The Priority of Preaching
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” (Isa. 52:7) I am a firm believer that the ministry of preaching is the greatest calling any man can have in this life. To be a jar of clay housing the inestimable treasure of the gospel is a privilege I can never fully explain. Because of this I am a firm believer that there can never be enough good books on preaching. Christopher Ash’s book, The Priority of Preaching (Christian Focus/Proclamation Trust Media, 2009) is one such book. While not being as foundational to the Reformed tradition as William Perkins’, The Art of Prophesying (reprinted, Banner of Truth, 1996) comprehensive as D. Martyn Lloyd’ Jones’, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan, 1971), or as profoundly insightful as Karl Barth’s, Homiletics (Westminster/John Knox, 1991), Ash’s work is the kind of contemporary exposition of the ministry of preaching that is needed today.
Who is it written for? In his own words, it was written “for ordinary ministers who preach regularly to ordinary people in ordinary places, who may dream of being world-renowned but are going to be spared that fate” (12). It is also intended for those who listen to preaching week in and week out, to teach them how to pray more effectively and encourage more graciously those who do preach. Ash’s view of preaching is simple: “The sermons you and I preach week by week in ordinary local churches are more significant than most conference addresses even if they were to be recorded and played back all over the world” (13). Christians need to hear this today as they are tempted to idolize their favorite conference speaker instead of supporting the “ordinary means” ministry of their local congregation (cf. Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 154).
Ash’s book packs a lot of exegetical, theological, and practical material in the short span of three chapters and one appendix.
Chapter 1, “The Authority of the Preached Word,” is an excellent exposition of Deuteronomy 18:9–22, especially the phrase, repeated in the Gospels, “Listen to him” (Deut. 18:15 cf. Mark 9:7). Ash’s thesis is that because the Christian preacher speaks the Word of God he is to be listened to just as the prophets of old were (16). After setting the scene by reminding us that Deuteronomy is a book taken up with the issue of how the covenant people would continue after Moses’ death, Ash gives the answer from Deuteronomy that the covenant community would continue through the ministry of preaching (21–23). The rest of the chapter unfolds two doctrinal points derived from Deuteronomy: first, that the preacher exercises the authority of Christ and second, that this authority is derived from the Word of God. The first of these is such an important point in our day when believers think that personal Bible reading is their main source of communion with God. The second of these is vital, for the preacher must realize that he is to toil and labor in the word (1 Tim. 5:17) in order to get the word right and to speak authoritatively. Ash gives a wonderful illustration at the end of this chapter, saying that the true preacher will go into his preparation like a piece of metal to be worked upon an anvil, only to come out hurting because he has been confronted with his sins, yet refreshed that it was God who worked upon him. In other words, only a fool would enter the ministry! But the one who becomes a fool for Christ must not only shape the Word into sermons, but must be shaped by that Word.
Chapter 2, “Preaching that Transforms the Church,” is another exposition of Deuteronomy, this time chapter 30:11–20. Here Ash derives four themes for transforming preaching. This transformative preaching is based, first, in the reality of God. He is a consuming fire, a jealous God. Ash brings out the fact, in the face of so-called “post-modernism,” that just as gravity is a basic fact of life, so too is the reality of God. One of the points at which Ash left me longing for more was the fact that because God is real, we as preachers need to be absolutely gripped by this God as well as with him in our ministry. One interesting turn in this discussion, though, was how Ash says that because God is real, the preacher has a necessity of knowing the real world around him, but especially the reality of the sinful hearts of the people to whom we preach. This transformative preaching also knows, secondly, the stubbornness of people. One of Ash’s excellent points of application is his discussion of preaching being neither a monologue nor a dialog, but instead, what he calls a silent dialog. The minister speaks but he does so as if he were dialoging with his audience since he knows their problems, their world, their objections, and seeks to bring the word to them in that context. This transformative preaching understands, thirdly, the urgency of faith. Here Ash deals with the language of and urgency of the phrase “today” throughout Deuteronomy, the Psalms (Ps. 95), and the New Testament (2 Cor. 5:20–6:2; Heb. 3–4). Finally, this transformative preaching must be in awe of the wonder of grace. The preacher needs to be swept up in the “red thread” of Scripture, namely, that it is Jesus Christ who is the center of God’s plan of redemption. All Scripture either points forward to him (Old Testament) or back upon him (New Testament).
Chapter 3, “Preaching that Mends a Broken World,” focuses on the reality of preaching as the means of bringing together broken sinners into the assembly and presence of the Lord. Here I wish Ash would have given us even more of the wonderful biblical-theological exposition of the theme of God re-gathering his people from the world into one assembly. He gives us some of this, though, to whet our thirst for the Word in this area. His main thrust in this chapter is to offer several helpful applications in our fragmented and overly-technologized culture. For example, although we can access the Word in so many ways today, assembling together as real people in real congregations is utterly necessary and indispensable in God’s way of working. In the words of Cyprian, if we will not have the church as our mother we cannot have God as our Father. Ash summarizes this section, saying, “Or, to put it bluntly, a church will be a church so long as it gathers to hear the word, even if none of its members meets in small groups or even reads the Bible on their own!” (99)
The book concludes with an Appendix, entitled, “Give God the Microphone! Seven Blessings of Consecutive Expository Preaching.” Given the recent hubbub over the alleged disadvantages of this method of preaching offered by Iain Murray, ‘Expository Preaching’—Time for Caution, the seven points offered by Ash are important to assert. Consecutive expository preaching (the lectio continua method) of a section of a book (e.g., Eph. 1, Rom. 8) or an entire book not only has been of hallmark during every revival of great preaching in the ancient church (e.g., Augustine, Chrysostom), Reformation (e.g., John Calvin), as well as in Puritan England (e.g., Thomas Manton), but also: 1) safeguards God’s agenda in how he has delivered his word from being hijacked by our agenda, 2) makes it harder for us to abuse the Bible by reading verses and snippets out of context, 3) dilutes the selectivity of the preacher to harp on his hobby horses, pet peeves, and favorite doctrines, 4) keeps the content of the sermon fresh and surprising, 5) makes for variety in the style of the sermon because of the variety of the word, 6) models good nourishing Bible reading for the ordinary Christian, and 7) helps pastors preach the whole Christ from the whole of Scripture.
In summary, then, Christopher Ash demonstrates the beauty of the ministry of preaching in this little book, which I whole-heartedly endorse.
Daniel R. Hyde (ThM, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary) is the church planter and pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, California. He is the author of nine books, including Welcome to a Reformed Church (Reformation Trust, 2010).