First Principles of Preaching: The Verb Itself (Part 2)

First Principles of Preaching: The Verb Itself (Part 2)

In the initial installment to this series, we considered how preaching or the sermon takes place in a unique forum. Here, we consider the verb “preach” itself to establish another “first principle”. Namely, Christian preaching has a direct object - the Gospel - without which there is no sermon.

2. Preaching is an action verb with a direct object.

A few years ago, I did a study on the content of sermons and found that a lot of what was being called a sermon was not a sermon at all. What was being called preaching was anything but preaching.[1] This survey sent me into a concordance research of the verb “preach” and its cognates in the New Testament. The fruit of that research is born out in this “first principle” which necessarily associates the content of preaching with the verb “preach”. To preach is to speak something very specific or else, Christianly speaking, it is not a New Covenant sermon, indeed, it probably is not preaching at all.

The Transitive Use of “Preach”

Despite the evolution (or devolution?) of the words “preach” and “sermon” (now commonly pejorative terms), we within the Christian Church should consider it a tautology to say, “I preach a sermon.” Preaching necessitates a sermon and a sermon is that which one preaches. This is an important first principle, namely, true preaching does not allow “prepositions” to creep in and overtake either the onus of preaching or synonymously the direct object of the verb “preach”. Consequently, we do not “preach on   ” or “preach about   ”, rather, “we preach the Gospel,” or, “we preach Christ.” Clearly, it is a redundancy to say, “preach a sermon.”

“Preach” is a verb. It can be described as transitive or intransitive based on whether it requires an object to express a complete thought or not. A transitive verb is one which only makes sense if it exerts action on an object, while an intransitive verb will make sense without a direct object. Grammar expert Catherine Traffis explains a transitive verb this way:

“A better word to associate when you see transitive is transfer. A transitive verb needs to transfer its action to something or someone - an object. In essence, transitive means ‘to affect something else.’ Transitive verbs are not just verbs that can take an object; they demand objects.”[2] 

Applying this insight to the craft of preaching, we need only ask, “Does he preach something?” The verb is only transitive when the answer is “yes” and not a tautology. What, then, is the direct object of preaching? What is that something, since to say “a sermon” results in a redundancy?

From the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther insisted evangelical preaching was to employ the transitive use. He noted the importance of the direct object of “preaching” in the New Testament. The most common use of the verb “preach” in the Four Gospels, as well as the New Testament, is the transitive use with an explicit direct object being the Gospel.[3] Of the 78 examples of transitive uses of “preach”, 48 have “the Gospel” or “good news” as the direct object. The remaining 16 of 30 have “Christ”, 6 have “the Word”, 4 have “the Kingdom of God”, and the remaining have (each once) “the forgiveness of sins”, “peace”, “faith”, and circumcision (actually, “not preaching circumcision”). All of these references are synonymous with the Gospel of Christ Jesus, as Christ Himself explained it:

“…beginning with Moses and all the prophets and the Psalms that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24: 27, 46-47).

This is the sole ministerial, homiletical responsibility: to preach the Word as the Gospel and the corollaries of the Gospel.

Significantly, the preaching of the Law cannot be found as one of the transitive uses in the New Testament. Instead, the use of the Law is preparatory in the sermon, when one is focused on preaching the Gospel. The Law sets up the Gospel in preaching and preaching, properly speaking, is a Gospel sermon.

To be sure, there are didactic passages in the New Testament, and particularly in the Epistles, but this is not preaching per se. Christian teaching or instruction about the Kingdom of God or the expectations of kingdom citizens (i.e., exhortation) should serve the Gospel proclamation, just as the Law should serve the goal of Gospel healing. Paul’s letters, then, can be said to be inspired outlines for preaching, moving from addressing the Law to preaching the Gospel to exhortation (παρεισις) toward godliness and service or even in the resolution of issues within the Church (the so-called third use of the law). Exhortations come at the end of Paul’s sermonic progression. What he preached, though, was Christ and Him crucified. What Paul preached was the Gospel. It seems, then, whether it be the Law or exhortation toward kingdom living, neither properly speaking were the direct object of the sermon. The Christian sermon is Gospel preaching. We only preach the Gospel. Only the Gospel is the sermon, notwithstanding necessary admonishments of law and requisite exhortations toward sanctification. The verb has content - Gospel - or else the verb preach does not apply and, for that matter, neither does the noun “sermon”. Something else is happening, call it what you may, but it is not a sermon and one has not preached.

Contemporary uses and definitions of “preach” are therefore entirely muddled. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “to preach” as, “A moral or religious exhortation; to exhort to an act or practice, etc.” Note the consistent orientation toward duty, anthropocentric activity, and human doing.  In the OED, preaching is about law or exhortation. There is no declaration or proclamation of news. Instead, there is the admonishment to standards and duty. It is little wonder there is so little Gospel to be found in today’s Sunday addresses when standardized definitions omit the Gospel as a possibility and widen the spectrum of possibilities to any and all contrivances of morality and obligations. This is why the former Roman Catholic Madonna sings, “Papa, don’t preach,” that is, don’t preach the Law, duty, morality, expectation, and/or judgment. Do not preach at all, because that is what one gets with preaching. By disassociating preaching from the direct object of the Gospel, from Christ, the immediate connotation in the modern mind to “a sermon” or “preaching” defaults to judgmental moralizing or technique refinement for personal improvement of you.

This reflection reminds me of R. C. Sproul’s repeated quip that, “We are all by nature Pelagian at heart and love moralistic do-it-yourself ‘preaching’.” In contradistinction to the craft of preaching, such moralism greatly serves the opposing craft of self-justification. Perhaps it might be better to consider how we are all by nature self-representing attorneys, given to the practice of vindicating our sole client of me, myself and I. When self-justification is the goal or, alternatively, shopping for a message which serves my best life now, then prepositions are bound to creep in to alter the onus and object of preaching, shifting if from the transitive use to accommodate intransitive consumer preferences: “A sermon series on Marriage”; “Preaching about your best life now”, etc.

In this light, we can better understand the rise of Islam and decline of Christianity in the West. In the United States, for example, nearly 60% of American Muslims are converts to Islam. This is because the way of Muhammad is accomplishable. You can do it. It might be demanding, but it is achievable. Jesus’ standard, on the other hand, as He articulates it in Matthew 5:48 is, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The standard is impossible. Instead of karma or performance evaluation, we hold out for a declaration, an announcement, a sermon - for someone to preach the Gospel, for someone to preach grace, for someone to preach Christ crucified for me. In other words, the world will eat-up non-sermon-sermons and devote themselves to techniques and duty. We will devote ourselves to the bondage of the Law, until pastors and priests once again embrace the New Covenant mandate and Reformation call to employ only the transitive use of “preach” with the Gospel as its direct object.
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[1] John J. Bombaro, “Is There a Text in This Sermon? A Lutheran Survey of Contemporary Preaching Methods” in Feasting in a Famine of the Word: Lutheran Preaching in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Mark W. Birkholz, Jacob Corzine, Jonathan Mumme (Eugene, OR: Pickwick), 2016.

[2] Catherine Traffis, “Transitive and Intransitive Verbs—What’s the Difference?”, Accessed 16 February 2019. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/transitive-and-intransitive-verbs/. Emphasis added.

[3] In Acts and the Epistles, however, the verb use is mostly intransitive: “preached to”, etc. Never, however, do we find the Apostles preaching about something or on or for something (but they did preach to this and that group). In other words, they were never looking for a topic to preach because preaching assumed a direct object - the message of the Gospel was given for the purpose of preaching. There was one sermon - Christ - and so all preaching was of Christ and Him crucified.

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