Great expository preaching is marked by numerous characteristics, including conviction, clarity, and courage. In addition to these three features, the expositor must not neglect other basic elements of biblical preaching, such as grammatical/historical exegesis, sound hermeneutics, an awareness of biblical and systematic theology, and engaging homiletics. Much could be and has been written about these and other aspects of biblical exposition. This week, however, I want to focus on the final ‘C’ of expository preaching – compassion.
I believe the element of compassion often goes overlooked when preachers are being trained. Preaching classes and labs rightly focus on outlines, introductions, conclusions, illustrations, application, and elocution. To be sure, these are all vital tools every preacher needs to master. However, after preachers have been trained, it is all too easy for us to become preaching machines, writing sermon after sermon while we forget that we are not simply preaching; we are preaching to people. We are preaching to people with hurts, problems, struggles, trials, temptations, and all sorts of difficulties in their lives. While we understand the solution to all of these problems is the truth of God’s Word, we also must remember what the wise man wrote in Proverbs 15:2: “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable.” How do we make knowledge acceptable to those who come into the church broken, devastated, and heart-broken? How do we make the truth palatable to those who come in discouraged, defeated, and despairing? We must preach the Word of God with compassion.
The Greek term for compassion relates to the inward parts of a person, the visceral organs, often described as the bowels. It might be translated as sympathy or pity. Compassion is that feeling of love that goes out to those who are in a difficulty. Our hearts are moved to care about them and to desire to rescue them from their plight. It is nothing less than the love of God that motivated Him to give His one and only Son so that we might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Jesus personified the compassion of God when He saw the multitudes and felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36). Significantly, many of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels are described as acts motivated by compassion (Matt 14:14). During His earthly ministry Jesus felt pity for the lost, for the sick, for the hurting, for the downcast, for the lonely, for the mourning. His heart was moved because He saw their suffering. He was not indifferent to those He encountered; He was filled with pity, care, and concern.
Likewise, those who herald the Word of Christ in the name of Christ need to manifest the compassion of Christ toward those who hear the Word. Compassion is vital for expository preaching for several reasons. Chiefly, we must be marked by compassion because our Lord was marked by compassion, and we are His ambassadors, pleading with people to be reconciled to God. Furthermore, we know what it is like to be in a difficulty and how refreshing compassion is to us. Because Christ has commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must manifest such love toward them as we would desire if we were in their place. In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul urged us to speak the truth in love, indicating that merely being a preaching machine is not sufficient; love must permeate the way we deliver the truth. If we evidence no compassion, we also risk corrupting the Gospel message itself. The message of the Gospel is good news of God’s love toward sinners, His compassion and pity to us in our lowly estate. Would we not create great cognitive dissonance in our hearers if we preached a message of God’s great compassion while evidencing little or no compassion in our manner of speaking to sinners? Significantly, we must do more than fill our sermons with compassionate content. We must manifest the compassion of which we speak, and we genuinely must feel it within our hearts for sinners.
How, then, can we gain such a compassion for the lost, the hurting, the broken, the defeated, the despairing, and the downcast? A strong reminder from the Gospel of our own sinfulness, our own failures, our own weaknesses, and our own need for compassion promotes compassion within us. We must constantly remind ourselves that Christ came to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. Are we mindful that we ourselves are such sinners in need of the greatest compassion? When we have humbled ourselves, we can grow further in compassion for our hearers by considering how what we will preach will sound to them. If we want to evidence wisdom in our preaching, then our desire will not only to promote knowledge of the truth but to make that knowledge acceptable. How will someone who is depressed hear this message? How will someone whose husband has abandoned her react to these words? How will parents of unrepentant children feel as they hear this portion of Scripture? What will those who do not know Christ interpret us to mean as we preach the Gospel? Sadly, we can fall into the trap of simply preaching to the choir, seeking to rally those who already agree with us, or creating an us versus them mentality in the church. When we preach this way, not only do we fail to show compassion but we also fail to reach those who most need to hear the truths we are preaching: those who do not yet understand or believe them! The expositor thus needs to ask himself this vital question: If I were a person in my congregation who didn’t agree with what I am about to preach, would my sermon sound more like an appeal to me or an attack against me? While an attack might earn the applause of the choir, it is unlikely to win any converts from the crowd. Worse, it fails to model the compassion of Christ in His life, death, and resurrection and in the Gospel He commissioned us to preach.
Failing to model compassion in our preaching can have deleterious effects on our congregations. It can create an environment of spiritual superiority, where we speak and act as if we are better than those who do not understand the truth as we do or live according to the same standards by which we live. To put it another way, it results in hypocrisy. People who claim to love a compassionate Savior but who live lives devoid of compassion can be called nothing other than hypocrites. Moreover, it creates an inward-focused church, where outsiders are often treated with contempt rather than compassion. The church then loses its zeal for evangelism and fails to engage the Great Commission, endangering its very existence as a church.
The biblical expositor must be a man of conviction, clarity, and courage; he must also be a man of compassion. He must desire to see sinners converted by the Gospel. He must feel pity toward those who are lost and without Christ. He must have empathy for the people in the congregation who are stumbling in their walk with Christ. He must assess His preaching to evaluate how those who are hurting will hear him and how his words will sound in the ears of those who disagree with him. The faithful expositor will not be concerned merely to speak the truth. He will be diligent to speak the truth in love. He will expound and exemplify the compassion of the Lord Jesus Christ.