January 22, 2021

What Is the Goal of Preaching?

Fresco, Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome.

Fresco, Catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome.

Do you agree with Rick Warren that, “The Aim of Preaching Is Life Transformation”? Here is an excerpt from his article:

If God’s objective for every believer is to transform us into total Christlikeness, then the objective of preaching is to motivate people to develop Christlike convictions (to think like Jesus), Christlike character (to feel like Jesus), and Christlike conduct (to act like Jesus). Every other objective of preaching is secondary. At the end of the sermon, if people aren’t being transformed in how they think, feel, and act, I’ve missed the mark as a preacher.

I used to think this way (at least theoretically), but now I’m not so sure. I would state this much differently now that I am no longer a part of the evangelical movement that Warren represents. I think his description of preaching and its purpose is problematic, though there are certainly elements of truth in what he says.

I guess what I feel most hesitant about is this idea of “life-change” or “life-transformation” being the goal rather than a byproduct of preaching the Word.

It makes me feel, as a preacher and pastor, that my job is to change people’s lives. Is that really true? This is one of the more uncomfortable characteristics of the evangelical mentality as far as I’m concerned, and no doubt the source of many abuses in the Church.

Do I want people who hear the Word to become more Christlike? Of course. But I get the suspicion that what we are hearing about from brother Warren and others reflects the quote I gave out on Sunday from Juergen Moltmann (and here I highlight the key phrase with italics): The reduction of faith to practice has not enriched faith; it has impoverished it. It has let practice itself become a matter of law and compulsion.”

Focusing on life-transformation as the goal of preaching seems to me to reduce the faith we hold to constantly telling people that they must turn over a new leaf. It is telling people, to use Warren’s categories: you must think this, you must feel this, you must act like this. And then note, he lays the burden on every sermon to accomplish this.

Now to his credit, Warren does indicate that he is talking about something deeper than merely giving people instructions and expecting compliance. He says this is about changing minds at the deepest level, aiming for repentance and seeing people’s beliefs and values change.

But I’m not sure that quite gets at it, either.

There is something very inorganic about the way evangelical preachers talk about preaching. It sounds mechanical to me, programmatic, methodistic (sorry Methodists). In other words, it comes across as a description of a process of production, not a process of life and nourishment and growth. We’re called to make disciples, after all. Well then, let’s make them. Here’s how.

Again I come back to my favorite text on ministry in the NT, 1 Thessalonians 2:

But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children,urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

– 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12, NRSV

What is the goal of preaching, according to Paul?

Yes, he wants his Thessalonian friends to “lead a life worthy of God, who calls [them] into his own kingdom and glory.” I suppose you could call that “life-transformation.”

But Paul’s goal seems even bigger than that. Giving them “the Gospel of God” to “change their lives” doesn’t adequately summarize what Paul was about. If I read the passage correctly (and please read all of 1Thess. 2 for the whole context), his goal is to represent God well by proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom while laying down his life for his listeners in personal, sacrificial love.

I find nothing mechanical, programmatic, or methodistic about the way Paul presents his mission and its goal. It is personal, through and through. It’s about love. It’s about integrity in relationships. It’s about sacrificing for others. It’s about being part of a family together and being one who gives life and nourishment to others through the words he or she speaks. These are are all part of the goal.

Whatever “life-transformation” takes place is a byproduct of that.

I won’t go on a screed against megachurches here, but I just wonder how 1 Thessalonians 2 works out for a preacher like Rick Warren in a congregation of tens of thousands of people. Perhaps the sheer scale of the organization requires systems, programs, and good old American ingenuity to get across a message that can “change lives.” Can my life really be transformed by someone standing and speaking at a pulpit that I need binoculars to see?

Perhaps if I am at a point of transition in my life I might respond to such a disembodied message, whether in a megachurch, on TV, or in some other mass media form, and change my ways for a season. But what about the ongoing nourishment, the family life, the preacher who is my pastor? Who’s the “nurse tenderly caring for her children,” the brother “working night and day” at my side, the “father…urging and encouraging” me?

Of course we want people to grow in Christlikeness. As we say here at IM, it is always our privilege to invite others to join us in seeking a Jesus-shaped life. And you may find some help here, some help in books, some help in listening to good preachers. But ultimately it comes to down to the fact that God’s goal is to form a people, a family full of people that represent him well by proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom while laying down their lives for one another in personal, sacrificial love.

If we make that the goal, I have no doubt we will see lives changed.


  1. Final Anonymous says

    Yes, a thousand times yes.

    “Like a father with his children…” Parenting is such a good metaphor. We do not produce instant fruit with our lessons and moments as parents, nor do we (hopefully) expect instant “transformation.” Eventually we may realize all our efforts were for naught, as there were other entities in this equation — friends, other relatives, teachers, preachers, media, the child himself, the Holy Spirit. Growth is such a complicated process, parents (pastors) are merely tools.

    What a different place church could be, if we didn’t all feel that pressure to magically transform each week.

    • Christiane says

      or ‘a mother with her children’
      . . . the Church is sometimes seen as a ‘mother’ nurturing her children

  2. Thank you! I guess I’m not taking crazy pills after all.
    I think another problem stems from the way Evangelicals tend to understand repentance to mean when you stop sinning and start doing what you should (in other words, literally impossible).

    From a Lutheran perspective, I believe the goal of good Law/Gospel preaching is to kill you, and then raise you to newness of life, bluntly put. The law preached to its harshest condemns everybody, to death, and the gospel preached to its sweetest brings life to dead sinners. This is how God’s Word nourishes us. It is not practical. It is not helpful. It has much more important business to be about than making our lives better.

    The thing that bugs me most about the “life transformation” agenda is that it renders the Cross a superfluous detail that can be wielded for emotional appeal to motivate people to try harder. When you turn the carrot of grace into the whip of moral demand, don’t be surprised when the ass goes backwards.

  3. Well said, Miguel, and that is exactly why “3rd use of the law” stuff is bogus.

    The Cross is enough. NO religious projects. God has taken the religious project upon Himself…for what purpose?

    That we might have “freedom” (from religious projects).

    Just because they teach you something, doesn’t make it right if it contradicts the complete work accomplished on the Cross for …the UNGODLY.

    Well… that’s what we Lutherans believe who don’t hold to a Southern Baptist doctrine of the Word, as does Rick Warren, et al.

  4. I always thought the centerpiece of Christianity was the forgiveness of sins. That is life transformation, yes?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      It depends.

      There is no acceptance of forgiveness if there is not first a conviction of guilt. And what does forgiveness mean? Isn’t this in-a-nutshell approach to religion what got us where we are? Everyone trying to distill everything down to it’s bare essence; then realizing the bare essence is void in its bareness, so distill it even further… I’m tired of centerness, and essence-of, and core, and …. I do not believe that approach works, is realistic, or helps.

      Perhaps we could start with a simple goal for preaching: Education. For not only a sculpturally illiterate population, but also a historically and religiously illiterate population, just some knowledge might by by-product be transformative. We send preachers/pastors/priests to seminary why? I’d hope, at least in part, it is so that they are better educated concerning these issue. [aside: Maybe we would have fewer Ken Hams and the like savaging off on side-tracks if this resource was more effective]. At this point in my life I have become very comfortable with how extremely unpopular this view of the role of preaching is; just making my comment for-the-record.

      I cannot read “his goal is to represent God well by proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom while laying down his life for his listeners in personal, sacrificial love” as a description of preaching. How does a preacher do that? Can someone point me to a sermon that does that? The “while laying down his life for his listeners in personal, sacrificial love” seems like something in-addition-to what he is preaching. It does not seem as if it applies to preaching.

      > Perhaps the sheer scale of the organization requires systems, programs

      I agree completely with this `criticism` of the mega-church. I do not go to one anymore. But criticism is easy, and there has been train loads of it dumped on the mega-churches. What is an example or description of a real workable alternative in the 21st century church filled with 21st century people – and notably in a world of 6+ B-as-in-billion people [some things are going to be *BIG* and everything is going to be complicated]. Pitching stones is easy, and standing at the proverbial 1,000 foot level and proposing vision is easy too. This is not a criticism of the author or the article – it just seems that this frequently gets addressed at this level.

      > But what about the ongoing nourishment, the family life, the preacher who is my pastor?


      > Of course we want people to grow in Christlikeness


      • By emphasizing that “his goal is to represent God well by proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom while laying down his life for his listeners in personal, sacrificial love,” I mean to say that preaching, for Paul, involved more than the mere act of speaking. As he says in 1Thess 2, we must not be content with merely giving people the verbal Gospel, but with it also our own lives.

        I am not implying that Warren fails in this regard. I am merely saying that his definition of preaching is flat and one-dimensional without this necessary pastoral context. It makes the sermon into a tool of mass production that accomplishes what only life in a family is designed to accomplish.

        • br. thomas says


          Would you be willing to invite Rick Warren to respond to your post online? I would be interested in hearing from him directly about what he actually believes about this, rather than us just reading something he has said and then you (or all of us) assuming we have an accurate understanding and the proper context for his words or position. This might be a beneficial “conversation” to have, since this issues probably has broader implications.

          • Br. Thomas, that’s a great idea but I’m sure Pastor Warren has many more important things to do. This is not personal; this is a chance to have a discussion about the way we talk about preaching, and what Warren says here represents a common perspective in the evangelical world.

            Of course if someone who knows Pastor Warren reads this blog and would like to pass along an invitation, I’d be all for it.

    • No. Forgiveness doesn’t change the life you already have. It gives you the life you never had.

  5. One side effect of this type of preaching is that pastors tend to project their own lives (or their own idealized life) into the definition of transformation. So if they married at 19 and live in a 4 bedroom house in the suburbs, they project that everyone’s image of Christ should be that image.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      +1 Or they wish they could afford those things and thier preaching follows that angle of wish-fulfillment. Seen that.

      But I’d hope that is on the decline, as that life-style is on the decline, and as the baby-boomers [the pioneers of that expensive mess] age into different life-styles. In an America where by 2030 the *majority* household will be single occupant [no spouse, no children] it will be interesting to see what happens to “church” [as well as an entire array of cultural events such as holidays, etc…]. It is going to be a different world.

  6. The definition of theosis is deification and is both a transformative process and the goal of that process. There are differences in a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. There is no doubt that Luther was very excellent in representing the later. Karl Holl, a theologian and influential church historian of his time, observed that “to become divine” was a phrase that has been used by Christians regularly throughout different Christian eras, but its meaning varied. To the eastern region it was to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I think today you can see that in Pentecostal theologies also. Luther himself has been quoted by Holl as saying “We become divine through love, which causes us to do good to our neighbor”. I pick Clement of Alexandria only for the shortness of his quote…”For if one knows himself, he will seek to know God; and knowing God, he will become like God”.

    This issue is a paradox that is all part of Gabe(the divine gift) and Aufgabe(responsive human activity). I think it involves a conflict of two passions held simultaneously, which is why the banner for Christianity is a shotcloth, giving a contrasting effect when looked at from different angles. I like Karl Barth’s idea that “Of course there is no Easter without Good Friday, but equally there is no Good Friday without Easter”.

    Personally, I’m all in with our fellowships being of the meal sort, instead of the lecture sort. I know I could use some help in killing me, as Miguel says. But I do like the practical, helpful interaction when you just get to sit down and be with the church at a table instead of a pew.

  7. Anonynomous says

    When you ask what the goal of preaching is according to Paul, I wonder why you didn’t cite his words on it, found in 1 Tim 1:5: “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Wouldn’t that be a better, more direct, answer to your question?

  8. I always figured the goal of preaching is prophecy. (And not with that cessationist redefinition where any preaching counts as prophecy.)

    Yeah, I may have an agenda, be it life-transformation, explaining the word of God more fully, announcing the Kingdom, or entertaining the masses. But in the process of putting the message together, I need to ask the Holy Spirit what he’d have me talk about, and have him refine things till it’s no longer my message but his—and follows his agenda, not mine.

    Prophecy builds, encourages, and comforts people, and binds the church together. Does it transform lives? Sure. It does all sorts of things, including all the things you talked about, and all the things Warren talked about. But most importantly, it exposes people to God’s thoughts, and if our preaching doesn’t do that, woe to us.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Prophecy” meaning something other than Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist and setting dates for the Rapture?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Clearly the use of the term “prophecy” here is not helpful; the term is far too overloaded.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Prophecy(TM) has come to mean only Predicting the Future, a sacred Fortunetelling.

        And predicting only ONE type of Future, the Dark Future followed by No Future of Late Great Planet Earth and Left Behind. Pin the tail on The Antichrist.

        • Yeah, unfortunately that brand of Prophecy™ is the only one non-charismatics recognize. It’s why, when I read the Left Behind novels, they came across completely ridiculous: They resemble Hollywood special effects not just because they were hoping Hollywood would adapt them, but because the writers have no experience with the real thing. Every “prophecy” just repeats the bible, in many cases word-for-word. Yeesh.

    • K.W. Leslie, I had an Old Testament prof who always said that prophecy is “forth-telling” rather than “fore-telling”. Is this what you mean, too?

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Now to his credit, Warren does indicate that he is talking about something deeper than merely giving people instructions and expecting compliance. He says this is about changing minds at the deepest level, aiming for repentance and seeing people’s beliefs and values change.

    That may be true now, but what happens when you stir in Entropy and simmer for 10, 20, 30 years?

    Can my life really be transformed by someone standing and speaking at a pulpit that I need binoculars to see?

    That’s what the giant Telescreen behind the pulpit (and duplicated sans pulpit at all the franchise campuses) is for.

  10. “It’s about love. It’s about integrity in relationships. It’s about sacrificing for others. It’s about being part of a family together and being one who gives life and nourishment to others through the words he or she speaks.”

    Nail square on the head CM. Several years back we attended a small baptist church about 30 minutes south of the city. At the time they had as an interim an older retired country pastor. The nicest way to put it is that he was ‘uninspired’ in the pulpit. BUT, and a very important but, that man exuded love from every pore of his being. I’ve never met anyone else like him. It was obvious that he loved absolutely everybody. And I can’t look back without thinking about how much we loved and admired that man in return. I really hope to someday live up to the example of that beautiful lousy country preacher.

  11. Yeah, this threw up red flags for me as well. The master of acronym is the ultimate pragmatist. If it doesn’t “work,” it’s not good.

    But good art doesn’t “work.” Genuine affection for one another in community doesn’t “work.” And the cross didn’t “work” either. Warren says:

    “At the end of the sermon, if people aren’t being transformed in how they think, feel, and act, I’ve missed the mark as a preacher.”

    I can think of a dozen scenarios where where people aren’t being changed, at least in the short run, and the preacher may have done his job commendably. For instance, if the hearers simply don’t believe, or can’t see. Like what happened with Jesus many, many times.

    That’s an unbearable burden for the preacher right there. Chaplain Mike is right- if you’ve preached Jesus and the Gospel, and like John the Baptist, you have “decreased, so that he might increase,” then you’ve preached correctly. Let the chips fall where they may.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I guess we mean very different things by the same words.

      > If it doesn’t “work,” it’s not good.

      Doesn’t it depend on the goal? Because, yes, absolutely, something that does not work is rubbish.

      > But good art doesn’t “work.”

      It most certainly does. Bad art is art that doesn’t “work”.

      > Genuine affection for one another in community doesn’t “work.”

      It works amazingly well, as anyone in a good community knows.

      > And the cross didn’t “work” either.

      Really? I do not get this at all.

      • I suppose I mean “work” in the pragmatistic terms that Warren is using it. Of course these things have a dramatic effect, but they don’t seem, by many empirical or rational standards, to be goal oriented, fix-it plans. They are intrinsically good, and beautiful. And the good, holy, and beautiful are indispensable, just not always rational.

  12. I have found that if I do my best to preach God’s Word faithfully he will show up and change lives. Any life change I can create will be fleeting. Often people will come to me after a service and tell me how much God touched them while I preached. The thing is, God moved on their heart and spoke to them about something that wasn’t even in my message! This keeps me in check that life really is not about me.

  13. “At the end of the sermon, if people aren’t being transformed in how they think, feel, and act, I’ve missed the mark as a preacher.”

    That’s putting a lot of pressure on oneself. Maybe more like seed planter or sheperd. The sheperd may not neccesarily be looking to transform his sheep (unless of course he’s taking the sheers to them). Rather he is tending to them and leading them, and nurturing them.

    This can be part of the problem when all focus is put on the preaching of the word and none on the eucharist. The preacher then either feels the pressure to perform, or is trying really hard to become the cult of personality so that people keep coming back … was I better than last week and the week before?

  14. Mike, I love the way you combine critical insights with an irenic spirit. Very rare these days.

    Your bring two questions to the table, it seems. First, what exactly should be the point of the sermon? Second, how does this interact with the pastoral role?

    Regarding the first, I tend to agree with a man that I know some here regard as persona non grata: John Piper. He makes the case that preaching should be “expository exaltation”. That is, the goal is exalting God so that all can see His beauty, grace and wisdom more clearly. When this happens, two other things occur: God is glorified, and we are drawn to love Him more and follow Him out of that love and awe. The means by which this exaltation occurs is exposition: giving careful attention to the way the scriptures describe the excellency of God and His wisdom and grace, especially seen in the cross.

    I think the second question you raise is answered very well in your analysis, and I appreciate imonk for continually pointing out this truth: there can be no effective pastoring by preaching alone. Effective pastoring is incarnating the truth of the gospel in the life of the pastor in his or her interaction with the members of the congregation. The sermon is a part of this, but not the essence of it.

  15. Is there a difference between “life transformation” and “behavior modification”? I don’t see any. The Gospel isn’t about behavior modification; instead, it’s about recklessly trusting that God loves us, in spite of ourselves. We can’t “stop (insert pet sin here)” our way into communion with God. We have to trust in Him. Our preaching should reflect that.

    Will our patterns and behaviors change as a result of that communion? It certainly can. We must be careful, though, to not live as though we believe we can impress God with our “transformation”, but to be transformed because we are ultimately impressed with God.

    That being said, here’s some points I gathered from Pope Francis’ recent “Evangelii Gaudium”, the section on the preaching of homilies:

    + The homily is a point of connection between a pastor and the listeners, as well as a point of connection between a listener and God.

    + The homily should have a three-fold effect: an encouraging experience of the Holy Spirit; consolation through the hearing of God’s Word; and the renewal and growth of the listener.

    + The homily should not be treated as an educational tool, breaking down Scripture into a math equation or formulaic matter, but as a conversation between God and His people, reminding them of the covenant nature of the relationship He offers, and the amazing salvation story of Christ.

    + The homily should be an effective bridge for the listeners to cross from their pews to participation in the Eucharist.

    + In order to deliver an effective homily, the speaker must understand the wants, needs, failures, joys, heartaches, successes, and dreams of the listeners; in short, they must understand the culture of the congregation.

    + The homily shouldn’t be boring as all get-out, but feeding the listeners’ appetite for entertainment should never be be the ultimate goal.

    + Keep it short. You may have the ability to deliver a captivating two hour sermon, but if the people are truly listening (AKA, not snoring), it may be an indication that they are more enamored with you and your speaking ability than the content of what you are actually saying.

    + God is our Father, and the Church is our mother. The Church represents God, and the pastor/priest/teacher/evangelist represents the Church. Our homilies should have the quality of a loving, encouraging, correcting, strengthening, compassionate parent speaking to her children.

    + The homily you deliver should be much more than a routine lesson. It should come from a heart set on fire by the preparation of it. Every word should matter to you. If you’re connected to the words you speak on behalf of God on a heart level, then it opens the door of the listeners’ hearts to what Christ has to say.

    + In the homily, the listener is embraced securely, the way an innocent child is embraced by the Father; and as children who have grown older, made poor choices at times, but are still lovingly received and embraced by their Abba Daddy. A good sermon will always find balance between living out the promises of our baptismal covenant, and living in the grace of God: It reminds us of what God has done for us, and what He’s going to do.

    That’s my cornbread interpretation of the Pope’s thoughts on homilies.

    You can read that section of the Evangelii Gaudium, along with the thoughts I just shared, at http://homiliesprayersbread.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/the-homily-as-dialogue-a-message-to-those-who-teach-preach-and-share-the-gospel/

    • Christiane says

      if you consider that people may be in need of taking a sermon to heart,
      then this is Pope Francis’s best ‘sermon’ yet:


      this ‘gesture’ conveys something that the world is thirsting for . . . and Pope Francis provided the world with a cold drink of ‘living’ water with this encounter

      maybe the goal of a ‘sermon’ is to feed and nourish weary people in need of hope ?

  16. Is it only the Reformed who believe that preaching is a means of grace, along with the sacraments of baptism and communion? I like the way that Michael Horton puts it: Drama (the “big story” of Christ from Creation to Consummation) leads to to Doctrine (the vital truths of the Christian faith derived from the Drama) which leads to Doxology (praise to God and what He has done for us through the Cross) and which then, and only then,results in Discipleship (a transformed/conformed life).

    The problem as Dr. Horton sees it, and I have come to agreement with, is that many sermons (and no, not just in Evangelical churches) shoot straight for Discipleship. Yes, the Drama is preached (albeit abbreviated and only as much as the congregation will pay attention to before their mind shifts elsewhere), the Doctrine is taught (albeit 1″ deep and mostly theistic moralism) and the Doxology is sung (mostly about how warm & fuzzy Jesus makes us feel, not about praising and adoring God for what He has done for us through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit), but yet the intended target is Discipleship. And because the means lack grace the target is missed.

    In the scenario where the goal of preaching is transformation the actual outcome is behavioral modification and cognitive realignment, not genuine transformation in the sense that only the preaching of the Gospel can accomplish.

  17. David Cornwell says

    Some very good points made here today about preaching. Chaplain Mike, taken together with what Lee says, would make good instruction in a class on homiletics. And then there are many other good insights as well.

    I’d like to also take into consideration two aspects of preaching.

    The first is this: Preaching is a continuation of the original witness, that is the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And alongside them were those who saw and interacted with the risen Christ. These were the first witnesses, and it is their testimony of this event that we have come to trust. This became, and continues to be a “Word” event in every sense of the term.

    The “New Testament” is part and parcel of that testimony. The Gospels are an interpretation of the life of Jesus in the light of the resurrection. His life and death have meaning in the light of that event. So preaching becomes the continuing testimony to His life, death, and resurrection. Thus if we are called to be preachers we are called to continuing faithful witness to these things.

    Secondly, preaching can and should model that of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount centered on the message important to Jesus. His preaching was an answer to the pharisaical interpretation of the law. The Sermon is the reinterpretation. “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are the peacemakers”… etc. The law is transformed by the gospel. This is a reflection of His synagogue proclamation when He said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled….”

    Preaching is testimony to an event—the Event. It is the making of this Event “come to word” (Claude Geffré).

  18. Yes, CM, it is problematic, for all the reasons you state. The only thing that is truly life-transforming is the realization within oneself of the love of God. By “realization” I do not mean that suddenly the light bulb comes on intellectually; I use “realization” in the sense of to actually make real. Sermons may help, and intellectual apprehension of true truth may be a concomitant result of realization – a paradox 😉 Involvement of loving people in one’s life is the deepest and most direct way to making God’s love real within someone, insofar as anyone can do anything for anyone else; it is a prayer, and the outworking of prayer. It is the only thing that brings about lasting change, not merely change in behavior.

    “There is something very inorganic about the way evangelical preachers talk about preaching.” Yes; in the absence of the sacramental life of the church, all that is left is the sermon to look to for any kind of “effectiveness.” Assuming a person is even the least bit honest in showing up to church in order to worship God, I think dead literalism is much more dangerous than “dead ritual” could ever be; literalism is a flat “a thing is a thing is a thing,” and at least ritual points to something beyond itself. Even among those who have the Lord’s Supper every week, it takes second place to the sermon. “Ordinances” cannot, by their very nature, bring about change within a person. Baptism is merely a public acknowledgement of a change, not a change in and of itself. The “remembrance” of the Lord’s Supper is merely the calling of a scene to the screen of the mind and/or having the proper emotions to go along with that scene. There’s no room in Evangelicalism for paradox, for true symbolism – the “throwing together” of things that are all real.

    Here is a quote from Fr Stephen Freeman’s latest:
    “The sacramental life of the Church is not an aspect of the Church’s life – it is a manifestation of the whole life of the Church. It is, indeed, the very character and nature of the Church’s life. The Church does not have sacraments – the Church is a sacrament. We do not eat sacraments or just participate in the sacraments – we are sacraments. The sacraments reveal the true character of our life in Christ. This is why St. Paul can say:

    “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me,” etc. (Galatians 2:20)

    “I am…nevertheless I…yet not I…but Christ…. This is the language of the mystical reality birthed into the world in the Incarnation of Christ. Thus we can say: This is the Body of Christ…nevertheless you see bread…but it is not bread…but Christ’s Body sacrificed for you. This is the Hades of Christ’s death and the Paradise of His resurrection…nevertheless it is the water of Baptism…but it is not water…but Christ’s death and resurrection into which you are baptized.

    “And so we see the whole world – for the “whole world is sacrament” – in the words of Patriarch Bartholomew. We struggle with language to find a way to say “is…nevertheless…yet not…but is.” This is always the difficulty in expressing the mystery. It is difficult, not because it is less than real, but because of the character and nature of its reality.”

    Expressions like “the goal of good Law/Gospel preaching is to kill you, and then raise you to newness of life” make me very uneasy; there’s not enough nuance, and this can be easily misunderstood and turned into Christian jargon. If we are already baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we are already dead. We do not need to seek to kill our true self, the human being God created to give fullness of life. Yes, we need to “put to death the deeds of the body,” but St Paul in Rom 8 is employing language to its limits in order to describe how a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit is to function, after the whole trajectory of the previous chapters. He’s not talking about obliterating the uniqueness of each person. He is saying something about how Christ’s putting death to death will work out in our lives: “is…nevertheless…yet not…but is.”

    Did not mean to write a sermon!


    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Assuming a person is even the least bit honest in showing up to church in order to worship God, I think dead literalism is much more dangerous than “dead ritual” could ever be; literalism is a flat “a thing is a thing is a thing,” and at least ritual points to something beyond itself.

      “When you point at something with your finger, the dog sniffs your finger. To a dog, a finger is a finger and that is that.” — C.S.Lewis

  19. Bill Metzger says

    Please read and pray 1 Corinthians 2 once again!!!

    • Another good passage on preaching, with more emphasis on distinguishing it from those who seek displays of power or impressive rhetoric (see 1 Cor 1). Our message, instead, focuses on Jesus who died and rose again. The Spirit uses this message to communicate to those with “ears to hear.”

      Once again, I think it stresses that preaching Christ is the goal, the effect of the message on its listeners is the byproduct.

  20. Hey Headless Unicorn Guy (HUG), how come we often here about you and your writing partner, yet we never get a chance to read anything you’ve written? Would love to!

    Just saw you commenting (under a different name, lol) in a 2006 post about NT Wright, you mentioned writing, was curious if you had anything published yet.

  21. “We should listen to those elders who are in the church and who have their succession from the apostles for with their succession in the episcopate they have received the unfailing spiritual gift of the truth according to the Father’s wish.” — Ireneaus (c. 200).

    “On the day which is called Sunday there is a common assembly of all who live in the cities or in the neighboring outlying districts, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read, for as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly verbally admonishes and invites all to imitate such examples of virtue.” — Justin the Martyr (c. 150)

    Writing about the same time, one says truth and the other does indeed seem to say life transformation as the goal of preaching.

  22. To me, the most telling part of the opening quote is that he wants his preaching to “motivate people to develop…” In other words, preaching motivates people, then people change themselves. That’s very different than hoping, say, that your preaching will help people to encounter God, and that as they grow in relationship with God, _God_ will transform them.

  23. When I first read this by Capon I had an immediate gut feeling of his rightness;

    In the light of this text [luke 12:35ff], then, preachers of the Word labor under three distinct requirements. First, they are to be faithful (pistoi). They are called to believe, and they are called only to believe. They are not called to know, or to be clever, or to be proficient, or to be energetic, or to be talented, or to be well-adjusted. Their vocation is simply to be faithful waiters on the mystery of Jesus’ coming in death and resurrection. What the world needs to hear from them is not any of their ideas, bright or dim: none of those can save a single soul. Rather, it needs to hear—and above all to see—their own commitment to the ministry of waiting for, and waiting on, the only Lord who has the keys of death (Rev. 1:18).

    Second, the clergy are to be wise (phronimoi). They are not to be fools, rich or poor, who think that salvation can come to anyone as a result of living. The world is already drowning in its efforts at life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts. Preachers are to come honestly empty-handed to the world, because anyone who comes bearing more than the folly of the kerygma—of the preaching of the word of the cross (1 Cor. 1:21,18)—has missed completely the foolishness (moron) of God that is wiser (sophoteron) than men. The wise (phronimos) steward, therefore, is the one who knows that God has stood all known values on their heads—that, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:26ff., he has not chosen the wise, or the mighty, or the socially adept, but rather that he has chosen what the world considers nonsense (ta mora) in order to shame the wise (sophous), and what the world considers weak (ta asthene) in order to shame the strong. The clergy are worth their salt only if they understand that God deals out salvation solely through the klutzes (to, agene) and the nobodies (ta exouthenemena) of the world—through, in short, the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. If they think God is waiting for them to provide them with classier help, they should do everybody a favor and get out of the preaching business. Let them do less foolish work. Let them sell junk bonds.

    But it is the third of these clerical requirements that strikes me as the most telling: preachers are stewards whom the Lord has “set over his household servants to provide them with food at the proper time.” After all the years the church has suffered under forceful preachers and winning orators, under compelling pulpiteers and clerical bigmouths with egos to match, how nice to hear that Jesus expects preachers in their congregations to be nothing more than faithful household cooks. Not gourmet chefs, not banquet managers, not caterers to thousands, just Gospel pot-rattlers who can turn out a decent, nourishing meal once a week. And not even a whole meal, perhaps; only the right food at the proper time. On most Sundays, maybe all it has to be is meat, pasta, and a vegetable. Not every sermon needs to be prefaced by a cocktail hour full of the homiletical equivalent of Vienna sausages and bacon-wrapped water chestnuts; nor need nourishing preaching always be dramatically concluded with a dessert of flambéed sentiment and soufléed prose. The preacher has only to deliver food, not flash; Gospel, not uplift. And the preacher’s congregational family doesn’t even have to like it. If it’s good food at the right time, they can bellyache all they want: as long as they get enough death and resurrection, some day they may even realize they’ve been well fed.

    So much for the faithful preacher. Jesus, however, does not end his answer to Peter there. “But if,” he continues, “that servant says in his heart, ‘My lord is certainly taking his own sweet time about coming,’ and if he begins to smack his fellow waiters and waitresses around, and to eat and drink and get drunk. . . .”If, that is, the preacher gets tired of the foolishness of the Gospel and begins to amuse himself with his own versions of intelligible fun and games— whether by exploiting his fellow servants bodies, or by intellectually devouring their souls like cheese puffs—then the Lord of that preacher “will come on a day he does not expect and at a time [hora again] he does not know, and he will cut him up in little pieces and appoint his portion [meros] with the unfaithful [apiston]”

    Only one thing is necessary, therefore, and that is the “good part” (agathos meros) that Mary chose and Martha despised. All that preachers need to do is sit at the feet of Jesus on the cross and preach out of their fidelity to that sitting. But if they will not do that, the only thing left for them is the “part of the unfaithful”: the slow or sudden falling to pieces of their lives by virtue of their very efforts to live them. Because they will not choose the emptiness of being faithful (pistos), the only thing left for them is to live by what they think they know. But because they are not wise—not phronimoi, not aware that the only thing that counts any more is the foolishness of the cross—then all the two-bit pomposities they substitute for the saving simplicity will simply bore them and everyone else to tears. They will, like Ahimaaz (2 Sam. 18:19ff.), be nothing but breathless messengers who never figured out what the message was supposed to be.

    (chapt. 9, Parables of Grace)

    • Wow, Tom, great words. Thanks for that.

    • wow….. there is a LOT there to chew on, Tom, that quote is a meal by itself, thanks. Preacher as kitchen cook…. that is great picture.

    • David Cornwell says

      Wow, what powerful words. This should be a required reading for would-be preachers. And those who think they are already preachers.

    • “The world is already drowning in its efforts at life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts.” – Capon

      Wow. That’s a keeper!

  24. Robert Capon should be put into the hands of every Believer at least by the age of 40–by which time we’ve probably done our best at transforming ourselves in every worst possible way as urged by our haranguing experts of orthopraxis.

    Thank you Jeff for awakening me several summers ago to Capon’s writing.

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