In recent years, the phrase, “text-driven preaching” has appeared on the landscape of homiletical studies. One might wonder why such a designation is necessary. After all, he might muse, isn’t the term ”expository” simply a synonym for “text-driven?” I would answer that, while this might have been the case in the past, it is no longer an accurate assessment. Sadly, the term “expository” is now associated with any sermon that is remotely connected to a biblical text. For this reason and others, the “text-driven” designation is entirely necessary and helpful in any discussion of the practice of preaching.
Having addressed the legitimacy of its terminology, let me quickly shift gears in order to address the unique and inherent power of text-driven sermons. Why do they have power? Consider the following observations:
Text-Driven sermons accentuate the primary role of the text.
By definition, text-driven means that the text governs the substance, structure, and spirit of a sermon. The objective is to “carve” as close to the text as possible. This is the “safe” place for every preacher and protects him from manifold homiletical dangers, including the tendency to read into the text what is not present in it. A.T. Robertson, the famous Greek professor, once warned his students, “Never get out of a text what was never in it.”Everett Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 187. In a similar vein, the evangelical Charles Simeon wrote, “I don’t sit down to peruse Scripture in order to impose a sense on the inspired writers; but to receive one, as they give it…Let the text speak and let the preacher be its mouthpiece.”Charles Simeon, Memoirs of the Life of the Rev. Charles Simeon. Edited by William Carus. (London: J. Hatchard and Son, 1848), 472. In short, the preacher’s objective must be to, as my colleague Kyle Walker says, “Let the text talk.” This is of utmost importance simply because the preacher has no authority of his own. His only authority is derived and it is located squarely in the biblical text.
Text-Driven sermons articulate the sufficiency of Scripture.
While I am not an enemy of the topical sermon and acknowledge that it has a place in the preaching pantheon, I am convinced it should not be the bread and butter of the preacher’s sermon offerings. I say this because I believe that the text-driven sermon best articulates and expresses the sufficiency of God’s word. Frankly, some preachers serve up a steady diet of topical sermons to their people because their preparation is less demanding in terms of diligent study and time. Others follow this path because, in their quest to draw a crowd, they default to edgy, flashy topics and extended entertaining anecdotes. A lack of focus on the text may indicate a lagging confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. It seems that in Southern Baptist life, we have settled the issue of the inerrancy of Scripture. This orthodoxy needs to be fleshed out with an orthopraxy that takes the text seriously and lets it drive the sermons we preach.
Text-Driven sermons endow the preacher with supernatural authority.
If our authority comes from the text which the Holy Spirit inspired, then our passion must be to grasp its meaning and convey it accurately. This is where the hard work of treating matters of history, context, grammar, and authorial intent comes into the preaching picture. If we fail to get the meaning of the text “right,” everything else in the sermon will be affected. That is to say, skewed exegesis leads to illustrations that do not illuminate and applications that are unauthorized! This is why I tell my students that the explanation of the text is the engine in the vehicle of text-driven preaching. Or, to put it another way, when the text drives, the sermon arrives. If we get the text “right,” then the rest of the elements can soar with effectiveness. Last year, one of our doctoral students reminded me of this truth when he said, “Good meat makes its own gravy.” Those preachers who long for the Spirit’s “anointing” or “unction” on their preaching would do well to understand that such blessings are facilitated by a laser-focus on the text which He inspired.
Text-Driven sermons honor the Lord because they reflect dependence on Him.
When the preacher prays over the text and lets it grip him, then he can move forward in diligent, time-consuming preparation. Depending on the text is depending on the Lord. And the Lord likes for us to depend on Him! Recently, I came across an interesting verse while reading in 1 Samuel. 1 Samuel 3:19 reads: “And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” Looking at the context surrounding this verse, I noticed that 1 Samuel 3 begins and concludes with a reference to revelation from God, the “word of the LORD.” As God’s spokesman, Samuel’s words were connected to God’s word. The same should be true of preachers today. This doesn’t mean the response to our words will be met with massive visible responses and praises from the people who hear them. In fact, we see in Scripture that the exact opposite is sometimes the case. What it does mean is that, when our words are linked to and dependent on God’s words, they will accomplish all that God has purposed for them. In God’s economy, they will not return void or fall to the ground. In the end, nothing matters more than what God thinks. He has told us what he thinks in the biblical text. Preach it!
Matthew McKellar is Associate Professor of Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.