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Made Sufficient: A Theology of Preaching

preachMade Sufficient: A Theology of Preaching

INTRODUCTION

Life in our culture today has one very common personal philosophy that will be heard anywhere you go: “You can be anything you set your mind to.” Our school systems, parental urgings, and media culture all cheer us on with shouts of “be all we can be, “just do it,” and “you can make friends and influence people!” We live in a world of driven and purposeful self-sufficiency. If you are a doctor and you find a new condition you are not familiar with, you study, research, prepare, and build the knowledge base and skill set within yourself to accomplish the task. You work hard to achieve the skills required for the task. If an engineer is faced with a new complicated project, they also turn to the books and the training. Study, prepare, practice, test, do all things to develop the personal skills to become competent and capable.

Coming to scripture with this worldview is dangerous enough for the average Christian, but it’s a death wish for those aspiring to the pulpit. In so many ways, our career success cultural handicap has created “you can achieve anything you set your mind to” preaching. Young men feeling the call to preaching start with the philosophy that hard work and personal development of precise skills is all that is needed to assume the pulpit and to receive the celebration and cheers of men. This is why Paul’s words to the Corinthians regarding the ministry of the New Covenant is so shocking.[1] You can just about hear the needle scratching across the record as our culture engages with Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 2:16b-17,

…who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ[2]

and 2 Corinthians 3:5-6,

Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.

The World’s response to Paul is: “Who is sufficient for these things? I am of course! I can do anything I set my mind to. I will work hard and become sufficient to preach.” This response, whether voiced or felt secretly deep in our heart is the issue at hand. The biblical act of preaching is not a calling that can be professionalized. Preaching is not something that can be undertaken or mastered by sheer personal will. Preaching is an act like no other. Preaching is not a career choice. Preaching is a supernatural calling to proclaim God’s Word as a reconciled ambassador for Christ. It is only through God that we are made sufficient to speak on His behalf.

MADE SUFFICIENT

Preaching the Word of God is every bit as challenging as walking a tightrope hundreds of feet above the ground. Lean too far in one direction and you fall to a certain death. Overcorrect and lean too far the other direction and you experience the same results. One missed step and you are in great danger. Preaching is similar, not in physical balance and concentration, but in spiritual balance and humility. On one side we can fall into the certain dangers of self-sufficiency and on the other, the certain peril of lazy unpreparedness. The rope itself, on which we safely traverse to the other side, is humility grounded in the knowledge that we are not sufficient to accomplish this task in our own strength and skills, but we are made sufficient by the power of the one of whom we speak. To make the point of how God accommodates our weakness by providing preachers to speak on His behalf, Peter Adam[3], in his little book, Speaking God’s Words, quotes John Calvin, from his Institutes, on the power of God in preaching through the man, rather than the power coming from the man himself:[4]

it forms a most excellent and useful training to humility, when he accustoms us to obey his word though preached by men like ourselves, or, it may be, our inferiors in worth. Did he himself speak from heaven, it were no wonder if his sacred oracles were received by all ears and minds reverently and without delay. For who would not dread his present power? Who would not fall prostrate at the first view of his great majesty? Who would not be overpowered by that immeasurable splendour? But when a feeble man, sprung from the dust, speaks in the name of God, we give the best proof of our piety and obedience, by listening with docility to his servant, though not in any respect our superior. [5]

All men would fall on their faces in reverence if God came down from Heaven and preached to us. However, God chose to use feeble broken men sprung up from the dust to deliver His message to the World (Ex 4:10-12, 1 Cor 1:17-21,1 Thes 2:1-4, 1 Tim 1:12-15). To understand how this feeble, unremarkable, inferior  man can faithfully represent the infinite, holy, omnipresent God of the universe, we must understand the theology of preaching.

Our Alien Sufficiency

We must strive to own and live the biblical view of preaching before we ever enter the pulpit to deliver a sermon. Paul’s had this viewpoint (2 Cor 2:15-5:21, 1 Tim 1:12-15). He understood who he was before God. Regarding his sufficiency to be a minister of the New Covenant, he gives God all the credit: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything from us, but our sufficiency is from God.”[6] Paul would not claim his impact as an evangelist, missionary, church planter, and preacher as his own success. Instead, he walked the tightrope of humility and always pointed the credit for the success to God’s work through him even though Paul was extremely diligent, well trained, self-sacrificing, and hard working for the gospel:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.[7]

Paul, a trained and zealous Pharisee would not steal any of the credit from God for his own glory or self-satisfaction. He knew his condition as he stood before the holy and righteous God. In fact, the only credit he gives himself is the credit for being a former “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent,” and the “foremost of sinners.”[8] Paul’s best, our best, or any preachers best efforts and hard work still amount to the feeble failing efforts of former blasphemers, persecutors, and insolent opponents. Offensive sinners have no standing in and of themselves to represent the Holy Lord. They must be made sufficient by God to represent Him.

Bryan Chapell’s description of the paradox of the foolishness of man being used by the wisdom of God through the Holy Spirit’s power paints it well: “Yet preaching endures and the gospel spreads because the Holy spirit uses puny human efforts as the conduit for the force of his own Word.”[9] Seeing the preacher as a conduit is the perfect analogy since a conduit is defined as a means by which something is transmitted. It is a means of conveyance. The preacher is simply the conduit for God’s powerful, self-sufficient, supernatural, and perfect Word to be conveyed through (transmitted through) to the sinners of this world He came to save. Chapell’s description gives little room for self-promotion or self-glorification. It is the efficacy of the truths in God’s message that changes hearts, not any virtue in the messenger (1 Thes 2:13, Heb 4:12). God works past the limitations of our humanity to accomplish is will. [10] This author agrees with Bryan Chapell and finds this reality to be not only humbling, but greatly comforting knowing that the heart changing power comes from God and God alone through His word.

bible 1The Word Contains the Power

We can have comfort knowing that the message itself contains the power to change hearts and transform lives because God’s message in the form of the Bible is the same as God speaking and when God speaks, His word has great power[11]. Preachers have the unique privilege to be a conduit for this power. When God speaks, planets and stars spring into existence. The Son upholds the universe by the word of his power[12]. When the Word of God is preached faithfully[13] by God’s appointed messengers, it is actually God who is speaking in power (Mat 10:19-20, 1 Thes 1:4-5, 2:13, Heb 1:1, 1 Pet 4:11, ) . The Reformers saw this truth and in the Second Helvetic Confession they define preaching as: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”[14] Luke Chapter 10 tells of the event where Jesus sends out the seventy-two to evangelize and preach in every town and in verse 16, Jesus tells them, “the one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” When the appointed messengers preached, those hearing the message of the disciples were actually  receiving the Word of God in power as if God himself was speaking to them. Again we turn to Paul, this time writing to the Thessalonians:

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.[15]

We read in Paul’s words that the Thessalonians accepted the apostles teaching for what it really was, God speaking. In addition, since it was God speaking through them, it was God’s words that were powerfully at work in them, not Paul’s words. The words of mankind leave our mouths and fall to the floor dead and powerless. God’s words live on through all of eternity in power (Ps 119:89, Mat 24:35, 1 Pet 1:23-25). Graeme Goldsworthy makes the point that preaching is a specific aspect of the broader biblical theology of the Word of God.[16] Specifically, within the New Testament, the church grew, Goldsworthy explains, through the act of preaching the Gospel of Christ. Preaching, which is proclaiming the Word of God, was and still is in this age God’s way of revealing Christ. The power of the Word rests in the power of the gospel of Christ to save souls, through the proclaiming of that gospel.[17] Faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of God, according to Paul. This is his answer to his own rhetorical questions: “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? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?[18] They come to faith through the hearing of the Word of God preached by those sent to preach it.

Paul speaking of those who would preach the gospel emphasizes the idea that the preacher is a conduit for God’s Word. He specifically uses the word, “κηρύσσοντος” (kēryssontos), describing someone who proclaims information like a herald. A herald being someone formally charged to make royal proclamations. In years long past, the herald would arrive in a village with a message from the king and proclaim it verbally to those living in the village. The preacher is a herald, sent with the charge to proclaim the gospel message to the people. The herald of God delivers the divine proclamation from the Sovereign King and Lord to the people inhabiting the Earth. The herald does not proclaim his own message to the people, but the message of the Sovereign.[19] The preacher is a man appointed by God to proclaim his message. This is a significant component to the theology of preaching, which will be examined in the next section under the theme of ambassadors for Christ.

MADE AMBASSADORS

Commissioned by God

Paul’s description of the preaching ministry from 2 Corinthians 2:12-6:13 is, by this author’s estimation, the most clear picture of the God appointed ministry of preaching. Paul’s momentum starting in the question of the preacher’s sufficiency, discussed above, reaches its conclusion in 2 Corinthians 5:20 with a metaphor, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you to be reconciled with God.”  As shown above, the preacher is a conduit for God’s Word, a messenger made sufficient by the sender, and now, Paul provides additional support to the idea. The preacher is a man commissioned by God for the proclamation of His Word. We see the language of being commissioned by God several times in 2 Corinthians (italics to emphasize the point):

  • 2 Corinthians 1:21…and it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us…
  • 2 Corinthians 2:17 …but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God…[20]
  • 2 Corinthians 3:6…who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant…
  • 2 Corinthians 4:1…having this ministry by the mercy of God…
  • 2 Corinthians 5:5…He who has prepared us for this very thing…
  • 2 Corinthians 5:18…and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…
  • 2 Corinthians 5:19…and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation…
  • 2 Corinthians 5:20…Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ…

Those called to preach are those who have been reconciled with God through Jesus Christ, made sufficient for His work, and commissioned as an ambassador for Christ with the message of reconciliation to the world.[21]

Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes the same point, the true definition of preaching is delivering the message to the people from God. The preacher is one who is sent, commissioned, and standing as a mouthpiece for God to address the people.[22] He also states that the ambassador is not a man who voices his own opinions, thoughts, or desires and the very nature of an ambassador is one who is sent to speak for someone else. The ambassador is “the bearer of the message, he is commissioned to do this, he is sent to do this; and that is what he must do.”[23]

There is little doubt that the central core of the theology of preaching is that the preacher is a broken, flawed, and sinful man who has been redeemed by God, made sufficient by God, then commissioned by God to be His ambassador to all mankind with the message of this same reconciliation. The long quote by J. I. Packer following here is one that needs to be included in its entirety.  Packer concisely provides the purpose and the source of the preacher’s dignity as an ambassador. The preacher’s dignity is not in and of himself, but from his work as a servant of one so much greater:

There is, then, available in this world a sure message from God, tried and true, unfailing and unchanging, and it needs to be proclaimed so that all may know it. The messenger who delivers it will have the dignity of being God’s spokesman and ambassador. No self-aggrandizement or self-advertisement is involved, for the messenger neither invents his message nor asks for attention in his own name. He is a minister – that is, a servant – of God, of Christ, and of the Word. He is a steward of God’s revealed mysteries, called not to be brilliant and original but diligent and faithful (1 Cor 4:1-2). Yet to be God’s messenger – to run His errands, act as His courier, and spend one’s strength making Him known – is the highest honor that any human being ever enjoys. The servant’s dignity derives from the dignity of his employer, and the work he is set to do. “Ministers are ambassadors for God and speak in Christ’s stead,” wrote Charles Simeon…there is no nobler calling than to serve God as a preacher of the divine Word.[24]

The preacher’s message, purpose, and dignity all lie in who sent them. Packer’s conclusion to his statement is one heard echoing through the halls of church history as faithful men set apart by God to preach His Word cry, “There is no nobler task!”

Ambassadors Here and Now

God, in His infinite wisdom, has set in motion a machine that continues to propagate preaching of the gospel message generation after generation. Packer alludes to it at the being of the quote above, the message of God continues to go out into the world, including today and every generation since the creation of Adam. God, through Christ, reconciles man to himself, and commissions the man as an ambassador to his time, place, culture, society, nation, and people. The preacher’s task is to verbally proclaim the message of reconciliation through Christ, by the Word of God to those where God has placed him. John Stott has a wonderfully descriptive and helpful analogy that he employs in reaching those whom God has placed before his ambassadors.

Stott’s analogy is based in the concept of building a bridge between the secular world and the spiritual world. The essential nature of preaching, he explains, is similar to “a bridge that is a means of communication between two places which would otherwise be cut off from one another by a river or a ravine.”[25] These two places, the secular modern world and spiritual biblical world, are essentially separated by an impassable chasm and preaching acts as the bridge between the two. Each new generation of preachers is faced with building the bridge from the biblical world to the modern culture to which they preach. Although they begin work from where their predecessors leave off, the secular modern world continues to rapidly move away, creating a new chasm requiring each new generation of preacher to start construction on a new bridge.[26] This repetitive pattern of bridge building and subsequent rapid separation can be seen from the fall to today. The entire story of redemption centers on man’s chasm building and God’s bridge building through his faithful heralds: the prophets, priests, kings, and shepherds. Even the ultimate prophet, priest, king and shepherd, Jesus Christ, proclaimed the Word of God in ways that built bridges between spiritual world and the secular world (Matt 5:1-7:25, Mark 4:1-34, Luke 12:35-48, Mt 5:1-7:25). Preaching today continues this pattern.

Stott rightfully pauses in his explanation of his analogy to point out that he is not speaking of secularizing the message or seeking relevance in any particular time or culture. He is not speaking of bring the Bible down to the standards of the world, but to draw the world up to the standards of the Bible.[27] Bridge building isn’t the act of contextualizing to the point of biblical minimalism and compromise, but something all together different. Stott paints the picture of conservative Bible loving preaching as very often as a message that is proclaimed from the biblical side of the chasm that goes up and comes down on the same side without ever crossing over the bridge and landing on the secular modern side. Those on the biblical side revel in this kind of sermon, but it misses the mark significantly. The goal should be to proclaim the Word from the biblical side, have it cross the bridge, and land on the earthly secular modern side.[28] This way, the Word, through the power of the Holy Spirit, will illuminate the path from the secular side across the bridge to the biblical side in a compelling way. Stott’s analogy is a helpful one and is a clever unpacking of what it means to be an ambassador for Christ. Preaching in its raw form is the heralding of God’s sovereign royal decree. It is, however, more complex since the preacher must communicate the message as an ambassador, which requires understanding of the life and culture of the hearers so that the Gospel can be proclaimed in their language. An American ambassador to Germany would communicate the message from the American president in the German language and in a way that stands out against the backdrop of their culture.

Not only do we see Jesus do this by the use of parables in his teaching, but we see Paul do exactly what Stott is trying to explain through bridge building in the book of Acts. In three separate and obvious cases Paul proclaims the Word of God by communicating in a bridge building ambassadorial way to his hearers. First, in Acts Chapter 13 Paul preaches to the Jews in Antioch[29] and he specifically targets their cultural foundation in the Old Testament by referring to the wilderness wandering of the Nation of Israel and discussing the Jewish forefathers. Then, in contrast, when speaking to those in Lystra he had to address them in relation to their shared humanity and the one true God as compared to their polytheistic idolatry.[30] Finally, in the third case to compare, when Paul arrives in Athens and preaches to the philosophers at Mars Hill, he models his proclamation after their typical philosophical argument techniques.[31] He communicates to them in their cultural way as an ambassador. Paul builds a bridge from the Holy Word of God to the philosophical worldview of the Greeks in Athens.[32]

CONCLUSION

Much more could and should be said on the subject of preaching. Understanding the theology of preaching gives us a clearer picture of who God is and how he communicates with his creation. Preaching is a wonderful and glorious task, yet an awful and terrifying task. Being used by the all powerful creator of the universe should give us cause to reflect often on the mission at hand as we traverse the tightrope. Proper perspective aides in proper balance. Without this balance and proper understanding of God, we should never enter the pulpit and claim to proclaim the Word of God.[33] John Stott writes that our effectiveness as preachers is found in the explosive power of God’s Word through preaching not because it’s a magic spell, but because God is speaking again.[34] The American church would greatly benefit from this perspective if it could break through the walls of this generation of self-sufficiency preaching. What a foolish generation we will turn out to be if we rely on being “all we can be” when we can rely on the power of God being all He can be through us.


Endnotes:

[1] In Paul’s letter, 2 Corinthians 2:16-5:21, he defines the ministry of the New Covenant as an ambassadorship on behalf of Christ to proclaim the message of reconciliation, as those who have been reconciled by God through Christ. Paul’s message in this passage is contrary to the philosophy of today because, as he states several times in the passage, the so called “success” isn’t of him, sufficiency for the task isn’t of him, but of God. The preacher of the New Covenant does not proclaim himself, but Christ alone.

[2] All scripture taken from the English Standard Version, unless specifically noted otherwise.

[3] Peter Adam is the former principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia and former vicar of St. Jude’s in Carlton, Australia.

[4] Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1996), 139-140

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV, iii, 1, 845, internet pdf version, accessed on December 20, 2012, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.pdf

[6] 2 Corinthians 3:5.

[7] 1 Corinthians 15:10.

[8] In Paul’s description of himself in 1 Timothy 1:12-15, he shows again how he was an awful enemy of the Gospel. He was killing Christ followers in misguided religious zeal. However, as Paul states, God gave him strength, gave him the ministry, gave him the message because Christ came into the world to save sinners of which he is the foremost. It can’t be stressed enough that Paul’s sincere and genuine humility is what made him a powerful preacher, however, we should hold fast to knowing that this sincere and genuine humility is a major part of God’s work in making him sufficient to be a minister of the New Covenant.

[9] Bryan Chappell, Christ Centered Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 29.

[10] Ibid., 26 and 33.

[11] Genesis 1.

[12] Hebrews 1:3.

[13] It must be stated again clearly here that the preacher is walking the tight rope of preaching. When faithful to the Word and faithful to the call to preach and when faithful to the divine supernatural nature of the Word of God, the preacher is a conduit used by God to truly speak the words of God. However, when the preacher believes he has something to offer and brings his own wisdom and cleverness he is in danger of falling off that tightrope. Additionally, on the other extreme, some will believe that God Speaks through them therefore they can just step up to the pulpit without preparation and God will speak. This is foolish. The Holy Spirit works in the man through the study and preparation period to develop the message and speak through the man when preaching. This balance is a staggering concept. Faithful preachers are those who are traversing the tightrope by the grace of God, and the grace of God alone.

[14] Ibid., 32.

[15] 1 Thessalonians 2:13.

[16] There isn’t room in this paper to properly treat the idea that the theology of preaching is actually a sub-category to the theology of the Word of God. Without God’s own word and without the revealed truth we see through scripture, preaching would be the lowest form of foolishness. The point cannot be made strong enough or frequent enough, it is the Word of God that empowers and necessitates the act of preaching. Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 34-35.

[17] Ibid., 32-33.

[18] Romans 10:14-17.

[19] For a detailed presentation of the various forms and uses of κηρύσσω (kēryssō) as related to herald (preacher/teacher) and heralding (preaching/teaching) in the New Testament see Brian Borgman, “Lecture 1”, PT 611 Preaching and Teaching Module, Reformed Baptist Seminary, Sacramento, CA, August, 2012.

[20] The word “commissioned” is added in the ESV here. KJV, NASB, ASV all translate more directly as: “but of God”, rather than the “commissioned by God.” The concept is accurate in the ESV, however, since Paul is making the point that the apostles are not like those who are peddlers of God’s word, but they are of God himself. His point is that they are from God for God culminating in his conclusion in 2 Corinthians 5:20 that they are ambassadors for Christ. I think it is clear by the context of the extended passage that the “commissioned by” paraphrase is appropriate.

[21] All reconciled sinners are given the ministry of reconciliation and all are therefore ambassadors for Christ. However, I am making the distinction here that some are set aside as heralds (preachers) and are mad sufficient for this particular work by God and commissioned by him as those who proclaim His Word.

[22] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), 53.

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] J. I. Packer, “Why Preach?”, in The Preacher and Preaching, ed. Samuel T. Logan (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2011), 24-25.

[25] John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans  Publishing Co., 1982), 137-138.

[26] Ibid., 139.

[27] Ibid., 139-140.

[28] Ibid., 140-147.

[29] See Acts 13:13-52.

[30] See Acts 14:8-18.

[31] See Acts 17:16-34.

[32] For a detailed discussion of Paul’s bridge building through contextualization and the overall contextualization of Jesus’ ministry and the New Testament, see Robert Elliot’s “Lectures 14, 15, and 16”, PT 611 Preaching and Teaching Module, Reformed Baptist Seminary, Sacramento, CA, August, 2012.

[33] Ibid., 96.

[34] Ibid., 109.

About abidingthroughgrace

Married with kids, work as CEO of Engineering Firm, I am Reformed in faith and Baptistic in flavor, I hold to the 5 Solas, TULIP, and currently studying Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Baptist Seminary.

5 comments on “Made Sufficient: A Theology of Preaching

  1. Very good post. Very true today as well. Wish there were many more faithful preachers, who, at the same time, didn’t fall prey to the desire for celebrity.

    Todd
    Texas

  2. Thanks,Todd. I think the essential ingredient, that God makes men sufficient to preach and not man being sufficient in himself to preach, is lost on this generation. It seems to be showing up everywhere.

  3. To the aspiring preacher, I would point to the book “Lectures to my Students” by Charles Spurgeon as an absolute positive must-read. Spurgeon was a great and creative communicator, but at the same time understood that his job was to stay in precise alignment with the written word when preaching. He also understood the uselessness of a sermon if not accompanied by the working of the Holy Spirit, and the absolute necessity of much prayer while preparing a message. He was a great preacher because he faithfully delivered the Word, not because of his fame and legacy. If y’all don’t have a copy, go get one!

  4. ChurchSalt, I agree completely. Lectures to my students is excellent and a must have for every aspiring preacher’s library.

  5. I concur ATG. This was one of the books we provided for pastoral training in Liberia. Some books just never go out of style.

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