And again, for centuries afterward the church waited for the completion and closing of the New Testament canon. And even then, many more centuries elapsed before the Bible was accessible to every believer. This had to wait for the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, for the general distribution of the Bible, and for the general education of the masses to be able to read and write.
But always the church had the commission to preach the gospel. As the Lord Himself, after His resurrection and before His ascension into glory, taught us: “Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19, 20. And always the preaching of the Word was a means of grace. The question is: what is preaching? And in answer we may give the following definition. Preaching is the authoritative proclamation of the gospel by the church in the service of the Word of God through Christ. In this definition we would call attention especially to four elements: 1) Preaching is authoritative proclamation. 2) It is the proclamation of the gospel, that is, the whole Word of God as revealed in the Scriptures. 3) Preaching is the proclamation of the gospel by the church: for only the church is able to send the preacher. 4) Preaching stands in the service of the Word of God through Christ. For only Christ through the Spirit can make the preaching of the Word powerful and efficacious as a means of grace.
We will elaborate a little on this definition and on the four elements which I just mentioned. The last mentioned element, namely, that preaching stands in the service of the Word of God through Christ, is undoubtedly the most important. Through the preaching it pleases God through, Christ, the exalted Lord, the Chief Prophet of God, Who alone gathers His church, to speak to His people unto their salvation. This is very evident from several passages in Holy Writ. We call your attention especially to Romans 10:14, 15. In this passage we read, especially according to the original: “How shall they believe in him whom they have not .heard?” Through the preaching, therefore, you do not hear about Christ, but you hear Him. Thei difference is easily understood. When you hear about someone: he is not present. You do not hear his own voice, but the voice of someone else, who tells you something abut him. But when you hear someone, you hear his own voice. He is present with you. He is addressing you personally. And this is the sense of the passage from Romans 10 which we just quoted. The text teaches us that you cannot believe in Christ unless you have heard Him speak to you; unless you have heard His Word addressed to you. This is exactly the meaning of the words, “‘How shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?”
This, moreover, is corroborated by other passages of Holy Writ. In John 5:24 we read: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.” And in the twenty-fifth verse of this same chapter we read: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.” Of His sheep, whom the Father hath given Him, the Lord says in John 10:3: “To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out.” In verse 4 of this same chapter: “And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice.” And again, in verse 27: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
The word of man is not sufficient to serve as a means of grace, or as a basis for that certain knowledge whereby I know that all my sins are forgiven me, and for that perfect confidence whereby I rely in life and death on my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. What we must hear is not the word of man, but the Word of God, which “is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” Hebrews 4:12, 13. We must hear Christ Himself addressing us personally. But how shall they hear this Word unless they hear it from Himself, unless they hear the voice of Christ? And how shall they hear this voice without a preacher? This is the point of the text in Romans 10:14, 15. Anyone can tell you about Jesus, about His Word, and about His work, about the cross and the atonement, about the resurrection and justification. And to do this, to be witnesses of Christ, is certainly the calling of every believer. The Christian must be a witness for Christ in the world, must confess His name, extol His name, and tell all about Him. But this does not make anyone a preacher. And this does not make his word a means of grace in the accepted sense of the word. A preacher is not a person who merely speaks concerning Christ, but one through whom it pleases Christ Himself to speak and to cause His own voice to be heard by His people. The thing that matters in any sermon is whether we hear the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto me and rest;” whether we hear Him say, “Repent and believe;” whether His voice resounds in our deepest soul, ‘Your sins are forgiven you, and I give unto you eternal life.” From this it follows, of course, with respect to the contents of the message which a preacher brings to the church or which he brings to any audience in the heathen world, that it may never be anything else than the Word of Christ. For the Lord will not speak through anything but His own Word. This Word He has committed unto us, the Word of reconciliation, according to II Corinthians 5:19. It was in this way that Christ made preachers out of the apostles. He put His own Word in them. Just as when an ambassador from one government to another delivers a message, he takes the word of his government along, so Christ gave His Word to His apostles. And this same Word of Christ is committed unto the church in the Holy Scriptures. And preaching, as to its contents, is strictly limited to the Word of Christ in the Bible. The preacher has nothing of his own to deliver, strictly speaking. And when he delivers a message of his own, apart from the Word of Christ, he ceases to be a preacher. A preacher, therefore, must proclaim the whole counsel of God unto salvation as contained in Holy Writ.
Hence, it is evident that the word of the preacher is authoritative. Preaching is authoritative proclamation of the gospel. The word for “preaching” in the New Testament really means “to speak as a herald.” The preacher must bring his message, nothing more. And he must deliver it in the name of Christ and with His authority. He must clearly leave the impression that the audience is under obligation to hear and to do the Word that is preached, that they and he together must bow before that Word because it is the authoritative Word of Christ. He must say, “Thus saith the Lord.” For a preacher is an ambassador, and as such he must speak. Man’s word has no power; neither has it any authority.
Finally, we must call the attention to the fact that the preacher must be sent, and that therefore, strictly speaking, it is only the church that is authorized to preach. And it is very essential that a preacher be sent, or called. This is true of all preachers, whether they proclaim the Word of God in the established church or preach the gospel of peace in the heathen world. In the strict sense of the word, all preachers are missionaries: they must be sent. Also this is emphasized in the words of Romans 10:14, 15. For the apostle writes: “And how shall they preach except they be sent?” This sending is indispensable to the preaching. Without the former, the latter is impossible. One may witness for Christ, as we said before. One may have an answer to anyone that asks him a reason for the hope that is in him. One may confess his faith. One can tell others about Christ. But one cannot preach unless he be sent. Such is the plain implication of the question which the apostle asks in the above passage. And this indispensable requisite of the sending we can easily understand if we only bear in mind that preaching is the authoritative deliverance of the Word of Christ, the gospel of peace, the glad tidings of good things, the vehicle upon which it pleases Christ to carry His Word to His people. Therefore, it is certainly indispensable that the preacher be sent.
The question is: how is the preacher sent? With respect to the apostles this question is easily answered. Their very name expresses that they were sent. And they received their calling and commission from Christ Himself, directly and in person. The chief distinguishing mark of an apostle was that he was directly and immediately called by the Lord. This is strongly emphasized especially by the apostle Paul, as, for instance, in Galatians 1:1: “Paul, an apostle, not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” The apostles, therefore, were directly sent. They received their commission to preach from Christ’s own lips. They had the promise of the Spirit. Christ put His own Word in them. And, He sent them whithersoever He would, His Spirit leading them and sometimes preventing them from going to one place and directing them to go to another. And therefore, with respect to the sending of the apostles, there is no difficulty. They have their commission directly from the Lord.
But the question is whether also a minister of the Word today is sent by Christ to preach. The answer to this question must surely be in the affirmative. It is true, of course, that the sending of the preacher is no longer direct and immediate, as was the case with the apostles. Nevertheless, the sending of a preacher is just as real and peremptory as it was with the apostles, though the way of sending is different. We must remember, in the first place, that Christ gave to His church in the world the commission to preach. He did so when He was about to be taken up into heaven in the well-known words, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” To be sure, directly He was addressing the apostles when He spoke these words. But as often has been pointed out, and rightly so, this commission to preach the gospel cannot possibly be limited to the persons of the apostles, but was given to them as representatives of the New Testament church in the world, and must needs be extended to the church even unto the end of the world. This is evident from the fact that the apostles personally could not fulfill the task of preaching the gospel in all the world. Nor can the promise which the Lord adds to this injunction be limited to the lifetime of the apostles. The promise was: “And lo, I am with you even unto the end bf the world;” Therefore, not the apostles only are commissioned to preach the gospel. Neither can it be said that this commission is given to believers individually: for, the apostles surely are the representatives of the church. But the church of the New Testament in the world the Lord addresses in the command, “Preach the gospel.” The church is the pillar and ground of the truth. To the church the Lord entrusted His Word. That church must keep the Word, receive it, interpret it, confess it. And that church in the world must preach the gospel. She has the commission authoritatively to speak the Word of Christ. And the promise of the Spirit that will lead her into all the truth was fulfilled in her, in the church of the new dispensation. It is well that also this be properly emphasized. Not the individual believer apart from the church of Christ. in the world, not all kinds of groups of believers, societies, boards, sects, movements, are the pillars and ground of the truth and have the commission to preach the Word. Whatever the influence for good such groups extraneous from the church may appear to have, we should never forget that their existence and labor in separation from the church is disobedience. And the ultimate effect of their work can only be detrimental to the cause of the truth and to the preaching of the gospel.
And this task of preaching must be fulfilled by the church considered as an institute, and therefore, through its ministry. Christ gave to His church “some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.” And He gave these “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Ephesians 4:11, 12. It is therefore through the ministry that the church carries out the commission she has received to .preach the gospel. Not the person of the minister has the commission to preach, but the church has it. And she fulfills her task through the ministry. Hence, only they whom the church separates unto the ministry can properly feel that they are sent by Christ. And therefore, it is this calling by the church that is all-important in the determination of one’s being sent by Christ to preach the gospel. Only when a man is so called by the church to stand in the position of the instituted ministry, and when in that position he strictly adheres in all that he delivers, in all that he preaches, to the Word of God as revealed in Scripture, can he rightfully claim that he is a preacher. For how shall they preach except they be sent?
This preaching, therefore, in that very specific sense of the word, is meant. When Reformed theologians say that the Word is a means of grace, they mean exactly that. For the preaching of the Word is indispensable to faith in Christ. This does not mean that we must minimize the value of all the means of instruction in the truth which we possess today. Least of all must we underrate the great significance of Bible reading and Bible study in. the home by individual believers, or by societies. We certainly believe the perspicuity of Holy Scripture, so that we may all be able to understand it. We believe that all believers have the unction of the Holy One. Yet all these means cannot and may not be separated from the work of Christ through the church as an institute, and particularly through the ministry of the Word of God. If there had been no ministry, no official preaching of the Word of God, through all the ages of the new dispensation, there certainly would be no Bible, and there certainly would be no translations of the Bible in every language. There would be no confessions in which the truth is preserved from generation to generation. There would be no commentaries and other books that interpret Holy Writ. There would be no instruction in home and school and church. And therefore, the official preaching by the church is of central importance. And it is the preaching of the Word that is the chief means of grace.
Here, however, we may ask the question whether all grace as it is applied to the elect and wrought in their hearts by the Holy Spirit is mediate, eat is, whether all grace is through the preaching of the gospel. Does the Holy Spirit always work through the means of the preaching of the Word and through the means of the sacraments, or is the very first beginning of this marvelous work an immediate work by the Holy Spirit?
About this question there has been, and still is, much difference of opinion in the Reformed churches. On the one hand, there are those that insist that all grace, as it is applied to the sinner by the Holy Spirit, including regeneration, is mediate: the Holy Spirit always works through the means of the preaching of the gospel. These present the soteriological order of the various steps in the application of salvation to the heart of the elect as beginning with the calling. The preaching of the Word, according to them, is necessary first. On the other hand, there are those who strongly oppose this view, and who insist that regeneration is first and is immediate, not effected by the preaching of the Word.
The question is indeed an important one. It concerns the problem concerning the regeneration of the children of believers. It is true that this difference of opinion can be reduced to a minimum. All Reformed theologians certainly emphasize that the sinner by nature is completely dead in sin and misery, that he is so blind that he cannot see the things of the kingdom of God. By nature he is so deaf that he cannot spiritually hear and understand the truth of the gospel And his heart is so filled with enmity against God and His Christ that he will never come and embrace the Christ of the Scriptures on his own accord and in virtue of his own free will. And therefore, they one and all oppose the doctrine of the Arminians, which presents the work of regeneration as if it were a matter of moral persuasion, effected by the external preaching of the gospel.