Compass your Church by the Truth
God designed preaching as a means of grace for your sanctification, but not all preaching honors this design. Sadly, most of what passes for preaching today is completely “unsanctifying!” It is not surprising that many Christians have a low view of preaching since most of the preaching they’ve been exposed to is, well, lousy preaching. If you have never found preaching to be all that beneficial for your spiritual life, it may be because you have never found faithful preaching. It is not as if the act of preaching itself—someone speaking to the congregation on Sunday—inherently sanctifies.
Preaching is not an ex opere operato solution to your stagnant spiritual life. Ex opere operato is a Latin phrase that could be translated “from the work worked.” The idea behind it is that the work done, apart from the faith or faithfulness of the participants, has inherent spiritual power. The Roman Catholic Church espouses this so-called inherent power in the sacraments, including Communion and Baptism. They claim that the “sacraments,” as they view them, efficaciously impart grace to the participant regardless of their faith or the biblical faithfulness of the minister who administers them. Practically, this means that the elements of the Lord’s Table, for instance, have the power to sanctify you regardless of whether you understand what they signify or receive them in faith. This is an erroneous view of the ordinances, and it would be an erroneous view of preaching as well. You can’t just listen to any preaching and expect it to automatically make you mature. Bad preaching will not produce good Christians; compromised preaching will not produce uncompromising Christians; and faithless preaching will not produce faithful Christians.
What, then, makes good preaching? Put simply, the text of Scripture makes good sermons. Above all else, sanctifying preaching requires one indispensable ingredient, the Bible. God’s Word must be present in order for preaching to have any kind of saving and sanctifying effect. If you remove the Bible from preaching, you have removed the power of preaching. It does not matter how engaging, articulate, or compelling a preacher may be, if he is not preaching the Bible then he is not preaching for the benefit of your soul. Preaching for sanctification requires the text to be preached.
If you are looking for preaching that will produce spiritual growth in your life, what you are looking for is expository preaching. Expository preaching is the method of preaching that proclaims the substance, the significance and the stipulations of a passage of Scripture. To put it another way: Expository preaching takes a Spirit-inspired text of Scripture and declares, “Here is what it says, here is what it means, and here is what it requires.”
The implications of these truths for the preacher are pretty straightforward. Preacher, the church does not belong to you, nor does it need to hear from you. God’s people need God’s Word, and your sole task in the pulpit is to give it to them. With the heart of a shepherd, precision of a scholar, and clarity of simple preacher, give your people truth. Take to heart the words of Calvin:
When I expound the Holy Scripture, I must always compass myself by it, that those who hear me, may be profited by the doctrine held forth, and receive edification thereby. If I have not this affection, if I do not edify those that hear me, I commit sacrilege, and profane the Word of God (The Mystery of Godliness and Other Sermons, 133-34).
Every moment you spend preaching something other than the Word is not preaching at all, and it is certainly not edifying to God’s people. You must spend the best of your energies on what you say not on how you say it. I often remind my church that I may keep them a little long on Sunday morning, but I never go long telling them stories about my high school glory days or with conjured-up illustrations that pluck at emotional strings. When we gather together on Sunday we are going to be in the text, which is where I must be all week in preparation. Compass your sermons by the truth!
As important as these truths are for the preacher, they are equally important for those who are listening to the preaching. The average Christian sitting under the public ministry of the Word week-after-week, shares a responsibility in preaching the truth. Again, Calvin cuts straight to the point:
Those also who read the Holy Scripture, or come to hear the sermon, if they seek any foolish speculations, if they hear the sermon, if they come hither to recreate (i.e., recreational) themselves, they are guilty of profaning the gospel (ibid., 134).
Preaching is only beneficial to your soul when you humbly, submissively, and actively participate in the sermon through your listening. The matrimony of faithful preaching and faithful hearing forms the household in which the children of the Lord grow and mature. You must expect the truth every Sunday and be prepared to submit to it. Compass your church by the truth!
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.