Preaching that Ruins Souls

I am a pastor. It is not the only thing that I am or the most important (a follower of Christ, a husband, and dad are) but it is something that defines me nonetheless because it something that God has called me (both subjectively and objectively) to be and to do. And so I am passionate about that calling. But something that I recognized early on (due to the wisdom and example of other good pastors) is that a pastor has nothing to say except what he can show that God says from the revealed word of God. God created by his word. He upholds all things by his word. He redeems a people for his name through the work of his supreme Word. And he calls to people through the preaching of his word and by his word he directs his people. All of life is wrapped in what God has already revealed in his word.

That seems clear enough. But apparently it isn’t.

As I listened to a sermon recently (not from my pastor) I was reminded how often preachers give scant attention to God’s word. What makes this so astonishing, if not surprising, is that at the very time and place where God’s word is supposed to be held in high esteem among God’s people it wasn’t. Now don’t get me wrong, the preacher was given a pulpit at the front and center of his audience. He took with him a copy of God’s word and even did the honor of reading it. But what he spoke on and what the text actually said could not have been more incongruous. It is not that he said anything really unbiblical. Indeed much of what he said was good maybe even helpful. But that was kind of the problem – it was about what he said not what God’s word says. It was filled with the kind of generalizations, moralism, and therapeutic God-talk that often passes for preaching (at least everyone around me seemed to think it was just fine). But it wasn’t filled with Christ. It didn’t draw our attention to God. It didn’t declare what God’s word said and meant. In short almost all of what was said could have been given by a Jew or a moralistic agnostic. There was nothing distinctly Christian about the sermon.

In his book No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology David Wells describes the results of a study done on sermons during a portion of the years of 1985 and 1991. The study found that 39 percent of preachers took neither their content nor their organization from their stated biblical text (though they were able to say something at least identifiable as being Christian – something that 14 percent couldn’t do apparently). We could argue whether those stats are accurate or have improved since the time it was done but the reality is that if those numbers are even close the church is in big trouble…and maybe for more reasons than you think.

You see when a local assembly of God-followers sits under preaching like this for extended periods of time weird things begin to happen:

  • Churches become more centered on the personality of their preacher/pastor than on Christ. In these cases the church is shaped more by its speaker than God’s Word. This leads to the pastor as dictator rather than the pastor as servant. In the end the church trades the authority of God’s word for the authority of a man. This begins to really manifest itself after a little while especially in the area of applications. When the same applications are made from every text (do good to the poor, love every man, evangelize your neighbor, don’t listen to rock music, don’t drink, don’t let women wear pants, etc.) you have to begin to wonder if Moses, Paul or whoever is saying these things or someone else. Regardless of how good and right the application is I am leaning toward the “someone else.”
  • The personal Bible study of those who sit under this preaching is also brought to ruin. If what you are exposed to week in and week out as the preaching of God’s word has little actual connection to God’s word then this will effect your understanding of how to read the Bible. Instead of doing the actual work of understanding what the text says about God, ourselves, and Christ we will search for those verses that satisfy some emotional, theological, or volitional need or desire. We will read for an experience, or merely new knowledge, or justification for a lifestyle. Since the preacher/pastor has never really submitted himself to what the text says we won’t either. And worse of all, we won’t know how. We won’t know that the context should exert a constraining influence over how we understand a particular text. We won’t know how to read narrative without imputing every detail with a spiritual meaning or general moral or life principle. We won’t know that the genealogies were given for a greater purpose than to tell us how to pray for anything we want and God will give it. In this reading God becomes little more than a genie and his word is the lamp. Rub it enough and you are bound to get something good out. And if nothing comes out you must not be rubbing it right.
  • Because in the end that type of preaching and reading is fruitless it is inevitably going to lead to one of two errors. We may simply forsake God’s word altogether in a vain attempt to “hear God speak” on our own. That is one error. Or we get discouraged with reading God’s word and so we stop….but then of course we feel guilty so we start up again….until discouragement takes over at least. Repeat process.

That is just a couple of reasons why I hate (read hate) regular preaching that uses God’s word rather than submits to God’s word. Now the reason that I wrote regular in the previous sentence is because I want to cultivate an attitude of grace toward pastors. Not every sermon is going to be great. Some may miss the mark (when I look back at some of my own sermons I cringe). But the difference between a man who is trying to submit to God’s word and one who is using God’s word to preach is enormous. What I am writing against is the type of preacher (liberal or conservative) who regularly mishandles the word of God. If God’s word is the church’s only authority then it should be our regular practice to submit to it so that we may hear what it says. And if it contains all that we need for life and godliness then why would we want anything else?

Without name-calling, can you remember preaching of this sort? Did you notice a change in the way you felt about God’s word when you came under preaching that was intent upon making the point of the text the point of the sermon?

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