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Prof. Ronald Cammenga, rector and professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and member of Southwest PRC in Wyoming, Michigan

 

Most junior high students know what “Seward’s Folly” was. Appointed Secretary of State by Abraham Lincoln, Seward negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia during the presidency of Andrew Johnson. Most citizens thought that the purchase price of 7.2 million dollars was a waste of taxpayers’ money and dubbed the deal “Seward’s Folly.” That “folly” proved itself over time to be a very wise investment, full of bounty, from oil to animal skins and from fish to forestry. It also proved to be militarily strategic in World War II.

The Bible speaks of another folly, a folly that is also in fact wisdom—wisdom extraordinaire. That is the way in which the apostle Paul refers to the preaching of the gospel in I Corinthians 1:18, where he says that “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish fool­ishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” And he adds in verse 21 that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” Preaching is God’s folly.

The Reformation’s recovery of preaching

One of the greatest achievements of the Reformation was its restoration to the church of the pure preaching of the gospel. By the time of the Reformation, preaching had fallen into neglect. The church did not busy herself in the preaching of the gospel, and the clergy did not give themselves to making and delivering edifying sermons. Neither did the people come to worship services to hear carefully worked out expositions of God’s Word.

Rather than to busy themselves in preaching the gospel, most of the leaders of the church either isolated themselves from God’s people in monasteries or were preoccupied in worldly pursuits. Rather than laboring with the Word, clergymen whiled away their time in idleness, drunkenness, and debauchery. And rather than hearing God’s Word regularly expounded on the Lord’s Day, the members of the church contented themselves to attend mass, genuflect before images, visit holy shrines and relic collections, or trapse off on pilgrimages.

The Reformers changed all that. Being themselves preachers, the Reformers made a conscious effort to re­store preaching to the church. It was by preaching that the Reformation began and by preaching that it spread. This was certainly true of Martin Luther. A. Skeving­ton Wood says of Luther that “[h]e liberated the sermon from its medieval graveclothes, and made it once again a means of grace to sinners.”1 Luther emphasized the centrality of preaching in worship, in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, which elevated the sacrifice of the mass above the preaching.

In his writings, Luther repeatedly insisted that the congregation is not to gather for worship unless the Word is preached. In a treatise entitled, “Concerning the Order of Public Worship” (1523), he complained of the serious abuses that had crept into divine worship. “The first,” he says, “is that God’s Word has been si­lenced, and only reading [of liturgy] and singing remain in the churches. This is the worst misuse.”2 A little later in the same work he writes, “Now in order to do away with these misuses, it is necessary to know, first of all, that the Christian congregation never should assemble unless God’s Word is preached…no matter for how brief a time this may be. Therefore where God’s Word is not preached, it is better that one neither sing, nor read, nor even come together.” In his work on “The German Mass and Order of Service” (1526), Luther laid down the fundamental principle that “among Christians the whole service should center in the Word.”3

Salvation by means of preaching

No one who is in the least acquainted with Scripture can doubt that it is the will of God to work and to preserve faith in His people by means of the preaching of the gospel. In the Old Testament, preaching was the outstanding work of the prophets, in which they were assisted by the priests who lived in cities scattered throughout the twelve tribes of Israel. John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus were preachers. At the commencement of His public ministry, Jesus, according to Mark, came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14). The book of Acts demonstrates the commitment of the apostles to preaching and the use that God made of their preaching in gathering the early New Testament church. Of his own ministry Paul says in I Corinthians 1:17 that “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” He deeply conscious of the will of God that the preaching of the gospel is God’s means for the salvation of His elect people out of the nations of the world.

In addition to I Corinthians 1, the apostle teach­es in Romans 1:16 that the preaching of the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation to everyone that be­lieveth.” Later in the epistle, in chapter 10, Paul con­cludes: “So then, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” To Titus, his “own son after the common faith,” Paul says that God “hath in due times manifested his word through preaching” (Titus 1:3). The concluding section of II Timothy 3 contains the apostle’s classic defense of the Bible’s divine inspiration. We might expect that chapter 4 would commence with the admonition, “Read the Holy Scriptures.” Since the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God, God is pleased to use the reading of Scripture for the salvation of His people. In fact, the apostle’s admonition to the young pastor Timothy is, “Preach the word!” Not first of all is the reading of Scripture God’s means of salva­tion, but hearing of the Scriptures as they are preached by faithful ministers of the gospel is the God-ordained means of salvation.

Preaching: God’s wisdom unto salvation

The question is, “Why?” Why is God pleased to elevate the preaching of the gospel to such an extent that it is the outstanding means unto salvation?

More than one answer can be given to this question. I will point out two reasons on account of which God has chosen the preaching of the Word as the chief means of grace.

The first reason has to do with the truth that God is a covenant God. As a covenant God, He is a speaking God, a God of friendship and fellowship. Friends speak to each other and delight in speaking with each other. Those who are at odds with each other stop speaking to one another, whether that is husband and wife in mar­riage, brothers in the church, or next-door neighbors. The outstanding expression of love is fellowship—fel­lowship that takes place by speaking. Within His own divine being, God is a speaking God. At the very dawn of history, God showed Himself to be a speaking God. He did not think the world into existence, or only will it into existence; rather, He spoke all things into being: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). Consistent with His covenantal being and in harmony with Himself as a speaking God, God uses the public proclamation of His Word for the salvation of His elect people. Because He is a speaking God, it “pleases God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:21).

There is a second reason on account of which God is pleased to use the preaching of the gospel as the means of salvation. God is pleased to use the weakness and foolishness of preaching to save sinners in order that the glory for their salvation may be His and His alone. Exactly because of the foolishness of preaching, God has chosen it as the means to work faith and preserve in faith.

God’s folly—that certainly is sinful man’s assessment of the preaching of the gospel. Sinful man disparages the preaching of the gospel and scoffs at the preaching as foolish. That, too, has been the testimony of history, both in the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Tes­tament they rejected, railed at, persecuted, and killed God’s faithful prophets. That was also the experience of the Lord Jesus and the apostles.

Contempt for preaching continues today, even in the churches. Rome’s rejection of the centrality of the preaching in worship at the time of the Reformation is far and away the attitude of the Protestant churches today. It is one significant measure of the apostasy of the church. The churches devalue preaching, more and more shortening the time given for the sermon in pub­lic worship. Often the second service is eliminated or, where there is a second service, the preaching is replaced by musical groups, personal testimonies, panel discus­sions, liturgical dancing, drama, and all kinds of other rubbish that is supposed to attract the people, especially the young people. The churches have lost confidence in the wisdom of God in the preaching of the gospel. They regard the preaching as foolish.

God’s folly is God’s wisdom

And, indeed, preaching is foolishness, as every preacher must acknowledge on Monday morning when he is filing away yesterday’s sermons and beginning to work on his new sermons for the week. How foolish and how weak! He cannot help but shake his head and wonder, if he is honest with himself, how God could use his preaching as wisdom and power to save anyone. His sermons as the power to save? The elderly saint who asked that penetrating question, inadvertently pointed out a weakness in yesterday morning’s sermon. The wife and mother who wondered about the missing application to her pointed out a failure in the evening sermon. “Why didn’t I see that weakness in the sermon? How could I have missed that obvious application or point of exegesis?” Even though he worked hard at making his sermons, the preacher is humbled by what he realizes were shortcomings in the sermons that he preached to the congregation.

That points to the second reason on account of which preaching, as foolish and weak as it is, is the wisdom and power of God. True, preaching appears to be an utterly foolish means to save sinners. It is the word spo­ken by a mere man who is himself a sinner. Even if the preacher is considered to be a fine orator. Even if the preacher is able to keep his listeners on the edge of their seats—few are. Even when the preacher is considered to be the best of his day—for men are wont to make such comparisons. And even when he is considered to be the prince of preachers, or the preacher with a gold­en tongue. Even then preaching remains the word of a feeble and fallen sinner—a vessel of clay.

Preaching as a means to salvation might be compared to throwing a hammer to a drowning man, trusting that the hammer will be the means to save him. Or, exhort­ing a person on the tenth floor of a burning building to jump into a garbage can, assuring him that the garbage can will be the means to save his life. Or, giving a heart- attack victim a sugar cube, expecting that it will alle­viate his angina and open up his clogged arteries. How foolish, you say. Similarly foolish, it would seem, is the power of the preaching of the gospel to save lost sinners.

But the power of God stands behind the weakness of the preaching and the preacher. And behind the pow­er of God is the will of God. And behind the will of God, God’s determination to be glorified in the salva­tion of sinners. That God is pleased to use the weak and foolish means of preaching to save sinners is due to the overriding will of God that He and He alone should receive the glory for the salvation of sinners—every sin­ner! That God would use such a weak, powerless, im­perfect, and utterly foolish means as preaching to save is due to His unwavering resolution to receive all the glory for Himself. He is a jealous God! That God is pleased to use such a weak means is His wisdom to en­sure that He alone receives the glory. Not the preacher. Not the church. Certainly not the sinner himself. That such a weak means is powerful in the hand of God to save makes abundantly clear that the sinner’s salvation is due to Him and His almighty power. Preaching is the means in His hand.

For, you see, God’s weakness is mightier than the mightiest man. And God’s folly is wiser than the wisest man. “But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (I Cor. 1:27) in order that now and into the ages of eternity, He might be glorified.


1 A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1969), 92.
2 Luther’s Works, vol. 53, Liturgy and Hymns. Ulrich S. Leupold, ed. American ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 7.
3 Luther’s Works, vol. 53, p. 51.