A Confessional Approach to Preaching
The Larger Catechism's Instruction for PCA Pastors and Congregants
The preaching of God’s Word is the pulse-beat of our confessional heritage. It’s the Reformed church’s highest priority. Christians need faithful preaching. The Presbyterian Church in America needs faithful preaching. The world needs faithful preaching (Mt. 28:19-20). Preachers need faithful preaching (2 Tim. 2:2)! Preaching is the ultimate non-negotiable— a primary and irreplaceable means of grace (I Pet. 1:23-2:3). Without the regular proclamation of God’s Law and Gospel, believers are like plants lacking sunshine and water, withering in the darkness and spiritual confusion of this present evil age (Isa. 55:10-11).
For these and other reasons the Gospel Reformation Network has made expository preaching a key distinctive of biblical fidelity and renewal. Coupled with fervent prayer, the GRN encourages “an unbending dedication to expository preaching that informs the mind, transforms the heart, and stirs the affections.” 1 Alternatively, if our churches exchange sound exegetical preaching for the superficial, therapeutic, and sociology-driven messages of broad evangelicalism, it will be to the eventual demise of our beloved denomination. The pulpit is the helm of the church. Therefore, the direction of our denomination will largely be determined by the faithfulness of the preaching.
The Westminster Larger Catechism — the highly neglected treasure of our confessional standards — gives wonderful expression to a Reformed perspective on preaching. Both pastors and congregants are given clear directives as it concerns the proclamation of God’s powerful and efficacious Word.
A Word to Reformed Preachers
Westminster Larger Catechism Q.159 provides excellent instruction to pastors concerning how “the Word of God is to be preached by those who are called thereunto.” Lawfully ordained ministers are called by God to “labor in the ministry of the Word.” Preaching is hard work. It begins in the study, requiring prayerful and toilsome time in the Word. Careful and rigorous preparation is the soil in which fruitful preaching grows and matures. The Word must also be preached “diligently, in season and out of season.” In other words, the steadfastness and clarity of our preaching must not be determined by the changing currents of personal feelings, congregational interest, or cultural trends. Our preaching must be consistently and blood-earnestly biblical.
The LC continues by stating that preaching should be done “plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power.” There is a great temptation for pastors to water down or equivocate about the truth, especially when appealing to the modern skeptic or seeking to avoid the outrage of an influential, but spiritually immature, church member. Moreover, with a well-intentioned impulse to attract unbelievers, some pastors abandon plain and powerful Gospel preaching for a more therapeutic, breezy, and “positive” approach — one that clearly lacks the “demonstration of the Spirit, and of power.” To fight this temptation the preacher must first ask “What does the Bible say?”, and not “What will the people think?” Preachers are heralds, ambassadors, and messengers of God’s Word. Therefore, it’s never a pastor’s prerogative to edit, adapt, modify, soften, or amend the holy Scriptures. To paraphrase Charles Simeon, preachers are called to preach what is there (in the Bible), not what they think should be there.
The LC continues by exhorting pastors to preach “faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God.” Faithful preaching does not cherry pick favorite, inoffensive texts. No, pastors are called to proclaim Christ from all of Scripture, recognizing that “all Scripture is breathed-out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16). God’s people need a steady diet of Old and New Testament. We will learn things about God and the gospel from the book of Esther that may not be taught in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The book of Zephaniah will teach the church important doctrine that the gospel of John may not specifically touch upon. The lifelong goals of every minister, therefore, ought to include a commitment to preach Christ from the “whole counsel of God.” Paul did not “shrink back” from doing so; nor should we (Acts 20:27).
Preaching is for the glory of God and the profound spiritual benefit of the church. That’s why the Westminster Divines concluded Q/A 159 by teaching that it should be discharged “wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers, zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people, sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.” Here we learn that the best preachers are pastors who know their congregants— their struggles, strengths, weaknesses, and fears. Faithful preaching, therefore, looks into the eyes of God’s people and, with depth of feeling, preaches challenging, encouraging, and comforting truth into their lives. The faithful preacher considers the maturity level of his congregation, recognizing that few of them will have the capacity to comprehend an esoteric theological lecture. Indeed, faithful preaching is more concerned with edifying, nourishing, and comforting God’s people than impressing them with big terms. Dear Reformed preacher, is your preaching marked by these biblical characteristics?
A Word to Reformed Congregants
The framers of the Westminster Larger Catechism did not just address ordained ministers on the subject of preaching. Ordinary believers in the pew are also given beneficial instruction. Q. 160 of the LC asks: “What is required of those that hear the Word preached?” First of all, God’s people are encouraged to “attend upon [the preaching] with diligence, preparation, and prayer.” Don’t be fooled, listening to sermons is hard work. If attendance to public worship is infrequent, distracted, and prayerless, our hearts will be untilled and unprepared to receive the seed of God’s truth. Preparation to receive and appropriate the preaching of God’s Word occurs though the daily Spirit-filled disciplines of personal and family piety. Our hearts become tender, moldable, and receptive to preaching as we engage in daily times of Bible reading and prayer. We hear God’s voice more clearly on the Lord’s Day when we listen to it consistently throughout the week. Regular communion with God compels us to sincerely pray (and sing!):
Speak, O Lord, as we come to you,
to receive the food of your Holy Word.
Take your truth, plant it deep in us;
shape and fashion us in your likeness,
that the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of fatih.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
all your purposes for your glory. 2
Next the LC exhorts Christians to “examine what they hear by the Scriptures.” In other words, listening to sermons is not passive. We are called to be active listeners. With Bible open and pen in hand (for those who like to take notes), God’s people should follow along and make sure the preacher is being faithful to the text. Like the noble-minded Bereans, God’s people are commanded to “receive the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily” to see if what the minister says is so (Acts 17:11).
Dear Christian, is this your approach to the preaching of God’s Word? Do you, in the words of LC Q. 160, receive faithful preaching “with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God?” Do you meditate on it and discuss it with family members and fellow church members after the service and during the week? Our Confession of Faith encourages us to receive the preaching in this humble, teachable, and practical way— exhorting us to “hide [the preaching of God’s Word] in [our] hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in [our] lives” (WLC Q. 160).
Almighty God, your Word is cast
like seed into the ground;
now let the dew of heav’n descend,
and righteous fruits abound. 3