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by Timothy George

Editors’ note: Come celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with us at our 2017 National Conference, April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis. The theme is “No Other Gospel: Reformation 500 and Beyond.” Timothy George will be speaking on “Reformation Before the Reformers” and “Early Reformers: Why Didn’t They Unite?” in workshops. Space is filling up fast, so register soon. The following article originally appeared in First Things.

The preaching of the gospel as a sacramental event is at the heart of Reformation theology. Preaching is also at the heart of Reformation faith—preaching as an indispensable means of grace and a sure sign of the true church. Where is the church? According to Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (1530), the church is that place where the Word is purely preached and the sacraments are duly administered. The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) went even further when it declared that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

Of course, preaching—unlike the printing press—was not a new invention of the Reformation era. Far from it. Think of Augustine and Chrysostom in the early church, Bernard of Clairvaux, John Hus, and the many mendicant friars who fanned out across Europe in the Middle Ages.

St. Francis preached the gospel to a Muslim sultan, and Savonarola declared God’s judgment on the sinful leaders of Florence. Bernardino of Siena, the great Franciscan herald, preached to throngs in the 15th century, calling on his listeners to repent, confess their sins, and go to Mass. The Protestant reformers knew this tradition and built on it, but they also transformed it in two important respects.

Central Act of Worship

First, they made the sermon the centerpiece of the church’s regular worship. Prior to the Reformation, the sermon was mostly an ad hoc event reserved for special occasions or seasons of the liturgical cycle, especially Christmas and Eastertide. Most sermons were preached in town squares or open fields. The reformers brought the sermon back inside the church and gave it an honored place in the public worship of the gathered community. The central role of preaching in Protestant worship can be seen in the way pulpits were raised to a higher elevation as families gathered with their children to hear the Word proclaimed.

Second, the reformers introduced a new theology of preaching. They were concerned that the Bible take deep root in the lives of the people. The Word of God was meant not only to be read, studied, translated, memorized, and meditated on; it was also to be embodied in the life and worship of the church. What might be called the practicing of the Bible—its embodiment—was most clearly expressed in the ministry of preaching. Martin Luther believed that a call to the preaching office was a sacred trust and shouldn’t be used for selfish purposes. “Christ did not establish the ministry of proclamation to provide us with money, property, popularity, honor, or friendship,” he said.

Luther

Preachers should be wary of listeners who are too complimentary, for flattery can have a sinister outcome. Puffed-up preachers are likely to think, This you have done; this is your work; you are a first-rate man, the real master. Such conceit is not even worth throwing to the dogs, Luther said. Faithful preachers should teach only God’s Word and seek only his praise. “Likewise, the hearers should also say: ‘I do not believe in my pastor, but he tells me of another Lord whose name is Christ; him he shows me.’”

Zwingli

Preaching was no less important in the Reformed tradition. When one visits the Great Minster Church in Zurich today, the following inscription can be read over the portal: “The Reformation of Huldrych Zwingli began here on January 1, 1519.” That date, no less than October 31, 1517, can answer the question, “When did the Reformation begin?”

For on that first day of January, which happened to be Zwingli’s birthday, the new pastor began his pulpit ministry by announcing his intention to dispense with the prescribed texts of the traditional lectionary. He would follow a new paradigm: preaching expositional sermons, chapter by chapter, starting with the Gospel of Matthew. After completing Matthew, Zwingli resumed the same lectio continua method by taking up Acts, then the letters to Timothy, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, the Gospel of John, and the other Pauline letters. He then turned to the Old Testament, beginning with the Psalms, then the Pentateuch and the historical books.

Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger, who succeeded Zwingli as the Reformation leader in Zurich, reported “a rush of all sorts of people, in particular the common man, to these evangelical sermons of Zwingli’s, in which he praised God the Father, and taught all people to place their trust in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as the single Savior.” One of those common people who rushed to hear Zwingli in the 1520s was a young student named Thomas Platter. He tells of hearing a sermon by Zwingli that was “expounded so powerfully that I felt as if someone was pulling me up by my hair.”

Calvin

From the pulpit of St. Pierre in Geneva, John Calvin followed the preaching pattern established by Zwingli. His pulpit work was marked by sequential, text-driven preaching. In the course of his ministry at Geneva, Calvin delivered more than 4,000 sermons, and many have survived for us to study.

What was the secret of Calvin’s preaching? Hughes Oliphant Old gave this answer:

Calvin drew out of the Scriptures aspects of Christian teaching which the church had not heard for centuries. This was above all the case for the doctrine of grace. The promise of salvation was presented to all who would believe it. Calvin preached justification by faith, as all the reformers did. More than some, perhaps, he also preached sanctification by faith. The lives of those who believed the Word of God would be transformed by that Word. Holiness was the fruit of faith. To believe the Word was to live by the Word, and that life lived according to the Word of God was blessed, both in this world and in the world to come.

Three Marks of Reformation Preaching

In an important essay published in Theology Today in 1961, Heiko A. Oberman set forth the distinctive marks of Reformation preaching in terms of three interrelated aspects.

1. The sermon is an apocalyptic event.

Not quite in the sense of Savonarola’s preaching of impending doom to the people of Florence, but in the sense that the sermon unveils and makes present the last judgment here and now. Without demythologizing Christ’s future coming, gospel preaching existentializes the final will of God for every hearer by calling for a decisive response here and now. “In the sermon,” Oberman observed, “Christ and the Devil are revealed, Creator and creature, love and wrath, essence and existence, ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’”

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The screen printer standing in my living room was trying to sell me on a new four-color process for the kids Bible club shirts my church needed. One problem: he came to the door asking for “Mike,” not “Mark” because I kind of forgot to tell him the truth… (I used to use a pseudonymous email address out of overblown security concerns.)

We still joke about that. He’s now one of my best friends. But back then I had no idea of the wonderful story of God’s grace in his life. He and his wife were brand new to the area, and my wife and I invited them over and started a friendship. We found out that this clean-cut young man had, not too many years back, been a drug addict. As a last resort his non-Christian family had sent him to a Christian program in a rural area. Most guys go there to get clean, and they’re willing to use the God stuff temporarily if it will help them get their lives back from drugs and alcohol.

But my friend’s experience was different: God wouldn’t let him be temporary. He got hold of this young drug addict’s heart. After graduating from the program, he immediately went on staff, then married the daughter of another graduate. The screen-printing gig was his first venture into “the real world” since coming clean and turning to Christ. He was full of faith, hope, love, and zeal. He and his wife found a church that was known for engaging (ahem, read: wild) worship services, not so much for theological depth.

Pins and needles

So I was surprised when, one Sunday, he called me and asked if he could come to my church, where the proportion of wildness to theological depth was rather different. “Of course!” I said; I was thrilled. But I immediately became afraid, too. My pastor was going through Isaiah. We had just made it to chapter 21, a somewhat recondite passage full of judgments on people such as the Dedanites, Temanites, and Kedarites. I had to listen to a lengthy expository message through the ears of a guy sitting next to me who, as best I knew, had never heard an expository sermon.

To make matters worse, the title of the message that evening was “Shuddering Over a Harsh Vision.” That was me: I envisioned my friendship with this guy ending. In my vision, he was looking at me like I was an alien, and he was heading back to a church where he could be sure he’d never have to hear about the Dedanites again.

My pastor, an experienced expositor who also taught preaching, said something at the beginning of the message that I’d never heard him say before: “This is one of those obscure passages of Scripture that, if it went missing, no one would notice.” Oh no, I thought. The pins and needles under my pew cushion grew longer, and I was required to sit on them throughout the detailed explanations required to get us all through Isaiah 21.

When the service was over, I couldn’t bear to ask my friend what he thought. I didn’t want to put him in the awkward position of having to tell me with a glazed expression, “Church is not supposed to feel like a sentence-diagramming party.” So I changed the subject of our conversation to something else, maybe football.

He changed it right back. With deep feeling he said, “Wow. . . Now there’s one part of the Bible”—and here he held up his hands to indicate the space of about a chapter—“that I understand.”

Shortly thereafter my friend and his wife were eating up the kind of in-depth Bible teaching I was afraid to introduce him to that Sunday; they listened with the zest of someone who has just discovered that meat exists.

Exposition

Expository preaching is sometimes criticized (and sometimes rightly so) for being all about understanding and not about feeling. All head, no heart. But you had to be there to see my friend’s eyes. Few people get excited about hour-long expositions of Scripture. He did, because he had the new heart of the New Covenant. He hungered to know God’s words.

John Piper advocates preaching that is what he calls “expository exultation”—head and heart. And in my experience there’s nothing quite like it. The capacity for deep feeling is itself made deeper by a greater depth of exposition. I’ll never forget singing “The Church’s One Foundation” with my fellow church members after we’d been treated to an exposition of that foundation in Ephesians 2.

As is nearly always the case, Piper’s “expository exultation” is only an encapsulation of Jonathan Edwards, who said in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England,

I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection. I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. (387)

After hearing a message on a harsh prophetic vision, a congregation is supposed to shudder—as Isaiah himself did in this portion of his book (“My heart staggers; horror has appalled me”). The Bible, rightly preached and rightly understood, creates negative feelings as well as positive in hearts made soft to God’s words. The Lord evidently thinks we need to hear passages of comfort as well as of warning. The Bible clearly instructs us both to love the Lord and to fear him. A New Testament preacher must bring in gospel comfort, too, but not by removing the teeth from God’s warnings.

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