Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The preacher has an awesome task. When he sounds forth the call of the gospel, heaven is opened and closed to his hearers. This is true in the mission setting when the missionary labors with a view to the establishment of a local congregation. It is no less true in the established church. At all times, the preacher calls men to repent of their sins, to turn from their evil ways, to seek and embrace Jesus Christ as the only Savior, who can reconcile them to God. The call goes forth to forsake every sinful way and walk in a new and holy life of thankfulness to God. Such thankfulness arises out of the positive effect of gospel preaching by which sin is removed and we are reconciled to God. The Holy Spirit works through such preaching. In some He works true repentance, while others turn away disgruntled and unbelieving. The preacher never knows who will truly be saved in the end, for the Holy Spirit works in His own time and way. He knows very well that not all are saved through his effort. The sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, has a double edge. This is awesome—some are saved, and others perish, under his ministry.
Fully aware of God’s sovereign way with his ministry, the preacher carries a burden for the salvation of those with whom he labors. This is true for the missionary who labors in the mission field. He stands in awe before God’s mysterious ways, in which men are brought under the word preached. He cherishes the times when a non-Christian is sitting under his preaching on the Lord’s Day. He goes out of his way to talk to someone who is not a Christian but is willing to listen to the word he speaks. All this stirring in his soul is rooted in the burden that he has, that God may use such moments to work true faith in the heart of the hearer. This he desires more than anything else. He knows the despair of those gripped by superstition or the horrible consequences of sin. His heart goes out to them and earnestly desires that they may convert to God and enjoy the life of liberty that comes through faith in God.
This is no less true for the pastor in the established church. He, too, knows God’s sovereignty over his ministry and the opening and closing of the doors of heaven through the very word he brings. This does not make him fatalistic; he doesn’t develop an attitude of: “I can’t do anything about the outcome so I just leave it to God. Why care?” As God’s servant, he brings the word with compassion, preaches and labors as a pastor with the urgent prayer that God may save those who hear the Word, may turn the wayward, and may lift up the weak so that they may enjoy spiritual strength. His labors are stirred by the passion that burns in his soul that God may truly save those who hear. While doing this, he does not resist God and rebel against God’s outcome if God does not save, but condemns, through his ministry. Until God makes this evident, he labors from the perspective of seeking their salvation and spiritual well-being.
This is his burden. This is the burden of missionary preaching in the field and in the established church. We understand fully the passionate words of Paul inRomans 9:1-3, “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh….”
Lacking this burden, the preacher will find that preaching becomes mechanical and dead. Every God-fearing pastor knows this from his own experience. If we struggle with the inadequacy of our preaching and its lack of sincerity and passion, more than likely we will find the root cause is this, that we are not focused upon the burden for the souls of those with whom we labor. We may be more performance orientated. If so, we are more focused on our sermon-making and delivery and how our messages are accepted by the people, than by the influence the messages will have in their lives. In such a state, we know little of the heaviness of heart and the cry from the depth of our souls that God will use us to show mercy upon the people who sit under the ministry of the Word we bring. We need the burden for the salvation of lost souls.
Allow me to suggest four things that I personally learned over the years, things that helped me greatly to carry this burden into the pulpit on both sides of the Pacific.
First, we must pay attention to our own spirituality as a pastor. True, the Word of God instructs all believers to do this: “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23). This is the most critical thing for a pastor or missionary. Paul expressed it this way, “Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee” (I Tim. 4:16). The practical significance of doing this is that when we make sermons and deliver them, we will be honest enough to admit that we are preaching to ourselves first of all. We know our own sins and faults and that we need to hear mission preaching, we need God’s sharp word of rebuke against sin and the need to convert to God. The passion for such preaching comes from our own soul. We need both the admonition and comfort of the Word of God. Why is this so important to us as preachers? We know in the depth of our being that all our preaching and teaching has as its one focus, communion with God. All the teachings of the church (the doctrines) and all the details of holy living have one focus, the enjoyment of covenant communion with the ever blessed God. If we as preachers experience this, our preaching will reflect it as well. We who emphasize and understand the significance of the covenant of grace are in a position to understand, experience, and preach its vital significance in a daily walk with God. This spirituality is the heart of passionate preaching.
Secondly, we must be the kind of shepherd to our flock that Jesus wants us to be. What generates the necessary burden to preach with passion, with urgency, to call to repentance, faith, and obedience? It is the keen awareness of the spiritual needs of those who are listening to our preaching. What gives us this awareness? It is our interaction with the congregation. The better we know our flock, the better we can minister to their needs through preaching. This awareness is gained through daily openness and interaction. It is enhanced through the annual family visits. More than anything, however, it is through pastoral labors. We shepherds know our sheep when they come to us with their burdens, struggles, and conflicts of every sort. We hear their cries in the hospital, in the funeral home, in their own homes, in the prison, at their work places, on and on. Out of such pastoral ministry comes the keen awareness that our sheep have burdens, and their burdens become our burdens. That makes us preachers with a burden. Our preaching will not, then, be abstract or irrelevant. It will deal with issues that we know cause the hearts of our sheep to bleed. Some struggle with serious doctrinal errors. When we preach about these errors, we do so with the burden of those sitting in church. The call to repent and turn from evil will live in our souls as we speak to those sheep who are so dear to our hearts. The tears of sorrow and fears of death are the burdens our own sheep put in our hearts.
This is not to say that the preacher must take to the pulpit personal needs of the congregation and incorporate them into his preaching. I recall my days with Rev. Gerrit Vos in seminary. Though he taught me Dutch, I always liked his digressions into practical issues that he would share with a young student. Once he said to me, “When I preach, I see nothing but cabbage heads.” He certainly did not mean to degrade his congregation, for anyone who sat under his preaching knew he preached out of deep passion and love for his people. He meant that he did not focus on individuals and preach directly to them. He properly warned, you will be tempted to use the pulpit as a steek stoel, a means to hit at people with whom you disagree, a very dangerous thing. He carried their tears in his heart, and that burned as fire in his soul to incite him to preach with a burden.
Thirdly, I mention intercessory prayer for the members of the congregation. Pastors are not only instructed to preach, to shepherd the flock (I Pet. 5:1-4), but also to pray for them. The Pauline example is replete throughout the New Testament. He always prayed for individuals and churches. He instructed the pastors to do the same (I Thess. 5:25). Over the years I had to learn how to do this. It is important that the pastor include in his quiet time in the study, prayer for the specific needs of individual sheep of the flock as well as the needs of the flock in general. Mid-week prayer meetings in Singapore helped me refine this labor of love. It taught me to be much more specific and focused on such needs. During the sharing of such prayer items, I learned to appreciate that as a pastor I must be aware of ministry needs, individual needs, needs that we faced as a congregation in the society and the world around us. There were those who were attending church for the first time, and we included them in prayer that God would use the Word preached to reach their hearts. Others mentioned their sharing the gospel with family members or acquaintances, and we listed them and prayed for them in the prayer meeting. This was helpful for me as a pastor in two ways. It helped me focus on these needs very directly, so that I could pray about them as a pastor privately and in obedience to Christ. In addition, it gave much life to the congregational prayers. The pastoral prayer is an important part of the worship service. I learned then that I had to give careful thought to the congregational prayer ahead of time and give careful attention to what I would include in the prayer for that morning or evening. My prayers became less abstract and more direct. They focused on many situations that needed prayer, and the congregation was glad to pray together for such needs.
Besides the benefit of more meaningful pastoral prayers, it also incited me to preach with greater burden and passion. The more I was focused on these needs, the more effectively I could address them in the preaching. Whatever text was used for that service, it took on a pastoral burden in the sermon. It was not prepared in the abstract, it was not delivered in the abstract, it was before a congregation of people who needed very much to hear the Word of God. It contributed to an eagerness and earnestness to preach that sermon that day.
Finally, I have also learned that it is helpful and necessary to preach in the second person and less in the first or third person. Jay Adams makes a good point of this in his book Preaching with Purpose. He distinguishes the preaching stance from the lecture stance. We can summarize his points this way. The lecturer talks to the congregation about the Bible, the preacher talks to the congregation about themselves from the Bible. The lecturer talks about what God did long ago and far away, the preacher talks about what God is doing and what they ought to be doing. The lecturer talks in the third person (he, they), the preacher talks in the second person (you). The lecturer talks in an unemotional, uninvolved, reporting style, the preacher speaks in an emotionally involved but controlled style.
It is the use of pronouns that I consider here. It is true that many passages of the Bible come in the form of first person (I, we) and third person (he, they). Others are written in the second person, directed to the reader as you. The point that I like to make is this, when we focus on “mission preaching” or preaching that calls for repentance and faith, forsaking evil, turning unto God, and such like, if we preach in the first or third person, it loses its personal effect. This is especially true if the preacher uses “we.” The impression is left that the church is the one who believes certain truths, the church acts in a certain way, the church has responsibilities to perform certain duties, and the convicting and binding responsibility on the individual sitting under the preaching is lost. Persistent use of we or they in preaching allows the listener to conclude that because he is part of the audience, the congregation, the church, he is included and all is well. He doesn’t have to do anything more than to listen to what is being said. If the preacher, in the Name of Jesus Christ, addresses the message to you, and talks directly to the audience, the congregation, the individual listener, it comes direct and personal. This is necessary for “mission preaching” as we are talking about it.
Christ speaks through the pastor to the listener. It is all wrong if a person sits in church and at the conclusion of the service is able to say, “Christ didn’t say anything to me. The pastor was talking about Christians, what they believe and how they act, but never spoke directly to me.” If that should take place, then Christ does not speak directly to the listener. Then we have lecturing instead of preaching, as Jay Adams suggests. We need the lively preaching of the gospel, and that means that Christ must speak. As the servant of Jesus Christ, the preacher must look the listener in the eye and say, “you.”
This is the thrill of preaching. It makes no difference whether one is in the mission field or in the established church, he preaches in the name of Jesus Christ and calls men to repentance and faith. The burden of the preacher is so great that he is eager to preach and trusts in the one in whose name he speaks to cause the blind to see, the leprous to be cleansed, the dead to arise from their spiritual graves. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ needs to hear this call of the gospel, and the same is true for anyone who may be gathered with them. If any have not true faith, they will certainly hear the voice of Jesus call, “Come unto me and rest.”
In our next article we will consider the place of special gospel services in the established church.