The word preach can mean many things. Just ask Madonna. But, periodically, it’s helpful to remind ourselves from Scripture what it is as preachers we are called to do.
Some preaching textbooks include “didactic preaching” as a style of preaching and I understand what they mean by that. However, I submit that teaching in the sermon is a matter of content and not style. That’s sort of like saying that coffee should be made from coffee beans or that burgers should include beef (but that’s for another discussion!).
Preaching and teaching are not the same. One includes the other, but not necessarily vice versa. To be sure, preaching is also about communication, passion, persuasion, illustration, and exhortation. But there is no such thing as preaching without teaching. A sermon without sound theological content is merely motivational speaking. Preaching necessarily includes teaching because we are expounding someone else’s content. So, unlike a seminary paper, if you are not plagiarizing the text, you’re not doing it right.
Throughout Scripture, we see the integral connection of preaching and teaching (Matt 9:35; 11:1; Luke 20:1; Acts 4:2; 5:42; 13:1; 15:35; 28:31; Col. 1:28; 1 Tim 5:17; 2 Tim. 4:2). We see it modeled by Christ and exemplified by the Apostles.
Paul explained how this works in Colossians 1:28-29. Here we see the subject, focus, target, goal, and effort of our preaching. Paul begins with the over-arching subject of our preaching (we proclaim Him). Then, he describes two key components of the sermon (warning and teaching), the intended audience of our message (everyman), the goal of our exhortation (maturity in Christ), and the effort required (labor/striving).
Preaching may be more than that, but it must not be less.
First, preaching is the proclamation of Christ. Paul sees this as the preacher’s first responsibility. It is what we are commissioned to do—we proclaim Him. This message we proclaim is the hope of the world (Col 1:5), the essence of our calling (1:22-23), the perspective in our suffering (124), and the responsibility of our commission (1:24-27). Our sermons must not merely be about God’s Word, they must be from His Word. They must not only include the Gospel, they must be the Gospel.
We remind ourselves, correct ourselves, and content ourselves here. We preach Him; not our preferences, not our priorities or our plans, not society’s consensus or political correctness—we preach Him! He’s the subject of our message and the object of our worship. He’s the center of our big idea and the focal point of the application.
Second, preaching includes admonition and instruction. The word Paul uses here for “warning” is where we get our English word “nouthetic.” It is a word often used in counseling. It is sometimes translated, “warning” and other times rendered, “admonition.” It speaks to the heart and addresses how one should respond (Acts 20:31; Rom. 15:14; 1 Cor. 4:14; Col. 3:16; 1 Thes 5:12; 5:14; 2 Thes 3:15).
The other word Paul uses here expresses the idea of instruction. It speaks to the head. Note the clarification here that our teaching is done in all wisdom. That means that our instruction is not merely for informational purposes, but life transformation. We don’t preach the text because the world necessarily agrees with it, but because they need to hear it. To be sure, both admonition and instruction also can be done beyond the sermon, but there seem to be included as integral to it.
Third, preaching must focus on every man. Paul emphasizes this three times: warning every man, teaching every man, and presenting every man complete in Christ. We are not merely called to present some complete in Christ, but all. This is the unique challenge of the Teaching Shepherd (Eph. 4:11). Our warning and teaching must speak to every person in the body (Col. 1:24). They are all our responsibility.
Fourth, preaching contributes to the eschatological goal of presenting every person complete in Christ. Each one is “admonished” and “taught” with the goal that each one might be presented fully mature in Christ. In other words, our work is not done until the work of Christ is completed in them. That’s our goal. It’s the imperative left to us by Christ in the Great Commission—make disciples of all nations. We proclaim him to every man. We admonish and teach them so that we may present them to Him complete in Him.
Fifth, preaching requires our labor and His strength. It is a joint effort. Paul admits that it is labor. But it ultimately it is a labor that only is accomplished by His strength. To be sure, His strength is sufficient; and when matched with our labor and striving has the potential to accomplish the work He intends.
So, when Paul says in Col. 2:1, “I want you to know how greatly I am struggling for you,” he is saying to them, “I’m making every effort through the faithful presentation of the Gospel to present you complete in Christ.”
There were some doing it wrong in Paul’s day (Col. 2:4) as there are in ours. But, we must get it right. So, let’s start here. It’s ok if the world gets it wrong, but it’s not ok if we do. This is what preaching means.
Deron J. Biles is Professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.