Preaching and Hearing the Word

Introduction

“The Word is truly the soul of the church.”[1] And the preaching of the Word is an essential element of worship that was largely recovered during the Reformation. We find the preaching of the Word not only in Scripture (1 Cor. 14:26, Acts 2:42), but also among the early church in the prolific sermons of Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory the Great, Gregory of Nazanzius, Chrysostom, and others—all of which the Reformers were familiar.[2] Therefore, John Calvin wrote that “it was a principle of long standing in the church that the primary duties of the bishop were to feed his people with the Word of God.”[3]

This duty of preaching the Word of God is both a privilege and a burden for the minister. But this is a difficult task that the Lord is pleased to bless, for it is a primary means of salvation. In Romans 10 we read that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:13). But St Paul then lays forth the necessity of preaching by asking, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (10:13–14). Therefore, for a minister to neglect the faithful preaching of the whole counsel of God found in His Word is to be guilty of innocent blood, withholding a means of salvation from those whom he will give an account (Acts 20:26, Heb. 13:17). With this in view, St Gregory the Great declared that “A bishop dies, if no sound is heard from him; for he calls upon himself the wrath of the hidden Judge, if he goes about without the sound of preaching.”[4]

Preaching the Word of God

A minister of God is to preach the Word of God, and not his own ideas. The sermon ought to be grounded in a text, expounding and illuminating the text for the congregation, and not treating the biblical passage a mere springboard for one’s own pet topic or personal beliefs. And when the preaching is done in this manner, by men called to the task and equipped by God, we can confess with the Second Helvetic Confession that “the very Word of God is preached and received of the faithful” (1.4). Put more plainly, the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Now we are not saying that a man’s sermon is equal in authority to divinely-inspired Scripture. But we are saying that insofar that the preaching is faithful to Scripture, it should be received as God’s Word. It could be explained this way, while “Scripture is definitive and sovereign; preaching must be derivative and subordinate.”[5] In a sermon on 1 Timothy 3:2, Calvin thus said, “When a man has climbed up into the pulpit, is it so that he may be seen from afar, and that he may be preeminent? Not at all. It is that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man. And he does us that favor of presenting himself here and wishes a mortal man to be his messenger” (emphasis added).[6]

We see this in Scripture when St Paul wrote that he and his co-laborers were “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20). When an ambassador relays accurately the word of a king, it is no less the word of the king even though it comes through the mouth of a messenger. And though the word of the king is mediated through another man, it still carries the authority of the king. This message proclaimed by God’s ministers is one of life for the dead. It is a message that reconciles the world to Christ, who became sin though who knew no sin, so that men might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:19, 21).

Hearing the Word of God

So when a congregation gathers on the Lord’s Day to hear the Word preached, they are not mere spectators, looking for free entertainment. Instead they are there to hear from the living God, the One that has graciously condescended to communicate all things necessary for salvation and godly living to His covenant people. Through the prophet Jeremiah the Lord tells us that His Word is like a hammer that breaks the rock to pieces (Jer. 23:29). And this is what the Word does to our hard hearts of stone (Ezk. 36:26). This is a mercy of God, and Christians have the opportunity to come under merciful God’s hammer weekly.

The Westminster Larger Catechism lists a number of duties for the listeners of the preached Word, which include receiving it as “the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God (WLC 160, emphasis added). And when received, the people of God should diligently strive to apply the Word, bringing forth the fruit of it in every area of their lives (Lk. 8:15).

Find other posts in this series here.


[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 312.
[2] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Black Mountain, NC: Worship Press), 193.
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.), 4.4.3.
[4] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Black Mountain, NC: Worship Press), 191.
[5] T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), 23.
[6] Ibid. 24-25.

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