Were you to visit Trinity Presbyterian Church (the congregation I serve) next Sunday morning, you would experience something rather unusual in our North American culture. As an important aspect of our public worship (though certainly not the only part) you would find the congregation sitting together listening to someone speak. That doesn’t happen very often these days, unfortunately sometimes not even in church. In some churches the pulpit has been replaced by a stool on which someone sits and dialogues with the people present. Furniture does not a church make, but the change in arrangements is often symptomatic of a basic shift in how preaching is viewed. Another symptom of the shift is the prominence of a projection screen. Visual images not only supplement oral communication, but often replace it.
One person speaking for approximately a half hour, and a group listening – – that is rare enough that it almost appears counter-cultural. Has the time when preaching was relevant passed? Is a church that emphasizes it simply resisting change and focusing on tradition? Or does the Bible itself say something about the importance of preaching?
Romans 10:17 reads, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (ESV). In the verses that precede, Paul has reflected on the breadth of God’s gracious offer: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 13). Then, through a series of questions, he describes the steps necessary to call on the name of the Lord. Faith, or believing, is required. But believing presupposes hearing. Hearing necessitates that someone preach. And the one who preaches needs to be sent.
The God who sovereignly calls people to himself sends his Spirit to work faith in their hearts. He also chooses the means by which they hear. After an unsatisfying pilgrimage to Jerusalem the Ethiopian official in Acts 8 heard the gospel from a stranger who “happened” to be walking along the Gaza road and heard him puzzling over a prophecy in Isaiah.
The primary way that people hear is through someone preaching. The word means to herald, to proclaim as an official representative. Larry Wilson in an article in Ordained Servant refers to Romans 10 and writes:
Does this mean that God doesn’t permit unordained believers—believers who are not sent—to tell others about Jesus? Of course not! God calls every believer to confess Jesus Christ openly (Rom. 10:9-10). What this does mean is that when they do so, unordained believers do not function as Christ’s authoritative heralds.
Well, does that mean that the Lord will never use the witness of an unordained believer as an instrument to effectually call sinners to salvation? Of course not! The Lord is sovereign, free, and infinitely compassionate and gracious. He often uses the witness of his faithful people. We see this both in Scripture and in Christian experience. What it does mean is that he especially promises to bless the preaching of his Word as an effectual means of grace.
The great problem we have in the modern church is not that too many unordained believers are too diligent to bear witness to Jesus Christ in their daily vocations. Far from it! Our great problem is that we moderns are no longer confident that preaching really is the means by which Jesus Christ especially works to save sinners, disciple believers, and build his church.
It may seem puzzling that God uses the means of weak, sinful, human preachers to make the good news of Jesus Christ known. I know that it puzzles me since I’m sure that an angel would do a better job of communicating the good news than my efforts. But God is pleased to use the foolishness of preaching to save people and to build them up in the faith.
The hearing through which faith comes (v. 17), is the hearing mentioned in v. 14. Although most of our English translations read something like, “how are they to believe in him of whom they have not heard,” the preposition of is not there in what Paul wrote. Paul is speaking, not just of hearing about Christ in preaching, but is making a stronger point. In the public preaching of the Word, Christ is speaking to God’s people. Gregory Reynolds in an article in Ordained Servant (based on a passage in his book, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures (p. 384), emphasizes that in preaching, the flock hears the voice of the Good Shepherd:
The Reformation conception of preaching is embodied in the Second Helvetic Confession: “The preaching of the word of God is the word of God.” Our Lord, the incarnate Word, has identified the preaching of his ordained spokesmen with his Word: “He who hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16). Herman Hoeksema correctly insisted that the Greek of Romans 10:14 should be translated as the American Standard Version has it: “And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” as opposed to “Him of whom they have not heard?” Thus it is “the preached Word rather than the written Word” which is the primary means of grace. Christ is immediately present as the true Speaker in the preaching moment. “The implication is that Christ speaks in the gospel proclamation.” Preaching is not speaking about Christ, but is Christ speaking.
Understanding the force of Romans 10 carries some heavy obligations for me as I seek to be faithful as a herald of the good news. It also implies responsibilities for those who hear. Come to worship, prepared to hear your King speak to you. Spend time getting ready. (Do you get enough sleep? Do you set aside other concerns?) Pray! (Pray for the one who will be preaching Christ to you. Pray that your own hear will be receptive. Pray with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will use his Word effectively.)
Why the emphasis on preaching? Not because we are opposed to technology, but because the Shepherd/King has chosen that means of drawing his sheep to himself and uses it to nurture them. Come prepared to hear the voice of Christ speaking to you!