Practical Preaching

Probably the most difficult aspect of writing articles of this nature for our Standard Bearer is choosing the various subjects. This particular rubric is directed to the youth of our churches and must deal with subjects of interest to them or it will fail in its purpose. When casting about in my mind for subjects of interest and concern to covenant youth, it occurred to me that the best way to find these subjects would be to ask the young people themselves. This is what I did. I approached several of the youth of my congregation and asked them: “What topics would you like to see treated in the Standard Bearer?”. The results were interesting indeed! Among the topics suggested are: “How far does obedience to parents go?”, “what is breaking a commandment?”, “How must we as Christians relate to social, economic, and environmental problems of today?”, and at the top of the list is the subject of this article; “Why isn’t the preaching in our churches more practical?”. (meaning: “can sermons be made to apply more directly to our everyday lives?).” 

It is not surprising that one finds this topic of interest and concern among our covenant youth. They are very much a part of the time in which we find ourselves, and at the moment preaching is up for a good deal of inspection and discussion in the church world. It must also be admitted with all candor that preaching in our day has fallen on rather bad times. Preaching is not appreciated (we mean in Reformed circles) as it once was. Worse than that, preaching is not regarded as essential or necessary to the obedient worship of God by the church. Prof. Nicholas P. Woltersdorff writes in the July-August 1970 issue of the Reformed Journal, p.7: “I fail to see that it would necessarily be a mark of disobedience on the part of the Christian community if it decided, for a time or on occasion, to worship without having a sermon. It would be a mark of disobedience if it ceased evangelism . . . if it ceased baptizing. It would be a mark of disobedience if it ceased celebrating the Lord’s Supper. It would be a mark of disobedience if it ceased offering prayers. It would be a mark of disobedience if it ceased taking alms or otherwise helping the impoverished. It would be a mark of disobedience if it ceased pursuing justice and peace. But it would not necessarily be a mark of disobedience if it did not have a monologue address delivered in its worship services by someone ordained to give such addresses.” Woltersdorff goes on to assert that: “. . . it seems to me that as a generalpractice we cannot do better than commission someone with Christian wisdom to reflect, throughout the week, on the needs of the congregation and on the Word of God to be spoken to those needs. This it seems to me is wise as a general practice. It seems to me extremely unwise, however, to make it the invariantpractice. The sermon has its defects, and the other modes (drama, film, music, and poetry, and spontaneous dialogue and testimony R.D.) have their merits, as means of prophetic proclamation and witness bearing. What is needed is diversity. Pluriformity.” Now, it is not my purpose to devote this article to a negative criticism of these contentions. I only cite them to illustrate the point that preaching is not appreciated and not considered essential to worship in the minds of some in Reformed circles. The fallacy of the above remarks will become evident when we examine together what the Bible has to say about preaching and its place in worship. 

While it is not surprising to find this a topic of interest to our youth, it is, indeed, gratifying. Especially a pastor finds reason for joy in this. We may be profoundly thankful that our young people are vitally interested in and concerned with preaching. The question indicates that the youth sincerely desire to have preaching speak to them and to their needs and to their everyday living. 

At the risk of “turning you (I mean you young people) off” I am compelled to make a critical observation of the question. The question is: “Why isn’t the preaching in our churches more practical?” That question assumes that there is preaching that is not practical. This is not true. True, Biblical preaching is always practical. To assume that the preaching in our churches is not practical as the question does, or at least is not practical as much as it should be, is to be of the conviction that our preaching is not t.rue preaching. That is a charge that I do not wish to make. But,, I do understand what the question. means. We speak in our churches of practical and doctrinal preaching. And we assume that doctrinal preaching is rather objective and has little bearing on our everyday living, while practical preaching is of a “lighter character” and relates to our lives: That is a very wrong distinction to make and we ought to be done with it. There is no practice of the Christian life apart from the doctrinal principles revealed in the Scriptures. Doctrine is the basis of practice. Hence the only practical preaching possible is doctrinal preaching.

At the same time, it must be said, that the task of the preacher is to make clear to the congregation the practical implications of the various doctrines of the Scriptures. He must show the congregation week by week what the doctrines mean for their everyday living. This, by the way, is the difficult part of sermonizing and preaching! If the preacher fails to do this he is failing in his holy task of preaching the Word. And not only the youth, but also all others in the congregation who feel that their preacher is failing should discuss this with him at once. 

With these introductory remarks let us turn to the Bible and our confessions to see what the Lord says about preaching. Then we can draw some conclusions concerning what true Biblical preaching ought to be. 

Jesus said in answer to the Jews who wanted Him to tell them whether or not He was the Christ: “. . . I told you and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me: And I give them eternal life . . . .” (John 10:25-28) Without going into a detailed exegesis of this passage let us notice that only the sheep of Jesus who are given (election) of the Father believe on Him. These sheep hear the voice of Jesus, are known by Jesus, and follow Jesus. Thus they are given eternal life, i.e. they are saved. Now the point we wish to make is that according to this passage the sheep hear Jesus’ voice. And only because they hear the voice of Jesus do they follow Him. To put it very simply, one must be given of God (elected), and thus HEAR the voice of Jesus in order to be given eternal life. 

The question then becomes, how do we hear Jesus’ voice? That the disciples heard Him is easily understood. But how do we hear His voice today? Jesus has ascended to glory and no longer walks and talks among us. Do we still hear His voice? We must, else we cannot be saved. 

We do hear His voice. Jesus speaks to us and we hear Him through the means of the preaching. This is plainly taught in Romans 10:13-15: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach except they be sent? . . .”. Briefly, this passage tells us: that whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, that one cannot call upon the name of the Lord unless he believes in him, that one cannot believe in the Lord unless he hears him, and that he cannot hear the Lord without a preacher who is sent. This is plain as soon as we understand that the translation of this text is erroneous. The little word “of” in the phrase: “of whom they have not heard” does not appear in the original text. The text should be read: “and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard.” In the preaching, therefore, we do not hear of Jesus but we hear Jesus Himself! We hear His voice, and hearing His voice we follow Him and are saved. That means it is not merely wise to have preaching as a general practice in our worship along with other modes of communication, but it means we cannot do without the preaching. Preaching is indispensable to our salvation! 

That same precious truth is obvious from other texts. Take, for example, II Cor. 5:18-20, where we read: “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” Here we learn that God has reconciled us, brought us into harmony to Himself by Jesus Christ. That is an accomplished fact. The good news of that reconciliation, “the ministry of reconciliation” God has given to the Apostles. He has committed to them the word of reconciliation. And, therefore, they are ambassadors for Christ through whom God beseeches us. This means that the Apostles were the official representatives of Christ. They brought His Word and spoke in His behalf (“we pray you in Christ’s stead”). And the official Word of Christ which they brought is: “Be ye reconciled to God!” 

The same may be said for preachers today. The apostles, together with the prophets, with Christ as the cornerstone, formed the foundation of the Church. That means that when the Word of reconciliation was committed to them it was committed to the Church which sends, calls, and ordains the preachers. True preaching then is the official Word of Jesus Christ which proclaims the glad news of reconciliation by God in Him. 

Our Reformed Confessions recognize this crucial significance of preaching and give it its proper place. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 25, q. 65 says that faith comes from the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts “by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.” That same confession in its exposition of the third commandment says in Lord’s Day 35, q. 98, that God: “. . . will have his people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of the word.” In Lord’s Day 31 the fathers cite preaching as one of the keys of the Kingdom by which the Kingdom of heaven is opened to believers and shut to unbelievers. Article 29 of the Belgic or Netherlands Confession of faith teaches that preaching is one of the marks of the true church. And in the Canons of Dordrecht, Head I, art. 3 we read: “And that men may be brought to believe, God mercifully sends the messengers of these most joyful tidings, to whom he will and at what time he pleaseth; by whose ministry men are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified.”

While many more references to both the Bible and the confessions could be cited, these are sufficient to indicate the indispensable place of preaching for our salvation. Preaching is absolutely necessary for our salvation. We cannot get along without it. It is the means through which Christ speaks to us His powerful and effective Word of salvation. 

We shall have more to say about this in our next article.