Candidate Kuiper, beloved brethren and sisters in the Lord, fathers of Synod:
I desire to speak to you tonight on the subject of the importance of the preaching of the gospel.
There are various reasons why this subject is of particular interest to us. In the first place, the occasion for this gathering readily lends itself to a subject of this nature. It is, after all, the exclusive business of the Seminary to train men to be preachers of the gospel. And graduation means that one such student has attained this goal of graduation and is prepared to take his place in our churches as a preacher.
But, in the second place, this subject is of broader interest to our churches. To have been in a vacant congregation for any length of time is to have experienced personally the importance of preaching for the life of the church of Christ here upon earth. That is, while we are sometimes inclined to take the preaching with which we have been blessed for granted, to be without it is an unbearable lack. And (and this is the point I wish to stress tonight) the strength of our churches is in the preaching—faithful preaching of the Word of God.
In the third place, there is yet a broader interest in this subject. The subject is of importance as far as the very meaning of preaching is concerned. The essential character of preaching is being systematically altered in our day. No doubt, the gradual demise of the spiritual life of the church can be traced directly to this alteration. The church is only as strong as her preaching. It is not therefore superfluous to reemphasize the importance of preaching in the institutional life of the church of Christ.
I call your attention therefore to the following three questions:
What Is Preaching From a Formal Point of View?
What is the Content Of Preaching?
What Is Its Importance?
WHAT IS PREACHING FROM A FORMAL POINT OF VIEW?
The division which I have proposed for this speech suggests already that I intend to make a distinction between what we may call “the form or character of preaching” and “the content of preaching”. I am well aware of the fact that this distinction is of only relative significance. The two tend to merge. In fact, they cannot possibly be separated from each other. We shall take more particular note of this presently; I want to say now only that the distinction is made for purposes of clarification.
Further, it is not my purpose tonight to engage in a dogmatic dissertation on the subject of preaching—even from a formal point of view. There is altogether insufficient time for this; and the material on this point is readily available in the writings of our own ministers to those who are interested.
Rather, first of all, I want to emphasize the point that when the gospel is preached in the midst of the church of Christ, a profound miracle takes place. This needs emphasis lest we fall into the error of making light of the preaching and considering it of only relative value to us.
At the very heart of this miracle of preaching lies the truth that through the preaching God comes to meet with His people in covenant fellowship.
This was typically true already in the Old Dispensation. The preaching came then to Israel through the types and ceremonies of the law which were concentrated in the service of the temple. It was there that Israel meet with her God. God was present in that temple in the shining cloud of the Shekinah, for God had chosen Mount Zion above all the nations of the earth to make His dwelling place. In the Most Holy Place, behind the veil, between the outstretched arms of the cherubim God came to His chosen people. And Israel met to worship in covenant fellowship with God.
But the New Dispensation is far richer. The essence is still present, while the outward trappings have been stripped away since they were fulfilled in Christ. And the essence of it all has become infinitely richer. God comes to His people in the preaching of the Word to dwell with them in covenant fellowship. He speaks to His people through Christ and by the Spirit of Christ within their hearts. And, in this speech of God to His people, there is the fullness of the unity of the covenant. God’s people listen; and listening, they bow in worship and respond in praise and in prayer confessing their God as the God of their salvation. The covenant comes to realization in these worship services where God’s Word is preached.
Nor ought it to be forgotten that this is a most wonderful reality. It is God who speaks to His people and enters into covenant fellowship with them. God is the living God of heaven and earth; the adorable God before whom the angels cover their faces and cry all the day long, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts.” His Word is the Word of power by which the heavens and the earth were called into being. His speech upholds and governs all things. His voice is heard throughout all the creation working all that God Himself has determined to do. In Christ, this same voice of God is heard in the preaching speaking peace to His people and addressing them in tenderest love and compassion. The voice of God which reverberates throughout heaven and earth is the voice of God which comes to us when the gospel is preached. And this voice of God is spoken to a people whom He has chosen—a people who are, in themselves, wholly unworthy of the blessings of God because of their sin. But this miracle of the preaching is not even here exhausted; for this Word of God comes through the instrumentality of men whom God appoints and calls to the high office of minister of the gospel. This fact that men are used by God does not alter the miracle and lessen its power; it makes the miracle all the greater. Through a man God speaks; and He speaks in such a way that through this preaching the covenant of God, someday to be realized in perfection in heaven, is actually brought into being. It is this tremendous wonder that should never escape our notice as we gather together in church on the Lord’s Day in the company of God’s people.
All of this implies that the preaching of the gospel is powerful.
The scriptures use many figures to demonstrate this power. In some places the preaching of the gospel is described in terms of food and drink. The preached Word is called bread—the bread of life, meat, water of life or milk. And the point is that the preaching is food (spiritual food) to nourish the souls of God’s people with that which alone can give eternal life. Not the life which is mere existence in the world; but heavenly life which shall endure forever. Then again, the preaching is described as a sword. It is a sword which cuts and divides in the souls of those who hear it. But it is also a sword with which the battle of faith is fought in the midst of the world. It is a sword able to defeat all the hosts of darkness and bring victory to God’s elect church. Then again the preaching is described as a seed, planted in the hearts of God’s people which grows and matures and brings forth fruit of righteousness pleasing in the sight of God. Or still more: the preaching is said to be a light which shines in this dark world and which is able to lead through the devious paths of sin on to the path of righteousness which goes to glory.
All these figures emphasize the tremendous power of the preaching.
In general, this unbelievable power of the preaching of the gospel is so great that it is able to accomplish all the purpose of God. Through it God accomplishes what He has determined to do in His eternal counsel. It is the power by which the kingdom of God is realized in the day of the coming of Christ. It is the power by which God is vindicated in the just judgment which He brings upon the ungodly. It is the power by which God is exalted as God in all the works of His hands.
Specifically, this means that the power of the preaching is two-fold. It is a positive power which accomplishes all the decree of eternal election. God from all eternity chose to Himself a people and wrote their names on the pages of the Book of Life. This people is redeemed in the blood of the cross where the decree of election was realized. But it is the gospel of the cross, the preaching of the blood of Christ which is the power by which these elect are saved. By the preaching election is realized in such a way that the people of God are called out of darkness into light, are called into conscious fellowship with God, are preserved in the midst of the world, and are brought to their final destination—their Father’s house.
This same preaching though, has negative power as well. It is the power by which God accomplishes the eternal decree of reprobation. For it is the preaching by which the reprobate are hardened in their unbelief; and it is through the power of the preaching that judgment is brought upon the wicked for their wickedness.
All God’s purpose is accomplished. We can only stand amazed at what takes place when the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed.
WHAT IS THE CONTENT OF THE PREACHING?
All of this brings us to the question of the content of the preaching.
It ought to be clear in our minds that there is the closest possible connection between the character of preaching from a formal point of view and the content of the preaching. The two go hand in hand. Where the content of the preaching is altered, so also is the character of the preaching changed in fundamental and important respects. And the opposite is equally true: where the character of the preaching is altered, the content is also substantially changed. In other words, to change the character of preaching is to bring into the preaching heresy instead of the truth. Faithfulness is required in both respects.
The evidence of this abounds.
The Christian Reformed Church is in the throes of a controversy at present concerning the content of the preaching. But this controversy has a long and sad history which began in 1924. Then the Christian Reformed Church spoke rather emphatically of the character of the preaching, and insisted that the preaching was (as far as its formal aspect was concerned) an offer. It was described as a general and well-meant offer to all who came under it. This is a key modification of the true essence of preaching; and it is not surprising that over the years the content has also been altered culminating in the controversy raging today. The content has become (completely in keeping with the idea of “offer”) a statement on the part of God in which God expresses His desire to save all men. This is implied necessarily in an offer. And it ought not to surprise us a great deal that the swirling debate which goes on today in that church has its roots in 1924. The content of the preaching is an expression of God in which He speaks of His love for all men, a love which is revealed in a universal cross of Christ upon which cross Christ died for all men.
There is no substantial difference between this presentation of the preaching and the view held by Arminian (sometimes called “evangelical”) churches. The character of the preaching is defined in terms of an invitation to all men to accept the gospel. It contains indeed some statements of warning to those who refuse to accept the gospel. But its essential character, from a formal point of view, is this idea of an invitation. The content necessarily must fit this. And so the gospel contains an announcement of God’s willingness to save every man—indeed, His earnest desire to save every man. And it contains the additional announcement that man must exercise his own free will in accepting this invitation to be saved.
Yet all of this is but the first step towards what has become known as the “social gospel”. Evangelicalism is usually defined today as being theological conservatism; and is therefore supposedly the answer of the church to the liberalism of the modernists. But we must not be misled at this point. There is no principle difference between the two; no antithetical difference which sharply defines the two camps. It is merely a matter of degree of modernism. Arminianism is but a step (and a large one at that) in the direction of modernism.
But modernism has its own interpretation of the gospel. As far as the formal character of the preaching is concerned, it is difficult to call it preaching at all. The preaching has become a matter of lectures, discourses, discussions, consultations, dialogues. For the content of the preaching deals with social issues of the day. The subjects of the preaching are subjects of social concern, political interest, international and national problems; all justified by the battle cry: “We must be relevant to our age.” Hence, the avowed aim of the preaching is the righting of social wrong and the correction of political foolishness. Hence the ministers move from the pulpits of the churches into the streets, the marketplaces, the dives, the cabarets—places where the action is. And the goal is the realization of the kingdom of heaven here upon earth.
It is essential therefore that we take a sharp and uncompromising stand against all this to preserve our heritage.
Indeed the character of the preaching determines the content. In the preaching God comes to His elect people through Christ and by the operation of the Spirit. He comes to work salvation through the preaching—a salvation which He has determined for them from all eternity and which is accomplished on the cross. Sovereignly He works accomplishing His purpose so that He faithfully gathers, defends and preserves His church unto the end of time.
The content is in keeping with this. Fundamentally, the content of the preaching is God’s own Word. Even as He is the one speaking to His people, so He speaks His Word. This Word is given to us in the Holy Scriptures. These Scriptures are the infallibly inspired record of the Word of God fulfilled in Christ. So the Word of God is the revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is the Word of God which He speaks through Christ by which God saves His elect. It is the gospel of the cross. And even as the cross has efficacious power to save, so also does the preaching of the cross convey that efficacious power to save to the hearts of the elect. Thus the preaching is always characterized by exegesis—exegesis of God’s Word. It is not preaching unless it is exposition, explanation of Scripture. Only then does God speak through the preaching. The full revelation of God in Holy Writ is the contents of the preaching. Nothing else may ever be substituted.
WHAT IS ITS IMPORTANCE?
It ought to be evident from all this how important it is for us to preserve our heritage. The strength of our churches is the preaching; and the strength of the preaching is in exegesis. Nothing must ever be substituted for this. To lose the preaching is to lose our strength and our heritage in the church of all ages. To maintain steadfastly this preaching is to keep our God-given place in these times of ecclesiastical turmoil and theological hysteria.
I say then to our ministers who are gathered here: Continue to stand in reverence before your exalted calling. Be touched with awe at the sacredness of your noble task.
To our graduate I say: When the Lord gives you a place in the church by which you have been instructed, remember these words. Never be swerved from your calling to preach. Never be tempted to forsake it and to trade it for another calling. Endure steadfastly in this task set upon you.
And finally, to our people: Never ask for anything else from your pulpits but this preaching. Do not be impatient with it as if it does not work swiftly enough to satisfy you. Never be inclined to criticize it as if it should be doing greater things in the world than you think it is doing. Be content that it shall accomplish all the purpose of God.