Elements of Effective Exposition: Clarity

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Last week we began to look at the four Cs of expository preaching by focusing on conviction. This week I want to consider a second ingredient of powerful biblical exposition: clarity. Clarity seems to be in short supply these days. Tragically, preachers have substituted nuance for clear, incisive speech. While faithful preachers must assiduously avoid over-simplification of complex problems, they must also avoid the temptation to confuse their congregations with needless nuancing of the clear meaning of Scripture. How can we not immediately remember the lawyer in Luke 10:25-37 who, after receiving a clear answer from Jesus about the requirements to obtain eternal life, tried to confuse such clarity by asking a question about the nuances of the law’s interpretation? Jesus’ memorable parable of the Good Samaritan left the lawyer with no doubt as to the Law’s meaning as well as his own standing before a holy God. Jesus’ entire preaching ministry was marked by a shocking clarity.

Because clarity is so easily muddied, a definition is helpful. One dictionary defines clarity as the quality of being certain or definite. In preaching, clarity is the quality of leaving the hearer in no doubt as to the meaning of the biblical text. It is the opposite of ambiguity, vagueness, or obfuscation. While perhaps not in vogue in academia, which seems to pride itself on endless nuance and complication, clear, accurate preaching of the Word of God is powerful preaching of the Word of God.

Refraction_through_glasses_090306Clarity is important for the preacher for a number of reasons. Clear preaching is the out-working of a doctrinally sound bibliology. As Christians, we believe in the perspicuity of Scripture. That simply means we believe the Bible was written to be understood by the people of God; therefore, the message of the Bible is clear and can be apprehended by Spirit-filled Bereans who examine the Scriptures continuously. Woefully, unclear preaching leads to a congregation deficient in its understanding of the perspicuity of Scripture, undermining people’s confidence in the Bible and their ability to read it and profit thereby. When the church neglects the Bible, the church’s health declines until it becomes ravaged by spiritual disease. Clear preaching that instills confidence in the congregation, that they can read and understand God’s Word, is a sure antidote to the ailments resulting from a neglect of the scriptures.

Clarity in preaching furthermore follows the example of all of the great preachers in the Bible. Study any of the sermons found in the biblical text. Note how people responded to the messages they heard. The one response you will not encounter is uncertainty as to the meaning of the message preached. (Pentecost is a notable exception, but the uncertainty at Pentecost was not due to the content of the sermon, which at least 3,000 people clearly understood!) When the prophets preached, people understood their message – and hated them for it! When Jesus preached, He was clear unless He was intentionally hiding the truth from unbelievers in parables. Jesus’ message was so clear the Jews tried to murder Him numerous times before they finally succeeded at the cross. If anything was unclear, it was the complex and onerous interpretations of the Bible by the hypocritical religious leaders. The Apostles followed Jesus’ example in Acts, with their clear preaching resulting in the conversion of thousands of people, not to mention suffering and martyrdom for many of the Apostles themselves. If you want to follow the example of the great preachers of the Bible, preach with crystal clarity.

If clear biblical exposition is so vital to the life and health of the church, why is it so difficult to find? Preachers might avoid clarity for any number of reasons, chief among them being fear of man. There is safety in ambiguity. If someone is offended by what you preached, you can simply claim that’s not what you meant and, if your sermon was unclear, who could argue with you? Clarity, however, opens you up to direct criticism you will be unable to avoid. As we have already seen from biblical examples, clear preaching is dangerous preaching.

Others neglect clarity due to pride. There is a certain level of superiority one feels when he understands something no one else is able to understand. One way to be sure no one else understands it, at least not as profoundly as you do, is to confuse impress your hearers with needless academic verbiage. They will be certain you are the smartest person in the room; unfortunately, they will not understand their Bibles and over time will be convinced they never will, at least not without you graciously dropping your words of wisdom over them week after week. Not only does such adulation make the preacher feel important, it also guarantees job security! Unfortunately, it impairs a congregation’s spiritual growth.

whitefieldSome preachers neglect clarity because the meaning of the biblical text is not clear to them. It is impossible to make something clear to others when you do not understand it yourself. Too many preachers step into the pulpit unprepared and uncertain of what their text means. Their congregations leave worship equally unprepared for the challenges awaiting them during the week because they too leave uncertain of what the text means. We must have the meaning of the biblical text clear in our own minds if we would communicate it clearly to others.

Sadly, some preachers are unclear in their exposition of the Bible because they are not gifted to preach and should not be preaching. Not everyone is called to preach the Word of God in the office of a pastor, and sometimes it takes men and the congregations enduring their preaching some time to discern this. A gifted preacher is one who can make the meaning of the biblical text clear to God’s people in a compelling way. Those who are unable to do this should find a new ministry where they might serve. If they are convinced pastoral ministry is their calling, specifically a ministry of preaching the Word, they should take some time to develop their skills outside of regular pulpit ministry. Perhaps teaching children’s Sunday school, where clarity is an utmost necessity for both theological and practical reasons, will force them to acquire this crucial skill. Whatever the case, if people are regularly more confused by your preaching than confident of the meaning of the text you preached, it’s probably time to step away from preaching until you take steps to improve your communication abilities.

A powerful expositor is a clear preacher of God’s Word. He embraces clarity for theological reasons: the perspicuity of Scripture and the examples in Scripture demand it. He speaks with clarity for practical reasons: the health and life of the church depends on understanding the Word of God, and God’s people need to have confidence they can interpret the Word correctly. One of the most important tools in the expositor’s toolbox for building up the body of Christ is clarity in explicating the scriptures.

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