Who Is Sufficient for These Things?: Thoughts on Preaching

To re-purpose a quip by David Black, for me to write on preaching is a little like Nero writing a book on fire safety.[1] So we are turning our attention to the master expositor who wrote the sermon-letter to the Hebrews. The question we want to ask him in this article is, What is your strategy in preaching?

It is wonderful when an older believer takes an interest in us. I remember a brother whom I highly respected putting his hand on my shoulder after I spoke. He had every right to rebuke me for something I had said, but he seemed to know that a gesture of fatherly love was the only correction I needed. Of course, there are times when words are appropriate too. Perhaps you’ve had the privilege of receiving such words of encouragement as these: Keep feeding the sheep; Point them to Christ; Just be yourself, son.

Imagine the preacher of Hebrews hearing that you were due to speak in a couple of weeks. What would he say to encourage you? I suspect it would go somewhat like this. Putting his arm around your shoulders and giving you a sideways glance, he’d say, Give them something better.

Give them something better. You mull the words over in your mind until suddenly it strikes you: that’s exactly what this preacher did in his sermon to the Hebrews! His strategy was to give them something better. We’ll call it the Hebrews Strategy.

You recall the problem he was up against. Some of his audience were tempted to go back to Judaism; he wanted them to carry on with Christ. Two possible strategies are before him. He can pour all his rhetorical energy into convincing the people that the one path is no good. Or he can pour that same energy into showing them that the other path is better. It’s clear, isn’t it, which strategy he opted for?

But we must be clear on the distinction between the two strategies. The fact that this preacher chooses to emphasize the superiority of Christ and not the inferiority of Judaism does not mean he ignores Judaism’s shortcomings altogether. Throughout his message, he pauses to point out these shortcomings (and even give solemn warnings). But he does so in service of a higher purpose. The limitations of the OT system provide the points of comparison against which he can show the perfections of Christ. All that the listeners are yearning for – a priest, sacrifice, sanctuary and hope – are found in fullness in Christ. He is better.

So it becomes a question of emphasis. Sometimes, sadly, we can become guilty of misplacing that emphasis. I’ll never forget when an elder summarized in three points the overall theme of a conference he’d attended: do more, try harder and don’t you dare leave. When preachers use the Hebrews Strategy, the people say: Christ is better. We don’t want to leave.

With the former strategy, give us a text to preach like 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world.” That verse will preach! The next verse gifts us our three-point outline: (1) the desires of the flesh; (2) the desires of the eyes; (3) the pride of life. Outline finished. The rest of our sermon prep is almost as easy. Grab the latest facts and figures on pornography. Find a story about someone who won the lottery, making her life worse. Finish with a clever line on how there are no U-Hauls behind hearses, and voilà. Those fortunate enough to hear the resulting sermon will never love the world again.

Such facts and figures have their place. But hear what Thomas Chalmers, a great proponent of the Hebrews Strategy, does with this preaching text: “There are two ways in which a practical moralist may attempt to displace from the human heart its love of the world – either by a demonstration of the world’s vanity … or by setting forth another object, even God, as more worthy of its attachment, so as that the heart shall be prevailed upon … to exchange an old affection for a new one.” The former method is “altogether incompetent and ineffectual.”[2] Only the latter will work.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” Chalmers explains. I was recently in a home where an oven fire broke out (only the Yorkshire puddings were damaged). When the firefighters came, they didn’t try to trap and remove all the smoke from the house. They simply opened the front door and back door, fired up a high-powered fan, and filled the house with fresh air. They didn’t learn this from Hebrews. Nature itself teaches that the easiest way to get rid of smoke is to supplant it with something sweet.

You can preach till you’re blue about how evil the world is, but “the love of the world cannot be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness.” The heart doesn’t work that way. Rather, “the only way to dispossess it of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.”

It’s a radical strategy, as liberating for the preacher as it is for his listeners. For as Chalmers points out, those of us who lack the skills of cultural analysis and expression needed to expose the follies of society and the heart have in the gospel a truth which, like the rod of Aaron, is able to swallow up such follies in every heart it enters. “The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one.” That’s good news if you’re bewildered by all the latest theories and movements.

It’s also homiletically helpful. The Hebrews Strategy can be reworked into two questions to help in preparing to speak. Christ-centered devotional preachers can add a practical touch to their ministry by asking, What competing affection vying for hearts is Christ better than, according to the christological truth I want to speak on? Those more prone to pragmatic topical preaching can ask themselves: This topic (such as social media) that I want to help people with – how can I show that Christ is better?

After all, Chalmers is dead-right: “The freer the gospel, the more sanctifying is the gospel; and the more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more it will be felt as a doctrine according to godliness.” It’s not enough to take people’s phones away or rail against video games and partying.[3] We must learn from the preacher to the Hebrews to give them something better.

[1] David Alan Black, Using New Testament Greek in Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 21.

[2] Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 27. The subsequent quotes are also from this book.

[3] There is a place for warnings and rebukes, however.