The Nutrition Facts of Modern Preaching: No Protein
"Where's the beef?" Such was the catchphrase for a 1984 advertisement put out by the fast-food restaurant chain Wendy's. In that commercial, Wendy's compared their hamburger patty (which was portrayed as being large and easily visible) to the hamburger patty of competitors (which was small and difficult to find inside an oversized hamburger bun). Of course, nowadays restaurant chains are much more protein-conscious than they were in the past. In fact, high protein diets in general are very popular these days. No longer enjoyed solely by weightlifters in back-alley gyms, protein is an important nutritional component to people of all kinds of backgrounds. A study from a few years ago actually indicated that a whopping 71% of people surveyed wanted more protein in their diet! And one thing has become clear: the food industry has responded. The protein craze has invaded all kinds of food products. Beyond just protein powders and protein bars, store shelves are now stocking things like protein cereals, protein cookies, and even protein doughnuts.
Pursuing a healthier lifestyle means people are pursuing muscle-building protein to support it. The demand is high, and the supply has ramped up to meet it.
If only the same thing could be said in the spiritual realm.
The food industry is saturated with protein, but the modern church pulpit is virtually meatless. Listen to the average sermon and you're likely to respond with, "Where's the beef?"
But what exactly are the "muscle-builders" of Christianity when it comes to preaching? What grows mature believers into powerful servants of Christ? The answer is quite simple: expository preaching along with sound doctrine. And that should come as no surprise to those familiar with the book of 2 Timothy. Prior to departing from this life, the Apostle Paul charged his disciple Timothy with the command to "preach the Word....with instruction" (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul knew that Timothy would be accountable for building up his congregation (cf. Eph. 4:11-13). Thus, in this command, Paul left Timothy's ears ringing with clear-cut orders for preaching ministry to accomplish that end.
Preaching the Word as a herald meant that Timothy was not to preach whatever he felt like; he was not to make up his own hand-crafted topical sermon series for leading his congregation. Instead, he was simply to announce and explain the life-giving words of God, as written by God, the way any herald would for his king. This represents the non-negotiable instruction for sequential expository preaching. Furthermore, in commanding Timothy to preach with "instruction," Paul used the Greek word didache which refers to truth explained in an organized and systematic fashion. Timothy was to give his hearers a comprehensive understanding of God's plan of redemption, explaining how all of Scripture fits together in a grand storyline, which represents the work of Biblical Theology. And in addition, Timothy was to provide his hearers with categories of propositional truth as all of Scripture is harmonized, representing the work of Systematic Theology.
Like amino acids (the building blocks of protein), these three aspects of instruction are the building blocks of spiritual protein for hungry listeners: sequential exposition, Biblical Theology, and Systematic Theology.
The Hand-Picked Counsel of God
Prior to His ascension, Christ charged His disciples with what we refer to as the Great Commission, stating, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:18-20). Of course, if you were to ask the average pastor if the Great Commission is the highest priority of his ministry, the answer would be resoundingly affirmative. Few, if any, would explicitly reject this. Yet, the reality is that any preacher who is not expositing God's word sequentially (verse by verse) for his local church has actually defaulted on the Great Commission.
Look again at Christ's words and you'll notice that the charge is not simply to teach some of what He commanded, nor a majority of what He commanded, but to teach others to observe all that He commanded. Therefore, anything less than verse-by-verse exposition is an undeniable failure to accomplish that most basic instruction. Apart from sequential expository preaching, there is simply no objective metric by which a pastor could even try to prove that he is teaching his congregation all that Christ commanded.
In other words, teaching all that Christ commanded cannot be rightfully thought to be pursued apart from sequential exposition, despite the delusion that many preachers are under to the contrary. As John MacArthur says, "Jesus said, 'Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God' (Matt. 4:4). If every word that comes out of the mouth of God feeds us, we ought to study every word. Today, preaching has lost that."
MacArthur is absolutely right on this point, and the weakness and spiritual susceptibility of the average churchgoer is evidence that the muscle-building protein of verse-by-verse exposition is almost entirely absent today.
In fact, MacArthur goes on to recount a sad story representing the modern mentality:
A pastor in another state once told me, "I pastor a church for only two years, and then I leave."
"Have you been doing that for a long time?" I asked
"Yes," he replied. "I spent two years here, two years there, and two years in another place."
I asked why.
"I have fifty-two sermons. I preach each one twice, and then I leave."
I pressed him. "Why don't you teach the whole counsel of God?"
"I don't teach all of it," he conceded. "I just teach the parts that I think are important."
But every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God is important!
Such a conversation says it all. Just as the body needs full servings of protein in order to build quality muscle, so too do believers need full servings of Scripture (i.e. the full counsel of God, Acts 20:27) in order to grow spiritually. To think that a so-called pastor would only teach the parts of the Bible he thinks are "important" is unconscionably sinful and utterly contrary to Christ's instructions.
It's no wonder, then, that Pastor Mike Abendroth would offer the following helpful advice:
When you look for a new church (or when you go on vacation), call the church and ask them this question: "What book of the Bible is your pastor preaching through right now?" Their answer will tell you the church's view of the Scripture, expository preaching, and much more. It is rare indeed to find a "seeker-sensitive" church preaching through books sequentially.
Along with verse-by-verse exposition, the Bible demand that pulpits also offer doctrinal instruction. Just as Timothy was commanded to preach the Word with didache ("instruction") by the Apostle Paul (cf. 2 Tim. 4:2), so too are preachers of today under that same obligation to accompany their preaching with clear, meaningful, theological truth. As a faithful expositor works though a passage verse by verse, he will also provide theological insight that harmonizes with other portions of the Bible in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of both the text at hand as well as the text as it fits in with the rest of Scripture. Thus, the preacher will provide Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology for his hearers.
It is at this point that some definitions are needed (which is further evidence that there is a famine in the land).
What is Biblical Theology? As a technical term that does not mean "theology that is biblical," Biblical Theology is the theological discipline that is concerned with the chronological aspects of salvation as presented in the timeline of the Bible, offering a knowledge of the progressive unfolding of redemption throughout the various periods of the Bible.
What is Systematic Theology? Systematic Theology is a theological discipline that is concerned with the categorical aspects of salvation as presented in Scripture, offering a knowledge of the various components of redemption found throughout the Bible.
Far from being in competition with one another, both of these theological aspects are vitally important for the student of Scripture, as they complement one another well:
Biblical Theology is the overall knowledge of the Bible’s storyline that allows us to understand the chronology of redemption. Systematic Theology is the overall knowledge of the Bible’s doctrine that allows us to understand the categories of redemption.
Biblical Theology is interested in the unified connections of Scripture; Systematic theology is interested in the unified conclusions of Scripture.
Biblical Theology deals with the historical links in the Bible; Systematic Theology deals with the logical links in the Bible.
Biblical Theology views Scripture as a process; Systematic Theology views Scripture as a product.
For example, if a faithful expositor were preaching through the account of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac, he would first explain the account in Genesis 22 verse by verse, which would be the task of sequential exposition. He would describe the event, the context, the authorial intent, the theology found within the passage, and so on. But at some point, he would also explain how Genesis 22 fits into the overall storyline of Scripture, by showing how, for instance, the Lamb of God announced by John the Baptist in John 1:29 is the fulfillment of the animal provided in place of Isaac (Biblical Theology), and that this represents the grand doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (Systematic Theology). These three aspects of preaching, provided weekly to a congregation, would be the equivalent of feasting on steak, and you better believe that the strength of the local believers would become well evident as a result.
Sadly, in most churches, these aspects of preaching are not only absent, but unwelcome. For example, standing in opposition to the doctrinal purity and clarity that saints ought to be given, Rick Warren says (regarding judgment day), "God won’t ask about your religious background or doctrinal views. The only thing that will matter is, did you accept what Jesus did for you and did you learn to love and trust him?"
God won't ask you about your doctrinal views? So much for the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union, and salvation through faith alone—apparently, according to Warren, these are inconsequential. Sure, God will not have a clipboard out in order to interview those who stand before Him. But Warren's point was made clear. Rather than pursuing sequential exposition, Biblical Theology, and Systematic Theology, Warren completely downplays doctrinal depth and offers a paltry hypothetical conversation with God as his rationale. Believers need meat, and Warren serves up marshmallows.
No Muscle to Flex
Are your biceps growing? Are your quadriceps getting stronger? Can you rep out a near-endless number of pushups? Maybe you need to increase your protein intake.
Is your faith growing? Are your convictions getting stronger? Do you find yourself pursuing more God-glorifying good works? Maybe you need to increase your theological intake. Sadly, as a result of the widespread anti-doctrinal mindset found in much of modern preaching, believers are simply left with no muscle to flex. So how would you know if you're actually gaining any spiritual muscle?
Consider Hebrews 5:12-14, which says, "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil."
Those who grew up on the King James Version of the Bible may well remember that the phrase "solid food" is translated as "strong meat." And meat is precisely what is needed to grow. Based on this passage, then, the evidence that you've been fed quality protein from your pastor is threefold:
1) You are able to teach the Word to others ("...by this time you ought to be teachers...").
2) You heartily receive even the difficult truths of the Word ("...everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness...").
3) You have developed discernment based on the Word ("...have their senses trained to discern good and evil...").
Can these three qualities be said of you? If not, it's likely because you've been neglecting hearty protein. Salad is good, but salad alone cannot rebuild muscle fibers. Fruit is helpful, but fruit alone cannot stimulate muscle gain. Oatmeal is excellent, but oatmeal alone is not enough to recover from strength training.
What's the label on your church's preaching look like? Statistically-speaking, it's probably not good. More than likely, it's all sizzle and no steak. Where's the beef?
 John MacArthur, The Master's Plan for the Church (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2008), 24.
 Ibid., 24.
 Mike Abendroth, Jesus Christ: The Prince of Preachers: Learning from the Teaching Ministry of Jesus (Leominster, England: Day One Pub., 2008), 159.
 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 34.