This article first appeared as a meditation in the August 1984 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.60, No.19), a special issue on preaching.
What Happens in the "Moment" of the Preaching?
This third and last special issue for the current volume-year is devoted to the general theme of preaching. The treatment of this theme is not exhaustive: much more could be written than what is here presented. We tried to choose various significant and pertinent aspects of our general theme and asked various staff-members to write on these, leaving the manner of treatment and the particular emphasis to the individual contributors. I think you will agree that a surprising unity emerged from this somewhat random effort.
It fell to me as editor to introduce the subject of preaching as a means of grace, and especially to emphasize the importance and significance of the preaching of the Word. I will do so from the viewpoint of the question which forms the title of this editorial. Our Protestant Reformed Churches place a strong emphasis on the preaching of the Word, an emphasis, I dare say, which is not found in many places today. It is an emphasis, too, which is by no means disconnected from our peculiar history and doctrinal struggle, particularly in connection with the theory of the gospel as a well-meant offer of salvation.
Why is the preaching of the Word important—in fact, indispensable? Why is it necessary that God's people faithfully attend to the preaching of the Word on the Lord's day? Why is it necessary for a man of 70 or 80 years old to come to church and listen to the preaching of the Word which he has heard from early childhood, when it is entirely possible that he knows as much or more about a given text than some young pastor who is fresh out of seminary? Why must a veteran minister, who might be a more capable preacher than the man at the podium, listen to the preaching of the Word? Why must our congregations listen to the preaching of the same old Heidelberg Catechism year after year? Why is it not as spiritually beneficial to stay at home with a good book of sermons on Sunday morning as to attend church and to hear the preached Word?
The answer to all such questions—and they could easily be multiplied—lies in the answer to the question: what happens in the "moment" of the preaching?
What is preaching?
"Preaching is the authoritative proclamation of the gospel by the church in the service of the Word of God through Christ." (Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 637) The writer distinguishes four elements in this definition: "1) Preaching is authoritative proclamation. 2) It is the proclamation of the gospel, that is, the whole Word of God, as revealed in the Scriptures. 3) Preaching is proclamation of the gospel by the church: for only the church is able to send the preacher. 4) Preaching stands in the service of the Word of God through Christ: for only Christ, through the Spirit, can make the preaching of the Word powerful and efficacious as a means of grace."
Now all these elements belong together. But it is in the fourth element that we have the answer to our question: Christ Himself speaks through the preaching! About this Reformed Dogmatics explains:
". . . Through the preaching it pleases God through Christ, the exalted Lord, the Chief Prophet of God, Who alone gathers His church, to speak to His people unto salvation. This is very evident from Romans 10:14, 15. In this passage we read, according to the original: 'How shall they believe in Him Whom they have not heard?' Through the preaching, therefore, you do not hear about Christ, but you hear Him. The difference is easily understood. When you hear about someone, he is not present. You do not hear his own voice, but the voice of someone else who tells you something about him. But when you hear someone, you hear his own voice. He is present with you. He is addressing you personally. And this is the sense of the passage from Romans which we just quoted. The text teaches us that you cannot believe in Christ unless you have heard Him speak to you, unless you have heard His Word addressed to you. This is exactly the meaning of the text: 'How shall they believe in Him Whom they have not heard?'"
One more quotation from Reformed Dogmatics will clarify this important point: "The word of man is not sufficient to serve as a means of grace or as a basis for that certain knowledge whereby I know that all my sins are forgiven me, and for that perfect confidence whereby I rely in life and death on my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. What we must hear is not the word of man, but the Word of God, which 'is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do.' (Hebrews 4:12, 13) We must hear Christ Himself addressing us personally. But how shall they hear this Word unless they hear it from Himself, unless they hear the voice of Christ? And how shall they hear this Word without the preacher? This is the point of the text in Romans 10:14, 15 . . . A preacher is not a person who merely speaks concerning Christ, but one through whom it pleases Christ Himself to speak and to cause His own voice to be heard by His people. The thing that matters in any sermon is whether we hear the voice of Jesus say: 'Come unto Me and rest;' whether we hear Him say, 'Repent and believe,' whether His voice resounds in our deepest soul, 'Your sins are forgiven, and I give unto you eternal life.'"
This is the answer to our question: what happens in the moment of the preaching?
This is the one factor which accounts for the fact that the preaching of the Word is indispensable for the child of God. He must hear it. He cannot do without it. Without it there is no faith and no salvation.
It is crucial for us to remember this in our day.
In general, preaching has fallen upon evil times today. One may debate about the reasons for this. Is it due to the fact that preaching itself first deteriorated in quality, departed from the Biblical norm for preaching, so that those in the pew became disillusioned and lost their desire for the true preaching of the Word? Or is it due to a lack of spirituality on the part of those in the pew, so that a lack of real desire for the true preaching of the Word triggered a downgrading of the importance and necessity of sound preaching to which the pulpit catered? Usually these two have gone together in history, and the one feeds on the other.
But regardless of the reasons, the fact remains that preaching has fallen upon evil times. More and more the preaching of the Word is pushed into the background, and it receives an even smaller place in public worship. All kinds of other things are introduced and allowed to take the place of preaching. A favorite in many circles is the devising of elaborate and largely meaningless liturgies. In some instances the preaching of the Word is almost entirely displaced. Besides, even where there is some small place left for the sermon, the preaching itself has sadly deteriorated both in form and content. Either the preacher strives to be "relevant" and busies himself with social issues and engages in human philosophy. Or the preaching has become just plain cold and dry and dead, and God's people are offered stones for bread.
Whatever the case may be, the situation in general in the church today is that one must travel long and far to hear sound, faithful, lively, Reformed preaching of the Word.
Against this general tendency and trend we must be on guard, lest we begin to lose this precious gift.
The first responsibility in this respect lies with our pastors. They must understand that they have no more important task in their ministry than to preach the Word, to expound the Scriptures, and to do so antithetically.
In the second place, our elders have a duty in this respect. They must take the oversight of the preaching and of the preacher. They must not be passive in this regard, but very insistent that the preacher fulfill his calling faithfully. And they must also be assistants, so that they free the preacher from other tasks in order that he may give priority to his primary calling, namely, to preach the Word.
In the third place, our congregations have a calling also. They must faithfully attend to the preaching of the Word: it is indispensable! Do not deceive yourself in this respect: you and your children cannot do without it. And they must, with the elders and the minister, guard the pulpit, in order that it may remain strong and sound and pure.
Homer C. Hoeksema was born in Grand Rapids, MI on January 30, 1923. He was the second son of Herman Hoeksema and born during the turmoil of the Common Grace controversy which led to the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
He graduated from Calvin College and then the Protestant Reformed Seminary. He served the Protestant Reformed congregation at Doon, Iowa from 1949 to 1955 and later the Protestant Reformed congregation at South Holland, Illinois from 1955 to 1959.
In 1959 he was called to serve as professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, a position he held until his emeritation in 1989. He taught the departments of Dogmatics and New Testament studies. He served for many years as the editor of The Standard Bearer and wrote various significant books--the main one, a study of the Canons of Dordt titled: The Voice of the Fathers.
He was taken to glory on July 17, 1989.