For many years I have had the thought that we as churches need to do better presenting the whole counsel of God in our Sunday gatherings. I have had many passing thoughts on the topic but have not had the opportunity or context to think them through to any great extent. I was delighted to discover that others have been thinking these things through and doing so with far more practical experience than I possess. I received The Whole Counsel of God by Tim Patrick and Andrew Reid as part of the Crossway Blog Review program. In this book, the authors argue that ministers ought to have it as their goal to preach through the entire Bible in a sequential, expository manner, and provide valuable guidance towards this end. This is a challenge that our churches must take up, but it is one that will stretch us in many different ways. I highly recommend The Whole Counsel of God to those leaders who are not yet convinced that this is necessary and for those who have the conviction but are intimidated by the scope of such an endeavour.
For those who have studied for the ministry, especially in Evangelical and Reformed contexts, much of the material will repeat what you read elsewhere (e.g. need for expository sermons, tying every sermon to redemptive history and the gospel, etc.). Taking the challenge of the book to heart, I think we can do it in a shorter time frame then Patrick and Reid suggest (35 years) and more effectively. They rightly observe that genre and passage length affect the shape of a sermon, so we need to be flexible if we are going to preach the whole Bible. However, looking past our own tradition—or at least our own time—I think we can bring more tools to bear in achieving the goal of presenting our congregations with “the whole counsel of God.” For one, Psalms are naturally better sung than preached. If we made it our moderate ambition to sing one or two psalms per week, we could cover the entire book of Psalms (though 119 will be difficult) in two or three years, so at least 10 times in their 35 years period. If we were to work on training better readers, as they recommend, and build up our congregation’s endurance for long stretches of text—as will need be done if we want to present the Word on its own terms—we could cover the entire Bible twice in 20 years, once preached and once read, including several iterations of the New Testament. If we committed to preaching a different Gospel from the week before Christmas to Easter (21 sermons with Good Friday and Christmas Eve), we could cover all 4 Gospels 5 times in those same 20 years. This would allow 2 roughly 16 sermon long sermons series a year, or longer if they included a weekend away with multiple sermons; this would allow each book of the Bible to be preached in 20 years, excluding the Gospels (if we preach them from Christmas to Easter).1 If churches with two services (like many here in Sydney) committed to preaching alternating texts in the morning and the evening (preaching the other services alternate reading), you could cover the entire Bible 4 times in that period; every book would be read twice and preached twice. Covering so much narrative and prophetic texts will prove challenging for many congregations used to conventional sermons, suitable as they are the Epistles more than narrative or prophecy.
However, it might offer the opportunity to work on alternative methods for communicating an applying God’s Word. Narrative texts, when read well, need little explanation. Instead, if they are truly read well (take a listen to the Streetlights Bible for an example of this), a lengthy reading of a text may only need a couple of minutes to orient the narrative to God’s plan of salvation culminating in Christ and to apply it to your specific congregation. The prophetic texts read well will be similar, though there is probably need for a summary of the point of the imagery and the application will take more work. Being free with the teaching, exposition, and proclamation aspects of a service (preaching being a combination of these three things) would balance out the inclusion of longer readings in such a project.
Do yourselves and your congregations a favour: pick this book up and take up its challenge. Get the help of someone administratively gifted if necessary but take the time to intentionally plan your preaching and teaching ministry for your time as a minister and even into the years beyond.
- For this number, I have divided several longer books into discrete sections (e.g. preaching Isaiah in 3 series) and grouped various New Testament epistles ((Prison Epistles, Thessalonians and the Pastorals) and Old Testament collections together (the Megillot).