The Necessity of Preaching in the Modern World, part 1[1]

Robert Letham

Ordained Servant: October 2013

The Reformation of Preaching

Also in this issue

The Rhythms of the Christian Life in Bible Reading, Prayer, and Poetry

Mind and Cosmos

Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Poems on the Holy Scriptures


J. Gresham Machen famously declared “Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative.”[2] The foundation of the Christian gospel is what God has done for our salvation in Christ, his Son. It is a sovereign work of the Holy Trinity. From this it follows that what the church is to do is at root an announcement, a declaration. It is good news. That good news is to be announced like a herald. Upon this all subsequent action by the church rests.


Preaching can be understood in a variety of ways, corresponding to the terms used in the New Testament for the preacher.[3] At root, it is possible to boil everything down to two major, indispensable aspects: proclamation of the word of God, which is foundational, and appeal to the hearers.


For Barth, proclamation is integrally connected with the lordship of Christ; he declares, “preaching does not put it into effect; preaching declares and confirms that it is in effect.”[4] In turn, Stott states, “the preacher does not supply his own message; he is supplied with it.”[5] This follows from Machen’s “triumphant indicative.” Christianity is not a method of self-help; it is a manifestation of the grace of God. Hence, in the public teaching of the Christian faith, the primary weight falls on declaring what God has done to save his people from their sins. As Barth puts it, proclamation “is directed to men with the definitive claim and expectation that it has to declare the Word of God to them ... in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks.”[6] In short, all comes from God to humanity. The message, and consequently the medium, is prescribed for us.

In the light of this, Barth continues in his inimitable style, “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to him if he really does. But unless we regard ourselves as the prophets and founders of a new Church, we cannot say that we are commissioned to pass on what we have heard as independent proclamation.”[7] Rather, true preaching is “the attempt by someone called thereto in the Church, in the form of an exposition of some portion of the biblical witness to revelation, to express in his own words and to make intelligible to the men of his own generation the promise of the revelation, reconciliation and vocation of God as they are to be expected here and now.”[8] This definition of Barth’s lacks the element of appeal—it is simply a declaration, an exposition, a making intelligible. This is both necessary and primary and—as Stott remarks—if one or other of these elements only were present it would be best that this be the one. Without the proclamation and content we would be left with emotional manipulation; but without the appeal we would not have a sermon but a lecture.

On the other hand, Barth’s threefold form of the Word of God provides some helpful ways of considering the question. His proposal of the perichoretic interpenetration of the revealed Word, the Word written, and the Word proclaimed points us in the direction of an integrated grasp of the relationship among Christ, the Bible and preaching.[9] We should see these three as interconnected. Christ, the living Word, is the central theme of Scripture (Luke 24:25–27, 44–45, 1 Pet. 1:10–12) and thus of preaching. The written word testifies of Christ and is the basis of preaching. Preaching itself must be grounded on Scripture and testify of Christ. Not only are the three integrally interconnected but they are inseparable. No one element can be excluded without undermining the whole.


By this we do not mean the kind of evangelistic call associated with the Arminianism of preachers like Billy Graham, which presupposes some form of autonomy in the human subject. Rather, it is an appeal by the preacher to the consciences of the hearers, whether they are believers, covenant children, or unbelievers. It is an appeal to submit to the Word of God, to trust in Christ, to be obedient to his call. It is an integral part of what makes preaching what it is. As Stott says, “the herald does not just preach good news, whether men will hear or whether they will forbear. No. The proclamation issues in an appeal. The herald expects a response. The Christian ambassador, who has announced the reconciliation which God has achieved through Christ, beseeches men to be reconciled to God.”[10] Since in preaching God directly confronts men and women with himself, it follows that he expects faith and obedience to result. We find in all biblical sermons, and in every biblical book, a demand for change by those who hear or read. Declarations of truth are followed by searching calls for repentance or discipleship.

These appeals are most urgent entreaties to people to get right with God—“nothing less fervent would be appropriate to one who labours ‘on behalf of Christ’ and Him crucified.”[11] The proclamation comes first[12] but without an appeal it is not biblical preaching.[13] Stott cites Richard Baxter, who wrote, “I marvel how I can preach ... slightly and coldly, how I can let men alone in their sins and that I do not go to them and beseech them for the Lord’s sake to repent ... I seldom come out of the pulpit but my conscience smiteth me that I have been no more serious and fervent ... it asketh me: ‘How could’st thou speak of life and death with such a heart?’ ”[14]

Inherent in the appeal are searching diagnostic questions. The interrogative is an essential element of true preaching, as Carrick insists.[15] As much as the preacher is to indwell the Word he proclaims,[16] he is to get under the skin of those to whom he preaches. There is to be an engagement with the Word and the world, with Christ and his church. The preacher is to grasp both of these elements and not to let them go, rather like a dog gnawing at a bone.


Calvin regards preaching as at the heart of the church’s life. He states that “doctrine is the mother from whom God generates us (Doctrina enim mater est, ex qua nos Deus generat)”[17] Again, in the Institutes he affirms that “the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church (salvifica Christi doctrina anima est Ecclesiae).” The context indicates that he is writing about preaching, for a few lines later he mentions “the preaching of doctrine (ad doctrinae praedicationem).”[18]

Reformed theology has consistently maintained that the ministry of the Word and the sacraments together are the outward means God uses to bring his people to salvation (Westminster Shorter Catechism 88: Westminster Larger Catechism 154). Yet the Word has priority over the sacraments; the sacraments are nothing without the Word (Westminster Confession of Faith 27.3, WLC 169).[19] As Barth says of the Reformed, “they could not and would not assign to the sacrament the place which falls to preaching according to Roman Catholic dogmatics” for “the former must exist for the sake of the latter, and therefore the sacrament for the sake of preaching, not vice-versa.”[20] Yet the sacraments are to be together with the Word, if under it.

A number of biblical passages reinforce this claim. In Romans 10:14, in which Paul insists on the urgency of preachers being sent to his compatriots, the Jews, the subjective genitive is to be preferred, yielding the clause, “How are they to believe him whom they have not heard?” (my translation). In short, Christ is heard in the preaching of the gospel.[21] When the Word is truly preached, Christ is present.[22] That Paul refers to the preacher as sent indicates the ministerial nature of preaching; the preacher is subservient to the Word and is commissioned by the church.[23] In Ephesians 2:17, Christ is said to have preached peace to the Gentiles at Ephesus: “he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” Jesus never visited Ephesus; Paul refers to his own preaching in founding the church. In Paul’s preaching, Christ himself preaches. In Luke 10:16, Jesus sends the apostles to preach and heal, saying “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.” The apostles were Jesus’s special representatives in their preaching ministry; their preaching is his own, their words will be his. Their acceptance or rejection is the acceptance or rejection of Jesus. The intrinsic quality of their preaching is not in view—their status depends on their having been commissioned by Jesus. In John 5:25, the voice of the Son of God raises the dead. This means spiritual resurrection in the present rather than the physical resurrection in the future mentioned in vv. 28–29. Already present (“and now is”), it comes through hearing the voice of the Son of God, or hearing the word of Christ and believing (v. 24). Finally, Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:19–20 that God makes his appeal through us. Paul and all true preachers are ambassadors of Christ, so possessing the authority of the one they represent. Behind this is the figure of the shaliyach, a personal emissary, who the Talmud considered to carry the authority of the one who sent him.

In line with this, Calvin regarded preaching as both a human and divine activity, the Holy Spirit working in sovereignty through the words of the preacher.[24] As such, he states that “God himself appears in our midst, and, as author of this order, would have men recognize him as present in his institution.”[25]


[1] Adapted from a lecture given at the International Conference of Reformed Churches, Cardiff, August 2013.

[2] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 47.

[3] John Stott considers the preacher as a steward, a herald, a witness, a father, and a servant. J. R. W. Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait (London: Tyndale Press, 1961).

[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, 14 vols. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956–77), 153.

[5] Stott, Portrait, 20.

[6] Barth, CD, I/1, 51–52.

[7] Barth, CD, I/1, 55.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 121.

[10] Stott, Portrait, 31.

[11] Ibid., 45.

[12] Ibid., 48–49.

[13] Ibid., 50.

[14] Ibid., 51.

[15] John Carrick, The Imperative of Preaching: A Theology of Sacred Rhetoric (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 56–81.

[16] Cf. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

[17] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians (T. H. L. Parker; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 85; John Calvin, Commentarii in Pauli Epistolas (Ioannis Calvini Opera Exegetica; Genève: Librairie Droz, 1992), 108.

[18] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill,, 4:12:1; John Calvin, Opera Selecta (Petrus Barth; Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1936), 5:212.

[19] See also The Directory for the Publick Worship of God (1645), in The Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms with the Scripture Proofs at Large, Together with The Sum of Saving Knowledge (Applecross: The Publications Committee of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1970), 383, 385.

[20] Barth, CD, I/1, 70.

[21] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1965), 2:58; C. E. B. Cranfield, The International Critical Commentary: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1979), 533–34; James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 38b: Romans 9–16 (Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1988), 620; Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 389–90. In this and the following paragraph see Robert Letham, “The Authority of Preaching,” Baptist Reformation Review 3, no. 4 (1974): 21–29.

[22] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Volume 1 The Biblical Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 186–87.

[23] Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures: Volume 1, 184.

[24] See the discussion by John H. Leith, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Proclamation of the Word and Its Significance for Us Today,” in John Calvin & the Church: A Prism of Reform (Timothy George; Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), 210–12.

[25] Calvin, Institutes, 4:1:5.

Robert Letham, a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales, teaches systematic and historical theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, Bridgend, Wales. Ordained Servant Online, October 2013.

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Ordained Servant: October 2013

The Reformation of Preaching

Also in this issue

The Rhythms of the Christian Life in Bible Reading, Prayer, and Poetry

Mind and Cosmos

Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Poems on the Holy Scriptures

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