Marks of True Preaching

In our last article, we noted that the marks of a true church are 4 in number, namely: (1) true preaching; (2) right administration of the sacraments; (3) faithful exercise of church discipline; (4) biblical worship. In this article, we discuss briefly what constitute true preaching. This is a subject of great importance because in preaching, the voice of God, is heard as it were by His people. This is why the Lord says "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (Jn 10:27). Christ is obviously not referring only to His voice during His incarnation, He has to be referring to effectual hearing and to preaching in general since this was the how the Word of God was and is brought to the people (cf. Rom 10:14). Thus the Apostle Paul intimates that the preacher stands as an ambassador of God speaking to the people instead of God, in the Name of Christ (2 Cor 5:20). Likewise, as Calvin puts it: "The preaching of the Gospel, which is committed to [the Church], is the spiritual sceptre of Christ, by which He displays His power [or authority]" (Isaiah, 3.414). As such, if the preaching in a local assembly is not consistent with the requirements of God’s Word, then the assembly cannot be considered a Christian church since the Christ of the Bible would then not be speaking nor ruling the church. When this happens, the assembly would then be led and taught by a thief, a robber or an hireling (Jn 10:8, 12), or worst a wolf in sheep’s clothing (Acts 20:29, Matt 7:15).

What are the marks of true preaching? Let me suggest 7 somewhat overlapping marks. Let us take note of these marks not so that we know how to find fault with preachers, but that we may better understand and appreciate the fact that a church is no ordinary human institution and that preaching is not a professional oration that can be carried out like a company presentation. Neither should true preaching be heard as an ordinary discourse. Rather, it ought be heard as the voice of God. This is why the Word of God gives objective guidelines on what constitute true preaching:

1. It is a presentation of the whole counsel of God. 
Paul’s testimony to the Ephesians is instructive: "For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). There is a common saying that "preachers should avoid majoring on minors." This is may be true and instructive for most young preachers. However, the problem which one faces is: what is major? And what is minor? What may be considered major by someone may a minor to another. True preaching, I believe, is not simply not majoring in minors. Rather, it is preaching all the counsels or truth of God. One of the best ways of doing so is to preach through the Bible book by book, chapter by chapter and verse by verse, as was the habit of some of the greatest expositors in the past such as Calvin, Gill and Lloyd-Jones. However, not every preacher have the privilege of having sufficient time to preach sequentially and still be able to cover enough grounds to qualify for having preach the whole counsel of God. Thus, the Dutch Reformed Churches, for example, preach according to the Heidelberg Catechism so that a complete body of divinity is addressed during the 52 weeks of the year. Whatever the system, it must be emphasised that true preaching involves not just applicatory messages, but hard doctrine. Ministries that refuse to teach the wrath, holiness, justice and sovereignty of God or downplay the doctrine of election are certainly not preaching the whole counsel of God. Preachers who expend most of their energies teaching about the love of God or the doctrine of …Cont. p. 3 end-times are in danger of false preaching. Similarly, preachers who refuse to address any particular issue because it is considered ‘minor’ are also in danger of engaging in skewed and false preaching.

2. It has two voices. This is in fact an application of the first point. "The pastor ought to have two voices; one, for gathering the sheep, and another, for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves" (Pastoral Epistles, 296), say Calvin. William Perkins concurs: "Preaching has a twofold value: (1) It is instrumental in gathering the church and bringing together all of the elect; (2) It drives away the wolves from the folds of the Lord." (Art of Prophesying, BOT reprint, 3). True preaching involves both edification and warning. Most pulpits today have a heavy emphasis on edification, but hardly any word of warning. In fact, many Christians today are averse to hearing the sound of warning from the pulpit, as it is considered unchristian. If that be so, then Paul would be of all preachers most unchristian, for he taught: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed…" (Gal 1:8-9). Or consider: "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple" (Rom 16:17-18). The point is obvious, there is a place for warning in true preaching.

3. It is not hawking Christ. 
We emphasised on the second voice of preaching in the previous section rather than the first in order that we may give due attention this common fallacy regarding preaching. True preaching must no doubt be persuasive. We read of how Paul preached to those who visited him during his first Roman imprisonment: "He expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening" (Acts 28:23; cf. 2 Cor 5:11). Thus Calvin comments that "Whenever the Gospel is preached, it is as if God himself came into the midst of us, and solemnly and expressly besought us, that we may not wander in darkness, as if we knew not where to go, and that those who refuse to obey may be rendered inexcusable" (Harmony of Ev., 3.129). However, true preaching must not present God as desiring the salvation of sinners as if the salvation of sinner rests finally in the sinner. A preaching ministry that neglects to call sinners to repentance and belief is in danger of degenerating into falsity. But it is also false preaching to urge a mix congregation to accept Christ as Saviour because He wishes to save all or that He is a free gift that only needs to be received by a simple prayer or a raising of hand. This, unfortunately is the error in many a pulpit today. Worst, among Calvinists who preach in this manner, Calvin is frequently appealed to. But Calvin, while careful to teach that the Gospel is to be preached indiscriminately, at the same time denies that "grace is extended to all indiscriminately" (ICR3.25.17). For him, the "preaching of the Gospel streams forth from the wellspring of election" (ICR 3.24.1). "The reprobate are hateful to God" (ICR 3.25.17), and therefore even passages such as Ezk 33:11, gives no reason to preach to a mixed congregation that God wills or desires all to be saved. "The prophet’s instruction that the death of the sinner is not pleasing to God," is designed, rather, "to assure believers that God is ready to pardon them as soon as they are touched by repentance, but to make the wicked feel that their transgression is doubled because they do not respond to God’s great kindness and goodness" (ICR 3.24.15). True preaching, therefore, must not degenerate into an emotional appeal,—much like an attractive sales pitch,—to all and sundry to accept Christ without delay. Christ, must rather, be presented as "a savour of life unto life" for the repentant, and "a savour of death unto death" (2 Cor 2:15-16) to the unrepentant.

4. It is discriminatory. 
By this, we mean that true preaching ought to include the presentation of the marks of true believers. This is again much neglected in many a pulpit today, but is a major theme in the Scripture. Paul tells us to "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?" (2 Cor 13:5). The Lord Himself warns "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, … Cont. p. 5 Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matt 7:21-23). The Lord in other words, recognises that within the gathered assembly, there is always the possibility that some are spurious believers. Any preachers who fails to assist the congregation to honestly examine themselves by the objective rule of Scripture is not only in danger of failing in one aspect of their ministry, but in danger of having to answer for the souls who perish in presumptuous self-deception.

5. It is expository,
i.e. true preaching must be based on the Word of God, and seeks to make the word of God understandable and applicable to the congregation. Thus, the Levites during the reformation of Nehemiah "read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused [the people] to understand the reading" (Neh 8:8). Preaching must therefore make difficult doctrine easily understood by the congregation. It must clarify rather than stupefy. Messages that leave the congregation "high and dry" with minute and irrelevant nuances of words in a text is simply not preaching. True preaching must expound the word of God to and for God’s people so that lives are transformed. In this regard, it must be emphasised that true preaching must interpret and present the Word of God accurately. A sermon that make use of particular texts in Scripture as spring boards to teach what is foreign to the passage is simply not acceptable even if in general what is said in the sermon is found elsewhere in the Bible. This is because the preacher would then be giving a false sense of the text and therefore can hardly to be said to be engaging in true preaching.

6. It is fearless. 
Since the preacher represents God, true preaching must not be restrained by fear of men—whether those in the congregation, or those having the power to discipline. Paul is emphatic when he says, "For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ" (Gal 1:10). A preacher who tones down the miseries of hell for fear that an influential unbeliever in the congregation may be offended must re-examine his motives for preach-ing. Similarly, one who, for fear of offending fellow ministers, fail to preach according to his own doctrinal conviction, is simply not preaching as a true servant of Christ.

7. It is intimately tied to the preacher. 
It is true that "the infirmity of the minister does not destroy the faithfulness, power, and efficacy of God’s word" (Calvin, Genesis, 2.94). Yet, A.N. Martin is surely right when he says "unless we would degrade preaching to a mere elocutionary art, we must never forget that the soil out of which powerful preaching grows is the preacher’s own life. This is what makes the art of preaching different from all other arts of communication" (What’s wrong with Preaching today?, 5). Paul, writing to the Thessalonian Church, which he had the privilege of founding (Acts 17:1-4) reminded them: "Our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake" (1 Thes 1:5). Clearly, the coming of the word "in power, in the Holy Ghost and in much assurance" has much to do with the Theassalonians’ apprehension Paul and his co-worker’s manner of life. This manner of life is exhibited in 1 Thes 2:10: "Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you that believe." What is suggested to us here, is that the most eloquent or doctrinally accurate message may be ineffective and, in a sense, false, when delivered by a minister whose testimony is questionable. It is for this reason that we frequently hear of members in a congregation "shutting-off" when a particular minister preaches in the church. A minister can, indeed, shut off the ears of his hearers by a bad testimony in his Christian life. This, however, must be distinguished from the lack of eloquence in preaching. Those who come under the ministry of preachers who are less gifted but are nevertheless theologically accurate ought to take heed not to murmur and complain but to pray that the Lord will enlarge their pastor with grace and ministerial gifts to better carry out his duties.