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The Place of Preaching

Category Articles
Date August 4, 2002


"Has the time come for our view of the importance of preaching to be revised downward?"

by Bill Smith

At the opening convocation of my seminary in 1969 Dr. Ralph Turnbull addressed the topic Should Preaching Be Denigrated? One of the things that got my attention was that, to my knowledge, I had not before encountered the word denigrate, which means "to belittle." The point was, "Has the time come for our view of the importance of preaching to be revised downward?"

If that was a live question more than 30 years ago before the coming of "contemporary worship" and much of modern technology, it is an even more pressing question today. Does preaching – a man standing before others and speaking bare words – have any place in the world of the "power point" presentation, the "make it come alive" drama, and the heart griping, emotion stirring song?We must ask again a question that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asked and answered at Westminster Theological Seminary about the same time Dr. Turnbull addressed faculty and students at Reformed Theological Seminary: "Is there any place for preaching in the modern Church and modern world or has preaching become quite outmoded?"

Perhaps a quotation from the Second Helvetic Confession (one of the early Protestant confessions, 1556) will throw a little ice water in our faces to make us wake up to at least consider the question:

Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe the very Word of God is preached, and received of the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be feigned, nor to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; who although he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God abides true and good (l:4).

That paragraph comes after this Confession has already asserted the authority and sufficiency of the written Word of God and specifically
affirmed: For God Himself spake to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures (I:1). But then it adds that the Word preached is also the very Word of God. What does the Second Helvetic intend to say? Surely it does not allow for any wedge to be driven between the Word written and the Word preached. Nor does it mean to allow preaching to become a second and additional source of revelation. But it does point us to the mystery of preaching – that God uses the Word preached as the way that the Word comes to us with all the life, authority, and power that it came to the original hearers. The preacher has no revelation or authority of his own, but to the extent of the accuracy and faithfulness with which he interprets, proclaims, and applies the written Word God speaks through him, though he be evil and a sinner.

The preacher stands, as John Stott has said, between two worlds, the world of the Bible and the world in which his hearers live. He must understand both and bridge the divide so that the contemporary hearer really hears in his circumstances and experience the timeless, infallible, completed, and sufficient written Word. Preaching is the means by which the objective written Word becomes, without changing its message one bit, the Word of God spoken to us. This means that the sermon is a "crisis moment" in which the listener hears and responds to God speaking to him.

Once a "scholar-pastor" told me that a mistake made in a written text is more serious that one made in a preached text because the one lasts while the other does not. I remember thinking, though not saying, "It is just the opposite." Preaching is the more critical. This view of preaching affects the way a preacher conceives what he is doing in the sermon. He is not giving a lecture. Hence there is a vitality,urgency, and intensity in his voice. He is not teaching but announcing: "Christ has accomplished redemption! Hear all about it here!" Dr. Lloyd-Jones said: I would say that a ‘dull preacher’ is a contradiction in terms; if he is dull he is not a preacher. He may stand in the pulpit and talk but he is certainly not a preacher. With the grand theme and message of the Bible dullness is impossible.

This view of preaching also affects the hearer. The hearer is not coming to learn a lesson or to be entertained but to have an encounter with God speaking. He comes with seriousness and expectancy. The Larger Catechism instructs us: It is required of those who hear the Word preached that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures, receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate upon it, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives (Q.160).

A minister in a certain presbytery makes a point in every floor examination to ask the examinee: "When is the last time you shared the Gospel with anyone?" I would guess my brother wants to make a point about the place of "personal evangelism." But, were he to ask me that question, I would respond, without denigrating the method of evangelism on which he places his emphasis, with an answer meant to elevate the most ancient, effective, and God-ordained, God-blessed method of evangelism. I would say: "No longer ago than last Lord’s Day."

With that answer I would not be "smart" but merely Confessional. How do we come to possess redemption? (Or, How do people get saved?) The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicated to us the benefits of redemption are His holy ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation (Q.88). And, how in particular does the Word work? The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word of God, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation (Q. 89).

I contend that one of the primary reasons for the shallowness of evangelical Christianity (which has been described as a mile wide and an inch deep), the weakness of the Church, the silliness of many Christians, and even the degeneration of Western societies is the denigration of preaching by preachers and people alike.Personal evangelism, small groups, classes, counseling, acts of mercy and similar ministries have their place. Preaching isn’t the only thing preachers and churches are called to do, but it is the main thing.


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