Make the Message Plain

Is this what ministers do?

There could be varied answers to that question.

In recent years preaching has been criticized rather severely. In recent years? Was this not always the case? Were not our fathers and grandfathers critical of sermons in their day? So what is new about that?

When the prior generation spoke negatively about the minister’s message, it was frequently because they expected a lot. A sermon had to prove good exegesis of the text, had to he a powerful message, and had to have a practical application. Preaching was assailed for its failures, but people did not talk about throwing it out the window.

Now preaching itself is questioned as the best way to communicate the Word of God. We have heard the call for more liturgy, dialogue, and sharing sessions. Is it not strange that right along with this trend comes a lower conception of the Bible? Certain historical realities and episodes are relegated to the poetical or symbolical. Ideas of some of the authors were derived from literature or manners of their day! Or maybe it is not so strange after all that these trends are simultaneous.

A time of crisis – No doubt, this can be said of every age because the devil is always battling against the Word of God and the church of Christ. Satan may change his approach and tactics, but his endeavor remains the same. The Church of the Lord rises against this onslaught by wielding the sword of the Spirit. She does not succumb to any prevalent thought or contemporary movement, hut bravely faces the challenge with the Word of God.

There are four factors particularly which are very closely aligned with preaching. Some of these may not be so new for our day, but they all have a lot to do with preaching in the latter part of the twentieth century. The first is the supernaturalism of the Christian faith, or the place of God in the thoughts of men. The second is the place of the institutional church, sometimes called “the establishment.” The third is the dislike of authority because people like to run wild and free mentally. The fourth is the difficulty of communicating to all kinds of cultures in our day.

1. God and the Supernatural – It is obvious that God is being edged out of modern life more and more. Man likes to be the measure of things and sees himself at the center of life. He is proud of his own world of science, education, and social strategy. His faith is in his own powers. However, everything depends on a personal relationship with God, the “God who is there,” as Francis Schaeffer likes to speak of Him.

The beginning: of Christianity is not salvation. It is the existence of the Trinity. Before there was anything else, God existed in a personal way in the high order of the Trinity. This means that before all else there was love and communication between the three Persons of the Trinity. In the time of His revelation of Himself it became real that man can have a personal relationship with Him. This is Biblical teaching. This is the preacher’s basic message.

Man needs absolutes for standards. God has set antitheses in His Word! These are what we preach! Today there is a loss of these absolutes. Values are relative, depending on people and situations. Consequently there is a loss of the eternal dimension. The preacher cannot let this happen. He is a “man sent from God.” These are great themes for kerygma that furnish the minister with real challenges.

The Word of God tells how Jesus Christ bridges this gap between God and man and how He makes these absolutes living realities in redeemed persons. This truth is so important that the Apostle Paul, the greatest among preachers, declared “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Jesus Christ must he seen in relation to other truths that radiate from Him as center. He is the focus of our preaching. Speaking of Christ, the Apostle says, “We proclaim him” (Col. 10:28).

2. The Institutional Church – The church has a hard time of it these days. As far as people are concerned, she is in trouble. There is a growing alienation from the institutional church. A consciousness of the office and membership is dulled. This causes the pulpit to suffer, since preaching is one of the basic activities of the church. But she must establish her own identity and keep before her the Biblical mandate. Otherwise she is apt to yield to two temptations: to become ingrown, or to become like the culture about her. The church in some ways and areas has succumbed to these temptations. Strong preaching is needed to keep her on the right track.

Some say the church is introverted, more concerned abont preserving her own life than being a servant of Christ. A famous writer expresses it this way: “The mind of the church is bent, above all, on its own increase and well-being. It is church-centered. It is self-centered. The interest in the world is at best a side issue.”1 It is too bad when something like that is said about the church. We ought not to let that happen.

Others throw at the church the common charge of irrelevance. The church and the preachers are not “with it”; not in dynamic touch with the crucial issues of life today. She is fifty years behind the times, she is fighting “straw men,” etc. We have heard this ad nauseam. Again, we must not let this happen. That is the challenge of preaching.

Still another charge is that the church has trailed in the sphere of social action. It is said that strati6cation of our society is reflected more in the church than in most other movements today. This is, naturally, largely the fault of the pulpit. Those who pick up this stone often fail to understand the church’s priority for being in this world. However, her members are called to be a savoring salt and a shining light. This is a lot to be preaching about.


3. Authority of the Word – Although the “hippie” and “children of God” agitations have subsided considerably, there are still obvious rebellions against authority in our government, homes, schools and churches. This means, quite naturally, that the pulpit is not spared either. In fact, the pulpit is particularly sensitive to this situation because it is so authority-conscious. The preacher is sent by God, he is called by people who want to hear the Word of God, and he must speak as an ambassador of God. Not by His own choice, development, or assertion does the minister speak, but he feels driven to echo and reecho, “Thus says the Lord.”

People like freedom today and are very sensitive to anyone who might impose the least restriction on them. As was mentioned earlier, everything is so relative. “Circumstances alter cases”; we must be very careful how we deal with people, or they will turn from us. Manners and mores of men condition things that are uttered from the pulpit. One who does not bear these things in mind can become ineffective very soon.

However, the preacher may not relent on this score. He deals with absolutes, he asserts antitheses, he utters the uncompromising utterances of God’s Holy Word. The Bible is the infallible Word of God in both its teaching and its account. The Ten Commandments are binding on all men everywhcre. Jesus Christ is thc only Savior. In this way preaching is not like other professions. The pastor must speak boldly and clearly, not his own words, but God’s. Paul expresses this so clearly in these words: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus sake . . . . But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (II Cor. 4:5, 7).

That is what preaching is all about! Somehow we expect the doctor to know what he is doing. We dont expect him to consult us on medicines or treatment. We expect the mechanic to know his business, not to seek our advice on a failing motor. But the minister has to be so careful, even when he tries to be so humble. Paul expresses this so well in these words: “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, hut with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on Gods power” (I Cor. 2:3–5).

4. The art of Communication – Preaching is communication. For this reason it is not easy. When the preacher thinks about addressing hundreds of people of differing ages, diverse backgrounds, contrasting cultures, and varied opinions, bc feels at times like running away instead of facing all those people week after week. That is what Jonah did when God commissioned him with divine authority. So the preacher cannot do that. We hear so much about the generation gap, real or imaginary. We hear complaints about irrelevant terminology, and the pulpit is very sensitive to this, because it tries diligently to communicate.

Specific charges are that pulpit language sounds abstract and complex, it lacks color and vitality. Besides this, visual communication is the “in” thing today. How can the pulpit meet this? We are bombarded with visual images on television and in advertising. To a great many people verbal communication seems dull and unimaginative. In addition to this, preaching deals with the supernatural and intangible, which seem strange to secular and empirical man. Even in religious circles people are no longer willing to tax their mental potential by listening to sermons.

The preacher cannot ignore all this. He must be aware of this prevailing condition, and he must take it seriously. But he need not despair. He should remember that preaching proclaims God’s saving action, amI that mail cannot live eternally without the gospel of Christ. There is nothing man can ever do to change the facts as God has established them. Preaching tells what God has done, what has hap. pened, and what God’s way is. This message must he clear and plain, irrespective of the response of people.

In the art of communication it is important that the preacher be an anthentic person. He cannot, and he must not, hide beneath his role. People must be able to feel that there is in him the grace, love, forgiveness, and acceptance about which he preaches. His words must voice Biblical truths, but these truths must flow out from his life.

In representing God as an ambassador of Jesus Christ, there must be an urgency in his discourses. He deals with the most crucial issues, matters of life and death -eternal life and eternal death. People should feel in listening to him that it is an “hour of decision” for them. He calls for a commitment of heart and life to Christ. A fervent urgent message is bound to go a long way in the business of communication.

We ought to remember that God puts great power in the spoken word. With all the visual aids there may be today, it’s still true that “God is Spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). In the days of the old dispensation God forbade Israel to represent Him visually. No man could see God and live. There were to be no images. Our Lord Jesus spoke! He did not write. He was a herald, not a scribe. The preacher’s challenge is to use proper words, and to speak them effectively.

As far as technical language is concerned, we need make no apology. Every discipline has its own language, and we can expect Biblical truth to have a vocabulary also. However, the minister’s language must be plain and pungent. Look at the way Jesus spoke. He spoke in parables, told stories, used analogies, and voiced experiences. He talked about God in the language of farmers, shepherds and tradesmen. Paul spoke about God and spiritual life in categories taken from life about him. “Justification” came from the court and its verdict. “Redemption” was freedom from slavery. “Reconciliation” was bringing people together. “Adoption” brought a strange child into the family, This is the way the apostle used these words in applying them to what God does to His people.

In preaching on the Good Samaritan—who might a the victim walking on a sidewalk at night in which city? Who might he muggers that accost him? Who might be the priest and Levite not wishing to get involved? Who could be the gracious Samaritan? What would he do for the hapless victim? To which hospital would he take him? He might even give that hospital a signed check! In this way the familiar parable would live in the seventies. The call to be a neighbor would be the same.

When sunlight passes through stained glass windows it takes upon itself something of their character. The light is made warm, rich, and colorful. The source of light is beyond the stained glass windows, yet the light shines through them. “Those chapel windows are suggestive of preaching. The preacher is not the source of the truth of the gospel. The source is beyond him. Yet, He is the channel and medium of the gospel. As the gospel passes through his mind, heart, will, and imagination, it is enlivened. It should have vividness, vitality, and life that it could not have without the personality of the preacher.”2 Every preacher should want the gospel of grace, as it passes through his heart and mind, to be given the very best expression possible.

Paul spoke from his great heart when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The gospel must pass through the preacher’s warm heart if it is to have power in the listenerslives. The sermon should glow. What we confront in the gospel is not cold intellectual ideas, but a warm, loving, accepting person, Jesus Christ. The heart, not the head, is the most dynamic force in human personality. If people are to be moved, the minister must preach with heart power. This is making the message clear and plain.

Take courage – We can take courage in the fact that God has created a spiritual dimension. Man is created with an immortal soul and has a dimension beyond this natural life. As man is not the source of his own life, so be is not the sole master of his destiny. Furthermore, man is a creature of God, and gets his true dignity, from “the God who is there,” who made him in l1is image. This fact gives the preacher a challenging point of contact, and he should make this message plain.

We should not, however, take lightly the problem and presence of evil. This intransigent force in mans life is more real and tragic than a lot of people know. This force is so strong that many thinking men today voice a frustration of effort, even cynicism and despair. Think of the famous H. C. Wells, the ardent humanist, who early in life had a lot of lofty hopes for man. But when he became old he was exhausted and in utter despair, discounting all hope, and speak. ing of man at the end of his tether.

In this situation God cares. He is not morally neutral. He sets Himself against forces that degrade and demoralize, and He renews those who trust in Him. Our blessed Savior invites the weary and heavily laden to come to Him for rest. He promises to be with them unto the end of the age, and then take them to Himself.

This is the message of the preacher, a “message angels fain would sing.” This is worth preaching! Who else makes it his business to diagnose the ills of humankind to that extent, and to tell them of the reality of another world? The preacher hears the voice of God. “Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news, lift up your voice mightily, O Jerusalem, hearer of good news, lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, Here is your God” (Isaiah 40:9).

Let the preacher he a master workman, “not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God to salvation of everyone who believes—” (Rom. 1:16). May we listen to the great apostle as he writes, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to he ashamed, and who correctly handles the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15). This calls for the best that is in the minister and for superlative diligence in his great work. He should know the original languages of the Bible and how to exegete the texts in the Word. He should be a master of Biblical theology and thoroughly informed of the analogy of Scripture. He should know the world we live in and not be ignorant of what men are doing, thinking, and writing today. This will help him to make the message clear and plain.

Let us listen to some heartwarming words of wisdom from the pen of a ready writer: “Preaching, far from being obsolete, is the most persistent of all church activities. When a church dies, the last thing to he given up is the assembly for worship and preaching. When it’s said, ‘People are not coming to hear sermons like they used to,’ it must be sadly added, ‘And even fewer are coming for the rest of what the church would like to do. . . .’ The great times for the church have always been times of great preaching, and the reverse is also true. There has never been a widespread surge of vigor in the church that was not accompanied by new life in the pulpits. Although every new way of communication should he explored eagerly the 25 minutes of uninterrupted access to the ears of a roomful of people is still a minister’s great opportunity.”3

Although these are crisis days, we can preach “the Christ for every crisis.” This is the message we must make clear and plain. It is as Chevis Horne writes in his excellent book on preaching, “This is not the first crisis of the pulpit and it will not be the last. Preaching has survived others, and it has resources, if properly used, to survive this one. That is hope. Indeed, preaching can emerge that wiII be more authentic and compelling than we have known in our time.”4

Now more than ever comes the call to “Preach the ‘Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction” (IT Tim. 4:2). In the midst of all kinds of voices, listen to this word from G. B. Williamson, “The pastor must he primarily a preacher. Any excuse for failure at that point is invalid. Gods call is not to be an organizer, promoter, a mixer, or an ecclesiastical mechanic, but a preacher of the Gospel of Christ, which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes. The understanding that preaching is primary will have far-reaching effects.”5

1. Hendrik Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1958) p. 127. 2. Chevis Horne, Crisis in the Pulpit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House 1975) p. 66. 3. George E. Sweaezy, The Christian Ministry, January 1972, p. 6. 4. Op. Cit. p. 13. 5. Overseers of the Flock, Beacon Hill, p. 30.