(This is the text of a Reformation Day lecture given in Denver, Colorado in November, 1972, under the auspices of the Church Extension Committee of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland. The lecture will appear in several installments.)
In the 16th century, about 450 years ago there occurred an event which was the most important event for good to the Church of Jesus Christ from the time of the apostles to the present day. That event was the Reformation of the Church of Jesus Christ. Through the ages the Church had fallen away from Christ and had become horribly corrupt, even to the point that it was selling eternal life for money. The Holy Spirit then reformed the Church, that is, He formed her anew so that once more she appeared as the glorious bride of Christ. For this reason the name of that great movement is the Reformation. Let one of those men who were instrumental in the reformation of the Church describe what the Reformation was. In his reply to the letter of Cardinal Sadolet, John Calvin wrote : “All we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the Church, ,which at first sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterwards scandalously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman Pontiff and his faction.” The man that God used to begin the mighty work of the Reformation was Martin Luther, a lowly monk in Wittenburg, Germany. On the 31st of October in 1517, he posted on public display 95 propositions, or theses, in which he condemned the practices and the teachings of the Church regarding the forgiveness of sins, and in which he set forth the truth concerning the forgiveness of sins and righteousness with God. This proved to be the beginning of the Reformation, and for that reason we celebrate the Reformation annually on the 31st of October.
To the Reformation, all of Protestantism owes its existence. From the very beginning, the Churches that aligned themselves against the deformed institute of the Church, the Roman Church, were called Protestants. They got that name because they protested against the evils in the existing Roman institute. Almost from the very beginning of the Reformation, however, the Protestant Churches were divided into two main branches, the Lutheran Branch and the Reformed branch (which includes the Presbyterian Churches). The great leader of the Reformed branch of the Reformation was John Calvin.
The Reformation was not only a movement that built the Church, but it was also a movement that shook the entire world. This church-building and world-shaking movement was not an act of men, not even an act of those great men, Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others. They were merely instruments by which the Reformation occurred.: On the contrary, the Reformation was the work of Christ by His Holy Spirit. For that reason the Reformation is an evidence in history of the presence of Christ with His Church always, as He said in Matthew 28:20. The Reformation is the fulfillment of the promise that Christ made to his Church in John 16:13, that He would give His Spirit, the Spirit of truth, and that that Spirit of truth would lead the Church into all the truth. The Reformation in history is a proof of Jesus’ assurance in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church. Christ accomplished the Reformation by His Word, by the preaching of the Scriptures. The Reformers knew this. They knew that the Reformation was Christ’s work, and they knew that the Reformation was Christ’s work by the preaching of His Word. Luther confessed this in his inimitable way. After the Reformation had taken hold, Luther looked back and said: “Like a blind mule I was led by Christ.” Again, he wrote: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenburg beer with my friends, the Word so greatly weakened the Papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses against it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. I let the Word do its work.” The Reformation, then, stands as a monument in history to the awesome power of the Word of God, a monument that our age with its miserable underestimation of the Word very much needs to see.
If you ask the question, “To what purpose did the Reformation take place?” the answer is: In order that the people of God might again have the pure preaching of the Gospel. This was the goal of the Reformation. This was the purpose of the Reformers, but more importantly this was the purpose of the reforming Christ. Also this indicates the tremendous importance of the preaching of the Gospel. Preaching was the essential thing in the Reformation. It was the power that did the reforming, it was the goal that the Reformation aimed to achieve. And when we search the Scriptures we discover that, according to the Scriptures also, the preaching of the Word has this tremendous importance. For this reason it is fitting that children of the Reformation celebrate the Reformation by considering anew the importance of the preaching of God’s Word.
Preaching is the authoritative proclamation of the Word of God by the Church through a man who is called by God to the office of the ministry. This includes the preaching to the congregation Sunday after Sunday; the teaching of the children of believers in catechism; the exhortation of believers in their homes by the pastor; and the call to those who are outside the church in the work of missions. Romans 10:13-15 describes what the preaching is and what the preaching does. All that call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. But how can they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? How shall they believe in Him Whom they have not heard? How shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent? Preaching is the one great labor of the Church of Christ. In a certain sense, it is the only task that the Church has. All of the other activities of the Church of Jesus Christ stand in service to the preaching of the Word. The Church, of course, must also administer the sacraments and exercise Christian discipline, but these things stand in service to the preaching. The Church also has a calling to show mercy by the deacons, but that ministry of mercy is an expression of the mercy of Christ that is preached in the gospel. The Church must also establish and maintain seminaries. It publishes books and magazines. But all of this labor is controlled by the preaching of the gospel. The great commission of the Church by her Lord is: “Preach.” That is what Christ told the Church in Mark 16:15: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” This was the command of the Apostle Paul to the young pastor Timothy and in him to all pastors inII Timothy 4:2: “Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season, exhort and rebuke with all longsuffering and doctrine.” It has always been the chief labor of the Church to preach God’s Word. That was: the outstanding labor of the Church in the old dispensation. The Church did that through the prophets. The Church did that through the teaching priests and Levites. The Church did that through believing parents who were to instruct their children in God’s Word. This was also the labor of the Church in the New Testament. Preaching was the main element in the ministry of Jesus Christ Himself. He went everywhere preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, we read. This was the labor of His apostles. This is the labor of the pastors that Christ gives the Church for the edification of the Church.
Preaching, however, had all but disappeared in the Church prior to the Reformation. Instead of preaching, the priests administered the sacraments. This was regarded as the main work of the Church, in fact, almost as the only work of the Church. At that time, the Church was viewing the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, or Mass, or as we would say, Lord’s Supper, as the chief means of grace and salvation. That, by the way, remains the official position of the Roman Church to this very day, as was expressly stated in Vatican II. Not the preaching, but the celebration of the Eucharist is the chief means of grace, according to Rome. At the time of the Reformation, so little was preaching esteemed that even the administration of the sacraments was done in a language that nobody could understand. What little teaching there was consisted of the legends of the lives of the saints and silly little tales. The Church taught at that time by means of statues and pictures, which were called “Books to the Laity.” The Reformation restored preaching to its rightful place as the central work of the Church. The Reformers all taught this. Calvin is representative when he writes in his Institutes: “Christ has so ordered in His Church, that if (the pure preaching of the Word) is removed the whole edifice must fall.” In the Churches of the Reformation, both Lutheran and Reformed, preaching actually occupied this prominent place. In the time of Luther, in Wittenburg, preaching services were held several times during the week, as well as several times on Sunday, and the same thing was true in Calvin’s Geneva.
The reason for the central importance of the preaching of the Word is that Jesus Christ Himself speaks in the preaching. The living, powerful, saving Word of God sounds forth and is heard in the preaching of the Word. This is the significance of preaching. It is the Word of the sovereign God in Christ Jesus. It is the Word of God as much as God’s own preaching in Genesis 3:15 was God’s Word. The preaching is as much God’s Word as was God’s own direct speaking from Mount Sinai when He gave the law. The preaching is as much the Word of God as if God Himself stood on the pulpit and addressed us. This needs proof, because that is not apparent to our senses. With our eyes we see and with our ears we hear a mere, weak, sinful man speaking on behalf of a group of other weak and sinful men called the Church. It is to be feared that this very thing is the occasion for many in our day to neglect the preaching, to disparage the preaching, and to ignore the preaching altogether. When they do this, they have a feeling of security because they say, “Well, it is only a mere man speaking anyway.” In fact, it is the risen Christ speaking, and it is true, as some will find out to their eternal sorrow, that whoever hears the preaching hears Christ and whoever rejects the preaching rejects Christ. We should prove that the preaching of the Word is the very Word of Jesus Christ himself. That proof abounds in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament the prophets who spoke to the people of Israel spoke in such a way that it was God who spoke through them. That is what we read in II Peter 1:20, 21: “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” That is why the prophets always prefaced their messages with “Thus saith the Lord.” That is why, when Israel rejected the word of the prophets, God condemned Israel for rejecting His Word that the prophets carried to Israel. There is proof that the preaching is the speaking to the Church by Jesus Christ in the New Testament scriptures. In Ephesians 4:20, 21, Paul says to the Christians at Ephesus: “But ye have not so learned Christ; If so be that ye have heard Him and have been taught by Him as the truth is in Jesus.” Now, the Ephesians lived and were converted some 25 years after Jesus had gone to Heaven. Yet Paul says that they heard Jesus and that they were taught by Jesus. They heard Him and they were taught by Him in the preaching that they heard from the mouth of Paul. Through the mouth of Paul, Jesus spoke to them and taught them. This has to be the case because the truth is in Jesus, and if we are to know the truth Jesus must reveal the truth to us. This is also the testimony of I Thessalonians 2:13 where Paul praises the Thessalonian Christians “because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.” The Word that was preached by Paul was not the word of men, although it seemed so. It was the Word of God! This is what Jesus Himself teaches us inJohn 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice.” We must hear the voice of Jesus Christ, and we do hear the voice of Jesus Christ always in the preaching. Our Reformed Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, speaks of this when it says in Question 54: “The Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves a Church by His Spirit and His Word!”