Why I quote men in sermons

There has recently been some conversation with me about the value of my quoting creeds, confessions, catechisms, and extra-biblical authors in general during my sermons.  My wife and I were discussing these conversations while we were driving down the road and she asked me a helpful question.  “Why do you quote those things in your sermon?”

1.      To strengthen the case of my thoughts about the text.

The Bible’s vision of self-delusion is very clear.   “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?[1]  Paul is concerned about the Corinthians deceiving themselves in 1 Corinthians 3:18. James warns against self-deception in James 1:22. Paul tells the Romans that a sign of worldliness is self-deception in 1:18.  On top of the knowledge that there is an easy case that the bible warns against the ready temptation of self-delusion and truth suppression there is the recognition that total solitary function is not the vision of the New Testament.   The Christian faith is corporate as we are united to Christ, we are united to each other in the church. To be alone as a way of life is a dangerous activity for Christians.   This is true in general living and in the practice of bible study, where leaning on your own understanding is the way of the world. [2]

This means that as I prep sermons or study the bible in general I believe that the Bible is clear enough to be understood by all who have the spirit working in their heart, but I also know that my own heart is capable of error and deception so when I look at a text I want to strengthen the argument, show the congregation that I have not innovated nor been revolutionary with the text.   I want to make the case that has always been made and show that others have looked at the same text and come to the same conclusion.  It is my goal that a sermon is then a chorus of voices from God’s word and God’s people that cannot be laid aside as one man’s opinion. 

There is also a real benefit in listening and submitting our thoughts to men and women who simply are not here and now.   People in other places and at other times see our errors more acutely than we do just as we can point out their flaws more clearly than they were.   Or let me say it another way: if every voice in your head is modern and American, then you are putting yourself at a major spiritual disadvantage.

2.      To Connect me and the congregation to the cloud of faithful witnesses.

The second reason that I quote various things in sermons is that I want to connect myself and those who are in the congregation to a Christianity that exists beyond the boundaries of time and space.   To recognize that there have been Christians in many places around the globe for a long time and through Christ, we are united to them in eternity.

This means that when I study the Bible and preach the word, I want to be constantly acutely aware of the fact that I am a part of something far greater and far more ancient than myself.   We as Christians are the heirs of those who came before us. You received the gospel, and thereby the faith once delivered to all the saints from someone else.  This connection to the past and to those who follow Christ in other places around the globe drives me to want to be holy because I want to honor the gift that I have been given through those who came before me. 

Not only am I connected to them, but I need them.   It is a great burden to have to start from scratch theologically at every juncture in history.  The church has been built theologically one generation after another and we need to lean on the work that was done throughout history to make sure that we are staying inside the faith.  This is what Isaac Newton helps us to see “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”  The historic church is made up of giants, men of whom the world was not worthy. I want to be connected to those giants, learn from them, and grow in grace like them.   The sermon is an opportunity for me to connect myself and the congregation to those who came before.

3.      To introduce church members to good Christian thinkers.

Throughout my life, I have found that those who have come before, the men and women of Christ that I read have become companions to my walk. Books are in a way the voices of friends long gone who help me to follow Christ better.  Some of these men who have come before me and some of the works that have been accomplished by the church are more than just mere companions, they have become beloved friends to my soul. For me men like Zacharias Ursinus, Jan Overduin, Herman Bavinck, Joel Beeke, Martyn Llyod Jones, Charles Bridges, Thomas Brooks, and many others have ministered to my heart in ways that have been pointed, and necessary.   So, if I may be simple, often I am quoting these men because I want to introduce them to the congregation because they have been good friends to me, and I believe that they might become good friends to the congregation.

4.      To raise the knowledge base and academic level of the whole congregation.

Finally, my goal as a pastor is to preach the word in such a way as it cuts to the heart of a man and there is an experiential or experimental result where the word engages the life of a man and changes the way he lives.   And yet at the same time that I am hoping to give simple and practical help to the congregation so that they can follow Christ better today and tomorrow, I also believe that the Lord calls us to be thinkers and ponderers, to swim out to the depths of God’s word where the elephants are. [3]  This means that when I draw the attention of the congregation to older and harder theological sources, I am hoping that some will take up the task to love the lord with all their mind more and more.

To be plain I quote men who will cause the church to think, with the hope that the church will read.  I am preaching in a way that elevates academic thought because I want the church to grow academically.   I want the body to celebrate learning and those whom they have learned it from because I believe that this is good and in line with wisdom and the good life. [4]

[1] Jeremiah 17:9

[2] Proverbs 3:5-6

[3] This is one of my favorite quotes from Gregory the great, “The Bible is broad and deep, it is shallow enough for lambs to wade and deep enough for elephants to swim.”  

[4] Proverbs 1:7

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