When published in 1971, Fred Craddock’s As One without Authority landed like “a bombshell on the playground of preachers.” In it, Craddock called for a new homiletic, for preaching to start with the hearer, not the text, and for preaching to be inductive, not deductive.
Craddock argued preaching was in hopeless decline and the church must reinvent homiletics or forfeit the sermon altogether. At the core of his critique was the issue of authority. According to Craddock, the modern preacher cannot—and perhaps should not—preach with authority. Thus, in the words of Craddock, the preacher exists as one without authority.
In a sense, Craddock’s diagnosis was right. The modern mind may well be adverse to authority and disinclined to trust the “sage on the stage.” Nonetheless, his prescription was dead wrong. Where there is no authority, there is no true preaching.
Authority, Essential to True Preaching
The Bible assumes an authoritative sermon. In biblical terms, it is impossible to conceptualize preaching without authority. The many biblical injunctions associated with preaching—admonish, instruct, warn, exhort, rebuke, reprove, correct, confront—presume and necessitate an authoritative sermon.
As a teacher, Jesus distinguished himself from the religious leaders of the day by speaking with authority. In the synagogue, he amazed his hearers, because he spoke “teaching as one with authority, and not as their scribes.”[i]
What is more, Paul’s command to Titus is a timeless charge to every preacher, “These things teach, reprove, and rebuke, as one having all authority; let no one disregard you.”[ii] Such authoritative preaching rests on four pillars.
Authority, Established by the Scriptures
John Stott, commenting on the preacher’s authority, rightly argued, “Our formula, if we use one at all, should be in the well-known, oft-repeated and quite proper phrase of Dr. Billy Graham, ‘The Bible says.’”[iii]
Stott was right. The preacher’s authority is the Bible itself. God chose to reveal himself to his people through his Word. His Word is inspired, infallible and inerrant, thus it is authoritative. As the Reformers reasoned, Vox Scriptura Vox Dei, the voice of Scripture is the voice of God. God’s voice is an authoritative voice and his word is an authoritative Word. God meant it to be preached in an authoritative manner
Throughout the Bible, Scripture references its own power and authority. Jeremiah declared God’s Word is “a hammer that breaks the rock,”[iv] and Isaiah testified God’s Word “will not return void.”[v] His prophets of old, like Jonah, heralded his message authoritatively.
The pattern continues in the New Testament. John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul all preached with authority. II Timothy 3:16–4:2 unites the authority of the text with the authority of the sermon. All Scripture is “inspired by God” and “profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness.” Since the Bible, as God’s inspired Word, is powerful and authoritative, the minister is called to “Preach the Word! Be ready in season and out of season reprove, rebuke, and exhort with great patience and instruction.”[vi]
Since the preacher’s authority is the Scripture itself, the preferred form of preaching is biblical exposition. Expository sermons are based upon the text of Scripture, in which the passage is explained and applied to the congregants. Thus, biblical exposition affords the sermon an authentic “Thus sayeth the Lord.”
Authority, Emboldened by the Spirit
The foundation of a preacher’s authority is the Scripture, but it doesn’t end there. The Lord is always pleased to bless his Word preached, but on occasion he chooses especially to bless it.
Peter at Pentecost preached with the power of the Holy Spirit resting on him. Weeks prior, he denied Jesus before a slave girl, but now, under the power of the Holy Spirit, he proclaimed the gospel with authority, indicting the people of Israel with the murder of the Son of God. The difference in Peter was the power of the Holy Spirit.
This, in part, is why we pray for the preacher and the sermon. We pray that the Holy Spirit will embolden the preacher and apply the sermon to the lives of the listeners. There is no greater force this side of Heaven than the Holy Word preached by a Holy man in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Authority, Enhanced by the life
A sermon’s authority is based in the text, not the man himself or his ecclesiastical office. As Luther argued, Popes and Councils have erred; the preacher’s mind should be held captive to Scripture. At the same time, one cannot separate the message from the man preaching it.
The preacher’s authority is enhanced by a life of integrity and ministerial credibility. I Tim 3:1–7 documents the qualifications for ministry and the necessity of being “above reproach.” Moreover, Paul frequently pointed to his life and character to buttress the credibility of his ministry and the authority of his message.
Sterling character takes time to cultivate and it takes even more time to be appreciated by others. A preacher’s credibility with his congregation is slowly accumulated but abruptly forfeited. It enters town on foot, but departs on horseback.
Authority, Enriched by the Delivery
Finally, the preacher’s authority should be enriched by the delivery itself. Church members are not fools. They ask themselves, “Does the preacher believe his own message?” If the preacher does not believe the sermon, why should they?
Perhaps no man more exuded authority in preaching than George Whitefield. His life demonstrated confidence in God’s Word, thus he preached it with boldness. Even unbelievers marveled at his power, including men like Benjamin Franklin and David Hume.
David Hume, one of the 18th century’s leading skeptics, closely followed Whitefield’s ministry. On one occasion Hume traveled more than 20 miles before dawn to hear Whitefield preach. A fellow attender recognized Hume and inquired as to his attendance. “Where are you going this early hour?” “I am going to hear Whitefield preach” replied Hume. “But you don’t believe a word he preaches,” said the man.” “No,” Hume answered, “but he does.”[vii]
Modern preaching has been described as “A mild-mannered man encouraging mild-mannered people to be more mild-mannered.” The church—and the world—needs the opposite. Bold, authoritative preaching is the urgent need of the hour. Such preaching will hasten revival in the church, and further the Great Commission.
Authority is not something the preacher talks into himself on Sunday mornings. Nor is it granted by title, office, attire, or by brutishly pulling rank.
But, when the sermon is indeed biblical and delivered by a man with a life of integrity, in the power of the Holy Spirit and with full conviction, a supremely authoritative event has taken place—one has preached with authority.
[i] Matthew 7:29.
[ii] Titus 2:15.
[iii] John R. W. Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 29.
[iv] Jeremiah 23:29.
[v] Isaiah 55:11.
[vi] II Timothy 4:2.
[vii] Cited in John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 269–70.