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Calvin and Powerful Preaching

Over the years, after listening to a great many men preach a great number of sermons, I have often asked myself, "Why did they bother?"

  • Brian M. Abshire,
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The Problem
Over the years, after listening to a great many men preach a great number of sermons, I have often asked myself, "Why did they bother?" Oh, they delineated their three points well enough, demonstrated adequately their knowledge of the pluperfect and told their mandatory joke, and received the mandatory chuckle. But frankly, for all their time, energy and effort, they simply had little to say worth hearing. Their preaching had no point. It is tempting to speculate on what motivates a man to step into a pulpit week after week and plague the people of God with inanities, irrelevancies, wooly-headed nonsense, and pious mush; but you would think I was just being nasty again. But the sad fact is, even in Reformed churches, much of our preaching is often deplorable, and this may well explain the present deplorable state of the church. To demonstrate my erudition, I am going to sprinkle a few quotes from Calvin who saw many of the same problems.

Calvin's View
Calvin said, "among so many excellent gifts which God has adorned mankind, it is a peculiar privilege that He deigns to consecrate men's lips and tongues to His service, that His voice may be heard in them." It is the grace of God that he entrusts the proclamation of his word to men. He could have given this job to angels; he could have written it in mile-high letters in the sky. Instead, he chose to reveal himself in Scripture, and allow men to make that revelation known through preaching. Therefore, before a man steps into the pulpit, he must know the God who put him there, why God put him there, and what God expects to be accomplished. God does not call men to preach so that they can pontificate on their own opinions, entertain people with amusing anecdotes, or make a few helpful suggestions. They are there to proclaim the very words of Almighty God. Calvin said ". . . the office of preaching is committed to pastors for no other purpose than that God alone may be heard there." That means our task is to love, understand, and proclaim the law of God. God is our King; preaching is primarily proclaiming the King's commandments to his people. Calvin said, ". . .a rule is proscribed to all God's servants that they bring not their own inventions, but simply deliver as from God hand to hand, what they have received from God."

If a preacher does not know the law of God, if he does not understand how God's precepts work out in his own life and how they are to work in other lives, he simply has nothing to say. Instead he fills up the time wandering around the theological landscape, blathering about nothing while the people of God starve for want of spiritual food. The law is more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey (cf. Ps. 19). But thinking they are wiser than God, too may preachers give God's people pious platitudes, warmed-over humanistic psychology, or theological irrelevance. Hence, one acid test of powerful preaching is whether or not the congregation understands WHAT God wants them to do as a result of the sermon and are then motivated to do something as a result of it. If the congregation cannot answer that fundamental question after their pastor preaches, then he has failed them. If the pastor cannot answer that question before he preaches, he has failed God.

Many Are Not Truly Called
Part of the problem is that there are many men in the pulpit who are clearly not called to be there. Oh, they may have all the required academic degrees, their theology may be impeccable, and a properly constituted authority may have duly ordained them. But they are not called to preach. You can tell because they do not have "fire in the belly," i.e., an overwhelming passion to proclaim the word of God — a passion so powerful they cannot just sit idly by but are compelled to preach the word. Preaching for such men is not a chore, but rather life itself. The Apostle Paul said, "I am constrained to preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:16). For Paul, preaching was not a ticket to an easy middle-class job; it was not a way of attaining the respect and admiration of others. He had to preach. He could not keep himself from preaching. He had "fire in his belly." If a man does not have this fire, then he is not called to preach. Calvin said, "God's servants ought to speak from the inmost affections of their heart." Powerful preaching is something that begins deep down inside us at the very root of our being.

Now granted, simply WANTING to preach is not exactly the same as being CALLED to preach. James is very clear on this, "let not many of you become teachers, brethren, knowing as such we will incur a stricter judgment" (3:1). Some "preachers" ought to consider these words carefully and perhaps think about getting themselves an honest job, saving themselves and God's people a lot of grief.

Powerful preaching gets down inside someone's soul and transforms it through the power of the word. It is God through his Holy Spirit who takes his word and rips out sinful hearts. It is God who through his Holy Spirit uses that word to replace wicked hearts with new ones. It is God through his Holy Spirit who then takes his word and rebuilds new lives.

Not Pleasing Men
Powerful preaching is not the same as the rabble-rousing manipulation of the street-corner radical. Neither is it the crowd-pleasing machinations of the great orator. The Apostle Paul was no great shakes as an orator. In fact, it certainly appears that his delivery lacked a few things (cf. 1 Cor 2:1ff.). But his words changed lives. Hence a man called to preach is someone God uses to build character into his people. Powerful preaching convicts us deeply of our sins, makes us want to obey God and love our brother, enables us to grow in grace, wisdom and holiness. Powerful preaching is not intended primarily to entertain, or thrill, or excite, but to change lives. Calvin said, "It is too common a fault that men desire to be taught in an ingenious and witty style." But powerful preaching will grab the attention and demand that people listen because of the profundity of the subject matter, the clarity of the presentation, and the application that it demands.

Powerful preaching also requires more than just proclaiming true doctrine (1 Cor. 11:1) or giving an interesting theological treatise. Calvin says, "the duty of a good teacher is rather to exhort to a holy life, than to occupy the minds of men with useless questions." We ought to preach so that men might repent of their sins and confess Jesus as Lord. When the Apostle Peter preached the first gospel message at Pentecost, he laid out the true doctrine of Christ by reminding them of the Old Testament prophecies and testifying to what they themselves had seen and heard. But he did not stop there; he also "kept on exhorting them saying, 'be saved from this perverse generation'" (Ac. 2:40). His sermon demanded an application. Erudite philosophical sermons that engage the mind but do not demand a change are just so many empty words in the air. Yes, God's people need truth, but they need truth applied!

Finally, powerful preaching is more than just jumping on peoples' cases. Calvin says, "Some ministers are always fulminating through a pretence of zeal, they show no sign of benevolence, hence they have no authority and all their admonitions are hateful." The Scriptures give us a number of terms referring to how we should preach. We are to "admonish" the unruly, "encourage" the fainthearted, "strengthen" the weak (1 Thes. 5:14). Thus powerful preaching will convict, but it will also encourage. We identify the problem but we also carefully explain the answer. Sometimes, people will be deeply wounded by the Holy Spirit through our preaching and our words are what he will use to comfort them in their distress. Sometimes they must be humbled before God and our words are used to bow their proud necks. But we never leave them in that state of humiliation, for we must always bring back the grace of God in Jesus and our acceptance to him through him. We only bring them down, so that we can then exalt them with Christ. Calvin said, "Then only are reproofs beneficial when they are in a manner seasoned with honey."

There is much more to say but since Andrew Sandlin's new editorial policy limits the length of our columns these days (you would think he paid by the word!), we have to cut this short. Just let it be said that powerful preaching is not an option. God demands it, his people need it, and we who are called to preach have a responsibility to provide it. Start with your own heart, daily applying the word of God to your own life (Jos. 1:8) so that you know by experience what a sinful heart needs to hear. Love your people and know them so you can preach to the trials, tribulations, and temptations they face. Cry out to the Holy Spirit to fill you (Ac. 1:8) and use you, for unless God gives you something, you simply have nothing to say. And then step into that pulpit, wanting to please God, present his word clearly, and see his power unleashed.

  • Brian M. Abshire

Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.

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