Contrary to popular wisdom, good preaching has little to do with eloquence, fashion, or the length of a sermon. Good preaching is all about content and posture. By content, I mean, "What is the message about?" and by posture I mean, "How is it about it?" Film critic Roger Ebert has said that a movie is not what it is about but how it is about it. In other words, what makes a movie bad or good is not mainly what it's about but how it presents its content.
Similarly, a preacher can preach on nearly any subject found in the Scriptures so long as he does so in a Scriptural posture. Good preaching goes with the grain of the Bible. So we are not flippant where the Bible is not flippant. We are not angry where the Bible is not angry. We smile where the Bible smiles, and we yell where the Bible yells. (Some preachers only preach smiling sermons or angry sermons, which shows they aren't really preaching the Scriptures faithfully.) Good preaching is dependent on content (the Scripture's words) and posture (in their Scriptural sense). That is what good preaching is.
But what is preaching itself?
Lots of theologians and ministers define preaching in different ways, but I tend to think that preaching is proclamation that exults in the exposing of God's glory.
Preaching can employ instances of conversation and laid-back chit-chat but preaching cannot be typified by conversation and chit-chat because it is first and foremost declarative. The Bible does not come with fill-in-the-blanks. It isn't MadLibs. Preaching in essence declares, "Thus saith the Lord." Because the gospel is good news, not good advice, we come proclaiming "It is finished," not "Get to work." Because the gospel is a God-authored story, we come proclaiming his wisdom revealed in Christ, not our wisdom revealed in fortune-cookie bon mots. With our sermons we are meant to be delivering what we've received, not what we've created.
The soundest and safest Christian reflection consists in "what you have received, not what you have thought up; a matter not of ingenuity, but of doctrine; not of private acquisition, but of public Tradition; a matter brought to you, not put forth by you, in which you must not be the author but the guardian, not the founder but the sharer, not the leader, but the follower." (Vincent of Lerins)
Preachers approach God's word as its recipient, its servant, and its deliverer, not its author, manager, or marketer. Because our triune God is holy, infinite, almighty, and wise, we preach like he is. Preaching assumes authority, from God and from his infallible word. So then we don't preach like so many ninnies as if every sentence ends with a question mark. And we preach like we're at a pulpit even when we're at a music stand or plexiglass lectern. These words from Lloyd-Jones offer powerful wisdom:
God is not a subject for debate, because He is Who He is and What He is. We are told that the unbeliever, of course, does not agree with that; and this perfectly true; but that makes no difference. We believe it, and it is part of our very case to assert it. Holding the view that we do, believing what we do about God, we cannot in any circumstances allow Him to become a subject for discussion or of debate or investigation. I base my argument at this point on the word addressed by God Himself to Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:1-6). Moses had suddenly seen this remarkable phenomenon of the burning bush, and was proposing to turn aside and to examine this astonishing phenomenon. But, immediately, he is rebuked by the voice which came to him saying, "Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." That seems to me to be the governing principle in this whole matter. Our attitude is more important than anything that we do in detail, and as we are reminded in the Epistle to the Hebrews, God is always to be approached "with reverence and with godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:28 and 29). To me this is a very vital matter. To discuss the being of God in a casual manner, lounging in an armchair, smoking a pipe or a cigarette or a cigar, is to me something that we should never allow, because God, as I say, is not a kind of philosophic X or a concept. We believe in the almighty, the glorious, the living God; and whatever may be true of others we must never put ourselves, or allow ourselves to put, into a position in which we are debating about God as if He were but a philosophical proposition.
I don't believe we ought to forbid talking about God in any position, whether it be from an armchair or from a ditch on the side of the road, but as it pertains to preaching, Lloyd-Jones's point is sound and important. We do not approach preaching casually unless we approach God casually. We can make jokes about ourselves and be self-deprecating when we preach, because we do not "preach ourselves." In the preaching ministry, we take ourselves lightly and the word of God heavily. We preach the terrors of God's wrath as if they are terrifying, we preach the joys of God's salvation as if they are joyful. We preach hell in serious, sober ways, neither being glib about it nor speaking as if it is the only word. And we preach the gospel in declarative ways, bold and certain and full of Christ's glory.
Preaching is proclamation that exults. As I've said, preaching takes the content of the text and proclaims it according to the posture of the text. Preaching is fundamentally an act of worship. We don't stop worshiping when the music is done. We keep worshipping during the preaching of God's word, and we hope our preacher is worshiping as he's preaching God's word.
Preaching is a kind of singing in itself. Not literally, of course, but in its declaration of God's worth and work, it is a worshipful projection of God's anthem of his own awesomeness. When we preach with exultation, we are out-singing the enemy and giving voice to the wordless groaning and declaration of creation.
Preaching that exults necessarily entails a preacher who understands his sermon text in the spiritual sense. His affections have been charged and shaped by the text. He feels the Scripture he is preaching. In the crucible of his daily life dedicated to the Bible generally and his prayerful, watchful, thoughtful study and preparation in his office specifically, his heart is broken by and filled with the text. This is a Spiritual work, and the preacher has been praying all along that it will happen for him and for his hearers.
He ascends to the pulpit, then, carrying the mantle of God's call and prepared to joyfully work and seriously play, to preach what John Piper calls "gravity and gladness," but not to mess around. He's not throwing things out to see what will stick. He is playing his instrument and launching arrows. Like Nehemiah's men, he is building the wall with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.
The gospel-centered preacher is not blasé or boisterous. He is exultational. If he is impressed with himself, this won't work. But if he is awed by God, he might find the jet-stream of the text and ride it into rapture. The Spirit may grant him unction, but even if the Spirit doesn't, the gospel-centered preacher knows he has not exulted in vain. God's word will have its purposed effect according to the wisdom of God.
"in the exposing"
Preaching is exultational proclamation in a text that is taught. In other words, preaching is not simply reciting the Scriptures with feeling (although it can and should include such work); it also explains the Scriptures. Nehemiah and Ezra's epic project involved providing proclaimers not merely to read the Law, but to teach it. "They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading" (Nehemiah 8:8). Jesus "interpreted" to the disciples in the Scriptures all the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27). He didn't simply recite the Bible; he "gave the sense."
This is what is generally meant by the label "expository preaching" (or "expositional" preaching). Jonathan Leeman explains:
One thing is definitive for an expositional sermon: It lays out the meaning and purpose of a biblical text clearly. It says, "Here is the point of this text, and it's relevant to you, no matter who you are, where you are from, or what's happening in your life right now." The preacher concentrates all his powers on reproducing the burden of the Bible in the hearts and minds of the people, and he avoids letting anything in his person get in the way of that goal.
Expository preaching can involve a variety of means of exposition: message points (with or without alliteration or acronyms, of course), stories and illustrations, and quotes and scholarly interpretations, but it is largely about sticking primarily to the text to reveal what the text says and what the text means. Expository preaching does not have to be rigidly verse-by-verse preaching. In fact, many times verse-by-verse preaching can end up obscuring the meaning of the text, because it may reflect a lack of immediate context or a disconnect from the Bible's larger storyline. So not all expository sermons "give the sense" of the Scriptures, which is the overarching truth that God saves sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Jesus walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he showed them all the things in the Scriptures pertaining to himself. Christ provides a motivational template for Christ-centered preaching. This means it is possible to preach a message from Leviticus in an unchristian way.
What expository preaching aims to do is explicate what the text means, expound on how it applies to the lives of the hearers, and explain its connection to the gospel storyline of the entire Bible.
"of God's glory."
Moses says, "Please show me your glory" (Exodus 33:18). Deep down, this is the cry of every human heart. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says eternity is written there. The gospel of God's glory in Christ must be central in our preaching because nothing else even comes close to filling the eternal gap.
We all agree that fallen man has a "God-shaped hole," but then we go on to suggest all kinds of fillers that are not God—financial success, good sex, promotions at work, healthy relationships, happy spouses and children, community service, outlets for our creativity, etc. All good things but all things you can have and do and still be eternally bankrupt.
Our scale is far too small. The Bible speaks to all manner of good things useful to all men, but the Church is starving (starving!) for the glory of God. We too easily forget that the gospel covers the scale of eternity, that it is the division between real life and death, that God is infinite and our sin is a condemnation-worthy offense against an eternally holy God. We preach and we settle for much less than, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!" (Romans 11:33).
Every week people file into our church services aching for eternity; in our zeal to provide something they may find comfortable and useful and inoffensive, are we offending the God who wishes to offend us in awe of his glory? Are we dismissing our brother Jesus whose formula for victory includes crucifixion?
The scale is enormous, the stakes are high. Instead of spiritually dressing up the idols we know people want, let's give them what they need—God as all in all, the filling of the Spirit, the exaltation of the risen Lord.
"Behold what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called the sons of God!" (1 John 3:1a). That should be the chief service of our worship services—beholding. Behold our glorious God and his lavishing of grace on us in his precious Son. When we "expose" what God's word means, how it applies to our lives, and what it reveals about his saving purposes in Christ, we are showing his glory.
We are aiming for awe of God. Preaching advice is a poor means to that end. We want the Lam to be beheld, so we must hold him up high and long. We proclaim not helpful hints but eternal visions.
We can't do this if we are making the Bible's words serve our words. Biblical preaching trusts that the Bible can be set loose to work its power.
Brothers, isn't it wonderful that we are set free from the tyranny of our good ideas to the power of the Bible's good news?