The Great Charge: Recovering the Principles of Biblical Preaching

In the second epistle to his young protégé, Timothy, St. Paul gave a solemn charge that should resonate loudly with North American Anglicans in the early Twenty-first Century:

I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. (2 Tim 4:1-4)

For many of us Anglicans who label ourselves orthodox, conservative, or traditionalist those words from the pen of St. Paul immediately catch our attention and probably prompt most of us to think of heterodox bishops and the like. Yet the Apostle’s words should also prompt a close examination of ourselves. Orthodox Anglicans are struggling to survive; there are relatively few still within The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada and those in the extra-mural jurisdictions find themselves more often than not in survival mode, dependent on the support of those fleeing heterodox dioceses and parishes. Even in those parishes that look to be doing well, there are few that are truly thriving and living out Our Lord’s Great Commission to evangelise the lost and to make disciples of them. And is it any wonder? Nowhere in his solemn charge to Timothy does St. Paul call him to the role of parish administrator, social worker, or liturgist – he charges this young man with the duty of preaching the Word.

Over the last century Anglicans have lost the commitment to strong Biblical peaching that was so prevalent in our forefathers: Bishops Ridley and Latimer or George Whitefield and Charles Simeon to name only a few. The Biblical model of preaching expressed in our formularies, the Prayer Book, the Articles, the Ordinal, and The Homilies, has been in most places replaced by light-weight fluff in comparison to the spiritual food that nourished generations of the past. It should be no surprise that we are left in survival mode. Church history bears out the fact that a dearth of God’s Word inevitably leads to ecclesiastical decline. As the preaching of the great expositors of the Early Church, men like Chrysostom and Augustine, fell into decline so did the Church, and it was with the recovery of the evangelical preaching tradition at the Reformation that the Church began to thrive and fulfil its mission once again. John Donne wrote that “if there be any discounting or slacking of Preaching, there is the danger of losing Christ.”

Contemporary Anglicanism has been heavily influenced on one front by the Liberals who have downplayed the historical ministry of the Word by destroying the very authority of the Word itself. But that has not been the only attack. The later fruits of the 19th Century Anglo-Catholic movement have led to an unbalanced emphasis on the Eucharist, which has resulted in a de-emphasis on the importance of strong Biblical preaching. The end result has been the well-known ten-minute homily. Even those of us distant from either the Liberal or Anglo-Catholic tradition can find it exceptionally easy to become lazy in our preaching. In parishes fed primarily by those fleeing liberalism, expectations are often set all too low. Many of these laypeople are overjoyed to simply hear a sermon that does not teach heresy. Yet this is the spiritual equivalent of a diner being pleased by the observation that the meal he’s just ordered isn’t poisoned.

In his book, On Preaching, former Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan astutely observes that, “We shall rear a generation of Christians accustomed to the Eucharist but foreigners to many of the great truths of the Christian faith. They have never had the opportunity of listening, Sunday by Sunday, to a steady, intelligent, interesting exposition of the things most surely believed among us. They have been fed with snippets, little bits and bits, nice thoughts for the day, but nothing, or practically nothing, from which bones and spiritual tissue can be built” (p. 9).

It is critical that Anglicans recover their homiletic heritage. The people of God cannot live without the words of God. St. Paul also wrote to Timothy that the words of Holy Scripture are “able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (3:15) and that they are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (3:16-17). St. Paul also warns that if we ignore this charge in our churches, our people will be as “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness” (Eph. 4:14).

To recover from our current homiletic slump will require that all take actions. Our priests and deacons must commit themselves to a Biblical model for preaching, our bishops must ensure that our clergy are properly trained and that they are committed to preaching the Word, and the laity must demand solid spiritual food and hold local parish clergy as well as bishops accountable.

What is Biblical preaching? Biblical preaching seeks to convey the Word of God rather than the words of men. To be truly Biblical preaching must be driven by the text. This means that our preachers need to avoid using Scripture as a pretext. All too often preachers determine what it is that they want to say in advance and then bring Scripture into the sermon to support their topic. Topical preaching isn’t always a bad thing, in fact the lectionary is arranged thematically, but the preacher needs to address topical or thematic preaching with great caution to ensure that Scripture is the focus of the sermon.

Our preachers need to take St. Paul’s charge to Timothy and make it their own. Charles Simeon, the great 19th Century preacher did just this. In his introduction to Evangelical Peaching, an anthology of Simeon’s sermons, John Stott writes of the great preacher:

His over-riding concern was so to expound Scripture that his congregation would receive it undiluted and uncontaminated by worldly wisdom. To him “Biblical exposition” meant opening up some part of Scripture so that the people could feed upon it. ‘My endeavour,’ he wrote to his publisher, ‘is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head: never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.’ Those words seem to me to be the clearest statement ever made of the expositor’s goal. Would that more Preachers could wholeheartedly echo and endorse it today!” (p. xxxiii)

In fact, Simeon established a test and insisted it be applied to his own work. In capital letters he wrote in the preface to Horae Homileticae, “Does it uniformly tend TO HUMBLE THE SINNER? TO EXALT THE SAVIOUR? TO PROMOTE HOLINESS? If in any one instance it loses sight of any of these points, let it be condemned without mercy” (p. xxi). Preachers need to understand that to preach is to communicate God’s inspired text faithfully so that God’s voice is heard and his people understand and obey. Simeon was right in condemning any sermon, even his own, that failed to faithfully communicate God’s own Word. Every sermon must communicate the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the mercy of our Saviour and move us to greater spiritual maturity and holy living. This is the clear agenda of Scripture itself. The preacher’s agenda is to communicate the same.

The craft of the preacher is to move beyond mere intellectual exposition of Scripture to application. The frequent objection to expository preaching is that many see it as little more than a theological lecture. Returning to 2 Timothy, St. Paul exhorted him to “ Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort.” Biblical preaching not only explains the text; it shines the narrow beam of Scripture’s spotlight into the lives of God’s people to address the specifics of daily life. Its distinctive is that, in being rooted in the text, it ensures that the spotlight is generated by the Word itself rather than the personality, agenda, or desires of the preacher himself.

The question then for North American Anglicans is, “Where are the Timothy’s of this generation?” Where are the men who have steeped themselves in Holy Scripture and prayer and are able and ready to unflinchingly present God’s truth to his people from our pulpits?

This article seems appropriate to get the blog started.  I originally wrote it for the March/April 2007 issue of Mandate, the journal of the Prayer Book Society.

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