Preaching in Worship: Voice of God, Voice of Christ (3)

The contemporary movement for "liturgical renewal," that is, the revamping of public worship, which is now deep in the vitals of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, doubts that the preaching of the Word is the voice of God in Jesus Christ. This is its sin. This is its apostasy.

This doubt explains why this movement abandons the public worship of the triune God by His church that was taught and practiced by the Reformation.

On the basis of Holy Scripture, the Reformation confessed that the preaching of the Word is the Word of God. The Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 spoke for the Reformation:

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.

This conviction shaped the public worship of the Reformation churches, particularly the Reformed churches.

As the previous editorial demonstrated, the faith of the Reformation concerning the preaching of the gospel was solidly grounded in Scripture. Among other passages, I Thessalonians 2:13, Romans 10:14, John 20:21-23, and Ephesians 4:20, 21 teach that the preaching of the gospel by a man given to the church by the ascended Christ is the living voice of God in Christ. Doubt concerning the preaching, therefore, as this doubt drives the contemporary movement for liturgical renewal, is another form of man's opposition to, and rejection of, the Word of God.

The preaching of the Word of God is the voice of God, the voice of Christ.

This has implications both for the preacher and for the congregation.

The Preacher Must Take Preaching Seriously

We preachers ourselves must take preaching seriously, that is, take our preaching as the voice of God. There must be careful, laborious preparation of sermons as the main work of our ministry. How even an orthodox preacher who dashes off his sermons, giving them a "lick-and-a-promise" (as though preaching were the easiest task in the world), dares to present himself to his Lord every Sunday and in the final judgment is a mystery to me. Luther's attitude toward the task of preaching was different:

The office of preaching is an arduous task.... I have often said that, if I could come down with a good conscience, I would rather be stretched upon a wheel and carry stones than preach one sermon. For anyone who is in this office will always be plagued; and, therefore, I have often said that the damned devil and not a good man should be a preacher. But we're stuck with it now.... If I had known, I would not have let myself be drawn into it with twenty-four horses.

In addition, the consciousness of the sermon's being the voice of God will form the sermon, both in the writing of it and in the delivery of it, as authoritative proclamation. It is not necessarily that we thunder and roar, although there are times for this, but that we preachers address the congregation, ourselves included, with the decisive explanation of things; with the promises that are sure; with the summons that is urgent; with the rebukes that are sharp; with the commands that brook no refusal, of God Himself.

We do not "share" insights, no matter how fine. We do not, even earnestly, put forth our learned, theological opinions. Rather, "Thus says the Lord, not only in the Bible, but also this morning or evening, here and now, in what I am saying."

At the conclusion we may offer no apology for our message. The short prayer after the sermon must not leave the impression that the people have had to endure the weak and light words of the preacher, so that he was an imposition on their time and patience. Sometimes preachers do this, and sometimes, alas, there is reason why they do it. Luther said once that Christians may ask forgiveness for everything, except that the minister may not ask forgiveness for his sermon, because that is Christ's own Word. An excellent prayer after the sermon is the brief request, "Father, Thy Word has been spoken. Apply it in the saving power of the Holy Ghost to our hearts and lives, for Jesus' sake. Amen."

The Congregation Must Take Preaching Seriously

Also the congregation must take preaching seriously. How they do this is described in Lord's Day 38 of the Heidelberg Catechism: "... that the ministry of the gospel and the schools (seminaries—DJE) be maintained" and, then, "that I, especially on the sabbath ... diligently frequent the church of God, to hear His Word."

The congregation are to receive the preaching with the reverence, submission, and obedience due to the voice of God.

There is no place for the odd notion that once the sermon is finished it is object of discussion in the sense that this one is free to agree and that one, to disagree; this one "likes" the sermon and that one "dislikes" the sermon; and anyone at his pleasure may rip the sermon to shreds before his family or other members of the congregation. The children of darkness are wiser in this matter than are the children of light. In noting that the present-day attack on preaching is the fruit of the Enlightenment's liberation of Western man "from the authoritarian shackles of Scripture and the church," Klaas Runia astutely observes that modern man does not want to be told what is true and worthwhile. He wants to join in the discussion. "But the sermon provides no opportunity for discussion" (The Sermon under Attack, Paternoster, 1983, p. 5). The ungodly are well aware that the voice of God does not open up itself to critical discussion.

Reformed people must not become sermon-critics, just as unbelieving professors of theology are accomplished critics of Scripture. We have this tendency, as all too many Sunday afternoon dinners and Monday morning gatherings in the coffee shop prove. There is, in Reformed lore, even the tale of members who graded every sermon: B-; C; sometimes, F; occasionally A-. 

Shall we criticize the voice of Christ? Did God get a B- today, or even, if He outdid Himself, an A-?

If we insist on being sermon-critics, can we not expect the judgment that God will close His mouth in our audience, perhaps by withholding the men who must be His mouthpiece? His judgments often run precisely in the way of our sin. In addition to all the other burdens of the office, what young man likes to subject himself to constant, destructive criticism?

I am well aware, and insist on it, that there is another aspect to the calling of the congregation as regards the preaching. Certainly the congregation must judge the preaching. Not only the elders but also every believer has both the ability and the duty to compare the preaching with the Scriptures to determine that the preaching is, in fact, the Word of God, and not merely the word of the preacher. Unqualified men must be kept out of the office of the ministry. Elders must insist that the minister work hard, at his sermons, forbidding him to engage in other activities that interfere with his great task. Elders and believers must see to it, not only that the minister does not preach heresy but also that his preaching is the full, rich, solid, penetrating exposition of Scripture that edifies the body of Christ.

Annually, every consistory in the Protestant Reformed Churches must answer before Christ the King of the church, on behalf of the congregation that He bought with His blood, the question by the supervising denomination, "Does the minister faithfully explain God's Word so that the congregation is built up through his preaching?" The question is not merely whether the minister avoids saying anything that is false. The question is not even whether all that he says is true and "spiritual." But the question is whether the congregation is "built up through his preaching." And this depends upon his faithfully explaining Holy Scripture.

The Reformed regard for preaching as the voice of God does not deify the preacher or place his work above the judgment of the church. This is plain from Acts 17:11, where the Holy Spirit praises the believers in Berea for their activity of comparing the apostle's preaching with Scripture in order to determine that the things preached by him were the truth. Those who judge the preaching in this way are "noble."

But the Holy Spirit does not praise criticism of sermons. Rather, in a passage that was dear to the Reformers, He inspired the apostle to thank God that the Thessalonians received the Word of God which they heard from the apostle and his co-workers, not as the word of men but as the Word of God, which, in fact, it was (I Thess. 2:13).

The Power of Preaching

Since the preaching is the voice of God, there may be no doubt about the efficacy of preaching. This is, in part, what moves churches today to replace preaching with "more effective means of (spiritual) communication." They conduct their surveys, listen to their carnal members, observe the culture, and create "contemporary" worship services, stripped of preaching.

We have but one question: can God's voice fail? is the voice of the risen Lord Jesus Christ possibly ineffectual?

Only, as genuine Calvinism has always maintained, the saving efficacy of the preaching is particular. The God who speaks is the God of the eternal purpose of double predestination, election and reprobation. The Christ by whom He speaks is the Christ who loved His church and gave Himself for her. The Holy Spirit who is the efficacy of the preaching is the Spirit who strictly carries out the will of Christ and of the Father who sent Christ.

There is another efficacy of the preaching than that which is gracious and saving. This is the teaching of John 12:40, quoting and applying to the ministry of Jesus the words of Isaiah 6: "He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them."

The gospel is the power of God to salvation to believers (Rom. 1:16).

But to believers it is a quickening, converting, comforting, warning, strengthening, glorifying, saving power. 

Ah, the voice of God, the voice of Christ, cutting through all the babble, nonsense, frivolity, deceit, materialism, and wickedness of our earthly life, on the Lord's Day! Ah, the blessed, precious voice of God in Christ speaking truth, speaking heavenly things, speaking words of eternal life, speaking peace. "As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country" (Prov. 25:25).

Eternity will reveal how the preaching gathered, preserved, and built up the church.

Eternity will reveal how the preaching changed each of the saints into the image of God in Christ from glory to glory.

In the face of the doubt of our age concerning the power of preaching, the Reformed church still defiantly and confidently makes her confession:



What a glorious work the ministerial office is, since so great things are effected by it; yea, how highly necessary it is for man's salvation, which is also the reason why the Lord will have such an office always to remain ("Form of Ordination of the Ministers of God's Word"). 

(to be concluded)

— DJE