if sometimes we are more topical, the text will drive the message.
This sort of text-driven preaching will allow us to speak truth into controversy. Two summers ago, our church was merging with a predominantly white congregation. The leadership met and talked about what I should be preaching during this process. And someone asked in the middle of the meeting, “What are you preaching now?” I was in the middle of Ephesians 2, where starting at verse 11, Paul wrote about what it means to be the church.
I didn’t have to think of something to say to the church—the scriptures already gave it to me. At the same time, the events in Ferguson were happening. I didn’t have to come up with a sound byte to address these racially charged issues. I could look to Ephesians 2, where Paul called Christ our peace. It was in my regular preaching that God the Holy Spirit, who knew where we would be before we got there, had the right word for me at the right time.
Text-driven preaching requires us to preach the text in context. We need to teach people how to carefully study a passage through our preaching, and not to read everything as an allegory for something else. So, when we preach the story of David and Goliath, for example, it needs to be about David and Goliath. We preach the text in context. And this requires me to be a student of the Word. I need to take the time necessary to understand what the text is saying in order to explain things to those who are hearing.
Don’t forget, we live in an age of increasing biblical illiteracy. People don’t understand Christian theology. They don’t understand what the Bible says. And we can’t assume they do. Because of this, I think it is important as the teacher of the church I serve to teach the Bible—to help them understand the words, to see the text in the context. The words of the Bible are doctrinal words, after all. They shape our convictions. and text-driven preaching helps me take the time I need to take to carefully explain things those I serve.
Finally, text-driven preaching transforms us into Christ-centered preachers. As we preach the text in context, we will find that we are able to show how it points to Jesus. Because the scriptures are saturated with the gospel, we don’t need to allegorize stories or ignore context to get to the gospel. The gospel is there. We do as Jesus did on the Emmaus Road, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [interpreting] for them the things concerning [Jesus] in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). We can see the path to the gospel in every text as we faithfully preach the text in its context.
Which brings us back to our starting point—what is biblical preaching? Biblical preaching can be expository, or it can be topical. But regardless of style, biblical preaching is text-driven preaching. When we rely on the text and the Holy Spirit’s leadership through it, we will help those we serve better understand what God requires of them—and what God has done for them in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.