Preaching the Whole Counsel of God
"Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" declared the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 9:16). "Preach the word," he instructed Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2). Paul meant the gospel of Christ crucified and raised from the dead, the gospel of justification by grace through faith, and the gospel of eternal life. He meant the word of sound doctrine, the word of truth, the gospel of salvation.
Paul preached this message of salvation to unbelievers in order that they might be saved. He preached the same gospel to believers, so that they might be strengthened in their faith and be better equipped for every good work.
During his ministry at Ephesus Paul proclaimed "the whole counsel of God" to the church (Acts 20:27). He did so by preaching "the gospel of the grace of God" (vs. 24). That same gospel of God's grace must sound forth today.
But how is this to be done? The Bible does not provide us with detailed instructions either on what to preach at public worship services or on how to preach it there. One thing is clear, however: preachers must preach the gospel, and that gospel must be the foundation for each sermon.
The New Testament epistles are good models for pastoral preaching. They are full of the gospel and of the doctrines of grace. They also contain practical instruction, reproof, encouragement, and exhortation. And the doctrines of grace always provide the context for practical instruction. We need more sermons like this. We need to hear "epistles" from our pulpits.
It is commonly thought that a good biblical sermon should consist of the careful analysis of a text of Scripture, followed by the application of it to the current needs of the church. There is much to be said for such a model, but it can, in my judgment, be improved upon. Instead of thinking in terms of exposition and application, the preacher should think in terms of doctrine and application. By "doctrine" I mean the rich, multifaceted gospel of Jesus Christ. Practical instruction, even when based on a biblical text, is mere legalism unless it is presented as an implication on the Christian faith.
Again and again the epistles present doctrine and application. The argument always is: "If we live by the Spirit [doctrine], let us also walk by the Spirit [application]" (Galatians 5:25). Again, "Have this attitude in yourselves [application], which was also in Christ Jesus [doctrine]" (Philippians 2:5). Often the connection between doctrine and application is more complex than it is in these examples, and sometimes it is only implicit, but it is always there.
Effective preaching motivates. But people are not often motivated by detailed grammatical-historical exegesis. Christians are motivated when they are filled with the knowledge of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The gospel is a powerful motivator because it strikes the deepest chord in our hearts. The more we understand the awesome glory and amazing grace of God, the unfathomable riches and blessings of Christ, and our glorious inheritance experienced even now in the Spirit, the more we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds to do what is good and well pleasing to God.
The church needs powerful preaching of the doctrines of grace. Painstaking exegetical work belongs in the study, not in the pulpit. Only the fruit of such study should be brought into the pulpit. And there it should be presented as a proclamation of the glorious gospel of Christ, not as the analysis of a text.
The sermon, in short, should not be a commentary. Some analysis of difficult passages is necessary at times, but the preacher should minimize the sermon time devoted to determining the message and maximize the time devoted to proclaiming it.
How then should a pastor preach the gospel? Many methods and styles of preaching are in use today. We cannot consider them all here, but I would like to make a plea for synthetic as opposed to analytic preaching. In a synthetic sermon the teachings of Scripture, usually from a variety of passages, are combined and integrated.
Many preachers spend a great deal of time taking their text apart, bit by bit. But the little time allotted to preaching in our churches today is too precious to spend squeezing every nuance out of each word.
Synthetic preaching brings things together, rather than taking them apart. It presents the big picture, the grand sweep. The height and depth, the breadth and length of the love of Christ can be proclaimed in one sermon – not the height this week, the depth next week, etc. You cannot appreciate the Grand Canyon rock by rock; you have to stand back and get a broad view. Similarly, synthetic preaching presents a panorama of the redemptive work of God (or at least of a major aspect of it).
The apostolic preaching presented in Acts, although evangelistic rather than pastoral, is synthetic in character. In Acts 13, for example, Paul delivers a "word of exhortation" in a synagogue after the Bible reading. Does he meticulously exegete the text just read? No, he launches into a recital of redemptive history from the slavery in Egypt to the resurrection of Christ. Then he demonstrates that Jesus' resurrection fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, explains the way of salvation, and warns against unbelief. Everything need not be said in every sermon, but preachers need to follow the apostolic example and proclaim the big picture.
This means that the related teachings contained in various portions of the Scriptures should be brought together to enrich and complement one another. A particular passage may serve to anchor the message, but it should not too often circumscribe it. To construct synthetic sermons, the preacher must draw upon a thorough knowledge of Scripture and how it all fits together, in order that people hear the whole counsel of God.