For other talks and articles on preaching see topics Preaching and Expository Preaching
Temptations Preachers Face to Give up on the Bible
Preachers are not special. Every Christian faces temptations to sin. Preachers face the same temptations as every Christian. Like any of us, preachers are ruined through financial greed, sexual immorality, or alcohol abuse. However, there are some specific temptations preachers face concerning giving up on the Bible.
Talking of ‘temptations to give up on the Bible’ has a built-in assumption that preachers should not give up on the Bible. Behind that assumption is a whole theology of the preached word of God and the relationship of the word of God with the Bible. Accepting this assumption and the theology that lies behind it, I am addressing the temptations that preachers face to give up on the Bible. That said, I still need to clear some of the ground for what it means for preachers to give up, or resist the temptation to give up, on the Bible.
Preaching is a complex and difficult task which is expressed in many forms. The activity of speaking to an adult church congregation weekly is quite different to speaking as an itinerant in a non-Christian setting or in an open-air meeting or before a large missionary conference. However, what they have in common for the Christian preacher is the aim to preach the word of God, or as Paul called it ‘the whole counsel of God’.
When Paul used that phrase, ‘the whole counsel of God’, he was claiming to not omit anything of God’s word. But he was not claiming to have taught every verse of the Old Testament in an expository preaching program. The whole counsel of God was ‘the Kingdom’, ‘the gospel of the grace of God’, ‘repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:20-21, 24, 25,27). This ‘Word of God’ that Christian preachers proclaim is more precise than simply the Bible, even though it is ‘the sacred writings that are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim 3:14). The word of God Christians preach is the gospel of Jesus Christ, for that is the message of the Bible.
Because the message of the Bible is the gospel that we preach, the surest way to accurately present the message is to read the Scripture and explicate its message. To take on the prophets’ mantle of saying “thus says the Lord”, requires the humility to ensure our words coincide with God’s words, found in the Bible. The connection between continuing with the inspired scriptures, preaching the word, and doing the work of an evangelist is seen in 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.
However, there is no one single form in which to preach God’s word. Biblical truth is truth with or without reference to the Bible. Furthermore, referring to the Bible does not make falsehood true – even the devil quoted the Bible. The commitment to scriptural evangelism that is required of the Christian preacher, does not equate to preaching ‘oral commentaries’. Such commentaries often fail on both fronts of preaching God’s word. They are not preaching and are not God’s word. Instead of proclaiming God’s word to the hearers the gospel gets lost in a plethora of exegetical technicalities.
Preaching is a social activity. It is insufficient to preach the word of God – we must preach it to somebody else – to a hearer, or hearers, crowds, congregations, or audience. The preaching of the word of God must fit the situation and occasion. Many of the temptations to give up on the Bible come from the preacher’s attempts to communicate with people.
The preachers’ temptations often come from the demand to be relevant, applied, persuasive, and simple. People today, as much as in the first century, want preachers who will scratch their itchy ears. Instead of the Biblical preacher demonstrating the relevance of the Bible by challenging the false views of the world, they are tempted to distort the Bible by ‘making’ it relevant to the hearer. Whoever sets the agenda of a discussion controls the outcome. If the preacher lets go of the Bible, he will preach the agenda of the world instead of the agenda of God. For example, in today’s discussions power (especially its imbalance) and patriarchy are two of the main faults of the human condition. But the Bible’s diagnosis of the human condition is sin and God’s condemnation while God himself is all powerful and the patriarch from whom all other is derived. Jesus didn’t die to overcome power imbalance and patriarchy but sin and God’s condemnation.
Closely associated with relevance is the demand for the sermon to be applied to everyday life. Yet often the truth of the gospel is more important to understand than a new set of rules for living that a preacher can concoct from a passage. The gospel changes minds and hearts rather than providing more rules and regulations to live by.
A more common reason for giving up on the Bible is the quest for persuasion. Biblical preaching does engage in persuasion. Jesus entered into argumentative dialogue with opponents and the Apostles certainly sought to persuade people. But these arguments were within the frame of Old Testament thinking. They showed the consistency of the gospel with Old Testament expectations. In the pagan world, Paul did not recast the gospel to show any consistency with the world’s philosophies. Rather he attacked the falsehood of the world’s views, especially of idolatry. Biblical preachers must seek to persuade but must not be sucked into conforming the Bible to the world’s current philosophy be it Neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, enlightenment humanism or existential post-modernity. Preaching the gospel conforms the world to the truth rather than being conformed by the world to its errors.
Another temptation that the hearer imposes on the preacher is the need to ‘dumb- down’ the message. The aim of the teacher is to lift minds and understanding, but the quest of many modern listeners is to lower the level of discourse to the laziness of emotional experiences and post-modern memes. Preaching the Bible is hard. Modern society is ignorant of the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Egyptians, Canaanites, Greeks, and Romans. Preachers are tempted to hold the audience with jokes and stories, anecdotes, and pithy platitudes rather than working at educating the audience to understand what God has said and is saying to them. Ultimately, instead of aesthetics and music aiding preaching they replace it as church becomes a temple or a concert.
However, it is the temptations that are inside the preacher that finally lead us astray. James warns that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires” and preachers are no different in this regard. Two of the deadly desires of the preacher are the desire for success and the desire to be liked. Similar to the temptations that are external to the preacher, these internal pressures are subtle half-truths. They even have a gospel truth about them. We want Jesus name to be honoured, people to be converted and the church to grow. We want people to like us so that they will listen to our message and give us opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus with them. However, both are deadly for gospel ministry.
Success, even described in evangelistic terms, is not the central motivational drive or key evaluation of gospel ministry. It inevitably leads to an ungodly pragmatism, personal aggrandizement, and avoidance of preaching the offence of the gospel. What is required of the gospel minister is faithfulness. Faithfulness must not be an excuse for inactivity, conservativism, lack of enterprise, or failing to seek the lost that they may be won, or the church to grow numerically. However, faithfulness keeps the preacher on the Bible’s message of the gospel.
Unlikability is not a virtue to pursue. We are created in fellowship of family life and recreated to serve one another in love. Sin distorts the good things of creation and redemption – taking our loving fellowship and making it into the goal of self-centred living. It brings many people into a self-absorbed, insecure, and overwhelming desire to be liked. Such a burden makes gospel preaching impossible. While not many preachers have this extreme burden, most have to some degree the temptation to be liked, to avoid confrontation, to be appreciated and to be an accepted part of the society and culture. This temptation plays out both consciously and unconsciously as the preacher chooses to avoid, soften, excuse or apologise for socially unacceptable parts of the Bible.
Here then are the two strategies the devil uses in tempting us to sin: persecution and seduction. Gospel preachers face both together. The people do not want to hear what we say, and we want to be liked and successful. The manifestation of the preacher’s sin is to let go of the Bible. Instead of accommodating the world to the gospel we accommodate the gospel to the world. We may carry around large Bibles, (even in liturgical procession) or pepper our preaching with Biblical references, but the agenda of our preaching, the world view of our message, the sharp end of our message will not be the word of God.
Jesus told his disciples of the blessing of being persecuted for righteousness. Being disliked brings the gospel preacher into the company of the prophets of old – and of Jesus himself. Jesus has sent his Spirit to witness to him but warned the apostles that their witnessing would bring the same kind of hatred to them as he had experienced (Matthew 5:11-13, John 15:18-16:4). Yet in this, preachers are no different to any Christian, for we are all called upon to deny ourselves, take up our cross and unashamedly follow Jesus. This is the joyful pathway of our salvation.
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