By Jim Shaddix – Excerpted from The Passion Driven Sermon (B&H Publishing Group, 2003)
We live in a day in which people in churches are crying out for practical application and longing to see the relevance of the Bible. People have grown weary listening to sermons that only give them historical facts but provide them with no connection to real life.
Because we are a people of extremes, however, our humanity causes us to overreact to such abuses. And the result is that the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme of viewing the Bible merely as a resource manual for life on earth. And our infatuation with practical application has caused us to overlook the most important quality of the Bible—its Divine feature. We must understand that the Bible is God-centered, not man-centered. It is a book about Him more than it is a book about us. To make it otherwise is both selfish and arrogant. When we search God’s Word with a how-to mentality, we often run right past the revelation of Almighty God. This perversion fits hand in glove with the order of contemporary culture: “It’s all about me!”
The confusion regarding the essence of the Bible is compounded when applied to pastoral preaching, and the resulting deception is ever so subtle. Shepherds are ministers of grace and desire to meet people’s needs and heal their hurts. But what happens when the Bible gives no specific and practical help for the life situations some of our people are facing? Among other things, the shepherd in his desire to help is tempted to find his preaching material from some place other than the Bible. Walter Kaiser lamented that many pastors have decided that using the Bible is a handicap for meeting the needs of the current generation and, therefore, “have gone to drawing their sermons from the plethora of recovery and pop-psychology books that fill our Christian bookstores.” Worse yet, the shepherd lowers himself to making the Bible say things it does not say. In an attempt to offer practical and helpful information, he stands up to say, “Thus saith the Lord,” when the Lord did not saith! How can God get the glory if the preacher does not speak what God says?
While the preaching described above cannot necessarily be categorized as heresy or even blatant error, neither can it be described as consisting of the inspired Word of God. In Power in the Pulpit, Jerry Vines and I described this subtlety as the often overlooked difference between good stuff and God’s stuff. The body of truth that is revealed in the Bible, given for the purpose of godliness (see 2 Pet. 1:2–4) and righteousness (see 2 Tim. 3:16), can be called God’s stuff. It is the stuff of the Bible—its very essence. On the other hand, there is much helpful advice in life that is comprised of information or principles gleaned from simple observation and research. That is good stuff. Let us be very clear—the shepherd has not been charged with the task of speaking on all matters of good stuff.
While all truth is God’s truth, not all truth has been included in His written Word. He has sovereignly chosen to include only that which is necessary for man’s sanctification. There is a whole lot of good and helpful information in the world, but God did not choose to consecrate all of it as His inspired revelation necessary for spiritual transformation. In a previous work I cited the example of Aristotle, who delineated his principles of rhetoric simply by engaging in observation. He watched enough public speakers that he was able to glean certain “truths” for doing it effectively. The principles of rhetoric have had profound impact on preaching and all other forms of public speaking. But they are merely good stuff. Although they are both helpful and useful, they will not foster the God-life, much less glorify Him.
But the crisis we face in preaching today is not shepherds who deliver sermons on how to do good public speaking. The body of good stuff is far more appealing to contemporary churchgoers. That is what makes it so tough. If a therapist observes enough people dealing with stress on the job place, he will glean certain helpful principles for addressing the issue. If a marriage counselor observes enough people journeying through divorce recovery, she will be able to develop some guidelines that are helpful for that crisis. If parenting experts talk with enough moms and dads who are raising kids, they will be able to outline some practical ways for navigating such a task. And there will always be certain general truths in Scripture which can be applied to these and other life experiences.
The shepherd’s authority to stand and speak “Thus saith the Lord” is not in good stuff, but God’s stuff. While biblical truth surely informs certain principles that might be categorized as good stuff, its primary intent is more specific and far-reaching. The faithful shepherd will rightly interpret, exegete, and proclaim the truth of Scripture so as to allow it to accomplish its purpose in people’s lives.
But when the shepherd prostitutes God’s stuff for good stuff, anarchy occurs. And the biggest tragedy is not what people are getting but what they are not getting. While they certainly are getting some helpful information, they are being robbed of the truth that is necessary for realizing God’s end and subsequently bringing glory to Him.
God’s stuff is the very essence of the Bible. It is His book, and it is primarily about Him. When the preacher begins at this point in his interpretation and his application, then he is sure to exalt God and bring glory to His name. When he begins at the point of resourcing man regarding all of his questions and felt needs, however, his interpretation and application are certain to exalt humanity.