As I was browsing my book shelves the other day I discovered that I have just over thirty books whose primary subject is the study of preaching. Aside, perhaps, from Charles Spurgeon, that is more books than I have on any other single subject. Of course, that’s probably to be expected. You wouldn’t be surprised to find a lawyer’s shelves full of law books, or a doctor’s with medical books, or even an auto mechanic with mechanical books. Preaching isn’t something I dabble in or fill my spare time with as some hobby. As a pastor, preaching is what I have been primarily called to. John Jennings once wrote: “To preach Christ, therefore, is our charge, our business, and our glory.” That’s why I study preaching and will continue to do so throughout the whole course of my ministry.
But, of course, you don’t have to be a lawyer to study law, a doctor to study medicine, or a mechanic to study mechanics. Neither do you have to be a preacher to study preaching. In fact, as a pastor I don’t simply want my congregation to hear preaching, I want them to know something of what preaching is. I want them to listen but I want them to listen in an informed way. No pastor should be content to let a congregation go through the motions of, for instance, the Lord’s Supper, or singing, or even praying. But we take time to explain the what, why, and how–that they may sing and pray with understanding. Preaching is no different. John Brinsley noted: “The preaching of the gospel being a public work, though it requires not every man’s mouth, to preach it; yet his ear and his hand it does, to receive and uphold it.” Yes, I want them to hear but I want them to hear with understanding. After all, as PT Forsyth once wrote: “With preaching Christianity stands or falls because it is the declaration of a Gospel. Nay more–far more–it is the Gospel prolonging and declaring itself.” So here’s a few things I want my congregation to know about preaching.
The overwhelming emphasis of our worship service is on the Bible. When we gather together we gather around the Word as we read it, as we sing it in the Psalms, as we pray according to its promises, as we see it visibly in the sacraments, and especially as we hear it preached. That isn’t an accidental overemphasis or imbalance. It is quite intentional! Jesus commanded his church to “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Why is that? Because in the design of Jesus it is through preaching that faith comes–“faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). That faith through which we believe, that faith through which we are united to Jesus in his death and resurrection, that faith through which we are justified and sanctified comes by preaching. Martyn Lloyd-Jones emphasized this when he observed: “So I would lay it down as a basic proposition that the primary task of the Church is not to educate men, is not to heal him physically or psychologically, it is not to make him happy. I will go further, it is not even to make him good […] The primary purpose is not any of these; it is rather to put man into the right relationship with God, to reconcile man to God.” The church may do many ancillary things–some good and some bad–but the heart of our witness, work, and worship for which there is no substitute is preaching.
As a preacher I often cannot escape what Paul called the “folly of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21). It’s boggling to me and seems to be a mighty little thing that God would have his truth made known through the spoken word–and spoken word that often comes without eloquence, high intellectual achievement, or profundity, and often with stuttering and stammering. But, as Paul also says, the folly of preaching is the wisdom of God and is a “demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:4-5). No, we don’t preach because we think, at least on a human level, it’s the best or most effective way to communicate. But we preach because in it and by it God unleashes the invincible power of the Spirit to accomplish his saving purpose. On that day of Pentecost when the Spirit was given by the Father and Son and he came like fire and wind he did so, in part, to fuel and empower gospel preaching. In the final analysis preaching isn’t something the preacher does, it is something the Holy Spirit does. The preacher is only a vessel, a conduit, and an instrument through which the Holy Spirit works. J. Cynddylan Jones once wrote: “Eloquence is logic set on fire. But where is the fire to come from? From the great heart of God. A preacher in his study ought to gather his thoughts, to collect his materials; and ascending the pulpit, he ought to set them all ablaze, with fire from off the altar. Having made all the necessary preparations, having built the altar, digged the trenches, slain the sacrifice, he should join Elijah, and cry, ‘O God, send the fire, send the fire!'”
What is preaching? Well, in some ways that question is hard to answer. It’s often been said that it cannot easily be defined but one knows preaching when one hears it. Nevertheless, the original word was borrowed from a public crier or herald sent from a king to proclaim and make known to others the mind and edict of the king. Very simply then, preaching is the public proclamation of God’s will by one who is sent for that purpose. A preacher’s task is the task of a herald. As one commissioned by God he is to raise his voice with a measure of volume (see Isaiah 58:2 and Acts 2:14) saying no more and no less than “Hear ye, hear ye the word of the King.” And the word of our King is contained in the Bible which is why Paul charged Timothy: “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2). Thus, preaching is to boldly proclaim the whole will of God as it has been revealed in the Bible–in his mercies, chastisements, and judgments. Again, as John Brinsley wrote: “[Preaching is] an action by the minister of the Word soundly interpreting and opening the sense of the Scriptures by the Scriptures with application of them by doctrine, instruction, exhortation, reproof, conviction, and comfort.”
In proclaiming the Word of God, however, preaching always points to and culminates in the glory of Jesus Christ. It’s what Charles Spurgeon called the “instructive declaration of Christ.” As the Apostle Paul said: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light sine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6). On this, Edward Reynolds wrote: “Determine to know nothing among your people, but Christ crucified: let his name and grace, his spirit and love, triumph in the midst of all your sermons. Let your great end be to glorify him in the hearts, to render him amiable and precious in the eyes of his people; to lead them to him as a sanctuary to protect them, a propitiation to reconcile them, a treasure to enrich them, a physician to heal them, an advocate to present them and their services unto God: as wisdom to counsel, as righteousness to justify, as sanctification to renew, as redemption to save, as an inexhausted fountain of pardon, grace, comfort, victory, glory. Let Christ be the diamond to shine in the bosom of all your sermons.”
The purpose of proclaiming Jesus Christ is the same as the purpose for which God has given us his Word. As the Shorter Catechism says: “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duties God requires of man.” On the day of Pentecost as Peter stood before the people he declared what God had done in Jesus Christ. We then read, “When they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ'” (Acts 2:37-38). This is the unswerving pattern of the Apostolic preaching and teaching throughout Acts. The purpose of preaching is faith and obedience. As Petrus Van Mastricht wrote: “The practice of piety is the soul of a sermon.” Likewise, William Gouge said: “[Preaching is to] instruct people in the mysteries of godliness, and teach them what to believe and practice, and to stir them up in act and deed, to do what they are instructed to do.”
Finally, we must be aware that everyone has certain preferences when it comes to preaching. Of the thirty some books on my shelves no two are identical in the patterns, modes, styles, or even emphases they promote. There is a tremendous diversity on preaching and among preachers. Commenting on this Richard Sibbes noted: “God gives a variety of gifts to his ministers, that they may knock at the heart of every man by their several gifts. For some have more rousing, some more insinuating gifts; some more legal, some more evangelical spirits, yet all for the church’s good. All kinds of means have been used in the ministry from the beginning of the world.” That diversity gets exponentially greater when you add hearers. Amazingly and sometimes in the most contradictory ways, no two people hear the same preaching exactly the same. Maybe it’s self-justification for strongly held opinions on preaching, but I’m not convinced that preferences are wrong so long as we guard against the ever present temptation to exalt them to precept. Yes, have your preferences but don’t let them cultivate bitterness, anger, arrogance, or hard-and-fast rules toward the preaching of Jesus Christ.