In a day when pastors are looking to the world of business, psychology, and politics for talking points, and sermons are sounding more and more like motivational talks, group therapy sessions, or stump speeches, we would do well to return to the legacy of the Reformation—to recover, yet again, the centrality of preaching in our time. For how can the people of our generation believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how will they hear if no one preaches? (Rom. 10:14).
Admittedly, preaching doesn’t look like much on the surface. A man standing behind a pulpit talking about the Bible? Is this really God’s way of building up the church, saving the world, and advancing the kingdom? I wouldn’t believe it either unless the Bible wasn’t so clear.
Here’s how Paul speaks of his preaching ministry in Thessalonica: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13). Similarly, Peter writes, “…whoever speaks [preaches], as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). Notice, the task of preaching is sourced by God, and the preacher’s word comes from God. To put it simply, the preacher speaks for God.
This understanding of preaching is what led the 16th-century Reformers to recover the priority of preaching. Before the Reformation, the sermon was a footnote in the liturgy, if present at all. Following the Reformation, preaching was at the center of the worship service—a change that God used to transform hundreds of thousands of lives and the course of history.
There are a variety of ways to describe the distinctives of Reformed preaching. For our purposes, I will focus on the general commitments of Reformed preaching, which I’ll summarize this way: Reformed preaching is that which preaches the whole Christ in the whole Word for the whole person to the whole of life.
The Whole Christ in the Whole Word
Reformed preaching preaches the Bible. Historically speaking, Reformed preaching relies on faithfully treating the history and grammar of the text of Scripture. That is, there is a commitment on behalf of the preacher to know the original intent of the author’s words, and how the original audience would have received the message. This is foundational to Reformed preaching.
As critical as this is, Reformed preaching doesn’t stop at laying out the original message. Each passage must be treated within the context of the whole Bible. When the apostle Paul speaks of his preaching ministry in Ephesus, he says, “…for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). It’s unlikely Paul expounded every verse of the Old Testament Scriptures in three years of ministry in Ephesus. Rather, Paul means that in his preaching he brought the whole counsel of the Word of God to bear on whatever particular text or subject he expounded. That is, he proclaimed every text within the context of redemptive history, culminating in Jesus Christ.
In fact, Paul pulled back the curtain on his interpretive and homiletical approach a few chapters later when he addressed King Agrippa,
To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles (Acts 26:22–23).
As Paul opened up the Old Testament (“the prophets and Moses”), he understood it in relation to the fulfillment that has come in Christ, and he communicated it in a way that reveals the truth and riches of Christ.
In doing this, Paul was not blazing a new interpretive or homiletical trail. He was following Christ’s own words about the nature and message of Scripture. Chastising the Pharisees for studying the Scriptures and yet failing to believe in Him, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Further, training His disciples in how to understand His own words and the revelation of the Old Testament, Jesus said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44). Following the example and instruction of Christ and Paul, Reformed preaching is committed to preaching the whole Christ in the whole of the Word.
For the Whole Person
One of the doctrines in Reformed theology that is most misunderstood is the doctrine of total depravity. When people first encounter the doctrine of total depravity, they often think that what’s being advanced is that people are as bad as they possibly could be. Sadly, this is a misunderstanding—a misunderstanding that leads many to dismiss the teaching out of hand. Correctly understood, the doctrine of total depravity teaches that the whole person is affected by the Fall. Our minds, emotions, souls, bodies are touched with the reality of sin.