This article is part of the Open Letters series.
Dear fellow pastors,
Perhaps you, too, have read with a sense of your own inadequacy Paul’s words to his younger ministry protégé in 1 Timothy 3. He tells Timothy that an overseer must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive.” (1 Tim. 3:2-4) Each carefully chosen word or phrase is full of demand and expectation. Each also has the potential to be overwhelming in its own right, let alone in combination!
However, in writing to you as fellow pastors, we want to concentrate on a single item mentioned by Paul: we want to suggest a way forward that may be fruitful in getting you started, or helping you keep on track, in the goal of being “able to teach.” (1 Tim. 3:2) As we do so, we recognize what the rest of the Pastoral Epistles makes clear, that such teaching does not simply involve positive instruction but also refutation of those who oppose sound doctrine. (Titus 1:9)
Our central and primary suggestion to you is that you focus on an organized, structured, disciplined, and lifelong commitment to preaching the whole Bible through a systematic and well-thought-out exposition of all of the books that make up both Testaments. We believe that if you set this as a goal, then you will be off to a magnificent start toward accomplishing the pastoral goals of both instruction and discipline, or refutation, as outlined by the apostle Paul.
Before we try and fill this out, let’s think about expository, or expositional, preaching. What is expository preaching, and why should it be the basic diet of Christian congregational preaching? Expository preaching is preaching that “exposes” the text of Scripture as God delivered it to us. It does not bring its own agenda to the Bible or to the pulpit, but seeks to understand the Bible text in its own terms, trusting that God wanted each book put in the form we now have it. Through this form, he speaks to his people.
In our view, the best expository preaching has an additional element: it is done in series, by which we mean that the passage preached on a given week is preceded by the passage that comes immediately before it and is succeeded by the passage immediately after it. This means that the sort of expository preaching we advocate aims to preach through each book of the Bible from start to finish, thus preserving the book's God-given fullness and shape.
Let’s now return to filling out what this looks like and demands. The first thing to say here is that the goal that we have outlined briefly will never be reached without a high-level commitment. So, our first bit of advice is for vocational preachers to set themselves a goal of preaching through the entire Bible over a thirty-five year period. We know that as you read this you may be gasping with incredulity, perhaps saying under your breath, “You’ve got to be kidding!” However, we think it is possible if you don’t start too late—and even if you are well into your thirty or more years of preaching, it is a goal to aim at even if the Lord does not give you the full number of years.
Just as feeding a family well requires careful thought and planning and a commitment to a good diet, how much more so feeding the family of God.
Our second piece of advice is to carefully consider what a balanced diet of Scripture looks like for the particular group of people among whom God has called you to minister. At the very least, this will include considering carefully what you preach from each Testament, corpus and genre, and how you will find a good balance of each for your particular congregations.
The third bit of advice? Plan! Plan carefully and rigorously. What we are talking about and advocating is a well-thought-out program rather than working from whim or springing off from the latest book that you’ve read. Just as feeding a family well requires careful thought and planning and a commitment to a good diet, how much more so feeding the family of God.
Our fourth piece of advice is to consider mostly ditching topical preaching from the weekly pulpit diet of the church into which God has placed you. We suggest that weekly sermons be reserved for preaching expositionally through books of the Bible and that topical preaching be held back for other occasions in church life such as retreats, conferences, special teaching events, or as occasional sermons between biblical series.
The final piece of advice we wish to give in this brief letter is to urge you to develop your own love and knowledge of Scripture. We believe that the sort of program that we have outlined above will feed into this. However, it is not enough. To preach the breadth and depth of the Bible requires being an ongoing student of the Bible yourself. It is not enough to rely on what you learned in seminary or in the last good book that you read. We preachers need to be continuing students of the Bible ourselves. We need to read it for ourselves. No, actually it is more than this. As teachers and preachers, we need a rigorous and widespread personal Bible-reading program that is separate from our weekly preparation to preach. Such reading will enrich our knowledge and understanding of the Bible. It will enable us to do good biblical theology and develop good systematic theology and also—what we have called in our book—“gospel theology.” However, most of all, it will cause you to be a model of what is required of all God’s people—that is, to be a person who is ready to hear things from God that you may not have heard before and to integrate them with other things that you have heard before. It will also help you to critique the commentators that you read and even to disagree with them on the basis of your own reading of the Scriptures.
This short letter is just a start. We write simply to give you a feel for the revolutionary but transformative goal that we are advocating. The book that we have written lays all the groundwork for our big goal and develops all the suggestions that we have made (and more). Our hope is that it might help you bring the whole word of God to the people over whom our Lord has made you an overseer. Our prayer for you is that by such mechanisms (and others we advocate in our book, as well as those you might add), our God and Father might equip his church with his word, centered on the message of his Son, to minister the gospel concerning his Son to his world.
Andrew and Tim
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