Dr. James MacDonald
Used by Permission
Editorial note from Brian Larson: On my commute home from work, I used to drive by a big-box, home-improvement store called Handy Andy, but eventually that store went out of business, and it was with delight that I one day realized a church steeple was being added to the structure. The new owner was Harvest Bible Chapel, pastored by James MacDonald. Their church in the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows was growing quickly, and they needed lots and lots of space. One reason for that growth has unquestionably been MacDonald’s preaching. How would I describe his preaching? Let’s put it this way: he’s not shy, and the only time he sticks a wet finger up in the air to see which way the wind is blowing is when he’s on the golf course. When the editors of PreachingToday.com began a series of articles on the theme of preaching with authority, we knew that James was one person we needed to talk to. James MacDonald is author of When Life Is Hard (Moody, 2010), and radio speaker for Walk in the Word, which is broadcast regularly on Moody Radio.
PreachingToday.com: Many would say our culture is anti-authority and that people today don’t respond to an authoritative style of preaching. To me, you are the epitome of someone who preaches with authority, and yet you’re having great results. How do you explain that?
One of the pillars of Harvest Bible Chapel from the very beginning was preaching the authority of God’s Word without apology. That’s very different from the phrase “preaching with authority.” I would never refer to myself as preaching with an authoritative style. But I know why you’re saying that, and that’s coming from the unapologetic proclamation of the Word. The prophets used to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” God says this.
God is not going to strongly support someone who does not strongly support His Word.
I try not to spend any time in my message preparation thinking about what people want to hear or what questions the culture is asking. I just don’t spend any time on that at all. I have believed now for 21-plus years that if you try with all of your heart to say some things that God wants said—God has some things He wants said; that’s why He wrote a Book—God would get some people over here to hear it. Twenty-one years later, with a little over 13,000 people in weekly attendance, that’s happening. It’s been a steady journey. It hasn’t been explosive growth. It hasn’t been a ton of transfer growth from other churches. Like all churches, we’ve seen some of that, but mainly it’s just been a ton of people coming to know Christ.
The most common thing people would say about the teaching of Christ, after they had listened to Him, was that He teaches as one Who has authority. Of course, His teachings are filled with Old Testament quotes, and He is the Word of God, so every Word that proceeds from His mouth is the Word of God. That’s certainly not true about any of us, least of all me. The disciples on the road to Emmaus said, “Did not our hearts burn within us as he walked on the road with us and expounded to us from the Scriptures all the things concerning himself?” So Jesus was a Bible preacher. He had great authority because He didn’t apologize for God’s Word. He didn’t back down from anything that God’s Word said.
I just preached two weeks ago on Revelation 6. The message had one point: Repent; the wrath is coming. That’s not very seeker-friendly, but I believe that people are hungry for truth—truth that is openly expressed without reservation or prevarication. Paul said, “By the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God,” and that’s what I believe. Paul said, “My preaching was not with persuasive words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” A lot of preaching today leaves people with faith in the wisdom of men. “Wasn’t that a clever talk? Wasn’t he an eloquent speaker?” It glorifies the messenger. Instead, when we just try to say what God wants said and get out of the way, that glorifies the message and the source of the message, which is, of course, God Himself.
Do you think delivery has anything to do with the perceived authority of a sermon?
In the familiar definition, preaching is truth communicated through personality. Our personalities are different. If I sounded like you in preaching, that wouldn’t be authentic, and if you sounded like me, that wouldn’t be authentic. We need to be authentic to ourselves. We don’t want to come across authoritative. Whether you’re meek and mild by nature or you’re boisterous and strong by nature, all of those human traits need to be brought under the control of the Holy Spirit, under the conviction that gripped the apostles in the early chapters of Acts, when they said, “How can we but speak the things we’ve seen and heard?”
Believing that you have a life-and-death word from God brings urgency through any human vessel, regardless of personality. It brings a word of urgency that has an element of authority in it for sure, whether it’s soft spoken or loud. The delivery is different coming through different people, but the authority needs to be there. I don’t believe for a moment that Amos was the same as Isaiah. They’re different people, and God uses all different kinds of people. The authority is in the Word of God, not in the human instrument.
You’ve identified urgency as one of the elements of authority.
Yes, I would say the two elements of authority are urgency and clarity. First Corinthians says, “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” Clarity brings power, authority. Urgency—this matters, decide today—that brings authority.
The opposite of the clarity that brings authority would be “Some scholars say this, some say that…“
I don’t preach interpretive options. I know there are interpretive options, and in our preparation we need to be scholarly in our consideration of those options. But you should come to what you believe the text means, and then you should preach that. Walking through “some people believe this, some people believe that”—often those are such ancillary points anyway, while the main point of the text is clear and unequivocal. Spending a lot of time in these tributaries of uncertainty tends to undermine the goal of preaching, which is confidence in the Word of God.
Many people confuse the end game of preaching. The end game of preaching is not to keep people’s interest. That’s where a lot of people go off track. You can do all kinds of things to keep people’s interest, but you’re not faithfully representing the God of the Bible. So I try to keep people’s interest, but that’s not the end game.
Some people think the end game is relevancy. We don’t make the Bible relevant; the Bible is universally relevant. We show its relevancy. The Bible is applicable to people no matter what they’re facing, because God’s Spirit uses it.
The end game of preaching is not being interesting or being relevant. The end game of preaching is the person’s view of Scripture. The Bible is spiritual life to a person. It’s nourishment, it’s faith, it’s victory over sin. It’s grace and strength. The Bible is our spiritual food. People are starving while preachers try to make it relevant, try to make it interesting. At the end of the day, I want people to see that the message of the Bible is God’s Word to them, powerful and life-changing. If I can show that in my sermon, that’s going to cause people to want to get into the Word for themselves. So the end game of preaching is to display the wealth and richness of the gifts that God has given to us in His Word, so that when they can’t remember my outline anymore or the title of my message or what we preached on the third Sunday in February, they remember what they thought about this Book when they were under its proclamation.
So the end game of preaching is a view of Scripture. A lot of guys come into the pulpit with the wrong view of Scripture themselves, so the people they teach can’t end up with a right view of Scripture.
If someone has a low view of Scripture, that’s going to leak through everything he does.
There won’t be any urgency and there won’t be any clarity when there’s a low view of Scripture.
Not long ago I was driving in my car listening to a local Christian radio station. A preacher was saying that people don’t accept the authority of the Bible anymore, so you can’t just start a sermon with “Thus says the Lord.”
So the interviewer rightly asked, “Well, where do you need to start if you can’t start with the Scriptures?”
He answered, “Instead of saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ maybe you need to start sometimes with ‘Thus says The Lord of the Rings.'”
I never call radio stations, but I was on the phone that day. They put me through, said, “James, you’re on the air,” and I said, “Are you saying that God’s Word is not authoritative until the listener accepts its authority?”
God’s Word is supernatural. We make a big mistake if we think that God’s Word can’t have authority until the hearer accepts its authority. When the Bible promises about itself that it is sharper than any two-edged sword, what it’s saying is that it pierces, that it cuts to the heart. It separates joints and marrow; it is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. The Bible is like a mirror. When you proclaim it without apology, with authority, you are holding up a mirror and thrusting people through with a sword, and they’re going to have an encounter with God Himself.
That transcends cultural acceptance, cultural awareness, and all these other “nuancy” kind of things that some preachers want to worry about. As someone said a long time ago, and I couldn’t agree more, the Bible is like a lion. Let it out of the cage; it will take care of itself. That’s what I’ve been doing for 21 years, and I see God bearing fruit through that. I see God being faithful to Himself and to His Word in spite of the frailty and imperfections of the human messenger.
You have a big voice, a big personality; you’re a big guy. What part does physical presence play in the authority of the preacher?
I tell my people on a monthly basis that the messenger is nothing, the message is everything. The urgency with which I am holding up God’s Word has nothing to do with the strength of my voice, the size of my frame. It has to do with the size of the confidence in my heart that this is God’s Word and that God is going to honor that.
I grew up in a church where the pastor’s authority transferred over to every conversation he had. If a guy says who he thinks is going to win the Super Bowl with the same authority as he preaches his message, then he’s authoritarian, he’s authoritative. I don’t want to be authoritarian or authoritative. I want to be a brokenhearted man preaching to brokenhearted people. If there’s any fruit to my life that remains, it will be because of my abiding confidence in the Word of God and the God of the Word.
So, faith is a huge part of your authority in preaching.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that preaching is theology on fire. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. We have plenty of sermons; what we need is people with a word from God. I frequently will weep or become emotional when I am preaching. I can’t preach about something that hasn’t gripped me. I was talking to a well-known pastor recently who said that when he has to go out of town, he just goes into a studio to record his sermon and preaches to the empty room. I don’t know how anyone does that. To me, there’s a supernatural something going on when a pastor stands up before his people on the basis of many hours of study and prayerful reflection and says, “Open your Bibles to this passage. I have a word for you today.”
We’ve been going through Revelation this year, and I’m telling you, it’s challenging me. God has worked in our church this year through the Book of Revelation like I haven’t seen maybe ever, and it’s just because He’s honoring His Word.
What role does the anointing of the Holy Spirit play in the authority of preaching?
The Bible says that the Spirit of God was sent into the world to convict. That’s a word we need more of: conviction. The goal of this message is that you would be convicted. That means that you would be overcome in your spirit with a sense of the gap between the life you’re living and the life God wants you to live. Conviction can happen at the entry point of the Gospel or at some point in the process of progressive sanctification.
Scripture says that the Spirit of God was sent into the world to convict of sin and of righteousness and of the judgment to come. Sin is the wrong in me, righteousness is its opposite in me—sin the problem, righteousness the solution—and the judgment to come is the consequence of rejecting what the Spirit convicts me of in regard to sin and righteousness. Sin is where I am, righteousness is where I need to be, and judgment to come is the sense that I can’t leave it like that forever. That’s what the Spirit is trying to produce in people.
It’s the proclamation of the Word that brings that conviction, and there’s nothing else that can do that. When we proclaim the authority of God’s Word without apology, we give the Spirit of God something to work with. God never promised to bless my thoughts, my insights. What the Spirit of God does is grip my heart with the message, and then as I proclaim it—truth coming through a yielded vessel, hopefully—then He’s taking and using that to bring other people to the same place that He’s brought me.
So He convicts you first and then convicts others.
Oh, totally, me first. I get worked over every week. Preaching the Word of God in one church for 21 years has been the crucible of my sanctification, without question. I’ve got 1,500 messages in a drawer there. I could go on the road anytime, but that would be the death of me spiritually.
As you hear other preachers, what’s the biggest thing you want to tell them about preaching with authority?
Okay, well, again, I’m not trying to quibble over words, but I would never use the term “preaching with authority,” because I think that ascribes authority to the messenger, and the authority is not in the messenger. The authority is in the Word. I hope if you hung out with me a lot—granted I’m a strong personality, I know what I think, I can articulate myself, I’m not afraid to talk about anything—but I hope that if we spent more time together you would see a marked gap between the tonality of my preaching, where I’m speaking for God and representing Him, and the tonality of my private conversation. It shouldn’t be the same. The authority should be in the message, not in the messenger.
I never listen to another preacher and think to myself, How could he be more authoritative? What I sometimes do, though, is I listen to a preacher equivocate about God’s Word, and I think to myself, What an awful business it must be to have to get up and teach a message from a Book that you don’t even believe, or that has portions you don’t believe. To me, if you don’t believe portions of it, then really what good is it at that point? It’s not supernatural, it’s just a human document, so let’s go golfing, right? I wouldn’t want to spend my life preaching something I don’t think is a message from God.
When I hear a preacher and his message sounds weak—not weak because it’s a comforting or teaching message, but weak in that I can tell the guy doesn’t have any confidence in what he’s saying—I think, Low view of Scripture.
You and I have had several conversations about different movements and significant leaders within Christianity over the last 20 years. Some of them have knowingly or unknowingly de-emphasized the centrality of the Word of God. No ministry that de-emphasizes the priority and centrality of God’s Word will last for long. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my Word will not pass away.” God Himself is supernaturally preserving His Word in the center of the work that truly is His kingdom.
Where the Word is de-emphasized, ministries are doomed. They’re doomed. They’re paddling toward the falls, and they don’t even know it. They’re not confident in God’s Word. Their ministry is not going anywhere good. There are preachers that have been loose and free and cavalier with the explicit statements of Scripture, and they’ve been celebrated from coast to coast, but their ministries and their lives are in freefall—already, in our lifetime. God does not sustain such a ministry. “The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his.” God is not going to strongly support someone who does not strongly support His Word.
[Dale Flynn and his wife, Liz, are Word of Life Local Church Ministries missionaries in Eastern MD. Dale is a Local Church Ministries curriculum editor and is the editor of this Ministering to the Minister E-Transfer national electronic Pastor’s newsletter. The Flynns make their home in Elkton, MD. Questions or comments about this article may be addressed to Dale at: DFlynn@wol.org. ]