I don’t preach very often. I am at heart (and by profession) a teacher, not a preacher. But I do believe that preaching is of the utmost importance. There is no greater power that materially resides in our world than the word of God as it has been written down in the Bible. It is possible, of course, for people to engage with the Bible directly, by themselves. But apart from this, preaching is the main tool to bring the immensity of this power to bear upon the lives of ordinary believers – and unbelievers! It is not the only tool (teaching comes to mind), but it is the one that reaches the greatest number of people the greatest number of times.
Even if we only preach rarely, this task is so vital that it deserves us putting serious thought and effort into it. I therefore resolved to read a book about it. Okay, I know that sounds weak, considering what we are talking about, but at least it is something I could do right away.
Two book options immediately came to mind. There are many more, but for this topic, these are the modern classics, if you can imagine such a thing. First, there is Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, and second, there is Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching.
I decided to go for the unknown. I had often heard of Haddon Robinson, but I knew nothing about Bryan Chapell. The book came with such good reviews, however, that it made me curious. So Haddon Robinson will have to wait. Sorry, Haddon…
Both books are about a particular type of preaching, about what is called expository preaching. In expository preaching, the preacher explains a passage of Scripture, derives one or more principles from it, and shows how his listeners may apply these in their lives. In other words, much of the content and structure of the sermon is determined by the passage of Scripture.
There is much preaching that does not do this, but unless we have the rhetorical skills of a Martin Luther King, we are likely to be most effective when we preach the expository way: by following a passage of Scripture rather than presenting our best thoughts on a topic.
I was in for a surprise. Chapell’s book is eminently practical. Initially, I wanted to produce a summary guide for sermon preparation. It contains too much, however, to produce an outline that does justice to the material. You will have to read it for yourself. All I can do here is provide a small sample to whet your appetite.
[On the need for unity:] A well-constructed message may have three points (or more, or less), but it is not about three things. (Chapell 2005: 48)
[On the need to be able to state the main idea of a passage:] As we have already discovered, in expository preaching the meaning of a passage provides the message of a sermon. This means that the unifying concept of a sermon should come from the text itself. Haddon Robinson suggests that preachers determine the “big idea” of a message by first asking, “What is the author [of the passage] talking about?” and then “What is he saying about what he is talking about?” (Chapell 2005: 45)
[On the structural elements that make up an expository sermon:] Sermons typically begin with an introduction that leads to a proposition that indicates what the body of the sermon will discuss. The body includes main points and subpoints that form the skeletal outline of the sermon and structure the sermon’s explanation. The explanatory materials, which support the main and subpoint statements, as well as the sermon’s illustrations and applications flesh out the skeleton formed by the explanation’s points. A conclusion follows the body of the message, summarizing the information in the message and usually containing the sermon’s most powerful appeal. (Chapell 2005: 135)
This final quote gets close to providing a summary guide or outline after all, however brief, for expository sermons: these are the elements that constitute a standard expository sermon. Due to its brevity, it is highly abstract; one has to read it a few times to fully get it, but it is worth rereading.
FCF and Grace
Chapell’s book is not only brimming with practical how-to’s, it also touches on the heart of preaching. Two important components of this are what Chapell calls a Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) and grace.
1. Fallen Condition Focus. This was a new concept for me. According to Chapell, every sermon should focus on a specific human problem, a way in which we as humans, because of our fallen condition, struggle with God’s ideal. This problem is not something we choose and then bring to the text. It should be the problem that is addressed, implicitly or explicitly, in the passage we preach from.
One could therefore also speak of the redemptive focus of a good sermon. It is all about redeeming, restoring, and renewing human beings in every aspect of life.
The Fallen Condition Focus (FCF) is the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him.
By assuring us that all Scripture has a Fallen Condition Focus (FCF), God indicates his abiding care and underscores his preeminent status in preaching. The FCF present in every text demonstrates God’s refusal to leave his frail and sinful children without guide or defense in a world antagonistic to their spiritual well-being. However, an FCF not only provides the human context needed for a passage’s explanation but also indicates that biblical solutions must be divine and not merely human. Since fallen creatures cannot correct or remove their own fallenness, identification of an FCF forces a sermon to honor God as the only source of hope rather than merely promoting human fix-its or behavior change. (Chapell 2005: 50)
Just as greed, rebellion, lust, irresponsibility, poor stewardship, and pride are proper subjects of a sermon, so also are the difficulties of raising godly children, determining God’s will, and understanding one’s gifts. An FCF need not be something for which we are guilty or culpable. It simply needs to be an aspect or problem of the human condition that requires the instruction, admonition, and/or comfort of Scripture. Thus, an FCF is always phrased in negative terms. It is something wrong (though not necessarily a moral evil) that needs correction or encouragement from Scripture. (Chapell 2005: 51-2)
2. Grace. I particularly appreciated Chapell’s grace focus in preaching. Too much evangelical preaching boils down to a Christianised legalism. It presents all manner of things Christians are supposed to do without empowering and enabling them to do them. What is too often missing is the motivational why and the practical and enabling how:
However well-intended and biblically rooted a sermon’s instruction may be, if the message does not incorporate the motivation and enablement inherent in proper apprehension of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, the preacher proclaims mere Pharisaism. Preaching that is faithful to the whole of Scripture not only establishes God’s requirements but also highlights the redemptive truths that make holiness possible. (Chapell 2005: 19)
This is necessary because there is no more powerful motivation for holiness than loving God in response to the revelation of his redeeming character and eternal promises. (Chapell 2005: 220)
The $1 Million Question
Here is what to me was the single most helpful piece of advice in the book. It is a question to ask for each element in the sermon as we prepare a message: why am I telling them this?
It enables us to identify those parts that, however true or interesting in and of themselves, do nevertheless not belong in this sermon, because they do not serve its purpose. So next time you are looking at your sermon draft or lecture plan, ask yourself this question:
Why am I telling them this?
Want more? Listen to an expository sermon, for instance from William Taylor at http://www.st-helens.org.uk/resources/media-library?ref=nav. Listen to Bryan Chapell himself, lecturing on preaching, at https://www.biblicaltraining.org/preaching/bryan-chapell. Or read this interview with Haddon Robinson at http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1997/fall/7l4020.html.
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Bryan Chapell (2005), Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic)
Haddon Robinson (2014), Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic)
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