Encouraging Intellectual Engagement Through Preaching

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis
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Every person in every pew needs to hear the Bible preached in ways that warm the heart and mobilize the mind.

A pastor is a shepherd to all the sheep—educated and uneducated, men and women, young and old, red and yellow, black and white, rich and poor. Every sermon should speak to everyone in the church. Since the Gospel is pertinent to the whole human race at all times, this is not impossible (Romans 1:16-17). Since the Bible is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and God-breathed and thus profitable for all kinds of instruction (2 Timothy 3:15-17), this is within the reach of any diligent pastor. How might pastors preach to intellectuals and others to think better, deeper for the cause of Christ?

First, God, who is infinitely intelligent, prizes the life of the mind.

Christian faith is not the opposite of reason or knowledge. On the unimpeachable authority of Jesus, we know that the greatest commandment is to love God with “our heart, soul, strength, and mind” (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus Himself loved the Father with His mind. Christ’s savvy responses to thorny theological issues is evidence of this. Matthew 22 presents Jesus’ deft handling of three such issues: church and state, marriage and the resurrection and his status as the “son of David.” He was never outwitted or shown to be intellectually slipshod. And, it wasn’t just Jesus. Consider the Apostle Paul. He demonstrated a top-drawer mind as well, as we see in his message to the Greek philosophers recorded in Acts 17. Peter tells us to “have a reason for the hope we have” in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15).

Surely, we glorify God by thinking well and even outthinking the world for Christ! World-class philosopher and apologist J. P. Moreland teaches us how to think well in Love Your God With All Your Mind. Anti-intellectualism has no place in the life of the church or in the life of any Christ-follower. Just as we should grow in patience and humility, so too we should grow in our intellectual discernment and knowledge. We are to be “transformed through the renewal of the mind” (Romans 12:2).

Second, pastors should remember that they must speak as “an oracle of God” to a rebellious world.

The truth must be taught, and false doctrines must be refuted. As Paul wrote Pastor Titus:

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach (Titus 1:10-11; also 2:15).

Sound refutations of false doctrine require rigorous thinking. Those in error should be “silenced,” not by being shouted down or ignored, but through godly teaching. As Paul also wrote to Titus:

In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us (Titus 2:7-8).

Since the church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), preachers need to speak the truth in love with a solid core of learning (Ephesians 4:15). This means striving to be counter-cultural by so prizing study that every sermon is backed by hours of reading, meditation, prayer, and preparation. As Paul told Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (1 Timothy 2:15). Seminary education is not required for this task, but an evangelical seminary can deepen considerably one’s knowledge of the Bible, theology, and preaching.

The Bible is a collection of many books, written in many genres and in three original languages. While always pertinent to life, the Bible is not always an easy read. When teaching difficult passages, pastors should explain the issues pertaining to the text and show why they have interpreted it and applied it as they did. This allows the congregation to enter the intellectual processes brought to bear on the sacred text.

For pastors to preach with compelling intellectual depth, they need extended times of diligent study. I have seen a shift from the “pastor’s study” to the “pastor’s office.” Little study may be done in the office. If pastors are to be convincing advocates of truth to a fallen world, they should be widely read, since the Bible applies to every aspect of life and because Christ is Lord over the whole of life. As the Dutch theologian, educator and statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Pastors can engage their congregants to think well for Christ by recommending books from the pulpit and through media such as the church’s web or Facebook page.

Third, preaching apologetics, the rational defense of Christianity, will awaken the minds of those listening.

Christians will be emboldened in their witness and non-Christians will be challenged to seriously consider the rationality of Christianity. Defending the faith rationally engages the thinking and stimulates the will to share the faith given once for all to the saints (Jude 3).

Consider some examples of preaching apologetics (along with Focus on the Family’s recommendations for further reading):

  1. A series on the pastoral epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) could begin with an apologetic for Paul’s authorship of these letters since liberal writers deny it. (Evidence That Demands a Verdict)
  2. While preaching a passage of the Gospels that relates a miracle, it is apt to give an apologetic for the historicity of biblical miracles. (The Case for Miracles)
  3. Of course, preaching on Easter calls for some defense of Jesus’ resurrection as a fact of knowable history (1 Corinthians 15). (The Case For Christ)
  4. If a sermon is about or touches on God’s creation and design of the universe or of humans (consider Psalm 19:1-6; 139:13-16; Romans 1:18-21), the scientific evidence in support of this may be cited. The evidence from cosmology and biology can be shown through the excellent video, “The Case for a Creator” with best-selling apologist Lee Strobel. (Signature in the Cell)
  5. Life is full of suffering, and good preaching will wisely address this. When preaching about suffering and evil, some comments on how to address this rationally as a Christian may be in order. (Christian Apologetics)

Every person in every pew needs to hear the Bible preached in ways that warm the heart and mobilize the mind. Such preaching will help us do what Peter commanded: “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming” (1 Peter 1:13). Pastors, in your preaching, please don’t forget the needs of the intellectuals in your church and remember that non-intellectuals need to engage their intellects to the full for the cause of Christ.

© 2019 Douglas Groothuis.

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