What role does preaching play in the life of the church? In our generation we’re no longer hearing so much about a rich theology of what preaching is. For sure, we talk often about preaching, and we hear a lot about exegesis (and that’s good), but I don’t think that today we are digging enough, like past generations, into a deep, rounded theology of preaching.
Let’s start by thinking about what the nature of God tells us about preaching. When Luther commented on Jesus’ words in John 16:13 (“whatever [the Spirit] hears he will speak”), he stated:
Christ refers to a conversation carried on in the Godhead, a conversation in which no creatures participate. He sets up a pulpit. … He makes the Father the Preacher and the Holy Spirit the Listener.
Here, Luther says that God the Father is an eternal preacher, ever speaking out his Word; and the Holy Spirit has eternally been listening. Before any creatures were brought into being, the Holy Spirit was enjoying the ultimate sermon—a sermon he now shares with us.
Preaching finds its basis in the simple claim that God is not silent or speechless; the living God is a God who speaks. In fact, God cannot be Word-less. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1–2). Before all things, God had a Word to speak. Here is a God who does not happen to speak; by his very nature he is a speaking God.
This means that we human preachers are not the hirelings of a God incapable or unwilling to do his own teaching, as if God entertains himself with angel songs while his servants go out on the stump. Preaching is a natural expression of this God’s identity. The Spirit who speaks what he has heard enables preachers to join in with God’s own proclamation of his Son. To preach Christ is to participate in the life of God.
Now, since the Word is God, when God speaks he communicates nothing less than his very self. That is why, in the Old Testament, God’s Word can be described as the very creative power of God (Gen. 1:3; Ps. 33:6); the means by which he reveals himself (Amos 3:1); the means of God’s healing and deliverance (Ps. 107:20; Isa. 55:1). That is why when the Word of God goes out, the very glory of God shines out: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). A similar point is made in Hebrews 1, where God speaking to us by his Son is tightly connected to the Son being “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (vv. 1–3).
This further means that, in speaking, God holds out more than (though not less than) information and propositions. The Word of God brings the very presence of God. When the Word of God comes to us, it is God himself, in all his life-giving glory, who comes to be with us.
This is a truth that needs to be heard loud and clear where a wearing negativity or defeatism has set in. When we are focused on the sheer enormity of the uphill battle before us, a siege mentality can develop. Losing the confidence to step out with the old Word of God, we circle the wagons, or we look elsewhere for the solution. But because of who God is, preachers can know that they are not mere teachers of an unfashionable message nor salesmen of a religious product: preachers herald the Word who is God. This is the very Word that—in the darkness—brought light, life, and creation itself into being, the Word that now brings new creation into being. The Word entrusted to the preacher is the very power of God who does not return empty, who will one day drive all darkness away for good.
Seeing how God himself speaks gives a fundamental framework to any theology of preaching. God the Father is the prime preacher who speaks his Word and so communicates himself in the power of the Spirit. That is the foundation on which the content, form, and goal of truly Christian preaching must be built.
Preaching Is More Than Information Delivery
And the first thing this means is as follows: since God in his speaking does not merely give information about himself, but actually gives himself, so the Christian preacher can know that he is about much more than the transferral of information.
To illustrate, let me compare what we might call a “Zwinglian” and a “Calvinist” view of preaching. The Zurich Reformer Ulrich Zwingli taught that in the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s body is not present in any sense, but only symbolised. For him, the Lord’s Supper was a mere memorial pointing to a truth located elsewhere. And if we take that logic into preaching, then in the same way the purpose of the sermon, like the Supper, is to serve as a memorial to God’s Word. God’s Word is called fresh to mind, but no more.
That idea of preaching stands in stark contrast to what was articulated by Zwingli’s successor Heinrich Bullinger and championed by John Calvin in Geneva. When writing the Second Helvetic Confession, Bullinger boldly stated that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
This requires a little clarification in order to avoid confusion. Bullinger did not mean that the words of a preacher somehow have the same standing and authority as Scripture. Scripture never bows to the preacher; the preacher must bow to Scripture. His preaching depends on the Word of God in its supreme authority. The word preached from the pulpit is authoritative only insofar as it is a faithful proclamation of the Word of God found in Scripture; yet, insofar as it is faithful, the people hear the very Word of God. Thus, the Christian faithful can be told in Hebrews to remember their leaders “who spoke to you the word of God” (Heb. 13:7).
We come now to Calvin himself. Calvin believed that through preaching, the very creative voice and Word of God would be heard. It would not simply be remembered or memorialised or talked about, but heard. So when preaching on 1 Timothy 3:2 (that “an overseer must be … able to teach”),
St. Paul does not mean that one should just make a parade here or that a man should show off so that everyone applauds him and says “Oh! well spoken! Oh! what a breadth of learning! Oh! what a subtle mind!” All that is beside the point … When a man has climbed up into the pulpit, is it so that he may be seen from afar, and that he may be pre-eminent? Not at all. It is that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man. And he does us that favour of presenting himself there and wishes a mortal man to be his messenger. (emphasis added)
In another place, Calvin said:
When a man is the envoy of his prince and has complete authority to do what is committed to his charge, he will so to say borrow the prince’s name. He will say, “We are doing this; we instruct; we have commanded; we want that done.” Now, when he speaks like this, he is not intending to take anything from his master. So it is with God’s servants. … It is said that the ministers are sent to enlighten the blind, to deliver the captives, to forgive sins, to convert hearts. What! these are things which belong to God alone … For there is nothing more properly his own than to pardon sins; he also reserves to himself the converting of the heart. Now, nevertheless it is the case that he imparts all these qualifications to those whom he appoints to convey his word and declares to them that he does not separate himself from them, but rather shows that he uses them as his hands and his instruments.
So for Calvin, preaching is not a merely educative exercise, a repetition of truths. When the gospel is preached, its reality is present and effective. We do not simply declare that God is gracious; as his Word goes out, God is being gracious. We do not simply declare that Christ died for our sins; before the eyes of our people Jesus Christ is set forth. And this, young preachers, is what helps with the nerves and the fear of the crowd. For as you stand up in front of others, they are not to be looking to you, but to him. Know your task and obsess with heralding him, and nerves will evaporate as concern for him eclipses concern for yourself.
Clarity on Our Content
So, preaching is about more than information delivery. But second, this theology of preaching gives us clarity on our content. For what is the content of God’s speaking? Does he speak to entertain, to moralise, to philosophise? No, the One held out by the Father, and the One to whom the Spirit of truth testifies, is the eternal Son who comes “from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He is the truth and glory of God; in him the grace of God is found. That is why the law finds its fulfilment in him (Rom. 10:4) and why the prophets, the apostles, and all the Scriptures testify about him (Luke 24:27, 44–46; John 5:39–40, 46). Calvin said:
This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. And for a fact, since all the treasures of wisdom and understanding are hidden in him, there is not the least question of having, or turning toward, another goal; not unless we would deliberately turn aside from the light of truth, to lose ourselves in the darkness of lies. Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
If the desire of the Father, the work of the Spirit, and the purpose of Scripture is to make Jesus known, so too the preacher must seek to “draw and bring us to him.”
In fact, there is actually a lot of talk today about preaching Christ. But mostly what’s meant by that is the question of how exegetically you “get to” Christ, especially if you’re preaching on the Old Testament. And that’s a good question to ask. But this theology of preaching teaches something more fundamental: we are to preach Christ not merely in the sense of “getting to him” as the idea at the end of the exegetical puzzle. Rather, like the Father, we are to hold him out in his glory so that people wonder, and love, and trust, and adore him.
This is why Spurgeon preferred to speak of preaching “Christ” instead of preaching “the gospel,” “the truth,” or anything else, because of how easily we reduce “the gospel” or “the truth” to an impersonal system. As God sends out Christ as the life and delight of the saints—the Bridegroom that the Bride is invited to enjoy—so we send him out in our preaching.
Share God’s Own Aim and Goal in Preaching
And that brings us on to a third lesson from this theology of preaching: preachers are to share God’s own aim and goal in preaching. For God has a goal in sending out his Word. In his High Priestly prayer, Jesus said:
O righteous Father … I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:25–26, emphasis added)
The Son makes the Father known that we might share his life of knowing the Father, being loved by the Father, and loving the Father in return. The knowledge of God that the Word of God brings is not just cerebral cognition. We preach to minds, but our preaching is not Christlike if we’re content for truths to stop there, flitting in the brain. This God is not truly known where he is not truly loved. He is so glorious that he cannot be known without being adored. God is not truly known where some mere facts about him are understood. The devils have that kind of sterile and loveless knowledge.
For the preacher, this means that a sermon cannot be confused with a simple lecture. “Give us sermons, and save us from essays!” said Spurgeon. In the pulpit Spurgeon sought not merely to inform his listeners about the Word of God, but to draw both believers and unbelievers to Christ. His aim was to see people transformed at the very deepest level, their affections and desires turning away from their naturally cherished sins to Christ. “The object of all true preaching is the heart,” he said. “We aim at divorcing the heart from sin, and wedding it to Christ.”
Spurgeon rightly saw that the preacher has a greater responsibility (a responsibility that demands a deeper integrity): God shares knowledge of himself in order that we might be affected. Preaching should foster sincere worship. And that heartfelt worship is precisely what is most essentially and practically transformative for the Christian, because love for God enables true love for neighbour (1 John 4:7–21).
Let’s consider something quite brilliant on this from Jonathan Edwards. Edwards lived in a day when most people would have had a theoretical knowledge of at least some Christian basics. But such knowledge, he was clear, did not make them Christian; it did not even distinguish them from devils. Instead, he argued, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections … the motion of the blood and animal spirits begins to be sensibly altered” to love for Christ and joy in him. And this, wrote Edwards, is why God has ordained preachers:
And the impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men, is evidently one great and main end for which God has ordained, that his Word delivered in the holy Scriptures, should be opened, applied, and set home upon men, in preaching. And therefore it don’t answer the aim which God had in this institution, merely for men to have good commentaries and expositions on the Scripture, and other good books of divinity; because, although these may tend, as well as preaching, to give men a good doctrinal or speculative understanding of the things of the Word of God, yet they have not an equal tendency to impress them on men’s hearts and affections. God hath appointed a particular and lively application of his Word, to men, in the preaching of it, as a fit means to affect sinners, with the importance of the things of religion, and their own misery, and necessity of a remedy, and the glory and sufficiency of a remedy provided; and to stir up the pure minds of the saints, and quicken their affections, by often bringing the great things of religion to their remembrance, and setting them before them in their proper colors, though they know them, and have been fully instructed in them already (2 Peter 1:12–13). And particularly, to promote those two affections in them, which are spoken of in the text, love and joy.
As Edwards saw it, preaching is more than exposition; it involves “lively application” and the intent to “quicken … affections” by setting the things of the gospel before the people “in their proper colors.” None of this should be confused with emotionalism or emotional manipulation. Edwards helpfully distinguished between our passing, superficial passions, which come and go with blood sugar levels, and affections, which are deep matters of the very grain of the heart and its inclinations. He was not advocating whipping up the crowds; he wanted preachers to do far more weighty work: to aim the gospel at the basic desires and deepest loves of the human heart.
Fear of the Lord
To put it another way: we preach so that men and women might rightly fear God—not be afraid of God. Not so that they will experience the minor-key, gloomy flipside to proper joy in God, but rather the fear of God which is that new covenant blessing for believers that we share with Christ. The reaction of God’s children to their Father. Overwhelmed by God’s goodness and majesty and holiness and grace and righteousness—by all that God is—the faithful tremble before him in loving and joyful wonder.
The fear of the Lord is a vital theme for the preacher to have in mind, for it helps us to see the sort of love that is fitting for God. It shows us that God does not want passionless performance or a vague preference for him. To encounter the living, holy, and all-gracious God truly means that we cannot contain ourselves. He is not a truth to be known unaffectedly or a good to be received listlessly. Seen clearly, the sheer beauty and splendour of God must cause our hearts to quake.
Now, friends, if that is the aim of God’s Word, that we might love God with such a fearful adoration, it throws out some mighty challenges for all preachers. It tells us, first, that we preachers must ourselves have that weak-kneed, rejoicing wonder at God. Not that we must mimic it with outward show: the right fear of God is a state of the heart. But it should be something— perhaps unnamable, but beautifully Christlike—in the atmosphere around the preacher. The preacher should be clearly affected by the beauty and glory and majesty and goodness of God.
The fact is, you will not preach the gospel any better than you have experienced it yourself. You will not bring others to fear and delight in and love God more than you do. This is why James S. Stewart said, “The inner life makes the preacher.” A hollow man and an empty man can coolly articulate some biblical truths; but he will not make a truly fruitful preacher.
More than just preparing sermons, then, we preachers must prayerfully prepare ourselves. We must share Christ’s fearful delight in his Father and his compassion for sinners, for his people. Then the Word will come from us hot from the oven with the aroma of God’s own passion and intent. Then we find the right tone in which to convey God’s Word.
We need the fear of God to make us preachers of integrity.
Lastly, we need the fear of God to shape the goal of our preaching. In Deuteronomy 6, Moses said that he taught that the people might fear the Lord (see vv. 1–2). We cannot be content simply to transmit information as we teach. There is no true knowledge of God where there is no true fear of God.
If we are to share God’s heart in preaching, we cannot preach in such a way that allows for indifference. The Word of God is described as being itself “the fear of the Lord” (Ps. 19:9): it cannot go out listlessly. It cannot be rightly received unaffectedly. We preachers must share the fiery intent of God’s Word: to preach so that sinners tremble, and that the hearts of the saints no longer creep in doubting dread but quake in wonder.
Study with Michael Reeves and take his course “Preaching and Preachers” at Union School of Theology. For more information visit www.ust.ac.uk
This article was originally published in Reformation Fellowship Magazine 3 (February 2022): 5–13.
Gallery image: The earliest known photo of the interior of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, taken in 1861. From The Metropolitan Tabernacle and Its Institutions (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1882), 3. The photo is called “East view from the Gallery.” Thanks to T.D. Hale for providing the image.
 Martin Luther, “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John,” Luther’s Works, vol. 24 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 364.
 The Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 1.
 John Calvin, Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, ed. J-W. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss, Corpus Reformatorum, vol. 29–87 (Brunsvigae: Schwetschke, 1863–1900), 53.266.
 Calvin, Corpus Reformatorum, 26.66–67.
 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, trans. William Pringle, 3 vols. (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 3:387.
 Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. J. E. Smith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 115.