Many preachers are dissatisfied with their preaching. Although they labor to faithfully preach the gospel every Sunday, they still desire to grow and develop in order to become even better communicators of God’s Word. I feel this homiletical discontentment myself. In an effort to improve, I try to listen to good preaching, read old sermons, and devour as many books on preaching as I can. I recently picked up by J. Josh Smith’s new book entitled Preaching for a Verdict: Recovering the Role of Exhortation to pillage for preaching wisdom, and I was not disappointed. If you preach regularly, you should read this book. Here are four reasons why:
“Naming” the Neglect of Exhortation
First, Smith pointed out the all-too-common tendency to neglect exhortation when discussing preaching. He surveyed the most influential preaching textbooks of the past twenty-five years and demonstrated the role of exhortation in preaching has been largely overlooked. He argued this neglect is relatively recent, as exhortation has played a major role in preaching historically. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Puritans, Edwards, and Spurgeon all exhorted their listeners to obey the text. The book was written to name this neglect and promote a revival of exhortation. Preachers often seem hesitant to appeal to the will directly, but Smith presses those who communicate God’s Word to view exhortation as a major component of preaching. “The call to exhort,” wrote Smith, “is the call to speak to the will of the hearer, not just to inform the mind of the hearer. It is pleading, persuading, and strongly urging the hearer to respond in obedience to the Word of God. It moves beyond suggested application into a definitive call to respond” (5). Rather than simply appealing to the mind, pastors must also appeal to the will and call for a response. Smith helps remind us that preaching must address the head and the heart, and this reminder is a needed one.
Developing a Biblical-Theological Foundation for Exhortation
Second, Smith provided a theological and biblical foundation for text-driven exhortation. Theologically, exhortation is grounded in divine revelation. God has spoken, and His word is inspired, authoritative, sufficient, and powerful. Furthermore, God’s speech is purposeful. He has spoken to reveal Himself to mankind, to establish a relationship with mankind, to sanctify mankind, and to engender an obedient response. The faithful preacher recognizes both of these truths, and not only speaks the Word of God; he also seeks to accomplish the purpose of God by calling for the response demanded by the biblical text. Biblically, exhortation is grounded in verbal forms and specific biblical texts. First, many passages contain verbal forms that call for a response. In Hebrew, volitional verbs “show the hortatory force of the text,” as do certain “participles, negative commands, indirect volitives, and infinite absolutes” (38). In Greek, imperatives function as commands that require a response, as do many subjunctives. Even where the verbal form does not explicitly call for action, Smith argued the divine intent of the text calls for exhortation. Second, numerous biblical texts talk about the importance of exhortation in preaching (Luke 3:18; Acts 2:40; Acts 11:23; 1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:2; Titus 2:15). Each of those texts highlights the importance of exhortation as it relates to preaching. Therefore, preachers who exhort their listeners to respond to the biblical text have a biblical and theological rationale for doing so.
Learning How to Exhort
Third, Smith provided instructions to help preachers learn to exhort. The following four steps comprised Smith’s process: (1) Find the Point of the Text, (2) Find the Voice of the Text, (3) Find the Call of the Text, and (4) Clarify the Exhortation in the Text. First, Smith encouraged preachers to identify the point of the text. He humorously remarked, “The only thing worse than a preacher who does exposition without exhortation is a preacher who does exhortation without exposition” (97). Preachers cannot exhort their listeners to obey the text if they do not know what the text is about! Second, Smith challenged preachers to find the voice of the text. The tone of the sermon should match the tone of the biblical text. Preachers should exhort their listeners in the same way the Scripture does. Third, Smith encouraged preachers to find the call of the text. In other words, what does the text under consideration demand of the reader? The call in the sermon should be derived from the call of the text. Finally, Smith instructed preachers to clarify the exhortation in the text. Once the point, voice, and call of the text are discerned, “the only thing left is to speak with a Spirit-filled, Christ-exalting, and authoritative voice of God exhorting them to respond” (106). These four steps listed will aid every preacher who wants to exhort their listeners to respond in obedience to the demands of the biblical text and are worth the price of the book by themselves.
Seeing Examples of Exhortation
Fourth, Smith provided examples of exhortation in actual sermons. Smith is not simply an instructor; he is a practitioner. The seventh chapter contained real examples of exhortation in sermons from every major biblical genre (Old Testament Law, Old Testament Narrative, Psalms, Wisdom Literature, the Prophets, the Gospels, and the Epistles). The models Smith provided move the discussion of exhortation from the abstract to the concrete. For readers who need to visualize something in order to comprehend it, this chapter is a gold mine. In order to develop sermons like Smith’s that effectively exhort, three ingredients are necessary: diligence in the study, empowerment by the Holy Spirit, and delivery with authority (145-156). If preachers will learn from Smith’s examples, study the biblical text with diligence, rely on the Holy Spirit in the study and in the pulpit, and deliver their sermons with authority, their preaching will faithfully and powerfully exhort those listening and demand a response from them.
Few books even mention exhortation. J. Josh Smith devoted an entire book to the subject. As one of the only books exclusively devoted to the subject, Preaching for a Verdict is the go-to book for understanding and appreciating the role of exhortation in preaching. So, pick up a copy, read it, apply its principles, and start preaching for a verdict.
Editor’s Note: Preaching For A Verdict is available for purchase here.