To purchase a copy, please click here.
Gird Your sword on Your thigh, O Mighty One, In Your
splendor and Your majesty! And in Your majesty ride on
victoriously, For the cause of truth and meekness and
righteousness; Let Your right hand teach You awesome
things. Your arrows are sharp; The peoples fall under You; Your
arrows are in the heart of the King's enemies. (Psa. 45:3–5)
When God's people gather in His gracious presence, God commits Himself to apply His Word to their hearts: this is the divine dynamic. Preaching and teaching are vital parts of this divine dynamic out of which grows a proper definition of preaching. Phillips Brooks offers this well-known definition in his Yale Lectures of 1877: "Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men."1 Brooks also puts it this way, "Truth through Personality is our description of real preaching."2 The widely read twentieth century homiletician Andrew Blackwood expands this definition. "What do we understand by preaching? It means divine truth through personality or the truth of God voiced by chosen personality to meet human needs."3 Both of these definitions emphasize God's truth and human instrumentality; Blackwood adds the purpose of meeting actual human needs.
My own working definition of preaching expands on both Brooks' and Blackwood's and considers our understanding of worship. Preaching is God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - communicating His truth in our world to people in the pews through human instruments in order to change their thinking, bridle their emotions, and alter their wills for the purpose of converting sinners, sanctifying saints, and preparing people for heaven.
There are three main aspects to this definition. First, preaching is God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - communicating His truth in our world to people in the pew through human instruments. This is the basic definition. Here I draw a distinction between preaching and the sermon. You write a sermon to preach the sermon. The sermon is the material you preach. Preaching is the activity, the work of communicating the material. As we shall see, you must prepare your sermons for oral communication. Second, my working definition relates the proximate objective for preaching. You preach, or you ought to preach, to change thinking, bridle emotions, and alter wills. But this is not your final objective. Your ultimate purpose is converting sinners, sanctifying saints, and preparing people for heaven. Let's take a brief look at each of these parts of the definition.
Preaching is God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - communicating His truth in our world to people in the pews through human instruments. One of the first times I presented this definition, a pastor in the class asked, "Where is the Holy Spirit?" My answer included the fact that we are Trinitarians. When I speak of God, I intend the Trinity not just the Father. An equally important question would be, "Where is Jesus Christ?" It is just as important for Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, to be present in preaching. As a result of this interchange, I added the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Preaching is an activity in which the Triune God is communicating. Scripture often characterizes preaching as the Word of God. Acts 13:5, "When they reached Salamis, they began to proclaim the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews."4 First Thessalonians 2:13, "For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God." First Peter 1:23 and 25, "[Y]ou have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God ... And this is the word which was preached to you." But how can we characterize preaching as the word of God? We do not equate preaching and Scripture. We do not say our preaching is infallible or inerrant.
William Gouge, a Westminster Divine, answers, "That which ministers do or ought to preach is styled the word of God in a fourfold respect."5 First, after dealing with extraordinary ministers, Gouge says, "As for ordinary ministers, they have God's word written and left upon record for their use ... They therefore that ground what they preach upon the Scripture, and deliver nothing but what is agreeable thereunto, preach the word of God."6 In addition, when men preach what is agreeable to the word of God it necessitates a high regard for "the subject-matter which they preach, which is the will of God," a high regard for "the end of preaching, which is the glory of God, and making known 'the manifold wisdom of God,' Eph. iii. 10," and a high regard for "the mighty effect and efficacy thereof, for preaching God's word is 'the power of God unto salvation,' Rom i. 16."7 Preaching is therefore styled the word of God when it is (1) agreeable to Scripture and (2) sets forth the will of God, (3) for the glory of God, (4) in the power of God.
Romans 10:14 validates this: "How will they believe Him8 whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?" Commenting on this text, John Murray observes, "A striking feature of this clause is that Christ is represented as being heard in the gospel when proclaimed by sent messengers. The implication is that Christ speaks in the gospel proclamation."9 Preaching is God communicating His truth.
This does not mean preachers or teachers have the prerogative of telling people something like, "If you do not heed my preaching you are disobedient to Christ." This is an all too arrogant stand. Preachers are not organs of special revelation. People in the congregation do not owe us the same obedience they owe to God speaking in Scripture. The people do not hear the voice of Christ simply because their pastor speaks to them.
Acts 16:14 gives us perspective: "A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul." Lydia was listening to Paul as he spoke to a little group gathered by the riverside in Philippi. Lydia was a businesswoman And, it also appears, a proselyte to the Jewish faith. As she sat listening to Paul, the Lord Jesus Christ, sitting in heaven, extended His hand of grace and opened Lydia's heart. That is, the Lord "caused" her "to be born again" (1 Pet. 1:3). As a result, Lydia responded positively to Paul's preaching. Christ drew her to Himself (John 12:32). Christ puts it this way, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" (John 10:27).
The dynamic is not one of Christ reaching through the minister preaching to the person listening. Rather, the dynamic is one of men faithfully preaching the truth of Scripture and of Christ reaching directly from heaven into the hearts of listeners to open their hearts and illumine their minds so that they respond positively to God's truth in preaching. In this way, people in the congregation hear the voice of the Savior and follow Him. In this way, God communicates with people in the congregation. This is part of the divine dynamic of worship.
In this process, God is in the business of communicating His truth. Those who sit under the preaching of the Word of God and whose hearts God opens to receive this Word, receive the truth. "Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart" (1 Pet. 1:22, emphasis added). Proper response to the truth and receipt of the truth come as a result of God's work in opening the heart (Acts 16:14). The truth about which we are speaking is a distillation of what a Scripture text says in the form of a single statement. This gospel truth is the point of the passage. It is the exegetical point of the passage. The pastor communicates and applies this biblical truth to the congregation. "An idea fit for a sermon is more than a mental concept, a thought of the preacher. It is a word of truth from God to every person who will hear."10 I will have more to say about this in the following chapter.
Preaching is God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - communicating His truth in our world. The truth God is communicating comes from the Bible. As this is the case, it also comes out of the world of the Bible. The world of the Bible is a premodern world. The premodern world is the world before books as we know them today and publishing as we understand it today. The modern world began after the introduction of printing and the printing press.11 We do not live in the premodern world of the Bible, nor do we live in the modern world. We now live in a postmodern world. "Most scholars associate the postmodern shift with the counterculture of the 1960s."12
In literature, postmodernism amounts to denial of the fixity of any "text," of the authority of the author over the interpreter, of any "canon" that privileges great books over lesser ones. In philosophy, it is the denial of the fixity of language, of any correspondence between language and reality - indeed, of any "essential" reality and thus of any proximate truth about reality. In law (in America, at any rate), it is a denial of the fixity of the Constitution, of the authority of the founders of the Constitution, and of the legitimacy of law itself, which is regarded as nothing more than an instrument of power. In history, it is a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past.13
In discussing these matters in class, an older pastor confessed, "When I'm preaching and look out at the congregation, some of the young people look as though they are in a different world." Yes, and these young people are looking at you and listening to you and they are asking, "What planet are you from?" We must communicate the truth of Scripture in ways people in the postmodern world will understand and grasp. The truth must be brought from the world of the Bible into this present postmodern world.
But this is not enough. Preaching requires an additional step. Preaching is God communicating His truth in our world to people in the pews. We must bring God's truth from the pages of the Bible into our postmodern world and then into the personal world of men and women, young people, and boys and girls to whom we speak. Note again the words of the apostle Peter: "Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Pet. 1:22–23, emphasis added). Peter is personal and forceful. "The gospel is not broadcast on the impersonal air, but is personally addressed to persons."14
Audience adaptation is therefore essential. I may preach the substance of one text to two different audiences on two different occasions. One audience may be the students, staff, and faculty of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This audience is relatively small in number, more mature, perhaps more serious, mostly male, and mostly individuals looking forward to pastoral work in the church. A second audience may be at a Geneva College chapel. This audience is large, perhaps fifteen hundred And many of these undergraduate students may have an aversion to mandatory chapels. The students are younger, likely antiauthoritarian, and may be keyed in on i-Pods, computer games, rap music, teenage temptations, and the like. The truth of God, however, remains the same. Presentation, style, illustrations, and applications must change to connect the truth with the audience. Preaching involves communication of the truth to people in the pews, or in the bleachers, as the case may be.
When I presented this definition of preaching in class for the first time, a student asked, "Where is the preacher?" Good question. When Peter introduces his letter, he introduces himself, "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:1). So it is with Paul, "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus" (2 Cor. 1:1, Eph. 1:1, 1 Tim. 1:1, 2 Tim. 1:1; compare Gal. 1:1 and Col. 1:1). God's truth comes to us through Spirit-inspired human instruments. In preaching and teaching, God also communicates His truth through human instruments. I therefore gladly add this phrase, through human instruments.
However, judging by his tone, I believe my student exaggerates the importance of the minister. In preaching and teaching, the minister is a very human instrument simply delivering a message. "In this form of communication, the Sender of the message comes first in importance, and after him the substance of the message. Next in importance are the people to whom the message is addressed. The preacher comes fourth in importance."15
As preachers and teachers, you must know your place as messengers and instruments. You must not only understand the world of the Bible, the contemporary world, and the personal world of the people in the congregation, you must also understand your own personal world. You have your own biases, presuppositions, and agendas. But it is not these biases, presuppositions, and agendas that are important. R. C. Sproul tells his students:
Don't ever, ever, ever, ever, preach your own anger. If you are angry about something, recuse yourself from preaching on that issue. Don't ever use the pulpit as your personal soapbox. If you want to proclaim the wrath of God, you'd better make sure it's God's wrath and not your own. You should be clear that your concern is the honor of Christ and not your own.16
God's purposes in preaching apply to the human instrument as much as they apply to the people in the pews. You must conform your thinking to God's truth, and I must conform my thinking to God's truth as it applies to our own personal worlds. We must do so before we apply God's truth to the personal worlds of the people.
We now move to the proximate purposes for the preaching we have been discussing. Preaching is God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - communicating His truth in our world to people in the pews through human instruments in order to change their thinking, bridle their emotions, and alter their wills. To speak of the thinking, emotions, and will is to speak of the heart. "Never in the Bible is the word heart set over against the head or the intellectual processes. That is a modern, Western idea of the heart, introduced from the outside."17 In the Bible, the heart includes all three - the mind, the emotions, and the will. This is true in the Hebrew Old Testament. The heart involves "the inner man ... comprehending mind, affections, and will."18 This is true in the Greek New Testament where the heart is the "center and source of the whole inner life, w. its thinking, feeling, and volition, in the case of natural man as well as the redeemed man."19 Luke 9:47 links thinking with the heart: "Jesus, knowing what they were thinking in their heart, took a child and stood him by His side." Proverbs 15:13 joins emotions with the heart: "A joyful heart makes a cheerful face, But when the heart is sad, the spirit is broken." When Psalm 108:1 declares, "O God, my heart is fixed" (Authorized Version), "[i]t refers to the fundamental bent or characteristic of an individual's life."20 It connects the will with the heart.
Westminster Shorter Catechism 31 defines "effectual calling" in similar terms. "Effectual calling is the work of God's Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel." First, illumination of the mind is essential to biblical understanding. "For God, who said, 'Light shall shine out of darkness,' is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). We see the face of Christ in Scripture. We must preach and teach Christ as God reveals Him in Scripture. God, the Creator, shines in the heart. To what end? We may translate this text, for the illumination of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.21
Second, conviction relates to the emotions. Those hearing Peter's preaching on the Day of Pentecost "were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:37). Convicted of the truth of the resurrection, "Thomas answered and said to Him, 'My Lord and my God!'" (John 20:28).
Third, Ezekiel 36:26–27 is the proof text for "renewing our wills" in Westminster Shorter Catechism 31: "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them."22 In other words, real change of heart comes with an altering of the will.
"There is an important balance to be pursued here - the balance of ministering to the understanding, affections and will."23 Pastors and teachers may emphasize ministry to the mind. Some may spotlight the emotions; still others may stress decisions. But a balance is missing. "It is possible to instruct, yet fail to nourish those to whom we preach. It is possible to address the mind, but to do so with little concern to see the conscience, the heart, and the affections reached and cleansed, the will redirected, and the whole person transformed through a renewed mind."24
"Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Pet. 1:22– 23). We enter the heart through the mind. The message is truth. God is in the business of training and renewing minds (Rom. 12:2). God tempers our feelings and emotions to bring them into conformity to His will (John 16:8). God purifies the soul. God bends the will to Himself (1 Pet. 1:3). He produces love (1 Tim. 1:5). He does all of this using the instrumentality of the Word (1 Pet. 1:23, 25). As a preacher or teacher, you must make God's objectives your objectives. Preaching is God communicating His truth in our world to people in the pews through human instruments in order to change their thinking, bridle their emotions, and alter their wills.
This brings us to the ultimate purposes for proclaiming the Word of God. As we have seen, preaching is God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - communicating His truth in our world to people in the pews through human instruments in order to change their thinking, bridle their emotions, and alter their wills for the purpose of converting sinners, sanctifying saints, and preparing people for heaven.
Peter indicates that his readers are soundly converted people: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Pet. 1:3). This new life came to them "through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Pet. 1:23). More specifically, "this is the word which was preached to you" (1 Pet. 1:25). Preaching is the instrument leading to new birth and subsequent conversion. Converted men and women "are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Pet. 1:5). In other words, they undergo the process of sanctification. They grow in faith. Hence this exhortation. "Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart" (1 Pet. 1:22). All of this is a preparation for heaven. You are converted and sanctified in order "to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you (1 Pet. 1:4). Again, all this takes place by hearing God's truth. "And this is the word which was preached to you" (1 Pet. 1:25).T. H. L. Parker relates Calvin's purpose for preaching: "[t]he quintessence of the teaching 'declared to us daily' is that the hidden God reveals himself and that men are thereby brought out of darkness into light."25 As Steven Lawson puts it, "In short, he preached for changed lives."26 Parker notes that Calvin's overall purpose in preaching is edification. "And then, when a man will be a preacher, it is not just a question of making a sermon, but in general and in particular it is necessary for him to know that it is to proclaim the Word of God in order to edify, so that the Word may be profitable."27 Here, edification refers to both conversion and sanctification.28 Finally, Parker adds, "The teaching of the sermons is eschatological, not in the sense that at certain points, depending on the text, heaven and eternal life are mentioned, but that everything is viewed in the light of the eternal inheritance."29 And so the great reformer, following Scripture, has as his purpose for preaching converting sinners, sanctifying saints, and preparing people for heaven.
Stephen Marshall drafted the section on preaching in Westminster's "Directory for the Public Worship of God." He declares, "The preaching of the Word is the Scepter of Christ's Kingdom, the glory of a Nation, the Chariot upon which life and salvation comes riding."30 Marshall then laments, "What little care hath the State in general taken to provide that Christ might ride in Triumph upon his white horse: that the Word of God might spread into every corner of the Land?"31 Marshall has in mind the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. James Durham, a contemporary Puritan, comments on Revelation 6:2. "By this type, is understood the flourishing estate of the Gospel, and the spreading estate of the church by it after our Lord's Ascension, as it were, Christ in the Ministry of His Word, going out to conquer souls and prevailing."32 Thomas Goodwin, a Westminster Divine, is of the same mind regarding Revelation 6:2. "That in the first seal is the 'going forth' - the preaching of the gospel - 'conquering and to conquer'."33
Psalm 45:3–5 speaks of Christ in these same terms.
Gird Your sword on Your thigh, O Mighty One, In Your splendor and Your majesty! And in Your majesty ride on victoriously, For the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness; Let Your right hand teach You awesome things. Your arrows are sharp; The peoples fall under You; Your arrows are in the heart of the King's enemies.
And how does Jesus Christ ride forth shooting gospel arrows into the hearts of men and women? He does so in preaching carried out in His gracious presence in worship. Preaching is God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - communicating His truth in our world to people in the pew through human instruments in order to change their thinking, bridle their emotions, and alter their wills for the purpose of converting sinners, sanctifying saints, and preparing people for heaven.
Memorize this working definition of preaching. If you sit in one of my classes, you are required to do so and to recite it in class. These recitations often come at the beginning of class periods after we have reviewed and discussed the definition. Why memorize the definition? It is not a theoretical but a practical and working definition. To know what you are about as a preacher or teacher of the Word of God is the first step in effective ministry. And so, do not simply hold this working definition as a theory. Memorize it and mull over it. Allow it to marinate in the recesses of your heart. This working definition may then not only inform your mind but also captivate your imagination and invigorate your ministry.
One of my students informed me that he would pray through this working definition of preaching in preparation for his pulpit ministry. He would do so before he entered the pulpit on Sabbath morning. He would seek the Lord that He would communicate His truth to the people in the congregation. That God would change the thinking of men, women, young people, and children to bring it into conformity to His Word. That God would bridle their emotions and alter their wills to conform to His Word and His will. That Christ would convert the unconverted, build up and sanctify His people to walk in His truth. And that the Lord of glory would prepare him and each and every member of the congregation for departure from this life and entrance into His heaven. I do not know if this pastor continues the practice, but I encourage you to consider making this your prayer.