In the Westminster Larger Catechism, six qualities are given in answer to Question 159, "How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?" One of the qualities stated is that preaching is to be done "zealously." What is zealous preaching and how can it be cultivated? Here are five encouragements.
Zealous preaching can only be done by zealous preachers who love the people of God. The WLC answer goes on to say that zealous preaching demonstrates "fervent love to God and the souls of his people." Preachers must have a sincere love for the people to whom they are preaching.
A corresponding document to the catechism, The Westminster Directory of Public Worship, describes zealous preaching as having a “loving affection” and a “hearty desire to do them (the congregants) good.” Cold-hearted, brain-dulling, browbeating, unimaginative preaching is not showing love to people. As Sinclair Ferguson states, the minister is not to be “lugubrious (i.e. sad, dismal, burdensome) and censorious, but rather filled with a loving affection for those to whom he ministers and preaches.”
Yet this truth goes deeper. T. David Gordon asks this question, “Do hearers get the impression that the minister is for them (eager to see them blessed richly by a gracious God), or against them (eager to put them in their place, scold them, reprimand them, or punish them?)." At the heart of preaching is loving people enough to tell them what they need in a manner that convinces them that you also need it and have nothing but their best interest in mind as you tell them. The preacher must thus know his flock. “Christ did not ordain pastors on the principle that they only teach the Church in a general way on the public platform, but that they care for
the individual sheep, bring back the wandering and scattered to the fold, bind up the broken and crippled, heal the sick, support the frail and weak.”
Zealous preaching is accomplished only through the minister being in prayer. If God’s house is to be a house of prayer, then the minister of "prayer and the Word" (that is the order of his ministry given in Acts 6:4) must be a man of prayer. Before the preacher stands behind the pulpit, he must kneel in his prayer closet. As the Westminster Directory for Public Worship explains the need for the minister to have a knowledge of theology and God’s Word, it says he is to have “his senses and heart exercised in them above the common sort of believers” and encourages this to be sought through prayer. John Angell James asks, “How came the spirit of slumber over the church? Was it not from the pulpit? And if a revival is to take place in the former, must it not begin in the latter?” If a minister wants revival in the church, then he needs to bring it into the pulpit. It begins with praying.
Zealous preaching opens up the Scriptures to show Christ to His people. Jesus told the Jews, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). The zealous preacher also should have his heart so filled with the love and glory of God’s Son that whether he is in Genesis or Revelation, or any text in between, there is a clear, redemptive-historical bridge that leads his hearers from the text to Christ. To use Paul’s great chain of preaching in Romans 10, if people cannot call on Christ unless they believe in Him, and they cannot believe on him unless they
hear, and they cannot hear him unless someone preaches him, then a Christ-less sermon is not only a sermon without zeal but also a failure to preach.
Thomas Goodwin reminds us that the Scriptures are to “open a window into Christ’s heart.” The preacher in communicating those Scriptures is to speak with the words, voice, and tones of Jesus, so that the people listening to him are hearing their Savior. Again, Goodwin states the Bible “doth, as it were, take our hands and lay them upon Christ’s breast, and let us feel how his heart beats.” A zealous preacher, aided by the Holy Spirit, will seek to put the heartbeat of Christ into his hearers. Preaching is not just an exchange of information, it is an exchange of energy, of communicating with passion the heart of Christ into others.
Fourth, zealous preaching longs and calls for the conversion of unbelievers. The next phrase that follows in the catechism answer after zealous preaching is that preaching is to be done “sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.” Too often Reformed preaching contains no clear call for people to repent of their sins and believe upon Christ. We preach as if people are in no danger, no need of Christ, and that just by being in church, it means they are converted. John Stott warned against such faithless preaching when he said,
(Christian preachers) can be faithful to Scripture, lucid in explanation, felicitous in language, and contemporary in application. It would be hard to find fault with their content. Yet somehow they appear cold and aloof. No note of urgency is ever heard in their voice, and no suspicion of a tear is ever seen in their eyes. They would never dream of leaning over the pulpit to beg sinners in the name of Christ to repent, come to Him, and be reconciled with God.
May it not be! If you are a preacher, beg God for conversions in prayer. If you are not a preacher, beg God still for conversions. Pray that your minister will hold the bread of life out to all assembled. Preachers, call sinners to come to Christ and cry out like the blind man, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Zealous preaching will purify and even purge the church of Christ. Jesus was the greatest prophet to stand in the temple and declare the corruption of God’s
people when he cleansed the temple (see John 2). But he was not the first one to do so. Clearly the Lord had in mind the words of Jeremiah when he spoke on that day. For centuries earlier, Jeremiah had lifted his voice before temple worshipers preaching against those who trusted in the physical structure and their involvement
in its activities. He said, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jer. 7:9-11).
We live in an age where the church has grown corrupt once again. Not only is the Church of Rome reeling from sexual abuse cases by its non-marrying priests, but the evangelical church cannot stand on any higher moral ground either as daily it seems that married preachers are doing the same. These corruptions of behavior and morality begin with idolatry and corruption in worship. As the Cambridge Declaration states, “Evangelical churches today are increasingly dominated by the spirit of this age rather than by the Spirit of Christ.” This statement traces the said corruption to the lack of commitment to Scripture and preaching:
Scripture alone is the inerrant rule of the church's life, but the evangelical church today has separated Scripture from its authoritative function. In practice, the church is guided, far too often, by the culture. Therapeutic technique, marketing strategies, and the beat of the entertainment world often have far more to say about what the church wants, how it functions and what it offers, than does the Word of God.
When the preachers of a generation are characterized as “lovers of self rather than lovers of God,” then zealous preaching has disappeared. Again, may it not be! May the Lord be pleased in our generation to raise up a multitude of preachers who are consumed with zeal for his house.
Note: This post is an excerpt from a longer article in the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Journal, "Zealous Preaching: Exercising Fervent Love for God and His People". Used by permission.
Sinclair Ferguson, “Ministers of the Word”, Westminster Directory of Public Worship (Fearn, Ross–
shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2008), 32. ↩︎
T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2009), 25. ↩︎
John Calvin, Acts 14-28: Torrance Edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 175. ↩︎
John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth 16
Trust, 1993), 59. ↩︎
Thomas Goodwin, “The Heart of Christ in Heaven,” The Works (Eureka, California: Tanski, 1996), 4:96. ↩︎
Ibid., 4:111. ↩︎
John R.W. Stott, Between Two Worlds, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 283. ↩︎
James Boice and Benjamin Sasse, eds., Here We Stand: A Call from Confessing Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 14. ↩︎
Ibid., 15. ↩︎