Asking “What is preaching?” may seem like a pointless question. Isn’t it obvious? Before attending seminary, I didn’t think very deeply about the nature of preaching and sermons. However, after hearing my seminary professor talk about preaching, sitting under my pastor’s preaching became a different experience. Two points in particular changed the way I thought about preaching: the activity of God’s Word and the purpose of preaching.
God’s Word in Action
The preaching and exposition of God’s Word during the worship service is more than giving people knowledge of God’s Word or moral instruction. When God created the world, he spoke everything into existence (Gen. 1, John 1:1-4). The Word of God has always been an active word. It creates or tears down, judges or saves. Throughout Scripture, it is the words of God that go out to bring about God’s purposes (Jer. 23:22-30; Is. 55:11). As the author to the Hebrews tells us, the word of God is “living and active” through the power of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 4:12, see also Act. 2:33; 1 Thess. 1:5; Titus 3:5).
Faithful preaching then is the public proclamation of God’s powerful Word to the people. Through the minister, God’s Word goes out in the power of the Holy Spirit to call people to Christ and new life in him. Michael Horton writes,
…the choice of preaching as a medium is not incidental. This puts us on the receiving end of things; not only does justification come through faith alone, but faith itself also comes through hearing. (Michael S. Horton, People and Place [Westminster John Knox Press 2008], 47)
This is why ministers can’t preach just anything. They must preach from the text of the Bible, and they even more importantly must specifically preach the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ. Faith comes through hearing the gospel that is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). And it is in Christ that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (Col. 2:3).
The Purpose of Preaching
Thus, preaching is not merely sharing knowledge or teaching how to live but is also the medium for the powerful Word of God. Through it, the Holy Spirit can effect change, give grace to weak and weary sinners, and elicit faith in the hearts of God’s people. However, the purpose of preaching is not one-faceted but multi-faceted. The purpose of faithful preaching of God’s Word is none other than the holistic conformity of God’s people into the image of Christ. Theologian Dennis E. Johnson sums it up this way:
Christian preaching has as its purpose nothing less than the complete conformity of every child of God to the perfect image of Christ the Son. (Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim [P&R Publishing 2007], 66-67)
Preaching’s goal is the spiritual maturity of believers that can only come from the wisdom of Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. We get this from Paul’s own reflections on his apostolic ministry when he says,
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Col. 1:28-29)
A minister’s toil is not for himself but for the faith and spiritual maturity of his flock. Understanding that this is the goal of preaching, I listen with new ears as I seek to become spiritually mature. I know that attending a church where this kind of preaching is practiced is what will move me more towards imaging Christ. Understanding the purpose of preaching helps me more faithfully attend preaching because we all need to hear God speak to us and for the Holy Spirit to change us.
I don’t always like having to sit through a sermon while forcing my tired mind to pay attention. But when I know that preaching is more than instruction, more than an exercise of the intellect, and is having a transformative impact upon my life, I pay attention differently. Sometimes I’m convicted of my sin; other times I’m immensely comforted. Whatever it is, an ever-growing love and devotion to God who has saved me and loves me is being worked in my heart through faithful preaching of God’s Word. This is why preaching of the kind described above is vital for our coming together before God.