It was as a teenager that I first encountered exegetical preaching. And it is significant, though not paramount, that I was converted under that model of preaching, as the Holy Spirit helped me to understand the gospel of free grace in Christ Jesus. Within a year I was teaching the youth myself, but relying heavily on commentaries and sermons preached by others. But that too would change as I received training in bible handing. I was endowed with tools to exegete biblical texts (these can be studied in painful simplicity in Dig Deeper, or the classic How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth). I was taught the methods for ascertaining what the authors meant when they wrote a particular piece of literature (Schreiner, p7 in Interpreting The Pauline Epistles). I am inexplicably and immensely grateful for the people who practiced and modeled proper exegesis for it was their efforts of interpretation – illuminated by the Spirit – that caused me to faithfully repent. But my path has undoubtedly led me to a dangerous assumption regarding biblical exegesis, made by Evangelicals.
This year I have been placed in a few primary schools where I have the opportunity to preach at break times. Our church is part of a larger schools work which means I have been forced to rub shoulders with brothers and sisters of a more charismatic persuasion. These fellow servants may have never had the privilege of sitting under preaching that makes the main point of the text the main message for hearers today; they have probably never sat through classes where exegetical tools are explained and honed for working on passages; I do not think any of them have even heard of Dig Deeper, let alone the discipline known as hermeneutics. But for all that, these men and women give hours of their day to proclaim the gospel, the free grace of our Lord. And I have been shown my arrogance as a proud Evangelical. More than that, the Evangelical assumption that I inherited as a young Christian is being uprooted.
What is this “assumption”, you ask, having patiently waded through two reflective paragraphs? It is this: if we work hard at our exegesis and get the passage right, the Spirit will work. I fear that this makes the Spirit a slave to our abilities of exegesis. He ceases to be the sovereign God who acts freely and despite us; and becomes bound to work as we do. Does that sound right? It doesn’t to me. Our experiences of preaching attests to the fact that God works as he pleases. The best sermons fall on deaf ears while the worst sometimes give new life and produce spiritual fruit. Praise God. Our task as preachers is first and foremost to proclaim the God’s grace, on offer in the gospel. Too many Evangelicals assume that faithfully exegeting texts will enable the work of the Spirit. Our task is to faithfully preach the gospel, praying that the Spirit will do his work of regeneration and conviction in the lives of our hearers. He does, after all, enable us to understand the Scriptures. As Evangelicals we need to relinquish our (erroneously assumed) control over the Spirit’s work, for he is not tied to our abilities and exegesis.