Before we expositors get too self-assured, let’s recognize that we too struggle with authority. Even those of us who attend exposition workshops, who have a picture of John Calvin hanging in our study, and who regard ourselves as defenders of truth have moments in which we kick against the goads. We are, after all, sinners preaching to other sinners, a fact that should humble us before God. We must preach the authoritative truth of the Word of God, but we must preach from a posture of humility. All of us, then, must consider how to balance earnest confidence in Scripture and sober-minded suspicion of ourselves.
Here are four ways we might achieve that balance: expectation, exposition, relevance, and unction.
While much doctrinal discussion rightfully deals with Scripture’s authority, inspiration, and sufficiency, we must remember that God’s Word is also effective (2 Tim. 3:14–16).
On account of Scripture’s inspiration, Paul maintained a deep and profound expectation that its communication would be effective. In this context, Paul issues his famous admonition, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). This is good news for preachers. The effectiveness of our proclamation doesn’t derive from persuasive oratory, which is to say we’re not responsible for making God’s Word effective. The Word, alive with God’s purpose for it, is inherently effective. May we preach it with expectation.
Sermon preparation is hard work. Sometimes preachers struggle to find the requisite time and motivation to remain diligent in the study and not cut corners. In such moments, we must recognize the authoritative character of the text—that God, by His own authority, moved biblical writers to record His intended message (2 Peter 1:21). This assumption (that there is divinely inspired meaning in the text) is a motivating force that drives preachers to fulfill their weekly responsibility of sermon preparation.
Because God inspired biblical texts in particular contexts, we devote time and energy to studying those particulars in order to apprehend God’s intended message. At the bottom of this activity is the authority of the divine source, which ensures that study isn’t just worthwhile; it’s essential.
Preaching must be based on thoughtful exegesis, but the testimony of Scripture also illustrates that preaching must be relevant. It must exhort and apply.
This is not a human addition to preaching, since exhortation and application are the intended purposes of God’s Word. Yes, biblical preaching should inform the mind, but it should also encourage and admonish the heart. Paul explains how God’s Word is profitable: “the man of God [becomes] complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Like Paul, we preach the Word as shepherds seeking to nourish the flock under our care.
The Bible envisions heralds who passionately announce the good news after they’ve been personally gripped by it. In the Old Testament, Jeremiah said of his preaching, “If I say, ‘I will not mention [the Lord], or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 20:9).
This burning appears in the New Testament with the day of Pentecost, about which Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). A key aspect of this gift is what the Puritans called unction. How does unction function? It’s an anointing a preacher perceives as he considers themes such as the authority that links the throne of God to the authority of a text, the authority of a preacher’s call, the divinely appointed moment when that preacher heralds the gospel, and the instant when its truth and beauty penetrate human hearts.
There can be no recovery of biblical preaching if we don’t recover the conviction that the preacher’s task is enabled by heaven’s authority. The nature of the inspired text, the expectation of its effectiveness, the exposition that yields insight, the supreme relevance for people, and the unction in which it is proclaimed are all predicated on this truth.
Yes, the fiery darts will come, especially in the moment immediately before we open our mouths. But that’s also the moment when divine authority begins to work through the servant of the Word to transform human hearts. Therefore, with the courage and enabling grace that comes from above, let those who are called continue to preach.