Three Warnings for Those Who Preach the Word
There are not many callings in this fallen world that surpass the privilege of preaching. God has ordained that preaching would cause the light of his glory to shine upon sin-darkened hearts. He regularly uses preaching to bring into submission at the feet of Christ the lies that have long enslaved his people’s hearts and minds. And he desires that preaching would cause the knowledge of the holy to be advanced through the church.
In short, preaching is a high calling.
And yet, in and around the shadows of the pulpit, soul-damning dangers lurk. Men better than us have fallen prey to the pitfalls of the pulpit. In this article, I want to articulate three dangers that threaten my own soul as a preacher who is desirous to fulfill his ministry. I pray for myself and my readers that the One who is able to keep us from stumbling will preserve us in this high and holy calling.
1. We can mistake knowing the truth for trusting in the truth.
As expository preachers, it’s our business to know God’s Word. Ignorance has no place in the pulpit. Our task is to mine the truths of the Scriptures and proclaim them to our people with precision, persuasion, and passion. In a world where truth in the pulpit is sadly uncommon, many who listen to us come with the bare-minimum desire to be taught the truth plainly.
The danger, of course, is that there will be theologically sound preachers in hell. After all, “The demons also believe and tremble.” It’s easy to teach on the sovereignty of God while clinging to the idol of control. It’s easy to preach on the glory of God while seeking our own glory. It’s easy to flesh out justification by faith alone while finding our justification in our preaching of justification by faith alone. Indeed, “when I want to do what is good, evil is with me.”
We must not be deceived: no one was ever cured by selling medicine. For us the insult, “physician, heal thyself” must humble us and constantly call us to be partakers of the same remedy we prescribe. Our first calling must not be to expository preaching but to believing in Jesus. Our weekly labor must be aimed at more than ascending our pulpits with manuscripts spelling out God’s truth; we must aim for consciences cleansed by Christ’s blood, hearts singing of his matchless love, and minds captivated by the greatness of our God.
We must grow in the habit of responding to our own sermons in faith and repentance before and after we descend our pulpits. The best example I have seen of this is from a faithful pastor from across town who would often, as he interacted with his people after his preaching, share with his members the part of the sermon that most impacted him. He was a good model to me of maintaining my place under the rule of God’s Word as a preacher.
Brothers, don’t be afraid that you will fail to impress your hearers. Be afraid of preparing a feast for your members while you go home, week after week, famished. Pray for the humility and faith that you need as a preacher to be first a partaker of the fruit of your study.
2. We can confuse the fruitfulness of my preaching ministry with the fruit of the Spirit in me.
I was made aware of this danger from a Tim Keller sermon. He preached it at Beeson Divinity School’s 2016 graduation from a weird, miniature pulpit. I will be eternally grateful for the exposure of this subtle lie, for I doubt that the enemy has a more deceitful way with which to lure ministers of the Word to a place of complacency with sin. How many preachers, blinded by the success of their ministries, have ignored the warning signs of the Spirit and continued, full-steam ahead, to shipwreck their faith? All the while, they’re cheered on by “their followers” and pridefully believing that the fruit of their ministry meant they were special and the rules that apply to mere Christians somehow could not apply to them. How quickly we forget that the same Judas that betrayed Jesus also cast out demons.
We minister in a day when giftedness in the pulpit is prized over godliness. There are few churches that will choose the godly but average preacher over the gifted but somewhat immature preacher. Churches today are more likely to rationalize the lack of evident godliness than they are to overlook the lack of exemplary preaching skills.
Brothers, this means we are called to fight the battle on two fronts. From within, we must fear God, knowing that he is no respecter of persons. On the outside, we must flee the temptation of finding solace in the judgment of our hearers. Let Paul’s words to Timothy be our standard: “I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of his appearing and his kingdom: Proclaim the message.”
If we see ourselves as men see us in our pulpits, then we will all the more be tempted to confuse our fruitfulness with the fruit of the Spirit. But if we keep our eyes on that Day, then we might be saved from a mortal lie and thereby qualified to lead to a life and ministry that both saves our souls and the souls of those who hear us.
3. We can forget that the end of all things—preaching included—is worship.
When I’m working on a difficult passage that’s not yielding a main idea or a clear flow of thought, my prayers have more to do with asking God to keep his children from leaving church unfed. In these moments, my main aim can be reduced to finishing the message without saying anything heretical. These are noble aims, but they’re not of utmost importance.
Often, my anxiety in preparation reveals that my striving is not for the glory of God. My fearfulness reveals my concern not that God will look bad, bur rather that I will look bad if I do not come through. My downcast heart plopped on the front pew after the occasional dud does not grieve that God was not exalted; it’s grieving that I was not amazing. What I need most at that point is not the convincing words of the saints to reassure me that I indeed looked amazing enough and thus be encouraged in my identity as a preacher—what I need most is a broken heart that repents of my attempts to stealing the glory that belongs to God alone
B. B Warfield said that “all true theology must lead to doxology.” The Apostle Paul, in laying out an argument for Christ-centered preaching, ends the section with the admonition, “The one who boasts must boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:30). If my “Christ-centered preaching” is actually focused on my own glory, it will show up in the nature of my anxieties and joys. While I may have kept the letter of the “law”—preach Christ crucified—I’ve missed the spirit of it: “that the one who boasts might boast in the Lord.” When preachers pervert the purpose of the gospel, which is to the glory of God alone, they are no different from prosperity gospel preachers who pervert the content of the gospel and turn men away from the glory of God.
Brothers, we were not made for glory. We know that the God who knows all our weaknesses has made perfect provision for us in the gospel that we preach. So let’s bring our glory-seeking pride to the cross, for there is mercy there—yes, even for a sin so vile as this. Let the gospel we preach be the best weapon against prideful preaching. Let’s preach to our souls and to the saints that nothing that we would ever be tempted to boast in—not even our Christ-centered preaching—is devoid of sin. But praise be to God, through the precious blood of Jesus both we and the offerings we bring have been made acceptable to him. So let’s rejoice and give all praise to Jesus who died to save all kinds of people—preachers included.
By his mercy, may it never be said of us that after preaching to others we were found to be disqualified.