Word, Sacrament, and Discipline: Preaching

During the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Reformers came to the conclusion, in the face of defection and departure from biblical orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and doxology within the medieval Roman Catholic Church, that there needed to be a means whereby a true Christian church could be distinguished from a false or compromised church. Over time these men developed what have come to be called the “marks” of a true church: the faithful proclamation of the Word, the due administration of the sacraments, and proper discipline. These can be seen in Luke’s description of the church in the book of Acts (Acts 2:42 and 5:1-11 immediately come to mind). All of these are interrelated and should not be separated in theory or practice although we can distinguish them. If a body of Christian believers is not manifesting these characteristics of the church, more or less faithfully, then that church fails to win sinners to Christ and to build up saints in the nurture and admonition of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Westminster divines, gathering from 1643 to 1653 further delineated what are called the means of grace: the Word, sacraments, and prayer. These are those ways that God has told us in his Word that he will bless to the nourishment of his people and the evangelization of the nations. In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the divines ask and answer the following question:

Q. 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

Certainly, the reading of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments in personal and family worship is important and a necessary way that God leads his people in their daily walk with him. But as the divines point out in the expression I have highlighted above, it is the public proclamation of the Word of God, that God ordinarily uses to call unbelievers to Christ and that he uses to strengthen, encourage, exhort, and direct his people along paths of righteousness.

When the minister reads and explains the Christ-centered nature of Scripture (per Luke 24:25-26 and 44-49), then God the Holy Spirit works through that proclamation to transform the lives of his people “convincing and converting” and “building” the people “up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation,” as the Westminster divines have put it.

But did you know that when a minister faithfully preaches the text of Scripture in a Christ-exalting way, Christ himself is speaking through the preacher? The Reformed tradition came to see that the preaching of the Word of God is itself the Word of God. In Romans 10:14-17:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”  But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

This is a typical English translation (ESV) from the Greek. You should know that the proposition “in” has been supplied by translators and is indeed not only not required but I would suggest goes against what the Apostle Paul is saying here. Paul is not only saying that in preaching people hear the Word which is about Jesus Christ, but in faithful preaching a person hears Christ speaking through the preacher and responds in faith to the gospel message. It is not just your regular minister unpacking the meaning and significance of the Scriptures that you hear week in and week out as you attend public worship. You actually hear Christ speak to you! Undoubtedly this provides us with a greater impetus and motivation to listen to what is said. This doesn’t mean your pastor’s face will glow or that he will float above the platform. Nothing sensational like that needs to happen. What is amazing is that our great prophet, priest, and king, Jesus Christ, is addressing us in the plain and ordinary preaching of the Bible.

Christ addresses us through the preached Word, which is a means of God’s grace and it is a mark of the true church. To put it negatively, if your pastor is not faithfully proclaiming the Scriptures to you, you are not hearing the risen and reigning Lord of glory. I pray that you are fed faithfully and regularly from the pages of God’s Word and so that you hear the voice of the Lord calling you to him.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington