"The Bible Says" or "Paul Says"? A Response to Andy Stanley

Andy Stanley gave a talk last week at Exponential, a church planting conference in Florida, under the theme of "rethinking preaching." Stanley is a powerful communicator, and his message stimulated a lot of thinking.

I want to summarize Stanley’s message as accurately as possible, and then evaluate the strengths of his approach, as well as some of my concerns.

Quote Authors, Not the Bible

Stanley’s aim is to preach to unchurched people with the right approach. He is concerned that we often assume a lot in our preaching, leaving the bottom rungs off the ladder. He affirms his belief in Scripture as God’s authoritative Word.

Because unchurched people do not recognize the authority of Scripture, however, Stanley advises preachers to avoid saying, “The Bible says…” Instead, we should quote authors. For instance, “James, the brother of Jesus, writes…” “Paul, who hated Christians and yet became one, writes…” People who will not immediately concede the authority of Scripture will be led to consider the stories of the authors who wrote Scripture, and that background will make the content more compelling.

Why take this approach? “The problem with ‘The Bible says’ is what else the Bible says,” says Stanley. The unchurched will ask why we should trust one section of Scripture when other Scriptures contain truths that are hard to swallow, and that require some explanation. As well, Stanley argues that the foundation of our faith is not the Bible, but an event: the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible is not a single book in any case, but a collection of books.

Stanley is not disputing the authority of Scripture. He is simply saying that it is important to understand that an unchurched audience does not share this conviction. We can appeal to the authors and their stories in order to build common ground with the unchurched, which can lead to a recognition of Scripture’s authority. For instance, we can use Jesus’ view of the Hebrew Scriptures to build a case of the the authority of Hebrew Scripture.

(Another attendee has blogged his notes from Stanley's talk. It contains a few other points I'm not mentioning here.)

Strengths of Stanley's Proposal

There’s a lot to like about Stanley’s suggestion. We can’t assume that our audiences accept the authority of Scripture. We should be making a case for why people should listen to the text. It can be very effective to root texts in the larger story of how God worked in the lives of the authors so that they wrote what they did. And, in the end, it’s important to remember that effective preaching includes apologetics.

Some Cautions

While Stanley’s approach has a lot to commend it, I do have three cautions and concerns.

I want to expect more of the audience. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure Stanley’s proposal gives enough credit to the audience. We may say we are simply quoting Paul or James, but our listeners will still realize we are quoting from the Bible, and they will still bring their questions about some of the more difficult passages of Scripture. I have no problem with quoting authors; I’m just not sure that people will think I’m not quoting the Bible. In fact, I want them to think I’m quoting the Bible. My assumption is that we can preach in a way that doesn’t sidestep that we are quoting Scripture, even as we build the case for why we need to recognize its authority.

I want to expect more of Scripture. The reason Scripture is authoritative is not because of the authors and their stories. The reason Scripture is authoritative is because God has spoken and revealed himself. There are times to defend and establish the authority of Scripture; there are also times to unleash Scripture and let it do its work, realizing the Holy Spirit is in the room. When God speaks, something happens, even if the hearer doesn’t recognize that it’s God who is speaking.

I want to guard against losing confidence in Scripture. I am not saying that Stanley does this; quite the opposite. I am concerned, however, that those who take his advice seriously may find that it can lead to a subtle shift. It may lead to conceding some of the authority that belongs to Scripture, and giving it to the audience instead. We don’t stand in judgment of Scripture; Scripture stands in judgment of us. I want to keep this clear in my mind, even as I use apologetics to make the case for why we need to hear God’s Word.

To use an illustration: when a judge renders a verdict we don’t like, the judge’s personal story isn’t ultimately the reason why his or her verdict stands. When the judge speaks, the law speaks with all its weight. When Scripture speaks, the personal backgrounds of the authors may be fascinating, but it’s ultimately compelling and authoritative because God has spoken, and the words carry his weight.

Parenthetically: The church in North America faces a lot of challenges. In my opinion, an over-confidence in Scripture is probably not one of them. My impulse is to move toward a greater reliance on Scripture and its authority. Stanley's proposal may be targeting a problem that doesn't exist to the extent that I wish it did.

Stanley loves Scripture, and is clearly a good communicator, and his suggestion has a lot going for it. But I never want to let the listeners escape having to wrestle with the fact that God, not just Paul or James, has spoken, and that we need to listen. We can quote the authors, but let’s never be afraid to say, “The Bible says…”

More Than a Lack of Clarity

It’s tempting for preachers (and parents) to think that knowledge is the solution to the problem of disobedience. Is a husband unfaithful to his wife? He needs a good whack of truth to the head. Is your teenager trying drugs? A pamphlet on the danger of narcotics should do the trick.

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To be sure, knowledge is important. Preachers trade in truths, and parents can only hope to teach their kids what is true. We are all supposed to spend our time thinking about what is true (Philippians 3:8).

Yet, truth is not enough. If we only have truth, we miss the mark and become pedantic lecturers, driving people away from God.

Zack Eswine writes about this in his excellent book Sensing Jesus. Sometimes, he says, we “believe that another is choosing a course of action because he or she simply isn’t clear on what is right.” We think the solution is explaining what’s right and plain, and then they will do the right thing.

That’s not enough, he writes:

While our first step should always include making sure things have been made clear, most of us know from our own lives that often it is not a lack of clarity that troubles us. Often we already know the right thing to do, and we will still choose otherwise…

The Bible simply does not teach that if we say the right words, right things will follow. Jesus taught us that the self-centered heart is tamed not by human will but by God’s intervention. No one was more plain, reasonable, and clear than Jesus, and they crucified him.

Some implications for all of us:

  • Make things clear, but understand that this is only the beginning.
  • Pray that the truth would not just become clear but precious. In other words, pray for the Spirit to do his work.
  • Recognize our limits. We play a role, but only God can change the heart.
  • As preachers and parents, we need to learn our roles: as preachers and those who pray for what only God can do; as those who not only show the truth of God’s Word but the beauty of it; as people who want to capture not only the thoughts but the affections of the hearts of those we’re trying to reach.

Seven Reasons to Preach God-Centered Messages

Preachers everywhere face the pressure to preach messages that put humanity at the center. Someone has estimated that over 80% of sermons are human-centered. David Wells writes:

It seems that God has become a rather awkward appendage to the practice of evangelical faith, at least as measured by the pulpit. Indeed, from these sermons it seems that God and the supernatural order are related only with difficulty to the life of faith. He appears not to be at its center. The center, in fact, is typically the self. God and His world are made to spin around this surrogate center, for our world increasingly is understood within a therapeutic model of reality. (No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age)

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The alternative, of course, is preaching that centers on God. Rather than being less relevant, it is actually much more explosive and life-changing.

I spent some time thinking about this a few years back, and came up with seven reasons why God-centered preaching is better than human-centered preaching:

  1. It glorifies God — One reason to preach God-centered sermons is that it brings glory to God, especially in comparison to human-centered sermons. It reminds us that God is the hero of each text, and he gets the glory. Human-centered sermons still talk about God, but place undue emphasis on our role and our needs. God does not yield his glory to another. This is ultimately a form of idolatry: putting anything else in God's rightful place.
  2. It is more accurate — God-centered preaching emphasizes accuracy in the study and communication of a Biblical passage. Scripture itself is God-centered, and preaching must be God-centered if it is to stay consistent with Scripture. Human-centered readings misinterpret the text and lead to sermons that, while seemingly biblical, fail to recognize that the Father, Son and Spirit are the key characters, and we are participants, not the main players. When the God-centered purpose of the text governs the sermon, then that sermon is more accurate to the meaning and the purpose of Scripture.
  3. It tells a better story — God-centered preaching also exposes the false stories that hold people captive, even within our churches. The North American story promises happiness and peace to those who are successful, famous, and rich. This worldview holds people captive in the never-ending quest to accomplish more, earn more, and win the respect of others. In contrast, God-centered preaching invites us into an alternate story in which peace does not depend on accomplishments, money, or the praise of people. God-centered preaching likewise exposes the prevailing worldview as a lie, unfurls reality as God sees it, and proclaims the truth that leads to freedom. It does not try to improve our lives within a false story; it tells a true story that leads to freedom. 
  4. It prepares the congregation for faithful performance — God-centered preaching enables the congregation to learn the script and our role within it. We learn our place in the unfolding story of what God is doing in the world. Because Scripture is about God and his mission, a God-centered focus leads people into relationship with God and participation in his continuing mission within the world.
  5. It frees preaching from “to do” lists — God-centered preaching helps avoid application fatigue. Human-centered sermons can unwittingly place pressure on individuals to perform up to a certain standard, in order to obey a command or conform to an example in the text. Instead of leading to life change, applications can instead lead to hopelessness as they pile up, and as the listener fails to live up to expectations. The listener can begin to despair of ever being able to faithfully live as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and the preacher can begin to wonder if anyone is listening. In contrast, God-centered preaching is not about handing out more “to do” lists. The congregation is freed from the weight of commands they cannot keep, and enters into a life of dependence on Christ. Sufficiency is not found in the life of the individual, but in God.
  6. It is expansive — God-centered preaching thus leads to an expansiveness that is not characteristic of human-centered preaching. In God-centered preaching, we begin to understand that Scripture is an ongoing story, and that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is our God, and their story is an ongoing one that includes us. We also understand the end of the story (eschatology), and the knowledge of the story's ending gives us confidence and hope even as we live in what can appear to be uncertain times. The knowledge that our lives are part of something bigger leads us from a human-sized view of history and our lives to a God-sized view.
  7. It is sustainable — One of the problems with human-centered preaching is that it is demanding. People's needs are never met, and a preaching ministry that is focused on meeting those needs will never do enough. God-centered preaching does not begin with the inexhaustible demands of the human condition; it begins with the sufficiency of God. Rather than dwelling in the depth of human need, it lives within the realm of God's richness. The preacher is not pressured to only provide answers; instead, the preacher brings the congregation into the presence of God, who is on a mission to re-create the cosmos and to redeem all things. Discouragement is part of the assignment of preaching, but a God-centered approach reminds us that our sufficiency is not found in ourselves. God, not the preacher, is the only source of eternal satisfaction and joy.

These are just a few of the reasons why God-centered preaching is much more beneficial than a human-centered approach.

Preaching on Sunday? Read This.

Pastors can always use encouragement. If you're a pastor (or even if you're not), here are some truths that you might find encouraging today.

  • God promises to use his Word (Isaiah 55:11). When God speaks, things happen. No matter how feebly preached, God honors the proclamation of his Word.
  • Our weakness displays God's glory (2 Corinthians 4:7). Our weakness doesn't diminish God's glory. It provides greater contrast between us and the surpassing power of the God we serve.
  • God uses the "things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are" (1 Corinthians 1:28). If you and your church don't look like much, you are just the type that God loves to use.
  • Your position is secure (Romans 8). There is no sermon that you could preach that would make you more acceptable to God. There is no sermon, however bad, that can remove you from the love of God.
  • Our imperfect churches display the manifold wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10). When God wants to display his wisdom to angelic beings, he points to the church. The fact that church exists despite our failings causes angels to marvel and to glorify God.
  • Your work is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). We often don't see it, but because of the resurrection we can stay at it, knowing that our work isn't wasted.
There's so much more. Things may be tough. We may not see much progress. But God is at work. On Friday as we prepare to preach, we can rest knowing that all is well. There's every reason to be encouraged.

adapted from a previous post

A Practical Reminder to be (Slightly) Impractical

There's lots to say about the ultimate goal of preaching, but I've found one of the best reminders to be this one from an excellent article by Lee Elcov (part one and two):

Preaching is the work of spiritually civilizing the minds of Christian disciples...The Bible spends much more time on shaping the spiritual mind than commanding particular behavior. We need far more training in the ways of grace, of spiritual perceptions, and of what God is really like, than we do in how to communicate with our spouse. Understanding the glory of Christ is far more practical than our listeners imagine. Properly preached, every sermon based on a passage of Scripture is fundamentally practical. Every author of Scripture wrote to effect change in God's people. It is our job as preachers to find the persuasive logic of that author and put that clearly and persuasively before our people through biblical exposition.

Read that over again. Preaching is all about "spiritually civilizing the mind." That statement alone can revolutionize your preaching. Good preaching doesn't just tell you what to do; it reorients our thinking. The best preaching aims at something much higher than behavior.

One of the most practical things you can do is to stop being so practical in your preaching. Or, at least delay being practical until the logic of the text changes the logic of the listener. That's when the sermon gets very practical.