The Power of Preaching Like a Teacher


J. I. Packer (1926–) is known primarily as a writer, theologian, and professor; however, throughout the majority of his career, he was a preacher dedicating himself to the training of theologically astute church people. Having stood in hundreds, if not thousands, of pulpits and classrooms throughout the world, Packer has been an influential voice in the theory and practice of homiletics from a historically grounded, theological perspective. For Packer, preaching is teaching.

There is much in Packer’s views on preaching that is nontraditional. For example, when Packer was asked in an interview what advice he would give to young clergy, his reply was that they “have three priorities: teach, teach, teach.” The weakening of churches is a result of their failure to teach the confessions and doctrine.  

Packer also believes the following: 

  1. “A clergyman can’t be a maintenance man” but must challenge the status quo; 
  2. The proportion of a sermon should be half exposition and half application; and 
  3. “The preacher is, indeed, half of his sermon.” This statement is not intended to endorse the modern personality syndrome of celebrity preachers but is a call for authenticity in preaching and the recognition that their lives validate, enrich, and give evidence to the things that are said behind the pulpit.

For Packer, the sermon begins not with a topic but with a passage from the Bible. But there is a prior question even here, namely, “What passage from the Bible?” Packer answers the question of where sermon messages come from by saying that they come from two main sources—“ the known needs of congregations” and “our own experience of being taught and disciplined by God.” Packer also believes that “a rounded theological understanding” of God and the Christian life can be an aid to ensuring that one preaches the whole counsel of God, citing Calvin’s Institutes as “one theological guide that has suggested to me many messages over the years.”

Once the passage has been determined, the preacher needs to become a biblical exegete and interpreter. Packer raises the bar very high here and has often linked his zeal for theological education to the task of preaching. A biblically based sermon needs to interpret the biblical text correctly. One of Packer’s striking insights too often overlooked is that “a misinterpreted Bible is a misunderstood Bible.”

If the preacher must be an exegete, they must also be a theologian. Packer argues for such in an essay entitled “The Preacher as Theologian: Preaching and Systematic Theology.” He demonstrates that in order for the preacher to fulfill their task, they must be well-versed in systematic theology as well as the accompanying disciplines of apologetics, ethics, and spirituality. In doing so, the preacher will be able to communicate with accuracy “a God-centered view of this created world and life within it.”

When Packer explains how he goes about mastering the text that has been chosen, he offers his comments as a description of what he himself does, “without wishing to make rules for anyone else.” Packer first “walks round” his text, looking at it in its larger context (the book of the Bible in which it appears and the Bible as a whole). He jots down observations and possible angles of vision. He composes a tentative outline. Only after he completes his outline does he turn to commentaries, which he uses “to fill out the scheme I already have.” Packer derives more help from the older commentators and expositors than from modern ones. For illustrations or generalizations, Packer turns to the Bible and everyday events, believing that searching for “exotic illustrations” turns preaching into “a performance remote from life, so that sermon time ceases to be an encounter with God and becomes an entertainment break.”

Having mastered a biblical text, a preacher needs to turn the insights into a sermon. One of the constant themes of Packer’s writing about preaching over the decades has been that preaching is a form of teaching. In fact, teaching is part of Packer’s definition of a sermon. He writes that “sermons must teach.” But teaching by itself does not constitute a sermon. Packer believes that “to pass on biblical content, unapplied, is to teach, not to preach,” and it produces “a lecture [but] not a sermon.” Accordingly, “Preaching is teaching plus—plus what? Plus application of truth to life.” Packer believes that preaching is “interpreting God’s Word to God’s people.” Its adequacy is not determined “by the erudition of one’s exegesis but by the depth and power of one’s application.”

Packer advocates for an approach to application based on three principles. 

  1. “Application should constantly focus on the unchanging realities of each person’s relationship to God.” In other words, the Scriptures must come to bear on our relationship to God Almighty, specifically as it applies to our faith, obedience, and holiness. 
  2. “Application should constantly focus on the person, place, and power of Jesus Christ.” Given that Christ is the focus of the Bible, preachers ought to show how Christ is the answer to their deepest needs.
  3. “Application should constantly search the consciences of the hearers.” Whether congregants are unconverted, young Christians, or mature Christians, the sermon is intended to reach as many people as possible.

Packer’s approach to a biblical narrative consists of reliving the text and then building on that explication. Packer does not follow the dominant contemporary model that tends to search for three generalizations and a convenient proof text. Packer’s sermons are expository rather than topical, and the foundation on which the doctrine and application is built is what literary criticism calls an explication or close reading of a text. [For an example of the best of his preaching, see his sermon on Mary and Martha in Packer’s book (with Carolyn Nystrom) Never Beyond Hope: How God Touches and Uses Imperfect People.]

Conclusion

For Packer, preaching is teaching. More specifically, preaching is teaching the Word of God. In a Preaching Today interview, Packer was asked to respond to a prevalent contemporary view, namely that the sermonic emphasis that has been around since the Reformation is part of the problem with the church today. Packer refused to budge an inch. He defended Calvin’s view of preaching as “God’s derivative word,” based on a conviction that “Scripture should always be preached and listened to, read, reflected on as the word of the God who here and now is saying what Scripture says.” Perhaps this is the greatest lesson to be learned from this teacher of preachers—read, hear, and proclaim the Word of God as the words God says.

— by Leland Ryken and Benjamin Hernández, adapted from the new book A Legacy of Preaching, Volume Two: Enlightenment to the Present Day, The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers. Don’t miss Volume One spanning the Apostles to the Revivalists, and the Legacy of Preaching Two-Volume Set. The series editors are Benjamin K. Forrest, Kevin L. King, Bill Curtis, and Dwayne Milioni.

How to Use This Book

A Legacy of Preaching, Volume Two and Volume One (both release 11/13/18) tell the story of preaching, bringing great preachers of the past to life and instructing us through their unique approach to preaching God’s Word.
This resource will help pastors, homiletics students, and scholars enrich their own understanding and practice of preaching by looking at how the gospel has been communicated over time and across different cultures.

Taken together, volumes one and two profile sixty preachers including Paul, John Crysostom, Augustine of Hippo, Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Catherine Booth, D. L. Moody, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Stott, Martin Luther King Jr., Billy Graham, and many more.

Enrich your theology and practice of preaching: Order the two-volume set today (releases 12/11/18) for the best value.

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