When Grace Is in the Pulpit
Few practices will energize and affect your Christian life as much as sitting attentively under faithful preaching.
While corporate worship as a whole may be the single most important means of God’s grace, hearing the fresh preaching of the gospel from the Scriptures is the climactic grace of that gathering. It is that moment among the assembled church when God speaks in monologue most clearly and completely. The other elements of the gathering follow the rhythm of receiving from him and responding back to him, but in preaching we move into the posture of simply receiving, whether it’s a full half hour or just 15–20 minutes.
The weekly priority of preaching in worship points to the importance of our not just interacting with God as friends, but also submitting to his word in the message of his servant, our pastor. Time abounds to ask questions and respond, and seasons multiply to converse and dialogue. But preaching is that one half hour each week when the assembly of the redeemed closes her collective mouth, opens her ears and heart, and hears the uninterrupted voice of her husband, through his appointed mouthpiece, fallible though the messenger be.
The Discipline of Listening
But even when we have another 112 or so waking hours each week to do and discuss and dialogue and debate, it’s still easy to be restless for these thirty minutes. We love equality, and we’re very accustomed to listening on our own terms. We prize conversations; we adore dialogue. And dialogue is essential in disciplemaking. The Great Commission goes forward through great conversations. There are times to interact with our Groom, and times for us to speak at length in prayer and song. But there are also times for us to sit and listen quietly and intently.
When we put ourselves under the preaching of God’s word, it is one of the precious few moments in life today when we close our mouths, and confront the temptation of responding right away, and focus our energy and attention to hearing with faith.
The Pulpit Pictures God’s Love
The act of preaching itself is a picture of the gospel. As the preacher stands behind the Book, doing his level best to re-reveal Jesus to his people, our Lord is put on display, not for give-and-take and the mingling of our efforts together in some mutual enterprise. Rather, we sit in the seat of weakness and desperation. What we need is not some boost from a trusted fellow to get us over the wall, but the rescue of the Savior for the utterly helpless.
This is why when God’s own Son took human flesh and dwelt among us, he came preaching. The greatness of God and the gravity of our sin come together to give preaching its essential place. Endless dialogue, without a pause for preaching, betrays both the direness of our situation and the depth of God’s mercy.
And so Jesus was sent not only to die as the remedy, but to preach (Luke 4:43). Jesus himself is the person the Scriptures most often refer to as preaching. And he sent out his disciples to preach (Mark 3:14). Jesus was the consummate preacher, but after his ascension, the preaching doesn’t disappear. When we turn to Acts, it’s as alive and well as ever. The preaching of the Groom extends into the life of the church.
A Preoccupation with Jesus
But Jesus didn’t just display the importance of preaching in his life. He is the focal point of all faithful preaching in the church. Just as our focus together in the whole of corporate worship is the crucified and risen Christ, and the incomparable excellencies of his person and work, so also is the focus of our preaching.
The best of preaching serves the worshiper in the joy of self-forgetfulness, and preacher-forgetfulness. Preaching that goes on and on about the preacher himself, or is always angling at how the hearer should apply this or that to daily life, does so at the expense of tapping into the very power of preaching — a preoccupation with Jesus. True Christian preaching swallows up the listener again and again, not with self or the speaker, but with Jesus and his manifold perfections.
There is a place for the preacher’s self-disclosure and for making the plain connections to practical application, but not at the expense of Jesus and his gospel as the sermon’s crescendo and culmination. The waters of good preaching are always running downhill to the stream of Christ, who he is, and how he has loved us.
Present to His Church
But preaching is not just about Jesus; it is his way of being personally present with his church. Good preaching brings the church into an encounter with her Groom by the Holy Spirit. As Jason Meyer summarizes it, “The ministry of the word in Scripture is stewarding and heralding God’s word in such a way that people encounter God through his word” (21). In faithful Christian preaching, we not only hear about Jesus, but we meet him.
Preaching not only communicates truths about God, but serves the function of “conveying the very presence of God.” It is to be valued not merely for the exegetical insights, but “for its role as a means through which God truly speaks and in which Christ is really present” (Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ, 220). While preaching is not technically called an “ordinance” or “sacrament” (like baptism and the Lord’s Supper), it’s power is sacramental. It is a God-appointed means of communicating his grace to the church through the channel of faith, with the chief benefit being an encounter with Jesus himself.
Experience the Joy
The point of preaching, as John Calvin captures it, is “to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace.” In the preaching of God’s word, “God himself speaks and is present to us through his Son in the power of the Spirit to bless and nourish us” (221).
The great goal of preaching, with the sacraments and various other spiritual disciplines, is this: knowing and enjoying Jesus. The greatest incentive for attentive listening as we gather for corporate worship and sit under the preaching of God’s word is that we may know him (Philippians 3:10).
Here we taste eternal life for thirty minutes a week in the highest aim of Christian preaching: that we know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3).
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines (Crossway, 2016).