Therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. (Gen 3:23)
It’s astounding the impact these words have on the relationship of humanity to their Creator and the world He created. However, it is the pastor that has a significant duty to help humanity thrive in a proper understanding of the reality we live in. Pastors have the humbling task to walk day and night during the joyful highs such as weddings, births, conversions within the local church. Yet this task also comes with the sorrowful moments with people such as walking with couples through the struggles and strife in marriage, being there for families following the loss of loved ones of all ages—even the unborn—and being there in the midst of community disasters some—natural but some man-made. The pastor has the calling to be present and available for the local community in all these moments and more. Yet in each of these occurrences, people are seeking understanding in the world they live in. Yes, these moments transpire outside the pulpit, but it is in the pulpit all around the world that a preacher opens the Word of God to speak on behalf of the Lord to share His truth for His creation. The pastor is the Theologian-in-Residence within the local body of believers. The task of preaching is fundamentally a theological task for with each sermon the local community should draw us closer in an understanding of God that should lead to action that reflects God.
Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Tim 4:2–5)
Throughout history, all the great preachers have been devoted to the task of theology within the local body of the church. This includes men such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Anselm, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, John Calvin, Richard Baxter, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John Stott. The pulpit has traditionally been the gathering-point where the preacher would strengthen the local community in their theological understanding of their relationship to God and each other. This should be carried out in the following manner.
Preach Under the Authority of the Word
It is the Word of God that has the authority, not the preacher—or anyone else for that matter. This means our study and our sermon should reflect who we give authority to. Are we carefully contemplating the theological conclusions of what we are preaching about in the text? Are we studying the history and current work related to the text we are preaching? Are we seeking how this text relates to the rest of the canon? These are questions we must think through before we ever enter the pulpit. If we desire and truly believe that the Word of God is inspired by God for His people, then we must treat it as sacred and seek theological devotion to our preparation and delivery. What we believe about God guides how we live, and this carries into our preaching. What we proclaim about God impacts how the community lives for God.
Know People: In Community
This might sound like an oversimplification to “know people,” but part of pastoring is caring for the community that you have been entrusted to. This means preaching to both genders and all ages, races, regions, and economic backgrounds. This means thinking through who we are preaching to. This essentially means preaching to where the congregation is rather than where you are. What questions are people battling with? Do the text and the theology speak to any of those questions? Brothers, we must seek to know people and help speak truth where truth is lacking. Ever since the fall, humanity has been wrestling with their relationship to their Creator and the world they live in. We must teach from the Word of God and His authority on what does it mean to be a biblical man or woman or on marriage, race, and the sanctity of human life. This does not need to be a political speech but rather proclamation of the truth of scripture. Our understanding of our God and His Word should cultivate a behavior in us that reflects His holy character. If we want to see a change in the communities around us, we must preach with true passion and conviction for God’s Holy Word in such a way that grows the people in the pew. In a fallen world, we all carry weight or burdens with us. Do we as preachers think through those burdens before we preach? If not, we must!
Know People: Spiritually
We must also think through where people are spiritually. It should be assumed in every sermon that someone out there is lost. It doesn’t matter the age or the occasion we should never waste the opportunity to declare the theological truths of the Gospel to the community before us. It should also be assumed not everyone knows Greek, Hebrew, or even English in the congregation. This means we seek clarity with each sentence we preach. Clarity is different than shallow. Imagine a pool of water. Each week we get into the waters with our people. When you look at the pool it doesn’t matter if its 3ft or 6ft, you can typically see the floor if the water is clear. We want to help during our ministry to take the church deeper into the waters of the text. This may mean you have to teach biblical words such as sin, atonement, lost, or even gospel. This means we can’t assume the average person understands God as Creator, let alone as Savior. We should never assume we know the spiritual maturity of the community.
Both the Word we preach and the people we preach to demand to have preaching that is theological. You may not be a theologian who will write commentaries or theological treatises that will be studied for centuries to come, but if God has given you a pulpit you are responsible for the theological truths on which you are proclaiming and defending. Let us not waste our opportunities to be a light in the darkness of this world!
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom 10:14–15)
Jim DiLavore is the Research Assistant for the Dean of the School of Preaching and Coordinator for the Center for Text Driven Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.