The Preacher as Theologian

By Trevin Wax

You cannot claim to be "just a preacher, not a theologian." Here's how your work as a preacher impacts your congregation's understanding of God and why you must lean into it.

Understanding Your Calling

“I’m just a simple preacher. I’m not a theologian.”

Sometimes, I hear pastors and preachers talk like that, and… if I’m interpreting that statement as charitably as possible, I could see how they’re saying they’re not called to be a vocational theologian, a professor, or a teacher in the academy.

However, if we go back to that statement as it stands and look at it more carefully—this idea that you’re “just a preacher, not a theologian”—we’ll see that it’s just false. Let me tell you: If you’re a preacher, you’re a theologian. Because every preacher is saying something about who God is and what He has done.

Your Theology Matters

The word “theology” means “the study of God.” Can there be any greater subject than this one in our preaching? Instead, the questions are: What kind of theologian are you as a preacher? How good of a theologian are you? Who or what is the focus of your theology? How accurate is your speech about God?

So, let’s be clear. There’s no such thing as preaching without theology. There’s only the question of whether the theology you’re delivering through your sermon is sound, healthy, and life-giving to the church.

Here’s what I want you to realize first: If you’re preaching the Bible and talking about God, you’re doing theology. Full stop.

However, secondly, I want you to recognize that it’s not just the theology you teach directly that matters, but also the theological perspective that comes through your preaching indirectly.

Your Transformative Impact

Every time you open up the Word and preach the gospel, you are showing your church how to approach the Bible. As you stand before God’s people and exposit God’s Word, you’re not only teaching on a particular subject; you’re not just stringing together stories and anecdotes; nor are you just explaining the text as if you were a writer of a commentary. No, you are theologizing. You are teaching your people the best way to approach God’s Word, as well as how to interpret it, and you are showing your people your belief about who God is, what He has done, and how He has revealed Himself in His Word.

For example, let’s say you take a verse of Scripture that has inspired you in some way, and you read it to your congregation—out of context—and then talk for 30 minutes about your own life, weaving in and out of personal stories and examples. What you’ve communicated to your congregation through your preaching is that Scripture is there for inspiration, that context doesn’t really matter, and that you and your storynot God and His story—are what are really exciting and transformative. Now, you’d probably never say it like that, but that’s the theology you’ve expressed in the way you’ve gone about your task.

Think about the cumulative impact of this kind of preaching over the years, or let’s consider the flip side—the cumulative impact of a better, healthier kind of preaching. Let’s say you preach 45 weeks a year for 10 years. And let’s say you have someone who follows your preaching and teaching during all that time. That’s 450 sermons and more than 14,000 minutes of hearing you speak. What you may not be able to get across in one sermon, you will communicate through hundreds of sermons over the course of many years: how you approach the text, the reverence you show, the care you take in expounding these truths, the theological perspective you bring to the text, the Christ-centered focus, and the way you apply the text to the mission of the church and the everyday lives of your people. More than your outline, more than your catchy sermon title, and more than your powerful illustration, your way is what will stand out and have the biggest impact on people as they listen to you week after week.

See Yourself Differently

That’s why you, as a preacher, should see yourself as a theologian. Sermons gradually change the way we think, feel, believe, and hope. You are not merely dumping information into brains; you are forming the habits of your people, teaching them how to read, understand, and apply the Bible for themselves. How you preach week after week matters just as much as what you preach.

So, let’s not shy away from being explicit about theology in our preaching. You can demonstrate through your preaching that theological questions, disputes, and discussions are not irrelevant. You can show how theology connects with our everyday life. Even more, you can show how theological study can help us to better know the One who saved us.

Who Do You Say He is?

Pontius Pilate stood next to Jesus, who was crowned with thorns, and said: “Behold the man!” All Christian theology is a response to that command, an attempt to answer Christ’s own question to His disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

Don’t think of theology as an arduous task of arranging irrelevant details. Think of it as an invitation into greater knowledge of this Jesus who has saved us. We want to learn to speak in ways worthy of His majesty, so that we can describe His excellencies to others. You, the preacher, have the glorious opportunity of both delivering and displaying life-giving theology to your people. Let’s take that task seriously.

Adapted from a session of the Preaching Masterclass. Take this free course here

Published July 10, 2023

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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax is vice president of research and resource development at the North American Mission Board and a visiting professor at Wheaton College. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin is a regular columnist at The Gospel Coalition and has contributed to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, World, and Christianity Today, which named him one of 33 millennials shaping the next generation of evangelicals. He has served as general editor of The Gospel Project. He is the author of multiple books, including The Multi-Directional Leader, Rethink Your Self, This Is Our Time, Eschatological Discipleship, and Gospel Centered Teaching. He and his wife, Corina, have three children.