Recovering the Evangelical Pulpit: Hearing Christ

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I have the privilege to teach preaching on the seminary level and often lecture on preaching to a variety of pastors at conferences. One of the things I’ve noticed is, that no matter how high a view of biblical authority that a group has, often they become uncomfortable when I say in faithful preaching, the preacher is not an obstacle between the congregation and the word of God, but rather the voice of Christ to the church.

That assertion seems to go too far in their minds. I am usually met with a question like, “Wouldn’t it be safer to say that preaching points people to God rather than say that preaching functions as the voice of God? Wouldn’t that make God accountable for my sermons?” I generally respond, “No. That makes you accountable to God and his word for your sermons. Also, trying to figure out what is safer is not fundamentally a biblical concern.”

Answering the fundamental question of what preaching is clarifies many of the other questions about the task of preaching. There is a world of difference between understanding preaching as identifying with the congregation and talking about God and understanding preaching as identifying with God in his word and functioning as his voice to a congregation. Is preaching exclusively a human act that merely constitutes the voice of the preacher? Or is preaching also a divine activity, whereby to faithful preacher functions as the voice of Christ to a congregation?

Consider what The Second Helvetic Confession of 1564 said about preaching,

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; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now 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 (Phillip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations, Vol. 3, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882: 832).

The Second Helvetic Confession is not contending that anything a preacher says is to be considered the word of God, the preacher only possesses authority derived from the Scripture itself, but that faithful preaching is heard as the very word of God. The Scripture alone possesses inherent authority, not the writer of Scripture, or the preacher of Scripture. Faithful and true preaching is used by the Holy Spirit instrumentally as Christ’s voice to the congregation. Hughes Oliphant Old writes, “We should be careful to note that it is what God does in preaching which counts. It is because in the preacher’s word we hear Christ’s word that it produces faith” (The Biblical Period, vol. 1, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998: 182).

I believe that the most important issue facing evangelicals today is a recovery of an evangelical view of preaching. P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) was correct when he asserted, “with its preaching Christianity stands and fall” (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964: 1). I fear too many evangelicals today profess a high view of the Bible as God’s inerrant word but a low view of the power and authority of preaching though they have been historically known for their commitment to the divinely ordained power of preaching. This exalted view of preaching is why D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “to me the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called” (Preaching and Preachers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971: 9) and C.H. Spurgeon said, “The moment the Church of God shall despise the pulpit, God will despise her” (“Bread for the Hungry.” In The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons Vol. 7, London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1861: 565).

In Romans 10, Paul asserts the necessity of worldwide proclamation of the gospel. He argues that God is at work in the world saving sinners. He provides the promise: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13) and follows the promise with a series of rhetorical questions. First, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?” (Rom. 10:14a). Second, “How will they believe in him whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14b). Third, “And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14c). Fourth, “How will they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:15a). The logic is clear: Preachers are sent, they preach, people hear Christ as they hear the preacher’s sermon, they believe, and they call on him in faith. He summarizes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).

In The Pillar New Testament Commentary: Romans, Leon Morris explains that in Romans 10:14, “The point is that Christ is present in the preachers; to hear them is to hear him (Luke 10:16), and the people ought to believe when they hear him.”1 In faithful preaching of the word of God, the listener is not simply hearing about Christ, they are hearing from Christ. Christ himself speaks through his feeble but faithful preachers. Salvation comes when his voice is heard, and the listener responds, not to the preacher, but to Christ in faith. Paul commends the church in Thessalonica saying, “. . . 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” (1 Thess. 2:13). To the Corinthian church, Paul states that his preaching to them was “a powerful demonstration by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:4). As Bryan Chapell observes, how “humbling and emboldening is the conviction that when we speak the truths of God’s Word, God speaks (cf. Luke 10:16)” (Christ-centered Preaching, 2nd Edition, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005: 32).

John Calvin unflinchingly asserts, “As often, therefore, as we hear the gospel preached by men, we ought to consider that it is not so much they who speak, as Christ who speaks by them. . . . Christ lovingly allures us to himself by his own voice, that we may not by any means doubt of the majesty of his kingdom” (Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010: 17). Calvin also says of Christ’s ministers, “Christ acts by them in such a manner that he wishes their mouth to be reckoned as his mouth, and their lips as his lips; that is, when they speak from his mouth, and faithfully declare his word (Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah vol. 1, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010: 381).

Martin Luther exhorted,

Would to God that we could gradually train our hearts to believe that the preacher’s words are God’s Word and that the man addressing us is a scholar and a king. As a matter of fact, it is not an angel or a hundred thousand angels but the Divine Majesty Himself that is preaching there. To be sure, I do not hear this with my ears or see it with my eyes; all I hear is the voice of the preacher, or of my brother or father, and I behold only a man before me. But I view the picture correctly if I add that the voice and words of father or pastor are not his own words and doctrine but those of our Lord and God. It is not a prince, a king, or an archangel whom I hear; it is He who declares that He is able to dispense the water of eternal life. If we could believe this, we would be content indeed (Luther’s works, vol. 22: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Pelikan, Oswald, & Lehmann, eds., vol. 22, Saint Louis: Concordia, 1999: 526-527).

When preaching is faithful to the Scripture, James P. Boyce, the founder of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary rightly declared,

It is not man only that tells of sin and offers a Savior; not man only that presents promises of acceptance through Christ; not man only that calls his fellows to repentance and trust in Jesus; not man only, that invites to a life of full consecration to God, and gives assurances to help in the attempt to lead that life.” Faithful preaching constitutes “the voice of God—of the living God. It is the invitation of Christ—the ever-present Christ. It is the Holy Ghost whose sword is thus unsheathed to convict of sin, of righteousness and of a judgment to come (“Thus Saith the Lord,” in James Petigru Boyce: Selected Writings, ed. Timothy George, Nashville: Broadman, 1989: 67).

May this generation of evangelical seminary students, and all evangelical preachers, believe again the glorious biblical truth that faithful preaching constitutes the voice of God. May we ascend the pulpit each time expecting God’s living and active voice to be heard by his people.

1. Also see, John Murray on Romans 10:14ff, The Epistle to the Romans vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans Publishing, 1968), 58. “A striking feature of this clause is that Christ is represented as being heard in the gospel when proclaimed by the sent messengers. The implication is that Christ speaks in the gospel proclamation. It is in this light that what precedes and what follows must be understood. The personal commitment which faith implies is coordinate with the encounter with Jesus’ own words in the gospel message. And the dignity of the messengers, reflected on later, is derived from the fact that they are the Lord’s spokesmen.”

Also, John Stott on Romans 10:14ff, “‘In accordance with normal grammatical usage’, the phrase the one of whom (hou) should be translated ‘the one whom’ and so means ‘the speaker rather than the message’. In other words, they will not believe Christ until they have heard him speaking through his messengers or ambassadors. . . . Thus, unless some people are commissioned for the task, there will be no gospel preachers; unless the gospel is preached, sinners will not hear Christ’s message and voice; unless they hear him, they will not believe the truths of his death and resurrection; unless they believe these truths, they will not call on him; and unless they call on his name, they will not be saved” (The Message of Romans, Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001: 286-287).

By |August 22nd, 2017|Categories: Blog|Tags: |

About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today