Preachers, Don’t Just Explain What the Text Means—Tell Us How You Got There


I listened to my wife as she spoke to my mother over the phone. We wanted one of many traditional Puerto Rican recipes that I grew up with but never learned to make. My mom tried to explain but her directions were unhelpful—a “little” of this, a “smidgen” of that. We lacked the experience to eyeball it the way she does; we needed every ingredient spelled out.

The problem was simple: mom never made our meals with forethought of passing the recipe on to us or anyone else. She just did it. The danger, however, was that if the next generation didn’t learn it, our family would lose it.

Fellow preachers, if we explain what the text means in our sermons, we do well. Our people will benefit. But that’s not enough. If we don’t make it clear how we know that’s what the text means, then we’re serving our people great meals but not teaching them how to cook. We need to explain and apply the text, but we should also demonstrate how we came to our conclusions from the text. As Bryan Chapell has stated, our sermons should not only be faithful to the text, but obvious from the text.[1]

Here are five reasons why we should teach how we know what the text says, not just what it says:

1. So that your listeners can learn to read and teach the Bible themselves.

A commitment to sola scriptura demands that preachers not function as priests with special interpretations; he’s not the sole member of the congregation with interpretive authority. Rather, we affirm the priesthood of all believers and encourage our people to engage one another as an interpretive community.

We want our people to be able to apply Scripture together without depending solely on the preacher. Surely, the preacher is a help. The labor that goes into faithful preaching should not be undervalued (1 Timothy 5:17). But part of that value should be in helping the congregation learn how to read and even teach the Bible themselves. We’re equipping them for ministerial work (Ephesians 4:12; Colossians 3:16).

2. So that they will trust you.

When we clearly demonstrate that our interpretations and applications are clear conclusions based on the evidence in the passage, we show that we’re trustworthy in the pulpit. We’re not there to hijack Scripture for our own agendas, and our people can see we’re doing honest work, that our propositions are controlled by and derived from the text.

Christians want to follow a leader whose demands on the congregation are clearly from the Bible. Sharp-minded folks will catch non sequiturs in sloppy exposition; over time, this will lead to an attrition of trust. We may not mean to preach the right truth from the wrong text, but they don’t know that. And so they might assume we had something we really wanted to say and so we used a passage as an excuse to say it. Brothers, we must keep our exposition solid and lucid. It builds trust.

3. So that they can test you.

We want our congregations to hold us accountable for our teaching. If they’re unable to discern faithful exposition from unfaithful exposition, then they’ll have a difficult time knowing whether our conclusions are on point or way out of line.

The more we teach them to interpret Scripture responsibly, the more they’re able to challenge us when we miss something. And pastors, assuming this kind of criticism is given in a godly way, we should want this—for their sake as well as our own.

4. So that what is preached lands with authority.

Our leadership of the congregation will be enhanced when what we say carries weight. But any authority we have must be derived from God’s authoritative Word. Christ’s headship of the church is protected when we adhere to Scripture closely. So, if we make a habit of veering from what Scripture actually teaches, then we call our teaching into question: why should our people receive our exhortations with any weight?

5. So that they can better respond to your attempts to shape their doctrinal thinking.

Central to the preacher’s task is to teach and to correct (2 Timothy 3:16; 4:2). This encompasses not only behaviors but beliefs. No one’s beliefs will change based on argumentation alone. The Spirit must be at work, and the Spirit uses Scripture to equip us for every good work. In other words, we need to make the case that Scripture says what we’re proposing it says in order to convince discerning saints that they should adjust their beliefs accordingly.

We don’t have to show them everything. We won’t have time to make every connection for them; we can’t share every morsel of exegesis we found in our study. Instead, we filter our research and use any necessary details to showcase the text’s logic, how what we see leads to certain conclusions.

My mother had no recipes written down. She didn’t know how to explain it over the phone. So she did the next best thing: she booked a flight and came to see us. She spent hours in the kitchen with us, modeling how to make the meals we wanted so we could pass them on to our children.

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[1] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 3rd ed. (Baker, 2018), 148.

Lucas O'Neill

Lucas O'Neill is the senior pastor of Christian Fellowship Church in Itasca, Illinois, and the Clinical Associate Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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