The Westminster Directory of Publick Worship has a significant section on the preaching of the Word. It begins by stressing the spiritual importance of preaching and repeating the words of Scripture that it is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16).
Do we today still believe that the preaching of the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation? Do we really believe the Heidelberg Catechism (question 65): “You confess that by faith alone you share in Christ and all his blessings; Where does that faith come from? The Holy Spirit produces it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel…”?
Too often we have trouble placing such a high evaluation on preaching because it does not seem to correspond to our experience. Many Christians today believe that they came to faith through the witness of family or friends or through a small group Bible study. They may have heard relatively poor preaching and find it hard to attribute such importance to preaching in general or in their own spiritual development. Still, preaching is God’s appointed means of communicating the Gospel. Jesus was a preacher and so was Paul. Luther and Calvin gloried in the revival of preaching in their day. George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones were great preachers.
Only in the last forty years or so has the centrality of preaching seemed diminished. Perhaps the weakened state of the church today can be attributed in part to a loss of conviction about the spiritual importance of preaching. As sermons have gotten shorter and evening services have disappeared, Christianity in North America seems to have become shallower.
Preaching, however, is foundational even where it does not seem to be so. The preaching office undergirds and nourishes all the work of the church and of Christians. Abraham Kuyper expressed well this point: “And through this office the call goes forth from the pulpit, in the catechetical class, in family, in writing, and by personal exhortation. However, not always to every sinner directly through the office… For the instruments of the call whether they were persons or printed books, proceeded from the office.”(1) Preaching stands behind the family and friends and small group Bible studies that influence so many people today.
One of the central acts of worship is hearing the Word preached. Calvin said that where the Word is not preached and heard, there is no church. To be the Body of Christ and to worship God, we need preaching. That is how important it is.
The Directory underscores the importance of preaching by discussing the preparation of the preacher. He must be “gifted for so weighty a service….” Interestingly the gift that the Directory has in mind are not the ones usually thought of today. The first gift is skill in Greek and Hebrew so that he can read the Scriptures in the original languages. He must also be gifted in general learning and also particularly in a knowledge of theology and the Scriptures. He must have his “senses and heart exercised” in the Bible. By study and prayer he should seek the truth of the Lord in the Scriptures and prepare to preach it publicly to the people of God.
The preacher must be mentally and spiritual prepared. The Directory says nothing of “psychological” preparation which seems to be such a crucial concern in some circles today. It was of course assumed that the preacher would have a Christian character molded by such virtues as love and humility. But it was thought more important that he know and love the Word than that he be “a regular guy.” Some years ago Time reported the results of a survey that showed that most Americans wanted a minister who was “open” and “affirming.” The Directory stresses something quite different: faithfulness to the Word.
A neglected element of faithfulness today- often neglected by preachers and congregations- is time. A preacher who does not take or have time to study is not faithful to his calling. A good sermon requires time to prepare. John Stott in his book for preachers, Between Two Worlds, suggests that the preacher needs at least twelve hours to prepare a sermon. Most preachers probably need more time than that and must insist as part of their pastoral responsibility that they be given that time. Congregations must not just grudgingly grant that time, but must insist that that preacher take that time.
Preaching is important. It is the power of God unto salvation. It must be valued by the Christian community as families value food. Preachers must use the best of their time and abilities to nourish their flocks with the Word of God.