Chapter 1. What Happened to Exhortation?

James, the brother of Jesus, had certainly been exposed to great preaching. He heard Jesus preach during his earthly ministry, heard Peter preach at Pentecost, and heard the leaders of the early church preach as the church rapidly expanded. Besides the formal sermons, James spent much of his life hearing the proclamation of God’s Word. He grew up with Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, the Word incarnate. When it came to preaching, James had done a lot of hearing.

It should be no surprise then, that James, in his book of Christ-centered wisdom, instructs the church about the responsibility that comes with hearing the Word of God. James says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (1:22). In making this statement, James is in no way diminishing the need for hearing God’s Word. As Douglas Moo observes, “It is not listening to the word that James opposes or diminishes, but merely listening.”

James is primarily concerned with those who hear yet do not respond. He gives this warning because he knows how tempting and dangerous it is to hear and not respond. Those who only hear the Word receive no real benefit from it and are actually “deceiving” themselves.

This familiar verse contains massive implications for the hearer of the Word. James makes clear that the hearer’s responsibility does not end at the comprehension of biblical truth. The hearer’s responsibility is to hear the truth and respond to that truth. Therefore, the hearer of the Word must be diligent to take the time to understand the truth of the text, discover the response the text demands, and respond in faith-fueled, Spirit-empowered obedience. According to James, anything short of hearing and responding is disobedience.

The greater implication of this text is James’s assumption that every Scripture does, in fact, demand some kind of response. If the hearer of the Word is expected to respond, then it must be true that the Word always calls for a response. That response might not always be overtly stated in every text, but a call to respond is imbedded somewhere in the text and made clear by the Spirit. The truth that God’s Word always demands a response from God’s people is significant.

This truth has implications not only for the one who hears the Word, but also for the one who proclaims the Word. For those who are called to preach, this text brings up vital questions. If every text demands a response, does the preacher of the Word have any responsibility to call the people to respond? Does the preacher’s responsibility end at the communication of the meaning of the text or does it go beyond the meaning to exhort his hearers to obedience? Should the preacher feel a responsibility for the hearers’ obedience to the text and make part of his aim the exhortation to obedience? Certainly the clear responsibility from Jas 1:22 rests on the hearer, but does any responsibility rest also on the preacher? In other words, should preaching call for a verdict?

The scriptural admonitions and examples for preaching indicate that the preacher does, in fact, have a responsibility to call people to obedience. When Paul encourages Timothy in his preaching, he not only encourages him to preach the Word, but also to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Tim 4:2). When Paul admonishes Titus to preach, he tells him not only to declare the truth but also to “exhort and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15). Paul certainly understands the preacher is not just one who communicates the truth, but one who exhorts people to respond to the truth. Preaching is calling for a verdict.

Preaching for a verdict is preaching that exhorts. The call to exhort is the call to speak to the will of the hearer, not just to inform the mind of the hearer. It is pleading, persuading, and strongly urging the hearer to respond in obedience to the Word of God. It moves beyond suggested application into a definitive call to respond. While application might explain what the text demands, exhortation pleads with the hearer to respond to its demands. Exhortation speaks directly to the will.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology defines “exhort” as a “means to exert influence upon the will and the decision of another with the object of guiding him into a general accepted code of behavior or of encouraging him to observe certain instructions. . . . To exhort is to address the whole man. Originally at least knowledge, emotion, and will are all involved.” The preacher who understands the authority of God’s Word will, for the glory of God and the good of the hearer, authoritatively exhort the hearer to respond to it. The apostle Paul strongly exhorts the Corinthians to respond, saying, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).

This conviction to make exhortation a part of text-driven preaching is clear from the biblical examples of preaching. Exhortation is central in the preaching of the patriarchs, the preaching of the prophets, the preaching of Jesus, and the preaching of the apostles. Those called by God to speak the Word of God were not just called to communicate information, but also to call for transformation. Since the preacher is the voice of God to the people of God, and since James indicates that the Word of God demands a response, the preacher must both proclaim the Word of God and exhort obedience from his hearers.

The implications of this truth are especially significant for those who are committed to text-driven preaching. Text-driven preaching is preaching that allows the text to drive every aspect of the sermon. It is preaching that views the text not as merely a resource for the sermon, but as the source of the sermon. The sermon that is truly driven by the text “not only uses a text of Scripture but also should be derived from a text of Scripture and should develop a text of Scripture.” It is a sermon that “stays true to the substance of the text, the structure of the text, and the spirit of the text.”

If the goal of text-driven preaching is to allow the text to drive every aspect of the sermon, and if every text contains a call to respond, then the truly text-driven sermon must drive toward exhortation. Exhortation is not an addition to exposition; faithful exposition demands exhortation. Exhortation is not adding anything to the text; rather, it is preaching the emotion of the text and calling for the response that is imbedded within the text. Without exhortation, the sermon is not truly driven by the text and falls short of God’s intended purpose.

Exhortation: The Forgotten Element of Preaching

For generations, preachers have been taught three essential elements to good preaching: explanation of the text, illustration of the text, and application of the text. Text-driven preaching itself has been defined as “a sermon that develops a text by explaining, illustrating, and applying its meaning.” Although every aspect of this trilogy is essential, it misses the element of exhortation. If the sermon ends with application, yet does not include exhortation, it fails to take seriously both the hearer’s responsibility to obey and the preacher’s responsibility to call for obedience. Application without exhortation makes proclamation more like a suggestion.

In 2011, Michael Duduit, founder and executive editor of Preaching magazine, wrote an article titled, “The 25 Most Influential Preaching Books of the Past 25 Years.” A survey of those twenty-five books reveals an incredible deficiency in the area of exhortation. Classics such as those by James Stewart, John Stott, James Cox, Jerry Vines, Graeme Goldsworthy, and Haddon Robinson do not address the issue of exhortation at all. Apart from the books on that list, classic works on preaching by Wayne McDill and John Broadus say the sermon should include explanation, illustration, argumentation, and application, but they don’t say a word about exhortation. Although argumentation is added to the basic trilogy, nothing is mentioned about the role of exhortation. John MacArthur’s extensive work on preaching gives almost no time to the role of exhortation, but instead says that preaching is “first and foremost a service to the mind.” He not only neglects the role of exhortation, he diminishes the very idea of speaking to the will of the hearer.

Bryan Chapell does a wonderful job of demonstrating the role of exhortation in the record of biblical preaching. He notes that the best example of exposition in the Old Testament is Nehemiah 8, as the people of God, returning from exile in Babylon, are reacquainted with God’s Word. From this text, he notes that exposition involves three elements: presentation of the Word, explanation of the Word, and exhortation based on the Word. He then says “these three elements consistently reappear in the New Testament practice.” He is exactly correct. But then, three pages later he continues on to teach that the three basic elements of exposition are explanation, illustration, and application. Exhortation is then mentioned only two other times in the rest of the 280 pages of the book. It appears that Chapell, like many others, has made application synonymous with exhortation.

Seeing application as synonymous with exhortation would explain why so few books mention the role of exhortation in preaching. Looking at various definitions of application in recent preaching books makes this lack of distinction clear. Jay E. Adams defines application as “the word currently used to denote that process by which preachers make scriptural truths so pertinent to members of their congregations that they not only understand how those truths should effect changes in their lives but also feel obligated and perhaps even eager to implement those changes.” Adams continues by saying,

To explain the uses to which a passage may be put, again, does not mean that one induces the listener to actually so use it. To apply, however, seems to connote (if it does not actually denote) that a preacher so brings the purpose of his preaching portion to bear on the members of a congregation that they are in some way more than informed (if they are not moved to action, at least they are made to squirm!). Applying the truth of a passage, then, also involves exerting pressure on the congregation to implement it.

The idea of “exerting pressure” is what the Bible would refer to as “exhortation.” In How to Apply the Bible, Dave Veerman says, “Application focuses the truth of God’s Word to specific, life-related situations. It helps people understand what to do or how to use what they have learned. Application persuades people to act.” Similarly, John Broadus wrote, “Application, in the strict sense, is that part, or those parts, of the discourse in which we show how the subject applies to the persons addressed, what practical instructions it offers them, what practical demands it makes upon them.” Wayne McDill says, “Application presents the implications of biblical truths for the contemporary audience. It is a call for action, for putting the principles of Scripture to work in our lives. It deals with attitudes, behaviors, speech, lifestyle, and personal identity. It appeals to conscience, to values, to convictions, to commitment to Christ.”

In the same manner, Hershael W. York and Scott A. Blue combine application and exhortation. Their definition of application involved five essential elements. They say,

Application in the expository sermon is the process whereby the expositor takes a biblical truth of the text and applies it to the lives of his audience, proclaiming why it is relevant for their lives, practically showing how it should affect their lives, and passionately encouraging them to make necessary changes in their lives in a manner congruent with the original intent of the author.

These definitions of application reveal why so little discussion has ensued about the role of exhortation. The issue seems to be that the distinction between exhortation and application has been forgotten. Even though exhortation and application are closely related and can often happen at the same time, the role of exhortation deserves greater emphasis. Although proper exhortation always includes a form of application, it is possible to have application without exhortation. For that reason, exhortation must stand alone as a distinct and necessary practice in preaching.

Out of all of the books in Duduit’s list, The Supremacy of God in Preaching by John Piper does the best job of speaking to the role of exhortation. Although not directly addressing exhortation, he does strongly speak to the need to plead with people to respond. He writes, “When we preach, to be sure, it is God who effects the results for which we long. But that does not rule out earnest appeals for our people to respond.” Piper’s primary defense for this is a historic one, which clearly reveals exhortation has not always been replaced by or combined with application.

The Place of Exhortation in Preaching History

The role of exhortation appears to have been overlooked in the past twenty-five years; however, this has not always been the case in the history of the pedagogy of homiletics. Examples from previous generations show the centrality of exhortation in preaching.

In his work on Christian doctrine, “Augustine repeated the Ciceronian dictum that the three goals of rhetoric were to teach, to delight, and to persuade.” For Augustine, the goal of preaching, therefore, was that the hearers be taught but also be persuaded to consent to the truth that was spoken. He understood that they had to be instructed, but they also had to be moved. “The goal of preaching, after all, is that the audience’s hearts would be changed.” Here is how Augustine described it in On Christian Doctrine:

The hearers require to be roused rather than instructed, in order that they may be diligent to do what they already know, and to bring their feelings into harmony with the truths they admit, greater vigour of speech is needed. Here entreaties and reproaches, exhortations, and upbraidings, and all the other means of rousing the emotions are necessary.

The eloquent divine, then, when he is urging a practical truth, must not only teach so as to give instruction, and please so as to keep up the attention, but he must also sway the mind so as to subdue the will. For if a man be not moved by the force of the truth, though it is demonstrated to his own confession, and clothed in beauty of style, nothing remains but to subdue him by the power of eloquence.

The role of exhortation in preaching is also clearly seen during the time of the Reformation. Martin Luther practiced what many during his time considered a totally new form of the sermon: die schriftauslegende Predigt. Schriftauslegende is normally translated as “exposition.” Auslegen literally means “to lay out, to exhibit or display, to make something evident or plain.” Luther held the conviction that the number one priority of preaching was to lay out the central message of Scripture for the people. He was committed to explaining the text and helping his listeners understand the simple truths of the text. As Fred Meuser says, Luther believed “the text should control the sermon. The sermon is to follow the flow of the text, the language and dynamic of the text, and not impose its own direction or dynamic from without.” Luther himself said, “In my preaching I take pains to treat a verse of Scripture, to stick to it, and so instruct the people that they can say, ‘That is what the sermon was about.’”

Yet, for Luther, the sermon was not just about the exposition. Luther believed it was never enough simply to teach the minds of his listeners; those listening must make a decisive response to the truth. Hughes Oliphant Old says,

For Luther, to preach was to preach the Word of God, and that meant nothing less than to teach the Scriptures and exhort the congregation to live by them. It was as simple as that and yet as profound as that. . . . Preaching is a matter of reading the Bible, explaining its meaning for the life of the congregation, and urging God’s people to live by God’s Word.

Luther himself clarifies this conviction when giving instruction on preaching:

A preacher must be a logician and a rhetorician, that is, he must be able to teach, and to admonish; when he preaches touching an article, he must first, distinguish it. Second, he must define, describe, and show what it is. Thirdly, he must produce sentences out of the Scriptures, therewith to prove and strengthen it. Fourthly, he must, with examples, explain and declare it. Fifthly, he must adorn it with similitudes; and, lastly he must admonish and rouse up the laze, earnestly reprove all the disobedient.

Luther not only taught the need for exhortation, he also practiced it. In his sermon on John 1, Luther said,

It is extremely important that we know where our sins have been disposed of. The law deposits them on our conscience and shoves them into our bosom. But God takes them from us and places them on the shoulders of the Lamb. If sin rested on me and on the world, we would be lost; for it is too strong and burdensome. God says, “I know your sin is unbearable for you; therefore behold, I will lay it upon my Lamb and relieve you of it. Believe this! If you do, you are delivered of sin.” There are only two abodes for sin; it either resides with you, weighing you down; or it lies on Christ, the Lamb of God. If it is loaded on your back, you are lost; but if it rests on Christ, you are free and saved. Now make your choice!

Although distinctly different in personality than Martin Luther, John Calvin held the same convictions on the priority of both exposition and exhortation. Steven Lawson, in laying out the distinguishing marks of Calvin’s preaching, says that both persuasive reasoning and pastoral exhortation were primary marks of his sermons.

Any perusal of Calvin’s sermons reveals that he passionately applied Scripture with loving exhortation. In his exposition, he regularly urged his listeners to live the reality of his text. Speaking from the pulpit, the Reformer was full of warm persuasion and fervent appeal. He preached with the intent of prompting, encouraging, and stimulating his congregation to follow the Word.

Calvin’s sermons demonstrate the centrality of exhortation in his preaching. In a sermon on Mic 2:4–5, Calvin strongly exhorts himself and his listeners to respond to the Word:

Let us learn, therefore, not to become drunk on our foolish hopes. Rather, let us hope in God and God’s promises, and we will never be deceived. But if we base our hopes on our own presumptuousness, God will strip everything away. This is one of our most essential doctrines, since human nature is so driven by presumptuousness. For we are so inflamed by an insupportable pride that God is forced to punish us harshly. We think we are so much higher than God that we ought to be more powerful than God. Consequently, seeing how inclined we are toward this vice, all more then ought we to pay heed to what Micah says here that we must not rest content with the thought that whatever happens will happen. Rather, we must realize that so long as God’s hand is upon us, we are condemned to be miserable. For there is no other cure shy of our returning to God and founding our hopes on His promises. Therein lies our surest remedy, equal to any and all disasters that might befall us.

What must we do then? Today, we do not have a specific part of the earth assigned to God’s children as it was to Abraham’s. But all the earth has been hallowed as a fit place for mankind to dwell. That being the case, let us walk in the fear of God, content with whatever He gives us, and, behold, we will be able to enjoy whatever part of the earth He gives us to inhabit, so much so that we will be able to say that we are God’s heirs, and that we are already enjoying those benefits that He has prepared for us in heaven.

Two hundred years after the Reformation, François Fénelon, a seventeenth-century French prelate, wrote one of the most influential preaching books ever written. In Dialogues on Eloquence, he deals directly with the role of exhortation from the pulpit. He says, “What would you say of a man who persuaded you without proof? Such a one would not be a true orator. He might be able to seduce other men if he has the contrivances to persuade them without demonstrating that what he is inducing them to accept is the truth. A man like that would be dangerous.” Commenting on this quote, Steven Smith says,

Fénelon was concerned with the whole idea of persuasion. For Fénelon, exposition melded with persuasion made the preacher eloquent. He was convinced that every form of art, and especially oratory, was inherently persuasive. The problem is that when you remove persuasion from exposition, you are left with a Bible lesson, not a sermon. When one removes exposition from persuasion, it leaves a persuasive message with no foundation in authority. In the end, it has no real bite, no staying power, and inherently no long-term effects because it is rooted in opinion and conjecture, not absolute truth.

Fénelon knew that persuasion could be abused. He also understood that preaching must be persuasive. The potential abuse of persuasion should not make the preacher afraid of persuading; rather, it should make the preacher afraid of straying from the text. Text-driven exhortation means not adding anything to the text that is not already present. Text-driven exhortation finds what is there and pleads with the hearer to respond.

Known for their commitment to the Word of God, the Puritans did not see the centrality of the Word of God in conflict with the need for persuasive preaching. The Puritans wrote much about the need for exhortation from the pulpit. Speaking about Puritan preachers as a whole, William Bradshaw said,

They hould that the highest and supreme office and authoritie of the Pastor, is to preach the gospell solemnly and publickly to the Congregation, by interpreting the written word of God, and applying the same by exhortation and reproof unto them. They hould that this was the greatest work that Christ & his Apostles did.

R. Bruce Bickel said of Puritan preaching, “To the Puritan minister, his principal duty was to preach. To them, the end of that ministry was to be judged in light of its aim. That aim was the glory of God and the persuasion of each man to live a life submitted absolutely to the will of God. To this end, their sermons were directed with unrestrained passion.” Richard Baxter, one of the most powerful English Puritan preachers, clarified:

The preacher’s aim should be first to convince the understanding and then to engage the hearer. Light first, then heat. Begin with a careful opening of the text, then proceed to the clearance of possible difficulties or objections; next to a statement of uses; and lastly to a fervent appeal for acceptance by conscience and heart.

Text-driven preaching demands that “fervent appeal for acceptance.” Those most committed to the text, like Puritan preachers, will be most committed to both the explanation of the Word and the exhortation to obedience. Those who have been affected by the true light of the text will communicate that text with the heat of exhortation.

A survey of Puritan sermons reveals the consistent centrality of exhortation in Puritan preaching. A typical sermon will end with “consideration” and “directions.” These are not just application of the text; these are exhortations to respond to the text. Puritan pastor Thomas Neast, in classic Puritan style, in a sermon from Eph 4:24, ends with strong exhortation.

Consider, what it is I plead for. Why, all that I ask is love; and will you deny Christ that? I call thee to think well of Christ, to desire him, to take complacency in him, to breathe after union and eternal communion with him; and which of these dost thou think too much for such an object? Or where canst thou place them more fitly than upon him? What is he worthy of, if not of this? Did ever death content itself with such a recompense? Was ever any debt easier paid, any service so easily performed, as this—only to love? Hath God made Christ a King, Priest, and Prophet? And is that all which thou must do, to partake of his love in him, to love him in those relations, and wilt thou stick at this? Hast thou any other way to the bosom of God but by him? And yet, rather than thou wilt come thither by love, wilt thou damn thy soul by hating Christ? Is not the enjoyment of God worth the labour of love?

One of the greatest historical examples of the use of exhortation is from the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. His sermons exemplify the consistent use of exhortation in preaching. John Carrick notes,

It has been noted, moreover, that there is, within this relationship between the indicative and the imperative, both irreversibility and inseparability; and it is the fact of inseparability that insists upon the necessity of the imperative and thus to exhortation. It is important to note that the indicatives of history do not and must not exclude the imperatives of ethics. If the indicative mood is “assertive of objective fact,” the imperative mood is “directive.” Edwards’ consistent use of the imperative mood demonstrates that his concern was not merely to instruct the mind, but also, through the power and blessing of the Spirit of God, to impel the will.

What makes the importance of exhortation so compelling in the ministry of Jonathan Edwards is that his strong view of God’s sovereignty did not cause him to shy away from or fear the use of persuasion. Edwards “never shrank from utilizing this imperative as he consistently addressed exhortation to sinners and saints alike.”

Charles Spurgeon, also in the great line of Puritan preachers, agreed with the need for exhortation in preaching. His preaching was formed by a practice he referred to as “two-fold ministry” of “warning and invitation.” He counseled that those should be blended together in wise proportion and then “set both on fire!”

Tell of Christ’s coming to judgment, and then invite men to come to Christ for mercy. Warn them that he is on the way; but tell them that he waits to be gracious, and that while he lingers they have space for repentance. You will thus both drive and draw, both convince and comfort, and your testimony will have two hands with which to bear men to their Savior.

Spurgeon believed this twofold ministry was what Jesus himself did. Spurgeon believed Jesus would “threaten as well as entreat.” This “entreating” made Spurgeon’s preaching poignant and powerful. It was not just his strong exposition, but also his faithful exhortation that marked his preaching ministry.

Many of the preachers who have gone before and laid the groundwork for text-driven preaching have understood the role of exhortation. Therefore, it is more than curious that modern text-driven preaching spends so little time on it. Every text certainly must be explained, illustrated, and applied, but the true text-driven sermon is not complete without exhortation. Exhortation restores the urgency felt by Augustine and Edwards. It places the preacher back in the place of the one speaking authoritatively for God (Titus 2:15). Exhortation is a necessary element of preaching and needs to be restored to its rightful place.

Recovering Exhortation

For those who love faithful exposition, it is of vital importance to remember that exposition is not the end of preaching. Alex Montoya sounds this warning well.

We [expositors] are in danger of making “exposition” the end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Paul’s exhortation to “preach the word!” is more to accomplish an end (i.e., teaching, reproving, correcting, training, and exhorting) than an act for an act’s sake! Although exposition is the chief of methodologies, if it has no verdict, no explicit purpose, and no warrant, then it will lack in pathos and urgency. Since every portion of Scripture has a purpose, the expositor must find that purpose and preach that purpose.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones adds, “You are not simply imparting information, you are dealing with souls, you are dealing with pilgrims on the way to eternity, you are dealing with matters not only of life and death in this world, but with eternal destiny. Nothing can be so terribly urgent.”

Exhortation puts the urgency in exposition. The goal of preaching is not just the faithful exposition of the text. The goal of preaching is to find, through the faithful exposition of the text, the purpose of the text, and to implore the listener to respond to that purpose. Without exhortation, exposition falls short.

This book is dedicated to one issue: the role of exhortation in preaching. Exhortation is persuading the listener to respond to the call of the text through proclaiming the point of the text, in the voice of the text. The goal of this book is to show that exhortation is not only essential to text-driven preaching, but also is inherent within every text. No faithful text-driven preaching exists without text-driven exhortation. Further, this book will provide a model for discovering and proclaiming the exhortation imbedded in each text.