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Relevance in Preaching

Category Articles
Date January 11, 2007

Today there is a widespread cry for relevance in preaching. But, generally, relevance is measured by the subjective feelings of those who sit, or might sit, in the pews of a particular church.

Latching on to such feelings, a community church in Arizona advertised: “Stronger family relationships … greater satisfaction at work … and you can get all these things through Church”. They acknowledge there are limits to what a church can do,

but a good church gives you a place to explore what God has to say about the kinds of everyday problems we all face: family relationships, stress … ethics, work, health, romance, kids …1

Now, of course, the Bible – and every responsible preacher expounding the Bible – will have something to say about contemporary everyday problems, and where the answer to them lies. But to put these things in the first place is to ignore the Saviour’s teaching: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). Christ had referred to the everyday problems of His time; He mentioned the questions, “What shall we eat?” and, “What shall we drink?” and, “Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” These obviously were important, as were a whole host of other issues. But there was something far more important: man’s relationship to God.

And it is only through a divine revelation that man, with his understanding disturbed by sin, can grasp what his fundamental needs are. He is a sinner; he is alienated from God by wicked works; he needs to be forgiven; he needs to be made holy; he needs to be ready to enter eternity. He needs a place in the kingdom of God and he needs a righteousness which he can never produce by his own efforts. Now these truths are not attractive to the natural mind – least of all perhaps to respectable, affluent, sophisticated hearers who are fundamentally satisfied with their own religious efforts. They accept that they need help, certainly in some areas of their lives, but they do not wish to be confronted with the fearful realities of guilt, death, judgement or a lost eternity. They do not wish to be confronted with the fact that salvation is altogether of the free grace of God, and not at all by works; they cannot appreciate the glory of the salvation which God has provided in Christ Jesus, through His perfect life and His sacrificial death on the cross.

However, it should be perfectly clear to anyone who takes the Bible as his guide that its teachings about sin and salvation are basic to our spiritual well-being in time and in eternity, and therefore totally relevant. We must be willing to receive direction from the Word of God in every aspect of our lives. The Bible, not our subjective preferences, is to be the test of relevance – in particular as to sermon content. Every word in it was given by the all-wise God to a world characterised by profound spiritual ignorance. The world, including the religious world, has its own wisdom, and “the world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor. 1:21), and never will. The world has no power to recognise God’s wisdom, and so, in particular, “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18). Unless sinners are awakened to a sense of sin, they cannot begin to appreciate how relevant the doctrine of the cross is to them as sinners under eternal condemnation.

But, as Paul goes on to say, “unto us which are saved it is the power of God”; the preaching of the cross is the instrument which God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is pleased to use to the salvation of condemned sinners. The preaching of the central truths of divine revelation may be despised by the vast majority today – and treated as utter foolishness – but “after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). This is what proves the relevance of sound, scriptural preaching: that under it sinners are brought to salvation, and make progress in the way of life until at last they pass into a blessed eternity.

Mankind’s deepest need has not changed since the Fall; we are all sinners needing forgiveness and all the other benefits of salvation. And the message we most need to hear remains unchanged in its fundamentals since it was first announced in the Garden of Eden, although further revelations have made this message much fuller and clearer. Which means that the preaching of law and gospel remains relevant to man’s deepest needs, and always will. Unless sinners receive Christ as revealed in Scripture, they cannot have a blessed eternity. The need today is that the Most High would raise up faithful preachers of the gospel – men thoroughly convinced that their message will only be relevant if it majors on the doctrines of sin and salvation!

Even among those who claim to take the Bible seriously, it seems as if God is viewed as being almost on the same level as we are, as One whose main responsibility is to help us, however rebellious we might be, and to make us perfectly successful in this life. How much better to face up to reality, as it is graciously brought to our attention in Scripture! We live in a sinful world. We are sinners ourselves. Our sins deserve eternal punishment. We will not continue in this world for very long. We must appear before God in judgement. And we cannot begin to deliver ourselves from this desperately-serious position.

Yet there are those whom the Bible describes as “blessed”. God has made the pronouncement: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful” (Psa. 1:1). This is the one who hates sin, who seeks to flee from it. At the same time, “his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in His law doth he meditate day and night” (v. 2). Surely this is someone who will be satisfied with solid scriptural teaching and will discern its relevance to his condition. The Psalm goes on to declare that “whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (v. 3). In his commentary, J. A. Alexander explains:

That the common experience, even of the best men, falls short of this description, is because their character and life fall short of that presented in the two preceding verses.

But their main activity in this life is to build for eternity, and that work is guaranteed to prosper; it can never fail. So, the Saviour said, “Whosoever heareth these sayings of Mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock” (Matt. 7:24, 25).

Here is a man with a good hope for eternity. Thus John Flavel, in his The Fountain of Life, wrote:

Happy is that man who can say in a dying hour, as one did, who being desired, a little before his dissolution, to give his friends a little taste of his present hopes and the grounds of them, cheerfully answered, ‘I will let you know how it is with me’. Then stretching forth his hand, he said, ‘Here is the grave, the wrath of God, and devouring flame – the just punishment of sin – on the one side; and here am I, a poor sinful soul, on the other side. But this is my comfort: the covenant of grace, which is established upon so many sure promises, hath saved all. There is an act of oblivion passed in heaven: “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more”. This is the blessed privilege of all within the covenant, among whom I am one.’2

One can surely assume that this was a man who valued sound preaching while he was able to attend the means of grace and that this was the kind of preaching he found relevant. A realistic man, he knew that his deepest needs were spiritual and were described in the Word of God. He built for eternity on the sure foundation of Christ and His finished work. And we cannot doubt that, when he died, the angels carried his soul into Abraham’s bosom.


  1. Quoted in David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, p. 270.
  2. ‘The Fountain of Life’ forms the bulk of Volume 1 of The Works of John Flavel, published by the Trust. This quotation can be found on pages 163-164.

        The Works of John Flavel

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        Today there is a widespread cry for relevance in preaching. But, generally, relevance is measured by the subjective feelings of those who sit, or might sit, in the pews of a particular church. Latching on to such feelings, a community church in Arizona advertised: “Stronger family relationships … greater satisfaction at work … and you […]

Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine December 2006.

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