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Volume 17, Issue 5: Presbyterion

Who Do You Think You Are?

Douglas Wilson

Someone who is ordained to the Christian ministry has been ordained to preach. And when he preaches, he is called to declare authoritatively, to announce, to be dogmatic. The preacher is a herald, one with a commission to announce things that were settled, before the foundation of the world, without any input from him. And this reality creates no small difficulties for the man who would be a preacher, or who would grow in his ability to preach.

One way or another, the central question that will dog a preacher all the days of his life is this: who do you think you are? Now what the question means might seem apparent, but there are actually some twists and turns.
The apostle Peter tells us that the one who speaks should speak as the very oracles of God (1 Pet. 4:11). So, as a man walks toward the pulpit, what should fill his heart and mind? He should want the message to be declared, and to be declared by him, in such a way that the congregation of God's people hears the proclamation of Christ Himself. And he must do this without putting on airs himself.
This is why it is important to understand the role of the herald. If two armies are facing each other across a great field, and one general sends out a messenger, a young lieutenant, to parley and make an offer to the general of the other army, that lieutenant should have a very high view of his calling, which will result in a very humble view of himself. His calling is to pass on the message, with clarity and accuracy. If the general he is speaking to ponders the message, and then suddenly turns to the lieutenant and asks, "What do you think of this offer?" the answer should come back immediately that what he thinks is in the highest degree irrelevant. He is simply a herald, and he serves at his general's pleasure.
When a man enters the pulpit to preach, his task is not to preach his story, his ideas, his thoughts, or his personal reactions to the text. His task is to determine what the text requires of us, state that as clearly as he knows how, and then to make applications to the congregation as clearly as he knows how. This requires a demeanor from the preacher in the pulpit that he may feel (emotionally) like he ought not to have.
He is walking toward the pulpit in order to declare the Word of God. One of the thoughts that will crowd into his mind will be who do you think you are? But if he gets up there and speaks in his own name, then this particular problem disappears. The worst that can happen in such circumstances is that he will get the butterflies, jitters, or some form of stage fright. People speak in front of other people all the time—in universities, service clubs, corporations, and so on. But not one of them stands up there and says, "Thus saith the Lord, ye stiffnecked people."
When a minister dilutes what he is doing in this way, he does not have to deal with the self-accusation of "Who do you think you are?" Now he is just a man with natural speaking gifts, and here is an opportunity to exercise those gifts. What could be more natural? But God now says to him, "Who do you think you are?"
The herald who comes to the opposing army will frequently do so with words that are far above his personal understanding, his personal perspective, or his personal emotional state. But they are not far above his office. His office is to declare the message that he was given. If he substitutes another message so that the listening general will not think him personally arrogant, then the general who sent him will think he is personally arrogant. And since he answers to the general who sent him, his responsibility is to be scrupulous and faithful to the message as it was delivered to him.
I have to confess that I learned this the hard way. I began preaching on a regular basis in 1977. From those early years, I had a notion or an understanding (of some sort) that I was to preach more authoritatively than I was doing. But I was reluctant in various ways, and held back in various ways. I was just a kid, and who did I think I was? The problem was that I had too great a concern for my person, and a very poor grasp of my office. And while I knew that I was holding back because of what people might think, it still felt like humility. But it was exactly the opposite of humility.
In the Bible, arrogance is defined in terms of our relationship to God. Moses was meek before God, not before Pharaoh. In this humanistic era, we define arrogance in terms of the audience, and we forget God. This is the central reason why modern preachers do not declare the Word of God with boldness. They are afraid of intruding themselves, and because they entertain this fear in unbiblical ways, they wind up intruding themselves.
It is of course a sin for a preacher to be arrogant. And to shrink back from declaring the unbreakable Scriptures, because it might look arrogant, is arrogant.

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