Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
What makes a church the church? To what church ought I belong? What should I look for in a church? Which considerations are essential and which are not? Is the worship style important? Ought I be a member of that downtown church which offers a “high church,” structured, and very formal worship? Or should I be a member of that large church which features a much less formal worship style bordering on the charismatic? Ought I join the church that offers a wide range of “ministries” and support groups to singles, divorced persons, youth, et. al.? Or ought I be a member of that church which places a high priority on the preaching of the Word, the church that makes preaching the center of its worship and insists that the preacher proclaim the riches of the truth of the inspired, infallible, holy Scriptures? What is the crux of the matter in determining my church membership?
If the church must worship God as He has commanded in His Word, and she must, then all the elements in the worship (the singing, the reading of the Law, confession of faith, prayers, offerings, preaching) must be in harmony with the will of God revealed in Holy Scripture. But what is the one thing that really matters? What is it that distinguishes the true church from those churches which are apostatizing or which have become completely false? What is the crux of the matter?
The answer is, according to the Reformed Confessions, that the church is marked by the preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline (cf. The Belgic Confession, Art. XXIX). Of these three marks of the true church preaching is the chief. Preaching is the chief mark of the church because preaching is the chief means of grace. Preaching is the means which God, the Holy Spirit, uses to work His grace in the hearts of His people and to preserve them to everlasting life and glory. The Belgic Confessionteaches that faith is wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God (Art. XXIV), and that there must be ministers to preach the Word . . . that by these means the true religion may be preserved (Art. XXX). The Heidelberg Catechism teaches that the Son of God gathers His elect out of the world by means of His Spirit and Word (q. 54). The Catechism also insists that the Holy Spirit works faith by the preaching of the gospel (q. 65). Preaching is one of the keys by which the Kingdom is opened to believers and shut to unbelievers (q. 83, 84). Images are not to be tolerated in the churches as books to the laity, The Catechismexplains, because we must not pretend to be wiser than God Who will have His people taught not by dumb images but by the lively preaching of His Word (q. 98).The Canons of Dordrechteach that the promise and command of the gospel ought to be published and declared to all nations and persons promiscuously to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel (II, 5). The Canons also declare that just as God uses means to prolong and support our natural life, so God uses means to nourish and support our spiritual life; and the means God uses are the admonitions of the preaching of the gospel (III, IV; 17).
The Reformed Confessions are true to the Scriptures on this matter. The inspired Apostle writes to the church at Ephesus:
And he (the crucified, risen, exalted Christ) gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. . . that we . . . may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.
This passage teaches that Christ gave pastors and teachers to the church to make the saints perfect, complete. The people of God through the work of the ministry are edified, i.e., built up into the body of Jesus Christ. This is what preaching accomplishes.
In the marvelous tenth chapter of the Gospel According to John Jesus reveals Himself as the Good Shepherd Who lays down His life and takes it up again for His sheep, and Who gathers the sheep into one fold under Himself as the one Shepherd. What distinguishes the sheep of Jesus from all unbelievers is the fact that the sheep hear Jesus’ voice, are known of Him, and follow Him (verses 14-30).
The question is, how do the sheep hear the voice of Jesus? How do they hear His voice today? The answer is found in Romans 10:13-15 where we read:
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? as it is written, how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
This passage teaches that in order to be saved one must call upon the name of the Lord. In order to call upon the name of the Lord one must believe on Him, -and in order to believe on the Lord one must hear the Lord. In order to hear the Lord one must have a preacher who is sent. This means that we hear the voice of Jesus by means of a preacher called, qualified, ordained by Christ through the church. This is the means God chooses to use to work faith in the hearts of His people enabling them to call upon His name and be saved. This is utterly crucial, for it means that without preaching there can be no believing, and without believing there can be no calling upon the name of the Lord, and without calling upon the name of the Lord there can be no salvation.
Standing firmly on the rock of Holy Scripture the Reformed tradition maintains, therefore, that preaching is the chief means by which God works His grace in the hearts of His elect in Christ and preserves them to everlasting life and glory. If we as Protestant Reformed Churches are to continue to be a Confessionally Reformed Church it is absolutely necessary that we hold fast to this biblical truth. Preaching is not merely one man addressing all the others as some maintain. Preaching is much more than a lecture on some doctrine of the Bible. Preaching is that unique, mysterious miracle by which God uses a sinful, weak man in the way of expounding Holy Scripture to “save them that believe!” By means of preaching, the sheep of Christ hear His voice; and hearing His voice they know and follow the Good Shepherd into life eternal. It is crucial that we maintain this truth by the grace of God. Preaching must remain central in our worship; it must be the main element around which everything in the worship revolves.
As to its content this means that preaching must declare and proclaim nothing less than and nothing more than the Word of God. And, because this is true, preaching must be exegetical or expository. Preaching must explain the plain, simple, yet utterly profound meaning of the Word of God as that Word applies to every sphere of human life and meets every need of the child of God.
Thus, because preaching is the chief means of grace, it is the chief mark of the church.
And this is the crux of the matter! I must be a member of that church which preaches the Word of God. Then I shall be hearing “Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23). This explains our choice of the word “crux.” It is derived1 from the Latin word for cross. In the cross of Jesus Christ is all of our salvation. Apart from the cross of Jesus Christ we are lost. This means that we must be and remain members of that church which faithfully proclaims nothing less or more than Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
How clearly the Scriptures speak to this! In response to the schism and party strife in Corinth Paul stresses that not baptism, but preaching is the chief means of grace. Christ did not send me to baptize, writes Paul, but to preach Christ crucified. The reason for this is that preaching is: “Christ, the power and wisdom of God” and: “… it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe . ..” (I Corinthians 1:17-25).
For this reason no one has the right to separate himself from that church which faithfully preaches the Word (The Belgic Confession Art. XXIX).
Preaching is the crux of the matter!