Are Sermons Enough to Preach the Whole Counsel of God? (Part 1 of 2)

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“Why should I give money to support the arts? Why not give money to preachers or missionaries instead? After all, the most important Gospel work is preaching, isn’t it? As Paul says in Romans 10:14, ‘How will they hear without a preacher? It never says, ‘How will they hear without an artist?’ does it?”

During the Nehemiah Foundation’s nearly decade-long effort to renew the arts within the church, I have regularly heard some version of this objection. At first blush, it seems true and obvious, doesn’t it? If the Word of God is primary and fundamental to the work of the Gospel, then preaching the Word of God and explaining it in sermons must be fundamental and primary to the work of the church. Most people in the church believe that it’s okay to have the arts as an adornment for a Gospel message or as a harmless amusement, but they believe the real bulk of the church’s emphasis and resources should go to spreading Gospel sermons far and wide. They think explaining the Gospel in sermons is the most effective way to evangelize the world and edify the church, and “preaching” is therefore the most important and primary work of God’s people.

I do not believe that the Bible teaches that expository sermons are always the most effective means to deliver God’s truth and character.

At the risk of stepping on a lot of toes, I’m going to take issue with this common misconception. I do not believe that the Bible teaches that expository sermons are always the most effective means to deliver God’s truth and character. And they are by no means the primary method God uses or has used. In fact, far from it. The Bible contains far more stories, parables, and poetry than it does expository teaching. Furthermore, I do not believe the Bible limits “preaching” merely to spoken sermons from the pulpit.1

But before I get into that, let me emphasize what I am not saying. I am not saying that preaching sermons isn’t important. I have great respect and love for faithful preachers who clearly and accurately explain what the Bible means. But the Bible teaches (both in its form and in its content) that expository sermons, important as they are, simply cannot reveal the whole counsel of God or do the whole work of the Gospel in the world.

How God Delivered His Truth in the Bible

If you agree that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, then you must also agree that God made no mistakes in the choices he made for delivering his Word to us. He chose the most effective means to deliver the truth to each of his specific audiences—both the original and contemporary audiences. Yet our all-wise and all-knowing God rarely delivered his truth in clear propositional terms. He rarely delivered his truth in what we know as sermons. This fact is, oddly, overlooked by almost everyone who believes in the primary centrality of “preaching” in and for the church.

Just peruse your Bible’s table of contents for a moment. The Bible begins with a book of stories. Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers are primarily composed of narrative. Only in Leviticus and Deuteronomy does God speak primarily in propositions, but all of these propositions are framed by the narrative history he has just recorded and the sacramental metaphor inherent in the ceremonial law. Divorced from the narrative and metaphoric background surrounding it, the “preaching” of the Pentateuch loses the majority of its meaning and depth.

Continuing in the Bible’s table of contents, basically nothing that follows the Pentateuch in the Old Testament is primarily expository. You have a long stretch of nearly pure narrative, followed by epic poetry, aphorisms, psalms, and songs. Then the Old Testament is closed out with the Major and Minor prophets (all poets, story tellers, and/or performance artists). So in the whole Old Testament (comprising 39 books), only two books are primarily expository or propositional, and both of these books rely heavily on the stories, imagery, and poetry surrounding them for meaning.

All told, the Old Testament runs very short on telling the truth and very long on showing it.

Perhaps even more strangely, “The Preacher” of the Old Testament—Solomon—does not leave us with even a single sermon (in the conventional contemporary sense). He left us with a book of parable-like lyrical aphorisms, an imaginative treatise on existential vanity, a rather sensual epic song, a prayer or two, and his monumental artistic contribution on the Temple.

All told, the Old Testament runs very short on telling the truth and very long on showing it.

Perhaps you might say, “Well, that’s just the Old Testament. Preaching expository sermons is more central in the New Testament.” First, I’m not willing to just cast aside the Old Testament and God’s method of revealing himself in it. But, that said, it is true that there are a number of important sermons recorded in the New Testament—many more than are recorded in the Old Testament.

But, lest we forget, Jesus’ central teaching method was in parables—fictional stories (Matthew 13:34), not expository sermons. Jesus was following the example of the Old Testament psalmists and prophets in this (Matt. 13:35, which references Ps. 78:2; cp. Ezek. 20:49, Hos. 12:10). In fact, the only “proper sermon” the Bible records Jesus preaching is the Sermon on the Mount: which begins with an original poem, ends with an illustrative parable, and utilizes powerful lyrical imagery and parables throughout. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount is not much like any sermon that is being preached today.

Beyond that, Peter’s propositional Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:14–41) relies very heavily on (and quotes extensively from) the poetry of Joel and David. Stephen’s pre-martyrdom sermon is almost completely composed of a narrative synopsis from the Pentateuch (Acts 7:1ff). And Paul’s famous sermon from the Areopagus (Acts 17:22ff) hinges on connective insights from two pagan poets. A fairly cursory look at other sermons in the New Testament indicates that the earliest preachers placed an extraordinary amount of weight on the importance of biblical narrative literature and poetry (e.g., Acts 13:15ff; Acts 10:34ff).

The greatest repository of propositional teaching in the whole Bible is found in the doctrinal epistles of the New Testament (specifically from Paul). I shouldn’t need to say that these expository doctrinal letters also rely quite heavily on narrative history and Old Testament poetry and metaphor, but it seems many (especially those in teaching positions in the church) have overlooked the importance (and even reality) of this fact.

To recap: Preaching, in even the most broadly conceived contemporary sense, is largely absent from the Old Testament—and the Old Testament makes up the great majority of the Bible. The New Testament contains more expository teaching, that’s true, but even in this case, the majority of the New Testament is composed of narrative (e.g., the Gospels and Acts) and imaginative literature (e.g., Revelation), and even the expository sections of the New Testament rely heavily on the narrative and poetry from the Gospels and the Old Testament. When you consider the make-up of the Bible page for page, it becomes clear that the explanation of the truth comprises only a thin stack of pages, whereas the incarnation of the truth in stories and poetic imagery takes up the lion’s share of the Bible. Overwhelmingly, actually.

So, when we say that “preaching” and “sermons” (in the conventional contemporary sense) should take up most of the church’s resources and time, since they are the most effective way to deliver God’s truth to the people… well, one must wonder why God apparently doesn’t agree.

God did not choose to reveal himself in the Bible exclusively (or even primarily) in clear declarations of information, systematically explained. The Bible takes far more pages to show us who God is than it does to tell us who God is. In fact, God was so concerned to show us who he is that he presented himself on earth as the incarnate Word in Jesus. It’s important for us to remember this. The Word of God is not just a book. It’s a person. But what does that mean for arts in the church?

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In part 2, I will discuss the erroneously narrow view of “preaching” that the church has adopted, and I will show how the arts have a lasting importance in the church for the effective delivery of God’s whole counsel.

  1. By “expository sermons,” I mean sermons that are composed mostly of declarations, assertions, opinions, and judgments organized to deliver information in the clearest possible manner in order to explain what the Bible means. Propositional sermons tell the truth, rather than show it.