Monday, March 07, 2011

2 Ah-Ha Moments in Learning to Preach

I met with a new church-planter last week and attempted to articulate the journey I've been on for the last three years in learning to faithfully preach the message of the Bible.  I had some of the best seminary training in the world at DTS from 2001-2005, but nothing compares to actually being in the pulpit every week in teaching you to preach.  Before we started HCBC-RR in 2007, I had spoken regularly to students and been given multiple opportunities to preach.  However, it wasn't until we planted Hill Country in 2007 that I really began to grow in my understanding of Scripture and the art of preaching.  Over the last three years, I've had two significant "ah-ha" moments in learning to preach - moments where the theory of preaching became real in the my heart and in the life of our church.  If you are someone who regularly teaches or preaches God's Word to others, I hope these thoughts encourage and challenge you.

1- The first "ah-ha" moment was coming to terms with the fact that the whole Bible is really about Jesus.  This might sound incredibly foundational, but I can't tell you how much this has changed my preaching and teaching.  At Dallas, I was trained to be a good exegete of the original languages and to dig deep into the original historical contexts in order to discover the human author's originally-intended meaning.  While this has been and will continue to be valuable in my preaching, it is incomplete.  It is not enough to teach historical context and authorial intent if we don't get beyond the human author and interact with the divine author.  If God is the author of the whole Bible, then we can be certain that the entire revelation of Scripture is ultimately pointing us to the Living Word, Jesus Christ.  The Old Testament is leading us to Christ and the New Testament is pointing us back to Christ.  But it goes beyond the direction of the testaments to the actual meaning of the individual verses, chapters, and books.  If I preach a sermon on the 23rd Psalm but don't show Christ in it, I have not faithfully taught the meaning of the 23rd Psalm.  I prepared a sermon in seminary on Proverbs 12:15 (the way of the fool seems right to him, but the wise man listens to advice) and went back to look at it the other night.  Nowhere in the manuscript did I even mention the name of Jesus.  The sermon could have been given in a synagogue or even in a rotary club.  The principle of the text was quickly explained and applied - listen to the advice of others - without any reference to Jesus.  Now, this might work in trying to explain the original meaning of a text, but it fails in the pulpit.  Why?  Because the people who sit under my preaching don't just need moral instruction - they need the gospel.  As a practitioner, one is quickly confronted with the limitations of preaching moral principles from the text when it comes to people actually experiencing life-transformation.  Not only that, but the study of the Bible as one complete, consistent document also leads us to the same conclusion.  To preach the mirco-context (the meaning of this text within the context of this paragraph, chapter, and book) without preaching the macro-context (the meaning of this text within the context of the entire Bible) is to miss the full meaning of any given text.  When I came to understand the Christo-centric nature of every passage in the Bible, my preaching began to change.  Now, if you attend HCBC-RR on any given Sunday, regardless of what section of the Bible we are preaching, you will undoubtedly hear about the wonderful person and work of Jesus Christ.

2- The second "ah-ha" moment was realizing that the gospel is not just the means of our justification but also the foundation and motivation for our sanctification.  I came to faith in a tradition that preached this way: 40 minutes of moral exhortation from a Bible story (here's how you can live a righteous life) with a 5 minute gospel invitation at the end for anyone who was lost.  The unspoken message was this: if you are lost, you need Jesus to save you, but if you are saved, you need to straighten up and get your life in line.  Whether intended or not, the sermons taught people that they needed the gospel for justification (for right standing with God, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life) but not for sanctification (the process of actually becoming holy in our daily thoughts, motives, words, and actions).  This creates a weird dynamic where we preach against self-righteousness in non-Christians but actually appeal to self-righteousness in Christians.  In other words, a preacher who proclaims the gospel only as the means for justification will end up appealing to the Christian's self-will as the motive and power by which he lives a holy life.  This produces devastating effects that I only began to understand and see clearly as I led a local congregation.  Jonathan Edwards talked about the difference between common virtue and true virtue, making a distinguish between a good deed that was motivated by pride and self-righteousness and a good deed that was motivated by humility and appreciation for grace.  I have found this distinction incredibly helpful as I think about preaching God's Word.  If I don't come back to the gospel as the foundation for holy living (responding to the finished work of Christ and living by faith in the promises guaranteed by the finished work of Christ), then I will end up appealing to people's flesh (their pride) in order to get them to do what is right in God's sight.  Here's the crazy conclusion and why this pattern is so deadly: I could actually be encouraging sin in the hearts of God's people on the way to external obedience.  This is why gospel-Christianity is so different and so liberating - it speaks not just to my legal standing before God but also transforms the motivation for holy living.  Because I am accepted and forgiven and found in Christ, I am freed to love God in response to His great love for me.  I am not adding anything to the work of Jesus by living in obedience - I am simply living in light of what Jesus has already accomplished by His death and resurrection.  There is much more to say on how the gospel actually progresses each of us in full sanctification (by destroying the idols and unbelief in our hearts that feed our sinful thoughts, actions, and words), but it is enough here to show how people need a greater understanding of the gospel to live like Jesus, not just a greater explanation of the moral principles of the Bible.

I have learned a lot about preaching in the last three years - I'm thankful that God continues to refine me for His purposes.  If you regularly teach and preach God's Word, what "ah-ha" moments has God used to change the way you handle the Scriptures?


Barie Sue said...

I have seen these flesh out in your sermons and in how you live life the past three years for sure, and it has left it's mark on my life, in a good way.
I did grow up seeing the gospel as the entry point to knowing God and then saw the rest of what the Bible had to say as the means to keep that relationship strong - I am definitely still growing in this, but find it freeing as I take baby steps towards actually living life daily in response the what Christ did on the cross and not as the means to stay on good terms with God.
love you and so very thankful that you are not only my husband and best friend, but also my pastor.

Andy said...

This is good stuff my friend.

We miss you and Barie but it is really cool watching (from a distance) the path the God has led you along and the man you continue to become.