Is preaching no longer relevant?
Has it become outdated? Many preachers today are striving to find new and improved methods of sharing God's Word in a manner that keeps today's audience engaged. So what is the best way to get people to listen? Today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg gives practical pointers for talking about the Bible and an easy way to test our effectiveness. One of the things that we're up against at the moment in As Being Preachers is this statement. Preaching doesn't do any good.
Preaching just doesn't do any good. And the notion is that monodirectional communication is able to reinforce attitudes and beliefs presently held that can only very rarely affect change in people's opinions. Now, that is fairly common psychological theory.
The implication, then, is clear. If you want, then, to be able to change people's opinions, then you're going to have to give up on the monologue and move at least to the dialogue, if not produce a talking dog. And if we are prepared to accept that proposition, then we have to admit that both Jesus and the rest of the apostles were involved in a complete faux pas.
Because their responsibility was as heralds, the keruks, a one-way communication. Any kind of dialogue was supplemental to, but did not replace, the actual preaching ministry. Now, the flaw in this kind of thinking is not actually in the psychology of it so much, although we can debate that, as it is in the theology.
And people who argue in this way, and they roam around the country arguing in this way, some have not gone the whole specter, the whole hog, but they're going around telling young guys that they gather together for conferences, that basically you have to think about speaking for maybe 18 or 19 minutes, because the context in which we now live, it is totally impossible for any normal human being to be able to endure anything beyond that. And they give you all these statistics about the USA Today newspaper and the average teenager, et cetera, all of which may be perfectly clear and true. But where the flaw lies is in the theology. Because the people who argue in that way are assuming, many of them, that Christian preaching is analogous to a marketing exercise. That we have a product, it's the gospel. That we have consumers, the congregation. That we have a salesman, the preacher. And therefore, the job of the preacher is the same as the job of the salesman to overcome consumer resistance and to influence people to buy the product. Now, according to the apostle Paul, there is one overwhelming reason why that analogy is not a good one. The preacher does not overcome consumer resistance. He cannot. So if you set your stall up that way, that you have a product, the gospel, you have a consumer, namely your listening congregation, and that you are a salesman and your job is to overcome consumer resistance, welcome to hell.
You don't have a hope in the world. And if you don't go insane, then it's just because you've become one of the finest conjurers that the Western world has ever seen. The gospel is veiled to those who are perishing. So how in the world are we going to remove the veil?
We're not. The parable of the sower, as Jesus gives us it, is one sower and four soils, right? A communications expert telling this story today would tell the story the completely other way around. There is one soil and four sores. The first sower came along and tried his technique, and it wasn't very good. The second sower tried a different technique, and it was a little better, but not particularly good.
And eventually, the fourth technique finally worked. Christian conversion is not the result of human persuasion. It is a manifestation of divine grace. 2 Corinthians 4, 6, let light shine out of darkness.
I mean, it's for this reason that the monologue is actually the ideal communication technique. For the function of the Word of God is to make the person in whom God is already secretly at work by his Spirit to make that individual self-conscious of their need of a Savior. As a preacher, you and I are merely instruments whereby people who are being saved become aware of the fact. If I did not believe that, I don't think I could get up to my feet to preach the gospel at all. That it's my job to overcome consumer resistance.
What am I going to do? God kindles spiritual life in souls by his Spirit, says one, and then rejoices in their free, uncoerced, spontaneous response to the Word when it is preached. Much of the trouble with contemporary evangelism is that it is built on the fallacious assumption that anybody can and will respond to the gospel if it is only presented to them in a proper fashion.
That's not true. In the preaching event, it is the quality of the soil, not the quality of the preacher, that's being displayed. So when people believe, it doesn't exalt us. It says God has done a wonderful work in preparing the soil. The sower went forth the sower, and when he sowed. I mean, what is the story of the sower? There's a tremendous amount of seed going to waste here.
Don't you feel like that? Preaching and preaching and preaching, there seems to be so little. And when there is any little, what do we know? We didn't do it.
Because we can't even get a seed in the right place, let alone make it germinate. If a person responds, it's not a triumph of the preacher's power of communication. It is a triumph of the Spirit of God who has secretly transformed the person's heart. Preaching may reveal the transformation, but preaching can't produce it. Preaching will be effective not because, by all accounts, it's the best means of communication, but because it's God's chosen method by which he opens people's eyes and brings them to an awareness of his grace. And so that's why we preach. There's a lot of other things you could do. You know, we could do dramatic things, and we could hang things from the ceiling, and we could dance around and attract attention and do all manner of things. Yes, I understand that.
And I think a lot more people may be immediately drawn to that. I understand that too, but I can't do that at the moment. Why? Because that's not what God has asked me to do. He's asked me to be a herald of the Word. And it is a solemn thing to declare and to receive God's Word.
Now, that's just some thoughts on the response to the notion it doesn't do any good. And then the other one is people don't like to listen to preaching. People won't listen to preaching these days. And so they tell the young men, if you want to attract them, then dump the long sermons, bring in the drama team, fill it up with music, drop in a few film excerpts, and just have a wonderful celebration. In short, think about how you're packaging the gospel.
Look at advertising techniques, and then you'll be able to put your presentation together accordingly. I'm not against all of those things per se. I don't think they're all wrong, and I don't think there is zero place for them in everything that we do in terms of outreach opportunities, etc. I don't want to appear to say something that I don't believe. But as useful as any of those constituent elements may be in certain controlled settings, they cannot ever be regarded as a substitute for preaching. And the reason is because we're to be setting forth the truth plainly. And the task of the evangelist is to press the truth on the minds of people and on people's consciences in the plainest way. And the test of our effectiveness is not how much did the non-Christians enjoy that.
That's irrelevant. The test is how much did they learn from that. The test is not how electric was the atmosphere, but how clear was the gospel. Now, I can personally sympathize with those who have invited their friends to attend church services, and they are just dreadful cliche-ridden exercises. People up there all dressed up in a funny kind of way, speaking in a funny tone of voice. If you ever met them at Burger King, you would never expect them to speak that way, and they don't speak that way. Why doesn't he just use normal words? Why doesn't your pastor use normal words?
Can they say a normal word? And don't misunderstand me. I'm not talking now about backing off propitiation, for those of you who want to ask that question.
No. The word propitiation needs to be used because it's the only word that says what it says. But we really have to explain propitiation. It has to do with the wrath of God and the love of God, and we need to unpack it. I don't care if my seventeen-year-old daughter's friend doesn't understand that when they come, but I do care if she doesn't understand it when she leaves.
Because I couched her around in such stuff that made her think, I don't think he understands it himself. So I'm not talking about that at all. I'm talking about cliche-ridden stuff, and the language of Zion, and the things I've mentioned before. And some of our church services are so riddled with that, we ought to be taken out and beaten severely. It's just not true to say that people won't listen to preaching.
They will. If people are being awakened spiritually to their need of God, they're going to listen. And if they're not, no amount of gospel entertainment or evangelistic gimmickry will make them listen. See, that's the flaw in the whole method.
See? If the people of God are being spiritually quickened, they will listen to the Bible being preached. If they are not being spiritually quickened, you can entertain them into oblivion, but it will not do one thing to remove the veil from their eyes. You see, at the root of this whole thing is theological conviction about the way in which the Spirit of God works in the life of a pagan. It's not a marginal thing about style and do you care what day Sunday is and what happens on this day or whether this is supposed to happen. These things are very superficial questions.
The fundamental questions have to do with the mystery of I know not how God's Spirit moves convincing men of sin, revealing Jesus through the Word, and creating faith in Him. And that, you see, underpins it. At least that's what drives me to it. So, the use of drama—somebody says, Well, what about drama? We don't use drama in our services.
Would there be ever occasion when you might? I haven't thought of one yet, but I have been involved with dramatic presentations in evangelistic contexts, particularly in universities in the United Kingdom, and drama was used to tremendous effect in that environment. I don't think that's the issue, or particular approaches to music or the use of film. All of these things may complement the preaching of the Word of God, given the right parameters, but they cannot replace it. And the reason they cannot is because they cannot possibly communicate the Christian message as plainly and as unambiguously as you can by preaching. That is why, says Paul in 2 Corinthians, again, setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to every man's conscience. So, away with this notion of it does no good, God has pledged himself, as I think it was—I don't want to attribute it to Calvin unless it was—but how amazing, said one of the Reformers, that the soul of one man rests on the voice of another man.
God has chosen in this way. If it doesn't do any good, under God it does eternal good. People won't listen to preaching anymore? Yes, they will.
Yes, they do. Try preaching. See what happens. Most people think they won't listen to preaching because they never tried it. They never preached. And when they preached, they stunk. And so they decided it would be easier to bring in the dancing girls than do the hard work necessary in proclaiming the Gospel.
That seems very unfair, doesn't it? There are two things that are indispensable to the preacher and teacher. One is that he would have a framework with which he comes to the Bible. And then two is that he would be dealing with the text of the Bible when he comes to the people. Now, there are all kinds of theological frameworks that are helpful. There are others that are not so helpful. But each of us has a certain understanding of how the Bible works.
Otherwise, we cannot come to it with any sense of logic at all. Some have been brought up with a dispensational framework which provides them with the hermeneutic necessary for discriminating in the Scriptures. Others will have been brought up with another framework, perhaps a covenantal view of things, which allows them to approach it in a different way. I'm not so much referring to those things, nor am I referring to sort of the basic understanding of the Bible, that the Bible is, if you like, like a two-act drama, where, as in going to a two-act play, if you miss the first act and you come in only for the second half, you really annoy your wife by constantly asking, who's he and who's she, and why are they saying that? Her answer is, if you came at the beginning, you wouldn't have to ask all these silly questions. In the same way that if you come for the first act in the play, and you leave because of some commitment, when your wife finally comes home, you have to plague her again.
How did this end, and how did this end, and how did this end? So in other words, we do not simply open our Bibles and say, Oh, I wonder how this fits with that. We have been provided with some kind of framework. And the theological doctrinal framework actually holds the text in place. So, for example, a belief in the miraculous determines how we read the Gospels.
But here's the point, and it is a simple point. The key issue is that the content of the sermon is determined by the Scripture itself, that Scripture is a self-interpreting book, and that the text must always predominate over the framework. So in actual fact, one of the great dangers is that we possess a large f and only a small t, and that what we need to do is to bring our frameworks into subservience to the text, and not the Bible into subservience to our frameworks. Nor are we to preach our frameworks. Because if we preach from the framework, it will eventually run dry. Whereas when we preach from the text, it will constantly change, it will develop, and it will reconfigure the framework. Whenever we go into neutral, we will be tempted then to immediately default to our framework, and we will start to give people the framework. Now, people always ask in the question-and-answer session, Well, where are you in relationship to all these frameworks and everything else and your own systematic theology?
And I always hedge just a little bit, not because I'm unclear or want to be unhelpful in any way, actually because I would like to be more helpful, and I'm frightened that people, in determining the framework, then they use that as a means of negating much else that goes on. Quite honestly, I was brought up in Scotland in a highly dispensational context, and the Schofield Reference Bible that was given to me by my girlfriend, who's now my wife, at the age of 15, became my standard text for the next four and a half years. And the Schofield Reference Bible then led me into all of the labyrinths and passages that I had discovered were so clearly there. When I went to the London Bible College and was taught by Donald Guthrie in the New Testament, and by a number of other fairly good old boys before they passed into their dotage or into heaven, or both.
Dotage only momentarily, then reaching heaven into a whole fresh discovery of things. But anyway, when I was taught by them, first of all, they made me study the English text in the Revised Standard Version. So I studied in the Revised Standard Version. As soon as I got the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, when I studied that, I suddenly found that the sections just weren't as clear to me as they once were. That I couldn't find that line, and I couldn't find that line, and I couldn't find this one, especially with the middle section in it there. And then I couldn't find the way you got over there to that section there, which so clearly bore no resemblance to that section there, which of course was because of the fact that the Sermon on the Mount was totally irrelevant for everybody except the Kingdom Church. So I said to myself, you know, this has started to perplex me just a little. So I should have written a book called Who Moved the Dispensations?
But I said to myself, no, I'm a dispensationist. There was before the fall, there was after the fall, there was before the cross, and there was after the cross. There's at least four. And I said, what about the rest? Then my uncertainty gave way to further study, and then suddenly the people I began to read were not the champions of this system anymore.
Guys like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jim Packer, Guthrie himself, although he was from a Plymouth Brethren background, and so on. And without it unsettling my faith in any way or removing my convictions about the Bible in any way, it just spun my head for me. And I said, you know, once I get away from my props and my diagrams, I'm not just as confident that this thing all fits together in that way. So all of the stuff that I'd been nurtured in began to leak. Finding the melodic line in the passage is the place I want to go.
Finding the melodic line in the passage. Some of you are hi-fi enthusiasts, and for those of us who have not had our ears cauterized in the way that yours have been done, we're just basically listening to see if we can hear the words or maybe the melody line. You're sitting there having an experience all of your own that has to do with tweeters and woofers and so on. And you said, did you hear that there, that woofer? And the average person said, no, I have no clue what you're talking about. Well, that was not the woofer, that was the tweeter, you know? And so the person says, okay, fine, I'm just trying to listen to the melody line here. You sit over in a corner and do as you choose.
All right? Now, theologians, biblical teachers, are in grave danger. We are in grave danger of becoming the tweeters and the woofer guys, okay? And our congregations are trying to find the melody line.
What is all this about they're saying? Now, for example, let's just go to something very straightforward. 1 Corinthians 15. This is the gospel, he says, verse 1. This is the gospel. It is the foundation upon which we build and our abounding in the work of the Lord, verse 58, derives its impetus from the gospel. That's the melody line of 1 Corinthians 15. And substantiating all of that is the truth of the resurrection.
Isn't that what he says? Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel that I preached to you and which you have received and upon which you've taken your stand. It is by this gospel you received if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you, otherwise you have believed in vain. Go to verse 58. Therefore, my dear brother, stand firm and let nothing move. You always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord.
What's the melody line? The gospel upon which you've taken your stand. And so he uses the intervening 56 verses to underscore the foundation, the historicity of it all in this amazing fact of the resurrection. It's possible for us to do a series of 1 Corinthians 15, do wonderful things on the resurrection, and all manner of little side notes that are all good and they're all biblical and miss the whole melody line.
We've got people all tied up with their tweeters and their woofers. Each one of us is called by God to share his word with others clearly and plainly, whether we're preachers or laymen. You're listening to Alistair Begg on Truth for Life. Alistair is assuring us that God alone prepares the listeners' hearts.
He is the one who saves souls. Alistair has been teaching on the topic of biblical preaching and the careful stewardship of God's word. If you'd like to hear the entire series of messages on this topic, you can listen for free on the app or online at truthforlife.org. The study is called The Pastor's Study.
You can also purchase the complete study on a USB for just $5. You'll find it in our online store at truthforlife.org slash store. Now, in the month of October, many of us start to look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with family and friends. But if we're honest, it is not always easy to be thankful, especially when life isn't going the way we'd hoped. That's why we want to recommend to you a book called The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks. In this book, you'll learn three key ways to seek out and respond to God's blessings in your life. The book helps us learn how to be thankful in all circumstances. So request your copy of The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks when you give a donation today at truthforlife.org slash donate.
Or call us at 888-588-7884. And if you're starting now to look out beyond Thanksgiving and into next year for vacation plans, think about the Deeper Faith 2023 Mediterranean Cruise. Alistair will be the guest speaker on an unforgettable voyage that starts in Rome, Italy.
Make stops at a different port each day. You can find out more at deeperfaithcruise.com. I'm Bob Lapine. Tomorrow, Alistair has advice for pastors. He says you are to prepare yourself and then forget yourself. Join us tomorrow to find out exactly what he means. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life. Where the Learning is for Living.
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