Bill Gernenz blogs at Broken and Undone.
The aim of God-centered, exegetically-sound biblical application should ultimately be what Wayne McDill identifies as “a faith response” (12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching, 187-198). While pastors discuss the many and varied purposes of preaching, “the fundamental objective of preaching remains faith.” McDill explains:
The overarching aim of preaching is to call for faith in the hearer. . . the focus of preaching must be the object of faith, the person of God. The preacher enhances faith by pointing his hearers to God, his character, his capabilities, his intentions and his record.”
Indeed, McDill’s conviction reflects the central thrust of God’s self-revelation. In the gospels, Jim Cymbala in Fresh Faith observes that throughout the gospels, Jesus is either commending people for their faith or reproving their lack of it (Matt 15:28; Mark 6:5-6; Luke 7:9). The gospel of John was explicitly written so that his readers might have faith (John 20:31). The apostles wrote to churches inquiring about their faith (1 Thess 3:5), praising God for their faith (Rom 1:8), encouraging them to continue in faith (1 Pet 1:7) and charging them to contend for the faith (Jude 3). Abraham, the father of faith, was made righteous by his faith (Rom 4:1-5, referencing Gen 15:6). Contrast that with what the author of Hebrews tells us, that the word spoken to the children of Israel did not benefit them because it was not coupled with faith (Heb 4:2). Believers are commanded to “walk by faith” (2 Cor 5:7) knowing that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6). Indeed, “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). The overwhelming testimony of Scripture indicates that preachers should aim for the building of faith in their hearers.
So, Scripture’s emphasis on faith necessitates that all preaching aim for faith. But, how does the preacher increase faith in his hearers? The simple answer is: by means of the Word of God. Paul the apostle reveals that faith comes from hearing the word of God (Rom 10:17). Consequently, if believers are going to possess a faith that overcomes the world, then preachers must preach the Word of God faithfully. It will not be moralism, therapy, or self-improvement that gives Christians victory over the sin in their lives and the trouble in their world. It will be faith (1 John 5:4).
A faith-response, however, must not be understood as a mere informational exchange resulting in the mental assent of truth and doctrine. Furthermore, to say that the goal of preaching for faith is life-change must not be confused with mere behavioral change. To aim for external conformity is too shallow a goal. The faithful preacher must target the heart, seeking internal transformation. When Paul pointed the Philippians to the obedience of Christ, it was not to shame or guilt or prod them to merely do as Christ did. Paul’s intent was not mere external conformity, but internal transformation. Paul was displaying Christ’s character, appealing to them on the basis of the salvation they had received by faith. Contemporary preachers must be challenged by Paul’s example not to be content with mere conformity of behavior but to purpose for the transformation of the heart. This transformational intention is the thrust of what Jim Shaddix calls “incarnational preaching” (The Passion-Driven Sermon).
Astutely identifying the modern distortion concerning what “relevance” involves, Shaddix attempts to rescue today’s preachers from the contemporary worship of modern application. Preaching sermons that target the external behavior while largely neglecting theology and doctrine has rendered pastors effectively powerless to produce any real change. In pursuing relevance, they have plunged into the abyss of irrelevance. Contrary to modern thinking, “life change doesn’t take place as a result of practical application. Life change takes place as individuals are transformed by biblical truth and then it is manifested in practical application” (Shaddix).
Preach for faith and the heart is changed. When the heart is changed, the life will be transformed. Yet pastors commonly resist this fundamental purpose because of the tendency to fix our gaze on more immediate, more measurable, and more personally affirming purposes. In the end, this is not a peripheral issue of methodology and preference, but it is a fundamental issue of faith. Will the preacher find fulfillment in being found faithful? Will he place his confidence in the Spirit of God and the Word of God? “Preaching for faith requires a foundation of faith in the preacher” (McDill). When all is said and done, every preacher must decide if he believer the Word of God to be truly sufficient and efficacious.
Knowing God builds faith. Faith shapes character. Character determines behavior. This pattern of genuine life-change generally takes time and is not immediately observable. Therefore, preachers must forsake the prideful desire for validation that drives them to obsess over perceivable results. If God is trustworthy and if his Word is sufficient, then pastors must determine to labor in faith, praying for spiritual re-creation resulting in authentic transformation. The temptation to manufacture morality is strong. The appeal of artificial application for the modification of behavior is attractive. But the pastor is commanded to preach the Word even when the people demand something else. It is when the preacher is tempted to something else that he himself must exercise faith in the power of God’s Word. In this exercise of faith God is pleased and only in this exercise will the preacher will be considered faithful.
To read a full treatment of this principle in pdf format click here.