Preacher: Tell the Truth! More Thoughts from John Koessler on the Mysterious Act of Preaching

A few months ago I read through a delightful book by Steven King. No, not one of his thrillers, but his memoir on writing. Among his many nuggets, King offered a response to a question that confronts us writers, “What are you going to write about?” His response?  ”Anything you [darn] well want. Anything at all…as long as you tell the truth.”

I think the same words could be said for preachers and other teachers. Each week we’re confronted with the question, “What am I going to preach about?” King’s response to writers is our own: Preach anything you darn well please…as long as you tell the truth.

Does this principle guide your own preaching and teaching ministry? Is truth-telling the font from which your teaching flows?

John Koessler, author of Folly, Grace, and Power, would agree with King. At several points in his thoughtful book on the mysterious act of preaching he challenges us to uncompromisingly truth-tell, because that’s our prophetic responsibility. Koessler quotes Thomas G. Long to remind us of such responsibility: “If the word comes from God in the biblical text, the preacher remains true to that word, regardless of the reaction or cost.” (59)

As preachers, we are called not to entertain or motivate. We are called by King Jesus to prophetically tell the truth. As Koessler writes, “We are heralds of the Risen King. We do not speak for ourselves. Woe to us if we do not preach the gospel.” Woe to us if we do not truth-tell when we preach, regardless of the reaction or cost, as difficult as that may be.

King said of writers that ”if you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered…” If you’re a seasoned preacher you know the painful truth of such a statement—Preaching is certain to get you into trouble with polite society. Koessler reminds us that Jesus said something similar of those who spoke in his name: “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more will the members of his household!” (Matt 10)

Preacher you are necessary and you are called to tell the truth. But it won’t be easy. Yes, you’ve been given authority to give a truthful word each week by the Word Himself. Yet if you intend to preach as truthfully as you can you may not be welcomed as much as you’d like by polite society.

And that’s because preaching is by nature impolite.

“When we preach, we often draw public conclusions about the motives of our listeners and impugn their character. We utter things from the pulpit that we would not dare to say in private conversations, at lease not to strangers! We tell our listeners things about themselves that they would be offended to hear from the teller at the bank or from their doctor, even when such things are true. Indeed, they are not always happy to hear them from us.” (57) Hence, the impolite nature of preaching!

So what’s a preacher to do? What are you to do in the tension of truth-telling on the one side and your congregation on the other? In other words, “Where do we find the nerve to say what must be said?” (57) To truth-tell? The answer is, in a word, authority, which comes from several sources:

  1. The Authority of Jesus—We do not need to apologize for telling the truth and speaking with authority, because we don’t speak for ourselves. (See our last column) Jesus commanded the disciples to go baptize and teach by linking their commission to His own authority (Matt 28). Likewise “If Jesus was not ashamed to point beyond himself for the authority of his words, we should not be ashamed to do so either.” (57)
  2. The Authority of the Text—”Our work of correcting, rebuking, and encouraging flows from a more fundamental command: ‘Preach the Word’ (2 Tim 4:2)…The church is under the Word, and because it is under the Word, the preacher’s authority flows from the Word.” (59, 61)
  3. The Authority of Experience—While our personal experience with an issue doesn’t stand in place of the truth of the biblical text, “Experience verifies the truth of what the preacher says.” (61)
  4. The Authority of Ethos—”The authority of our message must go beyond our words. It must also be supported by the experience of the preacher.” Our lives must offer living proof of the truth we tell each week; we must practice what we preach. (62)

Preacher, if you intend to preach as truthfully as you can, be sure polite society will take notice. Yet, resolve this week to truth-tell. Preach whatever you want, as long as you tell the truth. That’s your calling. That’s your privilege, as a herald of the Risen King.

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Jeremy Bouma is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds the Master of Divinity and Master of Theology; and writes about faith, life, and everything in between at www.jeremybouma.com.

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