What is preaching?
Every pastor should be able to answer that question. Unfortunately, we often lose sight of the answer. With the pressing burdens of church administration, the bewildering variety of high-profile preachers, and countless resources available to him, a pastor may find himself asking, “Now what was I trying to do?” only after he has delivered his sermon.
Such a failure to understand his task is a tragedy for both preacher and hearers.
To stave off such a tragedy, I keep this simple definition before me as I prepare to preach:
To preach is to unfold the meaning of a Scriptural text or theme to people so that they experience God’s voice calling them to respond in faith and repentance.
The benefit of keeping such a definition before me made me interested in going back to some of my favorite authors on preaching to see how they defined it. Here are seven.
- J. I. Packer, “Why Preach” in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art
Packer defines preaching as “verbal communication of which the following things are true”:
1. Its content is God’s message to man, presented as such. 2. Its purpose is to inform, persuade, and call forth an appropriate response to the God whose message and instruction are being delivered. 3. Its perspective is always applicatory. 4. It is authoritative. 5. It mediates God’s presence and power.
Packer then gives this summary: “Preaching is an activity for which, and in which, the awareness of God’s powerful presence must be sought, and with which neither speaker nor hearers may allow themselves to be content with this awareness is lacking.”
2. John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today
Stott provides several biblical metaphors: town crier or herald (1 Corinthians 1:23), sower (Matthew 13:3), ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), steward (1 Corinthians 4:1), shepherd (Acts 20:28), and workman (2 Timothy 2:15). He then suggests a further metaphor—that of bridge-building: “It is because preaching is not exposition only but communication, not just the exegesis of a text but the conveying of a God-given message to living people who need to hear it, that I am going to develop a different metaphor to illustrate the essential nature of preaching. . . . The metaphor is that of bridge-building.”
A more succinct statement is found in “A Definition of Biblical Preaching” in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching by Robinson and Larson. “To preach,” Stott writes, “is to open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.”
3. Jason Meyer, Preaching: A Biblical Theology.
“My thesis is that the ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word.”
4. Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.
I couldn’t find a concise definition of preaching in this excellent book, but Keller does provide a fine description of the task of preaching: “It is ‘proclaim[ing] . . . the testimony of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:1)—preaching biblically, engaging with the authoritative text. This means preaching the Word and not your opinion. When we preach the Scriptures we are speaking ‘the very words of God (1 Peter 4:11). You need to make clear the meaning of the text in its context—both in its historical time and within the whole of Scripture. This task of serving the Word is exposition. . . .
It is also proclaiming to ‘both Jews and Greeks’ (1 Corinthians 1:24)—preaching compellingly, engaging the culture, and touching hearts. This means not merely informing the mind but also capturing the hearer’s interest and imagination and persuading her toward repentance and action. . . . [A good sermon] must build on Bible exposition, for people have not understood a text unless they see how it bears on their lives.”
5. John Piper, Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship
Piper offers a definition of preaching in response to a question about corporate worship: “If it is beautifully fitting that Christians gather regularly for corporate worship, what is it about preaching that makes it so important for that gathering? My answer is that preaching itself is worship and is appointed by God to awaken and intensify worship. It does this by heralding the reality communicated through the words of Scripture, which was written to create and sustain worship. To say it another way, the preacher simultaneously explains the meaning of Scripture and exults over the God-glorifying reality in it. Exultation without explanation is not preaching. Explanation without exultation is not preaching. Therefore, preaching—expository exultation—is peculiarly suited for Christian corporate worship, for worship means knowing, treasuring, and showing the supreme worth and beauty of God. Preaching helps people do this by doing it. Preaching shows God’s supreme worth by making the meaning of Scripture known and by simultaneously treasuring and expressing the glories of God revealed in that biblical meaning.”
6. Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages
“Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”
7. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers.
This is not exactly a definition either. It is more like exclamations about preaching that gets to the heart of what it is. Regardless, it has deservedly become a classic statement on the subject:
“What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! . . . Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. . . . What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this. It is to give men and women a sense of God and his presence. . . . I can forgive a preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he give me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is very inadequate in himself, he is handling something which is very great and glorious, if he give me some dim glimpse of the majesty and glory of God, the love of Christ my Savior, and the magnificence of the Gospel. If he does that I am his debtor, and I am profoundly grateful to him. Preaching is the most amazing, and the most thrilling activity that one can ever be engaged in, because of all that it holds out for all of us in the present, and because of the glorious endless possibilities in an eternal future.”