There is only one thing that has ever created anything new. Do you know what that one thing is? Of course if you say “God,” then you are correct. But what one thing did God use to make everything that He has made? The biblical answer is that He used his word. He spoke all things into existence:
By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible [Heb. 11:3].
Before anything else existed, besides himself, God created every single thing out of nothing. No material was used. There was just his word. This is also true about spiritual things, such as the new life of every believer. Consider these two statements in the New Testament: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” [2 Cor. 4:6]. Notice that the comparison is made between the initial creation and the new birth. The idea is that the very same God who spoke the universe into existence by his word has also spoken us (new creations or believers or Christians) into existence by that same word. Another apostle shares the same conviction: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” [Jam. 1:18]. Once again we see that it is God who does it; yet once again it is his word that He uses.
The Bible draws the link for us between God’s creative word in the world and this same creative word at work through preaching. For instance, Peter says that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” [1 Pet. 1:23]. Knowing that God saves through his word puts all of the debates about preaching on more urgent grounds. The word is instrumental in salvation because of the content that it contains. We call this saving content the gospel or good news: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” [Rom. 1:16]. This conviction not only shapes preaching, but each listener should be alert to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” [Jam. 1:21]. A biblical preacher understands that when he speaks the words of God from Scripture, the very same power that brought the universe into existence is bringing Christians into existence. We have this guarantee. It is not that every time Scripture comes out of our mouths, a new life will appear; but every time new life does appear, it will be because of the power in the content of God’s word. It may not be according to our timetables. It may not compare with this or that ministry down the street. But none of that is our standard. God himself says, through the prophet Isaiah:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it [Is. 55:10-11].
And what is true about the creation of new life is also true about the sustenance of this new life. Jesus quotes from the Law in response to the devil’s temptation to change methods: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes out of the mouth of God” [Mat. 4:4, cf. Deut. 8:3]. The word of God nourishes our new life. Jesus even regards this as a test of loyalty to him. Three times He inquires of Peter, “Do you love me?” to which He holds out this telltale sign: in effect, if you love me, you will, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep” [Jn. 21:15, 16, 17]. Without the exposition of Scripture the sheep will starve; less people will be brought from death to life; more people will be deluded about their spiritual condition. That will break the heart of a true shepherd. And any deliberate program of starving the sheep will fill his broken heart with rage.
In the James 1:18 passage already quoted, we can get a sense of the fact that doctrine is the DNA of spiritual life. Of God’s own will he brings us forth by the word of truth! When God creates new life, it is the content of his truth that forms the structure, or the building block, of that life. Just as DNA is the informational content of biological organisms, so the doctrinal information that we embrace makes us who we are spiritually. We become like the thing that we constantly look at. This is especially true when we behold Christ: “but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” [1 Jn. 3:2], or as Paul says it, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” [2 Cor. 3:18]. In other words, what John says will happen on that day in heaven, all at once, is actually happening, little by little, as we behold more of God today. And how is that veil lifted and glory seen during the course of our lives? It happens by the preaching of God’s word.
“However,” someone may object, “why shouldn’t the discussion format or the private devotional do the same or better than preaching? If the actual stuff of new life is in the word, then what difference does it make who presents it and in what form? Isn’t the monologue format of preaching typical of Western Christendom, of Greco-Roman propositional thinking?” Three things should be said in response: First, the act of preaching is ordained by God himself and therefore no alternative can ever replace such a design: “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” [1 Cor. 1:21]. Second, the centrality of preaching in Christian worship has the tendency to keep our community experience of God rooted in the objective knowledge of God, thus preventing our own natural tendency toward idolatry. Third, the authority of preaching as the heralding of a message from eternity makes it both clear and credible. Pooling our ignorance and uncertainty together in group discussions leaves us with something less than an authoritative word that can bind the conscience. Incidentally, we will have many good things to say about small groups later; but dialogue as an alternative to the monologue of preaching is not one of those good things.
Church Starts with the Word, not the Man or the Mission
Now perhaps you are thinking: Wait a minute, no one can ever hear the word unless there is someone there to teach it. Doesn’t Paul even say that? “And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” [Rom. 10:14]. Our study of how every church should be built has to begin with the right people doesn’t it? Actually, no. That sentiment assumes that it is no great thing for there to be a ready supply of men mighty in the Scriptures. When I delivered this concept of “Church from the Ground Up” as a topical series, I began with a sermon entitled “The Builders, the Tools and the Blueprints,” and that very first point about the builders regarded the right kind of people. Well, I stand by the need to assess that up front. But that series was presented to a group that I knew would form the core of The Well; however, I also knew that very few of them would ever be in preaching or teaching positions. From their vantage point, we have to start with the right people. They need to be challenged that planting a church will not be for the faint of heart. On the other hand, there is the vantage point of the man who already feels himself to be a leader. He will need to strip things down to the bare bones. And it is to that person that I expect to be writing.
However many men it takes to administer the word in a given context, those men must first be made. And what makes the man is the word of God. Paul gives us the formula: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” [2 Tim. 3:16-17]. If the man has not heard and believed, then he is worthless behind the pulpit. That is the real secret to the problems in the contemporary church. Like it or not, the pulpits are filled with unbelievers. Many are at least practical unbelievers even if they are regenerated. Their unbelief often begins with what they learned at seminary about the nature of Scripture itself. Their shyness about preaching does not arise in a vacuum; nor does the preference for pragmatic, pithy anecdotes and therapeutic rah-rah speeches: Philip Ryken comments that “Ministers who resort to this form of communication have lost their confidence in the power of God’s Word. As a result, their congregations rarely hear the voice of God’s Spirit speaking in Scripture.” And James Boice summarized the same problem in this way: “Many preachers talk about the Bible. They say they believe it. But they do not really teach it. Why is this? The reason (whether the ministers or the seminaries in which they are trained admit it or not) is that the majority of today’s preachers are no longer sure that the Lord has spoken in Scripture…They are just not sure of it. If the Bible contains errors, it is not God’s Word itself, however reliable it may be. And if it is not God’s Word, it cannot be preached with authority. The result is an ambiguous attitude toward the Scriptures, issuing in preaching which gives forth and uncertain sound.” Needless to say, this uncertain sound has carried the day.
We cannot sufficiently understand what the battle over preaching is about until we grasp what the two sides of the debate are really saying about the relationship between words and meaning. After all, if you haven’t noticed, our culture is not exactly settled on that question. Different views of preaching reflect different views on the purpose of communication; and those, in turn, reflect fundamentally different views of the whole world. Al Mohler delineates six factors in the sad state of contemporary preaching within the Evangelical church: 1) a loss of confidence in the power of the word; 2) an infatuation with technology; 3) an embarrassment before the biblical text; 4) an emptying of biblical content; 5) a focus on felt needs; and 6) an absence of the biblical gospel. However, we must insist that underneath all of this is a worldview shift where those who fill the pulpits have not thought critically but are merely riding the wave of a second-rate revolution in how we ought to think and speak. More of this will have to wait till our later section on the seminary. Suffice it to say, authoritative preaching is under attack because truth itself has been made into the scapegoat for all that ails modern society.
The most dominate assumption behind the revolt against preaching is the postmodern claim that objective speech is arrogant and oppressive. And no form of speech poses as more objective (or absolute) than the authoritative position of the preacher. In fact, the words “preach” and “sermon” were already negative terms: as for instance, the popular cry, “Don’t preach at me!” or “I don’t need a sermon!” But the only thing more dangerous than taking divine revelation upon sinful lips is to be starved of it altogether. False humility has won the day; and it is not simply those young men in the Emergent Church. The emerging generation of church planters has also assumed the pejorative language of “meetings” about the Sunday gatherings, opting for “gospel communities” to be the genesis of the church. It is decentralized, it is un-authoritative, but most importantly, it the thing to do now.
If the “Man” or the “Mission” we are referring to are Jesus and the Incarnation, very well. But a few things need to be insisted upon. First, while we are sent by Jesus as He was sent by the Father [cf. Jn. 20:21], there are a few key things that He did that we cannot do, starting with atoning for our sins. Missional theology is susceptible to becoming just one more Christus Exemplar model if it is not careful to make this distinction. Secondly, since our mission is not the gospel, words will have a priority over deeds if our mission is to tell the gospel. For the one who is sent by Jesus on his mission it will be gospel communication that makes gospel community, and not the other way around, “For he whom God has sent utters the words of God” [Jn. 3:34].