Preaching the Gospel: The Word Domesticated

February 17, 2014

I fear that evangelicals have won the battle for the Bible in the academy, but we have lost our awe of the Bible preached in our pulpits. Our greatest preaching weakness is not lack of sound exegetical methodology or broad theological understanding, but it is our failure to understand what is happening in the preaching moment. Many stroll to the pulpit to talk to their congregation about God. They don't really believe that in Christian preaching they are speaking for God.

When I teach Christian preaching and simply assert the testimony of the biblical narrative regarding what occurs when the Scripture is faithfully proclaimed, I am often met with looks of incredulity. Most of my students possess an unswerving commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Bible, but they often shrink from the audacious claim of Scripture that the faithful preacher is the voice of Christ to a congregation. They are far more comfortable thinking about preaching as providing hearers with abstract information about God. I would agree that such a thought appears safer, but I would disagree that it constitutes what the Bible calls preaching.

In an “Introduction to Christian Preaching” class I taught, I referred to the famous quote D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones made in Preaching and Preachers on the primacy of preaching, when he asserted, “I would say without any hesitation that the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and the most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.” I naïvely thought the comment would be met with rousing affirmation in a confessionally conservative evangelical seminary. However, one student with a questioning look on his face slowly raised his hand and asked, “You don't really believe that, do you?” I replied, “Yes, I really do.” I still do believe it today. In fact, I believe preaching is an act of spiritual war at the apex of the cosmic battle.

In Romans 10, the apostle Paul asserts the necessity of worldwide proclamation of the gospel. He argues that God is at work in the world saving sinners, Jew and Gentile, by grace and not legalism. In Romans 10:13, Paul provides the promise: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” He follows this promise with a series of rhetorical questions. First, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?” (Rom. 10:14a, NASB). Second, “How will they believe in him whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14b). Third, “And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14c). Fourth, “How will they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15a). The logic is clear: Preachers are sent, they preach, people hear Christ as they hear the preacher's sermon, they believe, and they call on him in faith. Romans 10:17 offers a summarizing conclusion of this stunning claim about what happens in preaching, ” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ.”

In The Pillar New Testament Commentary: Romans, Leon Morris explains that in Romans 10:14, “The point is that Christ is present in the preachers; to hear them is to hear him (Luke 10:16), and the people ought to believe when they hear him.” In faithful preaching of the word of God, the listener is not simply hearing about Christ, they are hearing the word of Christ. Christ himself speaks through his feeble but faithful preachers. Salvation comes when his voice is heard, and the listener responds, not to the preacher, but to Christ in faith. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul commends the church in Thessalonica saying, “…because when you received the message about God that you heard from us, you welcomed it not as a human message, but as it truly is, the message of God, which also works effectively in you believers.” To the Corinthian church enamored with trained rhetorical eloquence, Paul states, though he came to them, “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling,” his proclamation among them was “a powerful demonstration by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:3-4).

Jesus was the preacher par excellence, and his message, the message of his kingdom, was urgent. Luke records the Galilean crowds pleading with Jesus to stay and continue his ministry of healing and exorcism, to which he responds, “I must proclaim the good news about the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because I was sent for this purpose,” (Luke 4:43). Jesus elucidates that preaching is the preeminent necessity because it was the ministry to which he was ordained; and, further, his message was the presence of the kingdom in his own person. The word of the kingdom (i.e. the preaching of the gospel) was even more important than the miraculous signs of the kingdom. Jesus performed miracles but they were subordinate to his preaching ministry. I fear some present day evangelical preachers do not believe Jesus in this essential matter and would trade their pulpit for the ability to heal the sick without a moment of hesitation?

After his resurrection Jesus continues his work in the world by calling and gifting men to preach the word. Jesus’ apostles possess the apostolic sign gifts but they minister in the same way Jesus did, recognizing the primacy of preaching. After healing a man lame from birth Peter asked, “Why are you amazed at this? Or why do you stare at us, as though we had made him walk by our own power or godliness?” (Acts 3:12). Peter immediately transitions to preaching, explaining that God had already spoken to them “by the mouth of his holy prophets,” (Acts 3:21) and is now speaking to them about Christ and his kingdom. The religious leaders are filled with rage, not about the healing, but about the bold preaching and “ordered them not to preach or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” (Acts 4:18). The disciples respond by praying for more boldness in preaching, and by continuing to preach in the name of Christ with boldness (4:29, 31). The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the final word, ushered in a new dawn of global gospel preaching (Matt. 28:16-20, Mark 13:10, Rom. 10:18, Heb. 1:1-3).

Evangelicals spend a great deal of time talking about the mechanics and delivery of sermons but such talks are of little value among preachers who have lost a sense of the glory of what happens in the preaching moment. In fact, I believe many, if not most, of the problems in contemporary evangelical preaching would be rectified by rightly understanding what is at stake in Christian preaching. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “True preaching, after all, is God acting. It is not just a man uttering words; it is God using him.” Do you believe that? I find many evangelicals are committed to biblical inerrancy and have sound theology, but possess a casual attitude toward preaching. The difference between understanding the preaching task as identifying with the people and talking about God and as standing under the authority of God and preaching his word as his voice to the congregation is profound.

One way in which a minimized view of preaching is evident is in contemporary willingness to accept or even prefer video preaching or dramatic reenactments to flesh-and-blood sermonic proclamation. A few years ago, when Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ movie was released, I was stunned to hear an evangelical leader I deeply respect pronounce, “This is the greatest evangelistic tool in the history of the church.” The attitude seems to be that big budget films are a more powerful medium than preaching for conveying the gospel message. But, as Edmund Clowney argued in Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, “It is deeply flawed in its conclusion at this very point: the presence of Jesus. An actor pleads with the viewer to come to him and to trust in him. The effort to give reality beyond the preached word fails as fiction. The actor is not Jesus.”

It is also increasingly common in some churches to provide the sermon in corporate worship via video rather than a live preacher. The thought is that some men are exceptionally gifted preachers and the people will benefit more from hearing them even if it is by means of video. What is striking, as Carl Trueman has noted, is that none of the churches providing video preaching also provide music via video. Some musicians, choirs and praise teams are more gifted than others, right? The communal uniqueness of song in our worship gatherings is ordinarily acknowledged but we have relegated preaching to a simple function of conveying information. Actors and disembodied sermons are inadequate imitations of the genuine face-to-face gospel utterance described as preaching in the Scripture. The face-to-faceness of preaching is the reason D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones disliked tape-recorded sermons, referring to them as a “peculiar and special abomination” because, in his thinking, they sever the living transaction between preacher and congregation.

Every person lives based on an eschatology. We all fit today's decisions into a story that is headed somewhere. Biblical preaching confronts rival eschatologies. Simply passing on information about God abstracted from the biblical storyline that centers on Jesus is inadequate and dangerous, because listeners simply incorporate the information into their existing eschatology. All the truths of the Bible fit together in Jesus. Faithful expository preachers call people to abandon the rival eschatology they are ordering their lives on, and trust the gospel story through faith in Christ and his kingdom. Preachers do not echo the story of any culture but rather proclaim the word that comes from outside of us—the word of God. To the degree the preacher is faithful, however weak and unimpressive, his preaching of Christ and him crucified is God speaking to his people. As Gregory Edward Reynolds explains in The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures, “The face-to-face presence of the preacher is a reminder of what is coming (Rev. 22:4). It is a down payment on eschatological glory.”

It seems to me that many evangelical preachers are focused on countless lesser things to the neglect of the primary purpose for which they were called. We are right to engage the culture, pursue righteousness through the political structures, and contend for morality in a culture of decadence. But nothing is a greater priority, or will have more influence on the church and the world than faithful proclamation.

Preaching is dangerous—an indispensable act of spiritual war. Martin Luther explained the cosmic combat in the way: “Indeed, to preach the word of God is nothing less than to bring upon oneself all the furies of hell and of Satan, and therefore also of . . . every power of the world. It is the most dangerous kind of life to throw oneself in the way of Satan’s many teeth” (“On the Councils and the Church,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings). I fear Luther’s words sound melodramatic to many contemporary evangelicals. It is a hollow victory to win the battle for the Bible in the academy only to domesticate it in our pulpits.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24