Two weeks ago I mentioned in my sermon that God grows Christians by feeding them his Word. One way he does this is by providing the church with teachers and preachers. This means that if we are going to grow we need to be sitting at the feet of reliable carriers of God’s truth. This, however, begs the question: how can we identify a reliable carrier of God’s truth? The Bible makes it clear that there are many unreliable carriers of so-called truth. Satan masquerades as an angel of light seeking to deceive. So we need a lot of biblical discernment here. Just because a teacher or preacher comes in Jesus’ name with a Bible under his arm doesn’t automatically mean he is reliable.
Thankfully both the Bible and church history give us some direction here. So I want to provide you with a brief list of five questions (based on the five sola’s of the Reformation) that can help you discern the reliability of a particular teacher or preacher.
Question 1 (Sola Scriptura): Does the preacher ground everything he says in the Bible? Does he, in other words, begin with the authority and sufficiency of Scripture? A reliable carrier of God’s truth seeks to revel in, wrestle with, and expound from, the Bible. He starts with the Bible. All of his comments flow from what a particular passage in the Bible says. He doesn’t simply use the Bible to support what he wants to say. That is, he submits to what the Bible says, he does not seek to submit the Bible to what he says. He cares about both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He refuses to take verses out of context. He recognizes the unity of the Bible. He acknowledges that both the Old Testament and the New Testament tell one story and point to one figure, namely that God saves sinners through the accomplished work of his son Jesus Christ.
Question 2 (Sola Gratia): Does the preacher freely emphasize that because of sin, a right relationship with God can only be established by God’s grace alone? Beware of any teaching that emphasizes man’s ability over God’s ability; man’s freedom over God’s freedom; man’s power over God’s power; man’s initiative over God’s initiative. Beware of any teaching which subtlety communicates that a right relationship with God depends ultimately on human response over Divine sovereignty.
Question 3 (Sola Fide): Does the preacher stress that salvation is not achieved by what we can do, rather salvation is received by faith in what Christ has already done? It has been rightly stated that there really are only two religions: the religion of human accomplishment and the religion of Divine accomplishment. Does the preacher emphasize the former or the latter? A reliable carrier of God’s truth always highlights the fact that God saves sinners; sinners don’t save themselves.
Question 4 (Sola Christus): Does the preacher underline that Christ is the exclusive mediator between God and man? Does the explainer both affirm and proclaim that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” and that nobody comes to the Father but by Christ? Does he talk about sin and the necessity of Christ? Preachers must learn how to unveil and unpack the truth of the Gospel from every Biblical text they preach in such a way that it results in the exposure of both the idols of our culture and the idols of our hearts. The faithful exposition of our true Savior from every passage in the Bible painfully reveals all of the pseudo-saviors that we trust in culturally and personally. Every sermon ought to disclose the subtle ways in which we as individuals and we as a culture depend on lesser things than Jesus to provide the security, acceptance, protection, affection, meaning, and satisfaction that only Christ can supply. In this way, good preachers must constantly show just how relevant and necessary Jesus is; they must work hard to show that we are great sinners but Christ is a great Savior.
Question 5 (Sola Deo Gloria): Does the preacher exalt God above all? A reliable explainer will always lead you to marvel at God. A true carrier of God’s truth will always lead you to encounter the glory of God. A God-centered teacher is just that: God-centered. He will preach and teach in such a way that you find yourself hungering and thirsting for God. You will listen to sermon after sermon and walk away with grand impressions of Divine personality, not grand impressions of human personality.
This is just a start, but I hope it serves as a resource to help you determine the reliability of a particular teacher or preacher.