Preach the Word
by Jon Payne
In the original Table Talk, a collection of informal theological conversations at Martin Luther’s dinner table, the German Reformer gave the following advice to a young minister: “When you are to preach, speak with God and say, ‘Dear Lord God, I wish to preach in Thine honor. I wish to speak about Thee, glorify Thee, [and] praise Thy name. Although I can’t do this well of myself, I pray that Thou mayest make it good.’”
This simple prayer provides a tiny glimpse into Luther’s theology of preaching. More importantly, it underscores to pastors in every age that faithful preaching must be about God, for the glory of God, and in utter dependence upon God.
First, the content of our preaching must be centered on the nature and works of God (2 Cor. 4:5–6). Evangelical preaching today can often be shallow, therapeutic, and man-centered. It commonly lacks theological substance and gravitas. Personal stories and amusing anecdotes crowd the sermon, leaving God as an afterthought. The gospel, the grand theme of Scripture, is vague at best.
Biblical preaching, however, always and unmistakably makes the triune God and His marvelous works of creation, providence, and redemption the main subject matter. God is the main subject of the Bible, and thus should be the central focus of our preaching. Why is Peter’s Pentecost sermon, for example, so powerful and memorable (Acts 2:14–41)? Why were so many who heard it “cut to the heart” with Spirit-wrought conviction? It is because Peter’s sermon boldly and skillfully directed the people’s attention to almighty God, His Word, and the fulfillment of His redemptive purposes in Christ. Moreover, it is in light of God’s mighty acts of judgment and salvation that the Apostle clearly communicated the need for sinners to turn from their rebellious ways and receive Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
The Apostle Paul exhorted Timothy (and all lawfully ordained ministers) to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). If ministers faithfully carry out this biblical mandate, their preaching will be full of God—and nothing will stir the heart of the church unto faith and obedience like a weekly view of God in the preaching of His life-transforming Word.
Second, the ultimate aim of our preaching must be the glory and praise of God. Strictly speaking, the preaching of the Word is not primarily for the salvation of sinners. Instead, preaching is first and foremost for the glory of God—a doxological event that magnifies our Lord’s sublime character and awesome deeds. Thomas Watson said, “God is superlative good … better than anything you can put in competition with him.” Shouldn’t the content of our preaching communicate this glorious reality?
We were created “to glorify God and enjoy him forever” (WSC Q&A 1; see Isa. 43:7). Biblical preaching, therefore, must underscore this foundational purpose, inspiring both preacher and hearer to joyfully “declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among the peoples! For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 96:3–4a).
Third, preaching must be carried out in utter dependence upon God. Pastors should not rely upon their talents, intellect, or personality. Rather, from the study to the pulpit we must earnestly and humbly pray for a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” in the preaching of the Word (1 Cor. 2:4b). Indeed, apart from the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit, law and gospel will fall on deaf ears and stony hearts. In the end, preaching will never be effectual unless God makes it so (Ezek. 37:1–14). There is no place for pride or self-reliance in either the preparation or the act of preaching. Apart from Christ and the life-giving Holy Spirit, we can do nothing (John 15:5b).
Preaching is a primary means of grace appointed by God to regenerate, sanctify, nourish, and comfort the souls of His elect in Christ (1 Cor. 1:21; 1 Peter 1:23–25). In confessional terms, it is
… an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them unto his image; and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace; and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation. (WLC Q&A 155)
No task, therefore, is of greater importance for the minister or the church than the faithful proclamation of the whole counsel of God (Acts 6:4; 20:27).
Even so, as a church planter, I experience the daily temptation to make sermon preparation and preaching a secondary matter. Of course, it is no different for pastors in established churches. Ministry is busy. Being mindful of this, let us, as ministers, renew our vow to faithfully “preach the Word.” Let us trust God’s promise to employ the foolishness of preaching for the advancement of his kingdom. And may we receive with humility the Wittenberg Reformer’s sage advice to pray that our preaching would be chiefly about God, to the glory and praise of God, and in prayerful dependence upon Him. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).