In the June 1 issue of theStandard Bearer, the editorial held out the admittedly sensitive proposal that minister and elders work together for the improvement of the preaching. In the summer meetings, when consistory agendas may be shorter, the men may take time to discuss calmly the preaching and how the preacher can bring the gospel to the congregation in the most edifying manner.
The goal of these meetings is not to make the preacher popular, but to make his preaching edifying. More edifying. The goal is a well-fed and healthy flock who love their pastor. They love him deeply because, even though he may not mesmerize with his eloquence, he edifies them with his good sermons. Through him they hear Christ, whose Word blesses them.
The editorial showed that the Church Order, the Questions for Church Visitation, and Reformed history call the elders to take an active (not reactive) role in the supervision of preaching. Then it presented a procedure for the discussion to take place, and laid out some benefits for the preacher and the congregation—especially the member who may be critical of the preaching.
The editorial concluded by promising to examine what, specifically, the elders should look for in the sermons.
Admittedly sensitive is how I put it earlier. One shrinks from making such suggestions. An elder winced a little when I discussed this with him today in the morning shade of my front porch over a cup of coffee. But the Lord will bless the effort when we ministers humbly receive the elders as God-appointed servants, and the elders labor with bold and patient love. Those last four words are essential.
Two of the most fundamental questions the elders ask themselves are: Do the sermons glorify God? And do they edify the saints?
God’s people will be edified when God is glorified. First is God’s glory.
A mark of a good sermon is that, by it, the hearts of the people of God are lifted up to praise God. The people of God respond, “How good is our God! He’s great and greatly to be praised!” The people of God respond to a good sermon the way they respond to the Lord’s Supper: “Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases…. Bless the LORD, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word. Bless ye the LORD, all ye his hosts; ye ministers of his, that do his pleasure. Bless the LORD, all his works in all places of his dominion: bless the LORD, O my soul.”
Sometimes this mark of a good sermon is brought out with this question: Is the sermon God-centered rather than man-centered?
God-glorifying sermons will make the people of God respond like the church inRevelation 4: “The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”
Praise to God will proceed from the whole of the believer’s being: “All my bones shall say, LORD, who is like unto thee…?” (Ps. 35:10).
Glorifying to God, good sermons will not bring glory to the man. This is the preacher’s great temptation. He wants the people to like him, speak well of him, praise him. He resists this, by the grace of God. He reminds himself that he is thefriend of the Bridegroom, and not the Bridegroom Himself. Thus, to call the Bride (the church) to praise him instead of the Bridegroom is great folly and gross wickedness. He knows this. Yet it is a devilish temptation.
“Did the sermon call attention to God and His Christ, or to the pastor?”
Soli Deo Gloria.
When God is honored, the saints will be edified.
Do the sermons edify the saints? This is the question put to the elders annually by the church visitors: “Is the congregation built up through his preaching?”
But edification is so much broader and deeper than one might first imagine. One appropriate way to ask about edification is to inquire regarding the trio of Christian graces: faith, hope, and love. Is the congregation built up infaith? Do the sermons quicken in them hope? Is love worked in the hearts of the people of God?
Faith is knowledge of all God revealed in His Word (see Heb. 11:3 and Lord’s Day 7). Good sermons are faithful explanations of the Word of God so that the people grow in the knowledge of God, for faith is knowledge. From good sermons the people of God learn. Out of God’s treasury the minister brings out things new and old (see Matt. 13:52), so that they always are learning more. If a minister is anything, a minister is a teacher.
Under this heading—of faith as knowledge—a few key questions may be asked: Is the sermon faithful to the text and its context? Since the source of faith’s knowledge is the Holy Scriptures alone, is the sermon based on and does it flow out of the Scriptures? Second, since “every heretic has his text,” is the sermon preached in the light of the whole of Scripture, and is it in harmony with the Reformed confessions? Third, is the sermon antithetical, that is, does it “refute and contradict errors” (see Formula of Subscription), so that the people of God are protected from the wolves who bring in false teachings? In the sermon, does the minister hold “fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (Tit. 1:9)? All of the people kingdom. Are they trained and equipped to do battle? And, not to be forgotten are the questions whether the antithetical note in the preaching is reasonable, balanced, appropriate. After a practice preaching session in seminary many years ago, Herman Hoeksema is said to have commented, “Well, I know what the text doesn’t mean. But whatdoes it teach?” And, because every congregation is different, is the antithetical note appropriate for this particular congregation in this specific place and time?
Often elders are tempted to limit their analysis of sermons to that—faith as knowledge, sermons as truth. That would be a mistake.
Knowledge, all by itself, puffeth up, makes proud (I Cor. 8:1). Is the understanding the understanding of love? For “charity edifieth.”
Besides, faith is not only a “certain knowledge.” Faith is also an “assured confidence…that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God….” This assurance the Holy Spirit works in our hearts by the gospel (Lord’s Day 7). Good sermons lead the people of God to trust in Jesus Christ, to embrace Him, to have confidence that Christ with all His benefits are his own! Good sermons call the people to believe. They also warn against unbelief and address unbelievers. (Do they? Read carefully Lord’s Day 31:84.) There are places for “exhortations and threatenings” (Canons of Dordt V:14). But especially the sermons lead people to believe in Jesus Christ, by whom sin and sinners are forgiven— freely, and fully. They comfort the saints. The elder should ask: Did we hear Jesus Christ and Him crucified?
Thus, good sermons will not make people doubt. A curse upon the preacher who seeks to instill doubts in the people of God. Of course, careless presumption must be addressed. The minister must “distress the comfortable.” But he also comforts the distressed.
It took too long for me to “get his drift,” but a good elder early in my ministry proposed that the window above the pulpit in the new sanctuary have engraved in it the words: “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people….” That elder’s call remains as Christ’s mandate to us pastors.
Edify in faith. Then, hope.
Saints must be built up in hope. With regard to what must “hereafter befall us” (cf. Lord’s Day 10). With regard to the “things to come” (Rom. 8:38; I Cor. 3:22). The people of God need “bright hope for tomorrow.” They may have it. Good sermons will quicken this hope in them. Why, God’s people are “saved by hope” (Rom 8:24), were “begotten again unto a lively hope” (I Pet. 1:3-5). According to Paul’s conclusion in Romans, Scripture was designed for this: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
Hope for the near future—tomorrow and next month. Hope also for the more distant future—a generation, when Christ returns, and eternity.
Do the sermons speak also of the future? Often? When they do, are the people of God led to fear, or to a calm assurance that Christ sits on the throne, ruling in power and love? Let the people see Jesus, so that they are “anxious for nothing” (Phil. 4:6;Matt. 6:25, 31), and so that the peace of God which passeth all understanding may keep their hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7). Hope releases the people of God from the ulcer-inducing anxieties of life. It is also the antidote to the soul-deadening materialism of this age.
Do the sermons lead the people of God to “set their hope in God” (Ps. 78:7)?
Faith. Hope. And love. Love, the greatest of the abiding trio of Christian graces.
First, good sermons preach the love of God for His people. What great love is this that sent His Son into the world for us! How He loves us! The cross is the love of God. Bounties to His own are the love of God. Frowning providences are God’s love. Nothing shall separate us from that love. Not now, not in the future.
Are the sermons saturated with God’s love for His people? Is the Bridegroom’s voice of love heard clearly by the bride?
Second, good sermons call the people of God to love God, and to love their neighbor. This is obedience to the ten commandments (see Matt. 22:37-39). The life of those loved by God is a life of love, of loving obedience. Of having God as their God, worshiping Him, confessing His name, observing His day. Of obeying authority, of sexual purity, of giving, speaking truth in love, forgiving the neighbor, and everything else that the commandments require. The life of the Christian is a life of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22). And when they preach these positive virtues, faithful sermons warn against “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like” (Gal. 5:19-21). With these warnings, the sermons make clear that “they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Faith, hope, and love. The saints will be built up to be complete Christians. For the work of the ministry is “for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12, 13).
Wise elders take the broadest perspective. Although one sermon may have faults, no one sermon is basis for judgment whether the man’s ministry is properly edifying. The elders should be patient, watching for the big picture. A mother’s competence to nourish her family properly is not to be judged on the basis of one meal. Every sermon does not include the whole counsel of God. To expect that is to expect the impossible. But: 1) Every sermon will be preached in light of the whole counsel of God. And, 2) all the sermons taken together, in a period of time, will include the whole counsel of God. No minister may “fail” to accomplish this (see Acts 20:27).
Elders will see to it. Faithful pastors pray for it. May our good God grant it.
. . . to be continued.