Thomas E. Tyson
Becoming a pastor of a congregation is truly an awesome responsibility and a challenge with broad implications. What can I say in the space of one brief article that might prove to be particularly on target and might actually help ministers or licentiates as they embark on, or persevere in, this venture? As I think about this task in light of not only what the Bible says about it, but also what I have learned myself over the years, I want to focus attention on one facet of the pastoral ministry: preaching. Yes, pastors will need to be shepherd, counselor, teacher, model, leader, disciplinarian, and more. But preachers they will most certainly be—they will prepare and deliver many sermons.
Let me make very clear that I am not saying, “do what I have done, and you will be a good preacher.” I have preached altogether too many bad sermons, but I did receive helpful advice from sessions, congregations, and other preachers who encouraged me in the task. When invited to critique what I was doing, they didn’t hesitate, and what they said has stuck with me over the years. So, permit me to identify in this article at least three things in particular that I believe ought to characterize preaching.
When men preach, they speak for God. That’s why they do well to not concentrate on talking about what men think about the topic under consideration—this view and that, this explanation and that. They will listen to the text of Scripture, and say that to the church they serve. Preaching is not just verbally conveying information. It’s not teaching data, even data that’s true. There is a place for that: seminars, Bible studies, Sunday school lessons, testimonies—yes, even books. But preaching is something special, and it is unlike every other form of communication. In a sermon, God is talking to his people! Now, admittedly, that is an overwhelming thought! What about all the sin, all the weakness, all the error that clings to the preacher? All I can say is that God has determined to deliver his message this way, in spite of the cracks in the vessels.
That’s why, when preachers preach, they should do so using the second person plural. In the preaching of biblical sermons, God is talking to the hearers, and their name is “you.” Preaching is what the people in the pew need to hear and obey—and they should be addressed by their proper name: “you.” And, that’s exactly why preachers need to use that second person plural, time and again in their sermonizing. They need to say to their hearers: “this is what you need to hear God saying to you.” This is no grammatical piece of advice that I give—it’s a matter of the most serious consequence. Without it, preachers will make it very easy for the congregation to escape what’s happening: God is speaking to them.
The Bible is not so much about Jesus Christ. It is the very Word that is Jesus Christ. To understand the difference between those two sentences, one needs to understand the basic outline of the Holy Scriptures. The first part of the Bible consists of Genesis 1:1 through 3:15. The second part consists of Genesis 3:16 through Revelation 22:21.
Now, how would you characterize those two main parts of the Bible? How about this: the first is the covenant of works, broken by Adam and Eve, with the resultant condemnation of all their posterity, and the need, therefore, for a Deliverer. The second is the covenant of grace, whereby God provides that needed Deliverer, and applies his saving grace to a worldwide church. And do you notice the common denominator? Yes, it is Jesus Christ himself! So, you don’t need to search for him in the Bible—he’s everywhere! Every text of Holy Scripture speaks of him, in one way or the other, and it is the job of preachers to draw attention to him in every one of their sermons.
If they’re preaching on any verse or verses in the first two and a half chapters of Genesis, they’re going to call their hearers to confess their need of Jesus, and to respond in faith and obedience. Whatever else they might say, they will not fail to do that! Then, if they’re preaching on any verse or verses in the rest of the Bible, they’re going to call their hearers to trust in that Deliverer, Jesus, and him alone for salvation. They won’t make the mistake of dividing the covenant of grace in two, between Malachi and Matthew. The Judaizers in the church of Galatia tried that route, and the apostle Paul condemned their effort in a very potent and hard-hitting epistle. There’s only one covenant of grace, and it’s the same in both the Old and the New Testaments: not Jesus plus circumcision, baptism, church attendance, minimum law-keeping, or anything else—it is Jesus only. Paul put it this way in his first letter to Corinth: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). And preachers realize that there was no New Testament yet when the apostle said that. He was referring to the Old Testament, and he said that he received the gospel message from that source—the old, yet new, covenant of grace.
So far, in this article, I’ve been talking about the content of sermons. Now just a word or two about their delivery—and that starts with the preacher’s work in the study. Right here I find myself a bit out of step with some of the homiletical advice in recent books and articles. It seems that one major thrust today, in the area of preaching, lies in the direction of the preacher’s opening himself to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the pulpit and in the preaching moment. Consequently, composing the wording of a sermon ahead of time is discouraged—it is thought to restrict and actually interfere with a much freer presentation of it. It is better to get away from a prepared script, and to open oneself to the Spirit’s movement to freshen and therefore create a more effective delivery of the sermon.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me—I wouldn’t want to see any preacher so bound by a written sermon that he totally loses not only eye contact with the congregation but also heart contact with them. But I do want to affirm that the Holy Spirit of God is as much present in the pastor’s study as he is in the pastor’s pulpit. Let that Spirit guide the sermon-preparer as he reflects upon God’s text and upon what he wants delivered to his people, and let the sermon-preparer make sure he is ready to do that on Sunday.
When I began preaching sixty years ago, I took very skimpy notes into the pulpit, because I thought that I was ready to work out the delivery on the spot with effectiveness. It wasn’t long before I realized that that way of going about preaching was not only sometimes embarrassing but, more importantly, it failed to feed the flock and to glorify the Great Shepherd. A brother minister said, “Tom, you need to write out your sermons ahead of time!” I tried it, and have been doing it ever since. At first, I suppose it looked like I was reading them, and I was—but in time I learned how to have the sermon on the podium without being chained to it.
Preachers are not going to be ready to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, if all they’ve done is satisfy themselves that they understand, in general terms, the text they’ve selected. They need to think deeply about how exactly this text applies to this congregation, and then decide how they are going to preach that. Now, if they can do it without writing it out ahead of time, I would say, “Go for it!” —but to do that, one must be especially gifted! And if they can write it out, but not take it into the pulpit, and still “deliver the goods”—that would be fine, too.
But whatever method is employed, preachers need to work every week toward this end: that the sheep hear their Good Shepherd’s voice, are challenged by hearing his voice addressed to them by their proper name, and meet their redeemer Jesus Christ, who is himself the Word made flesh.
The author is a retired OP minister who served as the general secretary of the Committee on Christian Education.
© 2021 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church