Preaching God’s Word

By Dr. Joel R. Beeke and Rev. Ray B. Lanning

If Scripture is such a powerful force for the transformation of the lives of God's people, with what great diligence and zeal ought preachers to expound the inscripturated Word of God! If, by God's own appointment, the faithful preaching of the Word is the first mark of a true church and the primary means of life-giving and life­-transforming grace for the people of God, what a solemn responsibility rests upon those who are called to proclaim the "unsearchable riches of Christ" revealed in these "oracles of God" (Cf. Belgic Confession, Article 29; Heidelberg Catechism, Question 65).

But this compels a searching question: If we agree that the Bible is a miraculous, powerful, living, inerrant, authoritative book, and the very breath of Jehovah, why is there not greater evi­dence of its transforming power in our congre­gations? Why do many remain so "untrans­formed" and worldly in conversation and action? No doubt a large part of the answer lies in their lack of rightly reading and hearing the Word, together with the onslaughts of Satan, an entic­ing world, and their own sinful hearts and undisciplined lives. After all, when television is watched more than the Word of God is searched and the newspaper is read more seriously than the Scriptures, what can one expect

The problem of a lack of transformation, however, lies not only in the pew. It resides also with us as ministers when we fail to respond to the Word "in obedience unto God, with under­standing, faith, and reverence" (Westminster Confession, XXI:5), and conse­quently lack the power of Word and Spirit in our preaching. Ought we then be surprised when the people in our pews lack transformed lives?

For the Word of God to transform the lives of our people, we are of course always dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit. But this is not the whole answer. Church history makes clear that the Holy Spirit honors preaching which bears certain critical and scriptural marks. As preachers, we have the responsibility to examine our preaching in the light of several probing questions:

First, am I truly preaching the Word? Paul's command to Timothy is "Preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:2). The command defines the task. Timothy is to open, explain, and apply the Holy Scriptures which he has known from childhood (2 Timothy 3:15). He is to be a minister or ser­vant of the Word. The Scriptures must be to him what a master is to a slave: all-commanding, all-­providing, all-determining.

This explains why the preaching of the Refor­mation was expository preaching. Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones defined expository preaching in these words:

A sermon should always be expository. In a sermon the theme or doctrine is some­thing that arises out of the text and its con­text. So a sermon should not start with the subject as such; it should start with the Scripture which has in it a doctrine or theme. That doctrine should then be dealt with in terms of this particular setting (Preaching and Preachers, pp. 71-71).

The minister of the Word must hold himself to this task, and serve his biblical master with single-minded devotion and concentration.

Faithfulness to the example of the apostles and the Reformers requires the preacher to de­vote himself to prayer as well as to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Not to preach the Word is not to preach at all. Not to pray for the Spirit to use the Word as a transforming power is to preach in vain.

Second, am I preaching the whole counsel of God? Every preacher must bear two things in mind at all times. First, he bears a personal responsibil­ity for the eternal welfare of his hearers. Second, he must one day give an account of his steward­ship of God's Word. When taking leave of the Ephesian elders, Paul could make two great claims (Acts 20:20, 27). First, "I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you." He had told his hearers everything needful for their salvation and eternal well-being. Second, "I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God." As a messenger, Paul had fully and faithfully delivered the message entrusted to him by God.

All this points to the need for system, bal­ance, diligence, and pastoral focus in preaching. Two devices have been employed in the churches of the Reformation to secure these ends. The first is lectio continua, or serial exposi­tion of the Scriptures. Verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book, the Scriptures are opened, explained, and applied. This method is as old as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, and has its precedent in the preaching of the syna­gogue, where preaching was tied to the system­atic reading of the Law and the Prophets (Luke 4:16-21).

The other method is catechism preaching, fa­vored especially by the Dutch Reformed. Cate­chism preaching is the systematic exposition of a catechism, most commonly the Heidelberg Catechism, which was divided into fifty-two por­tions for the fifty-two Lord's Days of the year. The Catechism is on the one hand a complete and balanced presentation of biblical doctrine, and, on the other, a heart-searching application of that doctrine to the needs of the Christian, both as sinner and as saint.

Either method has its strengths and weak­nesses, but both will go far toward achieving the great ends of saying all that needs to be said, from the hearers' point of view, and saying all that God would have us say as His counsel, de­livered unto men and sent forth into all the world.

In any case, this whole counsel necessitates preaching unabashedly the utterly devastating analysis of the human condition that Scripture presents (Genesis 6:5; Ephesians 2:1). It necessi­tates preaching divine, sovereign grace as the all-sufficient, victorious answer to man's plight (Ephesians 2:5; Romans 9:16). It necessitates hemming the sinner in to this grace, calling him to faith and repentance, and offering hope ex­clusively in Jesus Christ for "wisdom, righteous­ ness, sanctification, and redemption" (I Corinth­ians 1:30). It necessitates preaching that the Christian must present himself "a living sacrifice of thankfulness" unto Christ (Romans 12:1) (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 32). It necessitates thrusting Scripture's un­changeable directives and broad-sweeping de­mands into every sphere of life, rather than fol­lowing the kaleidoscopic agenda of men. As Luther said, rather than preaching against straw men, the faithful preacher will bring the Word of God to bear on every pertinent truth which he knows his congregation (with its peculiar temp­tations) needs to have addressed.

Third, am I preaching the Word of God with clar­ity and passion? Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones defined preaching as "Logic on fire!"

What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! Are these contradictions? Of course they are not. Reason concerning this Truth ought to be mightily eloquent, as you see it in the case of the Apostle Paul and others. It is theology on fire. And a theology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man's understanding of it is defective. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire (Preaching and Preachers, p. 97).

Every preacher must struggle with the tendencies of his own personality. Some tend to be intellectually oriented, and their preaching is orderly, substantial, and yet quite dispassionate and cold. Others are emotionally oriented, and tend to "go for the gut." The aim of every preacher ought to be a thoroughgoing blend of order and passion, logic and fire.

It is the teaching of Scripture that we are saved "through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth" (2 Thessalonians 2:13). The gospel is word (logos), "discourse" (rherna), "message" (kerygma), and "doctrine" (didache). To preach the gospel in a careless, disorderly, il­logical way is to deny its very character. At the same time, the preacher is dealing with matters of the greatest significance and consequence for himself and his hearers. He must know the ter­rors of the Lord, and preach with fear and trem­bling. He must be constrained by the love of Christ, and preach with love and tears (2 Corinthians 5:9-2 1).

Church history has borne out that the Spirit transforms lives most frequently under biblical preaching which is brought with compelling lu­cidity and heartfelt conviction. In our own land, this potent combination was the underlying se­cret of great, mightily used preachers like Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Davies (Works of Jonathan Edwards; Sermons of the Rev. Samuel Davies; Cf. Iain Murry, Revival and Revivalism, pp. 3-31).

Fourth, am I preaching the Word of God experi­mentally as well as doctrinally? To preach exper­imentally (or experientially) is to address the vi­tal matter of Christian experience, and in par­ticular the way in which the Christian experi­ences the truth of Christian doctrine in his life. The term "experimental" comes from the Latin experimenturn, meaning "trial," derived from the verb experior, meaning "try, test, prove, put to the test." The same verb can also mean "to experi­ence, to find, or know by experience," and so gives rise to the word experientia, meaning "trial, experiment" and "the knowledge gained by ex­periment" (Cassell’s Latin Dictionary). Calvin used "experiential" (experien­tia) and "experimental" (experimentum) inter­changeably, since both words, from the perspec­tive of biblical preaching, indicate the need of "examining" or "testing" experienced knowledge by the touchstone of Scripture (Willem Balke, “The Word of God and Experientia according to Calvin” in Calvinus Ecclesiae; Cf. Calvin’s Commentary on Zech 2:9).

Experimental preaching stresses the need to "know by experience" the great truths of the Word of God. Experimental preaching seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth, how matters do go and how they ought to go in the Christian life, and aims to apply divine truth to the whole range of the believer's experience both as an in­dividual and in all his relationships in the fam­ily, the church, and the world around him. As Paul Helm writes:

The situation [today] calls for preaching that will cover the full range of Christian experience, and a developed experimental theology. The preaching must give guid­ance and instruction to Christians in terms of their actual experience. It must not deal in unrealities—or treat congregations as if they lived in a different century or in wholly different circumstances. This in­volves taking the full measure of our mod­em situation and entering with full sympa­thy into the actual experiences, the hopes and fears, of Christian people (“Christian Experience,” Banner of Truth, 139).

Experimental preaching must in the first place be discriminatory preaching. Discrimina­tory preaching defines the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. Discriminatory preaching is the key by which the kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers. Discriminatory preaching promises the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who by a true faith embrace Christ as Savior and Lord; it likewise proclaims the wrath of God and eternal condemnation as God's judgment upon the unbelieving, unrepentant, and unconverted. Such preaching teaches us that unless our religion be experiential, we shall perish-not because experience itself saves, but because the Christ who saves sinners must be experienced personally as the rock upon which the house of our eternal hope is built (Matthew 7:22-27; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2:2).

Experimental preaching is applicatory as well. It applies the text to every aspect of the hearer's life and spiritual need. In this way it seeks to promote a religion that is truly a power, and not a mere form (2 Timothy 3:5). This kind of experimental religion was defined by Robert Burns as "Christianity brought home to 'men's business and bosoms.' . . . In one word, the prin­ciple on which experimental religion rests is simply this, that Christianity should not only be known, and understood, and believed, but also felt, and enjoyed, and practically applied" (“Introduction,” in The Works of Thomas Halyburton, pp. xiv-xv).

How different this is from most contempo­rary preaching! The Word of God is often preached today in a way that will never trans­form anyone because it never discriminates and never applies. Preaching is then reduced to a lec­ture, a demonstration, a catering to the wishes and comforts of men, or a form of "experiential­ism" which is cut loose from the foundation of Scripture. Such preaching fails to expound from Scripture what the Reformed called vital reli­gion: how a sinner is continually stripped of all his own righteousness; how he is driven to Christ alone for a full-orbed salvation; how he finds joy in simple reliance upon Christ and strives after obedience to Him; how he encoun­ters the plague of indwelling sin, battles against backsliding, and gains the victory by faith in Christ.

It is no wonder that when God's Word is preached experimentally, it shows itself to be a great force for transformation of men and na­tions, as "the power of God unto salvation" (Romans 1:16). For such preaching proclaims from the gates of hell, as it were, that those who are not born again shall soon walk through these gates to eternally dwell in the homeless­ness of hell unless they repent (Luke 13:1-9). Such preaching proclaims from the gates of heaven that the regenerate, who by God's pre­serving grace persevere in holiness, shall soon walk through these gates into eternal glory and unceasing communion with the Triune God. Such preaching is transforming because it cor­responds to the vital experience of the children of God (cf. Romans 5:1-11); it expounds clearly the marks and fruits of saving grace germane to the believer (Matthew 5:3-12; Galatians 5:22-23); it sets before the believer and unbeliever alike their eternal futures (Revelation 21:1-9). (See the Heidelberg Confession for a Reformed confessional statement that facilitates preaching. This is evidenced by: {1} the catechism’s exposition of an outline . . . {2} its application of most doctrines directly to the believer’s conscience and spiritual profit, and {3} its warm, personal character in which the believer is regularly addressed in the second person.)

Fifth, does the manner of my preaching and my entire ministry confirm the message I proclaim? One of the problems of the contemporary pulpit is the jarring contrast between the serious nature of the message proclaimed and the casual and even offhand way in which it is delivered. Preachers who by their manner convey the im­pression that they have nothing especially im­portant to say should not be surprised if no one gives them any serious attention

The manner of our preaching ought to con­firm the seriousness of what we have to say. The Westminster Assembly divines understood this fundamental link between style and substance. They conclude their discussion on method in preaching in The Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645) by taking up the matter of style or manner, and charge all preachers that both their preaching and "whole ministry" must be per­formed in the spirit of these seven marks: (1) painfully, that is, painstakingly, not negligently; (2) plainly, so that the most uneducated may be able to grasp the teaching of Scripture; (3) faith­fully, yearning for the honor of Christ, the salva­tion of the lost, and the edification of believers; (4) wisely, teaching and admonishing in a man­ner most apt to prevail with the parishioners; (5) gravely, as becomes the Word; (6) lovingly, with godly zeal and hearty desire for the welfare of souls; (7) earnestly, being inwardly persuaded of the truth of Christ and walking before the flock in a godly manner, both privately and publicly.30 If these seven qualities were exemplified more fully in today's preaching and ministry, would we not see more of the transforming power of the Word of God in the churches?

Ministers must seek grace to build the house of God with both hands-with their doctrine and their life. "Truth is in order to godliness," said the Old School Presbyterians. Doctrine must produce life, and life must adorn doctrine. Preachers must be what they preach and teach. They must not only apply themselves to their texts, but they must also apply their texts to themselves (The Confession of Faith, p. 381). "He doth preach most," wrote John Boys, "that doth live best." Perhaps Robert Murray M'Cheyne said it best: "A minister's life is the life of his ministry.... In great measure, ac­cording to the purity and perfections of the in­strument, will be the success. It is not great tal­ents that God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God."

[Excerpt from Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible; Don Kistler, editor.]



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