What is Reformed Preaching?

Admittedly, preaching doesn’t look like much on the surface. A man standing behind a pulpit talking about the Bible? Is this really God’s way of building up the church, saving the world, and advancing the kingdom? I wouldn’t believe it either unless the Bible wasn’t so clear.

Here’s how Paul speaks of his preaching ministry in Thessalonica: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that 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” (1 Thess. 2:13). Similarly, Peter writes, “…whoever speaks [preaches], as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11). Notice, the task of preaching is sourced by God, and the preacher’s word comes from God. To put it simply, the preacher speaks for God.

This understanding of preaching is what led the 16th-century Reformers to recover the priority of preaching. Before the Reformation, the sermon was a footnote in the liturgy, if present at all. Following the Reformation, preaching was at the center of the worship service—a change that God used to transform hundreds of thousands of lives and the course of history.

There are a variety of ways to describe the distinctives of Reformed preaching. For our purposes, I will focus on the general commitments of Reformed preaching, which I’ll summarize this way: Reformed preaching is that which preaches the whole Christ in the whole Word for the whole person to the whole of life.

The Whole Christ in the Whole Word

Reformed preaching preaches the Bible. Historically speaking, Reformed preaching relies on faithfully treating the history and grammar of the text of Scripture. That is, there is a commitment on behalf of the preacher to know the original intent of the author’s words, and how the original audience would have received the message. This is foundational to Reformed preaching.

As critical as this is, Reformed preaching doesn’t stop at laying out the original message. Each passage must be treated within the context of the whole Bible. When the apostle Paul speaks of his preaching ministry in Ephesus, he says, “…for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). It’s unlikely Paul expounded every verse of the Old Testament Scriptures in three years of ministry in Ephesus. Rather, Paul means that in his preaching he brought the whole counsel of the Word of God to bear on whatever particular text or subject he expounded. That is, he proclaimed every text within the context of redemptive history, culminating in Jesus Christ.

In fact, Paul pulled back the curtain on his interpretive and homiletical approach a few chapters later when he addressed King Agrippa,

To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles (Acts 26:22–23).

As Paul opened up the Old Testament (“the prophets and Moses”), he understood it in relation to the fulfillment that has come in Christ, and he communicated it in a way that reveals the truth and riches of Christ.

In doing this, Paul was not blazing a new interpretive or homiletical trail. He was following Christ’s own words about the nature and message of Scripture. Chastising the Pharisees for studying the Scriptures and yet failing to believe in Him, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Further, training His disciples in how to understand His own words and the revelation of the Old Testament, Jesus said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44). Following the example and instruction of Christ and Paul, Reformed preaching is committed to preaching the whole Christ in the whole of the Word.

For the Whole Person

One of the doctrines in Reformed theology that is most misunderstood is the doctrine of total depravity. When people first encounter the doctrine of total depravity, they often think that what’s being advanced is that people are as bad as they possibly could be. Sadly, this is a misunderstanding—a misunderstanding that leads many to dismiss the teaching out of hand. Correctly understood, the doctrine of total depravity teaches that the whole person is affected by the Fall. Our minds, emotions, souls, bodies are touched with the reality of sin.

If the whole of the human person is touched with sin, then it stands to reason that the whole of the human person needs to encounter the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ. Reformed preaching takes this spiritual reality into account by seeking to preach the Word in such a way so that the whole person is pervasively engaged with the truth of the gospel.

For instance, Reformed preaching targets the mind with truth because biblical knowledge is an essential component—arguably the most basic building block—for change at the noetic level. As essential as this is, a sermon must go beyond this to the heart, addressing the drives and desires of the human person. For not only does our mind need changing, but our heart does also!

At the same time, preaching doesn’t consist in merely touching the longings, affections, and feelings of the heart. There’s more that’s needed. Clearly expounding the truth and touching the heart must give way to the engagement of the will. Reformed preaching moves from head to heart to will, calling the human person beyond thinking and feeling to following where Christ leads and commands.

The American preacher, Jonathan Edwards, said preaching requires both “light and heat”—the light of truth and the heat of affection, leading to a change in action and direction of life.[1] In saying that, he underscored this point: relying on the power of the Word to pierce soul and spirit, joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (cf Heb. 4:12), the Reformed preacher aims to bring the whole Christ in the whole of Scripture to the whole person, so that by God’s grace, a powerful, transformative encounter with God can happen and a radical, pervasive change can occur.

To the Whole of Life

Finally, Reformed preaching touches the whole of life. Cornelius Van Til once said, “The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. Moreover, it speaks of everything.”[2] By that, Van Til doesn’t mean that you can turn to the Scriptures for the best recipe for tuna fish salad or a map of Chicago. He means, rather, that the Scriptures address everything in life either directly, indirectly, or by application.[3]

This is implied in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10:5, where he writes, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” As Paul bore witness for Jesus Christ, speaking publicly the Scriptures, he understood his mission as one of laying siege to the arguments of others. Paul knew that within the heads and hearts of all hearers—Christian and non-Christian alike—there are false ideas, opinions, beliefs, and practices that need to be exposed and confronted by the Word. It was the responsibility of the preacher to go to battle with prevailing false notions embraced by the culture generally, or the group of hearers before him specifically, and then deconstruct those ideas biblically.

To do that, he listened carefully to what the culture around him claimed. He took note of premises and points. He saw weaknesses in reasoning and conclusions. He spotted where the arguments failed to square with the true knowledge of God. Then, using the sword of the Spirit, he prevailed upon the arguments to destroy them, taking every thought into captivity. Picture him putting handcuffs or shackles to every thought leading to obedience to Christ.

Convinced of this, Reformed preaching is on watch for the ways the truth of Scripture relates to every sphere and circumstance of life. Reformed sermons take time to draw lines of application between the text’s message and the world—especially the personal life of the hearers. Marriage, parenting, work, time, health, money, education, and a myriad of other subjects are addressed in turn as the sermon brings Scripture’s teaching into relationship with different spheres of life by way of application. After listening to Reformed sermons for a period of time, the hearer should gain the distinct impression that no area of my life should be lived outside the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and that the Scriptures can be trusted as an infallible guide in the calling to submit every area of life to Christ’s Lordship.

In a day when pastors are looking to the world of business, psychology, and politics for talking points, and sermons are sounding more and more like motivational talks, group therapy sessions, or stump speeches, we would do well to return to the legacy of the Reformation—to recover, yet again, the centrality of preaching in our time. For how can the people of our generation believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how will they hear if no one preaches? (Rom. 10:14).

[1] See Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light”.

[2] The Defense of the Faith, 29.

[3] Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6.