I'll admit it. I have something of a love / hate relationship with preaching..
On the one hand, of course, I love it.
To serve the Lord by opening the Word of God to people, a word which drips with the truth and goodness and beauty of Christ, demands our highest gifts, strongest energies and most insightful thought. It drives us to prayer, for the simple reason that we long for God to use our words for His glory. Specifically, as congregations, including both believers as well as seekers, hear the Scriptures read and taught, we hope that the Spirit will convict unbelievers of sin and righteousness and judgment (Jn 16.8), bringing them to repentance and faith; and at the same time, that the Spirit will deepen believers in their repentance and faith, so that they more and more put to death the desires of the flesh and cultivate the fruit of the Spirit.
At the same time, it would be fair to say that there are times when I hate preaching. It is too much, it is too hard, it is too demanding. My limited insight, my limited time and capacity, and my very limited actual putting into practice what it is that I am preaching about assail me. I stare at a blank computer screen, a sparsely scribbled hand written sermon outline, with open Bible and commentaries strewn around, and wonder when the words will flow. Which of course is part of the dynamic of all ministry and which keeps pastors and preachers humble and prayerful.
I have found a greater freedom in preaching in the last few years, in part by getting clearer on some key questions. It was Rudyard Kipling who wrote: "I keep six honest serving-men / (They taught me all I knew); / Their names are What and Why and When / And How and Where and Who". And it is in that spirit of inquiry and curiosity that I want to ask only three questions of preaching - why do we preach? To whom do we preach? And How do we preach?
1. Why do we preach?
So first, why do we preach?
When I ask why, I don't mean what causes us to preach. There are all sorts of answers to that question, which cover ground from personal conviction of gift and call, to financial necessity. Rather, I mean for what purpose do we preach? What is - or at least, what ought to be - the goal of preaching? To what do I aim, or in the language of management-speak, how do I define the win?
Preaching, is, of course, just one form of ministry, and so its goal takes its place in the overall goal of ministry in general. And so here is a fundamental fork in the road regarding conviction about the goal of ministry. It is the same as God's goal for ministry, for his work in people, which is their transformation and growth into greater and greater conformity to the character of Christ.
It is true of course that the ultimate goal of God is his own glory.1 Around that goal lies a cluster of other statements and metaphors that express God's purposes in Christ for example, the renewal of all things, summed up in unity under the headship of Christ (Eph 1.10) is one expression of this; similarly, it could also be said that gathering a people to himself as his children, with Jesus "the firstborn within a large family" (Rom 8.29), is a foundational way to express God 's purposes.
At the same time, transformation as a central goal of God for his people pervades Scripture. For example, Jesus ' Great Commission in Matt 28.16-20 is to make disciples of all nations, which consists not only in baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but also teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded; in other words, transformation. Perhaps even more directly connected to preaching as such, the Apostle Paul writes of "God 's commission which was given" to him to proclaim Christ, "warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ" (Col 1.25, 28). Or simply, as we see "the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Cor 3.18). The goal of preaching is transformation of people. We are in the human changing business, because God is in the human changing business.
Two immediate clarifications spring to mind.
First, I'm sure that as you read this, the question of the sovereignty of God and its relationship to our responsibility as ministers of the Word is sparked. In other language, it is the question of faithfulness vis-a-vis fruitfulness, and the respective roles of the Holy Spirit and human agency in this. There is a great deal to say about this, and it touches on significant theological issues, especially the way the transcendent agency of God is understood not to be one cause among others, but the cause of all causes, so that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not zero sum.2 Suffice to say here that what is clear is that the Apostle Paul is quite clear in his ministry that his goal is not only faithfulness, but actual impact in people's lives - presenting them mature in Christ.
The second thing is that clarity on the why' question enables us not to confuse means and ends. Faithful and accurate exegesis and exposition of Scripture is an absolutely necessary means in preaching. Without accuracy in these areas, we have literally nothing of substance to preach, just our own thoughts. But accurate exegesis and exposition are not sufficient for preaching. There must not be less, but there has to be more. Our job as preachers is not to teach the Bible', at least not as our actual telos for preaching. It is to teach the Bible in order to see lives transformed'.
And if what comes next to your mind is, Yep, I teach the Bible, that's my bit; and the Holy Spirit transforms lives, that's his bit' - then you need to re-read the first clarification. If I can put it in a slightly pointy way - I call this move the intermittent fault of appeal to the sovereignty of God. Like the way that a washing machine has an intermittent fault, and somehow always manages to start working again just when the repair-guy makes a visit; so we are perfectly comfortable with human agency within divine sovereignty most of the time, but make intermittent appeal to God's sovereignty to limit human agency on occasion.
In sum, the work that the first of our honest serving-men (thanks Kipling) does for us is to give clarity to our goal. God is in the human changing business, and that means his ministers are too, and that's the telos of preaching. Having worked extremely hard on the text, and having accurately explained it is absolutely necessary for preaching, but it is also sadly insufficient. There must be more.
And it's the next two honest serving-men who help us tease out what that more' is. The next one is who - to whom are we preaching?
2. To whom are we preaching?
The question of "who" leads us into very important territory, but territory which is often under-explored. It is the realm of a Biblically rich theological anthropology. So often this is left at the level of the motif of the image of God, and the consequent inherent dignity and value of all human beings. And of course, the image of God is a crucial aspect of Biblical anthropology.
But there is a great deal more.
Again, much could be said here, but I want to focus on the Biblical centrality of the heart. There is, no doubt, more to human experience and transformation than the heart. It is crucial that behaviour shifts, habits are cultivated, character is developed and choices change, to become more aligned with Christ. It is equally crucial that the mind is renewed, so that the truth is more deeply understood, believed and reinforced. Nonetheless, from a Biblical perspective, it is the renovation of the heart', to use Dallas Willard 's memorable book title (2002), that is of fundamental concern for transformation, for three reasons.
First, and most obviously, it is possible to have ethical behaviour (orthopraxis) and theologically correct beliefs (orthodoxy) without a changed heart (orthokardia), and yet "the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Ps 51.17).3
Second, and more positively, Jesus is clear that the greatest commandment is to love God with all we are (Mk 12.30), which cannot be reduced to right belief and right behaviour.4 In other words, a heart which loves God is primarily what constitutes Christlikeness of character.
Third, it is from the heart that our behaviour proceeds, both negatively and positively; on the one hand, negatively, as Jesus puts it, "it is from within, from the human heart, the evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery etc." (Mk 7.21-23). On the other hand, positively, one way to conceive of the underlying process of transformation and growth is for the heart to increasingly and more and more decisively be set upon God, rather than on some other created reality, leading to greater and greater obedience. That is to say, a renovated heart is both centrally what Spirit-created transformation consists in, and at the same time, is one of the essential changes that will lead to other changes in behaviour, conduct, character and habit.5
Crucial in this context is not to leave the concept of the heart as a vague, we-all-know-what-we-are-talking-about' kind of thing. Rather, it is essential to specify what the heart does. Of the many texts that speak explicitly of the heart - over 1000 times in the Bible - one key text in this regard is Rom 1.24, where Paul lays out the inner spiritual dynamic of idolatry - which, recall, is his fundamental analysis of sin - as the "lusts / desires of the heart" (epithumiais tōn kardiōn autōn).
Three things are worthy of comment here.
First, consistent with what we find in the Old Testament use of the concept of heart', and likewise in the teaching of Jesus, sin is fundamentally a matter of the heart; and correspondingly, we would expect that godliness is also.
Second, the characteristic operation of the heart is thumias, that is, the having of desires. In other words, what hearts do is love, or desire, or worship, that which they find beautiful or excellent or life-giving. It is crucial to note on the one hand, that the heart's characteristic operations are not separate from thinking and willing, in that the mind and will are integrally linked to the heart. But at the same time, it is equally true and important to highlight that the operations of the heart are distinct from willing and thinking. It is not the will that loves, or desires, or worships; and it is not the mind that does these things either. It is distinctly and specifically the heart. As we will see, this distinction-but-not-separation has important consequences for preaching that really is to the heart, and not only the mind or will, for the simple reason that it must include in its appeal the distant operations of the heart, not just those of the mind and the will.
Third, the essence of sin is the desires - epithumiais - of the heart6 ; that is, the heart's desires wrongly directed toward that which is not God. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis notes this link between the heart and its desires, and the manner in which they come to dominate and enslave as follows: "Desires can find their expression in every direction: sexual lust, material enjoyment, coveting another person's possessions. By directing our attention, they can bring us completely under their domination ... Desires are deceitful and can enslave us ... When that happens, the heart' ie. the centre of one's whole personality, comes under their control (cf. Rom 1.24). As a result, all decisions of the will, and even the best and highest impulses and powers of a person, are determined by those desires" (Silva, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis 2014, p. 243).
In other words, the inner reality of sinful idolatry is to find some aspect of the created order (wrongly) life giving, excellent or beautiful, and then setting the desires of the heart on those things rather than on the creator, who is truly glorious and life giving and blessed for ever, and rightly to be the object of the heart's ultimate desire.7
If this analysis is correct, then the implications for preaching are significant. To the degree that preaching is overarchingly aimed at transformation of people into Christlikeness of character and away from sin, and that transformation is grounded in the heart, then preaching that is aimed at the heart must go beyond informing the mind with truths, crucial as this will be8; and it must likewise go beyond stirring the will with exhortation, again, crucial as this will be. It must get to the heart.
Which brings us to our third question - how? How do we preach to the heart?
3. How to preach to the heart?
Where we've come so far leads to the recognition that sin, like all human action, is always produced by some love of the heart, which is insufficiently ordered to an ultimate love for God; and correspondingly, godliness is always produced by a particular love of the heart - love for God - which orders all other loves by its greater intensity. The consequence of this is that in preaching for godliness - to put off the works of the flesh and to put on the character of Christ - it will always be necessary to do two things.
The first is to understand what could be called the psycho-spiritual dynamics of the sin - by act or omission - that is to be put off. Sometimes this is called the sin beneath the sin ' , although perhaps it could more accurately be called the love beneath the sin ' . What this is seeking to highlight is that it will be inadequate simply to identify the behaviour to be stopped and started; rather it will need to deal with the motivational structure of that behaviour, at the heart level. At best an appeal to simply stop / start, even out of gratitude, will be a kind of appeal to the will that is likely to be ineffective; at worst, it will evolve into a mere moralism.
The second is to show positively how Christ is an object for the heart's love that is greater, more beautiful, excellent and glorious than the competing (over) desire which is driving the sin, and at the same time, to demonstrate how this love for Christ will give people the spiritual power to live in a godly manner in the particular issue that is in view.
In other words, the basic art and craft of preaching to the heart is to lay before people the excellence (or beauty or glory) of the grace of God in the cross of Christ, bringing it into connection with the epithumia of the listeners' hearts, so that the affection of their hearts are lifted from (over) desires and placed instead on Christ. Note that it is particularly the grace of God in Jesus Christ that is to be the content of preaching to the heart. Although it is abundantly true to say that Christ's holiness is beautiful and excellent and glorious, as is his risen power and majesty and authority, it is particularly the grace of God in Christ that is powerful to captivate the heart and so reorder its loves.9
This is Paul's point in Romans 6.14: "For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace". What is particularly important to note here is the context of v. 12, where Paul outlines the character of the dominion which sin is not to exercise - "therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey its passions (tais epithumiais autou)". In other words, in a context where the dominion of sin is characterised in terms of tais epithumiais, Paul says that it is specifically because we are under grace that sin is robbed of its dominion. I suggest that this is very close to what is being suggested here; namely, that it is particularly the grace of God in the cross of Christ (see Rom 6.1-3) that constitute the dynamics of transformation.
When the grace of God in Jesus Christ is preached with precision to the heart, then what takes place by the power of the Holy Spirit is the expulsive power of a new affection', to use the phrase of Thomas Chalmers. In a sermon on 1 Jn 2.15, Chalmers begins by saying: There are two ways in which a practical moralist may attempt to displace from the human heart its love of the world – either by a demonstration of the world 's vanity, so as that the heart shall be prevailed upon simply to withdraw its regards from an object that is not worthy of it; or, by setting forth another object, even God, as more worthy of its attachment, so as that the heart shall be prevailed upon not to resign an old affection, which shall have nothing to succeed it, but to exchange an old affection for a new one. My purpose is to show, that from the constitution of our nature, the former method is altogether incompetent and ineffectual and that the latter method will alone suffice for the rescue and recovery of the heart from the wrong affection that domineers over it.'
His conclusion from this analysis is therefore, "the only way to dispossess [the heart] of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one".10 What we have seen is that the beauty and excellence and glory of the grace of God in the cross of Jesus Christ is that which alone will captivate the heart, when brought into sufficiently precise connection with its otherwise operating (over) desires, and therefore expel those desires from their ruling place in that area of life and behaviour.
One final point to note: the fact that it is specifically the grace of God which serves to evoke the expulsive power of a new affection' forms the proper theological link between justification and transformation. It is clear that justification is by grace through faith - grace being the ground of justification and faith being the instrument through which grace is taken hold of (Rom 3.24, Tit 3.7, Rom 5.1). At the same time, we can also now see that transformation is correspondingly by grace through faith; that is, the ground, or power of transformation is the very same grace as that which justifies, and the instrument by which it is apprehended is that operation of the heart which is to rest in or rejoice in the grace of God in the cross of Christ.
Fellow preachers - how is your love/hate relationship with preaching going? Can I suggest that putting your honest serving-men to work will help greatly, and finding Biblically rich clarity on the why, the who and the how of preaching will make a significant difference. And where that will lead you, I believe, is to a commitment to preaching to the heart - to holding up to the hearts of our hearers the beauty and excellence and life-giving reality of God, and his Son Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, in such a way that desires of the heart are removed from their current object(s) and transferred to God. And since there is an inevitable correspondence between a person's heart and their behaviour, decisions, and volitions, such a renovated heart will predictably lead more and more to that transformation of life which is God's purpose for his people.
1 See, for example, the climactic moment of Phil 2.6-11 "to the glory of God the Father."
2 This is obviously an overly compressed statement! The key text on this question has always seemed to me to be Phil 2.12-14, where Paul understands the sovereign work of God, not only not to limit his agency, but to empower it! See also David Bentley Hart's bracing treatment of this theme in his The experience of God.
3 The prophets repeatedly condemn Israel for her hard heartedness, regardless of her obedience in offering sacrifice for example, Isa 1.12-15, 29.13-14. Similarly, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their attention to the details of the Torah, including the praise of God, and at the same time, quoting Isa 29.13-14, says that their hearts are far from God.
4 It would be overly precise to attempt to make strong distinctions between heart,' soul,'''mind' and strength.'At the same time, it does not perhaps stretch too far to note that 'mind' and 'strength' seem more or less to correspond with belief and behaviour. That Jesus endorsing the precedent of Deut 6.4-5 adds 'heart' and 'soul' indicating that the greatest commandment, while necessarily including right belief and right behaviour, cannot be reduced to right belief and right behaviour.
5 In other words, it is a dual claim that is being made here. First, that the transformation which is one of God's goals for his people includes transformation of mind ("to be renewed in the spirit of your minds" [Eph 4.23]), and transformation of behaviour and character ("to put away your former way of life, your old self" [Eph 4.22]), along with transformation of heart, and that these different modes of human experience are never to be played off against one another. And second, at the same time, that the heart plays a particular and key role in both the content and the process (or dynamic) of that transformation.
6 Note that there are three uses of the noun ἐπιθυμία positively in the New Testament - Luke 22.15 (where Jesus says that it is with "eager desire" that he has longed to eat this Passover with his disciples before he suffers; Phil 1.23, where Paul indicates that his "desire is to depart and be with Christ"; and 1 Thess 2.17, where Paul writes that he "longed in great eagerness" to be reunited with the Thessalonians. In these cases, the meaning is more like strong desire' than over desire'. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis notes: "Where the terms [noun and verb forms] are used in a neutral or good sense, they seem to express a particularly strong desire (Silva, 2014, p. 242). Apart from these, the remaining 35 uses are all in connection with sinful desire. A similar pattern of occasional neutral usage, but majority negative usage, is observable in relation to the verb form.
7 Note that it is important to recognise that the ideal of Christian discipleship is not that we love only God. On the contrary, Christians are called to love their spouse, love their neighbour, and even love their enemies. In other words, Christlikeness is constituted by loving all things in the right way, and to the right proportion. Consequently, disordered desire of the heart - that is, desires that are ἐπι-θυμίαις, and not just θυμίαις - can take the form both of desire for an evil thing (which is by nature an over desire), or an overly intense desire for a good thing. In either case, over-desire' could be used as a reasonable translation of ἐπιθυμίαις.
8 Of course, it is true to say that the beauty and excellence of the grace of God in the cross of Christ includes a cognitive dimension. However, whilst this cognition is necessary, it is not sufficient, and does not yet reach the heart. Jonathan Edwards' concept of the sense of the heart' is aimed at exactly this distinction. He writes "Thus there is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former that knows not how honey tastes; but a man cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind" (Edwards, 1834 (Vol 2) loc. 945).
9 Prior to the entrance of sin, I suggest, holiness and glory would have had the same - melting - effect on the heart. However, as those who remain in a battle with sin until the Lord returns, and whose hearts remain to one degree or another divided in their loyalties and hardened, the holiness and glory of God apart from his grace may have the effect of overwhelming us. It is for this reason that it is particularly the grace of God, enacted most wonderfully in the cross of Christ, which is foregrounded as a key focal point for preaching to the heart.
10 The sermon can be found here: https://www.theologynetwork.org/christian-beliefs/the-holy-spirit-and-christian-living/the-expulsive-power-of-a-new-affection.htm. Accessed December 2018.