In our discussion of the offices in the Church, we had, in our last letter, turned our attention to the particular office of the ministry of the Word. I want to continue that discussion with you now.
We have talked about the fact that the Word of God which the minister preaches is the true and only food of the soul which alone is able to nourish God’s people unto life everlasting. It is perhaps important, for your own benefit, to emphasize this once again for a moment. The reason, I think, why this needs emphasis so much is that there is a certain carelessness present among the clergy when it comes to preaching; and the result is that sermons are not carefully prepared, the content is not always Scriptural, and preaching in the true sense of the word is neglected.
This thought came to me once again when I was reading a long discussion in some news magazine about the whole problem of nutrition. The article was at great pains to emphasize the importance of proper nutrition for our physical well-being. It talked at great length about what constituted good nutrition, about the importance of teaching people the rules of good nutrition, and about the care which people should exercise in preparing and eating wholesome meals. You know all the talk as well as I do. One must eat a balanced diet so that all the vitamins and minerals which the body needs are obtained each day. One must watch out for preservatives, additives, artificial colorings and flavors, as well as overprocessed sugar, flour, and such like things. Organic fertilizers are best and organic foods are the healthiest. And so on. . . . And so on. . . . Even in the eating of food, one must be careful. One must not eat his food too rapidly. One must not spoil his appetite before meals. One must chew his food a proper number of times to aid digestive processes. One must not allow fighting, discord, unhappiness, etc. to intrude at the table while eating, for this upsets the digestive organs. So it goes.
I do not really have any doubts about the worth of many of these ideas. And one who considers his body to be the temple of the Holy Spirit will surely take care of it. But the thought passed my mind that it would be well for people and ministers to give at least equal care to the food which nourishes their souls. After all, no matter how carefully we provide for the body, our bodies die anyway and go to the grave. And, whether we, through proper diet, live to be eighty or ninety, if our souls go to hell, there is no profit in such care of the body. The soul is the important thing. And because the soul is the important thing, the nourishment of the soul ought to concern us very much.
It is in this light that it is so difficult to explain what is happening on today’s pulpits. A minister is a spiritual nutritionist. But he has one great advantage over scientific nutritionists: the latter are always experimenting with what is best for the body, and are forever changing their minds on these questions. The minister never has to do this, for he has God’s own prescription for exactly what the soul needs. That is the Bible.
Yet this is not done. You do not have to visit many churches nor listen to many radio broadcasts of a religious sort to discover that most of what comes from the pulpit is drivel. There is emphatically a demise of preaching. Sermons are very short, lasting, at best, thirty minutes. What is preached is often not worth listening to. Sometimes downright heresy is preached. Sometimes, although there is no heresy, the sermon is so mild and weak that it best resembles watery soup with two or three pieces of grease floating on the top of some grayish liquid. Sometimes everything is preached but the Scriptures as ministers think themselves competent to solve all the problems which afflict mankind whether in the arena of national and international politics or in the social relationships among men. Ministers consider themselves marriage counselors, youth directors, sports coordinators, foreign policy experts, specialists in the fields of economics, race relations, and urban housing. But of true preaching there is very little.
If we would search for an explanation of all this, it is probably impossible to find a simple answer. It is, of course, true that this demise in the preaching is part of the general picture of apostasy which prevails in the Church. And, within the context of apostasy, strange things happen. Ministers no longer preach the truth, and such interest as there may be in the preaching withers and dies and the people become anemic and spiritually weak. But weak and anemic people also cannot tolerate the preaching of the Word, and so they themselves clamor for shorter sermons, for different forms of worship, for entertainment instead of sound preaching, and become co-responsible for the decline of the pulpit. And so the Churches empty and all kinds of novelties are tried in vain efforts to revive the dead corpse of the Church.
There are many different kinds of experimenting, and it would be purposeless to list them. New ideas are constantly being tried and old ones discarded as each novelty becomes stale. One particularly disquieting development, however, is the idea of having first of all a brief and rather informal “children’s service,” after which the children are dismissed from the auditorium to find play elsewhere while the regular service goes on without the children. This is a truly deplorable innovation. There is no doubt about it that it arises out of a misconception and/or denial of the covenant and a failure to understand that the Church is the gathering of believers and their seed. But it is also an insult to the intelligence and spiritual receptivity of the children of the covenant. And, in that sense, it is an insult to the Holy Spirit Who can apply the preaching to children too as well as adults. I am often amazed at what children are able to learn in Church on Sunday and how closely they can follow the preaching and understand what is being said, even though our sermons are rather doctrinal. And they are even hearing many things while they seem to be miles away. I recall that but a few weeks ago, as the minister was about to make his transition from his second to his third point, I was about ready to give my small son a good poke because he seemed to me to be inattentive. At the moment that I was about to do this, he turned and asked whether the minister was now on his third point.
At any rate, the point that needs to be emphasized is that the minister has an awesome responsibility to see to it that the people of God have the right food for their souls. He is literally entrusted with the responsibility for the spiritual welfare of their souls. He can poison them with heresy, make them anemic with watered down drivel and sap their spiritual strength with preaching that does not feed. Or he can provide them with food which is able to feed and nourish their souls to life everlasting. In that sense he has the power of life and death in his hands.
No wonder then that the prophets have such terrible things to say about shepherds who are unfaithful and who give the people stones for bread. Reading these passages ought to make the most hardened unfaithful minister quiver. It is a dreadful thing to have to stand before Christ with the blood of unfed thousands on one’s hands.
The pulpit is central to the minister’s work.
There is something very mysterious and unfathomable about a worship service. I suppose, from the outside, it would look like any meeting where some people come together to hear what someone or other has to say. But the worship service is not like that. It is unique. A congregation of people are together singing and praying and putting their money in collection plates and listening to a man talk. But here in a worship service, God is meeting with His. people through Christ. Christ is speaking to His people, calling them by name and feeding them with His own body and blood. And the people who are gathered together to worship are eating Christ’s body and drinking His blood, conscious that their souls are being fed with the only food in all the world which is able to nourish them unto life eternal.
Nothing like this happens anywhere else in the world. It is the unique manifestation of the wonderful grace of God which He shows to His people.
The central work of the minister is therefore the preaching of the Word, and this preaching occupies the central place in the worship service. It is, no doubt, because of this that, ever since the Reformation, the pulpit Bible has always occupied a central place in the Church building. The pulpit, in a Reformation Church, is in the center of the platform; the Bible lies open upon the pulpit; and it lies open in the sight of all. I know that these things are only really symbols; that they are, therefore, not of the essence of the worship service. But they do point to the fact that ever since the Reformation the Churches of the Reformation have considered the Word of God itself to be central in the worship service. Not the altar; not the wafer of bread; not images; not a podium with a human book on it; A Bible—the Word of God itself. There, before that Bible, the minister of the gospel takes his central place in all His work.
All his other work radiates, as it were, from that central work. He is God’s prophet. And as God’s prophet He brings that Word of God in all the work he is called to do. He brings that work when he spends time teaching the children of the Church in Catechism classes. He brings that work when he visits the sick, the widows, the aged, the bereaved, the tempted and tried, the burdened and sorrowful. He brings that Word when he enters the homes. of his sheep on family visitation. Always he functions as God’s prophet who makes known the Word of God to God’s people.
We need not go into all these special aspects of His calling in this letter. What needs to be stressed is thatthis is his work, nothing else. This is his calling, nothing else. This is his office.
May your prayer be that God will continue to provide His Church with faithful ministers of the Word as He has done in the past.
Fraternally in Christ,