On what basis do you preach? Why preach at all? What’s the goal? The purpose? I know, we’ve all got our stock seminary answers, but when it’s just you – alone with your Heavenly Father – why do you preach? When we one day stand before God and He judges our works, what will our answer be when He asks us, “Why did you preach?”
I love to preach. I believe it is what I was born to do. I’m not as good at it as many of my peers, but I do love to break open the Word and teach people. I love to study preachers. Some preachers inspire me to be a greater expositor of the Word. They drive me to learn the little nuances of words and phrases. They teach me in word pictures from the Hebrew and Greek. They challenge me to dig a little deeper. I learn from watching and listening to other preachers. Right now I have over 5,000 podcasts on iTunes and over 6,000 tapes and CDs of preaching. I love to listen to preaching when I’m driving. I also need it for my personal edification. The man who only listens to himself is never learning.
There are many great expositors in Christian history. There are countless preachers who have stayed true to the text, never chased tangents, and challenged the body of Christ to live out the truth of God’s Word. For me, personally, the best expositor of the 20th century was Ron Dunn. Not just because he was my friend and mentor, but because he could squeeze so much life out of a passage of Scripture. This is one reason we are starting to add Ron’s exegesis, which has never been in print form, to his website as a resource for pastors, seminary students, teachers, and lay leaders for generations to come. If you check out his website or read his biography, you’ll see what I’m talking about.
I love reading old preachers and old commentaries. Those men took the time to dig in the Word. I have hundreds of old sermon books, many published in England in the golden years of preaching. These men weren’t distracted by Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, and the hectic pace of 21st-century life. The majority of the books I purchase these days are old commentaries and sermon books. I glean from people who, although they are dead, still speak.
I read other authors because of their ability to illustrate a truth. Kent Hughes’ commentaries and Max Lucado’s books are excellent examples of men who know how to find the appropriate illustration. I love listening to and reading David Jeremiah and Chuck Swindoll. They are biblical and practical. I have shelves of illustration and quote books and should use them more than I do. That’s a weakness in my preaching—using enough illustrations to back up my point. But I’m also reminded of what Vance Havner told me: “Illustrations are like windows and no one should live in a glass house.” Too many sermons today are one illustration after another and not much Bible.
As I was talking to my research assistant last week, we discussed how Ron Dunn said much of his preaching was “in self-defense.” Ron lived with great personal pain and depression for much of his later years. His sermons reached into the hearts of people because they had already been through the filter of his own heart and life. He wasn’t preaching theory; he was preaching truth lived out in his own life. We all identified with him because he was a hero, yet also a fragile, clay pot. The fact that he found answers and hope gave many others hope.
Ron preached in pain. Personal pain. Emotional pain. Physical pain. But through the pain, there was evidence of great power. It was in the way he turned a phrase, in his voice inflections. He knew how to keep your attention. Those of us who knew Ron knew what he meant by preaching in self-defense. Finding God in the storms, when God was silent, when faith was tested – these were all worked out in Ron’s private study of the Word and through his sermons.
Then the thought hit me: some preach out of self-defense and others out of self-denial. God forbid that we as preachers come across as men who have “arrived.” God forbid that we would give the impression that we’ve got it all figured out, while leaving little room for mystery or doubt. Heaven forbid that we would appear to have an answer to every question, every mystery, every grey area of life.
To me, self-denial preaching is giving any appearance that you are anything more than frail flesh, totally dependent on the Holy Spirit. When the preacher starts believing his press releases, his book sales numbers, his podcast downloads, the number of invitations to speak before hundreds or even thousands, he is in danger of self-denial. He’s not living in the real world. He’s forgotten that no matter how “big” he is, there are 7 billion people on this planet that don’t know or even care that he is breathing.
None of us are as good as our resume might seem to indicate. None of us are experts on every subject. Most of the sermons I hear on prophecy are probably being edited in heaven as we speak. Some folks speak with more authority on the subject than they should. There’s much we do not know about the end times. We know just enough to know we shouldn’t be caught off guard, we should live expectantly, and we should be motivated to reach out to the lost. Outside of that, the subject can be confusing. But, then again, most preachers can’t be honest enough to say, “I don’t know” so their preaching becomes an exploration in self-denial.