The Whole Counsel of God

The Whole Counsel of God: Why and how to preach the entire Bible
Tim Patrick and Andrew Reid
Crossway, 2020

Someone posted a quote from Lloyd-Jones recently saying that Christians should be ashamed if they don’t read the whole Bible every year. I have a number of problems with such an assertion, but I think the authors of this book would respond by saying that Lloyd-Jones shouldn’t expect his congregation to value the entire Bible if he didn’t model that in his preaching ministry. The ML-J recordings trust lists 366 sermons on Romans, 262 on John, 232 on Ephesians, 120 on Acts and only 133 on the whole Old Testament (taken from just 15 books). And of course examples like that could be multiplied.

The authors of this book are concerned that in most evangelical churches, perhaps the majority of the Bible is never preached to the people of God, resulting in ‘the church being underfed and the Lord being only partly honoured’. They ask how can God’s people know God without knowing his word – and how can they know the fullness of God’s word unless it is systematically explained to them. It’s not just the Old Testament in view – the authors assert that many churches have never heard one of the gospels preached right through in living memory.

Their argument is based on more than simply all Scripture being God-breathed; examples of God’s entire word shaping God’s people are cited from Deut 17:18-19; 31:9-13; Josh 8:34-35; 2 Kings 23:1-3 and Nehemiah 8:1-8. They ask ‘How can it be that sincerely committed Bible-believing Christians who now have mostly unhindered access to the Scriptures – and whose spiritual forebears saw no greater priority than providing that access to the Scriptures – can still have relatively thin biblical knowledge?…Perhaps their piecemeal reading and studying of Scripture is just a reflection of what they have seen modelled by their ministers of the word’. And what does it say about about our doctrine of Scripture? If your church has never heard an expository sermon from the book of Jeremiah, ‘might that indicate that for some reason your church does not think that God has anything particularly important or relevant to say through his words inscripturated in that biblical book?’.

Their solution to all this is to call pastors to aim to preach through the entire Bible over the course of 35 years (ideally in the same congregation if possible), without resorting to ‘overview series’ or ‘highlights packages’. They have a helpful diagram where they show that the Bible divides fairly evenly into Torah (17%), Former Prophets (22%), Latter Prophets (22%), Writings (15%), Gospels (10%) and Other NT Books (13%). In light of that they would advocate that the preaching ministry in a local congregation should reflect that split, ideally over a 2 or 3 year period and certainly over the long term.

In general it’s a position I’m already convinced by, and they make it well, even if there’s much to quibble with in terms of how to actually go about it. My main criticism is they don’t envisage the minister preaching more than one sermon a week. As well as being historically adrift, they seem to be really shooting themselves in the foot in trying to achieve their goal, and means they have to outlaw preaching on any chapter you’ve ever preached on before, and restrict all topical series to church weekends etc. It also means that while not averse to preaching on single verses, they also suggest one sermon on the Ten Commandments (or I guess two if you preach Deuteronomy as well as Exodus) and one on, for example, Ezekiel 40-48 and Psalm 119 (Struthers style). If something unexpected happens in the life of the congregation, you are allowed to preach something different but the preaching programme is still so rigid that you should preach the ‘missing’ sermon separately by video. There’s also a fair smattering of crazy suggestions, like vary your sermon length depending on the passage, so five minutes for Psalm 117, twenty-two for Psalm 118 and an hour for Psalm 119!

The book could really have been improved with real-life examples of people who have actually preached through the Bible. Examples that come to my mind are Stuart Olyott (who gives his rationale and ten-year plan here) or David Silversides – and I’m sure they could have found others by asking around. That would also have let them show how different preachers have achieved the goal in different ways and at different speeds; as it is, the impression you’re left with is that their way is the only approach.

Overall though I’m hugely excited to see this book in print, and think that ministers need to wrestle with its core message. I would set it as a core text for training preachers if I had the opportunity.

May we not have the same regrets as one RPCS minister who said at an ordination in Stranraer in 1932:

“Give them the whole Bible. After more than forty years of attempts to preach I regret to have to confess that there still remain large and fertile tracts of Bible material which I have never tried to expound. I have, of course, taken many texts from the great Prophets of Israel, but I have not yet tried to travel right through Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and Daniel, to bring to my hearers some of the rich and luscious fruit of the linked thoughts of those grand, inspired men with their living and creative messages.”

Thanks to Crossway for a complimentary copy of this book through their Beyond the Page review programme.