One month ago, the evangelical preaching world lost a giant when Dr. Haddon Robinson finished his earthly race. I don’t know of a single preacher in my generation who finished seminary without being exposed to Robinson’s influence. His emphases on faithful Biblical exposition, respect for authorial intent, and a commitment to text-driven sermons have been a blessing to churches across the country, most filled with people who have never heard his name.
One of Robinson’s more well-known claims was that “most heresy tends to take place at the point of application.” By this he meant that many preachers make the mistake of preaching true and useful things which may not be grounded in the authority of the text they are using to teach those principles. At that point, the preacher presumes to anchor an otherwise helpful principle in a way that usurps the authority of the divinely inspired author. Simply put, a subversive sort of heresy has taken place.
These and other principles from Haddon Robinson have helped a generation of preachers avoid the error of wrongful application in their pulpits. But in my own life, I’ve found I don’t make this mistake so much when standing in front of my people as I do in my own heart. I forget that as shepherd to a congregation of God’s people, His desire is that His Word transform me before it begins to touch my people.
For my part, I’ve discovered that the three biggest barriers to more powerful and transformative preaching all relate to how I have personally applied God’s Word in my own soul. It’s a subversive sort of heresy that creeps into my own relationship with God. Out of that experience, I want to issue three challenges—three things I think we should all stop doing immediately.
Stop separating ourselves from our sermons.
It was well-meaning advice from multiple godly people who loved me and wanted to see me grow spiritually. But it was still wrong. “Don’t supplement your time with the Lord with sermon preparation.” What they meant of course, is that a preacher should never develop a habit of approaching the text of Scripture in a completely clinical fashion. God’s Word should come alive to us as well. The same sanctifying transformation that we expect from our flock should begin in our own souls. This is exactly right. But the mistake is in thinking that my spiritual growth is dependent on me treating sermon preparation differently than I treat personal devotion. In fact, the extent to which I separate sermon preparation from my own spiritual development is the extent to which my sermons will lose their power, and their credibility.
What does this look like practically? Well, it means that sometimes my morning time with the Lord is different from my time in the study. Lately, I’ve been reading and meditating on one Psalm per day in the morning before I pray and get ready for my day. But sometimes, it means that my devotion is the sermon! Because God intends to work on me through the message He has for His people. And often, God’s people are more profoundly impacted by our preaching when they see the impact God’s Word has had on us!
Stop waiting until our hearts are right.
“Don’t get up to preach if your heart isn’t right.” That too was well-meaning advice I received as a young preacher. But let’s be honest. Sometimes, you have a fight with your wife, the service has started, and things aren’t “right” and aren’t going to be “right.” Sometimes I have a bad attitude toward a church member or a situation, and its time for me to step into the spotlight before I can shake what is troubling me.
In moments like that, I should admit the wrong and ask God for strength. But would it really be fair to make everybody wait on me to rectify my heart? Is my sin worth taking the whole worship service—including the message which is supposed to point people to God—and making it about me?
The simple truth is that God’s Word is God’s Word, and its truth and power are in no way dependent on whether my “heart is right.” To be sure, those are times during which the preacher himself should repent. But when I have preached with unresolved spiritual struggle, I have often been greatly humbled when I am later told what a difference that message made in someone’s life. And that is when I am reminded that God does it all, especially when my heart isn’t right.
Stop shepherding our churches before ourselves.
“Pastor, that was a great sermon! I wish my neighbor had been here to listen. He sure needed to hear that one!” Some of the most frustrating times in pastoral ministry come when you have a church member who thinks what you have said applies to everyone but them. But how often do we who preach think of others in our application of the text, but never ourselves?
In 1 Timothy, Paul speaks of a grace that “overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1:14). Throughout his ministry, Paul was able to keep grace central because he constantly presented himself to others as a trophy of that same grace.
It has been well-said that if we aren’t growing in our faith, we are unlikely to lead others to grow in theirs. Conversely, our people will never see a more consistent picture of spiritual growth (or decline) than when they look up, listen to and watch us Sunday after Sunday. Our goal should be that every time our people see us, they see another trophy of the grace of God. For that to happen, our preparation in preaching must first be applied to our own souls.
During those times when my heart is open to what He wants for me first, I’ve discovered a power that spills over from my own time with the Lord, and affects the church I lead in profound ways. R. Kent Hughes describes the experience this way:
There have been times when preaching that I have felt as though I were standing apart from myself observing someone else speak. It sometimes happens when I become aware of an unnatural silence. The ever-present coughing ceases, bringing an almost physical silence to the building through which my words sail like arrows. I am surprised at the intensity and focus of what I am saying. Sometimes it lasts for a few moments. Once in a while, I experience it for a whole sermon. I am describing of course the preaching of the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a humbling experience. It is totally of God. And it makes me even more eager to preach the Word.
This experience doesn’t happen nearly enough in my own life and ministry. It doesn’t happen enough in our churches. And where the sermon is concerned, if we preachers want to know the source of the problem, we only need to look in the mirror. And if we want the solution, we only need to look to our God, who seeks to transform us first, and though us, transform our people.
And it all begins with personal application.
 R. Kent Hughes. “Preaching God’s Word to the Church Today” The Coming Evangelical Crisis. John H. Armstrong, ed. Chicago, Moody, 1996.