By David Helm
Scottish poet Andrew Lang once landed a humorous blow against the politicians of his day with a clever line indicting them for their manipulation of statistics. With a slight alteration in language, the quip could equally be leveled against many Bible teachers today: “Some preachers use the Bible the way a drunk uses a lamp post … more for support than for illumination.”
This is the inebriated preacher. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that you don’t want to become one. The fact is, though, many of us have been one and just didn’t know it.
Let me explain. On those weeks when we have stood in the pulpit and leaned on the Bible to support what we wanted to say instead of saying only what God intended the Bible to say, we have been like a drunken man who leans on a lamppost—using it more for support than for illumination. A better posture for the preacher is to stand directly under the biblical text. For it is the Bible—and not we who preach—which is the Word of the Spirit (see Heb. 3:7; John 6:63).
In essence, our propensity for inebriated preaching over expositional preaching stems from one thing: we superimpose our deeply held passions, plans, and perspectives on the biblical text.
With decades of pastoral ministry now behind me, I can think of myriad times I have been the inebriated preacher. I have gone to the Bible to prop up what I thought needed to be said. It became a useful tool for me. The Bible helped me accomplish what I had in mind. At times, I lost sight of the fact that I am supposed to be the tool—someone God uses for his divinely intended purpose. I am to proclaim the light he wants shed abroad from a particular text.
What happened to me in the past can happen to any of us. There are a variety of ways we use the Bible the way a drunk uses a lamppost. Perhaps you have incredibly strong doctrinal views and these become the point of every passage you preach, regardless of what the text is conveying. Perhaps you draw political conclusions or social conclusions or therapeutic conclusions regardless of the mind of the Spirit in the text. In essence, our propensity for inebriated preaching over expositional preaching stems from one thing: we superimpose our deeply held passions, plans, and perspectives on the biblical text. When we do so, the Bible becomes little more than a support for what we have to say.
From personal experience, I can say that my own struggles with inebriated preaching are always connected to a blind adherence to contextualization. And what I have learned is this: my congregation’s needs, as perceived by my contextualized understanding, should never become the driving power behind what I say in the pulpit. We are not free to do what we want with the Bible. It is sovereign. It must win. Always.
Our role as preachers and Bible teachers is to stand under the illuminating light of the words long ago set down by the Holy Spirit. Our job is to say today what God once said and nothing more. For in doing so, he still speaks.
David Helm serves on the pastoral staff of Holy Trinity Church, a multi-congregational church in Chicago. In addition, he is the Executive Director of The Charles Simeon Trust, which partners with churches to train men and women for gospel ministry. In this capacity, he leads workshops on biblical exposition to promote practical instruction in preaching. Helm is a contributor to Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching and the author One to One Bible Reading, The Big Picture Story Bible, and Daniel for You.
This post is excerpted from Expositional Preaching (Crossway, 2014). In the book, Helm here describes a time when he nearly stumbled drunk into a sermon on 2 Corinthians 8–9, specifically 9:6–9: “Before I entered into my study,” he writes, “I had a very clear idea of what I would say from the pulpit.” But as he studied the background of the chapters, he realized he had those verses all wrong. The more he dug, the more he discovered how off he was, until “the whole thing caved in.”
The passage wasn’t about imitating God’s generosity and receiving a reward; it was about how generosity is an ordinary mark of a righteous person. Days before stepping into the pulpit, Helm had to decide what would prevail: his original outline, which appeared on the surface consistent with the text, or his new discoveries, which had the full support of text and context. “In the final analysis,” he writes, “the conviction that allowed Charles Simeon to exercise a mature restraint in the pulpit won the day for me. ‘I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.’”