WHAT was the nature of New Testament preaching that called forth the power and glory of New Testament faith? How is authentic New Testament preaching distinguished from a religious lecture or an impassioned exhortation? What should one expect of a sermon? What is its purpose? How should the preacher under stand his own relationship to the sermon? What is the "truth" that is to be proclaimed?
These are questions that can be answered only after careful study of the New Testament record and a preacher's own experience. But answers there must be if a preacher in the twentieth century is to share the sense of mission that moved Paul in the name of his Lord to storm the hearts of men and women, sophisticated or unlettered, up and down the shores of the Mediterranean.
Paul bares his soul in numerous New Testament passages as he describes the nature of Christian faith how it is born and its relationship to authentic preaching. Perhaps he never spoke more clearly than when he wrote the following in his second letter to the Corinthians:
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Since we have the same spirit of faith as he had who wrote, "I believed, and so I spoke," we too believe, and so we speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 1
As Paul reflects on his experiences as a preacher for Jesus Christ, he reveals three fundamental facts regarding New Testament preaching: (1) A definition of the nature of authentic Christian proclamation what the sermon is and is not; (2) a description of how a genuine sermon is born; and (3) a declaration of the goal of New Testament preaching.
What the Sermon Is and Is Not
Here Paul makes a clear statement defining the distinctive characteristic of a genuine Christian sermon: "For what we preach2 is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord" (verse 5). The image of an official herald adds vigor and color. What Paul had been doing was not accomplished in the dark, or by crafty diplomacy, or by saccharine manipulation of ear-tickled audiences. Whatever else men could say about Paul, they were in no doubt about his clear, direct, unadorned message: Jesus Christ is Lord! Trust Him! In this is your eternal salvation!
But a genuine sermon is more than a proclamation, it is also a demonstration: God "has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (verse 6). New Testament preaching is an indivisible union of word and life. When Jesus said, "I am . . . the truth, and the life" (John 14:6) He united the medium with the mes sage. His life was the truth. The truth about life and reality is to be seen in the person of Jesus Christ. The amazing discovery of the early apostles was that when men made Jesus Lord of their lives, a new power moved them, their lives were dramatically changed, and the spirit of Jesus became the spirit of their lives also. They learned the truth about life in their own experience.
The Life and the Word
The birth of the Christian church occurred when the first disciples called Jesus Lord; the church grew when it turned to the nonbelieving world and bore witness in life and word to the love and power of God in their lives. Words alone about Jesus, even eloquent pronouncements regarding His matchless life, His heroic death, and His incredible resurrection, would never have brought forth a second generation of Christian believers. New Testament preaching is believable only when the preacher's life validates the preached word. And the preacher's life is credible only when in deed Jesus is Lord of his life.
But Paul in his simple definition of Christian preaching is also saying a word about what a sermon is not. Above all else, a Christian sermon is not the exposition of the preacher's religious self-consciousness: "What we preach is not ourselves" (verse 5).
The chief weakness of nineteenth-century liberalism was that the ground of authority for Christian proclamation, "the factual basis for theology," was the "direct, immediate, personal experience" 3 of the religiously oriented man. Admittedly there is much to learn from another man's spiritual experience, but salvation comes from outside of man, not from within. Valid indeed is a man's personal experience but that which creates valid experience is not man's own self-analysis. For the New Testament preacher, "What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord" (verse 5).
Neither is the New Testament an attempt to prove the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus. Because Christian preaching is the proclamation of the God who became flesh, there is no necessity (or even possibility) to first prove the existence of God before we speak of what we have learned about Him through His revelation. Something alien enters the church when metaphysics is employed in the attempt to assist or augment theology. Theology is simply the study of God's self-communication. What God has not revealed to man about Himself and the meaning of life surely cannot be learned by unaided human reason. The existence of God is made real only when and where God communicates Himself, either directly (without human mediation) at life's burning bushes or indirectly through the mediation of faith (that is, through the witness of a person who has experienced the reality of God's presence). "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Rom. 10:17).
Nor is the sermon merely a conveyance for the transmission of information. New Testament preachers were primarily concerned that the conscience would be moved to decision: "We would commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Cor. 4:2). Mere lectures about Jesus, no matter how logical or erudite, are not adequate to move the conscience to decision.
To Inform Is Not Enough
A greater commission rests on the genuine Christian preacher than merely to process and amass information, no matter how true it may be. Above all else, the preacher is a channel through whom the living Lord can actually confront men and women; human words become the historic, objective instrument that the Holy Spirit uses to reach the conscience of the listener. The conscience is more than the logical faculty; to reach the conscience, the preacher must do more than in form, he must aim to move man's deepest feelings.
But meeting the conscience is not yet the end of Christian proclamation. The New Testament preacher did not merely arouse the moral feelings and then withdraw as if his task were done. He had an ultimate purpose to bring his listeners to decision. Thus Paul said in the fifth chapter of second Corinthians, "We persuade men" (verse 11); "so we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ" (verse 20).
As an undershepherd to his pleading Lord, the genuine preacher informs, moves the feelings, and appeals to the will for a decision.
We must have more than an intellectual belief in the truth. Many of the Jews were convinced that Jesus was the Son of God, but they were too proud and ambitious to surrender. . . . They did not receive into the heart the truth as it is in Jesus. When truth is held as truth only by the conscience, when the heart is not stimulated and made receptive, only the mind is affected. But when the truth is received as truth by the heart, it has passed through the conscience, and has captivated the soul with its pure principles. It is placed in the heart by the Holy Spirit, who reveals Us beauty to the mind, that its transforming power may be seen in the character. 4
(To be continued)