The Key of Preaching

December 7, 2014 / No. 3753

Dear Radio Friends,
In Lord’s Day 30 we were led to the subject of Christian discipline in the church. We found that the church must exclude from the Lord’s Supper those who by confession and life declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly. This is accomplished by the elders to whom Christ entrusts the keys of the kingdom of heaven. These keys are used by the church to open and shut the gates of heaven. They are shut to those who are unbelieving and unrepentant.
The two keys that we will now begin considering are the preaching of the gospel and Christian discipline or excommunication out of the church of Christ. Both these keys are given into the hands of the elders, who represent Christ’s kingship and rule over His citizens. And both keys are to be used with the greatest of care and love in the midst of the church. Neither may we ignore their use.
We will be considering those keys again today and in weeks to come. The keys of the kingdom are necessary. Their neglect will result in a church pierced through with unbelief and worldly-mindedness. Christian discipline is therefore, along with the preaching, a mark of the true church, and it must be faithfully exercised. We consider in detail the first of these keys today: the preaching.
This Word of God comes to me this morning as a preacher and admonishes me to be faithful in the proclamation of God’s Word. It comes to the elders, second of all, admonishing them to be faithful in guarding the pulpit so that the preaching will act like a key. And, finally, this Word of God admonishes us as members to take the preaching seriously in our lives, lest it close the gates of heaven to us rather than open them!
We have already preached a sermon, not so long ago, on the subject of preaching. At that time already we touched upon the preaching as a key. But the focus of our attention then was that in the preaching we hear the voice of Christ. The preaching is therefore effective. It produces results! Well, the results it produces are exactly what is brought up in this Lord’s Day. This time, therefore, we want to examine closely just what must be included in a preacher’s preaching in order for it to function as a key. What we say will not appeal to the masses of today. It will not, because we are going to be forced to see that the preacher must not merely content himself with preaching love, love, love! Many preachers do not get beyond John 3:16: “For God so loved the world!” In fact, this verse is used so often wrongfully it makes one weary of hearing it! In the preaching must also be heard this: “God hates the workers of iniquity!”
But now we are getting ahead of ourselves. We wish to consider this morning,
I. Its Declaration
There is perhaps nothing in the church that is more highly scrutinized and criticized than the preaching. Many have their own opinion as to what makes up a good sermon and what does not.
I have found in my past ministry in the church that these opinions vary and that it is quite impossible to satisfy everyone in the church. It is above all things necessary therefore that a minister of the gospel be confident that what he proclaims from the pulpit pleases his Lord. Nevertheless, the Bible does speak of the content of the preaching and what the preaching of the gospel ought to accomplish in the hearts and lives of people. And every preacher of the gospel must examine himself constantly to see to it that in this way he proclaims to his flock the full counsel of God.
There is no doubt that the preaching of the gospel includes a word of comfort to God’s people in their needs. God’s prophets of old and the preacher of today receive this command of God’s Word found in Isaiah 40:1-2: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” The minister of the gospel is exactly that—one who ministers the gospel to the soul that is burdened and cast down. The church that preaches nothing more than fire and brimstone or attempts to get its members to doubt their salvation does not heed the clear instruction of God’s Word. Many are the afflictions of God’s saints. Her warfare in this world of sin comes in many different ways. The child of God therefore grows weary with that warfare. And whether it be on a bed of sickness and pain, or whether it be in the midst of persecution, or whether it be the simple everyday burden that a child of God confronts in life, the preaching of the gospel must go forth to comfort and heal and bind up the brokenhearted. That must be heard in the preaching.
But that is not all that must be heard. In a very positive way the preaching must instruct in the gospel and therefore strengthen God’s people. There are ministers today who spend their time attempting to make their congregation feel good about themselves. They are adept at arousing one’s emotions and feelings, so that their congregation seems to be moved to higher heights of spirituality. But when these people leave the church and come down from their emotional high, they are no better off than before they went to church. The preaching must instruct in the Word of God. Those who think that sound doctrine and a logical explanation of God’s Word are not needed but are in fact boring and unnecessary are wrong. Paul informs the Ephesian church that God has given pastors and teachers in His church for this reason (Eph. 4:11-12). When we sit in church, therefore, we need to be instructed in the Word of God in order that we might become strong in our faith.
Now, this is all one aspect of the preaching that is necessary! A minister is called to teach and comfort. But that is only the positive aspect of the preaching. The preaching has a negative side to it too. The preaching is also called upon to admonish, warn, and condemn! And it is this aspect of preaching that much of the church world does not care to hear about today. Any church that does that in her preaching, it is said, does not show forth the love of Christ, does not show any love for mankind, but is negative and condemnatory. Any church that warns and admonishes is lucky to have any members because it certainly is not an attractive church! A minister should be able to mount the pulpit and preach an evangelical sermon—one that condemns no one but positively points everyone to the cross. Such is the assessment of many today. But we are not interested in their assessment of the church or of its preaching. Neither are we interested in their evangelism explosion and the numbers that such wishy-washy preaching may bring to the church. We are interested in what the Scriptures teach us must be the content of the preaching.
God’s Word to preachers of the gospel is given in Ezekiel 33:7-9:“So Thou, O Son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me. When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.” The preaching must be filled with warning, admonition, and condemnation. Only in this way will it function as a key. It must be both positive and negative. It must both comfort and condemn, strengthen and admonish, instruct and warn! Then the preaching will function in the capacity of opening and closing the kingdom of heaven.
The preaching must do this first of all with respect to heresy!
One time in a past charge of mine I had a man approach me at the time of family visitation and say to me, “Rev, you and our other ministers spend way too much time condemning what other churches teach!” “You are far too negative and critical.” That is not what the preaching is all about.” I was a young pastor then, and all I could think of at the moment was the preaching of Jesus. I told him that 90 percent of Jesus’ preaching was leveled against the error of the Pharisees and Sadducees. That was true too. If I would have been more astute I would have also told him that when I became a preacher, I vowed this before our churches: “I declare, moreover, that I not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine, but that I am disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert myself in keeping the church free from such errors!” That is a part of the Formula of Subscription that every officebearer in the church is called to sign. Not only must the preaching expose and refute the lie, to condemn all heresy, but it must also warn God’s people against worldly-mindedness and sin. Here, too, a minister may never soft-soap sin because he is afraid of condemning others and himself. He must not be afraid to enter into those areas of God’s people’s lives where there is weakness and a lack of spiritual strength and to condemn it. The sin that so easily besets us as God’s people must be exposed, and we must be admonished to turn from our evil ways! That is what Scripture requires of the preaching! Only in this way will the preaching act as a catalyst to bring to the surface those errors and sins that love to float about in our own sinful natures.
In this way the key will be inserted into the gates of the kingdom of heaven and it will open them to God’s people. The Catechism (Lord’s Day 31)teaches us how this kind of preaching opens the kingdom of heaven: “When according to the command of Christ it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven them of God, for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation, so long as they are unconverted; according to which testimony of the gospel God will judge them, both in this and in the life to come.” There is within the sphere of Reformed churches a denomination that contends that to preach from the pulpit that those who receive the gospel by a true faith may be assured that their sins are freely forgiven them is to give to unbelievers a false sense of security. Though they will preach this, they will be sure to declare at the same time that this assurance belongs only to those who have had some kind of mystical experience assuring them that this is true. They will not declare this in general to the church as Christ commands them to do. Instead they will leave the church in doubt and despair as to their salvation. The preaching must, on the contrary, open the doors to God’s people—all of God’s people. And it must do this by declaring to them that when in faith they receive the promise of the gospel, they can be assured their sins are forgiven them. They need not live in doubt and despair, they need not fret over their salvation—they are really forgiven for the sake of Christ’s merits! All their sins are forgiven! No matter how grievous, no matter how horrible! These sins will not, cannot, prevent them from entering into the gates of heaven! That murder, that theft, that heinous act of adultery, that useless and vain use of God’s name in cursing and swearing—all sins that would otherwise shut to us the kingdom of heaven—are forgiven for Christ’s sake!
Ah, the balm of Gilead that the saints need to receive from the gospel! The soothing comfort and strength that they need to hear in order to be assured of the forgiveness of sins!
Are you weary? Are you burdened with your load of care? Does your sin bother you and threaten to rob you of your assurance? Then go to Christ and in faith receive from Him the forgiveness of sins. It is already earned for His people! It is already given us. In faith receive it.
But then, too, the Word of God as it is preached serves to close the gates of heaven against unbelievers and unrepentant. Again, listen to the Catechism: “when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed….” This is declared to the unbelieving world first of all! The wicked of this world stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation on account of their sins. They are called to repentance. But this call to faith and repentance is declared and published in the church. There are those who sit in church—and even those who stand behind the pulpit in church—who are unbelieving and unconverted. The preaching may not allow them to sit there comfortably without any warning! The preaching must make them squirm in their seat! The preaching must declare to them: when you continue to walk in that way of sin and unbelief, then you stand outside the kingdom of heaven! And it is not just your sin that shuts the gates of heaven to you—it is your unbelief and unrepentance! It is abundantly true that sinners will stand within the gates of heaven. Heaven will be made up of sinners—sinners who are made righteous and holy in the blood of the Lamb. But unbelievers and unrepentant will not be in heaven. All those who, after having heard of their sin, stand unconverted, unturned from their sin, shall be judged by God and deemed worthy only of wrath! We must hear that! And that must be said to us in no uncertain terms! We must hear the call to faith and repentance!
II. Its Effect
Now, when this is done according to God’s Word, then that preaching will have a twofold effect in the church. We already discovered that when Christ speaks to us through His Word, that preaching of the Word never returns void. It never does. Hebrews 4:12 and 13 confirms this. “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” The preaching exposes sin, people of God! That is true because it is the preaching of God’s Word! When that Word of God is preached, it enters into the heart and soul of those who hear it—whether they be believing or unbelieving! And when it enters into us, then it acts as a sword that is sharp on both edges. It pierces us down deep. It goes through us and uncovers in us the inner recesses of our thoughts and desires, the darkest corners of our hearts. All that dirt and mire that we keep so well hidden from others—or not so well hidden—is uncovered. It is exposed to you and me and to God. We begin to think of how we are guilty before God! And, as I said, the preaching does that in the heart of the unbeliever as well as the believer! The preaching smites! The preaching condemns. Not just unbelievers, but believers too! That is the two-edged sword of the preaching.
For that reason there is always a twofold effect that the preaching works. We read of that in Acts 2, where the multitude was exposed to the preaching of the apostles on Pentecost. That is the way it always goes. There are those who are brought to humble repentance, while others ignore and even mock the preaching. In this way the preaching is key—it opens and shuts. When it brings to faith and repentance, then it opens . And when others are offended by it or ignore its commands, then the kingdom of heaven is shut to them. Consider that once, those of you who may sit here right now in unbelief! The preaching hardens!
The reactions of unbelief are varied. There will be those who become angry and offended by that Word and will leave and never return. There are others who will laugh at that Word and act as if what the preacher says is utter nonsense—that it is, after all, the preacher’s opinion, and that it carries no weight in your life. Others are more respectable. They sit there quietly, hear the Word, and act as if they agree, but no sooner are they out the door of the church than they, with a smile, turn back to their sin. “The church and the preacher are not going to influence me. The preaching will not change me! I am my own individual, and I’ll do things the way I see them and not the way the preaching says it to me!” Still others sit under the preaching and it serves only to put them to sleep. They enter church with a mind weary from the night before, ill-prepared to labor, and they rest their weary eyes. God’s Word never returns to Him void or empty. It hardens. The preacher and we who sit in the pew are not playing games! God does not play games when the preaching goes forth! It either hardens or it brings to repentance! Which one does it do for you in your life?
That preaching exposes the sin of the believer too! He is ashamed by it! His reaction is one of humility and sorrow. He does not walk out of church proud, as did that Pharisee in the temple. He walks out of church humbled low in his sin and eager to be filled with the righteousness of the cross of Christ! He is brought to repentance and sorrow over sin. And he in turn looks to the cross and seeks his salvation diligently. Then the Word of the gospel comes to him and it comforts him! It opens the gates of the kingdom of heaven wide! And such a one can receive the forgiveness of sins! In his heart he can walk away righteous!
III. Its Necessity
Again, how necessary is this key of the kingdom of heaven! The preaching purifies the church of Jesus Christ! It purifies our hearts, people of God! It purifies the hearts of God’s elect! How we need to hear of our sin! We carry with us the old man of sin and we are so inclined by nature to follow in the ways of evil. We must be warned, therefore, from ways of wickedness. Heresy, even if it is in a little way, must be exposed, lest we in the weakness of our own faith might think it is all right to follow in it. The hearts of God’s people are therefore purified by the preaching.
But the church is purified in another way too! John speaks of this in I John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” We ought not be surprised when we see some turn away from the church and the truth it maintains. We ought not be surprised when many refuse to join the church because they do not like to hear their sins exposed or the lie refuted. The key of the preaching is simply at work in that church! No, people of God, the church will not fill football stadiums with its preaching. Those evangelists and para-church organizations that fill stadiums do so only because they thrive on compromise. No key at all is exercised! They do not want the key! But the church that is distinctive in its preaching is also one that is pure. The preaching must be sharp and distinctive for that reason. And we must be sure as elders and as congregations to support that kind of preaching as well!
Ah, the keys! They are awfully heavy to carry, are they not? Who is sufficient for these things? Are we? God give us the grace to carry the keys in a world that hates those keys and would just as soon be rid of them. We need them! May we hold them tightly and not let them go! When we do, God will see to it that His kingdom is established in the hearts of His saints here! We can be assured of it!