Dear Church Family,
In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on preaching. You may read the previous installments online:
Preaching: What is the Gospel?
Preaching: The Foundation and the Superstructure
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 1
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 2
Preaching: The Abuse of Redemptive Historical Preaching, Part 3
Preaching: The Same Message No Matter the Text?
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 1
Preaching: Commands, Threats, and Promises, Part 2
Two weeks ago, we introduced and examined the concept from the Westminster Confession of Faith (14.2) of how, by faith, a Christian responds differently to the Word of God depending on the particular passage and its contents: (1) obeying the commands; (2) trembling at the threatenings; and (3) embracing the promises. Then, last week, we considered where we find this teaching in the Scriptures.
Now, that we have a good confessional and biblical basis for this concept, this brings us to the practical implications of what this all means for preaching.
Practical Implications for Preaching
Understanding the theoretical aspect of preaching – that is, preaching the whole Word of God (commands, threatenings, and promises) as defined by the text before us – leads us to consider the practical implications. That is, is it true that believers grow in their faith solely by hearing and meditating upon their justification? Again, this is based on a misunderstanding and a too-narrow a view of the definition of the Gospel.
Here it is helpful to gain some insight from a particular teaching in the Canons of Dort. In response to the teachings of Arminianism, the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) set forth five main points in refutation of the claims of the Remonstrants (the followers of Arminius). These five points have come to be referred to as the TULIP, or the five points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the saints. In the fifth point, article 14 reads as follows:
And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.
What’s interesting here is that the Synod of Dort states that perseverance in the faith is furthered by hearing and reading the gospel, and also by the use of the sacraments (what we often refer to as the ordinary means of grace). But what’s even more interesting is how the Synod of Dort refers to the hearing and reading of the gospel as being comprised of “its exhortations, threats, and promises” (notice the parallel in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 14.2).
The point is this: not only is the preaching of the emphasis of a particular passage of Scripture (it’s commands, threats, and promises) proper because believers respond by faith to each one differently (obedience, trembling, and embracing), but these aspects of the gospel (!) are that which God uses for the preserving, continuing, and completing of His work in His people.
Early on in my preaching ministry, when I was just starting out, I greeted a family at the door of the church after the service. The young husband and father stopped in front of me, shook my hand, and said, “I just want you to know that you stepped on my toes in the sermon this morning!” A bit unsure as to how to respond, I said, “Oh, sorry about that.” He said, “Please. Don’t be sorry. I needed my toes to be stepped on!”
That episode – and others over the years – has reminded me that God uses the preaching of His word in ways that I, as the preacher, don’t always expect. In fact, I am surprised by those things that God uses to convict or encourage people from a sermon. But I am also encouraged. I am encouraged because it means that despite my own weaknesses and failings as a preacher, I can have confidence to know that God will speak to His people. And, I can have confidence that, because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, God’s people will, by faith, hear Him.
There is seemingly no end to the debates over what are the proper ways to preach the gospel – how pastors ought to be faithful to the Scriptures in proclaiming His word. The debates can be frustrating, but they are also helpful in that they make ministers and laity alike consider afresh the importance of the preached word. The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us of its importance:
How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation. (WSC 89).
In the end, hopefully, the debates and discussion, books and articles, will be used of God to make all of Christ’s under-shepherds better and more faithful in their important work.
One such book, that explains and emphasizes the teachings of the Westminster divines on the subject of preaching is The Westminster Directory of Public Worship: Discussed by Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson. I’ll conclude with a with a quote from that book, and the insightful words of pastor, preacher, and author, Mark Dever:
Today, preachers face the twin dangers of Hypocritical Christianity and Hypothetical Theology, which both result in lives unaffected by truths unapplied. Preachers sometimes think it more spiritual only to declare objective realities of the historical work of God through Christ, and not to address the Spirit’s work of application in the hearts of hearers. Some decry such applicatory work as subjectivism, pietism, or the seed bed of legalism and works-righteousness. While such perversion may, in fact, arise, they are nevertheless perversions, and not the simple application itself, the application we see in Scripture. When we oppose application as such, we are certainly separating ourselves from the understanding of the Bible and its truths that the Westminster divines had.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch