Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa. Previous article in this series: November 15, 2005, p. 92.
To understand the preaching as a means of grace, we must clearly understand the power of preaching.
Preaching as a power is rarely understood today.
There are more than a few in our day who are much disillusioned with preaching! There are various reasons for such dissatisfaction, some good reasons, many not so good reasons. There are some children of God who long for the warmth and vigor of lively preaching and who feel their faith languishing because they are not hearing such preaching. In their churches there is hardly preaching to be heard anymore. The gospel is not preached, or it is not clearly and purely preached. The reasons for this may be many, and we need not consider those reasons in this connection. But quite naturally, under such circumstances the child of God is going to suffer. And if that child of God remains in such a land of famine for a lengthy period of time, say, while his children are growing up, he is going to lose his family to the death of spiritual starvation!
Not only is the power of preaching denied by those ministers who fail to proclaim the Word of the living God according to the calling of their office, it is also denied in many ways by those whose calling it is to bring themselves under the pure preaching of the Word as often as possible.
Sometimes it is because of the failure of the pulpit that the people in the pew begin to reject the whole idea of preaching. Largely because of the failure of preachers to be faithful to their preaching obligations, there are many who have left Reformed churches to find their niche in the outward warmth and vigor of tongue-speaking, so-called Spirit-filled churches.
Others cry for something new. And when the cries become loud enough, change is brought to the church. Preaching is minimized, in order to replace it with liturgical practices. Singing and even dance are found to be more meaningful to the soul than preaching. There are a multitude of churches who now quite regularly will substitute the entertainment of choral presentations or dramatic presentations or even group discussions for the ministry of the Word.
While the Protestant Reformed Churches maintain their emphasis upon the preaching of the Word in the worship services twice each Sunday, we have to face the question: Do we understand and have we known personally the power of preaching?
God Himself has instituted the preaching of the Word as the power unto salvation to all who believe. We find that clearly expressed in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
That is a matter of emphasis in the words ofRomans 10:14. In the middle part of that verse, the apostle asks (according to our KJV translation): “and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?”
There is a little error in translation here. That error, by the way, is carried on in most other translations too. We are thankful, of course, that there are not many errors in our King James translation. More importantly, the principle of translation upon which this version is based is absolutely correct—the principle that recognizes the truth that the Scriptures are word for word inspired by the Holy Spirit. But here there is an error, an easy mistake for a translator to make, an error of only two letters, but an error that makes a world of difference as to the meaning of the text. The word that does not belong in the translation is the little word “of.” In the original the text reads this way: “and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?”
The difference you will immediately understand. You can hear of someone, without any personal contact with that person. But when you hear him, that is quite different. Then you say, as a certain hymn has it, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, Come unto me and rest.”
The power of preaching is not to be found in the man who brings the Word, in one who speaks about Christ. Anyone can do that. Anyone who knows the Bible even a little can speak about Christ. That is not a preacher. If that were preaching, there would be no power whatsoever. The words of a man may have a certain influence upon the thinking of people, but it has no power. A preacher is a man through whom it pleases Christ to speak by His Spirit!
The power of preaching as a means of grace is seen in the fact that Christ is pleased to speak by what Paul calls in I Corinthians 1 “the foolishness of preaching.”
That is why, when you have heard preaching as a means of grace to you, it was not just a matter of enjoying the sermon. It isn’t any more pious to hear a nice sermon, than it is to be entertained by going to a ball game. But when you have really come under the preaching of the Word, and have heard it with a heart willing to receive its personal application, then you say, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, Come unto me and rest.”
Christ is the Officebearer in the church. His is the work, committed to Him by the Father, to gather His own. That work never becomes ours. To gather Christ’s flock is not the work of man. It is absolutely the work of the exalted Christ through the Spirit.
So Jesus said in John 12:32: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”
Christ speaks to you, Christ draws you to Himself, by the preaching of the Word. By His Holy Spirit He causes His voice to be heard through a weak and sinful man, called and ordained to preach the Word. That is preaching.
When you think of it, it is amazing that Christ would even talk to us! Should somebody treat you and me as we treat Christ, we would certainly turn away and avoid such a person. But Christ continues to come to us, to fellowship with us, and to speak to us by His Spirit. He speaks to us powerfully, bringing salvation to us who have been caught in the bondage of sin and snared in the trap of death.
That truth brings with it several implications, both as to the contents of the preaching and as to our own attitude toward it.
The apostle says in II Corinthians 5:20, “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.” When a minister of the gospel stands as Christ’s ambassador and is used by Him in such a way that God Himself beseeches you, it follows that such preaching must be strictly the Word of Christ.
The preacher has no message of his own. Christ’s messengers come not with their own words. And those who come with their own philosophies are not of Christ. When a man speaks his own words, you must not receive him.
The pulpit is no place for opinions.
The pulpit is no podium for political clamoring.
Nor is the pulpit a place for beggars.
The preacher who stands in Christ’s stead does not merely bring a message. He does not come with a message and say, “Will you please accept what I say?” He doesn’t say, “To show that you accept what I say, I ask you to come forward, that I or other counselors may pray over you.” The preacher who is called by Christ to bring to you and to me the good tidings of salvation is one who must bring his message with the authority of Christ!
A minister of the gospel must stand before you, saying, “Thus saith the Lord.”
And the Word of Christ, the powerful Word proclaimed by the preaching of the gospel, is the Word of glad tidings of good things. In Romans 10 the apostle speaks of those glad tidings being the word of faith, the word that is yours, that you take to yourself by faith.
What is that Word, which is powerful unto your salvation? It is this: You are justified by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The gospel of peace is that Christ has blotted out your sins. And the glad tidings for you and for me is that God has given us all the blessings of salvation.
Those glad tidings of good things apply to us in every aspect of our life. They apply to us in times of joy, but also in times of sorrow. That God is good is as true in times of affliction as it is in times of health. Those glad tidings are applicable in the midst of social turmoil and war, as well as in times of earthly peace. They apply to us at all times and everywhere. And they bear as well on the life that we live.
Christ says to us, through the preaching, “Thus saith the Lord. Here is the way you shall live, to my glory, and in thankfulness to me. Hear my Word.”
And so the truth that Christ speaks personally through faithful preaching ought also to have an influence upon your own attitude toward the preaching. When you love Christ, when you see Him as your Savior, then you also long to be with Him and to hear His voice. That is true not only because we like the particular minister that He has given us. When Christ speaks through the preaching, then we ought to be present also when other ministers of His come to bring His Word. For we need to hear Him in whom alone is salvation and by whose Word comes faith.
Then we will also demand faithful preaching from those who occupy our pulpits.
Different ministers will bear different gifts, and will bring the gospel as Christ’s ambassadors in different ways and with different emotions, applying it with different nuances. But we must have faithful preaching, faithful and diligent exposition of the Scriptures. We don’t come for entertainment.
We don’t come to be moved superficially by song or great oratory.
We come to hear the voice of Jesus. And we do so as often as we possibly can. For that is our life. That is our need.
To neglect such fellowship with Christ is incomprehensible. Out of our misery we need to be delivered. In our sorrow we need to be comforted. From our sin we need to be delivered. And Christ alone is powerful enough to do so. Christ speaks to you and to me. That is the power of preaching. And no preaching has power unless Christ at that same moment takes hold of your heart and says, “I speak to you.”
Then that preaching of the Word that is powerful unto salvation bears precious fruit in the church and in our lives as God’s people.
The fruit of that preaching is faith.
But the preaching that is faithful to the Scriptures, the preaching through which Christ speaks, does not bring faith to all who hear. There is also negative fruit to the preaching of the Word.
When we speak of preaching as a means of grace, we understand that grace is not for all. All who come under the preaching of the Word do not receive the grace of God in that preaching. Some receive condemnation.
So Paul speaks of that preaching when he writes in II Corinthians 2:15-17: “For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ.”
So we have seen the preaching work. Occasionally that preaching, which is to the salvation of us who believe, works hardness of heart in them that perish. To our sorrow, there have been those who have departed, not to go elsewhere, but to leave the church of the living God because their consciences would not allow them to sit under the pure preaching of the Word. When Christ spoke, it was to their condemnation. And rather than turn from their sins, they turned from Christ. We still pray for their conversion.
But we are blessed who look to Christ with longing to be satisfied by the preaching of His Word. We have known the powerful application of the gospel to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. By means of preaching, that Spirit of the exalted Christ has worked and strengthened faith. We are regular partakers of this means of grace, never failing to sit at the meal table of the Lord’s ministry, unless it is impossible to be present. There has been growth, spiritual growth, readily observed in us who have received the Lord’s Word with gladness. To God alone belongs the glory.
Continue prayerfully to receive the Word. And having received it, don’t immediately return to the things of the world. But meditate upon it as a means of grace and speak to one another about it, edifying one another unto salvation.
Until Jesus returns, let us guard this means of grace.
Even over against all the attacks upon the preaching of the Word, let us continue to carry thankful attitudes for it.
So God will give us repentance and faith and the consciousness of His fellowship and love.
By faithful preaching we have been founded in the truth, established in the faith, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. By faithful preaching, Christ is leading us to heaven.