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Especially the Preaching of the Word

Larry Wilson

It's very revealing that so many of us express doubt when we hear it said that: "The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means" to evangelize the world, to extend the church, and to build up believers (Larger Catechism #155). "Especially the preaching of the Word"? Today the majority report seems to be that there have to be better ways to make disciples than preaching—much better ways! But in his Word, our Lord insists that "the foolishness of preaching" is the principal means he has chosen to use (1 Cor. 1:21).

This importance of preaching grows out of the fact that our Lord Jesus really is alive, really is exalted, and really is himself supernaturally working to save sinners and to gather, build, and rule his church. It pleases him to do so by his Spirit through his Word—especially through the preaching of his Word. Note the chain of reasoning the Holy Spirit pursues through the apostle Paul in Romans 10:13-17.

"... 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!' But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our message?' Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ."

"Especially the preaching of the Word"?

First, to be saved, sinners need to ask the Lord to save them. "For 'everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved'" (v. 13). You need to ask, but mere words aren't enough. They must flow from sincere faith. "But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed?" (v. 14a).

Second, sinners have to hear about the Lord before they can believe in him. Romans 10:14b asks, "And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?" Moreover, in order to believe in the Lord you must believe the Lord. "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (Rom. 4:3). You need to do more than believe certain truths about the Lord. You must believe the Lord.

But in order to believe the Lord, you must hear the Lord. So it's striking that Romans 10:14b more literally says, "And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?"[1] Sinners must hear Christ himself so they can believe him and call upon him and be saved. This is so important that Jesus stressed it repeatedly. He taught that in order to be saved, sinners must "hear the voice of the Son of God" (Jn. 5:25). He said, "My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me" (Jn. 10:27).

Merely human words just don't have the supernatural power that it takes to effectually call sinners out of spiritual death into spiritual life. This fact made the apostle Paul determine to rely on the Lord sovereignly to use "the foolishness of preaching" (see 1 Cor. 1:17-2:5). What sinners need to hear is Jesus Christ himself addressing them personally and powerfully by his Spirit through his Word. And that's the point of Romans 10:14, "And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?"

Third, that sinners might hear the Lord's own voice, the Lord has chosen to use preachers as his conduit. "And how are they to hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14c). The word translated "preacher" (κηρύσσοντος, keryssontos) literally means a herald or public crier. In the ancient world—without press conferences and modern media—a king would send out heralds, official representatives who would publicly proclaim his deeds or decrees. Preachers of God's Word are the heralds or official representatives of King Jesus.

The apostle Paul was intensely aware that this is the preacher's role. And so he frequently made claims like these:

  • "And of this gospel I was appointed a herald" (2 Tim. 1:11).
  • "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us" (2 Cor. 5:20).
  • "Christ is speaking through me" (2 Cor. 13:3).
  • "And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe" (1 Thess. 2:13).
  • "For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake... But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Cor. 4:5-7).

Preachers are heralds or servants whom the living, exalted Christ is pleased to use as his conduit—like transporting "treasure" in "jars of clay"—in order to speak personally and powerfully to sinners. This is why Jesus tells them, "He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me..." (Luke 10:16).

Fourth, in order to do this, the Lord uses his church to send those preachers. Romans 10:15 asks, "And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!'" The word translated "sent" is αποστέλλω (apostello), from which we get the word "apostle." An "apostle" is "one who is sent." Jesus Christ directly set apart and commissioned ("sent") twelve apostles ("sent ones") to represent him and to establish the New Testament church (Eph. 2:20). The Twelve represented Jesus as no one else can. But in addition to these "apostles of Jesus" there were also "apostles of the churches," men whom the churches sent out as their special messengers (2 Cor. 8:23).

God's Word insists that before someone can be a preacher (an official herald), he must be "sent." The Lord Jesus directly sent his twelve apostles. The same Lord Jesus indirectly—through his church, the body over which he is Head—sends his preachers. The Son sends his preachers by his Spirit through the saints. The Lord works in the church to enable his faithful people to recognize and publicly commission or ordain ("send") those whom he himself has chosen and gifted to serve as his authoritative heralds (see, for example, Acts 13:1ff.). It's been observed that "some were sent, but others went." But unless the preacher is "sent" through the church, he simply does not have the Lord's authorization to act as his official herald. You see, God insists that "the church of the living God" is "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). This is why Romans 10:15 so decidedly insists, "And how can men preach ['herald'] unless they are sent ['apostled']?"[2]

In short, in Romans 10:13-17 God insists that his church must commission (ordain) certain people for the task, or else there won't be any gospel preachers. And the gospel must be preached, or else sinners won't hear Christ's voice and message. And sinners must hear Christ's voice and message, or else they won't believe the truths of his saving work for sinners. And they must believe these truths, or else they won't call out to him. And they must call out to him, or else they won't be saved. In other words, God insists that "the Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means" of grace to save sinners and to build up believers and churches.[3] This is the Lord's work done in the Lord's way by the Lord's might. God has chosen to use a weak and foolish message communicated through a weak and foolish means in order that it will be crystal clear that he alone is the one who supernaturally saves (1 Cor. 1:17-2:5).

The great problem

Does this mean that God doesn't permit unordained believers—believers who are not sent—to tell others about Jesus? Of course not! God calls every believer to confess Jesus Christ openly (Rom. 10:9-10). What this does mean is that when they do so, unordained believers do not function as Christ's authoritative heralds.

Well, does that mean that the Lord will never use the witness of an unordained believer as an instrument to effectually call sinners to salvation? Of course not! The Lord is sovereign, free, and infinitely compassionate and gracious. He often uses the witness of his faithful people. We see this both in Scripture and in Christian experience. What it does mean is that he especially promises to bless the preaching of his Word as an effectual means of grace.

The great problem we have in the modern church is not that too many unordained believers are too diligent to bear witness to Jesus Christ in their daily vocations. Far from it! Our great problem is that we moderns are no longer confident that preaching really is the means by which Jesus Christ especially works to save sinners, disciple believers, and build his church.

As a result, we increasingly reckon preaching to be outmoded and ineffective. So instead, we look to other things to produce our growth. We rely on business techniques, marketing techniques, programs, groups, and activities.

The gravity of this problem

These things aren't all wrong. But don't we have to ask whether the modern insistence that we must do these things in order to minister effectively in our day doesn't reflect unbelief? Unbelief! Unbelief that God will use his message—the gospel—through his means—the foolishness of preaching—as the power of God unto salvation for all those who believe! Ask yourself honestly, does it really matter in practice that our Lord Jesus Christ is alive and exalted? Does it really make a difference in practice that he has poured out his Holy Spirit?

When we don't trust the exalted Christ to work by his Spirit through his Word, we'll replace the authoritative proclamation of the gospel with "sharing," political lectures, self-help speeches, dramatic or artistic or musical performances, multimedia presentations, special effects, puppets, clowns, films, etc. etc. etc. Not only that, but when we lose sight of Jesus Christ's supernatural involvement in the ministry of the Word, we'll expect churches and ministers to meet people's every "felt need." Ministers will be expected to be CEOs, managers, pace-setters, motivators, change-agents, counselors, facilitators, fund-raisers, etc., etc., etc. Everything and anything except heralds of King Jesus and stewards of the mysteries of God!

Eventually, not only does God's gospel means get forgotten. Even God's gospel message gets forgotten! All because preachers and elders and deacons and believers and churches no longer expect the exalted Christ to use the preaching of the Word to evangelize the world, to grow his church, and to edify believers. What this means is that—in practice—preachers and elders and deacons and believers and churches are not trusting the living, exalted Christ. To the extent that this is true of us, we're guilty—in practice—of unbelief!

The great need

What about you? Are you earnestly praying that the sovereign, exalted Christ will transmit his treasures through the jar of clay he's placed over you? Are you urgent and persistent in asking the Holy Spirit to give you ears to hear? When you come to a worship service, do you expect to hear the voice of the Great Shepherd through the undershepherd he's placed over you? Do you expect the Holy Spirit to work powerfully? Are you regularly asking the Lord of the Harvest to send out preachers into his harvest field? If your congregation has no pastor, do you see it as a driving necessity to look for one? If you are looking for one, what are you looking for? Are you especially praying that God will provide you a faithful preacher of his Word?

If these things are not true of us, then we're failing to trust Christ. If we don't expect him to bless the message and means he himself has appointed, then we need to admit that we're guilty of unbelief. We're relying on "broken cisterns that cannot hold water" when all the while "the fountain of living water" is right here (Jer. 2:13).[4] Pastor Steve Miller puts it this way: "People do not feel urgently the need to pray for their pastors each Sunday morning before they come to church. They expect nothing, so they automatically get up and go to church unprepared, prayerless, harried and hurried, and basically (though they might not recognize this as accurate) with irreverence. They don't really expect to meet with God or to be awed and subdued by His presence. Nor do they expect amazing things, such as conversions, changed hearts and minds, new attitudes, repentance, a new gaining of assurance of salvation."[5] Dear brothers and sisters, can you not see? This is unbelief.

Since this is so, is not the time long overdue for us to get down on our faces in repentance before our living, sovereign Lord Jesus Christ? Is not the time long overdue for us to cry out in contrition for his forgiveness and mercy and refreshing? Should not we who are preachers be the first in line to repent?[6]

Unless we do repent, should we not expect our churches to languish with ineffective or vacant pulpits? And whose fault will it be? Our own ... no one else's. Could our Lord be speaking to us when he says, "You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent." (Rev. 3:17-18)?

Endnotes

[1] "In accordance with normal grammatical usage, the phrase 'the one of whom (hou)' should be translated 'the one whom' and so means the speaker rather than the message" (John Stott, Romans: God's Good News for the World [InterVarsity Press, 1994], 286). Compare John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1965), 2.58.

[2] "We need to realize that the New Testament teaches that the main business of spreading the gospel is the work of men specially commissioned to do so. (This in no way lessens the responsibility of all believers to bear witness to Christ.) God calls these men to his work by causing their gifts and graces to be recognized in the churches, which are then expected to commission them to the work to which he has so obviously called them. Nobody has authority to go unless he is sent in this way. Freelance preachers, commissioned by nobody, and answerable to nobody, are a prostitution of the New Testament's understanding of the work of gospel preaching" (Stuart Olyott, The Gospel As It Really Is [Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1979], pp. 93-94). Matthew Henry comments, "How shall a man act as an ambassador, unless he have both his credentials and his instructions from the prince that sends him? This proves that to the regular ministry there must be a regular mission and ordination. It is God's prerogative to send ministers; he is the Lord of the harvest, and therefore to him we must pray that he would send forth laborers, Mt. 9:38. He only can qualify men for, and incline them to, the work of the ministry. But the competency of that qualification, and the sincerity of that inclination, must not be left to the judgment of every man for himself: the nature of the thing will by no means admit this; but, for the preservation of due order in the church, this must needs be referred and submitted to the judgment of a competent number of those who are themselves in that office and of approved wisdom and experience in it, who, as in all other callings, are presumed the most able judges, and who are empowered to set apart such as they find so qualified and inclined to this work of the ministry, that by this preservation of the succession the name of Christ may endure for ever and his throne as the days of heaven. And those that are thus set apart, not only may, but must preach, as those that are sent."

[3] 1 Pet. 1:23-25, "For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God ... And this is the word that was preached to you." Heb. 4:2, 12, "We also have had the gospel preached to us ... the word of God is living and active ..."

[4] Rom. 10:6-8, "But the righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' (that is, to bring Christ down) or 'Who will descend into the abyss?' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach)..." You don't have to fly up to Toronto to encounter Christ! You don't have to drive down to Brownsville to meet with the Lord. He comes to you! He comes to you by his Spirit through his Word, especially through the preaching of the Word!

[5] Steve Miller is the pastor of Nashua OPC in Nashua, PA. In personal correspondence, he writes: "People do not feel urgently the need to pray for their pastors each Sunday morning before they come to church. They expect nothing, so they automatically get up and go to church unprepared, prayerless, harried and hurried, and basically (though they might not recognize this as accurate) with irreverence. They don't really expect to meet with God or to be awed and subdued by his presence. Nor do they expect amazing things, such as conversions, changed hearts and minds, new attitudes, repentance, a new gaining of assurance of salvation.

The latter is a matter about which I feel more and more keenly. I have noticed that people in our churches don't have assurance of salvation. This is a major matter in our experience of salvation. It is an important doctrine in the system of doctrine as its set out in the Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechism. Our Puritan fathers considered this element of the subjective experience of salvation to be foundational in many ways. I think of it as a primary major step in building a really mature and active congregation. This occurs to me now because the older preachers who wrote our standards used to preach what they believed people needed to hear in order to be assured of their salvation, speaking to the 'inward graces unto which the promises are made,' which is a fundamental element in assurance. Is there inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made? How will people know unless they are made aware of these graces, unless the preacher calls to these graces and seeks their response from the hearts of his hearers, and unless the preacher sets out the promises—making them as promises in his sermons with real sincerity arising from his own experience with them?

How impoverished our pulpits have been from this sort of preaching as of late! So let the people plead with God for such preaching and such preachers, but, dear Lord, let us be such ourselves to the saving of our own souls and the salvation of those who hear us. We need to change first ...we, the preachers! When we know what sacred thing we are to do and participate in ourselves, when we are the sort of men we would expect could do such a thing, and when we actually begin to preach in that way, then I believe people will believe in preaching again. O, may God work in us preachers today. Savior, please give us preachers of the sort that really preach. Then watch the view of preaching change."

[6] I would recommend that every preacher read at least the following books with much prayer and self-examination:

  • Arturo G. Azurdia III, Spirit Empowered Preaching (Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 1998).
  • John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990).
  • Mid-America Journal of Theology, Vol. 10, 1999, "Preaching" (Mid-America Reformed Seminary, 229 Seminary Drive, Dyer, IN 46311).

The author is the organizing pastor of Christ Covenant OPC in Indianapolis, Indiana. Reprinted from Ordained Servant 9.2, April 2000.

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