Through the preaching, Christ saves the Church. The Reformation itself is one great instance of this in history. The Scriptures teach this in many places. For example, in Romans 1:15, 16, Paul says that he is ready to preach the Gospel everywhere, for he is not ashamed of the gospel. For it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth. In I Corinthians 1:21, Paul says that it has pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save those that believe. Through the preaching, Christ saved the Church in several respects. First, by the preaching the elect of God are called powerfully by Christ, so that they are converted, repent, and believe. This is the teaching of Romans 10. It takes preaching in order to work faith. That faith in turn leads to a calling upon God so that a man is saved. Secondly, by the preaching we are justified, that is, through the preaching we have our sins forgiven and we receive that righteousness which alone will give us a standing before God. Many know that the formula that expresses the very heart of the message of the Reformation is the word: “The just shall live by faith alone,” or “Justification by faith alone.” What is not so widely known is that he Reformation insisted that this justification by faith takes place through the preaching of the gospel. The Church forgives sins. The Church opens to men the Kingdom of Heaven, not by some power that the Church has, not by some arbitrary pronouncement of a priest, but by preaching the gospel. The gospel justifies men, and the gospel opens the Kingdom of Heaven to men when they believe. This is Romans 1:17. In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Therefore, we have peace and comfort from the preaching. Apart from the preaching no man can have peace and no man does have peace. In the third place, by the preaching the people of God are sanctified, that is, by the preaching we are made holy, so that we shun evil works and perform good works. Christ Himself taught this in John 17, where He said in his prayer: “Sanctify them by thy: truth: thy word is truth.” This particular aspect of the work of the preaching includes the preserving of God’s people even to the end. This is what the Lord emphasized in John 10, where he said that our following Him and. our never perishing are due to our hearing His voice. He keeps us by His Word. All of this makes clear that the importance of the preaching is that it is essential for salvation. The Christian and the Church cannot live without the preaching of the Word.
Yet, the importance of the preaching of the Word is still greater. Through the preaching of the Word God is glorified. It was this consideration that impelled the Reformers and that drove those people that embraced the Reformation to continue faithful to the principles of the Reformation in the face of great opposition. The Reformation was a struggle. It involved the Protestant Christians in bitter suffering. It led to martyrdom. It was fraught with disappointments. There were times when the strongest wearied and when the most courageous cried out on the brink of despair, “Is it worth the cost, 0, Lord?” Then they were motivated to continue, not only because of the pastoral love that they had for the sheep of God, who must be fed by the Word at all cost, but also because of their conviction that God must be glorified by the preaching. This above all drove the Reformers and the children of the Reformation to persevere. So necessary did Luther see the preaching to be in regard to the glory of God that he declared that although the preaching of the gospel would turn the whole world into an armed camp and cause the world to become a sea of blood, the gospel must be preached. God is praised by the gospel inasmuch as His glory is the ultimate goal of the salvation of the Church, which salvation is accomplished by preaching. God is praised by the preaching inasmuch as the message of the preaching is the greatness and the glory of God. The preaching proclaims the name of God, that name concerning which every Christian prays in the Lord’s Prayer: “Hallowed be Thy Name.” Not only is the message that is preached from God, but it is also about God.
Now, this message of the preaching, what is preached, is vital. Not only is it essential that there be preaching, but. it is also essential that the Word of God be preached, that the truth be preached. Christ does not speak in any and all preaching. The Church is not saved by any and all preaching. God is not honored by every address that claims to be preaching. So far is this from being true that the Scriptures warn us of a preaching that is not the voice of the shepherd, but the voice of wolves; of a preaching that does not gather and save the Church, but that scatters and destroys the Church; of a preaching that does not praise God, but that demeans and dishonors God. It does this even though it is found in the Church and even though it alleges to be preaching. It hardly demands to be proved that this is the case. The Scriptures are replete with warnings against false doctrine and false preaching. In Galatians 1, Paul speaks of another gospel that is no gospel and that must be repudiated. In I Timothy 2, he warns of words that are spoken in the Church that are like a canker and that overthrow the faith of some men, and he even names two heretical preachers, Hymeneus and Philetus, and names the false doctrine that they preach, a denial of the resurrection of the dead. In Acts 20, in his farewell address to the elders of the church at Ephesus, Paul warns of wolves that shall arise even out of their own number who shall speak perverse things and shall draw away men to be their disciples instead of being the disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Reformation opposed the form of the existing Church because of the fact that that Church preached another gospel than the apostolic Gospel. The Church at that time preached false doctrine. This was the cause of the Reformation. Our doctrinally indifferent and ignorant age cannot understand this. Our age does not understand that men would dare all—for doctrine. Our age does not understand that men would risk plunging the entire civilized world into turmoil—for doctrine. It does not understand that men would turn their backs on the imposing institute of a church that had existed for hundreds of years and that was vested with the pomp and authority of centuries—for doctrine. Our age does not understand that men would, in the words of Luther’s famous hymn, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also”—for doctrine. Today, for many, many even who are nominally children of the Reformation, nothing is less important than doctrine. The most wicked heresies can flourish in the Church, and it leaves them untouched: denial of the infallible inspiration of the Bible; a message of the dependency of salvation upon men that would have made even that old hawker of indulgences, Tetzel, blush with embarrassment denial of the literal resurrection of Christ; the denial of a literal heaven and hell; and many, many more. This shows how far the Protestant churches by this time have fallen away from Christ and have departed from the truth of the Scriptures, the truth that they once knew and confessed. But the Reformation took place because of false doctrine, and it was concerned centrally with sound doctrine. It was not mainly a matter of the abominable practices of the Roman Church at that time. These practices abounded and they were atrocious: the scandalous lives of the Popes and the other ecclesiastical leaders, the superstitious worship of relics, and many more evil practices. But as Calvin once wrote to Cardinal Sadolet: “there are many examples of cruelty, avarice, intemperance, arrogance, insolence, lust, and all sorts of wickedness, which are openly manifested by men of your order, but none of those things would have driven us to the attempt which we made under a much stronger necessity.” What was that much stronger necessity that drove the Reformers to Reformation? Calvin continues: “That necessity was that the light of divine truth had been extinguished, the word of God buried!” The superficial view that prevails today that the Reformation took place only because of certain extreme abuses in the practice of the Roman Church is wrong. That superficial view fosters close co-operation with Rome, which is really impossible, and it is also leading many to an eventual return to the Roman Church. On the contrary, the Reformation was concerned with the truth of the gospel. The false teaching of the Roman Church in summary was this: man can and man must save himself. Salvation takes place by man’s own works and effort. The error against which Luther battled already in the ninety-five theses was really the same error that Paul condemns in the entire epistle to the Galatians, the error that says that man can and man must do something, in addition to the work of Christ, to obtain the forgiveness of sins and a righteousness which is able to stand before God. That error was put into expression in the evil of indulgences in which men could buy forgiveness of sins for themselves and for their departed loved ones for money, but that gross evil was only the expression of a fundamental error in doctrine, the error of teaching that a man’s salvation depends upon what he himself does, upon his choosing Christ by his own free will, and upon his own good works, which merit righteousness.
Over against this, the Reformation restored the true message of the preaching. What must be preached? The Scriptures must be preached. The Bible and the Bible alone must be the content, of the preaching. The Scriptures are in their totality, the Word of God to us. Besides them there is no Word of God, only words of men. The preaching is shut up to the Word of God and that means to the Scriptures. The Scriptures are the Word of God because they are inspired or, as II Timothy 3:16 literally states, “breathed forth of God.” Because they are the inspired Word of God, the Scriptures are our only authority. This was denied by Rome, who placed the authority of the Church alongside the authority of the Scriptures, and this was also denied by the anabaptists of that time, who disparaged and downgraded the Scriptures and exalted the Spirit and a certain inner revelation of the Spirit. But the Reformation insisted that the Scriptures are the only authority in the Church. Because it is the inspired Word of God, it is reliable in all its parts. It is trustworthy in everything that it teaches. Because it is the inspired word of God, Scripture determines the message of the preaching. The preaching may only explain and apply the Bible. This does not mean that it is sufficient to sit at home and read the Bible, for the Bible must be preached. Now, the message of the Bible and, therefore, the content of the preaching is this: God’s gracious salvation of His people through Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead. What must be preached? The gospel of grace! There are certain basic elements of this gospel of grace to which I briefly direct your attention. First of all, an element of this message is that man, every man, is lost and ruined in sin. The preaching of the gospel exposes and condemns man as the sinner. Such is our ruin that we are totally depraved. We possess no good and no ability for good. We are inclined to all evil by nature, dead in trespasses and sins, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:1. We are lacking in a free will, an ability to choose salvation. We are, therefore, totally unable to save ourselves or to co-operate in God’s salvation of us. Our plight by nature is still worse. We are exposed to God’s wrath so that unless we are delivered by Christ we shall certainly perish in eternal hell. The second element of the gospel is the truth that the Holy Spirit raises the elect of God from their spiritual death by the power of almighty grace and gives us faith in our hearts, as we learn from Ephesians 2:8: By grace are ye saved through faith and even that faith is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Thirdly, an element of the gospel is the truth of justification by faith alone, that is, the forgiveness of sins and righteousness with God only by believing in Jesus Christ. This is the very cornerstone of the gospel which is preached. We sinners need pardon, we need our guilt removed, we need a righteousness that will enable us to stand before the Holy God. Forgiveness and righteousness are in Jesus Christ. They become ours only through faith in him. By faith, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us by God. Fourthly, the message of the gospel is the perfect satisfaction that Christ made for His people on Calvary’s cross. That is the basis for the justification that we receive in the gospel. The message of the gospel is Christ and Him crucified. Christ by his suffering and death paid in full the debt that they owed to God in whose place He died. Because of His death, our punishment was completely borne away and none of it remains for us to suffer. Fifthly, an element of the gospel is the truth of eternal, sovereign, unconditional predestination. This is part of the message of the preaching. This is the fountain of all of salvation! We are born again, we believe, we have the pardon of sins, Christ satisfied for our sins, because God eternally chose us in love. So Paul teaches in II Timothy 1:9: “God hath saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.” What magnifies this grace is that God did not choose all, but reprobated some no worse than we are. In one word, the message of the gospel is grace! Therefore, the preaching is good news, gospel; therefore, it comforts despairing sinners; therefore, it glorifies God the Saviour; therefore, it also certainly causes the believers to be zealous for good works, to confess the truth, to suffer for Christ’s sake, to understand their responsibilities, to obey God’s law, to love and forgive each other—in gratitude for so great a salvation and so marvelous a grace. This gospel, friends, never becomes outdated; it is never replaced by a new message for “modern men.” This is a particularly silly and dangerous presumption of our age. We “modern men” think that we need a new gospel. That is the same as saying that we need a new Christ or that we need a new salvation. The Reformation would have been horrified to have been told that they were inventing a new message. The Reformation insisted that it only restored the old message of the apostles and the ancient Church. The need of us “modern men” is the need of the old gospel that is never new. We need to hear that we are sinners, unable to save ourselves; we need to hear of the great grace of God in Jesus Christ, the Redeemer; we need to hear our calling to live before His face in gratitude.
(to be concluded)