Last time we saw that the Reformation marked a return to and a restoration of preaching to its proper place—the primary place—in the life of the church. It was this preaching, so heavily emphasized by the reformers, which was the primary instrument in the accomplishment and the spread of the Reformation. More than any other single factor the preaching of the Word by Luther and Calvin and their associates served to call the people of God back to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But this could only be true because the Reformation marked a reformation of the preaching itself, first of all. In fact, it is safe to say that preaching could never have been an instrument of reformation if there had not been, first of all, a reform of the preaching itself.
What was the nature of that reformation of preaching?
In a word, through it the preaching of the reformers again became prophetic! No, this does not mean necessarily that they preached from the prophetical books. It certainly does not mean that they engaged in trying to predict the future. It does mean that they began again to preach likethe prophets of old—or like the apostles. And this means, above all, that their preaching was emphatically preaching of the Word, the Word of God in Christ.
I wish to illustrate this by referring again to the preaching of Martin Luther. There is a fascinating book about Luther by A. Skevington Wood entitled Captive To The Word (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1969). In it there is an entire chapter on “Luther As A Preacher,” from which we can learn much about Luther’s reformational preaching.
What is prophetic preaching?
It is first and foremost preaching of the Word in the strictest sense of the term. It is expository. In the book referred to we read this, p. 89:
“The salient feature of Luther’s preaching was its biblical content and reference. It was subject to Scripture throughout. Luther submitted to a rigorous discipline. He was bound by the Word. His preaching was never merely topical. He could never turn a text into a pretext. ‘I take pains to treat a verse, to stick to, it,’ he explained, ‘and so to instruct the people that they can say, “That is what the sermon was about.” ‘ His preaching was never a movement from men to the text: it was always a movement from the text to men. The matter never determined the text: the text always determined the matter. He was not in the habit of treating subjects or issues, but doctrines. But when he did, so, he invariably followed a prescribed Scripture, passage step by step. He considered one of the major qualifications of the preacher to be familiarity with the Word. He must be bonus textualis—a good man with the text. Luther never dispensed with a text from Scripture, and never approved of the practice in others. ‘It is disgraceful for the lawyer to desert his brief; it is even more disgraceful for the preacher to desert his text.'”
Needless to say, the same was true of Calvin, who became known as the “prince of exegetes.”
In the second place, the preaching of the reformers was antithetical, as all sound preaching should be. A. Skevington Wood puts it this way, pp. 90, 91:
“There is thus a distinctly existential quality about Luther’s preaching. One feels that through it God is speaking directly to His people, and to those who still reject Him—and this immediacy is conveyed even in the printed record. It was this factor which ensured that Luther’s preaching should always be decisive. There was nothing vague or cloudy about it. It was clear-cut and definite. A sense of reality prevailed. Luther was no mystic. Christ and Antichrist, God and the devil—these were objective personalities to him, and this awareness gave a peculiar urgency to his preaching. He believed, as Doberstein expresses it, that “preaching continues the battle begun by the saving event and is itself the saving event.’ This is made clear in one of Luther’s own comments. ‘When I preach a sermon I take an antithesis.’ This is to say, he never proclaimed God’s great Yes, His acceptance of man in the gospel, without at the same time proclaiming His No, his rejection of all man’s presumption and pretence. Every sermon for him was a struggle for souls: Eternal issues were being settled in the moment of preaching—the issues of life and death, light and darkness, sin and grace, the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan.”
In this connection, let us remember, too, that the reformers were very concretely antithetical in their preaching, both with respect to doctrine and practice. One has only to recall the fact, for example, that Calvin never missed an opportunity to inveigh against the papacy and against the false doctrine’s and practices of Roman Catholicism. Or recall the fact that he opposed in his preaching the practices of the Libertines in Geneva.
In the third place, the preaching of the reformers was characterized by the call to repentance and faith in Christ. Writes Wood, p. 91:
“. . . Christ must be preached as the One who lived and died to redeem men from sin. What He did was not for His own benefit, but for ours. ‘Christ ought to be preached to the end that faith in Him may be established that He may not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me, and that what is said of Him and is denoted in His name may be effectual in us. Such faith is produced and preserved in us by preaching why Christ came, what He brought and bestowed, what benefit it is to us to accept Him.’ There were preachers of repentance and grace even in his day, Luther went on, but they did not explain how a man might repent and how he might know the grace of God. Repentance proceeds from the law of God, but grace from the promise of God. ‘Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ’ (Rom. 10:17). Accordingly man is consoled and exalted by faith in the divine promise after he has been humbled and led to a knowledge of himself by the threats and the fear of the divine law.'”
This is important. For we must remember that the reformation of the church is after all a spiritualprocess. Reformation is not to be compared to a political campaign, in which one seeks by moral suasion and by rational argument to gain adherents and supporters for this or that doctrinal tenet and this or that viewpoint. No, it is distinctly spiritual. It involves repentance and faith. It involves return from the way of the lie to the path of the truth, conversion from the ways of sin to the ways of righteousness, from the path of unbelief’ to the way of faith in Christ.
However, there was also a reformation of the preaching in the sense that with the Reformation came also a renewed understanding of the nature and importance of the “moment” of the preaching. The reformers understood full well that it was not their word, but the speech of God Himself which made the preaching of the gospel powerful. Their preaching stood in the service of the powerful Word of Christ. They understood that the moment of the preaching of the Word was the moment in which God Himself spoke His Word to the hearts of His people. And it is this that accounts for their strong emphasis upon the necessity of the preaching of the Word, as well as for their confidence that the preaching of the Word would be fruitful. Writes Wood, p. 90:
“. . . But it is in no passive sense that the Bible is the Word of God, according to Luther. It is as the Spirit who inspired it breathes upon it afresh, and applies it to the reader, that God speaks again through the Scriptures, as He spoke when they were first set down. But for Luther, it is supremely in preaching that the Word of God in the Scriptures is made alive in the present. The living Word of God, once spoken through the prophets and apostles, now recorded in the Scriptures, speaks again through His servants who are called to preach.”
This accounts for Luther’s stress upon the necessity of preaching. He himself wrote: “The church is not a pen house, but a mouth house. For since the advent of Christ the gospel, which used to be hidden in the Scriptures, has become an oral preaching. And thus it is the manner of the New Testament and of the gospel that it must be preached and performed by word of mouth and a living voice. Christ himself has not written anything, nor has he ordered anything to be written, but rather to be preached by word of mouth.”
Or again: “God, the creator of heaven and earth, speaks with you through His preachers, baptizes, catechizes, absolves you through the ministry of His own sacraments. These are the words of God, not of Plato or Aristotle. It is God Himself who speaks.”
Now all this is of the utmost importance for today.
If there is to be reformation today, then it can and will be brought about primarily through the means of the preaching of the Word.
And if it is to be brought about through the preaching of the Word, then there must first be a reformation of preaching itself!
And if there is to be a reformation of the preaching of the Word, that reformation must be patterned after the preaching of the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
In a word, that means that preaching must beprophetic!
Such sound, prophetic preaching has become a scarce item in the ecclesiastical marketplace today. Even in denominations which are commonly recognized as ‘”conservative” or “evangelical” and even in some of the newer, breakaway denominations, formed supposedly as reformation movements, this is true. And it is one of the chief reasons for the fact that they do not really represent reformations, but, on the contrary, are doomed to failure and have the seeds of deformation and apostasy in them as soon as -they are formed. This is a striking fact. It impresses me every time I have an opportunity to hear and observe the preaching as an occasional visitor in other denominations. Frequently my reaction after hearing the preaching in church away from home has been, “If I had to listen to such preaching as a steady diet, I would not go to church.” It is not as though. no gospel whatsoever is proclaimed—though I have had the experience of being in and out of a church belonging to the Reformed community without having heard any gospel, any sin, any grace, any cross, any Christ, preached at all. But the preaching is not prophetic! It is topical rather than expository. It is, vague rather than specific. It is blurred rather than sharply antithetical. It tends to leave one unaffected rather than moving one to repentance and faith. It does not have the ring, the vibrancy, the intensity, the urgency of the pure preaching of the Word standing in the service of the living and powerful Word of Christ.
To such preaching, wherever there has been departure, there must be a return!
No propaganda campaign, no proliferation of literature, however sound and Reformed, no lecture series, no “testimony” or gathering of signatures on a testimony, no sending forth of negatively critical brochures and newsletters, no rise of a great and dynamic leader—none of these will ever serve in themselves to bring about reformation in the church today.
Only the pure preaching of the, Word will accomplish it!”
There may be many contributory means in the process of reformation. Who would dare to deny, for example, that the invention of the printing press and the .resultant spread of the Bible and of the many writings of the men of Reformation times constituted an important instrument in the spread of the message of the Reformation? That does not change the fact that the preaching of the Word was primary; and not only was it primary, but it was central. Without that preaching there would not have been reformation; in fact, without that preaching the various other means would not even have come into existence and use. It has been said, too, that in all reformation there must be a leader, and that what is needed is a great man—a Luther, a Calvin. But Luther and Calvin and all the other “giants” of Reformation times were not great men in any this-worldly sense of the word. They began, in fact, as, rather insignificant men. What constituted their real “greatness” was after all the fact that by the grace of God they were faithful preachers of the Word who took their stand on the basis of the Word of God and who proclaimed that Word of God “as love knows how.”
But this entails reformation of our understanding of the meaning and significance of the “moment” of the preaching as well. We must learn to understand anew that the moment of the preaching of the Word is the moment in which it pleases the Lord our God Himself to speak His own Word, living and powerful and efficacious, to and in His church. It is not merely a moment in which we hear men speak, even though they speak true words about the Christ. But it is the moment in which we hear Christ Himself speak.
And why is this important with respect-to-reformation?
The answer is simple. Reformation is pre-eminently a spiritual reality. It involves not mere intellectual conviction, and it involves not mere natural devotion and allegiance to a cause. The latter are after all strange fire on the altar of true reformation. No, reformation involves faith. It involves repentance on the part of church and individual. It involves conversion, a turning from darkness to light, from the lie to the truth, from sin unto righteousness, from Belial to Christ, from the service of men to the service of the living God. Reformation is always principally a spiritual process.
But faith, repentance, conversion—these are wrought by God Himself in the moment of the preaching, and that, too, as in no other moment. Why? Simply because it pleases God to work His work in His people through that means of the preaching of the gospel, according to His own appointment.
In conclusion, therefore, if there is to be reformation in the churches, there must first be a reformation of the preaching. Let us remember, too, as Protestant Reformed Churches that reformation-by-separation is but one kind of reformation. There is also such a thing as on-going reformation. In fact, it is characteristic of truly Reformed churches that they are “Reformed, and ever reforming.” This also applies to the reformation of the preaching. With regard to it, we, our churches, our elders, and especially our ministers must be Reformed, and ever reforming! And to those outside the circle of our Protestant Reformed Churches, especially those in churches which are in the throes of apostasy, I say: if you would, see reformation, you must insist on reformation in the pulpit, first of all. And if you cannot expect that where you are, then it is your bounden duty—for your own sake, for the sake of your children, and for the sake of the cause of God’s church—to seek it elsewhere.
Above all, to preachers I say: be a bonus textualis, a good man with the text!