Biblical Preaching Is About Life Change—Not Sermon Form

The core value of preaching that changes lives is that it’s biblical. You and I don’t change lives. God changes lives. For two thousand years, he has used the power of this Word to convict stubborn hearts of sin, to move cold spirits to repentance, and to lift faltering lives to hope.

The question that causes a fair amount of controversy is: What makes preaching biblical?

It’s Not About Form

Often people think what makes preaching biblical is a particular style or structure. Where I grew up, people talked about three categories for preaching: topical, often regarded as not very biblical; textual, where the main point comes from a Scripture verse, which was considered more biblical; and expository, which is difficult to get a clear definition of. Expository is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Some people think of it as verse-by-verse preaching, or where points and subpoints are from one text in Scripture.

There are a number of problems with thinking one particular style or structure of preaching is the only kind that’s biblical. One problem is Jesus didn’t do that kind of expository preaching. Mostly he told stories and the implications for listeners’ lives. The apostles didn’t do that kind of expository preaching. In the New Testament you don’t see any sermon that goes verse by verse through an Old Testament text. I’m not saying that kind of preaching is a bad thing. It’s important that people become biblically literate. But what makes preaching biblical is not its structure. To be biblical does not mean the preacher follows a particular form that, after all, human beings created.

It’s About Relevance, Application, and Enablement

William D. Thompson, author of Preaching Biblically, writes, “Biblical preaching is when listeners are enabled to see how their world, like the biblical world, is addressed by the Word of God.” It is important not to be superficial when it comes to what makes preaching biblical. How many Bible verses a sermon has does not determine whether or not it’s biblical. You can have a hundred verses in a sermon and misinterpret every one of them. It is not the structure. Biblical preaching occurs when people listen, are able to hear that God is addressing them as God addressed the world of the Scriptures, and are enabled to respond.

Far too many sermons have lots of information about the Bible but are not really biblical preaching because they do not call and enable people to respond to the Word. There is lots of information about the Bible—exegetical, historical, or theological—with maybe a few applications tacked on the end.

It’s About Working the Soap of the Word Deeply Through the Stained Fibers of Hearers’ Hearts

What happens when the Word addresses people? In Ephesians 5:25–26, Paul has a wonderful metaphor. He says, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the Word.” The church is to be made holy by being cleansed with the washing of the Word. Why do you wash something? Because it’s dirty. What happens when you wash something? Soap and water move through the fibers and lift out impurities from the fabric.

When we and our congregations come before God, our hearts are like that. They are cluttered with false beliefs and attitudes, misguided intentions, and wrong perceptions.

I could tell you what a few of mine are. I’m walking down the street. Somebody wants money. I find myself looking away from him because I don’t even want to be reminded of that need, and I don’t want to feel guilty by not giving him something. Or I’m at a convenience store in a line of people, and the person behind the counter doesn’t speak English well, and my reflexive thoughts are, I’m in a hurry. Why can’t they get somebody who speaks English well around here? Or another time I’m in church standing next to somebody who’s important and the thoughts that run through my mind are, This is an important person. I wonder what I might be able to say to make a connection because he or she is important.

Those are just a few thoughts in my mind that are dirty. They equip me for bad works. They make bad feelings and behaviors almost inevitable. Imagine having a mind cleansed of all that. Imagine when you’re with somebody, your first thought is to pray for them and bless them. Imagine that if you’re challenged, your first thought is to look to God for strength.

That’s what it would be like to have a mind washed by the Word, and that’s your goal for the people to whom you speak. That’s the goal of biblical preaching. The goal is not to get vast amounts of exegetical information into people. My goal is not to get people all the way through the Bible. My goal is to get the Bible all the way through people.

Biblical preaching answers three questions: What must hearers know, feel, and do? To do that I ask three questions. What do I want people to know? What do I want people to feel? What do I want people to do? I think about these questions for every message I preach because if I don’t address the mind and heart and will—if I can’t answer those questions—then I need not deliver this message because it’s not going to wash their minds in the Word.

Your goal is to wash the minds of your people in the Word so that Christ is formed in them. That’s biblical preaching.

John Ortberg

John Ortberg is teaching pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church  in Menlo Park, California and author of several books, including The Life You’ve Always Wanted and The Me I Want to Be.

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