Preaching today needs a total revolution. In a world filled with competing communications of varied types—drama, mime, PowerPoint presentations, lecturing, videos, and chat shows—what kind of role must preaching play, if it has to live true to its calling and purpose? Can it be relevant? Can it remain authentic and powerful?
Reflecting on a recent sermon made me aware of such questions. The pastor was seeking to show how life has meaning. His structure was clear, under three headings: survival, success, significance. He had just the right type of illustrations. However there were serious omissions in delivery and spiritual relevance.
The delivery was limp. The pastor was speaking as though he was explaining how to repair a punctured tire. His preaching had no energy or life. The preacher did shout and bang the pulpit, but there was no life in his communication. The absence of life in the preacher found its reflection in nodding heads in the congregation.
More deadly from the listeners’ perspective was the absence of Jesus in the sermon. How could the pastor engage the heart or the mind without making Jesus’ beauty, love, and mercy the core of his sermon? A sermon without Jesus is just a discourse—there is no divine content or power and, consequently, no communication of the good news of salvation.
Such criticism has its danger. One can allow one’s subjective bias to pass judgment on sermons that may appear adequate to many of the listeners. Hopefully the following observations will, to some extent, avoid this pitfall.
An essential, nonnegotiable factor
In preaching, the one essential nonnegotiable factor is the desire and intention to connect people in their sin and weakness with Jesus, His love, salvation and power. All other elements may be in place, but without Jesus—central, prominent, and immediately relevant—salvation will not and cannot happen. Salvation is possible only when Jesus is present. Without Him there may be excellent music, polished presentation, and fine delivery, but there will be no salvation. Hungry souls will continue to hunger. Sinful souls will find no deliverance. Discouraged saints will find no solace. The wounded and hurting will receive no healing. Jesus must be present in preaching. Jesus must be present—immediately present—to save, to bring life to those who come seeking it. He must be present as the bread and water of life to renew, revive, refresh, reform, and restore those who look to Him for mercy, grace, and solace. He must be present in preaching in order for life to enter the dead and for divine power to bring deliverance and salvation to those who hear.
Preaching salvation is not optional. The preacher who stands before a congregation must carry a burden for lost people. Likewise, the preacher must see men and women, boys and girls, as Jesus sees them—candidates for the kingdom of God. In heart and soul there must be a burden for souls.
We must know what it means to be lost if we would reach and touch the lost with the offer of salvation. It is vital that we understand the nature of lostness. We must gaze into the darkness of despair if we would comfort the despairing. There are things we must know and understand to qualify to preach salvation. We are more than information transfer agents. We are proclaimers of salvation in Jesus.
It is when, like Isaac Watts, we have “surveyed the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died” that we come to understand both sin and salvation. Without this experience we are no better than spokespersons, therapists in the pulpit.
A divine dynamic
In preaching salvation in Jesus there is a divine dynamic that not only connects the sinner with the Savior but affects the preacher. Those who lift the Cross find that the Cross lifts them. The centrality of the Cross in the purposes of God is nonnegotiable, and this centrality must be clearly presented in preaching. “Heavenly intelligences know that the cross is the great center of attraction. They know that it is through the cross that fallen man is to receive the atonement, and to be brought into unity with God.”1
The preaching of the Cross is never ineffective. “If the cross does not find an influence in its favour, it creates an influence.”2 It is only as the Cross is proclaimed and made central that it can save sinners trapped in the power of sin. A failure to preach the Cross reduces pastors and congregations to people who may make friends but influence nobody. Sinners will not find salvation.
The contemporary pulpit has to reclaim its primary function to make Jesus central. He has to be made great in the hearts, minds, and souls of those to whom the gospel is proclaimed. Whatever our personal perspective, people essentially come to church and to worship because they feel a need for divine help and believe their souls will find it there. They come not to be entertained but to be divinely enlightened. Sin-sick souls long for deliverance from meaninglessness. They want life, they want salvation, and they can find this only in Jesus. No alternatives can substitute for Jesus.
Contemporary preaching must recover its biblical and theological foundations. There is a place for different kinds of sermons: devotional, doctrinal, topical, biographical, etc. But there is no room or place for Christless preaching.
We live in an age of relative values. People have a take it or leave it attitude to life. If preachers and preaching are to penetrate their lifestyles, there must be a recovery of biblical absolutes. This recovery is possible only with the Holy Spirit given free reign in the pulpit. Preachers need to search for the theological and psychological depths and implications of Jesus’ teaching and statements regarding salvation.
For example, Jesus declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV). Here Jesus is either affirming an absolute theological truth of eternal and universal relevance or speaking utter nonsense. Either He is or He is not the only Savior. If He is, then let this truth be heard in its plainness and power from the pulpit. It must be heard not as dogmatism but as salvation. Peter endorsed this when he declared, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, NIV). This uniqueness of Jesus as Savior is further attested in the book of Hebrews: “because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Heb. 7:24, 25, NIV).
Here is the fullness of salvation. Here is encouragement for the sinner. Here is a living Christ, not a dead hero or some mythological figure. Here is power for complete salvation (John 14:6). Here is Jesus unashamedly set forth as the only way to God and salvation. There are no alternatives, no substitutes by which we can reach to God. Jesus alone can save and save completely, but only if we come to Him. How beautifully we are informed that Jesus is a living Savior who intercedes—not for Himself— but for us and for our salvation. The focus is on the human as receiver not as originator.
Paul’s obsession with Jesus
Paul fires the soul with his obsession of Jesus as Savior. He can do no other. He is possessed with Jesus and His salvation. He writes in Romans: “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died— more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Rom. 8:33, 34, NIV).
As preachers we, too, must become obsessed like Paul, lifting Jesus up before all. We must do it earnestly without apology or diffidence. We must do it in faith no matter what appearances may confront us or what alternatives are offered. We must not be deterred. From pulpit to kitchen table, privately and publicly, we must set forth Jesus as the source of salvation. We must lift Him up not solely as Savior but as helper, encourager, comforter, friend, guide, and companion.
Consoled, rebuked, motivated
If there is one book more than another that has instructed me in my ministry, it is Ellen White’s Gospel Workers. Amid many and recurring shortcomings as a preacher and minister, this book has consoled, encouraged, rebuked, motivated, and instructed my ministry. Quotations from its pages spring to mind. Relevant to the purpose of this article is the following statement regarding Paul: “He clung to the cross of Christ as his only guarantee of success. The love of the Savior was the undying motive that upheld him in his conflicts with self and in his struggle against evil, as in the service of Christ he pressed forward against the unfriendliness of the world and the opposition of his enemies.”3
Preaching in the contemporary world is not an easy task. It has many challenges and faces many obstacles, indifference being chief among them.But preaching salvation, preaching Jesus as the Savior, is a privilege. The power is not of us; it is in Christ.
If Christian history teaches us anything it is that every revival and reformation has had its genesis when the church has recovered, recaptured, and proclaimed the reality of Jesus and His salvation. Those hungering for the bread and water of life heard afresh the glorious news of Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Is it not true that the attack upon preaching and the rise of alternatives have come about because the world, society, and human need, rather than the gospel commission, have set the preacher’s agenda? Have we focussed overmuch on the problem rather than the solution? Is the reason for our involvement in alternatives due to a lack of faith that Jesus is truly the answer? Do we really know and personally believe that Jesus saves?
Decline of religion in the West has its parallel in the state of Christianity in eighteenth century England. The wickedness and indifference of the population to religion was endemic. God’s solution was to send George Whitfield, John and Charles Wesley, and William Carey, who offered Christ in all His beauty and attractiveness to all classes. The result was not only the transformation of Christianity as a saving power in the lives of multitudes but the reformation of a society. These men set in motion influences whose effects are ongoing today and impact all classes of persons.
It will be no different today or any other time. Salvation comes only when in humility and faith Jesus is lifted up in all His loveliness. When this happens He is able to make real what He has promised: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all . . . unto me” (John 12:32).
1 Ellen G. White, This Day With God (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1979), 51.
2 Ellen G. White in Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine (Washington: Review and
Herald, 1957), 661.
3 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C. Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1948), 61.