A Place for Preaching?
At the opening convocation of my seminary in 1969 Dr. Ralph Turnbull addressed the topic Should Preaching Be Denigrated? One of the things that got my attention was that I, educated as I was in northwest Florida, had not before encountered the word denigrate which means “to belittle.” The point was, “Has the time come for our view of the importance of preaching to be revised downward?”
If that was a live question more than 30 years ago before the coming of “contemporary worship” and “missional worship” and the constant innovation of modern technology, it is an even more pressing question today. Does preaching - a man standing before others and speaking bare words - have any place in the world of the power point, the drama, and the emotion stirring song? We must ask again a question that Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones asked and answered at Westminster Theological Seminary about the same time Dr. Turnbull addressed faculty and students at Reformed Theological Seminary: “Is there any place for preaching in the modern Church and modern world or has preaching become quite outmoded?”
Perhaps a quotation from the Second Helvetic Confession (one of the early Protestant confessions, 1556) will throw a little ice water in our faces to make us wake up to at least consider the question:
Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe the very Word of God is preached, and received of the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be feigned, nor to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; who although he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God abides true and good (l:4).
That paragraph comes after this Confession has already asserted the authority and sufficiency of the written Word of God and specifically affirmed: For God Himself spake to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures (I:1).
But then it adds that the Word preached is also the very Word of God. What does the Second Helvetic intend to say? Surely it does not allow for any wedge to be driven between the Word written and the Word preached. Nor does it mean to allow preaching to become a second, additional, or independent source of revelation. But it does point us to the mystery of preaching - that God uses the Word preached as the way that the Word comes to us with all the life, authority, and power that it came to the original hearers. The preacher has no revelation or authority of his own, but, to the extent of the accuracy and faithfulness with which he interprets, proclaims, and applies the written Word, God speaks through him, though he be evil and a sinner.
The preacher stands, as John Stott has said, between two worlds, the world of the Bible and the world in which his hearers live. He must understand both and bridge the divide so that the contemporary hearer really hears in his circumstances and experiences the timeless, infallible, completed, and sufficient written Word. Preaching is the means by which the objective written Word becomes, without changing its message one bit, the Word of God spoken to us. This means that the sermon is a “crisis moment” in which the listener hears and responds to God speaking to him.
Preaching is proclamation, explanation, and application. A preacher proclaims the good news of God’s intervention in Christ for man’s salvation Christ – his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and his future coming. Without these historical acts of God there is nothing to preach. Preaching is explanation of the meaning and significance of these events according to the apostolic testimony. Preaching is application to the hearers of what God has done in Christ. “Repent and believe the Gospel! Repent and believe everyday of your life as a way of life for the rest of your life!”
This view of preaching should make a difference to the hearer. The hearer is not coming to learn a lesson or to be entertained but to have an encounter with God speaking. He comes with seriousness and expectancy. The Larger Catechism instructs us: It is required of those who hear the Word preached that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures, receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate upon it, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives (Q.160).
I believe that one of the primary reasons for the shallowness of evangelical Christianity (which has been described as a mile wide and an inch deep), the weakness of the Church, the silliness of many Christians, and even the degeneration of Western societies is the denigration of preaching by preachers and people alike. Personal evangelism, small groups, classes, counseling, acts of mercy, and similar ministries have their place, but not the place of preaching. Preaching isn’t the only thing preachers and churches are called to do, but it is the main thing.