It is often said that the real issue in preaching is not ‘How to?’ but ‘How can?’ How can a preacher stand before a congregation and dare to speak ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’? The ‘How can?’ is by far the more pressing question. And yet, in the textbooks, at the conferences and in preaching groups it seems the ‘How to?’ is the perennial concern. Notes or full script? Powerpoint or no? Topical sermons or lectio continua? These questions abound. Even issues like ‘how to address the heart?’ or ‘how to preach wisdom literature?’ threaten to drown out proper theological reflection. All the while the ‘How can?’ question stands above our practice demanding an answer.
Our silence on this issue could simply reflect the pragmatic spirit of our age. We want to know what ‘works’ so we can copy it. But I suggest there is a deeper problem. Fundamentally we have an impoverished theology of revelation which fails to appreciate what evangelicals from another age held dear – namely that God Himself addresses us in preaching.
Consider this classic statement of reformed faith from the Second Helvetic Confession:
‘The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed and received by the faithful.’ 1
Luther would agree:
“Tis a right excellent thing, that every honest pastor’s and preacher’s mouth is Christ’s mouth, and his word and forgiveness is Christ’s word and forgiveness… For the office is not the pastor’s or preacher’s but God’s; and the Word which he preacheth is likewise not the pastor’s and preacher’s but God’s.” 2
Or consider this from John Calvin:
“When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.” 3
The reformers viewed preaching as God’s own word proclaimed in His name, by His power and with His authority. More to the point this is the bible’s own teaching, as we’ll see. Proclamation of the word of Christ is not simply an explanation and application of the Bible. It is itself a divine encounter in which the Spirit again confronts the hearers with the omnipotent force of God’s own Word.
In the face of such an audacious claim, the ‘How to?’ must be put on hold. This paper seeks a theology of revelation that is able to address the question ‘How can a preacher dare to speak the word of the LORD?’ What is the nature of divine revelation such that this is even possible? Once we have we addressed this we will find that the ‘How to?’ has been decisively and much more faithfully shaped.
Encountering the Speaking God
Let’s begin at the beginning. Our God is the Speaking God. The eternal life of Father, Son and Spirit has ever been an out-going, communicative life. Because our God simply is Trinity there has never been such a thing as a God who then comes to speech. Arius was wrong: there is not a God who then has a Word. God’s existence does not precede His expression. Rather God’s expression, His Word, is eternally constitutive of His life. God is always and eternally the Speaking God. To encounter His Word is not to be obstructed or distanced from a divine reality behind His disclosure. Rather to receive His Word is to be drawn into the depths of His eternal reality as the Speaking God. Revelation, as the unfolding of God’s own life in Word and Spirit, is not simply what He does. It is who He is.
From the overflow of this communicative life came creation. Again, by His Word and through the Spirit, God brought all things into being (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6; John 1:1-4). The universe exists in correspondence to God’s Word. ‘God said… and it was.’ This means that to be is to be an obedient hearer of the Word. The universe is His congregation and, derivatively, His herald (Psalm 19:1-6). Humanity, as the pinnacle of creation, is supremely called to appropriate God’s revelation. Our vocation, not simply as Christians but as creatures, is to receive the Word. And in receiving the Word we participate in the life of the Speaking God.
What is more, He comes to participate in our life. In incarnation, the Word comes not simply to man or even just in man, but as man. God’s revelation could not be louder or clearer. The Word, Jesus Christ, reveals His Father through His words and actions (e.g. John 14:5-11). Both these words and actions were committed to Him by the Father (e.g. John 5:19ff; 8:26,38; 10:37f; 15:15; 17:6,14). These words were entrusted to the disciples and these actions were witnessed and remembered by them, all through the power of the Spirit (e.g John 16:12-15). In the power of that same Spirit, these disciples proclaimed them to the world (e.g. John 20:21-23; Acts 1:8). The world’s response to this witness is their response to Christ, and their response to Christ is their response to the Father (e.g. John 14:22-26).
To put it another way, the Father Himself confronts us in the Person of His Son and the Son Himself confronts us in the Spirit-empowered words of His messengers (e.g. Matthew 10:40). From Father to Son, from Son to His bride and so out into the world the Spirit carries divine revelation.
Contemporary proclamation is not simply the remembrance of past events or the recitation of ancient words. To proclaim this Word in the power of this Spirit is to stand in a stream of revelation which both preceded and produced the universe. Our words witnessing the Word have their source and authority in the Speaking God who graciously includes us in His ongoing life of self-disclosure.
The Word of God
In saying all this, it should be made clear that the Bible has a vital role. The law and the prophets proclaim the gospel of the Son in advance – a gospel which was ‘according to the Scriptures’. The apostles attest its finished truth and significance for the global church. Both Old and New Testaments are the Spirit’s perfect and authoritative testimony to the Son. This completed canon stands above the church as its infallible rule and the test for all its proclamation. It is enduringly and entirely the word of God written.
Yet, to be true to these same Scriptures, we must confess that the title ‘God’s word’ does not simply apply to the Bible. Already we have seen how the Son is originally and definitively ‘the Word of God’. But we can also identify a third sense in which it is right to use the phrase ‘word of God.’ The witness of the church – a Scriptural, Spirit-empowered, Christ-focused witness – can also be called ‘the word of God’.
Consider how the book of Acts describes the growth of the word.
Acts 6:7: And the word of God continued to increase
Acts 12:24: But the word of God increased and multiplied.
Acts 13:49: The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.
Acts 19:20: In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
Where there is Scripture-consonant, Spirit-empowered witness to Christ, not only does the church grow – the word grows. And it is God’s word, His presence and power attending and enlivening it.
Consider also these verses from the epistles:
‘…when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.’ (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
‘You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this is the word that was evangelized to you. (1 Pet 1:23-25)
‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God.’ (Hebrews 13:7)
So we see that the reformers did not overstate their claims. The preacher’s lips are speaking God’s living and active word! What does this mean?
Recently I sat in a friend’s living room on a Tuesday afternoon. There were about ten teenagers present and we had John chapter 20 open on our laps. I looked them in the eye and told them that the risen Christ had entered this living room and was confronting each one of us in a way more blessed than Thomas’s own encounter (this is the clear implication of verses 29-31). I called on them all to confess Christ as their own Lord and God to receive the life that was on offer. Now, here’s the question. If they refused to do so, had they merely disobeyed me? Had they merely disobeyed Glen Scrivener the preacher? No, to refuse my words in this context is to refuse Christ Himself.
When are the preacher’s words God’s?
Here is a vital question. What is the context in which such feeble and faltering human words carry divine authority? I rarely expect teenagers to notice my words let alone submit to them as divinely authoritative. In what context are my words to be heeded as God’s?
The first thing to say is that the initiative lies entirely in the hands of the Speaking God. No human technique conjures Christ into the upper room. Equally no locked doors can keep Him out! Revelation is always grace. So then, perhaps we should rephrase our question. Not, How can we bring God’s word down? But, How is it that God chooses to speak through our human words of witness?
Here is my central conviction:
At God’s initiative, preaching is God’s own word when Christ is proclaimed according to the Scriptures.
This draws together the three senses in which we have spoken of the ‘word of God’: Christ, Scripture and proclamation.
This is the key context. And we must be wise to perceive when this context holds. We still listen as Bereans to discern its biblical character (Acts 17:11). We still ‘test the spirits’ to discern its Christ-focus (1 John 4:1-3). If proclamation fails these tests it fails to be proclamation. Yet where Christ is proclaimed biblically there we can (and we must!) prayerfully expect divine encounter.
Before we go on, you will notice that this context is not an institutional or situational context. It is not God’s word because it is Sunday, this is a pulpit, and the preacher is ordained. The context I am putting forward could apply to any number of situations – a bible study, a drink with friends, a greeting card, even a text message. We can speak words of immeasurable comfort to one another in a thousand different situations. Yet the focus of this paper will be on preaching to the congregation gathered around word and sacrament by those the Second Helvetic Confession referred to as ‘lawfully called’. It is not that genuine proclamation only occurs in the Sunday sermon or only from the lips of the ordained. Not at all. But there especially we are to prayerfully expect the voice of the living Christ.
In the rest of this paper I will just tease out some implications of this central conviction:
Christ must be proclaimed biblically
We proclaim Him (Colossians 1:28). The point of the sermon is not to inspire certain feelings, to convey certain doctrines, to enjoin certain ethics, to dissect certain passages. The point of the proclaimed word is precisely the point of the written word – to witness the eternal Word (See John 5:36-47). We don’t preach Luke or Ecclesiastes. We preach Christ from Luke or Ecclesiastes.
Perhaps the Lord’s Supper provides a helpful analogy (it too is proclamation – 1 Cor 11:26). Just as the point of communion is the receiving of Christ by faith, so the point of the sermon is the same. He is as vital for sinners as bread to the famished. He is as available to sinners as the bread on the table. And in preaching, as in the sacraments, He is handed over to sinners for their nourishment. Where Christ is received by faith, proclamation has done its work. Where Christ is not graciously held out to the congregation the preacher has spoken in vain and the people go hungry.
What does this mean for the ‘application’ of the sermon?
Often ‘application’ is taken to mean distilling the text into timeless doctrinal propositions to be turned into contemporary moral injunctions. Application on this understanding is a discrete portion of the sermon. Once the preacher is done explaining, then come exhortations about our practical response. Usually the application is something along the lines of ‘read your bible, pray, evangelize.’ Occasionally it’s ‘Give money, cut out the porn, volunteer more.’
Now besides being a suspect view of sanctification, this betrays a deficient view of revelation. Here the bible is ‘God’s instruction manual for life.’ The preacher is the expert coach. And Christ? Where is Christ on this understanding?
On the analogy with communion, such preaching is like the minister pressing into our hands not bread but a ‘To do’ list. We leave the communion rail (or rise from the sermon) not so much savouring Christ as resolving to improve. Not glorying in His work but plotting our own.
But what if we took to heart the theology of revelation outlined here? In that case application would be by the pointed driving home of the gospel. On this model, application is not what we must do on account of the word. Rather, application is what the word itself is doing to us and in us. The Word is being applied to our hearts in lively, surprising, evocative, nourishing ways to the end that He might be trusted. We hear in order to believe (Rom 10:14). This is the work of God – faith (John 6:29). The work of God for which the preacher aims is not so much what the congregation will do on Monday morning having been inspired by the word. The work of God is what God Himself does to the congregation right there in the Sunday sermon.
Application then is the Spirit’s work in driving home the Christ whom we proclaim. It is a work which we cannot perform as preachers but to which we are called nonetheless. In prayerful dependence we follow the way of witness in the Scriptures as they point to Christ. And we point, too. With excitement, with passion, with entreaty. And we say as Moses did regarding the bronze serpent: Look and live!
Christ must be proclaimed biblically
Hopefully it is not a new thought that Christ is the Word of God. Perhaps, though, it is a new thought to consider preaching as the word of God. Therefore some may wonder whether we have lost the vital importance of Scripture as the word of God.
Absolutely not. Without Scripture we have no Christ. Without Scripture we have no preaching. Yet here is the irony. When the preacher is viewed simply as ‘explainer and applier’ of God’s word (the Bible), this results in a lower view of Scripture.
If preaching is simply explanation and application of the bible then it’s difficult to avoid the impression that the Bible stands in need of our interpretive and psychological expertise: the Bible needs explaining as an obscure text and it needs applying as a distant text. On this understanding preaching either doubts or dilutes the authority of the Bible. It doubts it if the preacher ‘comes between’ word and congregation as the word’s helper. It dilutes it if the preacher ‘comes between’ simply to pass on Scriptural information. In either case we are left with this question: Why should the preacher even attempt to offer words in addition to the written word? If, as the reformers contended so fiercely, the Bible is perspicuous, why should the preacher take up thirty minutes of the service but the Bible reading only three? If all that can be called ‘word of God’ exists in the Scriptures alone, how do we dare to embellish with our own blessed thoughts?
Here is the problem: if the preacher is reduced to a bible-expert we inadvertently reduce the bible to a difficult text. And simultaneously the preacher is raised up to stand in the gap. The ‘scholarly’ among us will dissect and expose the text with expert exposition. The ‘dynamic’ among us will ‘enliven’ the Word with rhetorical flair, persuasive apologetics and well-aimed application. However, in either case, whether as explainers or appliers, preachers become essential aids for a word that seems less than ‘living and active.’
In all this we communicate the idea that the bible is actually obscure, boring, weak, vague and disjointed. So then the preacher’s task is making the obscure clear; making the ancient relevant; enlivening the dead letter; making pointed application where we find the bible too vague and providing cohesion to the disjoined Scriptures – bringing things back to ‘the gospel’ or ‘the kingdom’ or ‘the cross’ etc. Yet the bible is already perspicuous, already living and active, already a persuasive word, already a pointed (application-making) address, already a witness to Christ.
Perhaps the greatest need for preachers today is to understand the significance of this ‘already.’ We think of the bible as an obscure and distant text given to the individual believer for the sake of their personal morality. On this understanding the preacher comes along merely to strengthen Scriptural admonishments to piety. Yet the bible was not given for the prayer closet but the pulpit. The Scriptures are the Spirit’s living testimony to the Son, addressed to the church and intended for proclamation to the world.
What then is the role of the preacher? We don’t ‘stand in the gap’. We stand in a stream. We don’t draw out the living waters. The Scriptures overflow. Already the written word has this out-going character. God’s word cannot be chained (2 Tim 2:9). Preaching is simply the expression of the Scriptures’ own uncontainable witness.
Christ must be proclaimed biblically
Nothing has been said yet about the character of the preacher. This has been deliberate. It’s not the character of the preacher but the character of the word that is determinative. It’s not ultimately the skills, gifts or even godliness of the preacher that will bring the word home to hearers. The Second Helvetic Confession continues its article on preaching by saying…
… the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
Whatever we say about the character, gifting or expertise of the preacher it must begin with these immovable indicatives. The preacher is, first, recipient (and a thoroughly unworthy recipient) of God’s overflowing revelation. We gratefully hear this word, knowing its divine source and character. Preachers though find themselves carried along in the same movement to testify to this same Word that holds them captive.
Thus the preacher is never a person capable of preaching. Really the true mark of the preacher is that they are incapable of doing otherwise.
‘If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, indeed I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9)
This paper has sought to provide an answer to the ‘How can?’ of preaching. Hopefully, along the way some of the ‘How to?’ has been addressed as well. Yet, in the end, a true understanding of preaching should always propel us to the most urgent question: ‘How can we not?’
‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!’ (1 Cor 9:16);
‘Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak.’ (2 Cor 4:13)
‘The love of Christ controls us … Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making His appeal through us…’ (2 Cor 5:14-21)