What is the nature of true preaching? For now, the question is not, What is the content of true preaching? The content of true preaching is the gospel. That man has not truly preached who has not set forth the gospel. The following article will develop that point more fully. The question now is, What is the nature of the preaching of the gospel?
The question is relevant. For one thing, every week God’s people sit under the preaching of the gospel. What is it under which we sit? And why do we do sit under it?
Second, the question is relevant because the Reformed confessions speak highly of the preaching of the gospel. They teach that the preaching of the gospel is a mark of the true church of Jesus Christ, a key of the kingdom of heaven, and the chief means by which the Holy Spirit works faith.1 Because these are our confessions, we must understand them; specifically, we must know what they say about the nature of the preaching of the gospel.
Third, the question is relevant because much passes for preaching today that is not really preaching. One man entertains an audience with stories having a Bible theme. Another claims to be having a conversation (“dialoguing”) with his audience. And these consider themselves preachers! But the preaching of the gospel as the Old Testament prophets did it, as Jesus did it, as the apostles did it, and as faithful preachers today must do it, is of a far greater and more exalted character than entertainment and conversation.
The purpose of this article is to explain the nature of the preaching of the gospel. In sum, preaching is the work of the exalted Jesus Christ by His Spirit, through men officially called to preach, by which He declares to His people the fullness, the sufficiency, the completeness of all His saving benefits. Having set forth the nature of true preaching, this article will note the power of true preaching. Finally, the article will point out some implications of this understanding of preaching, both for the preacher, and for those who sit under the preaching.
The goal of this article is to enable God’s children to recognize true preaching when they hear it, and to identify what is not true preaching when they hear that. Recognizing true preaching, one will know that he is hearing the voice of our Savior, his soul is being fed, and he is enjoying communion with God.
A surprising number of systematic theologies explain what preaching is but do not provide a succinct definition of preaching.2 To use Herman Hoeksema’s definition, then, is not merely to look close to home for a definition, but is to use a helpful definition from a theologian who actually provided one. Hoeksema says: “Preaching is the authoritative proclamation of the gospel by the church in the service of the Word of God through Christ.”3
Hoeksema expands on the four aspects of this definition. The first regards its content, which the next article will treat. The second is that the gospel is authoritative proclamation. The third is that the church carries out this activity of preaching. True, the church must call a man to proclaim the gospel on its behalf; but through him the church preaches. Fourth, Hoeksema underscores that the preaching serves the word of God through Christ. This regards the power of the preaching, a point relevant to this article. Hoeksema means that the preaching is a means of grace, a means by which God carries out His purpose of saving His people. The starting point, then, is that true preaching is the authoritative proclamation of the gospel.
Many Scripture passages demonstrate this point; five will be noted. First, true preaching is the sounding forth of the voice of Jesus Christ. Our Savior said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). He was not merely saying that some people heard and followed Him while He was on earth. Rather, He set forth a general principle that holds true throughout time. For, first, He speaks of His sheep, His elect, who are found on earth throughout all times. Second, He was referring to an ongoing activity of hearing, knowing, and following—an activity that continues as long as Jesus Christ lives and works. He lives and works yet today. How, then, do His sheep hear Him today? By the work of the Spirit in the preaching of the gospel.
Consider also the inspired words of the apostle Paul: “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?” (Rom. 10:14-15a). The quotation is from the KJV. The proper Greek translation is not “how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard,” but “whom they have not heard.”4 One who hears the preaching, therefore, does not merely hear about Christ; he hears Christ.
Scripture teaches this also in the Old Testament. David said in Psalm 22:22, “I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.” But Psalm 22 is a messianic Psalm, in which David speaks typically and prophetically of Jesus Christ, as Hebrews 2:12 makes clear. The Lord Jesus Christ, exalted in heaven, declares God’s name to His spiritual brothers and sisters, including those in the church on earth. That divine name that He declares is God’s revelation regarding the fullness of salvation in Christ. How does the exalted Christ make this revelation known to His people? By the work of the Spirit illuminating and causing us to understand the Scriptures. One means to that end, the chief means, is the preaching of the gospel.
Other passages in the book of Hebrews also underscore that the preaching is the voice of Christ to His people. The book opens by telling us that God has spoken unto us by His Son (Heb. 1:2). Hebrews 3:7, 3:15, and 4:7 quote and apply Psalm 95:7, “Today if ye will hear his voice.” And note Hebrews 12:25, in which the inspired writer exhorts his readers, “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh,” which speaker is the living God as revealed in “Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant” (12:24). The context of this last passage contains a reference to God speaking to Israel from Sinai: as God spoke to Israel from the mountain, so He speaks to His church today.
Finally, Amos 3:8 also teaches the authority of the declaration of the gospel, and the fact that in that declaration God’s voice is heard: “The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken, who can but prophesy?” The passage speaks of hearing Jehovah’s voice. Because Jesus is truly God, and is the chief prophet from God to us, one who hears Jehovah’s voice hears it in and through Jesus Christ. Notice also the direct connection between the prophet hearing that voice, and the prophet declaring what the voice said: “Who can but prophesy?”
That a man expounds the Word of God to a congregation, and in doing so the congregation hears Christ’s voice, needs explanation. When listening to a sermon, do we not hear a man’s voice? Do we not hear the pitch, the tenor, the volume of one particular man, in distinction from another man? May we truly say that through a man’s preaching Jesus Christ Himself addresses His church, declaring His love for the church, calling His people to faith and repentance, and warning His people of the dangers of sin?
That we hear Christ’s voice in the preaching is a spiritual reality, not a physical one. We do hear the pitch, tenor, and volume of an earthly man’s voice. But through every true preacher, the believer hears the spiritual voice of Christ in a way similar to our eating earthly bread and drinking earthly wine in the Lord’s Supper, while being nourished with Christ’s spiritual body and blood.
Four points help us understand this spiritual reality. First, we hear Christ’s voice because the content of the preaching is Jesus Christ, in His person and work, as our only and all-sufficient Savior. Preaching that does not have Christ as its content is not the voice of Christ. In making known God’s name (Ps. 22:22), Jesus Christ makes Himself known as the revelation of God.
Second, true preaching is the voice of God in Christ because Jesus Christ is the one who raises up men, calls them, and equips them to preach. Believing Christians are to witness to Christ in words and deeds, and to speak that which accords with Scripture. But preaching is more than that. Preaching is the authoritative declaration of the gospel by a man whom Christ has called through the church: “How shall they preach except they be sent?” (Rom. 10:15).
Third, true preaching is the voice of God in Christ because Christ speaks by His Spirit. John 15:26 teaches that the Spirit testifies of Christ as the one whom the Father and Son sent into the church. The testimony of the Spirit about Christ is Christ’s own testimony about Himself, and the Father’s testimony about Christ, through the Spirit (John 15:26). Because of this, the Spirit works faith through the preaching (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 65, 67).
Fourth, all who hear the preaching hear the gospel. Yet not all of them hear Christ addressing them personally. By nature we are dead in sin, unable to hear Christ. What makes possible our hearing Christ’s voice in the preaching is the Holy Spirit’s work in us, regenerating our hearts, giving us spiritual ears to hear, creating faith, and working in us a delight in spiritual things. By virtue of this work in elect believers, when believers hear the gospel proclaimed, we know that we have heard our Lord and Savior.
Because the preaching is the authoritative proclamation of the gospel and the sounding forth of the voice of Jesus Christ, its nature is also that of a divine, saving call. What is God doing with His voice in the preaching? He is calling His people out of sin and unbelief into covenant fellowship with Himself.
Scripture teaches this. First Corinthians 1:9 teaches that God calls us: “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” Scripture also indicates that this call comes by the gospel: “Whereunto [unto salvation] he called you by our gospel” (2 Thess. 2:14). By referring to Christ’s gospel as “our gospel,” the apostle refers to his activity of preaching the gospel. By the preaching of the gospel through men whom He has appointed, God calls His people.
So the preaching of the gospel is not merely the sounding forth of the voice of God, in that it proclaims some divine sound that none can understand. Rather, it is the expression of God’s will to save His people. By the preaching, Christ brings us into fellowship with Himself and with God. To that end, the Holy Spirit works faith by the preaching. Probably many of us who sit under the preaching forget about this purpose. Certainly, they who despise the preaching ignore it. And men who consider themselves preachers, but forget the purpose of preaching, will go wrong in their own preaching. If a preacher fails to understand that he is God’s mouthpiece to call the people to communion with God in Christ, he will not prepare a meaty, purpose-driven sermon. When the preacher understands what preaching is, he will diligently prepare himself to bring God’s Word, and will come to the pulpit with purpose.
No examination of the nature of the preaching of the gospel is complete without an examination of the New Testament Greek words that are translated “preach.” Two different words are so translated. From one of them we get our word “evangelize.” This word refers to the good news, the gospel, that is preached. The other emphasizes the nature of this activity; it is the word “herald.” In Bible times, the word referred to a forerunner whom the king sent, days or weeks before the king himself visited a city or province, to speak in the king’s name and to announce his imminent arrival. Hearing the news that the herald brought, the people would make ready: they would clean up the town, and smooth the roads (Is. 40:3,4). The inspired writers of the New Testament used that same word to refer to the nature of the preaching. It is our King’s authoritative declaration that He was coming soon. Matthew used this word to refer to the preaching of John the Baptist: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). The same word is used to refer to Jesus’ preaching (Matt. 4:17).
That the kingdom is near means several things. Briefly, first, it means that God Himself, our King in Jesus Christ, is near us. Second, it means that His kingdom is near: it is manifest in His church on earth and is in our hearts. Third, it means that He is quickly bringing to pass that day when His kingdom comes in all its fullness; He is quickly unfolding His saving purposes in Jesus Christ.
All this He declares to us in the preaching. We can appreciate the need for this. We forget that God’s spiritual kingdom is in and around us, and that the final fulfillment of that kingdom is coming quickly. God’s kingdom seems so far away. We see earthly things, not spiritual; and our battle against sin and temptation can lead us to think that God’s kingdom is far off. But God announces to us in the preaching that He is near, that He is fulfilling all the promises that He made, and that soon we will enjoy perfect covenant fellowship with Him.
When John the Baptist and Jesus spoke these words, they were teaching that Jesus Christ, the King of the kingdom, had already come in the flesh, and would soon lay down His life on the cross in order to establish that kingdom as a kingdom of righteousness. At that time, the kingdom was near. It is even nearer now, for Jesus Christ is risen and has poured out His Spirit.
In this last explanation of the nature of preaching, consider analogies and figures that Scripture uses to refer to God’s Word. Psalm 119:105 reads: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Likewise, 2 Peter 1:19-20 teaches that Christians have a more sure word of prophecy, a more sure word that Jesus is the Christ, the exalted Lord and Savior: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”
Neither of these passages refer to the preaching of the gospel exclusively; both refer to God’s written Word, to Scripture. But if God’s inspired, written Word has the power to guide, the faithful preaching of that Word also has such power. The proclamation of Jesus Christ in the gospel as it is preached sets forth God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.
Sin makes such illumination necessary. We doubt God’s promises and endure temptations to sin against God’s law. These manifest the presence of our old man—always present, even though he no longer has dominion over us. By the preaching, God assures us that His promises are true and shows us that way of holiness in which we must walk.
All of this is to say that the preaching of the gospel is exalted and noble in character. This is not how we view it by nature. The Jews considered the preaching of the gospel to be empty and the Gentiles thought it foolishness (1 Cor. 1:22). Today many despise it. Regarding its content, it is despised: Jesus was dead but is alive? Really? Regarding its nature, it is despised: God speaks to us through a man? Really? But Scripture speaks highly of the preaching.
Take Amos, the Old Testament prophet, as an instance. In distinction from the preacher in the New Testament church, Israel’s prophets were given new revelations directly from God. What they spoke to the church in the Old Testament was essentially the same gospel that God had revealed to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but God revealed to them some new aspect or development of that gospel. By contrast, the preaching of the gospel in the New Testament does not consist of receiving and imparting new revelation, but of expounding the completed revelation of God in Scripture.
This important distinction notwithstanding, both the speech of the Old Testament prophets and the preaching of faithful pastors today are authoritative. Amos said: “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets. The lion hath roared, who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken: who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:7-8). The speech of the Old Testament prophet was authoritative: it was the declaration of that which Jehovah had spoken. Likewise, faithful gospel preaching is authoritative. The preacher is sent by Christ through His church (Rom. 10:15) to teach God’s Word (Eph. 4:11, 1 Tim. 4:11). So New Testament preaching, like Old Testament prophecy, is the roaring of the lion. When Amos said, “the lion hath roared,” he meant that God gave a new prophe-cy. When the prophet then spoke that word faithfully, and when the preacher today does, the people know what that lion, the Lion of Judah’s tribe, said and says.
Because both Old Testament prophecy and New Testament preaching have this authority, they powerfully accomplish the purpose for which God sent the preacher or the prophet.
That the preaching has power follows from the exalted character of preaching. If preaching is lowly, if it is merely a man’s activity, it has no power. That it has power is the fallacy of the teaching of the well-meant offer of the gospel, particularly in its assumption that a man by his own free will can choose to believe what the gospel declares. Likewise, the fallacy of the altar call is that it supposes that a preacher, a mere human, has the power to stir up human reason and emotions so that one makes a choice for Christ and becomes saved. Such is a low view of preaching. It assumes that the power is not in the word itself, but in the man who brings it, or in how he delivers it.
The power of preaching is much greater than this. The power of preaching is the power of God’s Word, which power is limitless, efficacious, and irresistible. By the word of Jehovah were the heavens made (Ps. 33:6, Gen. 1). By the word of His power, the exalted Lord Jesus Christ upholds all things (Heb. 1:3). By the word of God, the dead will be raised; He once called things that were not as though they were, and will do so again (Rom. 4:17). God’s word accomplishes that for which God sends it (Is. 55:10-11), and does so in such a way that no man, and no creature, can refuse what God commands. When God commanded the sun to shine, the sun did not refuse to shine, but it shone. Likewise the word of God in the preaching of the gospel accomplishes God’s purpose.
It does so because the Holy Spirit works through it. Paul understood that the power of his preaching was not inherent in him: “And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:3-4). Again, he said to the Thessalonians, “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:5). By this last phrase the inspired apostle states one aspect of the power of the gospel: it works assurance, confidence.
By speaking of the preaching of the gospel as a key of the kingdom, the Reformed confessions indicate that the preaching has power. Preaching is the power of Christ to open the door of the kingdom of heaven so that believers enter, and to shut it to keep God’s children in. Again, it is Christ’s power to open the door of the kingdom of heaven (as that kingdom is manifest in the church on earth) to let unbelievers depart, and to shut the door to keep unbelievers out. This is not only the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 84) but also of Matthew 16:19.
And it is the idea of Amos 3. The prophet, we noted, spoke of the nature of prophecy as being akin to the roaring of a lion. But notice the context. Amos brings a word of judgment to the northern kingdom of Israel. He does not say: “I have a new word from God for you, and you will be pleased to hear it; it will comfort you by telling you that your sins are forgiven, and will build you up in faith and godliness.” Rather, in Amos 3:9-15 the prophet indicates that Jehovah is coming to judge the ten tribes for their wickedness. Even the phrase, “the lion hath roared,” speaks of judgment. That Jehovah roared does not merely mean that He spoke with great volume, nor with great authority, but that He spoke of certain judgment. When does a lion roar? When it has caught its prey; its roar declares victory over the animal that it has killed. The prophet had asked the Israelites, “Will a lion roar in the forest, when he hath no prey? Will a young lion cry out of his den, if he have taken nothing?” (3:4). The questions are rhetorical; the answer is clearly, “No.” The lion’s roar indicates that the lion has accomplished his purpose and considers himself the victor over his prey. Such was Jehovah’s roar, and such is the power of the preaching. By it Jehovah announces the certainty and nearness of the judgment that He would bring on Israel for their sin.
Astounding power! Humbling power! Let us remember that power as we sit under the preaching! “What sin of mine is God exposing?” we might ask. Then, let us turn from that sin, lest God’s judgment come upon us! That judgment could take the form of punishment, wrath, and destruction. It took that form for the nation of Israel as a whole, which was carried away captive. Or that judgment could take the form of chastisement, as it did for the elect of the nation whom God spared from complete ruin.
The same idea, particularly regarding the destruction that the preaching works as the tool of God, is taught in Hebrews 6:4-6. Those of whom the text speaks, considered from an earthly viewpoint, have come so close to salvation that the Spirit says they have tasted the word of God. But they have fallen away. The Holy Spirit then explains this truth by an analogy: “For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briars is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned” (7-8). God has a twofold purpose in sending rain: to cause crops to grow for food and to prepare kindling to be burned. Likewise, He has a twofold purpose in the preaching of the gospel: to work faith in His elect and to harden the hearts of the reprobate. Of this latter, Pharaoh was a prime example: by sending Moses to Pharaoh repeatedly, God sovereignly worked the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This was also the effect of God’s Word through Amos and others on those who were departing from God’s ways and would not listen.
This aspect of the power of the preaching should work an awe and reverence for God in the hearts of His children. But the power of the preaching is also to save.
That the preaching has power comforts believing sinners, for the preaching’s power is to soften, to pull down strong holds (2 Cor. 10:4). We build in our own hearts a strong wall of unbelief, a wall of making excuses for sin, a wall of defiance of God’s law. But the Holy Spirit can chisel through that strong wall, and undermine it so that it collapses, and bring me to repentance! The preaching has saving power!
This power is a declaratory power: the preaching declares who is in God’s kingdom and who is not. But it is more than that; the preaching has the power to edify. To those who are in the kingdom, the preaching is God’s means to build up in faith and godliness, to cause us to confess that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us and His life is in us. For to God’s people, the preaching is a means of grace, the means to salvation. For this reason Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, “for it is the power of God to salvation to everyone that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). The Heidelberg Catechism explains that it is this power by which the Holy Spirit works faith (Q&A 65).\
That the preaching works faith does not mean that the Holy Spirit through the preaching creates the bond of faith that unites us to Christ. Faith in that sense is worked immediately, that is, without means. If it were true that the Holy Spirit worked faith by the preaching in the sense of uniting us to Christ, we who are united would no longer need the preaching. But preaching is the Spirit’s means to work faith, in the sense of faith’s activity, that is, its knowledge and confidence. This faith is continually worked in us; it has a source that continues to bestow knowledge and confidence. As a spring continually sends forth good water by which my thirst is quenched and life is sustained in me, so true gospel preaching is the Spirit’s means continually to cause that faith to come to expression in our lives.
What power true gospel preaching has! It is a means of grace, that is, it is the effectual and powerful means by which the Holy Spirit works grace! By sitting under the preaching and receiving it in faith, we grow in our conviction that we are righteous in Christ; we desire more and more to live a new and godly life; we long ever more fervently for the coming of our Lord!
The preaching has power, not to do what I want or what you want, but to do what God intends it to do—to realize His decree of election and reprobation. For this purpose God provides the preaching, and for this purpose God sends preachers. His word is omnipotent, effectual, irresistible. This is a high view of preaching!
That such is the nature and power of the preaching has an implication for the preacher: He must preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). We preachers must take our calling seriously. That the preaching is God’s power is no reason to slack off and expect God to work mightily through us. Study! Exegete! Understand how the passage applies! Let us prepare our sermons earnestly and diligently! We are rational, moral creatures; we are called to work; and our work is that of studying the Scriptures. The exalted character of the preaching must encourage preachers to that end.
Yet, all our hard work and diligent effort is not what makes the preaching powerful. Having done our work earnestly and diligently, and having prayed as we did our work, we must then go to the pulpit praying that God will work mightily through us, by His Spirit. This example the apostle Paul set in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Why was he present in weakness and why did his preaching demonstrate the Spirit and power (or, the Spirit’s power)? “That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (v. 5).
That this is the nature and power of the preaching also has impli-cations for the hearer. We must sit under the preaching with fear and reverence. Do not despise the preaching! This admonition Scripture sets forth repeatedly. It is the application to us of the short injunction in 1 Thessalonians 5:20: “Despise not prophesyings.”
Even more, it is the repeated admonition of the Holy Spirit, on the basis of the unbelief of the Israelites in the wilderness: “Today if you will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts, as in the provocation and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness,” said David in Psalm 95:7-8. The inspired writer to the Hebrews quotes this passage in Hebrews 3:7-8, 3:15, and 4:7. To this repeated quote he adds more admonitions against departing from God in unbelief (3:12-13), and to labor to enter God’s rest (4:11). In Hebrews 10:23-25 he admonishes us to “hold fast the profession of our faith (literally, hope) without wavering,” and not to forsake “the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is.” In Hebrews 12:25, he says, “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh.” From all these passages, this point is underscored, that the day to repent, believe, and obey when one hears the gospel is today.
In order that we not despise God’s word in the preaching, we must bear patiently with the weaknesses and even the sins of that man who is called to preach. This last sentence does not condone any preacher who has committed a gross sin, or is living in sin; nor does it imply that his sins must not be addressed in a godly and biblical manner. But it means simply this: He is an earthen vessel (2 Cor. 4:7), a weak man, a sinner, himself in need of hearing the very gospel he brings. As we sit under the preaching, we must look past the brokenness of the pot and behold the glory of the gospel which that pot contains.
Finally, note an implication for the church of Jesus Christ as a whole. What a gift of grace from God is the preaching of the gospel! The gospel itself is precious; so the delivery of that precious gift is also precious. The preaching of the gospel is a means for our upbuilding and growth, a means for spiritual strengthening. The days in which we live are dark. Our Lord comes soon, and all the events that accompa-ny His coming are being realized. The spirit of antichrist is present, as is apostasy and lawlessness. In such days, we go from strength to strength. Let us delight in communion with God, in dwelling close to Him, particularly in our worship of Him and hearing Him speak to us in the preaching!
1 Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 65, 83, 84; Belgic Confession, Art. 29; Canons of Dordt, 1:3, 14; 2:5; 3-4:6, 8, 10; 5:14.
2 The following do not provide an explicit definition of the preaching of the gospel in that portion of their dogmatics in which they treat the means of grace: Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, transl. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 441-460; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1941), 610-615; and Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, nd), 3:466-479. This omission is due at least in part to the fact that Bavinck and Hodge treat the word of God as means of grace, rather than the preaching of that word; see Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1966), 635.
3 Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 637.
4 When the direct object of the verb akouoo is a person, this verb takes its direct object in the genitive.