The preacher's besetting sins (part 1)

The preacher's besetting sins (part 1)

I preached my first sermon in 1988 at Woodhouse Eaves Evangelical Baptist Church, in a small village just outside Loughborough. Habakkuk, if you're interested. Since then, amazingly almost 25 years ago, I've been preaching pretty regularly, first as a lay preacher, then as a pastor-teacher. This summer, I set aside some time to reflect back on that preaching and try to see what my besetting sins were as a preacher.

I've preached some good sermons (probably the minority), some stinkers, and (this is probably the majority) some average expositions. But they all have one thing in common: they were all preached in sin by a sinner. My motives have never been entirely pure; I hope I am more sanctified now than I was in 1988, but I am sure not perfect. And I want to put sin to death, both in my personal life, but also in my preaching ministry. That requires me to identify the sins that beset my preaching life, and work, prayerfully and in dependence upon God, to root them out.

As I've done that I've realised that these preaching sins are pretty common to all of us who preach. For sure, there may be differences around the margins, but I want over this week, to share four struggles that I've felt in my own preaching in the sure knowledge that these are four struggles you have felt too. Maybe some more than others. And maybe I've not nailed the particular one you are struggling with at the moment. But these posts come prayerfully and humbly, hoping that our preaching might be used by God as we seek to serve him with good hearts.

The four sins are:

  • vanity and pride
  • cold-heartedness
  • an unteachable spirit
  • self-pity

The Preacher's Vanity

It took me a long while to realise that there is the world of difference between wondering:

  • what will people make of this (i.e. the sermon)
  • what will people make of me

The first, correctly focused, is a commendable trait. As we are preparing our sermons, we should be thinking whether people will understand what we are saying; whether the application we have seen flowing out from the passage will capture people's attention; prayerfully whether this sermon will make a difference in people's lives as we seek to faithfully expound the word of God. All of the above and more. We don't preach for ourselves. We preach, ultimately, for the glory of our triune God, which means we preach for people. We want the living and active word of God to grip them and take hold of them and, by the Spirit's power, change them.

All well and good. But that is a world away from the second question, even if - at first glance - it appears very close. What will people make of me is the classic vanity question. It is the question that reveals the preacher's inner insecurities or desires. I want to be liked. I want to be seen to be good. I enjoy being at the front. I really quite like it when people say I am a good preacher. And so on. It begins with vanity, and quickly turns into pride.

Vanity is an ugly sin. It has no redeeming qualities. It both corrupts our own hearts and corrupts the hearts of our listeners too. Let me explain.

It is perhaps no surprise that it corrupts our own hearts. Let me explain how I think that affects our sermon preparation and preaching:

  • for some it will mean pulling punches. If I want to be seen to be the great pastor-preacher there will be times when I let people off the hook and don't preach a passage with its full force. I don't want to upset anybody after all.
  • but there will be other times when I go to the other extreme. There is a kind of Christian who loves the firebrand preacher and vanity may make me into a condemnatory preacher. It's easy to be that kind of preacher. There's always something to get angry about. Goodness, my people might even call that kind of ministry prophetic!
  • for others it will mean preparing so that I can dazzle my people. That chiasm; that obscure Hebrew construction; those bookends; and so it goes on.
  • for some it will be length. Vanity can make us preach longer sermons than are necessary, simply because we can
  • for others it be shortness. Look how much I can get into 15 minutes! Although I have to say, I've not met many evangelicals with this curious form of pride
  • for some it will mean banging the drum about our particular hot potatoes. Yes, this too is a form of vanity. For people should be interested in the things that get me hot under the collar.

And many more. And of course, when all this works - vanity quickly becomes pride. Not all of these are sins in themselves or course. Just because I regularly preach for 45 minutes doesn't mean I am proud. But they may be indicators that vanity is an issue.

And this deep, inward sin corrupts the hearts of our hearers too. How so? Because when we don't preach the passage faithfully, we are not giving our people what God has ordained for them. That goes right to the heart of expository preaching. We preach the passage precisely because we have confidence that this is what God wants his people to hear. But when we are more interested in presenting ourselves we diminish the text and rob people of what they really need. They become, at best, impoverished; at worst, corrupted themselves. Pity the congregation with a vain preacher.

As with all the preacher's besetting sins, the glory of preaching is that God uses weak vessels. In one sense it is not as though our sin will hinder the effectiveness of the Spirit working through his word. Yet, on the other hand we must not be so naive as to dismiss any link whatsoever. Take a look at 1 Timothy 4.16. I am increasingly convinced that this is a lodestar text for preachers.

Vanity is one of the preacher's root sins. It is often behind other sins, particularly of behaviour. We act in certain ways, because we are vain. And because of its nature, I think it is a common besetting sin of preachers, to a greater or lesser extent. So root it out with me, I beg you. Be honest about its presence and, with the Spirit's aid, fight against it; put it to death.

For God opposes the proud. And it would be a terrible thing, Mr Preacher, to have the very God you claim to serve so faithfully, opposing you.