As a new semester begins at Bible colleges and seminaries, many students look forward to taking their first preaching course. Some have no preaching experience and hold the syllabus tightly with nervous fingers. Some have experience teaching in various capacities and received glowing reviews from well-meaning church members, so they assume there is little to learn. Both should enter the upcoming semester with humility, patience, and at least eight other perspectives.

Hermeneutics come first. When speaking of preaching, I mean the discipline and practice of “exegetical” or “expository” preaching. Expository preaching takes its purpose and principles from the purpose and principles of a particular biblical pericope, explaining and applying that text to the Christian identity, worship, community, and mission. To accomplish such a task, rigorous textual study is required. Simply put, good preaching begins with sound exegesis. Truly, it is the biblical text that changes people, not your delivery (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Sinclair Ferguson notes, “The preacher creates the sermon, he does not create the message. He is explaining and expounding the message that has already been given. The sermon is not the preacher’s word; it is God’s Word.”[i] You must plan to invest serious time in the study of your text.

Christ-centered preaching is Christian preaching. I agree with Brian Chapell when he says, “Expository preaching is Christ-centered preaching.”[ii] I would add that Christ-centered preaching is Christian preaching, for Christ is the chief aim of the preacher (1 Cor. 1:22-24; 2:1-2; 2 Cor. 4:4-6; Gal. 6:14; Col. 1:28-29). Now, because of the previous point regarding hermeneutics, the question is often asked, “So, I’m supposed to see Jesus in every text?” Chapell responds, “Christ-centered preaching rightly understood does not seek to discover where Christ is mentioned in every text but to disclose where every text stands in relation to Christ.”[iii] When coming to your text, ask, “How does the gospel affect my understanding and application of this text?” Then preach a Christian sermon (Luke 24:27).

Right doctrine prevents wrong application. Every pastor should be a pastor-theologian. A pastor-theologian is a biblically-educated, theologically-grounded intellectual who makes disciples through the ministry of the word. The pastor-theologian is the primary agent in the theological and spiritual formation of those in his congregation and thus should devote time to learning and absorbing right doctrine. An established system of doctrine will then provide a structure (or guardrails) for biblically-grounded, Christ-centered preaching. David Helm notes, “A major benefit of reflecting on systematic theology in your sermon preparation is that it provides a constraint. It holds you to orthodoxy.”[iv] J.I. Packer agrees, saying, “Only theology…will secure adequacy of application when we preach. Theology offers a ready-made grid for making applications, and this is help that we need.”[v] Do your best to be an approved pastor-theologian, handling accurately the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).

Preaching is a pastoral activity. Preaching is done in a particular context. It is commanded for the gathered people of God (2 Tim. 3:16-4:5), by pastors or shepherds (Eph. 4:1; 1 Tim. 4:11-16; 5:17-18; 1 Peter 4:11; 5:1-4) who are able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:15). The shepherd motif is one to which a pastor must pay attention. Laniak explains, “To be a good shepherd—and this is consistently the biblical concern—means to be accountable for the lives and well-being of the sheep. For this reason the designation is used for the prophets, priests, and kings in the Old Testament, and for ruling elders in the New Testament church.”[vi] Shepherding is comprehensive, and includes preaching. Remember, your seminary or Bible college is training you to be a shepherd, not a conference speaker (1 Timothy 4:11, 13).

Preaching has a kingdom agenda. In his excellent book God’s Big Picture,[vii] Vaughn Roberts encapsulates the biblical redemptive story in eight kingdoms. The pattern of the kingdom described the garden of Eden before the fall when the kingdom perished because of sin. The kingdom was promised to Abraham and his offspring in Genesis 12 and is partially realized in the settlement of God’s people in the promised land. Israel rebels against God and they are sent away to exile looking toward the prophesied kingdom to come to pass. The kingdom is then realized, or present in the person and work of Jesus who began his ministry by proclaiming, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mark 1:15). Following Jesus’ ascension his disciples (and we) walk in the already/not yet of the proclaimed kingdom and longingly pray for it to be perfected. Your place in the story of redemption is to exalt the King and extend his kingdom, not your own.

Humility is critical. Pride is the root of all sin. Our breaking of the first commandment is what leads us to break the other nine, and we come by that behavior honestly (Gen. 3:6). While it may not appear so brazenly, pride is an occupational hazard for preachers. “Whether our metrics are Sunday attendance numbers, sermon podcast downloads, or outside speaking invitations, we can fall into the trap of boasting about our ministry influence—even if we only do it silently, within our hearts.”[viii] These temptations first surface in seminary, especially for those skilled in preaching.  Remember, if you are preaching to prove that you are better than other students, you have missed the point of the exercise. Learn from your professor and submit yourself to a group of local church elders to aid you in discipleship and development. Simon Peter speaks from experience when he says, “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).

Novelty is a potential enemy. Be wary of homiletic novelty or innovation. While our culture is fascinated with the new and the different, that is dangerous ground for the preacher. As R.C. Sproul said, “What God expects from a minister of the gospel is the sober, accurate presentation of His Word. We get no style points for novelty from God.”[ix] Deeper still, behind the desire to be novel can hide the desire for notoriety. In the pastorate, there can arise an unhealthy craving to hear, “I’ve never heard this before,” or, “I’ve never heard it put that way before.” We want to be known as a great preacher, a creative communicator. But we must emulate the posture of the apostle Paul who recognized his weakness so that the power of God in the gospel would be paramount (1 Cor. 1:17; 2 Cor. 4:5-7).

History is your friend. Use commentaries and read other preachers. Spurgeon famously said, “The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own”[x] While in Bible college or seminary, ask Old and New Testament professors for recommendations on good commentaries in their discipline. Ask the preaching faculty which commentaries they use most frequently in preaching and how many they use in sermon preparation. As with novelty above, you aren’t the first preacher to struggle with the Nephilim in Genesis 6 or Moses’ failure to circumcise his son in Exodus 4. Examine the text carefully and then learn from those whose job it is to examine texts carefully.

Learning is your job. You will never be in a setting so dedicated to learning as you are now. Entire courses devoted to Greek and Hebrew, Systematic Theology, Biblical Counseling, and Expository Preaching provide an opportunity to grow substantially in the knowledge of Scripture (2 Tim. 2:15), and ultimately the knowledge of God (2 Tim. 3:15-17). Though many around you may see it as an opportunity to prove themselves as learned, I plead with you to take the posture of the learner. That posture requires a teachable spirit. Proverbs 18 reminds us, “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (See also Prov. 19:20; 22:17; 25:12; Isa. 50:4-5; 2 Chr. 26:3-5; Ps 27:11; 43:3; 86:11; 119:9-11; 139:23-24; 143:8-10).[xi] Decide now to be a learner.

Spiritual formation is the point. All theology is spiritual theology. John Stott notes, “Christian theology is a serious quest for the true knowledge of God, undertaken in response to his self-revelation, illumined by Christian tradition, manifesting a rational inner coherence, issuing in ethical conduct, resonating with the contemporary world and concerned for the greater glory of God.”[xii] That is, your study program should result in knowledge of God and subsequently joyful obedience. J.I. Packer goes further, saying, “Theology teaches us how to apply revealed truth for the leading of our lives; thus theology guides our steps, grant us vision, and fuels our worship, while at the same time disinfecting our minds from the inadequate, distorted and corrupt ideas of God and godliness that come naturally to our fallen intellect.” Simply put, an overarching aim of evangelical higher education is devotional, to aid students in knowing God. Let the sermons both delivered and heard in your preaching class help you know and follow Christ (1 Timothy 1:5).

Enjoy the semester and determine to learn the craft of homiletics as a humble, learning, devoted disciple of Jesus. We are glad you are here.

[i] Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Exegesis,” in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century, ed. Samuel T Logan, (Phillipsburg, N.Y.: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 2011), 192.

[ii] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2005), 280.

[iii] Chapell, 279.

[iv] David R. Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today, 9Marks (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014), 84.

[v] J.I. Packer, “The Preacher as Theologian,” in When God’s Voice is Heard: Essays on Preaching Presented to Dick Lucas, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), 79-95.

[vi] Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible, New Studies in Biblical Theology 20 (Downers Grove, Ill: Apollos ; InterVarsity Press, 2006), 247.

[vii] Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

[viii] Rick Reed, The Heart of the Preacher: Preparing Your Soul to Proclaim the Word (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 21.

[ix] R. C. Sproul, “The Teaching Preacher,” in Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching, ed. Don Kistler (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), 83.

[x] C. H. Spurgeon, “Paul—His Cloak and His Books,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 9 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1863), 668.

[xi] Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (London: Martin Manser, 2009).

[xii] John Stott, “Theology: A Multidimensional Discipline,” in Doing Theology for the People of God: Studies in Honor of J.I. Packer, eds. Donald M. Lewis, Alister E. McGrath, and J. I. Packer (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1996), 17-18.