Dying Man, or Counselor? Why Preaching Matters

By Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

In most occupations there are different ways of approaching things—and this is true even in preaching. There are different styles of preaching and different methods that men use to try to communicate God’s Word. However, over the past decade or so there has been a division in the very methodology behind preaching. This latest division is watering down the Gospel and is ultimately responsible for weakening the church and the authority of Scripture.

Al Mohler recently wrote an excellent article on this division. He wrote: “An open debate is now being waged over the character and centrality of preaching in the church. At stake is nothing less than the integrity of Christian worship and proclamation.” Mohler points out that for many congregations expository preaching is now a thing of the past. He noted, “In its place, some contemporary preachers now substitute messages intentionally designed to reach secular or superficial congregations–messages which avoid preaching a biblical text, and thus avoid a potentially embarrassing confrontation with biblical truth.”

While this non-confrontational approach may appear, from an outsider’s perspective, to be the solution for increasing numbers, it actually does the opposite over the long term. It weakens the congregation and will ultimately result in the spiritual death. A congregation that receives a steady diet of milk will not grow. Not only do they not grow, the frequency of their attendance and commitment begins to decline. [For example: if 200 members attend every week the average attendance would be 200. However, if one-half of those members begin to miss only one out of four weeks, the attendance drops to 175. Did you catch that? No members left the church. Everyone is still relatively “active” in the church. But attendance declined over 12 percent because half the members changed their attendance behavior slightly. The have grown apathetic and are not truly convicted in being servants to Him.]

Mohler gives the reason for this new divide: “Two famous statements about preaching illustrate this growing divide. Reflecting poetically on the urgency and centrality of preaching, the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter once remarked, ‘I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.’” Mohler continues, “Contrast that statement to the words of Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the most famous (or infamous) preacher of this century’s early decades. Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, provides an instructive contrast to the venerable Baxter. ‘Preaching,’ he explained, ‘is personal counseling on a group basis.’”

Consider for a moment this massive difference in approach and what it will ultimately mean to the hearers. Mohler observed, “’For Baxter, the promise of heaven and the horrors of hell frame the preacher’s consuming burden. For Fosdick, the preacher is a kindly counselor offering helpful advice and encouragement.’ Ask yourself: Should the preacher seek to preach a biblical text through an expository sermon? Or, should the preacher direct the sermon to the ‘felt needs’ and perceived concerns of the hearers?”

As you are considering that question remember that the Bible is the source of all Truth. John 17:17 reminds us, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.” Opinions are not truth. Cute narrative stories are not truth. Reader’s Digest narratives are not truth. Drama and skits are not truth. Only God’s Word is truth.

It is no secret that many preachers have abandoned expository preaching in favor of “felt-needs” preaching. Preachers like it because they feel like they’re reaching the members and elders like it because it is non-confrontational. Mohler continued, “These preachers may eventually get to the text in the course of the sermon, but the text does not set the agenda or establish the shape of the message.” In other words they are simply using the Bible to support their story, rather than having the Bible as the primary source for their message. As a result these congregations drift away from biblical authority as they continue to please the people. It is no wonder that many congregations are moving more and more toward entertainment.

You might ask what’s the big deal and why does all of this matter? Mohler remarked, “The problem is, of course, that the sinner does not know what his most urgent need is.” He’s absolutely right—without pointing out sin and the predicament of the sinner we water down the need for Jesus Christ and what He did for us on the cross.

I hear it every weekend. After preaching a simple sermon that deals with sin, hell, and death people clamor that they haven’t heard a sermon like that in years. Or they remark that they remember hearing sermons like that when they were growing up. Brethren, it should not be so. Our pulpits should be ringing out Biblical truths every Sunday. Mohler concluded his article, “The current debate over preaching may well shake congregations, denominations, and the evangelical movement. But know this: The recovery and renewal of the church in this generation will come only when from pulpit to pulpit the herald preaches as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”

As for me—I will continue to preach as a dying man to dying men.

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