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January 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 1 · pp. 14–22 

Preaching with Authority

Mervin Dick

Most preachers I know gladly welcome the new mood that is now evident regarding the place of preaching in the church. It was in the 60’s and early 70’s that we were being told, even by certain preachers, that preaching was all but useless for genuine ministry in the world. Many accepted the verdict reported by Pierre Berton in his controversial book, The Comfortable Pew, published in 1965. Said Berton, regarding his extended discussions with various Anglican clergymen: “again and again we kept returning to this matter of the sermon, and again I was interested to discover that the priests who talked with me, and often agreed with what I had to say about the irrelevancy of the modern pulpit, tried to convince me that sermons really did not matter that much, since sermons were only a small part of over-all church work.” 1

Now there is a new mood in the church, one that is not favorably inclined toward preaching but one that actually longs for a word from the Lord. William Thompson observes in his Editor’s Forward to the recently published Abingdon Preacher’s Library:

Preaching has captured the attention of increasingly large segments of the American public. Lay parish committees seeking pastoral leadership consistently rank preaching as the most desirable pastoral skill. Seminary courses and clergy conferences on preaching attract participants in larger numbers than ever. Millions of viewers watch television preachers every week.

So it seems we are recovering again the awareness that preaching is indispensable to authentic Christianity.

But now we seem to be plagued by another malady. It seems that often preaching lacks authority. I attended a preaching seminar this past summer led by a professor in one of the major seminaries in the United States. He reported that in years past the strongest complaint heard in the churches was that the recent seminary graduate turned Pastor seemed to have almost nothing to say. In recent years, however, the complaint was that while the preacher did have a message, it seemed to lack certainty and authority. Another observer has described this kind {15} of preaching as the “misery of one who is always pregnant but never ready to give birth.” 3 The cover of a book on preaching illustrates the problem. It depicts a robed preacher, Bible in hand, but with only blank space where the face should be. A preacher without a face—what a vivid way of describing the preacher, As One Without Authority (the title of the book).

This essay examines authority in preaching from the standpoint of the preacher. It assumes that the preacher’s convictions, task, technique, and attitude are significant factors for preaching with authority, and giving attention to these factors can increase the potential for preaching with authority.

In saying this we do not disregard the element of mystery in the preaching event. Many preachers can testify that at times the most carefully crafted sermon, growing from a genuine concern or conviction within the preacher, seems to make hardly an impact at all on the congregation. At other times one may enter the pulpit with great reservation of heart and mind, only to find the congregation visibly moved by the sermon. Such is the sometimes unexplainable work of the Holy Spirit. Yet my experience has been that when the matters discussed here receive careful attention, the possibility for preaching with authority is increased.

Nor is it my intention to depreciate the anti-authority mood that any preacher faces today, even in the church. When the prophets thundered, “Thus says the Lord!” they were standing on the firm ground of authority as they called people to the center around which the nation had been formed—God’s covenant with them. For the most part their authority was unquestioned. How different it is today. When the preacher today says, “Thus says the Lord!” the modern listener is likely to respond, “which Lord?” For before him lie a multitude of gods—nation, science, profession, and corporation, to mention a few—and all would call for allegiance. In this diverse secularist setting, granting authority to a single sovereignty around which all of life is centered seems a strange notion. Yet it is my contention that this obstacle, formidable as it is, can be overcome. Preaching with authority is not a fanciful dream.

AUTHORITY AND THE PREACHER’S THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS

All preaching emerges from a theological base of some kind. Even the preacher who has never defined his theology does in fact have a theology. John R.W. Stott has put it well: “Theology is more important than methodology . . . If we want to be preachers, theology is what we need. If our theology is right then we have all the basic insights we need into what we ought to be doing, and all the incentives we need to induce {16} us to do it faithfully.” 4 What are the theological convictions that produce authority in preaching?

Basic for preaching is a Biblical concept of God. Our God is one who delights in disclosing himself to mankind. This he has done in the created universe where we see his glory and greatness reflected (Psalm 19; Romans 1:18-32). But even more, God has made himself known by His mighty acts in the history of his people. The supreme revelation of God is Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-3). God has spoken not only in events but also in words. And God’s words amplify and clarify His actions. This conviction goes even deeper. The preacher believes in a God who acts and speaks in every generation. If God did and said what was necessary then, He will do so today as well. Without this basic conviction, preaching becomes an empty, ritualistic duty.

Preaching with authority comes from the preacher’s conviction about the Bible. The Bible is God’s word written. It is God’s word coming through human words. Furthermore, God is still speaking through these words which He has spoken. It is in preaching that this word of God and from God is released again into our personal and common life. When we preach Christ, who is the incarnated word of God, He is released anew among us to do his work in us. “When the word of Christ is preached the work of Christ goes on.” 5 This is truly a powerful thing. For this word of God is a potent force that has the ability to penetrate the human heart and mind, to convince and convict persons, and the strength to motivate people to repent and change.

These convictions lead us to define our preaching task as exposition of the Bible. “To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor pries open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed.” 6 When we do this the very word of God is heard clearly, plainly, and accurately and this allows the Holy Spirit to use it to convict, transform and restore the hearer. The preacher who possesses these convictions loses his timidity and fear until he speaks “as one who utters oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). That is authority!

It is a useful exercise for any preacher to periodically examine his deepest convictions in regard to his preaching task. There is authority in the preacher’s office and person, to be sure, and we must give attention to the way we carry out our office as pastor/teacher. Our character and behavior cannot be neglected. Yet authority in preaching begins with the inward realization that the preacher is under the authority of God and His Word. When the one who preaches is scrupulously faithful to the study, understanding and interpretation of the Word of God, working out of the firm conviction that as this Word is clearly spoken, God speaks today through it then authority in preaching will be present. This authority of God and His Word forms the basic component of the {17} preacher’s authority. All other sources of authority are secondary to this.

AUTHORITY AND THE PREACHER’S TASK

Preaching is a momentous event. For the preacher, when he speaks, stands between heaven and earth. The preacher is bringing a word from God into the world of people. Because this is his awesome task, the preacher must be familiar, conversant, and thoroughly immersed in both the Biblical word and the contemporary human world. This is no easy task!

The preacher is a student of the Bible. He seeks to be thoroughly familiar with the historical setting in which the Biblical story is set. He seeks to understand the key Biblical words and concepts. He has a thirst to understand the meaning and implications of the Biblical texts. The preacher does this work carefully out of deep respect for the word of God and a genuine concern to hear the word of God anew. What is implicit here is the “givenness” of the message. The preacher does not invent it, nor does he willfully distort it. He seeks to handle the word of God “correctly” (1 Tim. 2:15 NIV), to speak it forth clearly and accurately.

But this is only half of the task. Once the Word is plainly understood, it must be spoken into the contemporary human situation. So just as the preacher has done careful exegesis of the Scripture, he must now be an exegete of the world. What are the deep questions that gnaw at the innermost recesses of people’s hearts and minds? What are they thinking and feeling? While there is a “givenness” about the gospel, the question people ask and the human situation in which people live change from generation to generation. It is the preacher’s task to understand these, to accurately pose the questions and lay out the situations of the hearers and then to speak the Biblical word to them.

To use an analogy, if one possesses a valuable painting one does not take paint and brush and try to improve on what the artist has done. The painting is a given. What the owner does however, is to very carefully select the appropriate frame which will effectively enhance the beauty of the painting. Without a frame, the painting appears unfinished and inappropriate for viewing. It may even appear ugly! A frame that is too overbearing can detract from the excellence of the artist’s work. Just the right combination results in enjoyment of the work.

So with the sermon. All of us have heard sermons where the Bible is carefully expounded but the end result leaves the hearer unmoved because no human situation or need has been identified to which the word speaks. Problem? No frame! On the other hand we have all heard sermons which were sparkling in their insightful analysis of the human {18} situation, but which inadequately communicated a word from God to that situation. Problem? Too much frame. Authority in preaching is present when painting and frame are matched, or shall we say when real human questions and predicaments are addressed by the clearly understood and carefully interpreted word of God.

To do this will take courage and candor. It will not always be popular and in doing so the preacher will sometimes face opposition and hostility. There was a time when the world tried to silence the Christian message by openly opposing it or by eliminating the messenger. Modern Secularism with its sophistication has a more subtle strategy. Today the attempt is made to confine Christianity, to put it on a reservation, so to speak. The Christian message is allowed free domain in this “safe” area, usually consisting of quite other-wordly concerns or concerns of personal spiritual piety. Beyond that it may not go, thus leaving much of this world and its needs to other authorities. This attitude has deeply affected even the Church. The preachers who would speak with authority will not be confined, but will let the word of God speak where it wills to speak. Some, when so confronted, will choose to oppose the messenger instead of responding to the Word of God. Such is the price that must sometimes be paid for preaching with authority.

There is another way of looking at the preacher’s task. In a recent book, Walter Brueggemann has examined the functions of the three basic parts of the Old Testament Canon. 7 The function of the Torah (Books of the Law) is to lay the basic foundation of belief about God and the world. Its basic purpose is to instruct, assert, disclose and affirm what is the truth. The function of the second part of the Canon, the Prophets, (note Brueggemann sees the books sometimes called the historical books as being part of this section of the Old Testament Canon) is to bring a disruptive word from God. It stands in contrast to the Torah. For in time there comes to be a casual smugness about the special relationship with God that was affirmed by the Torah. So the prophets must criticize and disrupt so that a new word from the Lord can be heard. The disruptive word is actually an opportunity for a new beginning.

The third section of the Old Testament canon is wisdom and its function is to lead people into a discernment of order. It is centered in experience and the purpose of wisdom literature is to lead people to watch what is taking place in life and to discern and discover order and meaning in these experiences of life, to see God at work in them. This discernment will lead to wise living—behavior that is ethical—and that affirms the God-given order that has been discerned. The end result of this process is to recognize that God is involved in all of life, to gratefully praise Him and to live obediently in relationship to Him.

I am impressed by this perceptive analysis for it seems to give {19} guidance in understanding the preacher’s task. There is the foundational work, the laying of the groundwork for basic belief about God, about His world and about His relationship to His people. This is necessary particularly for the young and the uninitiated. Also let us not overlook the vast ignorance regarding basic Christian beliefs among persons who have held the faith for many years. Clearly, one of the functions of the preacher is to teach, to lay the foundations.

There is also the prophetic task. Smugness and complacency overtake the church with amazing ease. The preacher who would be faithful to his task and calling must also address these. Here he must sound a disruptive note, a word that would stir up rather than affirm. This is done with the conviction that as the hearers become aware of their complacency and are convinced of it, there is a new possibility for renewal and revival. The people experience God in a new way.

There is also the pastoral task. Many people, even believers, as they look at the events of the world in which we live and at the specific experiences of their lives, fail to make any sense out of it. They are confused and must be helped to discern a loving and caring God who stands above and behind these events and experiences. They must be helped into the realization that God reigns, that He is in control. And with this realization comes praise and commitment to give oneself in commitment and obedience to this Holy One.

Authority in preaching is enhanced when the preacher realizes that all three of these basic functions are his. The preacher is willing to do each as the situation demands and as the guidance of the Holy Spirit directs. This will require a stance of openness and flexibility on the part of the preacher. How much of each of these functions one carries out will vary from situation to situation. When each one is accomplished and from what context or with which Biblical word cannot be dictated. Any given preacher may have a disposition or personality to do one more than the others. But the preacher who would speak with authority will realize that all three of these functions are necessary. He will not exclude one or favor the other. The greater the preacher’s willingness to carry out the functions of teacher and prophet and pastor, the greater will be the evidence of authority in the preaching. It is, again, the matter of matching situation with message and style of communication.

AUTHORITY AND THE PREACHER’S TECHNIQUE

I begin this section with some hesitation because of the overemphasis on technique and style in the church today. One hears voices today in the church which suggest that if we have the right technique or approach we can accomplish anything. Sometimes this leads to embracing practices which can only be termed “gimmicks” and which often {20} are unbecoming to the marvelous gospel we preach and teach. It would be a grave mistake to conclude that if the preacher can only find the proper technique in preaching, he will have authority. Still, I am convinced that we cannot disregard technique and that it has at last an indirect relationship to authority in preaching.

The basic issue of technique is in regard to the movement of the sermon. Does the sermon move and in what direction? There are two basic directions in which the sermon can move: deductive and inductive. Deduction moves from general truth to a specific application or experience. This expresses itself homiletically as follows: The main point the preacher wishes to make is stated first, followed by a breakdown into points and subpoints which are explained or illustrated and then applied to the particular situation of the hearers. Most everyone recognizes this as the classic pattern for sermon preparation and delivery. When one analyzes this method one realizes that it is really a most unnatural means of communication because the conclusion precedes the development! It seems to presuppose passive listeners who allow someone to state conclusions and make applications for them. Most of the responsibility lies with the speaker; little with the hearer. And often the listener feels angered or offended with the result.

In recent years many people including many preachers are discovering the excitement of Bible Study using the inductive method. Induction moves from particulars that are discovered to general truths or conclusions. The reason those who learn the technique of inductive study find it so exciting is that in the process of study, the students draw their own conclusions. They feel it is their own study. They make their own applications to their own situation and in the end own the result as theirs. In other words the student participates in the result.

Now, consider what often happens in the preparation and practice of preaching. The preacher, if he is well trained and conscientious, will do careful inductive exegesis of the text. The preacher will draw conclusions and be excited about the end result in which he has been a participant. He will make specific applications to his personal life and situation. Then he goes into the pulpit and tends to begin by stating his conclusions. Then he develops the basis on which his conclusion rests. When finished he is puzzled why the hearers do not share his enthusiasm. Not often does the preacher realize what he has done. He has prepared inductively but delivered the sermon deductively.

One of the distinctive advances in recent studies of method in preaching is the realization that preaching can be inductive rather than deductive. 8 Because all of life is essentially inductive in nature, preaching in this manner naturally draws the listener into the communication process and the end result is that the listener is part of the total result. The preacher who does so inductively re-creates for the {21} listener the journey of discovery which he has experienced with the text so the listener can hear it speak to him as it has spoken to the preacher. Likewise the preacher practices induction in observing specific, concrete incidents from life which lead to general conclusions about the human situation into which the Word of God speaks. Again, the listeners are drawn in because the preacher is guiding them in the use of their natural mental processes.

The result of the inductive approach to preaching is a powerful awareness by the listeners that they have seen themselves as they truly are, understanding more fully their situation in life. At the same time listeners have a strong sense that they themselves have been part of discovering the Word of God for them and the impact is strong and lasting, touching the will. When this takes place, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the preaching has authority. To quote Fred Craddock:

The congregation cannot shake off the finished sermon by shaking the minister’s hand. The sermon, not finished yet, lingers beyond the benediction, with conclusions to be reached, decisions made, actions taken and brothers sought while gifts lie waiting at the altar. Those who had ears heard, and what they heard was the Word of God. 9 Can anyone wish for greater authority in preaching than that?

THE PREACHER’S ATTITUDE AND AUTHORITY

It is sometimes mistakenly thought that for the preacher to have authority he must take an authoritarian stance in the pulpit. In fact the very opposite is true. This can be clearly seen when we reflect on the overall objective of the preacher’s work. That which the preacher longs for more than anything else is that through the preaching Christ is presented so faithfully that He is recognized as the answer to every human need. Then people are attracted to Him and open themselves to Him in order to receive Him. The real encounter in preaching is not between the preacher and the people. It is rather between God and the people. The preacher only facilitates the process. The proper attitude for the one who serves in this capacity is humility rather than headstrong arrogance. The problem with an authoritarian approach to preaching is that it often keeps attention too much on the preacher. Humble dependence on the Holy Spirit is the proper attitude for the preacher.

As John R.W. Stott remarks: “Humble preachers will avoid either adding to Scripture according to their own speculations or substracting from Scripture according to their own predilections. . . . The preacher with a humble mind will avoid omissions as much as additions.” 10 Such a preacher is careful not to thrust himself between God and his listeners. The more successful he is in doing this, the greater is the authority of the {22} message he brings.

Nothing is needed today so much as the Word of God speaking with authority. Let the preacher practice his discipline with care so that his work would enhance rather than detract from the power of God’s Word. Samuel Valentine Cole has written a poem entitled “Monica: The Chronicle of Marcus” in which he has Monica describing the preacher of Ambrose, a third century church father. One can only hope that on occasion these words may be true of our preaching also.

I visit the cathedral now and then
To hear the bishop, rhetoricians should;
He has the art of it; I tell thee what,
The people spread their ears out when he talks.
And yet he is no trickster, as I think,
No lank, wild-eyed and overholy saint,
No splitter of hairs and juggler with the truth,
No oily-mouthed emitter of fine speech,
No loud volcano of cinders, smoke and mud—
Varieties which I have sometimes found
At Rome and elsewhere—he is none of these,
But just a plain, whole-hearted, wholesome man,
Of ample girth of body and mind, who speaks
The truth straight out—what he indeed calls truth
And hold truth in the bottom of his soul.
He speaks, then lets it work; and it does work;
The man has powerful influence hereabouts;
’Tis said the devil himself throws up the job
He may be working at when Ambrose comes. 11

REFERENCES

  1. Pierre Berton, The Comfortable Pew (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965), p. 100.
  2. Elizabeth Achtemeier, Creative Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 9.
  3. Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), p. 14.
  4. John R.W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: Preaching In the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), p. 92.
  5. Gene E. Bartlett, Postscript to Preaching (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1981), p. 38.
  6. Stott, Ibid., p. 126.
  7. Walter Brueggemann, The Creative Word (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).
  8. See the excellent treatment by Craddock, op.cit.
  9. Craddock, Ibid., p. 158.
  10. Stott, Ibid., pp. 322-323.
  11. Quoted in Bartlett, Ibid., p. 43.
Mervin Dick is the senior pastor of the Butler Avenue Mennonite Brethren Church in Fresno, California.

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