The Content of Biblical and Reformed Preaching

Exposition and explanation of the Scriptures

Essential for Biblical Reformed preaching is that the Scriptures are explained. The Bible as the infallible Word of God is the only rule of our faith and practice. One of the aims of preaching is to inform the hearers of the content of the Scriptures. For that reason sermon preparation is necessary. You need to search the meaning of the text of passage of your sermon in its original context. When you do not know the original languages, you have to make use of a translation. Also commentaries can be a great help to give you some insight in the original text, but the ideal of the Reformers was that a preacher could read the Scriptures in its original languages; Hebrew and Greek and when possible also Aramaic.

In every translation shades of meaning seen in the original text disappear. A word in Hebrew of Greek can have a richer of somewhat other meaning than the equivalent in translation. Also when a trans-lation is as concordant as possible, the same word in Hebrew or Greek cannot always be translated with the same word in the language of the translation and more than once one and the same word in the translation is used for more than one word in Hebrew or Greek. That means that in a translation relations seen in the original text can disappear and new relations can appear. When you just use a translation you miss the first thing and you can see without reason signi­ficance in the second phenomena because you do not realize that the relation is not seen in the original text.

As a preacher the ideal is that you have to know the languages of the Bible. You have also to know something about the history and culture of the Ancient Near East. Besides that, to understand a text or passage in the right way you have to know its place in the book of the Bible in which it appears and you have to know the place and significance of a book of the Bible within the whole context of Biblical revelation. So the more you know you Bible, the better it is. Therefore study the Bible daily. Read daily a portion from the Scriptures. When possible do it in the original languages. Memorize Bible texts.

However, real preaching is not only explanation or exposition of Scripture but also applica­tion. You have to apply the message of a Bible passage or a Bible text to the heart and life of your hearers. Not only to head must be inform, but above all the heart must be moved. The heart must be set in fire for Christ. And the means is portraying Christ as complete, an all sufficient Savior. So to be a real preacher it is not enough that you can use the tools to find out the meaning of a Bible text or passage in its original context. You must also know the human heart, your own heart and you must know your times.

I can add that the deepest meaning of a passage of Scripture in its original context remains hidden for you, when you do not under­stand personally and experientially the power of the gospel. And therefore we need the reviving and enlightening work of the Holy Spirit. Preaching and preparation of sermons is not just an intellectual exercise. A man may be gifted in the Biblical languages, have a great knowledge of the biblical history and customs and so on and still be a very poor preacher and then not rhetorically but spiritually. The reverse is also possible. That a man is not specially gifted either in knowledge or rhetorically and that he still is a great preacher, because he knows Christ who is the central content of the Scriptures.


Law and gospel

Luther said that we need a key before we can really open the treasures of the Scriptures. He alluded to Luke 11:52: ‘Woe to you lawyers, for you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.’ I can also point in this context to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ directed to the Pharisees that we find in the gospel of John: ‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me’ (John 5:38) and ‘Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?’ (John 5:45-47).

The key to unlock the Scriptures was according to Luther – and we must agree with him totally – the right division of law and gospel. This was the great difference between Luther and also the other Reformers at the one side and Biblical humanists as Erasmus at the other side. Erasmus just emphasized the importance of knowledge of the Biblical languages, the importance of intellec­tual knowledge of the Scriptures. He understood the message of the Scriptures foremost as an ethical message. He did not see the awful reality of sin neither the amazing reality of grace.

Luther emphasized that we must not confuse law and gospel. We must not turn the law into a gospel neither the gospel into a law. Since the fall of man the law can only condemn us. We have to understand the law not just in a civil way but foremost theologically and spiritually. So it becomes clear to us that we can never be saved by the works of the law. We are unable to fulfill the law. As a preacher we must not give the impression: ‘Do this or that and you will be saved.’ In Romans 3:20 we read: ‘For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.’

We will only flee to Christ as the on­ly and complete Savior when we have learned to distrust our own abilities. That is the office of the law. The law must be preached in order to convince men of their sins and misery. The law is a guardian to Christ but not Christ himself. We must not turn the law into a gospel neither the gospel into a law. The essence of the gospel is that it is a promise: a promise not for righteous people but for sinners. The content of the gospel is not: ‘Do this or that and you will be saved, but believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.’ The gospel is not a new law, but the fulfilment of the law Christ redeems sinners from the curse of the law that they justly deserve. (Gal. 3:10).

Calvin more that Luther stressed that a Christian who redeemed by Christ from the curse of the law, rejoices in the law as a rule of thankfulness. But although using somewhat different expressions also for Calvin a right insight in the gospel of justification by faith is a necessary condition for a gospel preacher. This insight is not just an intellectual matter, but foremost a spiritual and existential matter. You are made a true preacher by the Holy Spirit and you need the anointing of the Holy Spirit for every sermon. True preaching means that you proclaim the holiness and majesty of God, the beauty of Christ and the renewing and comforting work of the Holy Spirit. You call sinners to repent and believe. You call them who profess Christ to examine themselves and you console the people of God.


Holiness and majesty of God

We can never get a true apprehension of the beauty of Christ as Savior and Mediator, when you have not realized how great and full of majesty God is. Between God as Creator and man as crea­ture there is a great difference. We were created to glorify him. But seen the fall of Adam we are sinners. When Isaiah was called he heard the angels confessing: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isa 6:3). The prophets saw a just a glimpse of God’s glory but just that glimpse was the occasion of the outcry of the prophet: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ (Isa 6:5).

One of our aims in preaching must be that our hearers got the same view of God’s glory majesty and holiness as Isaiah once had. We must proclaim the glorious attributes of God in order that our hearers receive not only real knowledge of God, but also real knowledge of ourselves. When we know God in his holiness and majesty, we see ourselves as undone. Already at the opening page of the Institutes Calvin emphasized the relationship between knowledge of God and of ourselves. God uses a Spirit anointed preaching to impart that knowledge to men. Real preaching is God-centered.


The loveliness and beauty of person and the work of Christ

How can the infinite distance between God and man be bridged? God himself took the ini­tia­tive. He did it finally already before the foundation of the world. We can summarize the whole content of the Bible just with one text we find in the gospel of John. Luther called this text a miniature Bible. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16). Preaching is above all to portray Jesus Christ before our hearers as crucified. (Gal 3:1). We portray as the Substitute who bore the penalty for sin. We portray him as the Lamb of God that toke away the sin of the world. (John 1:29). We portray him as the sympathizing high priest, as that one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15).

When we preach Christ, we can never separate the Person and the work of Christ. Christ is God who became man. Unto all eternity the divine and the human nature remain united in the person of our Mediator and Savior the Lord Jesus Christ. In the New Jerusalem the redeemed will sing to all eternity: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.’ (Rev 5:12).

Because Christ was God who became man, who was able to fulfill his office as Mediator, to be our Prophet, Priest and King. As a King he governs the world and protects his church. As High Priest Christ shed his own blood to redeem his people and now sitting at the right hand side of his Farther he prays for his church. As prophet he comes to us by his Word and especially by the preaching of the Word. I quote a stanza of the hymn of John Newton ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in the believer’s ear’:

Jesus, my Sheppard, Husband, Friend,

my Prophet, Priest and King.

My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,

accept the praise I bring.

Jesus Christ teaches us as Prophet in order that we learn that we need him as our High Priest; that we understand and taste what he did on the cross for us and what he does as our Advocate at the right hand side of the Father. Knowing him as our High Priest, we are assured that Christ is able and willing to protect us as our King. He is the Prince of all the kings of the earth. All power in heaven and on earth is given to Him. Having shed abroad in our heart his love manifested in his death on the Christ, we began to love Christ and we are willing to serve him as our King.

A true preacher knows that he is an ambassador of Christ. In the name of Christ he proclaims what Christ has done and still does. He tells about the willingness of Christ to receive sinners. True preaching is pleading with sinners to come to Christ for life and salvation. True preaching is comforting believers that Christ is their Sheppard and that he will never fail.

When the daughters of Jerusalem ask the bride in the Song of Songs who is her Bridegroom, the bride finishes her description of her Bridegroom with the following words: ‘His mouth is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.’ (Song of Solomon 5:16). This is what he true gospel preaching assures his hearers concerning Jesus Christ.


The comforting and renewing work of the Holy Spirit

True preaching is God-centered and Christ-centered. True preaching has also a Trinitarian character. Real gospel preaching is a preaching anointed by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not ask attention for himself. His office is to ask attention for Jesus Christ. In John 16:13-14 Jesus testified concerning the Holy Spirit: ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ We must never separate the work of the Spirit from the Word and from Christ. Nevertheless when we declare the full council of God, we do not speak about the work of Christ for us, but also about the work of Christ in us.

Speaking of the work of Christ in us we also speak about the work of the Holy Spirit. By his Spirit Christ lives in the believers. The first work of the Spirit is directed to unbelievers. He convinces them of their sin and misery. (John 16:8-9). Here the Holy Spirit uses the mirror of God’s holy law. We must first of all proclaim the law and the holiness of God. But a certain degree of description is legitimate. In our sermons we can point to the king Manasseh, to the thief on the cross, to the crowd on Pentecost, when speak about the convincing work of the Holy Spirit.

A true believer has remission of sins. He is a saved sinner. We must stress both the word ‘saved’ and ‘sinner’. A true Christian is saved, but he remains in this life a sinner. The com­plaint of Paul in Romans 7:24: ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ is his complaint. I can also point to the penitential Psalms. Listen to Psalm 130:3: ‘If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?’ and Psalm 143:2: ‘Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.’ This aspect of the spiritual life and battle of a Christian ought to described in preaching.

The most important work of Holy Spirit is to unite us to Christ. The Holy Spirit testifies of the righteousness of Christ. (John 16:8, 10). Justified by faith a Christian has peace with God (Rom 5:1). Because we have peace with God, the Holy Spirit fills our hearts with joy and peace in believing. (Romans 15:13). Already here and now we experience the joy of the New Jerusalem because the Holy Spirit is given us as an earnest and first fruit of the final salvation. (Rom 8:23; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Eph 1:14). That is the reason that we now feel in our hearts the beginning of eternal joy (answer 58 of the Catechism of Heidelberg). Also this aspect of faith is expressed clearly in the Psalms. Not without reason the Jews call the book of Psalms the book of the Hymns of Praise. Real preaching includes the experiential aspects of faith; both of sorrow and joy.

The Holy Spirit renews us into the image of Christ. I can point here to the apostolic exhortations in the New Testament epistles. In the book of Psalms several Psalms underline the law as a rule of thankfulness and freedom for the believer. See Psalm 1 and 119. Biblical preaching is not only experienital but also practical. The Christian religion is a practical religion.


The call to faith and repentance

I already stressed that a sermon is more than just explanation of Scripture. It is explanation and application. A preacher must try to reach the conscience of unbelievers that they may be convinced of their sin. He must try to move them to faith and repentance. Repent and believe the gospel was both the message of John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ. Never can the invitations of the gospel brought too movingly and too urgently to them who can to hear the preaching of the Word of God. I point to Ezekiel 33:11: ‘ Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?’


The call to self-examination

Biblical preaching also includes a call to self-examination for them who profess that they believe in Christ. I point to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21–23). Not without reason Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. (Matthew 25:1-13)

God builds his church

A very important element in preaching is that we preach in the persuasion that the Lord protects and builds his church. His counsel stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations (Psalm 33:11). We ought to be sure about the fact that true biblical preaching itself is one of the means the Lord uses to build his church. The Lord uses men and means, but finally he himself gives the increase. So we must give him all the glory as we read in Romans 11:36: ‘For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.’

True preaching is God-honoring. It is Christ-centered. It is used by God for conversion of sinners and to satisfy the souls of believers. May the Lord enable to preach to preach the gospel in this way.

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