We are living today in a highly critical age.
People no longer are afraid of attacking anything or anyone. Even the Lord of heaven and earth is openly criticized and blasphemed as if He were mere man.
And surely if they fear not God, they have lost all respect for the Word and the service of the Lord. It need not surprise us therefore that one of the fashionable parlor-games of our generation is the criticism of the ministers of the Word. And although some of it may be justifiable, those who desire honesty and justice and love will admit that most criticism in this field is petty, abusive and false.
There is, however, a son of criticism which although exceedingly rare ought to be assiduously cultivated in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. In spite of the unsavory aroma which clings to the term “criticism,” we should remember the original meaning of the word. It is derived from a Greek word which means “to judge.” Hence a critic, properly speaking, is “one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any given matter, involving either a judgment of its value, truth or righteousness, or an appreciation of its beauty or technique.”
A critic, therefore, is a person who is able to judge. He possesses for himself and is aware of and able to employ certain basic standards. In the light of these alone he seeks to make an adequate judgment, by which he assesses in how far any given object under consideration approximates the ideal for that subject.
Now in this sense of the word all God’s children must be critics. “He loved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1)
Everyone who has received the anointing of the Holy Spirit is in duty bound before God to assess the “spirits,” that is, those who speak in the name of God as led by His blessed Spirit. John appropriately warns the young Christians of the danger of being misled. Many in his day, and also in ours, speak. in the name of the Lord without being truly guided and led by Him. These are the false prophets whose end is destruction and who draw away with them into this judgment many unwary souls. Therefore John insists that the believers shall act as “critics.” They are to evaluate very carefully the words which they hear. And the standard by which these words are to be compared is the Word of God. Only then will the hearers enjoy the assurance that the spirits which they follow are of God.
Now this general task of all believers finds a specific and concrete expression in one of the tasks which is laid upon the eldership. They are to be the “critics” par excellence in the congregation. Never may they take for granted that what they hear is or God, but as the responsible rulers of the congregation they in their official capacity must prove the spirits. This is their great and grave responsibility of safeguarding the pure preaching of the Word in the church allotted to their charge.
The Importance of Preaching
Of all the duties of the eldership none begins to compare in importance with their task of supervising the pulpit.
This follows directly from the important place which Scripture assigns to preaching in the New Testament congregation. We are to remember first of all that the administration of the Word is the heart of public worship. The service is incomplete without it. All the other elements are to a greater or lesser degree dependent on and subordinate to the proclamation of God’s Word.
Moreover, the preaching of the Word constitutes the normal diet for our soul. For us it is the chief means of grace. Indeed, there are unique and precious spiritual blessings which we receive from the Spirit in the use of prayers and songs and sacraments, but all of these derive their significance from the Word by which they are interpreted. The reason why so many churches are empty on the Lord’s Day must be found in the tragic neglect of the pure preaching of the Word.
And finally, supervision of the preaching is foremost among the tasks of the eldership, because all the other duties assigned to those in this office will remain undischarged if there is failure here.
Surely there is no need of guarding the sanctity of the sacraments, if the purity of the Word is not prized. Nor will there be any appreciation for the spiritual supervision of the flock in doctrine and conduct, if the supervision of the pulpit is neglected. Unless the Word announces how God’s people are to think and live, the elders will have no standard by which to assess the spiritual development and health of the believers. Nor will there be any sense in trying to ward off the wolves from the sheepfold of Christ, if the Word does not first of all plainly tell us who are sheep and who are wolves in the sight of the Lord.
Only when we are deeply convinced of the signal importance of the pure preaching of the Word for the health of the church and the glory of God, will we be able to understand the reason why our Reformed fathers centuries ago insisted that the first duty of the elders is “to maintain the purity of the Word.”
Supervising the Preaching
But what, you may well ask, is involved in this task of safe-guarding the purity of the Word?
We are to remember that this deals with the actual content of preaching first of all. Here we believe God’s revealed will is to be explained to His people. And every explanation of that divine will necessarily involves interpretation. Hence the duty of the elders is to judge critically and officially whether the interpretation is pure, that is, in harmony with the teaching of the Scriptures.
This, of course, is by no means an easy task.
It involves first of all a rather comprehensive and intelligent understanding of the whole Bible. The elder must be a man who with all his heart loves the Word and lives by it. Without this chief qualification he is unfit to exercise his office.
However, an elder does not function alone. He is one of the body known as the consistory. His office he discharges in fellowship with other elders in such a way that no elder may lord it over his fellow elders. And the whole consistory as well as the entire congregation has expressed itself as agreeing with the confessions. In these our churches have set forth what we believe the Scriptures plainly teach on all salient doctrines. Hence in connection with this task of supervising the preaching we must not forget that all sermons in our churches must reflect the teaching of the confessions. We do not believe that these constitute a standard next to or independent of the Bible. Much rather, we as Reformed churches have bound ourselves to them because we arc convinced that they set forth in brief compass the teachings of the Word in an orderly, comprehensive and balanced way. No one who is not in agreement with the confessions has the right to belong to our churches; much less to act as elder; least of all to preach from our pulpits.
But beside knowing the Bible and the teachings of the confessions, the elders in order to supervise the preaching of the Word must understand what a sermon is.
What is Reformed Preaching?
Although this does not mean that they must be able to pass a course in Homiletics (the art of preaching), it is essential that our elders understand what Reformed preaching is.
Let us at the outset disabuse our minds from the erroneous idea that any discussion of the Bible from the pulpit on the Lord’s day is a sermon. The sermon differs radically from a talk or address. It is not to be compared with a declamation or an oration, even if in outward appearances it seems somewhat to partake of this quality. It is not an essay on some Biblical doctrine or authorized practice.
Rather, preaching according to Reformed believers is the official proclamation of the Word in the name of Christ by a recognized ambassador in the midst of the congregation under the supervision of the elders.
It is proclamation of the Word! Here is to be declared the full counsel of God as He has sufficiently and infallibly given it to us in the Bible. The words of Scripture must be thoroughly expounded, that is, the congregation must know what the Lord says in His Word. That Word speaks to the Lord’s children in their need. Hence the Word must be living, dynamic and relevant. It must be applied to their lives. Hence preaching is not merely a discussion of some doctrine or historical incident or religious law. Rather, it is the declaration of the will of the Lord for the whole of human life as it is lived by His people. It appeals to the mind but also to the will: it stirs up the emotions but also incites to deeds. Such a message comes with the authority spoken of by our Savior, when He said, “He that heareth you heareth me; and he that rejecteth you rejecteth me; and he that rejecteth me, rejecteth him that sent me.” (Luke 10:16)
From all this follows very emphatically, and well may our presentation become aware of this truth, that the essence of preaching lies not in its polished form. Much as this maybe desired and ought to be appreciated, it is very subordinate. For surely our spiritual sensitivity is in no wise dependent on our aesthetic appreciation.
The question is simply whether first of all the minister is a recognized ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ, lawfully called and ordained by the congregation.
Thereupon, we are to take note whether that minister knows himself in his preaching is fully bound by the revealed Word. He is not to lecture on some interesting subject. Rather, he is to take a part of the Holy Word and in language which can be understood by the average member of the congregation explain its meaning and show its significance for daily life.
And the elders are called upon to test whether the message of the preacher is of God.
Theirs is not the duty of asking whether the people liked or did not like the sermon. Nor should they be concerned about their personal reaction to the message. They are to act officially and corporately. As a consistory they are to decide whether the message which the congregation heard was the authoritative and living Word of the Lord. Naturally, this is a most delicate and difficult task. It involves the Bible and one who is recognized by the church as an official proclaimer of the truth of that Bible. Here we are dealing with the sacred; with the rich provisions which our heavenly Father has made for the spiritual development and prosperity of His church on earth. It behooves each one of us to move with utmost caution—minister and elders and congregation.
Let the minister prepare each message as a proclamation of the glad tidings of grace, an exposition and application of the Word of life to the congregation, a vital, dynamic and relevant message of the rich Christ for the poor sinner.
Let every congregation submit to the authority of the Word, realizing that the content of the message is far more essential than its form and therefore hungering to be fed with the Bread from heaven.
And let the elders earnestly, conscientiously and reverently test the message in the light of the proper standards. Is it true to Scripture? Is it in harmony with the confessions? Is it a sermon, the exposition and application of the text to the whole life of the believing church?
There is great danger that the elders precisely on this point neglect their task.
Indeed, they will be able to detect gross heresies. And should any preacher have the temerity to preach one of these, he would be summarily dismissed from the Christian Reformed Church. However, when the devil attacks the church with false doctrine, he comes not in wooden shoes but on soft-soled slippers. Insidiously, so that often even the ministers and elders are not aware of the change of emphasis, a new type of preaching so-called arises. The emphasis becomes topical instead of exegetical; man-centered instead of God-glorifying; aesthetically soothing instead of spiritual vital.
How fine it would be if the elders in full consistorial session would talk over the preaching of the Word with the minister. How much easier preaching would become for the minister, if he were informed by the elders what they also felt the congregation needed at any given season. How much deeper would be the love of the elders for a conscientious and faithful minister of the Word, if they would hear from his lips what he aims to do in the preaching of the Word for the people of God. How much stronger the elders would stand over against those people whose petty and unjustified criticisms of the sermons spread like pestilential poison throughout the congregation, and threaten to kill the spirit of the preacher. The question is not whether people like the sermons; whether they measure up to man-made standards of what sermons should be. The sole question is whether the message brought is called a sermon by the living Christ who is Head and King of His church.
When the elders understand their duty of safeguarding the purity of the preached Word and defend the preacher who proclaims the gospel purely, both they and the whole congregation will be delivered from the false standards set by men and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
PETER Y. DE JONG is the pastor of the Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich.