Note: this post was cross-posted to Ardent Fidelity, my personal theology blog.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones once famously defined preaching as “logic on fire.” I am afraid that in most churches, the preaching is more like logic in tepid bathwater, or emotional claptrap on fire. Neither is particularly helpful.
In the church circles I frequent, preachers have the logic part down. I might have a quibble here or there with an interpretive point, but these are quibbles and matters of personal taste. These pastors recognize the importance of truth and labor to communicate that truth to the congregation. Praise God for pastors who care that their congregations apprehend the truths of Scripture, and who care that the men and women in the seats walk away with some idea of how to put God’s commands into practice.
In my experience, though, the other half of Lloyd-Jones’ equation often goes missing. We have humor in spades and interesting anecdotes in surplus. That is, on the whole, a good thing: boring sermons are an offense to the hearer. But where is the fire? Where is the passion, the sense of urgency, the fervency of the preacher’s declarations and appeals?
One might suppose that a preacher’s task is primarily to deliver information; this is true, but woefully incomplete. A lecture, like a sermon, is designed to deliver information, perhaps even to inspire an audience to commit to some change. A sermon, however, is not merely a lecture; it includes the delivery of information with the aim of changing the hearer, and it is an act of corporate worship in which the audience should participate. Because a sermon is an act of corporate worship, we must go beyond mere information delivery.
Most sermons in evangelical church culture are structured in terms of explanation and application; this is as it should be. Unfortunately, most sermons in our church culture never get beyond explanation and application – this is not as it should be.
Where we often settle for explanation – simply stating what the text says and means – we need exultation. We need pastors who revel in the truth revealed by Scripture, who savor the profound realities of our salvation, who visibly delight in our great God and Savior. Explanation is necessary; but exultation subsumes it and directs both preaching and listening into acts of worship. When the pastor worships as he explains, the congregation learns to worship – and worships right along with him. Exultation requires that he not only understand the passage he is preaching, but also feel the weight of the glory of God. I don’t mean some faux emotionalism, but a passion for God that comes from meditating on him as revelead in the scriptures.
Likewise, we settle for mere application when we need exhortation. Again: we need to hear how that truth is applicable to the Christian’s life. However, there is a world of difference between the bare statement of fact and a heartfelt exhortation. Mere application contents itself with, “So, we see that the Christian life looks like this. Let’s all think about how we might grow in that this week.” Exhortation, by contrast, reaches out and grabs the listener with the force of the pastor’s sense that his congregation needs this truth. “Christian!” cries this pastor, “you must believe this every day! You must shape your life like this – the work and the very nature of God demand it of us.” The source of this urgency is twofold: meditation on God himself, and close relationships with the people of the church. No pastor can emphasize his congregation’s needs when he hardly knows his people.
You know a sermon that exults and exhorts when you hear it. Every pastor’s delivery will be different, of course. Exultation and exhortation are not a matter of style – as though a particular approach to public speaking were the issue. But there will be a common thread, a sense that the pastor feels this truth in his bones and that he knows you need to feel the truth as profoundly as he does. As a modern example, compare the preaching of John Piper, Matt Chandler, and David Platt. These men could hardly be more different in style, in tone, in delivery – but in each of them you can hear their passion for God and their urgent desire to stir up their congregations. Style matters little; firebrand preaching requires his veins to pump with urgency for his people and delight in God.
The sermon is more than a lecture; we need more than information. We need explanation and application, yes, but we need them transformed by holy delight and pastoral concern. We need to be challenged and encouraged, and we need to be led to worship together. We need exhortation and exultation. We need fire.