Posted by: Johnold Strey | December 17, 2009

Sermon vs. Bible Class

This past October I presented a paper at our district’s pastors’ conference titled, “Neither Papistic nor Karlstadtian: Luther’s Principles of Adiaphora Applied to the Liturgical Life of the Church.”  I’ve already posted the paper and described the assignment in a previous post.  In this post, I’d like to expand on one of the discussions that took place during the “Question and Answer” session after the essay was presented.

For those who haven’t yet checked out the essay, I’ll provide a short summary here.  The paper had to do with Luther’s comments about adiaphora (Christian freedom) as it applies to worship.  Since there are no “worship laws” in the New Testament, there is not a set form that Christians must follow when they gather for public worship.  But Luther recognized that it is not necessarily beneficial for every church to do its own thing.  Luther encouraged a general commonality in practice, particularly for churches that were located in the same region.  His concern was for the lay people, who would be easily confused — understandably so — if churches that otherwise shared a common confession of faith used worship practices that were greatly different from one another.  The essay quoted Luther extensively, and then considered how we could put Luther’s concepts into practice in our own day and within our own church body.

One of the pastors who spoke during the question and answer period asked about the practice of sermons that seemed more like a Bible Class — more of a time to study and learn about the Word, and less of a time for straight proclamation of the Word.  The pastor who spoke was not in favor of sermons in a Bible study style, and (if my memory is correct) he thought that it might be an example of differing practices that would cause confusion for the lay people of our churches.  He sensed that Bible study style sermons were becoming more common, and wondered what my thoughts were on that particular issue.

I was glad this issue was raised.  Even though it wasn’t on my mind when I wrote the paper, it has been on my mind frequently in the past.  I can’t remember how many times others (both pastors and laypeople) have also made comments (both positive and negative) about sermons that were more like Bible classes.  Those in favor of a Bible study style sermon believe that it’s just another way to get people into the Word of God.  Those who are against it haven’t always been able to identify what they consider the problem to be, but they have sensed that something just isn’t quite right about the concept.  I am oversimplifying the situation a bit and lumping reactions into one of two groups, but those two groups of reactions have been common in my discussions with others.

In my response, I cited 2 Peter 3:18.  “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  Peter encourages us to grow in grace and knowledge.  These are certainly not exclusive, but there are some distinctions we should note.

Growing in grace means that we grow in our reception of God’s undeserved love and forgiveness to us.  This means we come into contact with the gospel, the good news of Jesus’ redeeming work to save lost sinners.  We receive the forgiveness of sins in absolution, in the proclamation of the gospel in Scripture and sermon, in a return to and remembrance of the blessings of baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper.  Through these, we grow in grace.  We receive God’s undeserved love and forgiveness time and time again.

Growing in knowledge means that we study the Word of God.  We’re not content to remain stagnant in our knowledge of Scripture.  We build on the basic truths of law and gospel and dig more deeply into the spiritual truths God has revealed in his Word.  This learning process often benefits our growth in grace as well.  As the head elder at my congregation likes to say, when you come to Bible study, the church service makes a lot more sense.  Or, to pick up on Peter’s language, growing in knowledge often helps us to grow in grace.

But just because someone has correct Scriptural knowledge does not mean that they are growing in grace and in faith.  As an example, take the story of Jesus healing the lame man who was brought to him in Mark 2:1-12.  If someone were presenting a Bible class on this account, he would have all sorts of material to discuss.  He could put up a map on a PowerPoint slide and locate the city of Capernaum.  He could explain how ancient homes were built and how the paralytic’s friends could have lowered him on a mat from the roof of the house.  He could describe the religious presuppositions of the teachers of the law.  He could explain the points of grammar in Jesus’ response to his critics.  He could offer theories as to why the man was paralyzed.  He could remind the class of the profound nature of the miracle, that a man who hadn’t used his leg muscles for a very long time walked out in front of the entire crowd with no problem.

All of that is useful information.  But knowing where to find Capernaum on a map doesn’t strengthens faith.  All of that is biblical.  But none of it is truly the gospel, the good news of Jesus’ work of redemption, proclaimed and applied to a specific person or group of people.

I thought of this again in my recent sermon on Luke 3:1-6 for the Second Sunday in Advent.  The account begins with a list of various government officials in and around Judea at the time John the Baptist started his ministry.  In the sermon, I specifically said that if we were in Bible Class, I would spend some time explaining the background behind each official mentioned; but since this was a sermon, I simply identified the year that this information likely took us to, and then moved on to other points.  The historical information about figures like Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas is interesting, factual, and useful.  But this data, in and of itself, is not the gospel; therefore this data, in and of itself, does not strengthen faith.

There are times when education is necessary in order to achieve gospel proclamation.  The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 needed to understand what Isaiah’s words meant (vv. 30-34) before Philip could apply the good news of Jesus to him personally (v. 35).  In last Sunday’s sermon on Zephaniah 3:14-17, I felt that a fair amount of explanation (education) was necessary at the start of the sermon, because it would have been much more difficult to preach law and gospel without establishing the text’s background first.  Educating in the sermon is important, but it is not an end to itself.  Education leads to the true end or goal, which is appropriating law and gospel to the congregation.  In other words, teaching leads to preaching.  And Scripture calls us not just to teach the facts, but to preach the gospel (Mark 16:15, Romans 10:14, 1 Corinthians 1:21, 2 Timothy 4:2).

I am painting with a broad brush here, and I don’t want to deny that there are exceptions to these observations.  But I have also noticed the trend to fill sermons with lots of data — the kinds of information I described above — but with very little direct proclamation of the forgiveness of sins that was won for us by Christ’s redeeming work.  I’ve seen fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines that are geared toward increasing knowledge about the text but not necessarily increasing the opportunities to present the gospel through the text.  I’ve seen PowerPoint sermons that have been heavy on data-filled bullet points.  I’ve heard sermons where the data has filled up quite a bit of preaching time, but the application of that data through the cross and empty tomb of Jesus (i.e. the gospel!) has been limited to a passing sentence or two.  And I suspect there were quite a few lay people listening to those sermons who thought that everything was fine because the sermons were biblical — even though they weren’t necessarily evangelical (i.e. centered on the gospel).

The following distinction might be helpful: Worship and preaching are not remembrance, but anamnesis.  Remembrance is merely calling something from the past to mind.  But anamnesis recalls the past in a living way today.  The past is brought alive in the present.  As an example, think about the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper.  We do not merely remember Jesus’ institution of the Sacrament around the Passover table and his subsequent death on the cross the next day.  We may do that, but there is so much more happening:  Jesus’ body and blood are truly present and received by every communicant.  As we partake of this sacred gift in faith, Christ is present to apply the forgiveness of sins that he won for us on the cross directly to our souls.  That’s not merely data or head knowledge.  That’s grace, won for us in the past and coming to us personally in the present!  That’s anamnesis.

I believe that we pastors would do our laypeople a tremendous service if we thought of preaching as anamnesis (growing in grace) rather than remembrance (growing in knowledge).  I can’t say it enough that these are not mutually exclusive.  But they are different.  If my main goal is to increase the assembly’s knowledge, then the tools of the classroom will become my aides — PowerPoint, maps, charts, fill-in-the-blank outlines, etc.  But if my main goal is to apply the undeserved love of God in Christ to the body of believers before me, then I will view myself as less of an educator and more of a herald.  I will simply concern myself with preaching the message, and then letting the Holy Spirit do his work when and where he wills.  I may educate in the sermon, but my main goal will be anamnesis — to proclaim the wrath of God against these people’s sins, to announce the love of God for these people in the sacrifice Jesus offered for them, and to apply the forgiveness of God to these people by taking them to the cross and empty tomb as the source of their pardon and peace with God.

In other words: Preach the gospel!



  1. I hear what you’re saying, Johnold. Thank you for your excellent thoughts and reminders. I agree that too many sermons fail by being filled with “Biblical data” instead of proclaiming “Scriptural truth”. But I’m not convinced that 2 Peter 3:18 presents such a distinction as you have made. And yes, you made it clear that you don’t believe grace and knowledge to be anything like mutually exclusive. But I still think you’re perhaps setting up a bit of a straw man.

    Look, for example, at the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s one long (self-interrupted) prayer for a growth in knowledge – so that they might also grow in grace.

    I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you… (1:17,18).

    Paul then goes on to remind/reveal/proclaim/anamnesize them of the grace of God in Christ and how it applies to Gentiles. He starts to bring his prayer to a close with these words:

    I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (3:16-19).

    Growth in grace leads to growth in knowledge which leads to further growth in grace, etc.

    My point is that the “knowledge” spoken of by Peter and Paul is not related to geography, archaeology or linguistics. Certainly a sermon that spent much time on such topics would be out of place. But, in my opinion, so would most such Bible studies. As you say, it’s important that we understand contexts and cultures, but in the life of the church both sermons and Bible studies should be focused on communicating the gospel (good news, i.e. knowledge) of Christ (grace).

    I myself am not considering offering Bible study style sermons in my congregation’s worship, partly because of the offense/confusion you talked about above, and also for other reasons. I too think the sermon style is eminently more appropriate for corporate worship. But I have used the Bible study style while church-planting in a world mission setting, and I believe that there was just as much proclamation and anamnesis going on as in a traditional sermon style. In the humble situation I was in originally, a traditional sermon style would have felt unnecessarily formal and probably beyond the capabilities of the congregation to follow. Later, as the mission congregation grew and matured, I gradually switched to a normal sermon style for worship. What didn’t change was the focus on the message of Christ and its appropriation by the hearers.

    So what I’m trying to say is that my personal beef is not necessarily with “Sermon v. Bible Study” styles (although I have my preference), but with any time the church spends with the Word that doesn’t lead us deeper into Christ and his love. Unfortunately, I’ve heard both sermons and Bible studies that have failed or faltered in that regard.

    Again, thank you for your insights!

  2. Guy,

    I agree with what you said – which means that I probably didn’t state my points as well as I could have. Ironically, one pastor-friend who reviewed this article before I posted it said that the title, “Sermon vs. Bible Class,” might be perceived as either provocative (which is what I was aiming for) or misleading. It looks like I hit the latter instead of the former!

    I used 2 Peter 3:18 as a springboard to discuss the matter, particularly since I cited it in my comments at conference. But I agree that the verse doesn’t imagine or encourage a separation of growth in faith from growth in knowledge. Grammatically, the verse makes it look like they belong together — and they do. So the verse was meant to be more of an introduction into my discussion than exegetical proof of a distinction.

    We are encouraged to grow in grace and knowledge, and although Peter mentions two things (grace and knowledge), that does not mean that there is no overlap between the two — I agree with you on that. But my fear (and yours, too) is that some sermons head in a direction where the education aspects are removed so much from the gospel that “growth in grace” suffers as a result. The distinction as I’ve described it is one that comes in faulty preaching or teaching, and that’s my main concern. My apologies for any confusion.

  3. My new church is Bible-Class style and my former church was not at the time. Here are some of the positives and negatives that I noticed from the pew.


    More actively engaged in following along in the sermon (less daydreaming).

    At home, I picture the powerpoint screen in my head and the fill-in the blanks and can remember the main points better. I also remember the sermons months later.

    My children also seem to pick up on points highlighted on the screen and participate in answering questions.


    Raising hands and blurting out answers, while engaging seems to lose the reverence of the service.

    Agree that sometimes it seems too fact based and not enough law and gospel.

    At first, I liked the fill-in-the blank style. Now it seems like the depth of the sermon is missing at times and it is too basic, more of an outline.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts and your perspective from the pew, Tammy. You won’t hear much of an argument about the usefulness of educational media, like PowerPoint, to help with retention. For most people, that does help them to remember the sermon’s main points. I am used to preaching without media and am content to do so, but every now and then I come across a Bible reading where the use of visual media would be helpful for explaining its meaning to the congregation.

    You also pointed out a potential pitfall: The use of educational media in preaching makes it easy to focus more on educating people about the text and less on appropriating law and gospel through the text. The former is certainly useful and will often lead nicely to the latter, but the former by itself is not the gospel — and only the gospel, the good news about Jesus’ redeeming work on our behalf, can strengthen faith.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  5. Johnold – I once asked, for discussions’ sake, in a forum of WELS pastors, if there was a difference between preaching and teaching. I didn’t find the few answers I got back too helpful, especially since some (if I remember correctly) basically said there’s no substantive difference – at least not as far as the pastor’s sermons are concerned.

    Your thoughts here are so much more thoughtful and helpful! Thanks!


%d bloggers like this: