Pattern for Preaching

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Timothy 1:13-14)

Paul has established a “pattern of sound teaching” for Timothy to follow. Since this pattern is authoritative because it came from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what we can say regarding it also applies to the teachings of the prophets and of the other apostles, since they also taught by divine inspiration.

The Bible provides a pattern or standard of sound teaching. It tells all believers and especially ministers to preach the word. By definition, the preaching of the Scripture is distinguished from the Scripture itself. Therefore, to preach the message of the Bible is not the same as to quote from the Bible, and to preach a sermon is not just to read the Bible to an audience. A sermon is not an arrangement of quotations from Scripture; rather, the preacher produces the message on the basis of what he has learned from Scripture. Faithful communication of the gospel does not consist of a verbatim repetition of the Bible, for if that were the case, even ordinary conversations about the things of God would be eliminated.

The biblical idea of preaching leaves some freedom for variation in terms of expression, emphasis, and the like. There is no biblical basis to make the so-called expository method of preaching a prescription for what a sermon should be, although it represents what a sermon could be, precisely due to the freedom that Scripture allows in this area. All the attempts at making a biblical case for the expository method that I have examined infer much more from the texts of Scripture than what they say.

Moreover, along with these attempts, one reason given for why this method is preferred is that it is the best way to remain faithful to Scripture in our preaching. This is fine as an opinion, and it is indeed one way to remain faithful to Scripture. However, if to use the expository method becomes a rule as to what a sermon must be, and that other forms are either inferior or even wrong, then this preference for the expository method has become an unbiblical human tradition. The Pharisees also added human rules to the word of God and alleged that they were helpful or even necessary, but Jesus said they had the opposite effect. Granted, some sermon forms are indeed inferior and wrong, but they fall by their own faults, and not because they are different from the expository method.

Other reasons have been advanced to commend the expository method. For example, it is said that expository sermons, and especially expositions of entire biblical books, directly exposes the listeners to whole passages of Scripture in the proper context, and thus increases their familiarity with the Bible, and enables them to know and grasp it for themselves. This is a practical benefit, and the preacher might prefer the method because of it. However, it still does not require him to use the method. It is indeed the preacher’s responsibility to increase familiarity with Scripture in his listeners, but nothing in the Scripture itself requires him to do it this way.

The preacher must not come under bondage to the opinions and the traditions of men, no matter how well-intentioned they are. If he uses the expository method, it is because he prefers it for his own reasons and based on his own judgment in thinking that he can fulfill his ministry better with it, and not because he is pressured into it. And if he cannot follow or discover a method that is suitable to him and that follows the pattern of sound teaching, then he should not be a preacher in the first place.

Thus the Bible provides a pattern or standard of sound teaching, and this leaves room for some freedom for variation in method and expression. That said, the pattern is much more than an outline. It is much more than a skeleton – the details have been filled out. It is a highly developed pattern and a fully sufficient standard. Therefore, although it permits a measure of fluidity in presentation, and although it is adaptable to all kinds of conversations, there is no room for variation, addition, or subtraction in substance. That is, to follow the biblical pattern of sound teaching is to conform exactly to its ideas. There is flexibility only in presentation.

To illustrate, Peter said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). We can communicate this idea by citing the verse, but it is also acceptable to say, “The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.” And we remain faithful to the pattern that this verse has established when we assert, “Muhammad cannot save you. Buddha cannot save you. Mary cannot save you. Only Jesus Christ can save you from everlasting condemnation.” These statements are not found anywhere in Scripture, but they conform to the exact ideas of Scripture, and they do not add to or subtract from the substance of what Scripture teaches.

Since preaching entails our own expression of biblical ideas, it is all the more important that we learn these ideas with precision, and that we care to preserve them and to promote them without contamination, guarding them with zealous vigilance. If preaching is mere reading from the Bible or if it involves only rigid exegesis, then even non-Christians can do it. What the Bible says about the qualifications of the minister would then make no sense. However, the quality of preaching indeed depends on the quality of the preacher, and this is true because to preach the gospel is not just to read the Bible, but to digest its ideas and then convey and apply them in a manner that is shaped by the preacher’s own background, personality, competence, as well as the audience and the situation that he addresses. In preaching, the Scripture is not simply read, but it is “handled” (2 Timothy 2:15). Its ideas are processed, arranged, rephrased, and applied by the preacher. And this is why the preacher must constantly purify himself and strive for growth.

Some instructions on homiletics suggest that the best preaching occurs when the minister gets out of the way as much as possible and allows the Bible to “speak for itself.” The expository method is then recommended. But the best way to achieve this effect is to have the minister read the Bible to his audience without any comment. This, however, is reading and not preaching. The Bible commands us to preach. The minister must make decisive contributions to the form and content of his sermon. To preach is not to get out of the way, but to be very much in it.

In this sense, to preach is not to let the Bible speak for itself, but to speak for it. Many Christians are uncomfortable with this, but to the extent that our definition of preaching weakens the human role, to that extent it also destroys preaching itself, and also reduces our responsibility in the matter. Perhaps this is why so many people favor such a definition in the name of allowing the Bible to speak for itself: it makes us feel like champions of orthodoxy without having to assume the responsibility.