Preaching with Intellectual Impact

The Bible is a never-ending treasure of intellectual stimulation. The infinite wonder of God is captured in the pages of Scripture for us to contemplate without end. The sheer mastery of God’s Word is a mystery worthy of everlasting exploration.

Unfortunately, however, there seems to be a very real fear in many evangelical churches that too much intellectual exploration of the Bible will translate into mere information dumping or receiving. There is a definite pressure from all sides to apply the Bible to the here-and-now without permission to enjoy the Bible for its own sake. This is a tragic perspective insofar as it instinctively belittles Biblical information. It reduces God’s self revelation to a self-help book, a how-to manual, and a chicken-soup-for-the-soul approach to faith.

The all too common wariness toward Christian intellectualism misses the reality that information is critical if we are to know God. Who can know a person without knowing information about that person? Who can be a medical doctor without knowing information about the human body? Who can be a lawyer without knowing information about the laws of the land? Who can be a farmer without understanding information about the soil, the crops, and the animals in his or her care? Who can be an athlete without knowing the information that makes up the rules of his or her sport? If this is true about human relationships and vocations, how much more is it true of our relationship with God?  Preaching ought to require and inspire people to think and this thinking ought to be recognized as worship in the highest order.

Even though we shall separated intellect, emotion, and practical action in the next many blog posts, in all reality it is impossible to disentangle them. For, the intellect, when engaged, serves the heart in stirring up emotions and an engaged heart provides motivation for practical action. Thoughtless emotion is not the goal of preaching. Neither is cold intellectualism. Nor is passivity which believes and says true statements but fails to act on them. Making the foundation of this point, Piper brings thinking and loving together in a meaningful way:

The main reason that thinking and loving are connected is that we cannot love God without knowing God; and the way we know God is by the Spirit-enabled use of our minds. So to “love God with all your mind” means engaging all your powers of thought to know God as fully as possible in order to treasure him for all he is worth.[1]

Add to this, Active living in the Biblical truths of God and obedience to the commands of Christ, and you have a full picture of the intended fruit of preaching. We need to intentionally arrest the either/or polemic that is developing in evangelical circles and begin to cultivate a both/and mentality that embraces a thinking mind, an engaged heart, and motivated hands.

In order to know God we need to learn information about Him, about the world He created, about the history He has unfolded, and about the Gospel by which He has saved us. This information requires us to think, and by thinking we find that our emotions are aroused, and when our emotions are aroused we will find that we are ready for active obedient living. Encompassing all of this is the crucial ministry of the Holy Spirit who reveals, confronts, enlightens, engages, and empowers our thinking, our loving, and our doing.

Who will do something for someone they do not love? And who can love someone they do not know? And who can know someone they have never thought about? And who can think about someone unless they information to think about? Doing requires loving, loving requires knowing, knowing requires thinking, and thinking requires information.

Therefore, preaching requires the proper handling of Biblical information. Everything in the faith journey of a person is rooted in the reception of true information about God and the only absolute and reliable source for this information is the Bible. An informative sermon, properly understood and communicated by the preacher, is the foundation for all truly transformative sermons. A sermon that makes a congregation feel good or a sermon that calls a congregation to action is incomplete without first an adequate presentation of the truth. As Paul writes to Timothy, the Church is to be a pillar and a buttress of the truth (1Tim 3:15). Sensationalized experience and practical exhortation without truth is hollow and void, for neither will stand under serious testing. However, an authentic spiritual experience or exhortation that is grounded in the truth will endure the most severe trial.

One of the greatest gifts a preacher can give to a congregation is a consistent call to spiritually think-through the sacred writings of the Bible. Since all behaviour is rooted in the true beliefs of every individual, if you want to know what a person believes – and by this I mean what someone truly believes, not what they imagine or say they believe – simply watch how they behave. Behaviour is the only true mirror of belief and belief is the only true fuel of behaviour. Therefore, if we can help our people to believe the truth about God, creation, sin, and salvation, then the fruit of Christian living that we are longing to see in the hearts and homes of our people will begin to grow naturally by the power and oversight of God’s Holy Spirit. Thinking is the impetus for everything else in the Christian life.

A preacher who is not predisposed to thinking, however, will not be able to motivate his congregation to think. Moreover, a preacher who is bored with the Bible will not be able to inspire his congregation to love the Bible. And a preacher who is not allowing the awesome truth of God’s Word to wash over him, sanctifying him from one degree of glory to another day after day after day, will not be able to communicate the message with authenticity and power. The call of a preacher is a call to think. It is a call to prayerfully meditate on the Word of God so that over a lifetime he becomes a sage, a theologian, a man of spiritual wisdom. A preacher must be committed to growing deep roots in the bedrock of Scripture so that others can come to learn from him and to imitate him in his devotion to the Word of God.

John Stott dedicates a chapter of his book, Between Two Worlds, to this very subject. In his opening remarks on the central importance of study and preparation he includes this powerful anecdote:

Speaking to about 600 clergy in London in November 1979, Billy Graham said that, if he had his ministry all over again, he would make two changes. People looked startled. What could he possibly mean? First, he continued, he would study three times as much as he had done. He would take on fewer engagements. ‘I’ve preached too much,’ he said, ‘and studied too little.’ The second change was that he would give more time to prayer. Moreover, in making these emphases, he must have been deliberately echoing the apostolic resolve: ‘we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.’ (Acts 6:4) Because afterwards I commented appreciatively on what he had said, Dr. Graham wrote to me the following day and added: ‘I remember that Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse (of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia) once said: “If I had only three years to serve the Lord, I would spend two of them studying and preparing.”’[2]

Without question, thinking takes time, a lot of time. Therefore, blessed is the preacher who is given the gift of time from a generous congregation who understands the value of thinking. And blessed is the congregation who learns from a pastor who is committed to thinking and to sharing the wondrous truths of God week in and week out, both in season and out of season.

Our sermons must impact our congregations intellectually. Otherwise we are trying to build something in mid-air and, when the time of testing comes, the impressive structure we thought we had constructed will collapse like a house of cards. Thinking is the spiritual mortar that the Holy Spirit uses hold everything together. Let us therefore help our people to be thinking people by ensuring that every sermon impacts the intellect as we challenge and encourage our congregations to deeply and seriously think about the revelation of God.

[1] Piper, Think, 90.

[2] Stott, Two Worlds, 180-181.

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