Features, Preaching, Theology

A Preacher’s Decalogue

As a seminary professor, I am deeply grateful for how the new year has opened with seasoned pastors and teachers offering their wisdom for young (and not-so-young) preachers. For example, in “Advice to a Young Preacher” Peter Adam outlines fourteen indispensable principles for preachers, none more important than the first:

Learn to love the Bible. We love God, so we love His words. We know the mind of God from the mouth of God and we live by every word that comes from His mouth. Preacher, learn to love all of the Bible. Learn to meditate on it day and night. Fill your mind and heart and life with God’s truth. If God’s words are not in your mind, heart, and life, they will not be on your lips. Learn the self-discipline to avoid reading your ideas into the Bible. Whenever you read the Bible, don’t think, “I know what this means, so I don’t need to read it carefully.” There is always more to find, more to uncover.

Indeed, no man should preach who doesn’t love the Bible. Love for God and His words is the essential first ingredient in the making of a preacher.

Alongside Peter Adam we have Sinclair Ferguson. In chapter 39 of his new book Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be, Ferguson offers his “Ten Commandments” for preachers. As Ferguson explains, these principles were born out of the question, “What ten commandments, what rules of preaching-life, do I wish someone had written for me to provide direction, shape, and ground gaining momentum in ministry along the way?”

Ferguson’s answer is worth reading and embracing given his over five decades of faithful pulpit ministry. He’s learned much through study and practice. This is wisdom from above.*

  1. Know your Bible better
    Ferguson writes: “As an observer as well as a practitioner of preaching, I am troubled and perplexed by hearing men with wonderful equipment, humanly speaking (ability to speak, charismatic personality, and so on), who seem to be incapable of simply preaching the Scriptures. Somehow God’s word has not first invaded and gripped them.”
  2. Be a man of prayer
    Ferguson writes: “I mean this with respect to preaching — not only in the sense that I should pray before I begin my preparation, but in the sense that my preparation is itself a communion in prayer with God in and through his word.”
  3. Don’t lose sight of Christ
    Ferguson writes: “Know and therefore preach ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2). That is a text far easier to preach as the first sermon in a ministry than it is to preach as the final sermon . . . . Paradoxically, not even the systematic preaching through one of the Gospels guarantees Christ-crucified-centered preaching. Too often preaching on the Gospels takes what I whimsically think of as the ‘Find-Waldo-Approach’. The underlying question in the sermon is ‘Where are you to be found in this story?’ (Are you Martha or Mary, James or John, Peter, the grateful leper . . .?) The question ‘Where, who, and what is Jesus in this story?’ tends to be marginalized.”
  4. Be deeply trinitarian
    Ferguson writes: “. . . my concern here arises from a sense that Bible-believing preachers (as well as others) continue to think of the Trinity as the most speculative and therefore the least practical of all doctrines. After all, what can you ‘do’ as a result of hearing preaching that emphasizes God as Trinity? Well, at least inwardly if not outwardly, fall down in prostrate worship that the God whose being is so ineffable, so incomprehensible to my mental math, seeks fellowship with us!”
  5. Use your imagination
    Ferguson writes: “Imagination in preaching means being able to understand the truth well enough to translate or transpose it into another kind of language or musical key in order to present the same truth in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, and feel its power — and to do so in a way that gets under the skin, breaks through the barriers, and grips the mind, will, and affections, so that they not only understand the word preached but also feel its truth and power.”
  6. Speak much of sin and grace
    Ferguson writes: “Preaching on sin must unmask the presenceof sin, and undeceive about the natureof sin, as well as underline the dangerof sin. This is not the same thing as hammering a congregation against the back wall of the ‘sanctuary’ with a tirade! That requires little more than high levels of emotion. A genuine, ultimately saving, unmasking and undeceiving of the human heart is more demanding exegetically and spiritually. For what is in view here is the skilled work of a surgeon–opening a wound, exposing the cause of the patient’s sickness, cutting away the destructive malignancies, all in order to heal and restore to life.”
  7. Use ‘the plain style’
    Ferguson writes: “There are many ways this principle applies. Do not make eloquence the thing for which you are best known as a preacher; make sure you get the point of the passage you are preaching, and then you make it clear and express its power. True evangelical eloquence will take care of itself. Despite Charles Hodge’s reservations, Archibald Alexander was in general right in urging his students to pay attention to the power of biblical ideas and then the words used in preaching will take care of themselves.”
  8. Find your own voice
    Ferguson writes: “We ought not to become clones. Some men never grow as preachers because the ‘preaching suit’ they have borrowed doesn’t not actually fit them or their gifts. Instead of becoming the outstanding expository preacher, or redemptive-historical, or God-centered, or whatever our hero may be, we may tie ourselves in knots and endanger our own unique giftedness by trying to use someone else’s paradigm, style, or personality as a mould into which to squeeze ourselves. We become less than our true selves in Christ.”
  9. Learn how to transition
    Ferguson writes: “Many of us are weary of the pandemic of ‘how-to-ness’ we find in much contemporary preaching. It is often little better than psychology (however helpful) with a little Christian polish; it is largely imperative without indicative, and in the last analysis becomes self- and success-oriented rather than sin- and grace-oriented. But there is a Reformed and, more importantly, biblical, emphasis on teaching how to transition from the old ways to the new way, from patterns of sin to patterns of holiness. It is not enough to stress the necessity, nor even the possibility, of this. We must teach people how this happens.”
  10. Love your people
    Ferguson writes: “This is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study; it means that my preaching will have characteristics about it, difficult to define but nevertheless sensed by my hearers, that reflect the apostolic principle: ‘What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’ (2 Cor. 4:5); ‘We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us’ (1 Thess. 2:8).”

*While the list is exhaustive the quotes from Ferguson are merely excerpts from the explanations he gives for each principle.

Filed under: Features, Preaching, Theology
Michael Pohlman

Michael Pohlman (PhD, Southern Seminary) is professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and chair of the Department of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is founder and executive director of Some Pastors and Teachers.