Preaching

The Heidelberg Catechism on the Strict Preaching of the Ten Commandments

heidcat2__03083.1480713175Preaching through the Ten Commandments does not seem to be nearly as common in Reformed churches today as it has been in years and generations past. Perhaps some mistakenly believe that to do so in some way implies or lends itself to a kind of legalism of sorts. To be sure, there are legalistic ways of preaching God’s law, but this should in no way prevent us from preaching and teaching the Ten Commandments in our churches in a godly and edifying way.

Q/A 115 marks the end of the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the Ten Commandments (which consists of Q/A 92-115), and it addresses this very topic, saying:

Q.115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?A. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we consistently endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we might become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in the life to come.

This question logically builds upon the previous two (2) questions, where we are taught that the tenth commandment (“Thou shalt not covet” – Exodus 20:17) requires of us that we obey all of God’s commandments from the heart (Q/A 113), and reveals to us that in this life “even the holiest of men” cannot perfectly keep God’s commandments, but “have only a small beginning of this obedience” (Q/A 114).

Here in Q/A 115 the writer of the catechism anticipates a possible objection about the usefulness and necessity of the preaching of God’s commandments in the life of the Christian. If even the holiest of men in this life only have a “small beginning” of the obedience and holiness that is required of them, then what is the use of preaching and teaching the commandments so strictly? Not only that, but why should the catechism itself spend so much time on the subject (no less than 24 questions over a span of 11 Lord’s Days)?

Given the fact the the Heidelberg Catechism itself was intended to be used as, among other things, a preaching guide in the churches, and has been preached as such in Reformed churches all over the world for hundreds of years since it was first published, you might say that Q/A 115 at least in part serves an apologetic purpose of sorts, in that it defends or at least gives us the rationale behind including such a lengthy exposition of the ten commandments in the course of its instruction.

Interestingly, in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism itself) goes into great detail answering the arguments or objections of “the Antinomians, Libertines, and other profane heretics of a similar cast, who affirm that the law is not to be taught in the church of Christ.” This almost certainly shows that he had their arguments in view when he composed Q/A 115.

Ursinus goes so far as to state and refute no less than 11 (!) common objections that such heretics made against the strict preaching and teaching of God’s law. Some of these very same arguments are raised in one form or another by modern antinomians of various kinds in our own day as well.

For example, he points out that some object to the strict preaching of God’s commandments on the basis that we are unable in this life to perfectly keep or obey them. Ursinus essentially answers this objection in his commentary by restating the answer to question #115. He also points out that “the law may, to a certain extent, be kept by the regenerate” (p.615). In other words, the fact that we cannot perfectly obey God’s law in this life does not mean that we cannot sincerely obey it at all.

Another common objection (both in Ursinus’s day as well as our own) is based upon a misunderstanding of Paul’s words in Romans 6:14, where he says that we as believers are “not under law but under grace.” Ursinus writes,

“This, however, is to misunderstand the words of the Apostle; for the expression, Not to be under the law, does not mean, that we are not to yield obedience to the law, but that we are freed from the curse and constraint of the law; . . . .” (p.617)

The Westminster Confession of Faith likewise states:

“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (19.5)

The gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ does not in any way “dissolve” or do away with our obligation to obey God’s law, but rather does “much strengthen this obligation.”

So why is it necessary that the commandments of God be so strictly preached? Q/A 115 offers us at least two reasons. “First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” In other words, a thorough familiarity with the law of God and the hearing of God’s commandments being “strictly preached” ought to help us to understand more and more just how sinful we still are in this life. And this is something that we will need to learn “all our lifetime.” As Paul says in Romans 3:20, “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (ESV)

This, of course, is not an end in and of itself, but rather serves the purpose of making us as believers to “become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” It should safeguard us from any delusions of perfectionism or self-righteousness, and cause us to more earnestly seek God’s mercy in forgiving our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). As Paul says in Philippians 3:8–9,

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— (ESV)

Not only that, but the strict preaching of the ten commandments is also for the purpose “likewise, that we consistently endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we might become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in the life to come.”

In other words, it should lead us more and more to grasp our need for the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives, and to pray for His work in us, in order that we might be more conformed to the image of Christ and walk in newness of life according to the power of His resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11).

And so herein lies the pastoral wisdom of including within the catechism such a lengthy section dealing with the Ten Commandments, and why God’s commandments still ought to be strictly preached in our churches. These things are needful for every believer, for God uses the preaching of His commandments (as He does all of Scripture) as an instrument of our sanctification in Christ, by the working of His Holy Spirit within us.

Pentecost and Preaching

In his book on preaching, The Heart Is the Target, Murray Capill includes a section dealing with the preacher’s need of the help of the Holy Spirit in order to preach the Word of God effectively.

There he points us to the example of the apostles on the day of Pentecost:

“The story of Acts begins with the disciples waiting in expectation for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Without the presence of the Holy Spirit, they dare not begin to preach. Only with the Spirit’s power will a man like Peter, who had previously felt such pressure from an unnamed slave girl that he denied his Lord three times, be enabled to speak boldly and courageously to thousands and be useful to God in the salvation of many souls. On the day of Pentecost, it is preaching that brings in the first gospel harvest, but it is Spirit-empowered preaching. The same fruit would have been quite inconceivable just one day earlier.” (p.40)

The only plausible explanation for the newfound boldness of Peter and the others in their preaching of the gospel was the power and work of the Holy Spirit within them.

Capill then goes on to show that the presence and work of the Holy Spirit is prominently featured throughout the rest of the book of Acts (citing no less than 18 examples!). In fact, nearly every chapter in the book makes some kind of reference to the Holy Spirit! Why is this? What lesson are we to learn from this? He writes,

“There are many other references to the Holy Spirit in Acts, but the point is clear. The Spirit is never far from the action. Or more correctly, the action of Acts is the action of the ascended Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in and through his people. Just as the advance of the gospel in Acts cannot be understood apart from the central place of preaching, neither can preaching be understood apart from the central role of the Spirit.” (p.41)

While we certainly no longer have Apostles among us, and we therefore should not be expecting or seeking for the signs and wonders that accompanied the ministry of the Apostles (what Paul calls “the signs of a true apostle” in 2 Corinthians 12:12), the ongoing advancement of the gospel in this world through the preaching of God’s Word must still be done in dependence upon the work of the ascended Christ through His Holy Spirit in and through His people.

Pentecost marked the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church, and the effects of that outpouring still continue to this day. The great Puritan theologian, John Owen, writes the following:

“The great privilege of the gospel age, which would make the New Testament church more glorious than that of the Old, was the wonderful pouring out of the promised Holy Spirit on all believers.” (The Holy Spiritp.19)

That outpouring of the Holy Spirit took place on the day of Pentecost. And so that great privilege of living in the gospel age is ours, as is the ongoing benefit of having received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church.

Even though the day of Pentecost is often misunderstood and underappreciated, it would truly be difficult to overstate its importance in the ongoing life and ministry of the church to this very day. It is only the work of the Holy Spirit that makes the preaching of the Word of God effectual for the salvation of sinners and the sanctification of the saints.

The Importance and Power of Preaching

Heartisthetarget CapillThe opening paragraph of Murray Capill’s book, The Heart Is the Target, is about as good a summary of the importance and power of preaching as can be found outside of the pages of Scripture itself.

“Throughout the long history of the church, nothing has won as many souls, changed as many lives, built up as many saints, and strengthened as many churches as the faithful preaching of God’s Word.” (p.13)

 Is that how we commonly think of preaching, even in Reformed theological circles? Do we really believe that the preaching of the Word of God from Sunday to Sunday is powerful and effective for the conversion of the lost? Or do we imagine that other things (i.e. less “preachy” means) are more effective and more to be preferred?

What about the building up or edification of the saints? Do we view the preaching of the Word of God as being a powerful and effective means of believers being built up in the faith and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17)? Or do we hang our proverbial hat on lesser things (i.e. small groups or other church-related programs)? Nothing wrong with programs per se, but an undue emphasis on our own programs may belie a subtle lack of confidence in the preaching of God’s Word.

We should view the preaching of the Word of God as primary in the life of the church. That is certainly the view of preaching that is espoused in the Westminster Standards. For example, the Westminster Shorter Catechism says the following about preaching as a means of grace:

“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.”

Reading the Bible is certainly important (whether one’s own personal Bible reading of listening to the Scriptures being read in public worship). But the Holy Spirit “especially” uses the preaching of the Word of God to convict and convert sinners, and to build them up in holiness and comfort, “through faith, unto salvation.”

Wherever and whenever the true preaching of the Word of God has been recovered and rightly emphasized, souls have been won, lives have been changed, saints have been built up, and churches have been strengthened.

No wonder the Apostle Paul so solemnly charged Timothy to preach the Word:

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:1–2, ESV)

Spurgeon on Writer’s Block (Psalm 51)

Treasury of DavidAs a pastor, I sometimes suffer from a kind of writer’s block when it comes to writing and preparing sermons. Oddly enough, this seems to happen more often (not less) when it involves a well-known and beloved passage of Scripture. (The 23rd Psalm, for example.)

There is something intimidating about preaching the Word of God in general, but this is even more the case when it comes to the most familiar texts.

And so it brought me a strange sense of comfort and encouragement to know that even Charles Spurgeon himself, the “prince of preachers” as he has come to be known, had the following to say about sitting down to write on Psalm 51:

“I postponed expounding it week after week, feeling more and more my inability for the work. Often I sat down to it, and rose up again without having penned a line. . . . Such a Psalm may be wept over, absorbed into the soul, and exhaled again in devotion; but commented on – ah! Where is he who having attempted it can do other than blush at his defeat?” (The Treasury of David, Vol. 1, Preface to Part 2.)

To borrow a phrase from the Apostle Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

You might suppose that such texts practically preach themselves, but they can really humble a pastor (not necessarily a bad thing). So if you are a pastor, and are tasked with the regular preaching of the Word of God – take heart! (Charles Spurgeon was human too!) 🙂

And if you are a believer in Christ, pray for your pastor(s). Preaching isn’t nearly as easy as some of them make it look!

J.C. Ryle on “Jelly-Fish” Sermons

prepared to stand aloneIn his terrific biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray quotes Ryle on the dangers of an aversion to “dogma” or doctrine among the ministers of the Church of England in his day. He likened this to ‘Jelly-fish Christianity,’ saying that it was,

“without bone, or muscle, or power.   . . . We have hundreds of ‘jelly-fish’ clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity [i.e. their doctrine].   . . . We have thousands of ‘jelly-fish’ sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint.” (p.186)

Ryle penned these words in the late 19th century (!), but they seem as timely and relevant in our day as ever. (Take heart, such things were not invented in our day!)

If you think about it, there are not many biblical doctrines which unbelievers (or even nominal Christians) are not likely to take offense at hearing. Scoffers, skeptics, and sometimes even professing believers often bristle at the most basic doctrines that are taught in the Bible – creation, providence, the Fall, depravity, sin, hell, the cross of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, the judgment – just to name a handful. These things are no doubt repugnant to many, and always have been. But those doctrines and many others are found throughout Scripture, and so they must be clearly preached and taught.

The temptation toward “smooth” preaching is ever-present, and probably always has been. Such sermons are no doubt designed to be pleasing to the ears of the hearers and to avoid offense at all costs. But such sermons, as Ryle observed, awaken no sinner and edify no saint. As Paul told Timothy,

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4, ESV)

People who have “itching ears” will tend to refuse to “endure sound teaching” and “turn away from listening to the truth” (v.4), but Paul says here that this is actually all the more reason to “preach the Word” (v.2)!

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the one true Head of His church, be pleased to once again raise up a godly generation of ministers – men who have spines of steel in their doctrine and doctrine in their preaching. And may the Lord use such preaching to awaken many sinners and edify the saints!

A Word of Encouragement for Pastors/Preachers

prepared to stand alone

Preaching is hard work. It requires much prayer, study, preparation, and even practice. Doing all of that on a weekly basis (and in many cases, doing so for both morning and evening services) can add up to a real grind. Who among us is sufficient for such things? It can feel rather overwhelming at times. (Hint: Pray for your pastor!)

Some preachers seem to make it look just so easy, don’t they? And it is all too easy for us to imagine that the men whom we consider our heroes of the faith from years past found no difficulties in such things. But in his recent biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray writes the following:

“He [Ryle] would later say that he was turned fifty before he learned to preach.” (p.59)

Considering that Ryle entered the pastorate at age 25, that is really saying something! Think about that – J.C. Ryle was essentially preaching twice every Lord’s day for the span of 25 years before he started to feel like he had really learned to preach! (Having just turned 50 myself, and having far less than 25 years of experience in preaching, it is encouraging to know that even someone such as Ryle felt that way once too.)

So if you are a pastor and have found the work of preaching to be rather difficult, and are discouraged by your apparent lack of progress in it, take heart – you are in good company. In two or three decades maybe you’ll start to get the hang of it, just like Ryle did!  🙂

And if you are a member of a church where your pastor(s) preaches the Word of God to you faithfully and clearly (even if unspectacularly), thank God! For that is not the case everywhere. And be patient with your pastor’s shortcomings in the pulpit – give him some time to get his proverbial sea legs under him. It might take a decade or two, but it’ll be worth it!  🙂

R.L. Dabney on the Preacher as Herald

dabney-eeR.L. Dabney’s book on preaching, Evangelical Eloquence, makes a very strong case for the practical of expository preaching. That is, preaching through entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse, with the aim of making known “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) to the people of God.

In a chapter entitled, “Cardinal Requisites of the Sermon,” he deals with “the general qualities which must characterize the structure of every sermon” (p.105). It is telling that the very first one of these qualities that he states as a cardinal requisite of true biblical preaching is that of “textual fidelity” (or sticking to the text, so to speak). There he writes,

The best argument to enforce upon you this virtue is suggested by the same fact – that the preacher is a herald. The first quality of the good herald is the faithful delivery of the very mind of his king. Our conception of our office, and of the revealed word as an infinitely wise rule for man’s salvation, permits us to discuss the text in no other spirit.” (p.105)

A firm persuasion of the truth of the calling of the preacher as a herald of the King ought to lead those of us who have the great privilege and responsibility to be pastors and preachers to stick to the text (to tell the truth of it), to preach through entire books of the Bible (to tell the whole truth of it), and to not mingle it with ideas that are not truly present in the text (to tell nothing but God’s truth).

Only then can the preacher say, with the Apostle Paul, that he is ‘innocent of the blood of all men because he did not shrink back from declaring to them the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:26-27).

Sinclair Ferguson on the Preaching of the Word

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315How important is the preaching of the Word of God in the lives of God’s people? How does its importance rank in comparison to things such as personal Bible reading or devotional study? Or small group Bible study?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes the following observation:

“Although set at a discount today by comparison with participation in either personal Bible study or more particularly group Bible study, neither of these, valuable as they may be, can substitute for the transforming power of the preached word.” (p.49)

Now Ferguson is not denying or downplaying the benefits of personal or group Bible studies. Far from it! But he is saying something that seems to go against conventional wisdom in many church circles today. What he is arguing for is the centrality of the preached Word of God in the life of the church.

If you want to grow in grace as a Christian, personal Bible reading and study are very good things. So is small group Bible study. But there is something special about the preaching of the Word of God. This is also the teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 89) which speaks of how the Word of God is made effectual to salvation in the lives of believers:

“The Spirit of God makes 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.”

Another way of putting it would be to say that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God in the lives of believers. And He certainly uses our own personal reading and study of the Word. But it is “especially the preaching of the Word” that He makes effectual in the lives of God’s people!

So if you are a believer in Christ and desire to see the Holy Spirit at work in your life, making you grow in grace and transforming your life more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ, make it your practice to diligently attend upon the preaching of the Word in public worship. There is simply no substitute for the preached Word in the lives of God’s people!

When a Sermon Degenerates Into A Speech

dabney-eeWhat is the difference between a sermon and a mere speech? How can one tell the difference between the two?

In his book on the subject of preaching, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) makes the following observation:

“The preacher relies alone upon evangelical inducements, and refers every conviction of the reason ultimately to God’s testimony. I elaborate this all-important distinction carefully; perhaps my reasons for it are difficult to grasp, because of their simplicity. The end, I repeat, of every oration is to make men do. But the things which the sermon would make men do, are only the things of God. Therefore it must apply to them the authority of God. If your discourse urges the hearer merely with excellent reasons and inducements, natural, ethical, social, legal, political, self-interested, philanthropic, if it does not end by bringing their wills under the direct grasp of a “thus saith the Lord,” it is not a sermon; it has degenerated into a speech.” (Evangelical Eloquence, p.34)

Surely Dabney is correct here. At the end of the day, if the force behind a sermon does not reside primarily in the authority of the Word of God (“a thus saith the Lord”, as Dabney puts it above), then it is not truly a sermon at all, but has “degenerated into a speech.”

It may be a fine speech – it may be carefully crafted and articulated; it may even “make men do” something, and so be thought to be effective, but it is not a sermon in the most basic sense of the word, and therefore has no place in the pulpit of a Christian church.

In the preaching in our churches, let us (again, to borrow Dabney’s phrase) rely on evangelical inducements alone, and seek to bring the wills of our hearers under a direct grasp of the truth and authority of the Word of God in Scripture. The Lord’s people need sermons, not speeches.

Becoming “Sermon-Proof” (John Owen on The Dangers of Sin)

mortificationofsinIn his book, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen notes (among other things) the importance and necessity of having “a clear and abiding sense” in our minds and consciences of “the guilt, danger, and evil of sin” (p.65). Without a clear, biblical understanding of sin for what it really is, we will be ill-equipped to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit (Romans 8:13).

There he points out a number of the many dangers that sin poses to us, the first of which is the danger of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). He writes:

“This hardening is so serious that your heart becomes insensitive to moral influence. Sin leads to this. Every sin and lust will make a little progress in this direction. You who at one time were very tender and would melt under the influence of the Word and under trials will grow ‘sermon-proof’ and ‘trial proof.'” (p.68)

Sermon-proof. What a sobering phrase! It is bad enough that so many in our day simply avoid hearing the preaching of the Word in public worship altogether; but how much worse is the condition of those who, though they regularly attend the preaching of the Word, nevertheless have grown immune to its benefits.

Sermon-proof. That is a fitting description of the people of Isaiah’s day:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV)

To be sermon-proof is to continually hear, but not understand, to see, but not perceive. And what is the end result? A refusal to “turn” (or repent) and “be healed.” No wonder the writer of the book of Hebrews warns us of the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13)!

Are you sermon-proof? Do not content yourself with the mere hearing of sermons. Hearing sermons is certainly a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Hearing sermons, even on a regular, weekly basis is no firm evidence that one is not sermon proof. One can hear sermons until the proverbial cows come home, and yet do so with no benefit whatsoever.

Let us learn to attend the preaching of God’s Word in public worship “with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.90).

And, as the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it, let us “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13, ESV).