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New Horizons

Dying to Self: Toward a Reformation of Preaching

Stephen J. Tracey

As we commemorate the Reformation, it is appropriate to begin by considering preaching. The late Hughes Oliphant Old reminds us that “the classical Protestant Reformation produced a distinct school of preaching. It was a preaching of reform, to be sure, but it was also a reform of preaching” (see The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 4, p. 1). The danger is that discussions of preaching may reduce to mere pontification. That is not only ironic, in view of the Reformation, but also not helpful.

By the time of the Reformation, preaching had been effectively sidelined by the Mass. It is not that there was no preaching, or that all preaching was of a low standard. Rather, it was gradually replaced by rites and ceremonies. As A. M. Renwick remarks, “The rites performed by the officiating priest were all that mattered and the proper place of preaching in the church was lost sight of” (The Story of the Scottish Reformation, p. 17).

As the Reformers increasingly engaged directly with the Bible (in the original languages), they not only clarified the great doctrines of Scripture—grace, faith, the person and work of Christ, and justification—but also restored preaching to its place of priority.

The pinnacle of this reformation of preaching may well have been reached by Bullinger’s statement, “The preaching of the Word of God is the word of God” (Second Helvetic Confession). This expression must be handled with great care. It does not mean that every utterance from a preacher is divine. Rather, it is a reminder of the living power of the Word. When the Word is preached, it is the Word of God that is let loose among the hearers.

This refocusing of the task of preaching emphasized not only its priority, but also its purpose: Christ was freely offered in the gospel. Old says of Luther, “For Luther the problem with the preaching of his day was that it aimed at teaching people to do good works rather than preaching the gospel” (p. 11). It is for this reason that the Reformation has been called a great revival of religion. It was certainly a great revival of gospel preaching, aimed at the glory of God.

Yet even in the Reformed tradition, the sermon seems to be under attack. Communications experts tell us that preaching is a poor form of communication. Our entertainment-saturated culture is impatient with any message that is more than a sound bite or longer than 140 characters.

The mood is captured well by L. E. Keck: “If something is worth communicating, don’t spoil it by preaching it! Let it emerge in the give-and-take of the group; celebrate it by music, dance or drama. In preaching, people are as passive as chickens on a roost—and perhaps just as awake. For whatever reason, the authority of the preacher has become problematic” (quoted by Klaas Runia, The Sermon under Attack, p. 6). In many churches, the supposed or perceived tension between the priesthood of all believers and the concept of office puts pressure on preaching not to get in the way of the rest of worship.

We must always remember that “the Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation” (Larger Catechism, 155).

Preaching is vital to the life and health of the church. Not only should we have confidence in this ordinary means of grace, but we should always seek to improve the gift.

Two major emphases appear to emerge in the history of preaching in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The first emphasis is preaching Christ from all the Scriptures, highlighting redemptive history. The second emphasis is on application, highlighting applicatory preaching. Sometimes these emphases jostle one another with some brotherly banter. Occasionally the banter gets a little heated.

It may be helpful to ask how we arrived at these two emphases. The early years of homiletics instruction at Westminster Theological Seminary set the tone for the preaching that developed in the OPC.

Preaching and Biblical Theology

R. B. Kuiper served as professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary from 1933 to 1952. His approach was straightforward. The preacher, he said, will “consider it his high privilege as well as his solemn duty to view every text taken from the Old Testament in the light of the fuller revelation of the New Testament.” Or again, “A sermon on an Old Testament text must always be a New Testament sermon” (“Scriptural Preaching,” The Infallible Word, pp. 227–28).

Edmund Clowney was appointed as assistant professor of practical theology in 1952, and he served on the faculty until 1984. Clowney’s book, Preaching and Biblical Theology (1961), is very important in understanding the shape of OPC preaching. Here Kuiper’s hints about the history of redemption are fleshed out. In chapter 3, Clowney deals with “Biblical Theology and the Character of Preaching,” arguing that preaching requires two perspectives: the time in which we preach and the place in which we preach.

The time in which we preach is the latter days, or the last days. Says Clowney, “Biblical theology has here rendered a great service to the church. On all sides it is recognized that any who would take the NT seriously must be confronted by eschatology” (p. 67). Consequently, Clowney does not approach application as relating the text from the ancient world to the modern world. The quest for relevance is not seen as moving from ancient to modern, but rather as adopting an eschatological perspective. It is the contrast between the world that is seen (whether ancient or modern) and the world that is unseen. That unseen world has already begun to be realized. The quest for relevance is to live in the “seen” world in the light of the “unseen” world. This eschatological perspective has an impact on our sense of time, relevance, and application.

Clowney’s second perspective has to do with the place in which we preach. He says, “The preacher in the pulpit is in the world as well as in the church. He must proclaim the gospel in its fullness” (p. 73). Furthermore, “The church is not the consummation kingdom but it presses towards the consummation. The church must always be a pilgrim church hastening on towards the end of time and the ends of the earth” (p. 71). Yet the church is not the consummation of the kingdom. The eschatological perspective has a profound impact on one’s sense of place, and that place requires that the church preach the gospel in all its fullness.

Preaching and Application

A noticeable change in emphasis appears in the work of Jay E. Adams. For example, in Truth Applied (1990), Adams gives a nod to biblical theology as being important to stop moralizing and to make a sermon Christian, but then he says, “Conservative biblical-theological preachers, sailing in the wake of Geerhardus Vos, tend to ignore (or even oppose) the use of application in a sermon. They expect the listener to make his own application (if any) of the sweeping truths they set forth on their excursions from Genesis to Revelation as they chase down a figure or a theme” (p. 21). A little later he says that the redemptive-historical preacher “is like a magician, pulling rabbits out of the text and wowing the congregation with his new biblical insights.” What Adams is after is application in preaching. “How does one take universal truth, clothed in ancient garb, and directed as it was toward outmoded situation, and redirect it to life in the computer age?” (p. 34). Perhaps Clowney’s followers, less skilled than he, were guilty of the extremes Adams condemns. Perhaps Adams’s criticism is itself extreme. It may have stirred greater work in application, but it certainly fueled polarization.

John F. Bettler picks up the same theme, arguing that application, or use, is not merely an add-on to preaching. Rather, he says, “application is preaching” (“Application,” in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century, ed. Samuel T. Logan, Jr., p. 332). It may be coincidental that this emphasis on application is related to the growth of the biblical counseling movement. But we may well ask: has preaching become public, corporate counseling? In what way, whether positively or negatively, has Adams’s Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation affected the Reformed pulpit in America? This is not a criticism of CCEF or the place of counseling in the life of the church. Preaching certainly can be public, corporate counseling. The question is: should it be more than that?

Preaching as Doxology

We must remember that these emphases on redemptive history and application both aim at the glory of God, and that is their strength. An unfolding of the organic unity of the Scriptures focuses ultimately on the glory of God in the person and work of Jesus. Applying the Word focuses ultimately on the glory of God in the saving and sanctifying of his people. We want to preach Christ from all the Scriptures, applying the Word to the congregation before us. Certainly it can be argued that doxology is an application, the use of the Word for adoration. Perhaps we need further reflection on whether our approach to preaching can end up being focused on self and our own needs, rather than on God. If we overemphasize redemptive history, then we may preach about Christ, without actually preaching Christ. If we overemphasize application, then the Word of God is handled in a utilitarian fashion (“What use is this to me?”), rather than a doxological fashion (“He is worthy!”).

One study of preaching and hearing observed, “What listeners most valued was the sermon as a source of comfort, as providing direction, and a means through which to interpret life experiences” (David Rietveld, “A Survey of the Phenomenological Research of Listening to Preaching,” p. 31). That may be edifying, but it seems to miss the glory of God. Since the aim has always been to give glory of God, then perhaps we should reform our preaching by adding a third strand to these emphases. We should bring the foundation of both to the surface. That is an emphasis on doxology.

Perhaps we need to be more conscious of the theological dimension of preaching—or, more precisely, the doxological dimension of preaching. Preaching is not simply part of worship; preaching is worship. The preaching of the Word informs all other parts of worship. Sacraments are not bare signs; they require the preached Word. Singing and prayer are informed by the preached Word. The preaching of the Word holds a certain priority in worship, and hence the emphasis should be on preaching as doxology. We declare the Word of God, and we thereby declare the glory of God. We do not simply preach Christ’s word; we preach Christ. We speak his message, but it is him we declare (Col. 1:28). Hughes Oliphant Old summarizes the point this way: “The preaching and the hearing of the Word of God is in the last analysis worship, worship in the most profound sense” (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 1, p. 189).

Preaching for God’s Glory

To improve our preaching and add this doxological element, there are several things preachers and hearers may do. First, always aim at God’s glory. We follow the pattern outlined in the Larger Catechism, which states that the Word is to be preached “sincerely, aiming at his glory, and [the hearers’] conversion, edification, and salvation” (Q. 159). God is certainly glorified in our conversion, edification, and salvation. Yet God may also be glorified in and of himself alone. When hearing the Word preached, our first question should not be about self, but rather, “Was God glorified in the preaching of the Word?”

Preaching Christ

Second, we can improve our expository preaching by strengthening our ability to exegete Scripture in the light of Scripture. And when listening to preaching, we should desire to see Christ. Our first thought should not be “Who am I in this text?” but “Show me Jesus.” We should ask, “Was Christ offered to us?” and “Was he offered freely?”

The Authority of Preaching

Third, remember that the preaching of the Word of God carries a certain authority, rooted in the Scriptures themselves and in the call to preach the Word. This authority is theological. J. I. Packer puts it like this: “Only as God himself is perceived to be preaching in our sermons can they have genuine spiritual significance, and God will be perceived to speak through us only as we are enabled to make plain the fact that it is really the Bible that is doing the talking” (“Speaking for God,” in Inside the Sermon, ed. Richard Allen Bodey, p. 187). In hearing the Word preached, however poor the preacher’s voice may be, we are engaging with the great King. “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” (1 Thess. 2:13).

Preaching the Great Themes

Fourth, as Donald MacLeod reminds us, “Theologically, nothing is to be held back.… If a thing is not biblical, it must have no place in our preaching. If it is biblical, we have no right not to teach it. We must wrestle with the great themes, even if they throw us” (“Preaching and Systematic Theology,” in The Preacher and Preaching, ed. Logan, p. 263). Wrestling with great themes may lead us into majestic mysteries, but there is nothing wrong with being left in awe of God. Preachers should preach the great themes, and hearers should develop an appetite for these great themes.

Finally, this inevitably means that the preacher must die to self. In the context of gospel preaching, Paul speaks of “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:10–12). The preacher must die to self. Preaching is for the glory of God. But surely the hearer must also die to self and live to Christ. Life is not about the fuller me. I must decrease; he must increase.

The author is the pastor of Lakeview OPC in Rockport, Maine. New Horizons, November 2016.

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