The following is a lightly edited transcript.
In September of 1966, I was a junior at Wheaton College, and I had just finished summer school in chemistry. I was head over heels in love with Noël, and to whom I will have been married twenty years now in December. I was sicker than I have ever been before or since with mononucleosis, and, therefore, quarantined for three weeks in the health center at Wheaton College, about two hundred yards from the pulpit of Edman Chapel. In those days, Wheaton began its fall semesters with Spiritual Emphasis Week. The speaker in September 1966 was John Harold Ockenga. I lay there on my bed with these big yellow tonsils, unable to go, and the radio station, WETN, carried the messages.
That was the first and last time I ever heard John Harold Ockenga preach. Those were three of the most crucial weeks of my life, because by the time those three weeks were over, I had changed my goal in life from pre-med to pre-ministerial. I attribute that under God to the ministry of John Harold Ockenga, because I can remember listening there on my bed to his messages on the radio and feeling inside my heart simply explode with longing to be able to handle the word of God the way he was handling it in the pulpit at Edman Chapel. Before those three weeks were over, I had resolved to drop organic chemistry, which I would have had to do anyway, I think, having missed three weeks.
I put in its place a philosophy minor to get the best biblical and theological education I could get. That was, I believe, my call to the ministry of the word, and God in his grace has been pleased to solidify, deepen, and strengthen that call to this day so that it has never dimmed. I have never doubted that the Lord changed me in those weeks under the preaching of the word, and I have also believed ever since those days that an essential element in the call to the ministry is what happened inside me in that little quarantine hospital room, namely, as Spurgeon calls it, “an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.” When I got out, I was new, and it rings as clear in my heart this day as it did in those days.
Hiding the Blessing of Your Work
I hope you won’t take it as a merely formal or polite or appropriate word when I say that I regard it as an extraordinary privilege and precious responsibility to be saved by God, be called by God, and today, to stand here under the banner of the John Harold Ockenga lectures on preaching. I never dreamed 22 years ago that this would be the case, and neither did John Harold Ockenga. In fact, unless Tina Howard, who worked here up until a year ago, got through to him like she told me she was going to try, he never knew what happened. Therefore, my presence here is a testimony to something that you need very much to be deeply convinced about, namely, that the usefulness of preaching will not be known to you until all of the branches and all the trees that have grown up from all the seeds that you have ever sown have ripened in the sunshine of eternity. You will not know the usefulness of preaching in this life.
I’m learning this more and more that God will hide from you in his providence. He will hide from you the blessing of your work. He will let enough blessing be known to you, so that you are assured that he’s in it, and he will keep you from knowing enough, lest you be assured that you could do it without him. He will keep you right on the brink of desperation, probably your whole life long, wondering whether or not it’s worth it.
The Supremacy of God in Preaching
That leads us very closely then to the essence of my theme in these days. God sees to it that he gets the glory in preaching, not the preacher, which is another way of saying that God aims to be supreme in the whole ministry, in the task and work of preaching, and that’s the theme that I phoned in a few weeks ago. Somebody called me and asked me, “Is there is a theme that covers these titles that you gave us?” I said, “Yes, the supremacy of God in preaching is the theme that covers them.”
The morning messages are trinitarian self-consciously: “The Goal of Preaching the Glory of God,” “The Ground of Preaching the Cross of Christ,” and “The Gift of Preaching the Power of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, God is the goal of preaching. God is the ground of preaching. God is the means between all of these things — the means between the goal and the ground is the gift of God by his Spirit. From him and through him and to him are all things, to him be glory forever and ever. I love that great climactic doxology at the end of Romans 9–11.
Later, I’ll try to do is spin out some of the practical implications of this Trinitarian vision for preaching in the gravity of the pulpit and its gladness. But my burden in all four of these talks is to plead for what I hope here at Gordon is obvious, but as I look out over the evangelical world, it is not at all obvious, namely, that God ought to be supreme in the pulpit and in the mouth of the preacher. The dominant note of preaching should be the freedom and the sovereignty of his grace. The unifying theme of preaching should be the zeal of God for his own glory. The grand object of preaching should be the infinite being of God, and the pervasive atmosphere on Sunday morning in worship for preaching should be the holiness of God.
Don’t Neglect Ordinary Things
Now, let me say something that I’m not saying in making this appeal for the supremacy of God in preaching in that way. I am not saying that in preaching, you should avoid the ordinary things of life: family, job, friendships, problems, and leisure. Nor am I saying that you should avoid crises of our day. I have two people with AIDS in my church, a three-year-old and a twenty-six-year-old. We have divorce. I wouldn’t dare to tell you how many. We have addictions, depression, abuses, poverty, hunger, and the worst of all, thousands of unreached people without the gospel. I’m not saying that these crises of our day don’t make their way into preaching. I’m saying, when they come up in preaching, bring them all the way up into God. Preaching must say what God has to do with these things, not just talk about how to cope with them in life.
John Henry Jowett preached for 34 years in England and America until 1923 when he died. He said that the great power of Bushnell, Dale, Spurgeon, and Newman was this:
They were always willing to stop at the village window, but they always linked the streets with the heights and set your soul a roaming over the eternal hills of God. It is this note of vastitude. This is the ever-present sense and suggestion of the infinite, which I think we need to recover in our preaching.
That was seventy years ago. If we needed to recover it back then, we need to recover it tenfold today. That’s one thing I’m not saying, namely, I’m not saying don’t deal with the ordinary or the critical.
Relate Everything to God
Here’s another thing I’m not saying: When I appeal to elevate God, to deal with the great things of God in preaching, I can imagine somebody sitting there and saying, “Right on, I can’t stand slapstick evangelical worship.” Inside what they really mean is, I’m going to use words they wouldn’t use, “I like artsy, philosophical, intellectual, dealing with imponderables. I’m fed up with the common man of evangelicalism.” I’m not calling for that. I’ve seen enough at Wheaton College over the years that you move in as a Baptist, and you walk out as an Episcopalian. Almost the whole issue is they can’t stand Baptist worship anymore. Let the incense rise, and the silence fall.
Now, Charles Spurgeon was not an intellectual elitist, by any stretch of the imagination. He was anti-intellectual, I suppose, if anything, and not exemplary for it. He had a tremendous, popular appeal, but his messages were full of God. Charles Spurgeon was full of God and said, “We shall never have great preachers until we have great divines.” That wasn’t because he cared more about ideas than lost people any more than Isaac Watts cared more about ideas than lost people.
Samuel Johnson said of Isaac Watts, “Whatever he took in hand was by his incessant solicitude for souls.” How would you complete that sentence? “Converted into theology.” Evangelicals today can’t make any sense out of a sentence like that. Out of his intense solicitude for souls they converted everything into theology, which I think means simply out of his intense love for lost people, he related everything to God.
I think Samuel Johnson today would paraphrase the task of the preacher like this, “Whatever the preacher takes in hand is by his incessant solicitude for souls converted into psychology.” Because it is the religion of our day, and I think that neither honors the great aims of preaching nor the worthy place of psychology. I wouldn’t know what to do without the six counselors in my church, lest any of you be offended, but to have a theological failure of nerve that turns the pulpit into a psychological place for reflection upon how to cope with life’s problems does neither God nor the science honor. My guess is that one of the reasons many people today venerate psychology and do so over theology and doubt the abiding value of God-centered preaching is because they’ve never heard any.
The Goal of Preaching
J.I. Packer tells about how he heard Martyn Lloyd-Jones for the first time. I just read this a few weeks ago. He said that in 1948 and 1949, he spent the Sunday evenings at Westminster Chapel, and this is the way he described what happened in his youthful days: “I had never heard such preaching. It came to me with the force and surprise of electric shock. Lloyd-Jones brought me more of a sense of God than any other man.”
Is that what people take away from preaching today, a sense of God, a note of sovereign grace, a theme of panoramic glory, a grand object of infinite being, and a pervasive atmosphere of unimpeachable holiness? Is that what people walk out of church with on Sunday morning? Well, my plea is for the supremacy of God and that that would be the case on Sunday morning wherever you assume the pulpit. Now, this part is to talk about the goal of preaching.
What Is Preaching?
I want to start with a quote from Cotton Mather who ministered not too far from here and died a mere six of my life times ago, which seems shorter and shorter to me all the time. Two hundred and sixty years is like yesterday in church history. Here’s the quote: “The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher is to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men.”
Now, I don’t think that was a rhetorical flourish. I think it was a measured and reflective exegesis of a biblical text. This will be one of our key, biblical underpinnings, but there will be three or four others before I’m done for why I believe the goal of preaching is the glory of God. It will take some reflection to get to that point before it comes clear. Romans 10:14–15 says:
How are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed, and how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard, and how are they to hear without a preacher, and how will they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news.”
Let me define preaching for you on the basis of these verses: Preaching is the heralding of good news by a messenger sent by God. From the Greek, I get “heralding” from kērussontos in verse 14, “good news” from euangelizomenōn from verse 15, and “sent messenger” from apostalōsin in verse 15. You have a definition of preaching very clear in these verses. Preaching is the heralding — and therein lies one of the differences from teaching — of good news by a messenger sent from God. Verse 16 answers for us or points us to the answer of what the good news is because this text doesn’t answer that.
Now, I invite you if you want to turn back to Isaiah 52 with me. We’re moving closer to answering the question of where Cotton Mather got this definition of the goal of preaching.
Here is preaching, declaring good news, and then a reference to Isaiah about how beautiful the feet are of those who bring this message and herald it. In this verse, Isaiah 52:7, there’s a definition of the gospel. It’s one of the clearest and most forthright statements of the content of the herald in the Bible. I let’s read the verse and look for the definition, and put it together with Cotton Mather’s statement. Isaiah 52:7 says:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news or good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Good tidings, peace, and salvation being published, all boil down into the content of evangel, three words, “Your God reigns.”
Now, Cotton Mather said, with justification I believe, “All contextual matters, hermeneutical issues taken into consideration, rightly, the great design of a Christian preacher is to restore the throne and dominion or to use the word of Isaiah, ‘The reign of God in the souls of men.’” The key note of every prophet preacher — whether back then or in Cotton Mather’s day or here two hundred and sixty years later — is “the reign of God.”
The Creator has absolute rights over your life and the life of every person that you will ever preach to. Every person you will ever preach to is in rebellion against God, apart from the Holy Spirit. He will not acknowledge the Creator rights of God, and therefore, he’s a rebel in the rightful kingdom of God.
He will not bow the knee to God, and therefore, God calls emissaries or ambassadors and sends them into this rebel territory, and says, “Tell them, ‘I reign, and I will not suffer my name to be trampled in the dirt indefinitely. I will vindicate the glory of my great name eventually. For now, there remains an amnesty signed in the blood of my Son.’ Tell them, ‘I reign, and if they will simply turn from their rebellion, call upon me, bow before my throne, and swear fealty and loyalty to me, I will wipe away all their rebellion, accept them into my very royal family, and there will be no condemnation from here on out.’ Tell them that I reign, to save or to judge.”
A Motive for Glory in Gladness
I think Mather was absolutely right that the grand design of a Christian preacher is to restore the throne and dominion of God in the lives of men and women. But why? I’m not fully content with that definition of the goal of preaching. It could lead to a preaching that summons people to a raw, teeth-gritting submission to a rightful Sovereign. I don’t think we have gotten to the bottom of God’s heart yet in terms of the motive. Why does he want to bring people to submission to his authority? Why does he extend an amnesty of mercy so that there would be a people who would respond in submission?
I want to go to another text in Isaiah to answer that question, Isaiah 48:9–11. The context here is that Isaiah sees into the future a day when the judged people of God will be restored, and mercy will be shown.
This has been one of the most important texts in my life because it gets to the bottom of the heart of God. It would not be proper to say, as I’ll bet some of you were thinking that, “Beneath God’s motive to call men to submit to his authority is a motive of love.” That’s not the bottom either. This text gives the bottom because it goes beneath mercy. Isaiah 48:9–11 says:
For my name’s sake, I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise, I restrain it for you, that I might not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.
In other words, behind and beneath God’s motive to bring people to bend the knee before him is an unwavering passion that people bring him glory — that his glory be displayed, and that his name be honored and vindicated. We can go deeper than Mather’s point. Behind God’s commitment to reign as King is his commitment to display his glory in all the world. To let his glory cover the earth the way the waters cover the sea, is the deepest purpose of God for all that he does.
God’s Glory and Our Joy
Now, if you reflect on this as I’ve been doing for about eighteen years, it becomes clear that God’s glory, his beauty, and the splendor of his manifold perfection does not reverberate or is not reflected most fully in raw submission to his authority. It is only reflected fully in glad submission to his authority. Cowering, unwilling submission, servile obedience, and glad-less following is no honor to the King. Yet, his purpose is to be honored. He will be glorified to the full. If cowering submission does not reflect his worth and beauty and glory to the full, he will not be settled until he has glad submission.
You see immediately what impact this has for preaching? If you stopped and merely said that the goal of preaching were to bring men to their knees before the authority of God, you would not target that which brings God most glory until you target gladness. God does not get the glory the way he should. “Your God reigns” is good news, but if it’s understood in such a way that the submission is a heartless one, a cowering one, a fearful one, or a stoical one, he’s not glorified. The King gets glory when his subjects are happy. Begrudging submission berates the King. No gladness in the subject, no glory to the Sovereign.
Let me try to argue for this from one other text and then I’m done. Matthew 13:44 says:
The kingdom of heaven [the rule, the dominion of God] is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. And then in his joy [his glad submission to the Kingship, his delight in the glory of this treasure], he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field.
Now, do you see the implications of that text for preaching? When the kingdom is a treasure, submission is a pleasure. To turn it around, in its implications for preaching, when submission is a pleasure, then the kingdom will be glorified as a treasure. Until submission is seen to be a pleasure by the world, the rule will never be perceived to be a treasure. If it is not perceived to be a treasure, it is not glorious, and the ends of God in preaching and in redemptive history are not met.
In 2 Corinthians 4:5, Paul says, “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” You can say, as King, as Sovereign, but then two verses later, he goes beneath the authority of the Lord to the essence of his gospel and his preaching and says, “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If all you preach is the authority of Christ, you might get submission to his reign. But unless you preach the glory of God shining with irresistible beauty in the face of Christ in the gospel, you won’t get glad submission. Without glad submission, the worth of the face, and its beauty and glory, don’t reverberate in the hearers nor in the world.
The wonder of the gospel and the most freeing discovery I have ever made in all of my life is that God’s deepest passion to be glorified and my deepest longing to be satisfied are not in conflict. That’s the whole essence of the gospel. They’re not in conflict. He is glorified precisely in my being satisfied in him. One day, this world is going to be filled with the glory of the Lord precisely because it is reverberating, or echoing, back and forth in the hearts of people who delight in his glory. Let me end with a sentence that has a little poetic slant to it that might just fix it in your memory. The supremacy of God in preaching is secured in this fact. The one who satisfies gets the glory. The one who gives the pleasure is the treasure.