The Presence, Activity, and Authority of God in Preaching: Christian Preaching as Redemptive Encounter

Ministry, Preaching, The Church, Theology, Worship

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This will be by far the longest post in this series, and the most important. The thesis of this series must be Biblically defended, and I’m going to attempt that now, in three parts. First it will be shown that preaching is a redemptive encounter because of God’s special presence when His Word is preached. Second it will be demonstrated that the God who is personally present is also particularly active through the human task of preaching. Third, it will be concluded that because God is redemptively present and active, Christian preaching has a consequent and derivative authority which is unique among all other human endeavors. The sum of these three points will be the establishment of Christian preaching as redemptive encounter.[1]

Preaching and the Presence of God

While the Scriptures contain clear affirmations of the omnipresence of God,[2] they also contain clear affirmations of His mysterious special presence in unique locations and events within the space/time matrix of creation.[3] This special presence is typically revealed in the physical realm through various theophonic phenomena, and is revealed in the spiritual realm pre factum via Biblical promise and post factum via recognition of the discernable fulfillment of those same promises. To say it another way, we know God will be with us in preaching because he says he will be and we know he has been with us because we see what he’s done. It is His spiritual presence that is relevant to our thesis, and so both the pre factum and post factum methods of discerning His presence must be observed in relation to Christian preaching.[4]

Pre factum, Scripture gives both implicit and explicit testimony to the spiritual presence of God in Christian preaching. Surely it does no damage to God’ omnipresence to recognize that when Jesus promised to be with his church in special ways and at special times, he meant what he said. In fact, divine omnipresence is the very vehicle by which the incarnate Jesus who is currently physically located in heaven can be truly said to be with his people now in any real sense at all. The classic support for this doctrine is the last clause of the Great Commission, the precious promise that I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20b). If God’s primary means for accomplishing this commission is the proclamation of the gospel to the nations then it is no stretch to directly apply Christ’s promised divine presence to the specific act of preaching.[5]

Another striking promise of the special presence of God in Christian preaching is the statement of Paul in Romans 10:8 that The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim). The context of the preceding verses suggests that Paul is using rayma in a somewhat analogous manner to how John uses logos in the prologue of his gospel, i.e. he is saying that God the Logos is near via the preaching of the gospel.[6] This is the interpretation Calvin seems to be affirming in his commentary on Isaiah 55:6, writing:

He says that he is near when he opens the door and gently invites us to come to him, or when he comes forth publicly, so that we do not need to seek him through long windings. But we must attend Paul’s definition, who tells us that it denotes the preaching of the gospel. (Rom. X. 8.)[7]

This doctrine of a special presence of God in Christian preaching in Romans 10:8 is significantly deepened when we remember that Paul is quoting Moses’ charge to the covenant people of Israel in Deuteronomy 30. Whatever else the covenant motif in Scripture can be said to represent, it certainly represents God’s personal presence with his gathered assembly, no less in his New Covenant church via the ordained means of preaching.

Calvin makes other comments on the special presence of God in preaching which bear mentioning, both for the texts he points us to and for his testimony which lends significant Reformed credibility to the current argument. In his commentary on Isaiah 50:2, Calvin writes:

Now, the Lord is said to “come” when he gives any token of his presence. He approaches by the preaching of the Word… (p. 50).[8]

Lest the reader think this comment is to be restricted to prophetic preaching which was peculiar to that office, Calvin in his commentary on Haggai 1:12 explicitly states that in that case that:

…Haggai says nothing here but what belongs in common to all teachers in the Church: for we know that men are not sent by divine authority to speak that God himself may be silent. As then the ministers of the word derogate nothing from the authority of God, it follows that none except the only true God ought to be heard. It is not then a peculiar expression, which is to be restricted to one man, when God is said to have spoken by the mouth of Haggai; for he thus declared that he was God’s true and authorized Prophet. We may therefore gather from these words, that the Church is not to be ruled by the outward preaching of the word, as though God had substituted men in his own place, and thus divested himself of his own office, but that he only speaks by their mouth (pp. 340-341, emphasis added).

So by faith the Christian church may lay hold of the pre factum promises of the presence of God in Christian preaching. Yet this is not a matter where we must walk strictly by faith alone. God has given us something to see, not through any sort of theophonic manifestation, but rather through the post factum evidence that he has indeed met with his people. Like a hand leaves an impression in the sand upon which it is pressed, so too God leaves spiritual fingerprints of his presence among his people. These evidences are seen by God’s people when they perceive the accomplishment of that which God has promised to do via his Spirit through the act of preaching.[9] While the list of such potential fruit is extensive, it includes at least the conversion of the lost, the progressive moral sanctification of the church, and the demonstrable increase of love among the brethren.[10] God leaves these gracious fingerprints of his spiritual presence in the preaching of his church enabling her say with the patriarch Jacob, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it… this is none other than the house of God.”[11] The LORD’s spiritual presence in his spiritual house via the spiritual encounter of Christian preaching continues to this very day.[12]

Preaching and the Activity of God

Although the above points concerning post factum evidence of the presence of God have in large part already highlighted the activity of God in preaching, there remains an important point to be made about the manner in which preaching provides the conduit for God to act in actually accomplishing the very purposes for which the Word was originally inspired. Dr. Sam Waldon has made the point that the goal… of redemptive revelation embraces or involves the actual enlightenment of the elect.[13] The relevance of this statement to our thesis is that if the purpose of God’s Word is redemption, and the culmination of that purpose is the actual enlightenment of the elect, the bridge which God normatively uses to accomplish that purpose is the preaching of the Word. This fact can be seen with abundant clarity in 1 Cor. 1:21b:

…it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

And so just as God is completely active in the inspiration of redemptive revelation, and God is completely active in the enlightenment of the elect, so too God is completely active in the preaching of the Word.[14] Unless we are prepared to adopt a sacerdotal view of Christian ministry, we must say that God is personally active in gospel preaching.[15] Preaching is the hammer which God uses to drive the nail of his Word into the wood of the human soul, which is simply a faint illustration of the actual fact that Christian preaching is a redemptive encounter.

Preaching and the Authority of God

The 2nd HC has already lent some historical credibility to this point in the statement that THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Yet the divinely authoritative nature of preaching is liable to grave misunderstanding if not handled with great care. It must be again affirmed that any authority in a sermon is merely derivative and contingent upon its Biblical content and divine blessing.[16] The preacher has no personal mandate of power beyond the scope of the decrees he is called to herald. He is an Ambassador, not an Admiral. But jealousy for this truth must not obscure the clear sum result of the truths already observed, namely that Christian preaching is attended by the very authority of God himself.

First Thessalonians 1:5 echoes the theme of this paper when Paul writes that:

…our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit.

Paul mentions in 1:6 the Thessalonian church’s joyful reception of the word, and then in 2:13 makes an astounding statement:

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, which is at work in you believers.

A cross reference to the historical record of the ministry of Paul and Silas in Thessalonica describes this word received as:

[reasoning] from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ (Acts 17:2-3)

One could scarcely find a better description of Christian preaching than that, yet in 1 Thess. 2:13 Paul calls it the very word of God!

This divine authority assigned to the faithful proclamation of God’s word is also evident in 2 Cor. 2:12-4:6. This section of Scripture is bracketed first by the description of their task as to preach the gospel (2:12); and bracketed at the end by a discussion of not tampering with God’s word, but rather openly stating and proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord (4:2, 5). In between these brackets there is rich discussion of Christian ministry that can be understood to have specific reference to gospel preaching. This ministry preaching is described as being either the aroma of Christ or the fragrance of death to those who hear. The divine authority of this message conveyed through the human means of preaching causes even an Apostle like Paul to exclaim who is sufficient for these things? and pledge his and his partner’s ongoing commitment to not be mere peddlers of God’s word, but rather as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God [to] speak in Christ. What does it mean to speak in Christ if it doesn’t mean that Christ lends his presence, activity and authority to Christian preaching?

Thus we observe that the very authority of God attends the faithful preaching of God’s Word. At the end of history, men will be judged upon what they did with the words uttered by another man. As Calvin again so aptly states:

The Gospel is never preached in vain, but has invariably an effect, either for life or death.[17]

This is realized because the very authority of God attends the preaching of His Word.

In the next and last post, we’ll look at three practical applications of these wondrous truths.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] This does not remove the didactic nature of Christian preaching in teaching Bible content to God’s people; rather, it strengthens it. This will be demonstrated below.

[2] Divine omnipresence is classically expressed in texts such as Psalm 139 and Acts 17:28.

[3] There is clearly a very deep mystery at work in the special presence of God. It may well be that such language is highly analogical and intended to reveal God’s actions and purposes in providence rather than a literal special presence. Yet one must wrestle with the fact that Jacob wrestled with something in Genesis 32:22-32. In any event, this writer follows the advice of Van Til and intends to use anthropomorphism (if that is what this special presence can be described as) not apologetically but fearlessly (quotation from Van Til’s article on Common Grace available in the Westminster Theological Journal, p. 62).

[4] Theophany was a revelatory event that seems to have been preferred by the Lord early in redemptive history as compared with the later emphasis on prophecy, miracle, inspiration, and the preeminent revelation of God in the incarnation. Yet an intriguing analogy can be proposed using theophany and the eventual implications of this paper for preaching, especially as they are drawn in part from the 2nd HC. Perhaps we can say that God is to theophany what the Word of God is to Christian Preaching– a manifestation of divinity in creaturely form.

[5] This is similar to the usual account offered of Calvin’s doctrine of Christ’s spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper, the extra calvinisticum. Presence should not be confused with localization, which was a critical part of Calvin’s defense of his view. See Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of Word and Sacrament, pp. 208-10. Jesus is no more in the sound waves of preaching locally than he is in the bread of the sacrament- yet he is spiritually present in both, and spirit is not subject to temporal categories. Mystery certainly abounds in these things, but it coexists with glorious wonder that ought not be lost for the sake of solving a mystery the Scriptures rather compel us to rejoice in.

[6] G. Campbell Morgan argues similarly in his book Preaching on pp. 14ff, advocating for a more widespread Biblical capitalization of the “w” in word so as to closer association the preaching of the word and the Person of the Word.

[7] Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, p. 166. Interestingly, Calvin is more explicit about this understanding of Romans 10:8 in his commentary on Isaiah 55:6 than he is in his commentary on Romans 10:8.

[8]Calvin’s Commentary on Haggai.

[9] One man commented on the theology of Martin Luther at this point, writing God is present through the gracious power of His Spirit not only with the Scripture but also with the sermon (Loetscher, Luther and the Problem of Authority in Religion, published in The Princeton Theological Review p. 504, see bibliography for full citation.)

[10] For example see Romans 10:14-15; John 17:17; and Philippians 1:27.

[11] Genesis 28:16-7.

[12] For further discussion see also chapter 16 in D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Preaching & Preachers, which is entitled Demonstration of the Spirit and of the Power.

[13] Sam Waldron, Doctrine of the Word (unpublished lecture notes), p. 36.

[14] This paper began with a footnote clarifying that the author is not Neo-Orthodox. It now seems necessary to similarly clarify that the author is not charismatic regarding revelation, and indeed is a rather strict cessationist. Nevertheless, the terminus of special revelation is indeed realized via the ministry of the Holy Spirit to illumine the heart and mind of the elect hearer via the preaching of the Word. Thus there is a sense in which Redemptive Revelation, while it is not continuing, is certainly still fulfilling its inspired intent.

[15] While this writer happily uses the language of means of grace and embraces the theological concept behind such terminology, he wonders if a subtle sacerdotalism does not intrude at times into way that men speak about the means of grace. B. B. Warfiled differentiated in The Plan of Salvation between the Lutheran and Reformed views on this matter, writing “A modified and much milder form of sacerdotalism is inherent in Confessional Lutheranism… [Warfield differentiates this from the Roman Catholic view but then writes] I do not say this scheme is a consistent one: in point of fact it is honeycombed with inconsistencies. But it remains sufficiently sacerdotal to confine the activities of saving grace to the means of grace, that is to say, to the Word and sacraments, and thus to interpose the means of grace between the sinner and his God… the Reformed, as over against the Lutherans, insist with energy that, important as the means of grace are, and honored as they must be by us because honored by God the Holy Spirit as the instruments by and through which he works grace in the hearts of men, yet after all the grace which he works by and through them he works himself not out of them but immediately out of himself, extrinsecus accedens” (pp. 65-6). This writer believes that Warfiled’s cautions are legitimate, and probably need to be considered by some in the contemporary Reformed tradition who appear to bind the operations of the Spirit nearly if not exclusively to the ordained means of grace ecclesiastically administered, although perhaps I’ve simply misunderstood them. I hope so.

[16] Roland Wallace’s comments on Calvin’s views of this subject are helpful in their own right. He says, “…when God graciously comes to give his presence and power along with the human word, there is the closest identity between the divine and human actions… But even when this happens there must remain at the same time the sharpest distinction between what is divine and what is human in this mysterious event. [Quoting Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Cor 3:7:] “We require to distinguish… we must set the Lord on one side and the minster on the other. We must view the minister as one that is a servant, not a master- an instrument, not the hand; and in short as man, not God“ (Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament, p. 91).

[17] Calvin, Commentary on 2 Corinthians, p. 160.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Presence, Activity, and Authority of God in Preaching: Christian Preaching as Redemptive Encounter

  1. Nick this was a great post. We all need to be wrapped up in Christ’s humility and give all praise and glory to Him. May our Lord continue to increase your knowledge and application of His word. ☺

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