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Verse-by-verse preaching described as ‘apostolic norm’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Any kind of preaching other than verse-by-verse exposition is an “aberration from the apostolic norm,” proclaimed R. Kent Hughes, pastor of The College Church in Wheaton, Ill., in his 1998 Mullins Lectures on Preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Sept. 29-Oct. 1.
Hughes, whose lectures supported the apostolic historicity of expositional preaching, also told students biblical preaching is impossible without a wholehearted commitment to the full authority, truthfulness and sufficiency of Scripture, “which is wholly inerrant, totally sufficient and massively potent. If you believe this, you will be driven to the exposition of God’s Word.”
To the contrary, Hughes said, “A low view of Scripture, coupled with critical theory and the ideologies of psychology, feminism and political correctness, will produce a butcher block Procrustean bed for homiletics.”
Whether some preachers have a low view of Scripture or are guilty of “homiletical sloth” because week-by-week expository preaching is “too much work, ” Hughes contended virtually all preachers had, at some time or another, succumbed to a low form of preaching he calls “dis-exposition.” This occurs, he explained, when a text is announced, read and then promptly abandoned as the preacher fails to allow the Bible to mandate the content and structure of the message. This practice lacks rigorous interaction with the biblical text. Or, it may simply set forth a mere compilation of moralized or doctrinalized meanderings, he said.
Preachers also distort Scripture when they rip it from its context or preach on speculations that the Bible does not address, such as the Christmas story from the perspective of the lowing ox in the stable where Christ was born.
The most common avenue of dis-exposition is when a preacher surrenders to the “homiletics of consensus” in which he determines the congregation’s sermonic needs based upon “the pollsters’ analysis of felt needs and then bases his preaching agenda on those feelings,” Hughes said.
“The problem with preaching to felt needs is that our deepest needs often go beyond perceived needs,” he asserted. “For example, most Christian couples feel the need for teaching on marriage and family — and it ought to be done — but they have a far deeper need of understanding Romans 1-3 because a profound understanding of the human predicament will inform and give wisdom to marriage, parenting and, indeed, all of life.”
Why then do Bible-believing evangelical churches seem increasingly willing to abandon biblical preaching? Hughes asked. He diagnosed the issue as essentially one of unbelief in the power of Scripture.
“I have to say I think that’s probably where the greatest problem lies today about people who think they believe in the sufficiency of God’s Word, but they really don’t believe what they believe,” he said.
Some preachers capitulate to the postmodern aversion to reasoned discourse in favor of narrative-based sermons punctuated with “therapeutically laced stories” or they may over-evaluate the need to make the text relevant to contemporary listeners.
“They forget that God is the author of Scripture,” he noted, “and that he had a future audience in mind when he caused Scripture to be written.”
For Hughes, following the apostolic-Reformational model of verse-by-verse expository preaching compels him to tackle issues in the pulpit that he might ordinarily be tempted to avoid, such as Jesus’ teachings on divorce, Paul’s prohibition against women teaching men in the church and Joshua’s recounting of the divinely directed annihilation of the city of Ai.
The “Logos” of expositional labor must be joined with the “ethos” of holy living and the “pathos” of authentic passion before the preacher is prepared to ascend to the pulpit, Hughes elaborated. Hughes warned preachers may neglect the pursuit of holiness because they become callous to “holy things” because of their familiarity with the ministerial task. Such inattention to the preacher’s personal sanctification is the death knell of his preaching authority, he said.
Genuine pulpit passion is to be distinguished from “bogus” worked-up enthusiasm because it stems from the unshakable conviction that “what we are saying is true.” Hughes cited Jesus’ wailing over the disobedience of Jerusalem as the model for authentic homiletic passion.
Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. praised Hughes’ lectures as consistent with Southern’s emphasis on training biblical preachers: “One of our ambitions as a seminary is that the phrase ‘expository preaching’ would become a redundancy,” Mohler said. “For no one would think of any other kind of preaching than the preaching of God’s Word, to seek to make plain what God has revealed in his Word and to declare nothing more and nothing less than what God has revealed in his perfect Word.”
Hughes has served as senior pastor of the Wheaton church since 1979. He is the author or coauthor of 14 books, as well as the eight-book Preaching the Word commentary series of which the volumes on Mark were awarded the Gold Medallion Book Award for the best commentary of 1990.

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  • Russell D. Moore