I love to preach. To use the words of Gardner C. Taylor, preaching is such a “sweet torture.” There’s an ineffable joy in it. But at the same time there can be an agony, a great angst at handling holy things correctly. From the preparation to the proclamation, preaching is a labor, a striving, a powerful wrestling with God and men. And I love it.

Recently I had the privilege of delivering the John Reed Miller Lectures at Reformed Theological Seminary. We entitled the lecture series “Faithful Preaching in an Age of Corinthian Thinking.” As you can imagine, we tried to put forth an apostolic understanding of preaching while pushing back against the worldly Corinthian mentality that afflicts every age.

In the first talk I shared my definition of preaching:

“Preaching is God speaking in the power of His Spirit about His Son from His word through a man.”

In the definition, I’m trying to capture something of the Trinitarian, Christ-Centered, Spirit-empowered, human instrumentality of this act. I’m trying to say something about the divine presence, power, and proclamation that actually happens when men open their Bibles and open their mouths. I’m trying to say something about the difference between lectures and preaching, between “good” preaching and “bad” preaching–that difference is God himself speaking.

What a marvelous thing preaching is–God speaking through a man!

Lest you think this definition a little to fanciful, or worse–egotistical, let’s develop some supports in brief. We’ll start in this post with the first part of the definition: Preaching is God speaking.

God Speaking

This simply follows from the nature of God’s word. It’s the functional conclusion of inspiration, inerrancy, and authority. John Stott in Between Two Worlds shares a brief anecdote about J.I. Packer’s view of Scripture that helps. Packer says, ”Having studied the doctrine of Scripture for a generation, the most satisfactory model is to describe it thus: The Bible is God preaching.”[1] When preaching correctly explicates the Scripture, it’s not the man alone who speaks. If the Bible is God preaching, then preaching the Bible is God speaking.

We can see this taught in the Scripture itself. Consider a couple of passages:

1 Thessalonians 1:4-5—”For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”

1 Thessalonians 2:13—”And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it as it actually is, the word of God [God himself spoke through Paul's preaching], which is at work in you who believe.” [Power is in the word, not the messenger]

1 Peter 4:10-11—”Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.” [Not just an apostolic prerogative or privilege. "Anyone speaks"]

Matthew 10:19-20—”When they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”

Texts like these prompted the Swiss Reformers in the Second Helvetic Confession to define preaching thus:

THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.

John Calvin wrote, ”God has chosen so to anoint the lips and tongues of his servants that, when they speak, the voice of Jesus yet resounds in them.”

Bryan Chappell, following the likes of the Swiss Reformers and Calvin, writes, ”When we speak the truths of the Word of God, we are not simply speaking about Jesus, nor are we simply speaking for Jesus. We are speaking as Jesus.”

Something indescribable happens whenever we faithfully preach God’s word. God speaks, too. He speaks first. He speaks powerfully. He speaks presently. His voice rings true insofar as His word comes through. This mean the preacher never preaches alone when he preaches the Bible. This means the power of preaching derives from God, not the preacher. This means all preaching should be expositional. This means the preacher should put His trust in God and His Word. This means preaching is glorious!

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13 thoughts on “How Do You Define Preaching?”

  1. scott says:

    what is the difference then between teaching and preaching. While the definition certainly includes essentials, the notion of timeliness is not included. God speaking his truth through a man by the Spirit with a necessary word given the times is perhaps inclusive of all the writer suggests PLUS God’s timing. The only difference it seems between teaching and preaching is the prophetic nature of preaching which is timely inspiration.

  2. Mom to three says:

    What do you think about a man saying, “This too is the word of The Lord” after his sermon. I am quite uncomfortable with it. It may be or it may not be. It is like the habit of many Christians who say, “The Lord told me….” (Fill in the blank here with to buy this, to marry that person, to go here, etc.) The Lord may very well have, but the only thing we can say is the word of The Lord is the Bible. Am I wrong?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi “Mom to Three”

      Thanks for dropping by and asking a great question. Despite my definition, I would tend to think ending a sermon that way is bad form. If the preaching itself didn’t leave people with a sense of God, then announcing “This too is the word of the Lord” won’t fix the sermon. Let the word speak instead of speaking about the word would be my take. You’re correct to see that the Bible is the final authority, and though God speaks in preaching we are not to think that the sermon has anything resembling the nature and authority of scripture. I hope that helps.

      T-

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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