Bilingual Preaching and Teaching

To be truly effective as a preacher or teacher, I’m convinced you must become bilingual—fluent in two languages. While you may only use one language throughout the week, you’ll need two on Sundays. I say that even though when it comes to languages, I only speak English.

What are the two languages a preacher must speak? Not English and French (even in Canada). Not Greek and Hebrew (though learning to read both is a great help to any preacher). The two languages a preacher must speak fluently are grace and truth. I say that because Jesus was fluent in both. Scripture tells us he “was full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). But while Jesus was equally fluent in the vocabulary of grace and truth, most of us are not. We typically have either grace or truth as our mother tongue. We may speak one without an accent; however, the other is somewhat foreign to us. As a result, we fail to communicate the fullness of God’s Word. Thankfully, learning to preach in both grace and truth is doable, even for those of us who only speak English. Adding a second language will challenge us in deep ways. Speaking both grace and truth qualifies as one of the tests of a preacher’s heart.

Identifying Our Mother Tongue

The first step toward becoming bilingual as a preacher is identifying your “mother tongue.” Often in homiletics courses, I draw a long, straight line on the whiteboard. At one end, I write the word “prophetic.” Preachers whose first language is truth excel in emphasizing God’s revealed will. In every sermon, they highlight God’s righteous standards and expose our failure to reach it. Like biblical prophets, they call people to turn from sin and turn back to God.

At the other end of the continuum, I write “pastoral.” Preachers whose native language is grace convey warm-hearted compassion through their words, tone, and gestures. No matter the passage, their words come accented with grace. In a pastoral way, they speak hope into broken hearts.

Both languages have their own unique dangers. Preachers strong in trumpeting truth can leave listeners feeling chastened and defeated. People in their congregations may try to muscle up spiritually in their own strength and be tempted to give up when their strength fails. On the other hand, preachers who gravitate toward grace tend to underemphasize God’s holy demands. Over time, their congregations can become complacent and self-satisfied.

In the classroom, I explain that all preachers fall somewhere on the continuum between prophetic (“truth-telling”) and pastoral (“grace-giving”). I ask each student to take a marker and write their initials somewhere along the line, indicating where they fall on the continuum. I tell them they can’t put their initials exactly in the middle of the line; only Jesus had the perfect balance of both.

No matter where they place themselves, I urge students not to settle for preaching only in their default dialect—whether pastoral or prophetic. Unless preachers communicate both grace and truth, they will not faithfully represent Scripture.

Adopting the Language of the Text

Just as the Living Word was full of grace and truth, so is the written Word. That’s why Jeremiah compared God’s Word to both grain and a hammer; it nourishes and shatters (Jeremiah 23:28–29). That’s why Paul could tell Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Since Scripture communicates both God’s grace and his truth, preachers must as well.

If Scripture communicates both grace and truth, how does a preacher choose which language to emphasize in a sermon? The preacher doesn’t get to choose; the passage does. A preacher’s job is to accurately convey what God communicates in a section of Scripture. This means we must not only get the message of the passage right in our sermons, we must get the mood right as well.

If we preach Psalm 23 in a way that leaves people feeling shaken up and convicted, we’ve not been true to the tone of the text. Conversely, if we fail to preach the opening verses in James 4 (“You adulterous people!”) in a way that convicts and corrects, we’ve misrepresented the text. Preachers must become bilingual if they hope to faithfully proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

I mentioned at the outset that I only speak one language. For years, I was monolingual as a preacher as well. I only spoke the language of grace. Both by temperament and theology, I gravitated to grace. I wanted to bring people hope and healing, so I highlighted the grace of God. People responded positively. The church grew. What could be wrong with that?

But every once in a while, my wife would comment how last week’s sermon didn’t accurately reflect the passage I had preached. The text had come down hard on sin, but my sermon had not. She wondered why I hadn’t reflected the strong words in the Scripture. Why had I let people off so easily? I usually responded defensively, protesting that I tried to bring out the challenge given in the passage. Occasionally, someone in the congregation would say the same thing my wife had been trying to tell me. To my chagrin, I had to admit she had been right. I tended to magnify grace and mute truth. I was often pastoral, rarely prophetic. I needed to become bilingual.

Learning a Second Language

How does a preacher who is strong in one of the two essential languages learn to preach well in the other? While I’m still learning to speak fluently and forcefully with a prophetic edge, here are some of the things I’ve found helpful.

First, commit yourself to taking your tone from the passage itself. Look for words indicating the author’s emotional emphasis and then follow his lead. If the passage has a pastoral feel, let that come out in your sermon. If it shakes people up with prophetic fervor, let your sermon do the same. To faithfully exposit a text, you need to convey both the message and the mood of the text.

Second, listen to preachers who excel in the language you are trying to learn. I have found several expositors who bring a strong prophetic edge to their sermons without giving up on grace. While I can’t clone them, I’ve tried to learn from them.

Third, remember that learning a second language takes practice and causes discomfort. You will feel conspicuous and awkward at times. You will be tempted to revert to what comes most naturally to you. But push on to become homiletically bilingual. Prayerfully rely on Christ to help you be Christ-like in preaching with both grace and truth. Like all who learn a second language, you’ll be glad you did.

Finally, remember that even as you add a second language, you’ll never lose your first one. I still smile when I think of a preaching experience in Kenya. I spoke in a church where the host preacher thundered as he addressed the congregation. Right before I stood to speak, my wife leaned over and encouraged me to “bring it” as I preached. As the saying goes, “when in Rome … .” So, I preached with all the prophetic fervor I could muster. I tried to thunder. When I finished, the pastor of the church came up to close the service. He said, “The Bible tells us God sometimes speaks in fire, earthquake, or a strong wind. And sometimes God speaks in a gentle whisper. Today we have heard him speak in that gentle whisper.” Even when I thought I was trying to be more prophetic, my pastoral mother tongue still came through.

Preaching in Two Languages at Once

G. K. Chesterton was fond of pointing out how the Christian faith paradoxically brings together seeming opposites. As he put it, Christianity has a unique way of “combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”[1] This is what a preacher must do with grace and truth.

Our goal is to become so fluent in both grace and truth that we can speak both in the same sermon. We seamlessly shift between the two, giving grace and telling truth when prompted by our text. We preach with both pastoral earnestness and a prophetic edge. We don’t blend grace and truth in a way that dilutes them. Rather, we combine them in a way that keeps them both furiously full-strength.

There’s a Greek word that captures what we are seeking to do: parakaleō. It’s difficult to capture the range of the term in a single English word. Sometimes it can have the nuance of exhortation (Acts 2:40). At other times it emphasizes encouragement (Acts 16:40). Parakaleō preaching brings grace and truth together by giving people both encouragement and exhortation. It has a prophetic edge, but the edge is not serrated. While it can cut to the heart, the incisions are surgical and healing. At the same time, parakaleō preaching is pastoral without being permissive. It normalizes our struggles without normalizing our sin. When it comes to languages, I still have to admit I’m monolingual: only English. But when it comes to preaching, I’m becoming bilingual. You can too! That’s a wonderful truth, and it’s all by God’s grace.

NOTE: This article is taken from The Heart of the Preacher, by Rick Reed. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019. Used by permission of the publisher.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co., 1961), 93.

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