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Still Learning How to Preach After 50 Years Preaching!

In December 1967 I preached my first sermon at St Thomas’ South Richmond, soon to be demolished, to a congregation of 4 people. What a privilege! It was on the cross of Christ, but I forget what Bible text I used to launch my sermon!

I was from a non-Christian family, and had been converted in my last year in school in 1963. I first heard expository preaching in January 1965, when John Stott toured Australia, and gave Bible studies on 2 Corinthians. I thought, ‘That is how you should preach, and that is what I want to do.’ 

I first heard expository preaching when John Stott toured Australia. I thought, ‘That is how you should preach, and that is what I want to do.’
I had been well-mentored and trained by the man who converted me; by attending the Church Missionary Society League of Youth on Friday nights, by voracious reading of commentaries and biographies of Christian ministers and missionaries, by the writings of Stott (especially Christ the Controversialist), and by studies at Ridley under Leon Morris—an expert exegete, with a great reverence for the text of the Bible, and exemplary persistence in finding and then teaching what he found.

I had also benefitted from a long-term debate with an ordinand at Queen’s College, who tried to cure me of fundamentalism, with all the energy of a recent convert from fundamentalism to Barth’s theology! This was good for me, as it meant that I had to resolve important theological issues about the nature of Scripture, such as verbal inspiration, authority, sufficiency, historicity, trustworthiness, and infallibility. And by trusting the Bible, obeying the Bible, studying the Bible, and using the Bible in ministry. My trust in the Bible has not wavered, and has increased over the years. The alternatives to trusting and using the Bible in the church and in the world look more and more unconvincing, unsatisfactory, implausible, futile, damaging and dangerous!

In God’s mercy and kindness I began preaching with a firm commitment to the Bible, to Evangelical Christianity, Reformed theology, to Puritan piety, and to expository preaching.

Life-long learning!

In preaching, as in believing and growing in Christ, life-long learning is the key. I have kept on learning to preach over the last 50 years by:

  • preaching, and reflecting on my sermons,
  • listening to, and learning from, good contemporary preachers, including in my early days John Stott, Dick Lucas and John Chapman,
  • studying sermons in the Bible as model preaching,
  • studying books of the Bible as examples of verbal exhortation: especially Exodus, Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Malachi, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, Hebrews, James, and Revelation,
  • studying preachers of the past such as John Chrysostom, John Calvin, John Donne and George Whitefield,
  • trying to teach and coach others in preaching, answering their questions, and being stimulated by their observations,
  • writing about preaching, and,
  • studying the Bible.

Here are some of the big lessons I have learnt over the last 50 years

1. While studying, teaching and preaching in UK, 1972 – ‘82

  • When I moved to London in 1972, I attended St Helen’s Bishopsgate, and saw expository preaching working in practice in Dick Lucas’ ministry. I knew that it ought to work, but had not seen it before in a sustained way.  (Praise God, I had seen it on occasional visits to St Matthew’s Geelong under Peter Payn). What a delight, and what an inspiration!
  • Preaching to the church In my early preaching I prayed for individuals to respond, and preached to individuals. In 1977 I suddenly realised that most of the Bible is actually addressed to churches, God’s people as a whole, not individuals. I realised how important the state of God’s people was for individuals, and also that individuals had a responsibility not just for their own response to God’s word, but also for their church’s response. In my preaching I tried to echo the Bible’s focus on God’s people as corporate hearers of God’s word.
  • Recognising the different conditions and needs of different kinds of people in the congregation From the Puritans I learnt how to speak to different kinds of people, and tried to briefly apply the Bible passage to people such as:  enquirers, new converts, mature believers, those drifting away, those needing to be challenged in their thinking or living.
  • The disadvantage of some kinds of Puritan preaching, and the advantage of expounding larger passages of the Bible While I had learnt much from Puritan commentaries such as Thomas Manton on James and Jude, I decided that one kind of Puritan preaching was not helpful: the kind where the preacher takes a short verse of the Bible, then comprehensively and extensively explains its doctrinal implications, and then comprehensively and extensively explains its practical applications. It struck me that this provided more information than could be absorbed even by a committed hearer, and, more significantly, that the original Bible verse tended to get lost in the process! Another kind of Puritan preaching went so slowly through the text of Scripture, that it tended to become a word study, and lost the momentum of the book of the Bible. I decided to follow Calvin’s model, also followed by some Puritans, of expounding passages of the Bible rather than individual verses.

I decided that one kind of Puritan preaching was not helpful: the kind where the preacher takes a short verse of the Bible, then comprehensively and extensively explains its doctrinal implications. This provided more information than could be absorbed even by a committed hearer, and the original Bible verse tended to get lost in the process.

2. While at St Jude’s Carlton, ’82 – 2002

  • Learning to preach by preaching It was good to preach every week. It was good to preach to people I got to know and love, good to have to prepare and preach sermon series, and good to have to develop variety in my preaching, and not use the same kind of outline every week!
  • God can use our weakness as well as use the gifts he has given us A time of clinical depression in 1985 enabled me to learn that God could use me in my weakness, an important lesson for ministry as for preaching.
  • Biblical Theology I did not hear about Biblical Theology until 1987, when Peter Jensen was visiting St Jude’s for a week of Bible teaching. He heard one of my talks on Isaiah, and asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of Biblical Theology?’ The answer was ‘No’! He then gave me a three-hour tutorial! I had a lot to learn!
  • How to preach the Old Testament Studying Biblical Theology then raised an issue about preaching the Old Testament. It was right to preach Christ from the OT. Was it also right to find lessons about how Christians should live from the OT? I decided that it was: Paul indicates both uses in 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Hebrews preaches the Old Testament in both ways throughout the book; Peter uses the Old Testament in both ways, and in 1 Peter 2 even applies Isaiah 53 to how believers should respond to persecution! So I felt free to do both. While some aspects of the OT only apply to Christ, others apply to him and therefore to believers as well. He is our substitute, but he also our representative, and so our example.
  • Training potential preachers At St Jude’s I ran training courses for young people who might become preachers in the future. I selected about 12 people each year, invited them to join a 12-week course, told them that it did not necessarily mean they would have an opportunity to preach, but that they would benefit from the course anyway! I chose home Bible study leaders who had potential, because they were already trained in reading and teaching the Bible, and in caring for people. Many of these people ended up in ministry. Future ministers and missionaries are in our congregations. We should encourage them, pray for them, and train them.
  • The missing context: the book of the Bible Later in in the ‘80s I was struck with the idea that God’s unit is verbal revelation is the books of the Bible. So I began giving more attention to the ministry purpose of the book of the Bible from which I was preaching. I had previously learnt about the immediate context, and then learnt about Biblical Theology. I now also learnt the value of working on meaning and purpose of the whole book of the Bible from which I was preaching, and discovered that once I had worked on that, each sermon was easier to prepare, and the whole series had more coherence and purpose. It saved time in preparing each sermon to spend a lot of time on the whole book and its ministry purpose.
  • Looking for more than ‘the meaning’ and ‘the argument’ of the text and the book Early exegesis training had taught me to look for ‘the meaning’ of the text. I began to realise that this was a reductionist approach to communication, and so a reductionist approach to the Bible. There is more to verbal communication than ‘meaning’, and not all human communication is a logical argument! I learnt to try to uncover and then communicate the meaning; and the emotions; and the motivations; and the imagery; the dramatic shape; the intended outcome; and the urgency of the text and the book. I learnt to ask not only ‘What is in the text?’, but also ‘Why is it there?’ ‘What is its purpose, and how does it try to achieve that outcome?’
I learnt to try to uncover and then communicate the meaning; and the emotions; and the motivations; and the imagery; the dramatic shape; the intended outcome; and the urgency of the text and the book. I learnt to ask not only ‘What is in the text?’, but also ‘Why is it there?’ ‘What is its purpose, and how does it try to achieve that outcome?’
  • Changing culture, changing communication In about 1990 I realised that our culture was changing more and more rapidly, and so I decided to revise my preaching style every five years to try to catch up.
  • The power of the Bible Around 1993 I thought more about the nature of the Bible, and the claims it makes about itself. It seemed to me that its main claim was the power of God’s words. This was an encouragement for the preacher! If the Bible was true and authoritative, but not powerful then either I had to make it work or the hearers had to make it work. But because God is powerful his words are powerful too. Praise him!
  • Expecting God to act God is present and active in our preaching because his word is living and active, because he is still speaking the words he caused to be written so long ago, and because he uses his servants who minister his words in his name in preaching and teaching the Bible, and in personal encouragement and evangelism. This does not mean that the infallibility and authority of the Bible transfers automatically to the preacher, but that insofar as we are communication God’s words, he speaks through them. This fuelled my trust in God, my dependence on God, my expectations and my prayers.
  • Preaching as ministry! It sounds a bit bizarre, but I think I must have focused on preaching as my performance, and thought less about it as ministry to others. This was reflected in my preparation. I would spend all my time working on the text, and little time thinking about the congregation. So I would often end my sermons with the immortal words, ‘And may God show us how to put this into practice in our lives’, which was code for, ‘I have no idea about why this matters, but it does’! So I decided that in future I would spend ½ my preparation time working on the text, and then ½ my preparation time praying for the congregation, imagining what questions they would have of the Bible passage, what they needed to know, what they might misunderstand, what they would find hard to accept, what they would welcome, and how I could help them receive, understand, welcome and respond. A great change! This began in about 1995.
  • Topical sermons About the same time I realised that if people were to answer questions about Christianity from fellow-believers or from unbelievers, then they needed to be trained to think topically. ‘Why do people suffer?’, ‘What does God think about sex before marriage?’ ‘What do Christians think about war?’ ‘What political policies should we follow?’ ‘What do we believe about the return of Christ?’ ‘How does God guide us?’ ‘Why is Jesus Christ so important?’ ‘Do you have to belong to a church?’ These are all reasonable questions, and we must train people to give answers. While the basic diet of our preaching should be Biblical exposition, as the Bible is God’s syllabus for us, we also need to preach topical sermons, to model and train people how to think Biblically and how to answer questions Biblically.

3. While at Ridley ’02 – ’12

  • The preacher as theologian Since about 2002 I have been thinking about the preacher as theologian, about reading every part of the Bible theologically, about making use of historical and systematic theology in preaching, and reading our cultures and sub-cultures theologically as well. Theology means thinking deeply; asking the question ‘Why?’: uncovering the theology presented in the text of Scripture, assumed by it, or implicit in it; noticing how often the Bible writers interpret actions in terms of their theological significance; and seeing how often Jesus pointed to the theological significance of his words and actions.
  • The danger of universalising one passage of Scripture All Scripture is relevant, but not all of it is immediately relevant. It is silly to preach Galatians 1 to a thoroughly orthodox church and accuse them of departing from the gospel. The application must recognise that they have not done this, but warn them against doing it in the future, and help them to minister in situations where this has happened. So too conflict passages need careful application. Is this conflict situation most like Galatians 1, Philippians 4, or Romans 14 and 15? Job’s ‘comforters’ provide a warning of the danger of applying a general truth in a way that does not apply to a particular situation.
  • Making an appeal in every sermon I read a paper by Adrian Lane in which he pointed out that one third of Whitefield’s sermons were an appeal to his hearers to respond. This alerted me to the fact that to explain the text was not enough; to apply or show the implications of the text was not enough; I also needed to communicate the appeal, the urging, the exhortation to respond that was in the text. This increased the emotional impact of the sermon, and also increased the level of personal interaction between preacher and congregation. Their response mattered to me, as it mattered to them. I also learnt to scatter this through the sermon, rather than leaving it all to the end!
  • The sermon as training Since studying Calvin’s preaching in about 2006, I have realised how he thought of preaching as training the congregation for ministry: not just converting, feeding, building up, but also training and equipping. So I began to treat the congregation as gospel team to be trained, not just God’s people to be fed and formed.
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly! I linked this idea of training to Colossians 3:16, where Paul writes that the word of Christ dwells in us richly as we teach and admonish one another with all wisdom. I often find that after I have heard a sermon, someone asks me a question, and I think, ‘I heard a sermon about that recently, and the preacher said something helpful for this person’, and then pass on what I have heard. So I encourage people to hear sermons for themselves, and also be ready to pass on what they have heard to someone else in the coming weeks.
  • Multi-tasking in preaching I also saw in Calvin’s preaching a remarkable combination of:
    • awareness of the power of God in Bible and preacher and sermon and congregation;
    • teaching with theological depth, including both Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology;
    • adapting the message of the sermon to his congregation;
    • awareness of the congregation such that though his sermons were monologues they often functioned as dialogues as he articulated the thoughts and responses of the people;
    • sermons carefully designed to be heard, not read;
    • preaching enriched by a deep knowledge and understanding of the people;
    • preaching as intentional training of future preachers.
  • 2 Timothy as a training manual for preachers Since about 2010, I reflected more on how Paul in 2 Timothy prepares Timothy for the challenge of chapter 4, ‘preach the word’. He trains him by personal example, personal encouragement, the challenge to live a godly life, the challenge to hold to the faith and the gospel, to be willing to suffer, to be discerning about ideas and people, to avoid bad models of ministry, to be trained and equipped by the Bible, to follow Paul’s apostolic example of life and ministry, to take his place in the gospel team, and to fulfil his ministry. All good advice and preparation for preachers!
  • Reprove, rebuke and encourage In particular in 2 Timothy I noted that the instruction ‘preach the word’ is expanded and explained by ‘reprove, rebuke and encourage, with all patience and with teaching’ (4:2). So teaching is a means to an end. Preaching includes teaching, but it is to reprove, rebuke or encourage. It has a clear pastoral purpose! Don’t just ‘preach a sermon’, or ‘teach the Bible’: ‘reprove, rebuke, encourage’!

4. Since Ridley, ’12 – ’17

  • Ezra and Malachi Since 2010 I worked on the books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Malachi, and written commentaries on them. I was very challenged by Ezra, who committed himself to ‘study, do, and teach the law of God’ (Ezra 7:7); and also by Malachi’s example of bringing God’s word, articulating the people’s response, and then showing them how they must change. ‘God says …but you say…’ Two good examples for preachers!
  • Preaching and loving When people say to me, ‘I love preaching’, I ask them, ‘Do you love people’. For knowledge and ministry without love is futile (1 Corinthians 8:2, 13:1,2). And you can’t love people without knowing them, respecting them, honouring them, being aware of them, exercising forbearance and forgiveness, or without humility.
  • Wisdom We need God’s wisdom to know God, to live, to read the Bible, to understand people, to do ministry. We need theological wisdom, personal wisdom, relational wisdom, and ministry wisdom. We should ask God for wisdom to know what wisdom we need, and then ask for it, search for it, embrace it, and use it!
  • Paraklesis/parakaleo I have fallen in love with this word, as its use in the NT includes encouraging, exhorting, comforting, urging, making an appeal, begging, explaining the Bible, applying the Bible, and urging people to respond to the Bible. It is used of a synagogue sermon in Acts 13:15 and the author of Hebrews describes his book as a word of paraklesis in 13:19. What a great word for preachers!
  • Rhetoric, or persuasive preaching I am currently thinking about our rhetoric, the method of persuasion we use in preaching. We have the challenging task of understanding and using the rhetoric of the Bible passage we are preaching, and also using the rhetoric which will convince the people to whom we are speaking. We suffer from the fact that the common forms of public rhetoric in our society are what the media gives us from politicians, entertainment, and advertisements! So we preachers have to create the public rhetoric we use. A challenging task!  John Donne’s preaching was finely described as ‘projecting the eloquence of Scripture’: our task is to project the eloquence of Scripture using both its own eloquence and rhetoric, and our own convincing and persuasive style of verbal communication!
  • Preaching to please God I am also currently working on how to help myself and others to preach to please God, to do ministry to please God, to live to please God. How easy it is to live and do ministry to please ourselves,  or to please others. Living, doing ministry and preaching for ‘an audience of one’ is quite a challenge!
  • What Bible passages do I avoid? I recently heart Brian Rosner say that the test of our Biblical Theology is not what texts we use, but what texts we avoid. Still reflecting on this!

Two observations

  • The point of telling you what I have learnt is not to tell you all I know! It is to say that life-long learning is a key to preaching, as to everything that is worthwhile in life!
  • We learn what we think and what we do when we explain what we think and do to others. So in many cases I was probably doing these things before I discovered that I was doing them! But it was in teaching others that I learnt what was already doing. That of course benefitted me, and increased the intentionality of my preaching.

For more of what I have learnt

For a record of what I have learnt, see:

  • Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching, Leicester, IVP, 1996/ Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, 2004
  • Written for Us: Receiving God’s Words in the Bible, Nottingham, IVP, 2008
  • Hearing God’s Words: Biblical Spirituality, Leicester, IVP, 2004.

And also:

  • ‘The Preacher and the Sufficient Word’, in When God’s Voice is Heard, eds. Christopher Green and David Jackman, Leicester, IVP, 1995.
  • ‘Preaching and Pastoral Ministry’, in The Anglican Evangelical Crisis, ed. Melvin Tinker, Christian Fearn, Focus Publications, 1995.
  • ‘Preaching and Biblical Theology’, in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. TD Alexander, Brian Rosner, Leicester, IVP, 2000.
  • ‘Arguing for expository preaching’, Rutherford Journal of Church and Ministry 13.1, pp. 4-7, 2006.
  • ‘God’s powerful words: Five Principles of Biblical Spirituality in Isaiah 55,’ SBJT, Vol. 10. No 4, 2007, pp. 28-37.
  • Preaching of a Lively Kind”: Calvin’s engaged expository preaching’, in Engaging with CalvinAspects of the Reformer’s legacy for today, ed. Mark D. Thompson, Nottingham, Apollos, 2009
  • ‘Calvin’s Preaching and Homiletic: Nine Engagements, Part 1’, Churchman, Vol. 124, No. 3, Autumn, 2010.
  • ‘Calvin’s Preaching and Homiletic: Nine Engagements, Part 2’, Churchman, Vol. 124, No. 4, Winter, 2010.
  • ‘To bring men to heaven by preaching: John Donne’s Evangelistic Sermons’, reprinted in Lee Gatiss, ed., Preachers, Pastors and Ambassadors: Puritan Wisdom for Today’s Church, St Antholin’s Lectures Volume 2, 2001-2010, London, The Latimer Trust, 2010.
  • ‘The Pastor as Preacher’, in Melvin Tinker, ed., The Renewed Pastor: Writings in honour of Philip Hacking, Fearn, Christian Focus, 2011.
  • ‘Calvin’s school of Christ for preachers’, in Michael Parsons, ed. Aspects of Reforming: Theology and Practice in Sixteenth Century Europe, Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2013.
  • ‘Thomas Cranmer on Preaching’, in The 26th Annual Reformation Heritage Lectures, Thomas Cranmer and the Holy Scriptures, Beeson Divinity School, Birmingham, Alabama, DVD/CD, 2014.
  • ‘What is God’s word for these people?’ and, ‘If I perish, I perish,’ in Rhett Dodson, ed., Unashamed workmen: How Expositors Prepare and Preach, Fearn, Mentor, 2014, pp. 17-34 and 35-44.
  • ‘Malachi as a model for preachers’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 20.3, 2016, pp. 27-48.
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