Dear Church Family,
The preaching of God’s Word (the sermon) has fallen on hard times. Many churches are even embarrassed to use the word ‘sermon’ (that sounds too preachy!). Instead, labels like ‘sharing’ or ‘meditation’ or ‘giving a talk’ are used to describe what the pastor does when he stands in the pulpit. Ironically, these terms are used in an effort to seem less authoritarian and manipulative. Yet, the question must be asked: which is more heavy-handed and a willing to power, preaching God’s Word or sharing one’s personal opinions?
The confessional documents of the Reformation hold forth a high view of the importance and necessity of preaching that we would do well to regain. From the Heidelberg Catechism, question 65: “Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, where does this faith come from? Answer: The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism is also quite direct in its prioritizing of preaching: “How is the word made effectual to salvation? Answer: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC 89).
Where did the Reformers get such a high view of preaching? And, why has this high view of preaching been lost in our day? The latter question is too difficult and involved to answer at present, but the answer to the former question is simply this: the Reformers got their high view of preaching from the Scriptures.
Preaching in Scripture
There are various places in the Word of God where preaching is held forth as that which God uses to engender and strengthen faith. In the Old Testament, when the people of God rediscovered God’s law and sought to renew their covenant with the Lord, we find that the scribes and the priests “read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8). Notice that God’s Word was not just simply read, but it was also translated and explained for the people.
We could also point to the many places in the Gospels where Jesus preached the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God (e.g., Matthew 4:17; 11:1; Mark 1:14-15; Luke 8:1), how Jesus commissioned His disciples to preach the same (Matthew 10:7; Mark 6:12), or how preaching was the means that was employed by the early church to save the lost and build up Christ’s church (Acts 5:42; 8:4; 14:7, 21; 28:30-31; 2 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Timothy 4:1-2).
In fact, in this last passage cited above, we have a succinct definition of preaching. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).
The Voice of Christ
One text that clearly emphasizes the unique role of preaching as the means by which Christ communicates to those that belong to Him is found in the book of Romans. In Romans 10:12-15, Paul uses a series of rhetorical questions to emphasize the need of the church to raise up and send out preachers:
12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; 13 for “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.” 14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” (Romans 10:12-15)
The second question in verse 14 (“How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?”) is particularly interesting. Some translations insert the word ‘of’ in this question: “How will they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” With the word ‘of,’ Christ is the subject or content of the preaching (people hear about Christ in preaching). Without the word ‘of,’ Christ is the One who is actually heard in preaching (the voice of Christ is discerned through the preaching by the one who is sent out). Either way of translating this passage is legitimate, but it makes more sense from the context to translate this verse without the word ‘of’ – the voice of Christ is heard through the preaching of human preachers who are sent and commissioned by the church.
This interpretation is also in keeping with what Jesus taught in His earthly ministry: “I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:16). Surely Jesus didn’t limit the ‘hearing of His voice’ to those who personally heard Him preach while He walked this earth. It was through His disciples and those who were subsequently raised up and sent out to preach, that Jesus’ voice was (and is) heard by those who are from other folds.
Expository and Christ-centered
Because we have such a high view of preaching and understand that the voice of Christ is heard through the preaching of the Word by those who have been commissioned by the church, at Hill Country Church (PCA), we seek to be both expository and Christ-centered in our preaching. By expository, we mean that what is preached in the sermon is based upon a particular given text of Scripture and the authority of that preaching is based upon God’s Word. By Christ-centered, we mean that the interpretation and application of a particular text of Scripture is always to be based upon the person and work of Christ as He is revealed in the New Testament (for a more in-depth description of what preaching the Christ-centered gospel looks like, see this essay for my explanation of the two, three-fold ways of talking about the gospel: https://hillcountrypca.org/preaching-what-is-the-gospel/).
While it is the responsibility of the preacher, by God’s grace, to seek to faithfully preach the word – reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction – it is the responsibility of the hearer to heed and obey the word of God in preaching. The Westminster Confession of Faith calls this “conscionable hearing” by which is meant hearing with understanding, faith, and reverence – seeking to obey the voice of Christ as He speaks to us through preaching (WCF 21.5; Isaiah 66:2; Matthew 13:19; Hebrews 4:2; James 1:22).
Prayer of Illumination
So, preaching is not simply one member of the congregation sharing his opinions or thoughts with other believers. When that which is preached is in accordance with God’s written Word, people hear the very voice of Christ in the sermon. There is much more going on than someone just ‘giving a talk.’ As such, we are dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit and the miraculous working of God to illumine our hearts in order that we might hear and understand the reading and preaching of God’s word. This is why we pray and ask for God’s help before the reading and preaching of the Word in what is known as the “prayer of illumination.”
For the Reformers, “The Scriptural basis for the prayer of illumination was found in Joel 2:28-32, Luke 4:18, Nehemiah 8:6; Psalm 119:12, 17, 18, 27, 33, 34, 35, 37, 64, 105, 112, 124, 135, 144, 169. Patristic models were found in Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (IV, XXX), Syrian and Egyptian liturgies, c. 340 A.D. Also, synagogue worship at the time of Christ included such a prayer.” (Johnson, Terry L., ed. 1996. Leading in Worship, 10). In addition to being an historic practice of the church, the prayer of illumination also helps remind us of our continual need of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for our understanding of God’s Word.
In conclusion, consider this powerful exhortation to pastors from William Still in his book The Work of the Pastor. May we have such a high view of the preaching of God’s Word:
“It is to feed sheep on such truth that men are called to churches and congregations, whatever they may think they are called to do. If you think that you are called to keep a largely worldly organization, miscalled a church, going, with infinitesimal doses of innocuous sub-Christian drugs or stimulants, then the only help I can give you is to advise you to give up the hope of the ministry and go and be a street scavenger; a far healthier and more godly job for God. The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed. He is certainly not to become an entertainer of goats. Let goats entertain goats, and let them do it out in goatland. You will certainly not turn goats into sheep by pandering to their goatishness. Do we really believe that the Word of God, by His Spirit, changes, as well as maddens men? If we do, to be evangelists and pastors, feeders of sheep, we must be men of the Word of God.”
May the Lord bless you as you prepare to worship Him well, this Sunday!
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch