Editor’s note: This is an eight part series by Charlie on expository preaching.
- In his first post Charlie looked at the essential element of good preaching.
- In his second post Charlie looked at preaching to glorify God and transform lives.
- In his third post, he looks at how the Word of God effects transformation.
- In his fourth post, he looked at preaching the actual words of God.
- In his fifth post, he looked at prayer and communion with God.
- In his sixth post, he looked at pursuing a life of holiness.
- In his seventh post, he wrote on developing a genuine love for God’s people.
- In the final post in this series, Charlie writes on preaching and hard work.
In Galatians 6:6-10, Paul shares this wisdom with those who benefit from the teaching of the Word of God:
One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
This text is addressed to hearers, not preachers, but it contains wisdom that applies to us as well. As for the hearers, Paul admonishes them to practice what we preach for, he says, they will reap whatever they sow. If by the grace of God, they sow glad-hearted obedience to the Word, they will reap eternal life. If by the flesh, they sow self-centered disobedience to the Word, they will reap corruption. But sowing to the Spirit is hard work and thus, Paul exhorts them not to grow weary in doing good but rather to persist, for in due season they will reap what they sow if they do not give up.
This same dynamic applies to preachers as well, for even as God is not mocked in the lives and labor of hearers, so He is not mocked in the lives and work of preachers. We too will reap whatever we sow. If we are lazy or otherwise sow to the flesh, we will reap corruption, but if, by the grace of God, we sow to the Spirit we will reap eternal life both for ourselves and our hearers (1 Timothy 4:16). But again, sowing is hard work, and thus, we must not grow weary in doing good but persist in it, for in due season we will reap what we sow if we do not give up.
It would be easy to relegate the issue of hard work to a secondary status and think it less important than the other elements of preaching but this, I submit, would be a serious mistake. In terms of inherent value, hard work does not measure up to the Word of God, for instance, but regarding the practical value of developing sermons that glorify God and transform lives, hard work does indeed measure up. Let me explain what I mean.
Although the words of God are infinitely more valuable than our labor in them, the only way that value will be displayed in our preaching is if we do the hard work of reading, studying, meditating upon, articulating, and applying them to the lives of the people. If we fail to do this work, our sermons will lack substance and power because we will only reap what we sow. Spirit-empowered hard work is the means by which the potential power of the Word becomes the actual power in the lives of the preacher and the people alike.
This principle applies to prayer, holiness, and love, as well. It is hard work to pursue deep and abiding communion with God, and if we fail to do this work, we will not bear the fruit of the vine (John 15:7-8). It is hard work to die to our flesh and live to the Spirit, and if we fail to do this work, we will never see the glory of God with unclouded eyes. It is hard work to lay down our lives for the flock, and if we fail to do this work, we will never see the seed of the Word flourish in the lives of the people.
Preaching that glorifies God and transforms lives requires hard work and, thus, I conclude that it is a necessary element of the process and on par with the other elements. To ground this truth in deeper soil, let me direct our attention to some of the exhortations Paul issued to Timothy.
Paul’s Exhortations to Timothy
Paul had a high view of the place of hard work in life and ministry, and thus, throughout the Pastoral Epistles he issued a number of exhortations to Timothy and Titus. Perhaps the most comprehensive of these is found in 1 Timothy 4:6-16. Please read this text prayerfully and carefully.
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (emphasis mine).
Although I’m not going to elaborate on them here, I see four categories of exhortations in this text that we would do well to take seriously. Paul calls on Timothy, and by extension all pastors, (1) to do the hard work of personal training in holiness, (2) to do the hard work of teaching and modeling, (3) to do the hard work of opposing false teachers, and (4) to do the hard work of Christ-like self-defense.
My fellow preachers, the truth of the matter is that in order to carry out our ministries in such a way that God is glorified, and people are transformed, we must work hard by the grace He supplies. However, although the Lord commands us in this direction and warns that we will reap only what we sow, the truth is that the desire and ability to do so is a gift from Him. Since this is the case, He alone gets all the glory for the work we do and the fruit we bear. Let’s look at just one of many texts that help us to see this dynamic.
Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Although we were dead in our trespasses and sins, God saved us by His superabundant mercy for the glory of His name (Ephesians 2:1-7). God created us in Christ, saved us by grace through faith, that we might give ourselves to good works which He prepared for us in advance. So yes, we must work with all of our might and sow to the Spirit in a number of ways, but this is a fruit of God saving us and is sanctifying us for His purposes in Christ Jesus. And because He has done it all, He gets all the glory.
The Mystery of the Harvest
Now, before I bring this blog to a close, I want to acknowledge that there is a mystery in reaping the harvest in preaching. By “mystery” I mean that, although our labor in Christ always produces the fruit God designs, that fruit often differs from what we expect. Thus, we must learn to take our joy in God rather than in the particulars of the harvest, for the details belong to God alone.
At times we work hard and pray well, and yet our sermons seem to fall flat. Even as I write these words, I remember a week wherein my communion with God was deep, my study in the Word was fruitful, my heart for the people was warm, and my expectations for the message were high. But as I began to preach, I felt off-kilter, and the people seemed detached. The sermon was falling flat before my eyes, and I became deflated. It was painful to preach. As I walked away from the pulpit and toward my seat I thought, “That wasn’t good, and it must have been hard to hear.” I felt sad and sorry that I didn’t serve up a better meal for the people.
I’ve learned to discipline my heart toward the Lord in moments like these and remind myself of four critical truths. First that my process was authentic and strong. Second, that I told the truth about the Word of God. Third, that I gave all I had to give that week. Fourth, that I must, therefore, rest on the promise which says that the Word of God never comes back empty but always accomplishes the purposes for which it was sent (Isaiah 55:11). I don’t remember if anyone offered feedback from the sermon that day, but I do remember that as I preached to my soul, the peace of God washed over me. Perhaps God shaped one or more of His precious children that day for the glory of His name without letting me know what He had done. Indeed, we reap what we sow but the ways of the Lord are mysterious, and we do not always reap as we expect.
At others times, we work hard and pursue a specific aspect of the text, only to receive a message from the Lord that is true to the text but goes in a completely different direction. Sometimes this happens because our initial effort was in the flesh and the message was not pleasing to God. But sometimes this happens because the Lord chooses to bless our efforts in a way that ensures He gets all the glory. In this instance, our initial line of inquiry may have been a gift from the Lord to us rather than the people. We reap what we sow in weeks like these but the ways of the Lord are mysterious, and we do not always reap as we expect.
At still other times our sermons come freely and easily and unexpectedly for one reason or another, and occasionally without the benefit of in-depth study. For example, on one of my trips to India, I was invited to attend Sunday morning worship at a church where an Indian friend of mine serves as pastor. About ten minutes before the service he informed me that I was preaching that morning to which I responded, “Oh, okay, how long would you like me to speak?” Without thinking, he said, “About forty-five minutes.” “Okay,” I said. “Wow,” I thought!
At times like this, you’re either walking with Jesus, or you’re not! By the grace of God, the Lord brought a message to mind based on Isaiah 40, along with several relevant illustrations, and I was able to speak with the kind of focus and passion and freedom that usually takes hours of prayer and study to produce. But the ways of God are mysterious, and He sometimes causes us to reap where we have not sown.
Having said that, I must hasten to say that sermons such as these do still emerge from the hard work of sowing for they are the overflow of our daily life in Christ. They are a partial harvest of our daily efforts to be in the presence of God and understand the truths of God and conform to the character of God. Such sermons come by breath-taking grace, to be sure, but they come out of nowhere.
God has designed things in such a way that as the devoted soldier advances in his profession, the disciplined athlete wins the prize, and the hard-working farmer enjoys the fruit of the harvest (2 Timothy 2:3-6). Likewise, the Christ-pursuing preacher bears much fruit in the Holy Spirit. The ways of God are mysterious, and that fruit often differs from what we thought it would be. Thus, we must learn to take our joy in God himself, leaving the particulars of the harvest to him.
Conclusion to this Blog Series
My fellow preachers, sermons that glorify God and transform lives are a gift from the Lord, and yet there are several discernible elements in them that when taken seriously, fan into flame the work of God in preaching. I have suggested that those elements are (1) preaching the actual words of God, (2) communion with God by prayer and the Holy Spirit, (3) pursuing holiness by the grace of God, (4) developing a genuine love for the people, and (5) good old-fashioned hard-work. I pray that by the grace of God we will grow in these things and thus exalt the glory of Christ in the eyes of his people that they might be conformed to His image.