Why did God consider preaching to be something of such urgency that He places a divine calling upon selected messengers to proclaim His Word? What is the purpose of this task we call preaching? Why do we preach?
If you were to look at the average sermon, you might easily assume that the purpose of preaching is to teach people the scriptures. Over more than a quarter century of editing a magazine for preachers, and many years of teaching future preachers in the classroom, I’ve had the pleasure – or burden, as the case may be – of hearing and reading lots and lots of sermons. It is quite clear in the majority of sermons I read that the preacher’s purpose is to help the listeners better understand some portion of scripture.
And if you look at the way we tend to write about preaching or teach ministers to preach, it would become ever clearer that our focus as preachers is on explaining the meaning of one or more biblical texts. We spend many hours teaching future pastors to select a text, study it, exegete it, identify its big idea, and then explain all this to a congregation in a way they will understand, while trying to avoid putting them into a sound sleep.
Certainly preaching requires careful study if we wish to be faithful expositors of God’s Word. If our congregations don’t gain an enhanced understanding of scripture by listening to our sermons, there is definitely something wrong with our preaching. But is that why we preach – so that our people will become more adept at understanding and interpreting the scriptures?
I think the answer is best found in scripture itself, and particularly in Paul’s second letter to his protégé Timothy. Reading from 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul writes: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (ESV).
In this famous passage, the apostle Paul offers us a critical insight into the nature and purpose of scripture. He begins with the nature of scripture – that it is “God-breathed.” It is inspired. As John Stott explains, it is “not that Scripture itself or its human authors were breathed into by God, but that Scripture was breathed or breathed out by God. . . . It originated in God’s mind and was communicated from God’s mouth by God’s breath or Spirit. It is therefore rightly termed ‘the Word of God’, for God spoke it. Indeed, as the prophets used to say, ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken it’.”[i]
But not only is Paul suggesting the nature of scripture as a product of divine origin, he is also telling us the purpose of scripture – that it is profitable. Because it is given to us from the very breath of God, it has value and purpose for our lives. In fact, Paul points out four different categories in which scripture is profitable – it is useful “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The first category, teaching, refers to doctrine, to theological truth; the latter three categories all deal with activity, with application of that theological truth to our daily lives. In other words, Paul says that scripture is profitable for both belief and behavior.
And as we continue into verse 17, we see the culminating idea of Paul’s discussion of scripture – it is God’s gift to us and it is profitable for both belief and behavior, in order “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” In other words, our study and devotion to scripture have a purpose: they serve to equip us to accomplish God’s purposes in our lives and our ministries. The goal of our study of the scriptures to that God might make us complete, mature, and equipped to serve Him in any way He may ask.
We preach the scriptures for the same reason that God gave the scriptures: to mature and equip believers, to call them to repent, to respond, to obey. In other words, application is not a peripheral element of preaching, or one more task for the sermon among several; application is the very heart of the preaching task.
To be clear, when I speak about application, I mean a discussion of how a particular biblical text connects with real-life issues faced by our listeners. It drives biblical truth into the avenues of our lives, with a focus not on information but on transformation. Like an archer with his arrows, application in preaching faithfully takes the biblical text and shoots for a target – that target might be repentance, obedience, service, or some other biblical challenge. Anointed application has one goal: life change.[i] John R. W. Stott, Guard the Gospel the Message of 2 Timothy (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity Press, 1973), p. 100