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Date November 13, 2007

It is clear that there is to be preaching during the public worship of God. There must be some instruction and exhortation during the service or else it degenerates into pure formality and ritual, like the Roman mass. In the Bible we find the examples of Christ instructing the multitude on the mount (Matthew 5-7), and on the plain (Luke 6), and expounding Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4). We find also Peter preaching at Pentecost (Acts 1), and Paul preaching and exhorting in various synagogues and Christian assemblies throughout the book of Acts (13:5, 14-44; 14:1, etc).

Preaching is the chief means which God uses for the conversion of sinners: ‘it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe’ (1 Corinthians 1:21). The message which is preached seems foolish to the world: ‘We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness’ (verse 23). Also, the method of preaching seems to be foolish. The Athenians regarded Paul as a ‘babbler’ ‘because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection’ (Acts 17:18). But this is the way that God has chosen; it makes clear that whenever a sinner repents and believes the gospel, it is because a divine power has enabled him to do so. ‘No man can come unto Me,’ says Christ, ‘except it were given unto him of My Father’ (John 6:65).

Because preaching seems to be foolishness, there are always people who try to introduce what they think are better methods of evangelism. Some methods are entirely biblical, such as speaking to people in the streets. Paul himself disputed ‘in the market place daily with them that met him’ (Acts 17:17). But even these methods must be regarded as additional to preaching, and should not be allowed to displace it. Their purpose must always be to bring people under the preaching of the gospel, because that is the particular way that God has appointed for sinners to be saved: ‘How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?’ (Romans 10:14).

Many other methods are commonly used, such as drama, films and gospel choirs, which are not biblical, and which show a sinful lack of confidence in God’s sovereign power. These are methods more of desperation than of faith. When God has worked powerfully in the past, it has been through plain and simple preaching. He converted 3000 people through Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost, nearly 500 through John Livingstone’s preaching on the Monday of the Kirk of Shotts communion in 1630, and 400 or more under the preaching of George Whitefield and others at Cambuslang in 1742.

Preaching is not only for the conversion of unbelievers, but also for the building up of the people of God. The Word of God is the food for their souls and, as they receive it by faith, they ‘grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18). ‘As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious’ (1 Peter 2:2). Peter had been commanded by Christ to ‘feed My lambs’ and to ‘feed My sheep’ (John 21:15-17), and in turn he instructed the elders to ‘feed the flock of God which is among you’ (1 Peter 5:2). ‘Who then is that faithful and wise steward,’ Christ asked, ‘whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season?’ (Luke 12:42).

One question that arises is whether preaching should have the prominent place in public worship that is given to it in Reformed circles. Should we not, perhaps, devote more of the service to singing? The Bible does not prescribe for us in this matter, although we do have the example of Paul preaching at Troas. His sermon was by far the longest part of the meeting. He ‘preached unto them’ and ‘continued his speech until midnight’, and thereafter, ‘talked a long while, even till break of day’ (Acts 20:7, 11).

Clearly we have to judge what is wisest and most profitable, and this will vary with the circumstances. When there is a thirst for the gospel, the sermons will be long, but in a ‘day of small things’ they will be shorter. It is not useful to go beyond people’s capacity. The eminent Gavin Parker, minister of Bon Accord church in Aberdeen till he died in 1845, said: ‘Long sermons are not really useful; they should be short, scriptural, and addressed to people’s conscience’. Rev Alexander McPherson, when asked about the very long sermons of former times, often commented that the ministers were given grace to speak and the people were given grace to listen.

At the same time, we must remember that the Lord has given us the whole of the Sabbath for his worship, and we can have nothing more important to do on that day. It is a bad sign if we are soon weary of his worship and impatient for the service to be over. We become too like Israel in the days of Amos, asking, ‘When will the new moon be gone, that we may sell corn? And the sabbath, that we may set forth wheat?’ (8:5). As a punishment, God gave them ‘a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it’ (verses 11-12). There is a similar famine in Britain at the moment, with people travelling many miles in search of the preaching of Christ crucified.

Another question that is often asked is: Does the sermon need to be based on a text, as it generally is? On reflection, it is difficult to see what other approach could be adopted. The purpose of preaching is to expound the Word of God, and this is exceedingly rich. A small portion of the Bible contains an immense amount of material. Every word is inspired and needs to be considered and repays study. Each verse, almost, gives us a slightly different view of the work of Christ and its significance for us. The aim of the preacher is to capture the particular view of Christ and his work that the verse provides, and to impress it upon his hearers.

When we are listening to preaching, we should be seeking to discern the voice of Christ. A minister is a herald sent by Christ to proclaim the way of salvation. ‘How shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!’ (Romans 10:15). We should be looking beyond the one who is preaching, with all the imperfections of this world, to the One who is speaking to us from heaven, in whom there is no imperfection, but only the most perfect love and holiness. ‘I will hear what God the Lord will speak: for He will speak peace unto His people, and to His saints: but let them not turn again to folly’ (Psalm 85:8). And we should be saying with the apostle Paul, ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ (Acts 9:6).

Taken from The Young People’s Magazine of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, November 2007, with permission.

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