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Founders Journal 74 · Fall 2008 · pp. 12-21

Decisive Preaching

Phil A. Newton

Though I do not remember the speech, I do remember the assignment. "Give a persuasive speech to your class." I was tasked with building an argument that called for action and change on the part of the hearers. I had to convince my classmates that they needed what I offered.

While writing this article during the height of the 2008 presidential campaign, I have heard plenty of persuasive speeches. Most stump speeches fit this category. Putting on my political hat, I look for content in the speech that would lead me to a point of agreement and action with the speakers. At times, the call to action lacks substance, which reduces the speaker to that of a manipulator and the hearers to pawns moved by the power of words.

The Christian pulpit is a different story. Though dealing in the realm of words and a concern for persuasiveness, the preacher faces several challenges. First, he will give an account for what he preaches, how he handles the biblical text, and how he shepherds the flock of God (2 Timothy 4:1-2; 2:14-15; 1 Peter 5:1-4). That is enough to get any preacher's attention! Second, he will seek to persuade his hearers to action but not on the basis of "superiority of speech or of wisdom" (1 Corinthians 2:1). In other words, he cannot stoop to clever techniques or manipulation if he would remain faithful to his task. Third, he is not stumping for votes or introducing a new product or calling for social change; he is heralding the Word of God so that his hearers might know and enjoy the living God (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The substance of his message must come from the inerrant Word that "is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). Fourth, his call to action must be consistent with the revelation of Holy Scripture (1 Corinthians 2:6-13). Otherwise, he is no different than a crass politician that will say anything to get a vote.

Does this cause the preacher to shrink from his task? Perhaps the trepidation of standing week after week before a congregation to open the Word of God, expound it, and call for specific action daunts the preacher. And well it should! Be daunted--but do not shrink back from the high calling of preaching the Word.

Preaching Demands a Verdict

"Preaching demands a verdict," I often heard the late Stephen Olford say. This view of preaching calls for the hearers' response to God's Word. Unfortunately, many substitute deep, lasting response with a quick movement to the front of the church at the end of the sermon. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was right in pointing out that such practice puts too much pressure directly on the will while by-passing engaging the mind with doctrine. "The will should always be approached primarily through the mind, the intellect, and then through the affections."[1] Did Lloyd-Jones, then, go soft when applying the sermon? Anyone that has listened to his preaching (or read his sermons) knows otherwise! "The preaching of the Word and the call for decision should not be separated in our thinking," he wrote.2 Biblical preaching demands a verdict by the hearers. They must do something with the truth that has been passionately set before them. The preacher's charge is to help hearers understand the text's meaning and how they are to live in light of it. A message from God's Word may call for repentance or new levels of discipline or confession of sin or mortifying sin or worshiping with new intensity or speaking the gospel to someone or restoring a broken relationship or changing church attendance habits or establishing new levels of accountability or developing a biblical worldview or believing on the Lord Jesus Christ or any number of specific responses related to the particular text expounded.

Too often, preaching is disjointed. A text is read, a few stories are told, and then hearers are asked to do something: believe on Christ, walk to the front of the church, turn over a new leaf in their lives, etc. However, that style of preaching lacks the reason for responding: careful opening of the biblical text through exposition. As the doctrines in the given text become clear, there is the natural call for response. Consider how Jesus Christ used this approach in the sermons of Mark's Gospel.

How Jesus Applied Doctrine

Christ's earliest sermon declared the advent of the kingdom of God. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand." How are men to respond in light of the immanence of God's rule? Jesus applied the doctrine: "Repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). He furthered this message of the kingdom in the parabolic teaching of Mark 4. Each parable contains pictorial descriptions of some aspect of kingdom life and the inherent call to decisiveness in light of the kingdom of God. This is especially noted by Christ's repetition, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (4:9, 23). Later, when preaching to a crowd after an encounter with the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus used parabolic language that called for personal evaluation and action (7:14-16). Afterward, the disciples seemed to squander the opportunity of rightly hearing and applying Christ's message; so He rebuked them, asking, "Are you so lacking in understanding also?" (7:18). The quintessential call to action is found in Jesus' explanation of what it means to be a true disciple. The application followed the explanation of the doctrine of His impending passion (8:31). "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me" (8:34-38). He offered no middle ground, no place for compromise if one would call himself a follower of Jesus Christ.

A number of years ago, a lady visited our church for several Sundays. I discovered that she attended a cult church that denied the doctrine of the Trinity, among other things. Yet she attended and heard the gospel preached. As she came out the door following an exposition from John's Gospel, she took my hand and said, "Now I understand." "What do you mean?" I asked. "I understand your preaching. You don't give any options," she replied. Though to my knowledge, she never turned to Christ, at least she understood the call for solitary following of Jesus Christ if one would be a Christian. Accustomed to hearing that many ways to God existed, the doctrine and application in the sermon showed otherwise. The doctrine gave vent to the application.

In the extended sermon known as the "Little Apocalypse" in Mark 13, Jesus sprinkles the message with calls to action. "See that no one misleads you" (13:5); "But be on your guard" (13:9); "When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour" (13:11); "You will be hated by all because of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he will be saved" (13:13); "But take heed; behold I have told you everything in advance" (13:23); "Take heed, keep on the alert" (13:33); "Therefore, be on the alert…What I say to you I say to all, 'Be on the alert'" (13:35, 37). Rather than posting a series of applications at the end of the sermon, our Lord called for decisive action--a verdict--throughout the entire message. While each point of doctrine remained fresh on the mind, Jesus declared, in essence, "Act on this! Here's what you must do!"

Do your sermons resemble this approach by our Lord? Certainly, the end of the sermon appropriately calls for action, perhaps a list of responsive points, but Jesus shows the preacher that he need not wait to the end of the sermon before applying it. While the mind focuses upon a particular doctrinal truth, seize the moment, and call for action. This can be effectively recapped at the end of the sermon where the appeal is drawn to a sharp edge. Having already applied the message numerous times, the closing appeal reiterates the need for decisive action.

Multiple Applications in Doctrinal Preaching

One of the most powerful sermons ever preached is the Epistle to the Hebrews. The writer himself calls it "this brief word of exhortation" (Hebrews 13:22). A number of scholars, consequently, believe that Hebrews is an extended exposition on the supremacy of Christ--as the doctrine--and the call for perseverance--as the primary application.[3] It contains repeated calls for decisive action based on doctrinal exposition. For instance, Hebrews 2:1, 3 demands that in light of Christ as God's final revelation of Himself, the radiance of God's glory, the exact representation of the divine nature, the upholder of all things, Ruler at the Father's right hand who is supreme over the angelic host (1:1-14), "For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it" (italics mine). Then he asks, "How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" The doctrine of the person and work of Christ--the "reason" he refers to--though theologically rich and intellectually satisfying, calls for more than just soaking up good truths. It calls for paying attention to the gospel so that we do not drift from it.

Hebrews 3 does the same. The ancient preacher calls us to "consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession," then proceeds to show how Christ was counted worthier than Moses as a faithful Son over God's household. Then he inserts, "whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end" (3:6, italics added). His conditional clause raised an important question that called for a heart-searching response. Consequently, in light of Israel's failure to heed the voice of God speaking in the wilderness, Christians have much greater reason to heed the voice of God's Son through the gospel! The preacher applies the doctrine in 3:7-11 by declaring, "Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (3:12-13). His application is both internal and external. Inwardly, the hearers must check out their own hearts to make sure they are not slipping from the perseverance called for in the gospel. Outwardly, they are to encourage others in the body to keep pressing on in faithfulness. He continues his sermon by setting forth the doctrine, often illustrating it from Old Testament stories, and then forcefully applying it by calling for active perseverance (see 4:1, 11, 14, 16; 6:1, 11-12, noting the doctrinal portions followed by the call for decisive action in light of the doctrine).

The most intense doctrinal argument comes in chapters 7-10:18, as the preacher exults in the High Priesthood of Christ, the superiority of His priestly ministry to the Aaronic priesthood, the promise of the New Covenant and its superiority through Christ's solitary sacrifice at the cross. After repeating the promises of the New Covenant, he follows with one of the most memorable calls for action (10:19-25). To make sure that there is no question of the basis for his call to action, he reiterates the supremacy and sufficiency of Jesus Christ as "a great priest over the house of God," and then drills his hearers: "Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith…Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering…Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near." Draw near, hold fast, stimulate, do not forsake, and encourage comprise specific calls for action on the part of the church. The balance of the ancient sermon continues to sound the call for action in light of specific doctrine (cf. 11:35; 12:1-3, 8, 12-15, 25, 28; and most of chapter 13, which ends with a flurry of applications).

Decisive action is the inevitable "therefore" that follows on the heels of doctrinal exposition. A call for response or action without doctrine is manipulation that can lead to legalism and false assurance. Doctrine, when properly understood, demands response. In this sense, we might call doctrine teaching with a catch. It is not simply improving knowledge, as wonderful as knowledge is; but it is knowledge that leads to changing or improving one's relationship with God and the church or changing one's relationship with the world. A text rightly expounded always deals with the doctrines in the text; hence, expository preaching is doctrinal exposition. Doctrine calls for decisiveness. For this reason, Lloyd-Jones rightly called preaching, "theology on fire," adding, "And a theology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man's understanding of it is defective. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire."[4]

I certainly do not think that preachers have to dream up applications! Each doctrinal emphasis carries multiple points of application. The preacher must know his congregation, understanding their spiritual needs, and then aim the applications that flow naturally from the doctrinal exposition. Let me explain in a more personal way.

A Personal Example

Presently, I am preaching through Romans in our morning worship service. In an exposition on Romans 4:1-3, I considered the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Paul had declared and illustrated imputation by recounting a statement from Genesis 15:6, which he translated as, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." After explaining what it meant for Abraham to believe God, I focused on the word "credited" which means to impute or to put on one's account. I showed how imputation is used negatively: Adam's sin was imputed to his posterity; then positively: Christ's righteousness was imputed to us and our sin was imputed to Christ so that He might bear God's judgment against us and fully atone for our sin. After setting forth the doctrine I wanted to apply it to the various needs that I recognized in my own congregation that day. My concern was not only to make an evangelistic application but to also help believers to know the depth of peace and satisfaction in depending on Christ's righteousness alone. Here is how I applied the doctrine:

Imputation of Christ's righteousness means that every moment of the day, God accepts you as He does His Son. Think of that, especially when you feel the weight of your weakness and sinfulness: your acceptance by God is not based on your righteousness but on that of God's Son. "But, you don't know how much I struggle. You don't know how much I falter and fail. You don't know how weak my faith is." No, and I don't have to know that; I know enough of my own struggles and failures to understand that I have nothing to offer God but the rags of my unrighteousness. But my claim before God's throne is not what I've done but the perfect righteousness of the Son. For every condemnation, return to this doctrine of imputation; in every trial and temptation, think upon the righteousness of Christ for you; in every situation of doubt and distress, remember that your standing with God is not grounded in what you've done but in what Christ has done on your behalf.[5]

I had in mind some Christians who struggle over their past sins. I thought of those who happen to be mentally and emotionally wired in such a way that they tend toward over-introspection rather than the upward look of reliance on Christ. I considered those who vacillate with legalism instead of confidence in Christ's righteousness. I thought of those who struggle to cast themselves upon Christ for salvation because they cannot understand how they could ever become righteous enough to stand before God. It was imperative that the doctrine of imputation was first explained in detail and then just as imperative that it was applied. Otherwise, my sermon would have been an appropriate theological lecture for students and not a sermon for struggling sinners.

Intensity in Preaching

Doctrinal exposition intensifies and emboldens the preacher in his applications. That is quite natural since doctrine qualifies the particular truths of Scripture. The preacher is not expressing his views but expounding God's truths in particular. He has something of vital importance to apply to his hearers. Charles Haddon Spurgeon taught his students that "the gospel consists in something definite which is to be believed by men," and consequently, "it becomes us to be decided as to what we teach, and to teach it in a decided manner."[6] By a "decided manner," he meant that the preacher is thoroughly convinced of what he preaches and demonstrates it by the clarity and vigor with which he approaches his task. He went on to identify "fixed principles" or doctrines that are unquestioned and must be preached with certainty. These include the doctrines of God, the Bible, the Trinity, Christ's atonement, the work of the Holy Spirit, the necessity of the new birth, the evil of sin, salvation as all of grace, and justification by faith.[7] He did not minimize other doctrines but specifies these as non-negotiable and thus, of utmost importance in ongoing pulpit ministry.

Spurgeon heightens this emphasis by reminding his students that "we dare not stir beyond the record. What we have been taught of God we teach." Then he warns, "If we do not do this, we are not fit for our position."[8] But how are we to do this kind of preaching? We are not giving a lecture but proclaiming life-giving truth. Spurgeon explains that having been "taught of God we teach," so the truths expounded have already been internalized--at least to some degree. The reality that one has been "taught of God" intensifies his desire to not only explain truth but to see it applied. Dispassionate, indecisive preaching betrays the truth that the preacher really expounds the Word of God. He must be convinced of what he preaches or he will fail to convince anyone else that the truth is worth applying to one's life. If he has felt the power of that truth in his own life it will be evidenced in the decisive tone of his proclamation. He will preach so that others might live in the same experience of God's truth. His applications, consequently, are not merely a list of appropriate responses but instead convey a sense of vital life--necessities if one would follow faithfully after Christ.

Intensity increases when we are conscious that our preaching affects hearers now and in eternity. If we have a clearer sense of standing before God, our expositions and applications will be clearer, too. Spurgeon told of an American preacher, who as he lay dying, turned to a friend and said, "I have taken a look into eternity. Oh, if I could come back and preach again, how differently I would preach from what I have done before."[9] In a 1792 sermon in Rutland, Vermont, Lemuel Harris underscored that same consciousness of judgment and the world to come as changing both the preacher and the hearers.

The subject affords direction on how ministers should preach and how a people ought to hear--namely, with death and judgment in view. It is this that makes preaching and hearing a serious matter and renders the house of God so very solemn. We must soon meet before the bar of Christ, perhaps before the next Sabbath, to have our sermons and our hearing examined by Him who is infinite in knowledge and is present in every congregation. Did we always consider these things, it would tend to abolish that coldness, drowsiness, and indifference that too often attend the ministers of the gospel and that formal spirit that is too apparent among hearers. How that would check the levity of mind and disorderly behavior that presumptuous creatures often indulge in the house of God! "How dreadful is this place!" is a reflection suitable on all occasions, and especially when we meet for public devotion.[10]

Stuart Olyott captures this intense spirit of seriousness in a sermon on Matthew 11:20-30, as Christ denounced the cities that did not repent in spite of the many miracles they witnessed by His power. His application at the point of expounding the reality of judgment against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum gripped me as I read the sermon. Notice how he relies on the doctrinal context to set up the application of judgment against those with much light who refuse to respond to the gospel.

As the inhabitants of Capernaum watch the proceedings, they see the men of Sodom come in. As they expect, the Sodomites receive a punishment that is unspeakably terrible. After all, homosexuality is not like other sins; it is a sin against nature. What could be worse than repeated, unrestrained, aggressive, violent sodomy? How piercing, then, are the shrieks of the people of Capernaum when they learn that their punishment is to be even greater! The guilt of unenlightened sodomites is not nearly, nearly as great as that of the spiritually privileged who do nothing with the light they have received [italics added to underscore application].[11]

No one would think for a moment that Jesus Christ dispassionately and indecisively spoke to these communities that had rejected His gospel! Nor would any think that such searing explanation of impending judgment lacked current application. Olyott demonstrates this with a single sentence that causes hearers to search their own hearts in light of the severity of Christ's judgment.

Making Application

Since we are considering the necessity of strong, passionate application in the course of an expository sermon, then it is fitting that we close with some recommendations on how to go about it. Fortunately, applications are not monolithic, either in terms of how they are made and what they seek to accomplish. To apply the Scripture appropriately in a given congregation, the preacher must hold closely to the biblical text, observe closely the spiritual needs of his congregation, and follow closely the promptings of the Holy Spirit as he prepares and preaches. Applications are no time to climb onto his homiletic hobby-horse or hammer away at recalcitrant church members. It is time to let the text of Scripture speak and apply the message only as consistent with the text.

Preachers that maintain a regular expositional ministry need not worry that their congregations are missing needed applications. Working through books of the Bible uncovers ample and timely applications for their congregations. The Sovereign Lord who directs preachers as they plan and prepare their preaching brings about amazingly effective applications. I have lost count on the number of times that a particular need has arisen in the congregation, and in the course of my regular expositional ministry, without resorting to picking a special text, the sermon's applications would be precisely what individuals or the whole congregation needed at just the right time. Remember that the word we preach is "living and active" (Hebrews 4:12).

As a rule, every sermon should contain explanation, illustration and application. That pattern will serve well both preacher and congregation. In making application throughout the sermon, the preacher should utilize numerous approaches. Stuart Olyott identifies five of these in the preaching of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.[12] First, offer clear statements that by their language call attention to application. For instance, the Beatitudes are simply statements--but what statements! "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Immediately, the hearer begins to ask himself, 'Am I poor in spirit?' "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." 'Do I mourn over my sin?' "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." 'Do I really hunger and thirst for righteousness or is my desire centered on selfish pursuits?' Forceful, powerful, concise, and penetrating statements make the necessary point (Matthew 5:3-12).

Second, make use of imperatives. The simple command calls for action based on the doctrine taught and illustrated. For instance, Jesus explains, "You are the light of the world." He illustrates, "A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house." Then He applies with an imperative: "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16).

Third, utilize questions to stir appropriate inspection and action in response to the doctrine. Jesus taught, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven." His application came in the form of four questions that probe the heart and motivate to action. "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" (Matthew 5:43-47)

Fourth, give the congregation specific scenarios. Paint scenes for them so that in viewing the verbal snapshot they see specific actions they must take. A good example is the scenario of one dropping off his offering at the altar. "Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you," grips our attention. We can see ourselves casually presenting our gift and thinking well of ourselves for doing so, when suddenly we hear the words of Christ, "and there remember that your brother has something against you." He then instructs as a follow up to the scenario: "leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering" (Matthew 5:23-24).

When preaching on forgiveness, I have told the story that I experienced in my first pastorate. With only forty people in the church, one would think that there would be no problem knowing details of everyone in attendance! However, I had pastored that church for a year when I found out that two ladies in the church were sisters. Here's the story: they were sisters that had not spoken to each other in many years. Though they passed by one another each Sunday--both faithfully attended--they would not speak. It all arose over a silly incident in which one sister offended the other. The one offended refused to forgive even though the other had apologized. It was not until she faced death that she finally reconciled with her sister. I still remember preaching on forgiveness from Matthew 18:21-35 prior to the sisters' reconciliation. As the offended sister walked out the door, she shook my hand and commented, "I enjoyed that, preacher." I can tell that story and then make a simple statement of application: don't wait until you are on your deathbed to try to reconcile with those whom you have not forgiven.

Finally, application can be made through picture language. Think of how Jesus made application concerning His warning against judging others. "Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold the log is in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:1-5). Can you hear that pictorial language and not pause to consider how you have offended your brother by judging him?

Both of the major presidential candidates in the 2008 election have said of the other candidate, "He just doesn't get it." The jab refers to disconnect on the part of the rival. Perhaps we can rephrase this just a bit and ask ourselves the question concerning our preaching and the congregation's response. "Does the congregation get it?" You have preached a particular text by explaining, illustrating and applying it. But has the sermon fallen on deaf ears? Did they get it? Did the application hit the intended mark? Or maybe the church asks the question of the preacher as they struggle with their spiritual needs, wondering if God's Word that he preaches has anything to say to them. "Does he get it?"

I leave you with that question because that is precisely what each of us must wrestle with when we step from the pulpit after expounding God's Word. Only the Holy Spirit can drive the preached Word home to the heart as needed. Yet that is never a theological excuse for poorly applying the text. We are to be diligent in studying the text and "accurately handling the word of truth" because it is "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17).n


Notes:

1 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), 271-272.

2 Ibid., 273.

3 Philip E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), 35. As an example to this theme, see my sermons on the Epistle to the Hebrews at http://www.southwoodsbc.org/resources/sermons/hebrewsindex.html.

4 Lloyd-Jones, 97.

5 Read the entire sermon at http://www.southwoodsbc.org/sermons/romans_04.01-03.html.

6 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1990, reprint of 1881), vol. 2, 40.

7 Ibid., 41-42.

8 Ibid., 43.

9 Ibid., 48.

10 Thabiti M. Anyabwile, The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 44.

11 Stuart Olyott, Ministering Like the Master: Three Messages for Today's Preachers (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), 46.

12 Ibid., 21-23. Though a small book, I found Pastor Olyott's insights worth their weight in gold.

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