By Michael Jones
Have we stopped declaring the whole coun- sel of God?
Somewhere around 15 years ago, I had my first experience with unde- nominational Christianity. Like most people in the religious world, my understanding of Christianity was that it looked like a tapestry, with the various denominations likened to the patches that make up a whole quilt. I was totally ignorant that division within the body of Christ was sinful (1 Cor 1:10-13). I came from a Baptist background, but I imagine that virtually anyone from a denominational background viewed Christianity in a similar light.
When I first visited a church of Christ, I was amazed at the level of Bible knowledge that the typical member possessed. I was so amazed by it, that I distinctly remember telling my Baptist friends that, “The aver- age church of Christ member could run circles around some of the best Baptist scholars you could produce in general Bible knowledge.” After making this observation, I wondered why this was true. Then, like a bolt of lightning, it occurred to me: the church of Christ was actually teaching the Bible, whereas the Baptist church I attended was not. The command to “preach the word” was taken seriously (2 Tim 4:2).
It is with much regret that I look at the church today and wonder if we have left the mandate of true Bible teaching. I have heard many sermons in churches of Christ where there is not a single Bible verse read or re- ferred to for the first 15 or 20 minutes of the sermon. I have also heard sermons where the lack of preparation is obvious, usually filling most of the sermon time with stories and anecdotes that contribute nothing to serious Bible study. The congregation languishes in a spiritual morass, never sees any spiritual growth, and is taught by example that there need be no emphasis on actually teaching the Bible. Slowly, but surely, the congregations are becoming just like the Baptist church that I left all those years ago: full of sermons with entertaining oratories with only a few obligatory Scriptures thrown in, and rather obtusely at that. I call this preaching. If you hear more stories the “let me entertain you” school of and illustrations than Scripture verses during a sermon, you might be hearing a “let me entertain you” preacher.
Very different than the first, there is also another type of preaching malpractice going on today. It is more subtle, but equally dampening to spiritual growth. And whereas most congregations would not tolerate the absence of Bible teaching for long, those same congregations frequently embrace this transgression. There is another movement currently taking place that says there are only certain subjects that should be preached on exclusively: baptism, denominationalism, the church, and authority. With only minor variations, the congregation hears essentially one of four sermons twice every single week (morning and evening). This is what I call the “only four things really matter” school of preaching. You might be hearing a “only four things really matter” preacher if all of his sermons could always have one of the following titles: The Necessity of Water Baptism, The Sin of Denominational Division, The Nature of the Church, or How to Establish Biblical Authority. These may not have been the actual titles, but could they have been?
The goal of congregational Bible teaching and preaching should be to have those in attendance to conform their lives to Biblical principals. This is walking with God. “And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments” (2 John 6). When Christians pattern their lives after biblical commandments and principals, we grow in grace; when we fail to practice the truth and live according to his desires, John says we walk in darkness and lose our fellowship with God. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).
The evangelistic nature of a sermon is always fulfilled when there is a call to conform one’s life to biblical in- struction and admonition. In one key respect, the call of the Bible is the same to those outside of Christ as well as those who are in Christ: Do the will of the God, and you shall live. But the soul that sins shall die (cf. Ezek. 18:20). To those who are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), the call is to conform their lives to the will of God in initial obedience of faith (John 8:24), repentance (Acts 17:30), confession (Rom. 10:10), and baptism (Acts 2:38). Those who are saved, are to continue in obedience to biblical commands and principals. Jesus became the “author of eternal life to those who obey Him” (Heb. 5:9).
Matthew 7:21 tells us that only those who do the will of God will enter into the kingdom of heaven. Is the will of God restricted to baptism, unity, the church, and authority? Certainly not. Why are we then content to tolerate preaching that only touches on these areas? The word of God is filled with instruction on a seemingly unlimited scope. Gener- ally, the message of the Bible is a call to righteous and holy living. The Lord commands, “Be ye holy, because I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16).
It is easy to see then why knowing God’s word and con- forming our lives to it is so important. The problem with “let me entertain you” preachers is that the congregation is never exposed to biblical principles in the first place since the Bible is only used lightly and more from obligation than desire.
The problem with “only four things really matter” preachers is that the congregation only learns four Biblical principals, and if something arises outside of those four areas, they are completely unprepared to deal with it. 1 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us, “All Scripture is given by inspira- tion of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Understanding that God gave us his word exactly as he wanted us to learn from it, which part are we free to neglect in our teaching and preaching? None of it, since God gave all of it for a purpose: that we might be complete. When we neglect to proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) and we fail to teach the fully revealed will of God for our lives, we do a grave disservice to the Bible.
God has charged us to preach his word. I submit to you that the only truly effective way to do this is with verse-by- verse, systematic, expository preaching. Start in chapter 1, verse 1 and preach his word one verse at a time. By system- atic, I mean progressing through the text of Scripture as it was given without skipping any of it. By expositionally, I mean preaching in such a way that the meaning of the Bible passage is presented entirely and exactly as God intended it. The preacher is charged with the proclamation of the truth of God, not his opinions. And we are not at liberty to discount portions of God’s word because we find the passages difficult to understand or deal with.
Should not our preaching be done in a manner that treats the Bible as being what it claims to be — the inspired Word of God? If we really believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God,” shouldn’t our preaching reflect the truth that all of it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16- 17)? We must let these truths determine how and what we preach.
Paul gave this mandate to Timothy: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:1-2). Any form of preaching that ignores that intended purpose and design of God falls short of the divine plan.
Frequently, we criticize denominational churches for avoiding certain passages of Scripture. This is often a valid criticism. After all, when is the last time you heard a Baptist preacher teach on Mark 16:16? How about 1 Peter 3:21? Have you noticed, however, that we may need somebody to give us the same criticism? How many sermons have you heard on the resurrection and proper biblical eschatology in passages such as John 5:28-29 and chapter 15 of 1 Cor- inthians? How about the option of remaining single instead of marrying (1 Cor. 7:25-40)? I don’t think we jettisoned our commitment to preaching the whole counsel of God on purpose, but we may have let it happen by practice.
Let me detail what I mean by “systematic verse by verse exposition of the word of God.” There are three major cat- egories of preaching: Topical, textual, and expository.
Topical messages usually combine a series of Bible vers- es that loosely connect with a theme. It has been estimated that around 80% of all preachers are topical preachers.
Textual preaching uses a short text or passage that generally serves as a gateway into whatever subject the preacher chooses to address. Somewhere around 15% of all preachers fit this category.
Expository preaching focuses predominately on the text under consideration, as well as its context. Do the math, and you’ll see that around 5% of preachers are expositors.
It is my firm belief that neither the topical nor the textual method represents a serious effort to interpret, understand, explain, or apply God’s truth in the context of the Scriptures used. This is especially true when you are merely trying to entertain the audience. Most books on hermeneutics state the following minimal elements identify expository preaching:
- The message finds its sole source in Scripture. No pop- psychology, politics, social engineering, or excessive pandering to emotions.
- The message comes entirely from the Scripture under consideration through careful exegesis. The preacher cannot expound Scripture until he has a firm grasp of its meaning.
- The message correctly interprets Scripture in light of its context, on both an immediate and overall level.
- The message clearly explains the original God-intended meaning of Scripture. This cannot be over-emphasized. We are to let the Scriptures teach us; we are not to force our view into the passage.
- The message applies the scriptural meaning for today.
- This is also known as “relevance.”
If the above sounds like it places a heavy burden of ser- mon preparation on the preacher, you can be assured that it does. Paul’s instruction to Timothy was that he was to, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). The preacher who is doing the work that God expects him to do will always be a hard worker, and will spend serious time in Bible study, frequently around
10-15 hours per sermon. Fail to adequately prepare and the preacher directly disobeys 2 Timothy 2:16: “But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness.” (A helpful hint to preachers: study to know the meaning of the text, not to prepare a sermon. When you thoroughly understand the text, the sermon will be easily prepared.)
There are many passages that exemplify this kind of Bible teaching. Two key verses are Nehemiah 8:8 (Old Testament) and Acts 20:26-27 (New Testament). “And they read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading”(Neh. 8:8). “Therefore I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God”(Acts 20:26-27).
Other examples include Jesus himself as he taught in the synagogue by expounding Isaiah 61:1-2 in Luke 4:16-
22. (See also Luke 24:27, 32, 44-47.) Philip demonstrated expository teaching being used evangelistically in Acts 8:27-35 when he was dealing with the Ethiopian eunuch. These are not the only examples of exposition in the teach- ing of Scripture. In fact, the word of God is replete with such examples. Each of the Gospels, the history book of Acts, almost every single epistle (the one chapter epistles being the only exception), and even the prophetic book of Revelation provide many examples and exhortations to preach the complete word of God as he has given it.
We must return to the biblical pattern and example of proclaiming the whole counsel of God exactly and entirely as it was given to us. Failing to do so will lead to a genera- tion of Christians that knows very little about God’s word, who do not grow spiritually, and (worst of all) cannot reproduce themselves. We do not do justice to the word of God when we fail to proclaim it in its entirety. We do not proclaim it in its entirety when we preach on the same things over and over to the neglect of the rest of Scripture. And we certainly do not proclaim it properly when we teach sermons that merely make the occasional, casual, reference to the word of God.
Consider these verses, and ask yourself if these things are happening at your congregation. If they are not, there needs to be repentance for neglecting the whole counsel of God, followed by continued obedience to the commands and examples that follow:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20).
Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13).
And the things which you have heard from me in the pres- ence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).
Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruc- tion (2 Tim. 4:2).
But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine (Tit. 2:1).