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What Is Faithful Preaching?

Alan D. Strange

What is faithful preaching? Faithful preaching is an exposition of God’s Word, opened up in all its gospel glory, drawing us into the drama of redemption in which all of God’s people meaningfully participate. To be faithful in this task means that we evangelize and disciple as our Lord commanded us to do in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). In faithful preaching, we explain and apply God’s Word so that we have, and grow in, a true knowledge of God and of ourselves. We do this as we attend to the message, method, and manner of faithful preaching.

The Message of Faithful Preaching

The message communicated in faithful preaching is the saving work of God in Jesus Christ in and by the power of the Holy Spirit (all of grace), the necessity of which is seen in the law that we cannot fulfill after Adam’s (and our) fall into sin. Accompanying this good news of the saving work of God in Christ, and in some ways preceding it, is the bad news that the law brings: we are sinners in Adam and by our own desires, and, as such, are under the wrath and curse of God and are headed for hell. The good news of the gospel is that God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son on a divine rescue mission in which Christ both fulfills the whole law for us (in his active obedience) and pays for our lawlessness (in his passive obedience, finding its focus at the cross).

The message then is that God has sent Jesus to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Salvation lies not in anything that we are or have or do, because we are totally depraved, due to the Fall. Salvation lies rather in resting upon and receiving what Christ has done for us. The righteousness that God requires for us to receive his approval and blessing, to be accepted into his presence, is something that we can no longer produce (after the Fall). Jesus, instead, has won such for us by his perfect obedience so that the righteousness that God requires he freely gives by imputation to us, received by faith alone.

The message of the gospel then centers on the salvation that is ours in Christ and how we should then live, not so as to win the favor of God, but because we have the favor of God in Christ. Salvation is truly a free gift that we spend our lives as Christians responding to in grateful obedience. While it is not warranted to separate this message from the call to believe and repent—this preaching of the person and work of Christ is the object of our faith and the reason for our repentance—it is appropriate to distinguish the good news of who Christ is and what he’s done for us from our response to it, as Paul does, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4. The gospel, above all, is simply the old story of Jesus and his love, of God doing for us in Christ everything necessary, from first to last, for our everlasting salvation. That “salvation is of the Lord” is something that Jonah discovered in the belly of the fish, and this truth is central in all our gospel proclamation, in all our preaching of the Word of God.

The Method of Faithful Preaching

There are a number of methods that have been employed throughout the history of the church in preaching the Word. Even as there are various types of biblical texts (historical narrative, didactic, paranetic, poetic, prophetic, etc.), such genres influencing our approach to them, there are also several ways in which one might approach the preaching task.[1] Sermon types are often categorized along the lines of homily, topical, analytical, synthetic, narrative, reconstructive, etc. In the ancient church, preachers like John Chrysostom used what came to be called the “homily” method, a verse-by-verse exposition, which packed significant rhetorical skill and oratorical power.[2]

Other methods developed over time: topical (e.g., one preaches on “marriage” and finds suitable biblical material for this topic); analytical (akin to the homily, but usually a short text, minutely considered, with much other Scripture brought in; Spurgeon is a prime exemplar of this approach); synthetic (similar to topical but does more justice to the unique message of the text); narrative (often inductive, following the story-line of the text); and textual reconstructive. This last sermon type aims self-consciously to combine the strengths of the analytical (expository of the text, like a commentary) and synthetic (drawing a single theme from a text). I think that the textual reconstructive method is a most appropriate one, especially useful for congregants to understand the theme of the passage and to remember it and the points developed in support of it.

Each of the approaches have their merits as well as their drawbacks. The most important thing is that one’s preaching be properly redemptive-historical (Christ-centered), expositing the drama of redemption in its original horizon and applying it in that of its auditors. Even as it is important to recognize Christ as present in some sense in all biblical texts, whatever their types, it is also important to preach Christ always, whatever sermon type one employs.[3] In any case, it is the Word preached that the Lord is pleased to use especially to convert sinners and grow saints (WLC 155). The message of salvation in Christ alone must come through in every sermon, whatever method is employed to convey that.

The Manner of Faithful Preaching

The manner, the lengthiest of our considerations, means how the preacher does it, especially as seen in WLC 159, which asks, “How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?” The answer:

They that are called to labor in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.[4]

The Necessity of Sound Doctrine

Those who are called to preach (WLC 158), or, as WLC 159 has it, “labor in the ministry of the Word,” are to preach “sound doctrine.” We live in days when many in the pews demand comfort and encouragement from the pulpit. Indeed, the preacher ought to provide in his exposition of the Word comfort and encouragement. Preachers, however, are to preach God’s message, not merely what man might wish to hear. And in a confessional church—like the Reformed and Presbyterian churches—we do not have to guess what sound doctrine is. Sound doctrine is defined in the first place by that large body of doctrine which the church agrees upon and is embodied in its confessions and catechisms.

Adverbs of Preaching: Diligently

The minister of the Word, WLC 159 further tells us, is to preach sound doctrine “diligently.” To be diligent in the preaching of the Word over the course of many years is no mean task and requires the constant assistance of the Holy Spirit. Preachers must be diligent in their preparation, starting with their own hearts: the preacher is to be prepared in his heart, coming before God’s Word in profound humility, and to be prepared by God’s gifting of him, naturally and spiritually. The preacher should think through his text quite carefully, working in the Hebrew or Greek, checking the commentaries—both ancient and modern—and making sure that his interpretation is in line with the confessions and with Reformed commentators. This does not mean that the preacher may not in his exposition or application of a text depart from the main body of commentators (assuming that he does not teach unsound doctrine, that is, anything contrary to the confessions). He ought, therefore, to know the history of the interpretation of his text and depart only because he is convinced that faithfulness demands it, never for the sake of novelty or to be thought clever. The preacher is to be faithful to the text that he is preaching and diligent in preaching that text, understanding that each particular text is in the Bible for a reason.

The preacher is to preach “in season and out of season” (WLC 159). The import of this dictum of Paul to Timothy (in 2 Tim. 4:2) bears upon both the preacher and the auditor, I believe. The preacher is to preach whether he feels like it or not, and the preacher is to preach whether the congregation feels like hearing him or not. How many parishioners have gone to church not desirous of then hearing a sermon but have gone away blessed by the preaching of the Word and glad that they had come? Ministers, too, do not always feel like preaching. Perhaps they are not prepared in heart to preach or have not adequately prepared their exposition and application. Nonetheless, when it is time to preach, preachers must do so in the power and strength of the Holy Spirit.

The exhortation to be ready to stand (the meaning of “be instant” KJV) makes it clear that when a man is called to preach, he is to continue to preach in all the seasons of his life and in all the seasons of the lives of the congregations which he serves. This does not mean that the preacher never needs a vacation, but it does mean that God by his Spirit so equips his preachers that, as they have recourse to him who is the fountain of life, they need not fear “burnout.” It is only as the preacher uses all the means of grace himself and grows in intimacy and communion with his God that he can ever hope to serve in season and out of season.

Adverbs of Preaching: Plainly

WLC 159 also says that the preacher is to preach “plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power.” To speak plainly is often exceedingly difficult. The preacher, especially in preaching year in and year out to the same people, is often sorely tempted to be clever, brilliant, artful so as to hold the interest of the people and often, frankly, from a desire to be seen as a profound preacher. The simple truth is, though, that the profoundest preachers are the plainest. Preachers need not fear boring their people because it is the Spirit who makes effectual the Word, and he is pleased to do it not through the artistry of the preacher but through the plainness of his exposition. Paul contrasted his preaching to that of the “disputer of this age” who speaks merely according to the “wisdom of this world.” Speaking, in Paul’s day, was a much-celebrated art, and few things were desired more than the rhetorical skill of a Cicero and the oratorical skill of a Demosthenes. But the task of the preacher is not to impress his hearer but to edify his hearer. This requires humility because able, learned men in the ministry often have the skill to dazzle the crowd with their speaking abilities, demonstrating the breadth and depth of their learning.

Clear, direct preaching is necessary lest anyone mistake that eternal matters are at issue. I would argue that the preacher has best done his job, not when hearers are amazed with the cleverness of someone who could get what the preacher got from the text, but when folk have the sense that they too, given sufficient time and gifts, could have come up with the same truths from the text. The best preacher gives valuable insight into the text, to be sure, but not “insight” that the auditor after having heard it has to struggle to see in the text. The best preacher is the preacher who imparts the maximum amount of understanding as to the text under consideration.

The original Directory for Worship (1645) says that “the doctrine is to be expressed in plain terms” and that the preacher is to avoid “obscure terms of art” so that the “meanest may understand.”[5] The Standards, in other words, are concerned that the preacher preach as clearly as he can so that as many within the congregation as can will understand him. This does not mean that the preacher may not use theological terms like “justification” or “propitiation”—though he must clearly explain them when he does use them—but that he should make clear the doctrines under consideration and not obfuscate them through the use of technical terminology.

Adverbs of Preaching: Faithfully

The preacher, according to WLC 159, is also to preach “faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God.” There is here, I think, an integral connection between faithful preaching and the whole counsel of God. Paul, in his farewell address to the presbytery in Ephesus, boldly claims, “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” The faithful preacher then is one who takes pain to teach the whole of what the Bible teaches and not merely his pet doctrines. Faithful preaching entails a systematic development of God’s Word and not the preacher riding his favorite hobby horse, even if that hobby horse happens to be doctrines particularly dear to the Reformed. However he does it, the true biblical preacher is bound to preach the whole counsel of God.

Adverbs of Preaching: Wisely

Continuing with the fourth of the six adverbs of WLC 159 (“diligently, plainly, faithfully, wisely, zealously, sincerely”), preachers are to preach “wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers.” How does a preacher apply himself to the necessities of his hearers? A preacher applies himself to the necessities of his hearers by an insightful and accurate understanding of the lives that his people lead. No preacher knows his people perfectly. The most sensitive and genuinely intuitive preacher knows something of what his people are really like but he does not know their hearts. Nevertheless, that the preacher does not know the hearts of his hearers as only the Lord does, does not relieve him of the responsibility of knowing the real needs of his hearers as accurately as possible.

Unbelievers live their whole lives, of course, in self-deceit, pursuing idols that will never satisfy their needy hearts, longing for what only God himself can fill within them. Believers, too, though, are perpetually plagued with heart idols that they must see, recognize, and be instructed to mortify. Often believers do not clearly see their heart idols (because they are self-deceived) and may resist when such idols are pointed out to them. For the preacher to do his job in a heart-searching manner, he must delineate sin in its various guises to his hearers so that the Spirit may make application. This honesty about one’s true needs must begin with the preacher, though, if it is to bear conviction in the hearts of his auditors. A preacher must know the depths of his own depravity and be well-acquainted with his characteristic flesh and the sin that clings so closely. This brings us back to the point that humility is a sine qua non for the would-be effectual preacher. True self-awareness and continual repentance for one’s characteristic flesh are constitutive of biblical humility.

It is common, especially for a young preacher in getting to know his flock, to see their shortcomings and to put more on them than they are able to bear, particularly at any one time. This is why great pastoral wisdom is needed not only in truly understanding the necessities of one’s hearers but also the capacities of one’s hearers, as WLC 159 reminds us. We are preachers not of a legalistic works-righteousness but of God’s grace, which grace should suffuse all that we preach, even our very calls to duty. Obedience, preachers of grace must always remember, flows from our continual renewal in the redeeming love of God. It takes ministerial wisdom to recognize the real needs of the various members of the flock and then to minister to them the grace of God so that the flock does not despair in the face of demonstrated shortcomings but continues to draw near to Christ. The preacher must rebuke and reprove as needed, but even then he must take care not to break the bruised reed or to quench the smoking flax.

Adverbs of Preaching: Zealously

WLC 159 further instructs those who preach to do so “zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people.” Preachers who preach without zeal betray the very message that they preach. If the gospel message is good news, indeed, the best news that a poor sin-enslaved humanity could ever hope for—and it is—then the one who preaches it ought to be consumed with it and burning with an insatiable passion to deliver this message to needy, dying men. It is one of the telltale marks of the need for revival and reformation when the pulpit is held by men who lack conviction and do not burn with the zeal of the Lord but languish with the lukewarm Laodicea. Sadly, much of what has passed for Reformed preaching has lacked zeal and has lulled whole congregations into dangerous somnolence. It is little wonder that a number of churchgoers these days lack zeal and commitment: they witness so little of it in the pulpits of our churches.

The very words of WLC 159 reveal the cause of our lack of zeal: simply put, we preachers lack—greatly lack—in love for God and his people. The preacher must spend time before God seeking that heart of love and then carrying out the duties of love if he is to be zealous in his preaching. The reason that we fail in love to God and to our people is because we fail to see how much God loves us. It is only when we preachers have frequent recourse to the fires of God’s love that our cold hearts are melted and made hearts that burn with a zeal to preach the Word of God above everything else in this world. We only love others as we ought when we love him as we ought—and we always fall far short of this in this life—and we love God as we ought only when we see that he first loved us. Preachers need then to see the love of God for them as a love that comes to them even in the face of their sin, because the diamond of God’s love never appears lovelier than when set against the dark, background of our sin.

Adverbs of Preaching: Sincerely

We come finally to the last of the six adverbs in WLC 159 that describe how the Word of God is to be preached by those who are called thereunto: “sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.” That the Word is to be preached sincerely means with one’s heart, from one’s heart, not for fame, fortune, or the praise of people, but for the glory of God and the good of the hearers. We live in an era in which the media are filled with religious hucksters and charlatans. The sincerity of some well-known preachers is, at best, questionable. Preachers have in every age had among their numbers those who have fallen into gross sin and become public scandals. While we may seem to have more clerical immorality now than in times past, it may simply be that such ministerial sins as there are receive more widespread media coverage. The preacher who would be effective in the pulpit must be a man who lives what he preaches, albeit imperfectly, out of the pulpit. He must be a man known by those closest to him as a man of principle and courage. He must be the kind of man described in Psalm 1—not so much in his own judgment, but in the judgment of those who know him best and who themselves are competent to render such judgment.

In summary, then, faithful preaching entails the delivery of the message of the Bible, using a method that best sets Christ before the hearers, calling all to faith, repentance, and new obedience, with the preacher employing a manner most suited to win the hearers with the aim of securing their conversion, edification, and salvation. Faithful preaching is done in the power of the Holy Spirit, without which the preacher has no unction and the Word no power to persuade and change the hearer. May God grant to us a reformation in the preaching and the hearing of the Word of God for the gathering and perfecting of the saints and the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Endnotes

[1] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) deals deftly with how modern expositors might best treat different text types. These particular text and sermon types herein cited derive from an unpublished syllabus of P. Y. DeJong, used in the course “Sermon Types,” and additional syllabus materials and notes by Cornelis P. Venema and Alan D. Strange (at Mid-America Reformed Seminary).

[2] See, Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 2: The Patristic Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 171–74, for an introduction to Chrysostom. This entire seven volume set (completed in 2010) is incomparable and to be consulted for the history of preaching from biblical times down to our own.

[3] Many books well-argue the imperative to preach Christ. I will cite three that I find especially helpful: Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003); Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2 ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005); and Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007).

[4] The rest of this article derives from and is summary of pp. 212–25 of Alan D. Strange, “Comments on the Centrality of Preaching in the Westminster Standards,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 10 (1999): 185–238, which also may be accessed here: http://www.midamerica.edu/uploads/files/pdf/journal/10-strange.pdf.

[5] The Directory for the Publick Worship of God, (Inverness, Scotland: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1981), 379–81.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in Joliet, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, April 2018.

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