October 17, 2017

Insight into Substantive Preaching (6)

Mark Minnick

In Part One of this series, Dr. Minnick introduces a substantive sermon by Benjamin Keach. We also gave you just a taste of the first couple of paragraphs of the sermon.

In Part Two of this series, we offered the full introduction to the sermon and the first major point.

In Part Three, we gave again the first two paragraphs of introduction as well as the second major point.

Dr. Minnick’s original article spanned two editions of FrontLine. His second installment included a new introduction and the final point, followed by an application section and Dr. Minnick’s analysis. We offered the final point in Part Four.

In Part Five we offered Keach’s Application. We conclude the series with Dr. Minnick’s analysis.

A Partial Analysis of Substance

Our question when we began this exercise concerned substance. What makes a substantive sermon? A meaty message?

It’s apparent that Keach’s example isn’t lacking for solid matter. Nothing about it strikes you as light, shallow, or trivial. It’s weighty but not oppressive. Deep but not difficult. Conveying great importance without pretentiousness.

What gives it these qualities? Let’s begin with what may come as a surprise: it’s not expository. That is, it doesn’t expound one text of Scripture. Instead, it’s a topical sermon. It takes its theme from a text and then develops that theme from a combination of other passages.

One of the things giving this particular message weight is the number of such passages it employs. By my count, Keach quotes from 36 different chapters. Some (Isa. 63; John 3; John 6; Acts 10; Phil. 2; 1 Tim. 1; and Heb. 1) he refers to more than once (though not always the same verse), for a total of 41 explicit quotations. This, apart from any other consideration, gives the message Scriptural substance. The very words of God comprise a significant percentage of its content.

A second contributor to the Scriptural substance of the sermon is the breadth of Scripture revelation from which its passages are taken. There are 17 different books quoted (2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Zechariah, Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Galatians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews, 1 Peter, and Revelation). Note that Keach employs both the Old and the New Testaments, spanning a breadth from 2 Samuel to Revelation, but making most use of New Testament passages, especially the Gospels (most frequently John—8 times) and Paul’s epistles. The Old Testament book used most often is Isaiah (chapters 7, 9, 19, 42, 61, and 63 twice).

These two factors alone, the number and the breadth of the Scriptures used, are remarkable by contemporary standards for topical preaching. It’s expected that an expository message would be full of Scripture, since by definition it is the studied exposition of a passage. But topical preaching is often conceived of as spring-boarding off of a single verse out into practical application/illustration with only a modicum of further references to the Bible. This is precisely its shallowness. It simply doesn’t make much use of the Bible. It’s not a preaching of the Word. But substantive topical preaching is.

Now we need to analyze the way in which Keach uses these many verses. Substantive preaching doesn’t merely use a generous quantity of Scripture, but uses it in a certain way. To illustrate, both modern and classical artists make use of many colors. But the old masters combined those colors in realistic patterns, just as they’re found objectively in real life. Modern artists, on the other hand, often pride themselves on the subjectivity of their creations. There’s nothing in real life that their work portrays literally. You can turn their paintings in any direction, even upside down, and it makes no difference. The picture is whatever you want to see in it.

There’s a kind of preaching that combines Bible passages into patterns that aren’t truly representative of either Scripture or God’s mind. I’m not even talking here about misinterpreting, though this too is often a characteristic of the faulty preaching I’m thinking about. But I’m primarily speaking about a preaching that may even interpret individual verses correctly but which combines them in unscriptural or at least Scripturally imbalanced ways. To again use an illustration, there’s a difference between scattering Scripture verses through a sermon like so many points of light or synthesizing them in theological constellations.

For instance, Keach takes up each person of the Godhead in order—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— and employs his many Scripture texts to unveil the great and glorious contribution to our salvation made by each Divine person. I.e., Keach presents the Father as the One who was (1) the Contriver of salvation, (2) the injured Member by our sin, (3) the Appointer of salvation’s terms, (4) the One who substituted the Son, (5) the Father of all our subsequent mercies, (6) the Chooser of us in Christ, and (7) the Raiser of Christ from the dead for our justification.

This is accurate, Biblical, theological synthesis. It weaves the many verses into a Scriptural fabric.

This knowing of constellations is the result of an expert use of systematic theology. It comes, as George Herbert wrote, from knowing “not only how each verse doth shine, but all the constellations of the story.” It’s what gives, not just Scriptural, but theological substance to a sermon. It’s using verses to turn on doctrinal lights in Scriptural patterns. The result is that the listener sees a realistic Scriptural picture not an imaginative abstraction. He’s compelled to think God’s thoughts in God’s sequences.

And what’s the picture supposed to be? There can be only one right answer to that question, no matter what the original text or topic. Scripturally substantive preaching presents something of Christ and of what it means to be a man or woman “in Him.” It is Christocentric. There’s a great gulf between this and mere moralizing from Bible passages. David Larsen is right when he warns in his outstanding history of preaching,

If the Christian were to preach a sermon from an Old Testament text that a Jewish rabbi could preach, then that sermon is not Christian proclamation. The theme of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is ever our Lord, and the theme of Christian preaching under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit is Jesus Christ (The Company of the Preachers, 51).

This has been an admittedly limited beginning to addressing a truly critical question. But it seems to me that, at a minimum, we’ve learned from Keach that substantive preaching makes a generous use of God’s very words synthesized theologically in order to portray accurately Scripture’s central revelation— the Lord Jesus Christ.


Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March / April 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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