At both the Presbyterian Church in America's General Assemby and the pre-Assembly conference sponsored by Reformed Theological Seminary this past week, Reformed Baptists took prominent roles. John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis preached during the final worship session of the Assembly. Likewise, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, preached at the final session of the conference. Both men made impassioned pleas for Biblical fidelity. And both men stood foursquare on the doctrines of sovereign grace.
I was greatly encouraged and profoundly challenged--not just by what these brethren said, but how they said it. Both men ably demonstrated the beauty and power of expository preaching. Leave it to the Baptists to remind us Presbyterians of the vital import of the sacred desk!
Dr. Mohler's message, which dealt directly with the Biblical mandate to "preach the Word in season and out," was particularly striking: "what passes for preaching in all too many Evangelical churches today--and even in Reformed churches today--is actually sub-Christian." He explained:
Numerous influential voices within Evangelicalism suggest that the age of the expository sermon is now past. In its place, some contemporary preachers now substitute messages intentionally designed to reach secular or superficial congregations--messages which avoid preaching a Biblical text, and thus avoid a potentially embarrassing confrontation with Biblical truth.
A subtle shift visible at the onset of the twentieth century has become a great divide at the onset of the twenty-first. The shift from expository preaching to more topical and human-centered approaches has grown into a debate over the place of Scripture in preaching, and the nature of preaching itself.
Two famous statements about preaching illustrate this growing divide. Reflecting poetically on the urgency and centrality of preaching, the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter once remarked, "I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." With vivid expression and a sense of gospel gravity, Baxter understood that preaching is literally a life or death affair. Eternity hangs in the balance as the preacher proclaims the Word.
Contrast that statement to the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) preacher of the last century's early decades. Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, provides an instructive contrast to the venerable Baxter. "Preaching," he explained, "is personal counseling on a group basis."
These two statements about preaching reveal the contours of the contemporary debate. For Baxter, the promise of heaven and the horrors of hell frame the preacher's consuming burden. For Fosdick, the preacher is a kindly counselor offering helpful advice and encouragement.
The current debate over preaching is most commonly explained as a argument about the focus and shape of the sermon. Should the preacher seek to preach a biblical text through an expository sermon? Or, should the preacher direct the sermon to the "felt needs" and perceived concerns of the hearers?
Clearly, many Evangelicals now favor the second approach. Urged on by devotees of "needs-based preaching," many evangelicals have abandoned the text without recognizing that they have done so. These preachers may eventually get to the text in the course of the sermon, but the text does not set the agenda or establish the shape of the message. Focusing on so-called "perceived needs" and allowing these needs to set the preaching agenda inevitably leads to a loss of Biblical authority and Biblical content in the sermon. Yet, this pattern is increasingly the norm in many Evangelical pulpits. Fosdick must be smiling from the grave.
Earlier Evangelicals recognized Fosdick's approach as a rejection of Biblical preaching. An out-of-the-closet theological Liberal, Fosdick paraded his rejection of Biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility--and rejected other doctrines central to the Christian faith. Enamored with trends in psychological theory, Fosdick became Liberal Protestantism's happy pulpit therapist. The goal of his preaching was well captured by the title of one of his most popular books, "On Being a Real Person."
Shockingly, this is now the approach evident in many Evangelical pulpits. The sacred desk has become an advice center and the pew has become the therapist's couch. Psychological and practical concerns have displaced theological exegesis and the preacher directs his sermon to the congregation's perceived needs.
I have to say that Dr. Mohler's strident exhortation to take seriously the Westminster Confession's three-fold mandate to uphold the "reading, preaching, and hearing of the Word of God" Sunday-by-Sunday in our churches struck me as perhaps the the most telling--during an entire week brimming with vital exhortations. And you can be assured that it will not be lost on me as I approach the sacred desk this coming Lord's Day.