Saturday, December 31, 2022

Thoughts on Christian Preaching

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

A lot of pulpits in American churches have been replaced with the stage, the riser, and the lectern. Regardless of whether or not the pastor speaks from behind a traditional pulpit, or walks around in a cloud of smoke-machine vapor, a lot of different things happen in that place from which he addresses the assembled gathering (which I will collectively refer to as the pulpit). Theological essays on fine points of theology are read. Political rallies are led. Self-help lectures are spoken. People claiming to hear the voice of God speak dubious prophecies, and utter gibberish as though it were the miraculous gift of tongues.

Theological essays are fine. If I didn’t think so, I would stop writing them. Speeches urging Christian men to do their civic duty are important. Men must all, from time to time, be reminded that the things we claim to believe are connected to the world in which we live; and we ought to conduct ourselves in the world according to those beliefs. That means refusing to offer the pinch of incense to Caesar, even on pain of death. It also means peacefully but firmly resisting when secular society urges, or tries to force us to do and affirm things which are contrary to Christian teaching. Speeches of such a political and social nature, in my opinion, should not happen in the pulpit. They should happen at the gatherings outside of worship: the men’s group, the women’s group, the coffee hour after church, the Sunday school, the confirmation class, the youth gathering, and the gathering of friends and family in and outside of the home. As Christians, we should want to spend a lot of time talking with each other about how God’s Law applies to us, and to what we say and do. Our pastors should want to encourage us to do this, and to guide us in it.

Needless to say, the false prophesying of modern-day prophets has no place either inside or outside of the pulpit.

What should be happening when the pastor ascends the pulpit on Sunday morning? The pastor’s job is to make disciples of Jesus by baptizing and teaching. He should, therefore, proclaim the Gospel. That seems too simple. The people in church have already heard that and believe, right? These people sitting in the pew need life-application, don't they? If we don't think we need to be called to repentance we are wrong. If we think we don't need to hear the preaching of sin and grace in Christ we should, to borrow from Luther, touch our bodies to see if we still have flesh and blood, and then believe what scripture says of them. 

Or, we might think, as I did for a long time, that the pastor should engage in a verse-by-verse, word-for-word exegesis of the appointed Biblical text for the day. If you want that, go to his Bible study. If he doesn’t do that at his Bible study, encourage him to.

We might want our pastor to organize our congregation into a community activist group that publicly protests injustices. We might want him to tell us what to think about various political issues, and to tell us which politicians to support to save western civilization. If you want that, go to a political rally. Don't be too surprised, though, when the movement, the party, or the politician lets you down. This type of thinking suggests that we are not relying on Christ and His power to save us, but rather the power of the government. I suppose the Lutheran way to say this might be that we are violating the First Commandment, since we would seem to be not fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things.

The Bible tells us not to trust man’s power to save, because he hasn’t any. It tells us that this world is the domain of the prince of the power of the air, who is Satan. Here in this present world, the Bible tells us, the Christian has no continuing city. We look toward that which is to come. That is the reason we can be so bold as to refuse to worship Caesar even when his henchman has the knife at our throat. He may kill us, but Jesus has already made us alive in Him. We will awaken on the day of resurrection and enter into the new and perfect creation to live there forever with Christ.

That is not to say that we should completely abandon the world and the society in which we live. If that were so we should retreat to the monasteries and shut ourselves away as Christians have tired in the past. I am simply saying that we should keep two things in mind. First, the world in which we live is passing away and we are looking forward to the new world which is to supplant it. Second, the purpose of we Christians gathering together - or as we Lutherans might say, gathering together around Word and Sacrament - is not the same as any of those other types of gatherings mentioned previously. The purpose of the gathering we call church is to receive God’s gifts that were won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. Those gifts are the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. God gives them to us, primarily, in two ways. One way is through the preaching of His Word. The other way is through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which we call sacraments. In a way, preaching and administering the sacraments are the same thing, because they are both ways that God delivers His Word to us and creates faith in us. Right now, however, I want to focus on Christian preaching.

The main purpose of Christian preaching is to deliver to men the thing which God uses to make Christians. That is God’s Word. In Christian preaching, the preacher is to proclaim the two great teachings of God’s Word: Law and Gospel. The Law tells man what he must do for God, how he cannot do it, and the condemnation he deserves. The Gospel tells man what God has done for him; how while we were God’s enemies Christ died to redeem the world. In Christian preaching the preacher proclaims that, becoming man in the person of Jesus, God suffered and died on the cross to bear the guilt of our sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God. Such Christian preaching brings men to faith. It crushes men under the weight of God’s Law. It shows men their sin and makes them sorry for their sins. It delivers to those so brought to repentance the promise that, for the sake of Jesus those sins have been removed; it tells them that this is true not only for them individually, but also for the whole world (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2, 1951).

Through the preaching of the Gospel, God the Holy Spirit creates faith in men’s hearts. The Gospel is the mechanism by which God tells us what He has done for us in spite of the fact that we did not deserve it: that at just the right time, while we were still God’s enemies, Christ was born according to the scriptures, died as the sacrifice for the sins of the world, and rose again for our justification. He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, 1953).

The reason that church is different from, for example, a formal presentation of some theological points in a lecture hall is this: the preacher isn’t trying to convince the people listening to him to believe in Jesus. He is simply discharging his duty to proclaim the message he has been given. No one can be convinced into the Christian faith by rational arguments alone. The natural man cannot receive the spiritual things or know them (1 Cor. 2:14; 1:23). It is the Holy Spirit who will prove the truth of Law and Gospel to those who hear. The man who hears God’s Law and is crushed by it into contrition does not need proof that what the Law says about mankind, and about himself individually, is true. He knows his sin when it is exposed. When he hears the Gospel proclamation of how Christ died to take away that sin, he will rejoice without the aid of scientific demonstration, or apologetic explanation of why the Gospel is true. He will be happy to be out from under the weight of condemnation and death (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1, 1950).

That isn’t to say, however, that the only place from which the Gospel can be heard is the pulpit. The Holy Spirit works how He wants to, when and where it pleases Him. He may very well use the Gospel spoken in that theological lecture, or in that conversation with colleagues in the lunchroom, to cause someone listening to come to faith. The same thing goes for all the other gatherings where Christians are present. All Christians are, in fact, called to preach the Gospel. Every person who confesses Christ is member of the priesthood of all believers. Every Christian is called to preach and teach those in whose midst he finds himself according to his various vocations (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, 1953).

The general call of the Christian to preach the Gospel, however, is different from the call to the public ministry. The call to the public ministry, that is, to serve as a pastor in a Christian congregation, is one to preach and teach in the gathering of Christians of a specific place and time (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, 1953). This is not a matter to be taken lightly for either the congregation, or the pastor who is called. He will be, as James writes, held to a higher standard on Judgment Day. So, where Christians are gathered together they are to choose men to administer God’s word and sacraments to them according to the guidelines set forth in Holy Scripture. This is because God is a God of order, and not of disorder (Ap AC XIV). The man whom they call is to proclaim God’s Word boldly, and in its purity, and to administer the sacraments rightly according to Christ’s institution.

Finally, Christian preaching should proclaim the hope of glory. This is nothing other than proclaiming Law and Gospel, but from the angle of Christ’s return. Preaching the coming of Christ’s kingdom of glory was something the Apostles did from the beginning. The eyes of the early Christians were constantly directed upwards in anticipation of Christ’s return. Christian preaching should give the Christian comfort in the midst of suffering by reminding him of the fulfillment of the promise of the resurrection, and of eternal life with Jesus and all the saints in the restored creation (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2, 1952).

The more purely and boldly preachers proclaim the Gospel, the more the Holy Spirit will do His own work of making Christians. Those saints who are regularly fed with Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, and by hearing their faithful pastors preach, will be sustained and grow in the faith by the miraculous power of God. Indeed, as Paul wrote, how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? They will then go out into the world to be salt and light. They won’t be able to help it. Their good works will just proceed forth from them as apples proceed forth from an apple tree. They will be bold to say, as Peter and John did, we must obey God rather than men, when confronted with ridicule and persecution. If, however, our pastors give us essays, pop psychology, seminars on positive thinking, mystical gibberish, and lies, we will begin to believe in those things instead of Jesus. ###

Works Cited

Pieper, Francis. 1950. Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Pieper, Francis. 1951. Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Pieper, Francis. 1953. Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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