The Centrality of Preaching
In so many churches today the centrality of preaching has lost its prominence. This sadly reflects a lack of trust not only in the authority of Scripture but also in the prominence that Jesus gave to the centrality of preaching. At the outset of his own ministry Jesus said to his disciples in Mark 1:38: ‘Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”‘
As Christ concluded his earthly ministry and ascended to heaven, the disciples automatically applied the centrality of preaching. Peter’s powerful, but simple exposition of God’s work in history, applied by the Holy Spirit, called thousands to Christ (Acts 2). Paul made it clear that it was through the foolishness of preaching that God displayed his grace and nullified the wisdom of this world (1 Cor. 1:18ff). His last word as an old man, ready to leave this world, to Timothy was short and to the point: ‘Preach the Word’ (2 Tim. 4:2).
Since God has not changed and man has not changed, Christ’s command to preach stands. Man’s dilemma is still the same since the fall of Adam – SIN, and God did not choose any other way to address man’s problem other than the preaching and proclamation of his Word.
In the most challenging times in the history of the world, God raised up great preachers of the Word to stand their ground and provide answers by strong biblical preaching that changed the course of history – men like Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, the Puritans and many others. They had one thing in common: The centrality of preaching.
Dr. J. I. Packer once made a statement that the Puritans were strongest where Protestants today are the weakest and that is in preaching. He called them ‘God’s Giants.’ This they truly were. But is this statement correct? How did they view preaching in their day and why did they make such an impact on their society? Let’s examine our preaching in the light of how they viewed preaching:
1. Good preaching to them was the primary means of God’s grace to man. It was the highlight of public worship. Through the preaching the Holy Spirit would apply the Word in power to save people from their sins. It is primarily through the preaching of the Word that believers are built up in their faith. Especially in our knowledge-exploding world, God still uses the foolishness of preaching to accomplish the salvation of man.
2. Good preaching to them was expositional and didactic. This is where the hard work comes in. Labouring to find the meaning of the text within its context and to open it up was their duty. This should still be the case. They preached through passages to proclaim the whole counsel of God. Take for example Gurnall’s work The Christian in Complete Armour.1 In 1176 pages he opened up nine verses, Ephesians 6:10-18, in the context of spiritual warfare. In this way they corrected un-biblical thinking, teaching on God and salvation. William Perkins said that only current errors which trouble the Church should be reproved, and that all others be left alone if they are dead in past history.
3. Good preaching to them needed good application. Preaching had to address the whole man – the intellect, emotions, conscience and the will. William Perkins once again remarked that it is easy to prepare a lecture on a doctrine, but the aim of preaching is to change lives and that requires application. Application can only come through prayer and the Word. For that reason the Apostles made it clear that they would give themselves to prayer and the Word (Acts 6:4).
4. Good preaching to them had to be evangelistic. The good news of the gospel is for sinners. Sinners must see themselves in the light of the holiness of God. That brings conviction and without conviction there can be no conversion. Jesus started his ministry with these words: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!’
5. Good preaching to them had to be powerful. The subject matter is the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and eternal life. The eternal God of all creation is in action in the salvation of man.
6. Good preaching to them had to be popular in style. Their language and style addressed the people of their day from all walks of life. It was described as ‘homely, pithy and illustrative.’ Richard Mather said he shot his arrows not over people’s heads but into their hearts.
7. Good preaching to them required prayer and diligent study. They lived and preached in an era where many people claimed that they didn’t need preparation but only a word from the Holy Spirit. The Puritans remarked wisely that a word from the Holy Spirit comes through the diligent study of God’s Word.
8. Good preaching to them was respect for the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. You will never find in their preaching that they tried to do the work of the Holy Spirit. They believed that God judges; that Christ died for our sins and that the Holy Spirit convicts of sin. Our task is to plead with sinners.
There is no substitute for biblical preaching that will address the whole man in his context. God’s Word is powerful to change and to give life. I strongly believe that the Puritans’ understanding of preaching was biblically correct and worth following. Let’s get back to the Bible and the urgent need of the hour – ‘Preach the Word!’
The author is the Administrative Dean of Christ Seminary, South Africa. This article is reproduced with permission from Preaching & Preachers, August 2010. Note added.