The Foolishness of Preaching

There is nothing surprising about this business of calling Christian preaching foolishness. It was already being done in Paul’s day, as chapter one of First Corinthians (verses 18–25) makes so very plain. The Greeks had their own reasons for thinking of preaching as foolishness, reasons rooting in their sophisticated man-centered ways of thought.

A new feature of the contemporary attack on preaching is that much of the assault comes from within the church itself. Today’s denigration of preaching does not generally use the word “foolishness” in describing this leading means of getting the message of Christianity to men. When the Creeks called the word of the cross foolishness, they meant that what was preached just didn’t make sense. It was foreign to their way of thinking. This evaluation of Christian preaching and its message is not necessarily that of those who today from within the church are downgrading preaching. The current attack features the word “irrelevant.” Preaching, it is charged, is no longer an effective means of bringing the Christian message with appropriate Christian action to bear on the modern scene with its urbanization, its teeming ghettos, its persistent poverty, its racial strife, and its estranged youth.

It is therefore not quite correct or fair to equate the Creek rejection of Christian preaching as foolishness with the current downgrading of it as irrelevant. And I do not mean to equate the two. The differences are fairly obvious. However, it should be equally clear that what is irrelevant is in some sense also foolishness. To speak about the delights of transcontinental jet air travel to a doctor concerned about traveling three miles through deep drifts of freshly fallen snow to a dying patient is to speak irrelevantly not only, but is also to speak foolishly. Those who today are charging that Christian preaching is irrelevant are in a very real sense saying that such preaching is foolishness.

The Purpose of Preaching

It seems evident that in assessing today’s assault on preaching we have to face a basic question. That question is simply this: what is the purpose of preaching? Following are four objectives that are current as goals in Christian preaching.

1. The purpose of preaching is to get people to heaven.

2. The goal of preaching is to get people to understand and feel that they are the objects of the love of God.

3. The goal of preaching is to stir people to involve themselves in efforts to meet the social challenges of the day.

4. The purpose of preaching is to meet what are regarded as being the needs of people, such needs being thought of as psychological and socio-economic and varying according to age level, socio-economic situation and/or educational attainment.

What shall we say about these goals? Are they wrong? It would seem quite improper to label such objectives in preaching as wrong. Surely every Christian preacher wants his hearers to go to heaven. Every Christian preacher wants people to understand that they are the objects of the love of God in Christ Jesus. Every Christian preacher should want his hearers to be busy in helping to solve the pressing social problems of our society. Every Christian preacher desires that his ministry of the Word speak comfortingly and healingly to the needs of his hearers.

But in the very next breath we must insist that such statements of purpose in preaching are faulty. They are inadequate and therefore faulty. They cannot be said wholly to miss the target, but none of them hits the bull’s-eye. Therefore, if these are to be thought of as the goals of preaching, then in each case preaching may well be regarded as irrelevant and therefore as foolishness. A closer look at each of these objectives should make that clear.

If the goal of preaching is simply to get people to heaven, then a pageant depicting the horrors of hell or the wondrous glories of heaven (in the manner of the extravaganzas staged by a noted woman evangelist in Los Angeles some years ago) might be far more effective than many sermons urging people to be saved unto eternal blessedness.

If the goal of preaching is to get people to understand and feel that they are the objects of the love of God, then a “hippie” type service where people talk about love and God as they hold hands might well be a more effective means of getting the paint across. Bumper stickers and posters with the words “Smile – God Loves You” might do very well also.

If the purpose of preaching is to stir people to involve themselves in helping to meet the big social challenges of the day, then it seems that drama powerfully depicting the ghastly conditions of a big city ghetto slum would be far more effective than a rousing sermon calling people to helpful action.

If the goal of preaching is to meet the varied psychological and socio-economic needs of people. then talks on psychological or sociological themes or plays with such impacts would seem to be far more effective than sermons.

What then is the purpose of preaching? Of course, the prior question is, What is preaching? The simplest answer to that question is that preaching is the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the word of the Cross, the message of the Christ who died on the cross of Calvary and rose again in victory over sin and death.

A further word is called for if we are to get at the purpose of such preaching. Is such preaching simply a repetition of expressions like “Jesus saves,” or “We are saved by the blood of the Lamb,” or “Christ died for us on Calvary”? Are we to assume that the task of preaching is fulfilled when its content is the barest evangelical minimum? Or a dressed up or beefed up evangelical minimum?

These questions should be answered in the asking. The gospel is loaded with revelational meat and meaning. It may be what some have called it, the core of the apple of revealed truth, but the core apart from the rest of the apple is really quite worthless. The word of the Cross does not stand in isolation from the rest of God’s Word. The word of the Cross is not and cannot be preached as an item by itself. Tt is organically of a piece with the total truth of God’s special revelation. It is chemically interfused with what St. Paul called “the whole counsel of God,” the faithful declaration of which gave the great apostle the confidence that he was innocent of the blood of all (Acts 20:26–27). It is this “whole counsel” of the Word of God that gives meaningful substance to the gospel and that makes the preaching of the gospel something more than a repetitious presentation of a meager or expanded evangelical minimum.

Part of the answer to our question is that the purpose of preaching is to declare faithfully this true gospel in its full truth character as determined by the whole counsel of God. But this cannot be the whole answer to our question. A statement of the purpose of preaching that does not contain reference to the impact of that preaching on those who hear can hardly be an adequate statement. Our statement of the purpose of preaching must contain the element of intent to bring, by God’s grace and Spirit, the rich blessings of the full gospel to mankind. This double purpose should become fully clear as, hopefully, it is convincing and even exciting when we probe further the matter of the real character of the gospel in its total biblical setting and context.

“Servants of Righteousness”

Let Scripture speak in certain key passages in order that we may see the essential character of the gospel and also the real purpose of preaching.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (II Tim. 3:16–4:2a).

“Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him in love” (Eph. 1:4).

“But Jesus answered him, Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

“But ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that ye may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (I Peter 2:9).

“But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:17–18).

“As sin reigned in death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:21).

“Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you…” (Matt. 28:19–20).

“And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom. 8:10).

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).

“If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that everyone also that doeth righteousness is begotten of him” (I John 2:29).

“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).

“But seek ye first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).

“For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

“Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness” (II Tim. 4:8a).

“But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (II Peter 3:13).

From this group of passages it seems clear that the call of God’s Word, the intent of God’s sovereign election, the orders given by our Lord, and the purpose of preaching all have this goal: to form a people of God, to develop a people wholly committed to righteousness, to gather by Word and Spirit “an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.”

In short, the goal of preaching, as of election, as of the Scriptures, and as of Christ himself is not simply to pluck brands from the burning, to rescue souls from hell unto the bliss of heaven. Nor is that goal to be defined in terms of gaining certain desirable psychological or social ends. This high purpose is not primarily to gain what to men are delightful conditions either in heaven or on earth. Rather, the holy purpose of God, the holy call of God, of Christ, and of his preachers is to develop a godly man, a man of righteousness, a “new man that after God hath been created in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph. 4:24). The goal of the gospel of reconciliation is “that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (II Cor. 5:21b).

This purpose must be seen in all its sparkling clarity. The call of God and of his Word is for the brightest light that can shine in the house of men. The call of God and his Word is for moral man, righteous man, man who in love lives in new obedience according to tlle holy standards of God. Surely in our time when the moral and spiritual lights among men burn dim, when men speak arrogantly of a new morality that is no morality at all but rather a surrender to the flesh—in such a time it is highly relevant and terribly important to see this as the call of Christ and his servants as they preach.

To be sure, it is not just truly moral man, righteous man that is called for. The goal is to develop a godly, spiritual fellowship, a “holy catholic church” in which this new obedience reigns in love for God and for man.

Let no one misunderstand 01′ downgrade this righteousness of which God’s Word speaks so often and which must be the passion of men made new in Christ. This righteousness is no constricted, legalistic compliance with a set of rules and regulations. This righteousness is a righteousness of love. And it is a righteousness that calls for loving obedience to God’s moral demands in every area and concern of life. It is a righteousness that must be exercised in this new obedience in man’s total personal, social, economic, and political life. Always, everywhere men of God committed to the teaching of the gospel must be “servants of righteousness.”

“The Whole Counsel of God”

To construe the purpose of preaching as we have done is nothing less than to understand correctly “the whole counsel of God.” The gospel of grace in Christ which the Christian minister is called upon to preach must always be proclaimed in the frame of this whole counsel of God’s revealed truth. A quick review of this broad teaching of Scripture should sharpen our understanding of the intent of the proclamation of the word of grace in Christ.

God’s special revelation to man begins with the account of the creation featuring the creation of man in the image of God. Man was made to be holy and righteous under God, finding his life in obedient and loving fellowship with his God. That was Paradise. Then in due time there was Sinai, where God through Moses gave his moral law which his people are to obey. Jehovah’s continuing presence with his people was manifested in the Most Holy Place with its ark of the covenant containing the tables of the moral law. This law represents God’s unchanging requirement. Man ever stands before this divine requirement. Jesus said that not one jot or one tittle of this law would be taken away as long as human history endures. And at the end of human history comes the judgment, that awesome eschatological certainty that casts its anticipatory shadow over all of human effort and failure. This fact again underscores man’s duty unto righteousness and holiness before God.

But—the question pushes itself on us—is it being suggested here that the whole counsel of God amounts to a demand that man gain and hold the favor of God by his compliance with divine law? Not at all; not at all. What is being stressed here is that God’s basic demand upon man has never changed, the demand that he obey in righteousness, that he be holy as God is holy. This is the unchanging moral demand under which man lives and from which he is never released.

Where then lie man’s hope, his peace, and his righteousness? For man is a sinner. He rebelled in Paradise. He would not and he will not of himself live in obedient fellowship with God. He wants to be a law unto himself. Satan’s lure that man himself play God has always charmed him. But God’s holy and inescapable requirement still stands. God’s law, therefore, has become a curse to man an unrelenting bounding curse. Where is man’s hope his peace, his necessary righteousness?

Ah, thank God there is more to history than creation and Eden and Sinai and judgment. There is also the mercy seat and the sacrificial lamb and Bethlehem and Calvary and Easter and the Ascension and Pentecost—and also a triumphant consummation in brilliant glory. And beyond this history there is something more—a countless host dressed in spotless white robes, their hearts and their lips vibrant with the joyous songs of complete salvation. What arc these spotless white robes? They are the pure white robes of Christ’s perfect righteousness.

Man could not and cannot meet the high and holy demands of God. But God has made wonderful provision for man’s salvation. God gave his own Son to take the sinner’s place before the holy divine law, to bear its curse and its judgment. All those who in grace-given faith trust in this only Savior of men, who trust in his shed blood, have the curse of God’s law completely removed from them. They are justified through the imputation of Christ’s perfect satisfaction and righteousness, and consequently: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

This does not mean that God’s holy demands on man have been cancelled. By no means. “For ever, a Jehovah, thy word is settled in heaven” (Ps. 119:89). But the high requirements of God’s Word arc no longer a curse to the believer, but rather a delight (Psalm 119, Rom. 7:22) as he walks in a new obedience. The curse of the law has been wholly removed as the believer lives in and by grace (Rom. 6:14). The oppression of guilt before the law is gone, for Christ took our guilt upon himself. The believer is justified and thus enjoys the exhilarating freedom of peace with God. No one can lay anything to the charge of God’s elect and positively nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In his blessed state in Christ the believer has the complete assurance of the forgiveness of his sins committed against God’s holy requirement because of the accomplished redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the noblest of motivations moves the Christian in his new obedience, namely, that of whole-souled gratitude for what Christ has accomplished for him. In and through all of this the Holy Spirit of sanctification is at work in the hearts of the “servants of righteousness.” The estate of the Christian is not one of bare and legalistic compliance with God’s demands, but is rather one of “righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).

These are the firm steel ribs of the whole counsel of God. This is the axis on which Christianity turns. This is plainly the track on which the Heidelberg Catechism runs. This is the holy purpose of the inspired Word of God, and this is why God’s servants must preach that Word, that there may be men of God, men who “may be complete, equipped for every good work,” men whose very character is to “live to righteousness.”

Preaching Never Irrelevant

Preaching governed by and true to this high purpose is never irrelevant. In a world of sinful men, in a world of men never wholly sanctified, the call to righteousness in every nook and cranny of life, in every interest of human existence, is not only relevant but is also of the utmost necessity and importance. What is life without true moral quality? What is life without righteousness? Marriage, friendship, business, government, academic pursuit, social renewal, sports, personal life -what is any of these without righteousness? Let this question prompt a closer look at the pressing contemporary social problems referred to at the end of paragraph two of this essay. Our growing urban centers are the frightening monsters they arc precisely because they are becoming wastelands devoid of righteousness. With crime and rebellion in the streets, righteousness is their most pressing need if life in them is to be tolerable. Certain ghettos will change their evil character only as a sense of high moral purpose grips the rest of the citizenry and also those who reside in these moral and social quagmires. The bane of poverty will be effectively attacked only when the moral consciousness of the non-poor is genuinely stirred and when a renewing sense of moral responsibility prompts many of the poor to honest industry. Racial strife will abate when God’s requirement of love for our neighbor is truly honored and the love of God in Christ replaces hate in the hearts of all concerned. The hand that reaches out to society’s estranged youth will be largely ineffective unless that hand leads these social and moral derelicts to a sense of moral integrity, for at bottom their problem and that of the society they reject is moral and spiritual.

We are wise to listen again to the preacher of old who took a hard look at life as it is lived by men generally and found it all to be an exercise in vanity and a deep vexation of spirit. “This is the end of the matter; all hath been heard,” he said in conclusion: “fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13).

Peter called Noah a “preacher of righteousness” (II Peter 2:5). The builder of the ark should not be regarded as unique in being so described. Every preacher of the Word ought to be a preacher of righteousness. This does not mean that such a preacher has to do no more than cite repetitiously the terms of the decalogue and the summation of the law as given in both the Old and New Testament and by Christ himself. In the first place the articulation of God’s high moral requirements in the varying social, cultural, and personal circumstances of history calls for broad perceptiveness, keen insight, and sympathetic understanding on the part of the preacher. In the second place, to be a preacher of righteousness under the New Testament is a far richer ministry than it was in the days of Noah or in the days of the “preacher” of Ecclesiastes.

This richer ministry takes place within the frame of the “whole counsel of God” at a far advanced point in the development of that revealed counsel, that point at which “God hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1–2). This ministry of righteousness means preaching the abiding requirements of the holy, sovereign God. It means preaching the incomparable message of God’s grace in Christ Jesus (a message that clearly makes sense only against a background of righteous demand and judgment). It means preaching the priceless treasure of Christ’s perfect, grace-given righteousness. It means preaching the joyful call gratefully to “live to righteousness” by the sanctifying Spirit. It means preaching the blessed assurance of the “crown of righteousness.”

To label such preaching “irrelevant” is to invite one of two searching questions. Does such a detractor know what Christian preaching is? Or, does such a detractor know what it means to “delight” in the law of God in his inmost being for Christ’s sake?

Preachers of Righteousness

Preaching of righteousness requires preachers of righteousness. We briefly take note of three factors that clearly call for the preaching of righteousness by men set apart for the discharge of this exalted and humbling responsibility.

1. In the first place such preaching of righteousness can be properly done only in clear understanding of and commitment to the meaning and intent of the Word of God. Development in righteousness, or sanctification, is through the Word, as Psalm 119 makes quite plain, and as Jesus also signalized when he prayed: “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (John 17:17). The setting of Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “preach the word” carries the same point tellingly. Preaching of the sanctifying Word can be done only by one who understands in depth the full and rich meaning of that Word as “the whole counsel of God.” As this paper has sought to make clear, true preaching of the gospel is always an exercise within the frame of the whole of God’s revealed truth. Such preaching demands a mind and heart drenched in this whole of God-breathed truth.

2. In the second place, preaching of righteousness can be done only with authority. Such authority lies at the very center of this preaching because the righteousness that is preached is always in terms of God’s inescapable law, the law that man has broken and before which he is guilty, the law that Christ has perfectly fulfilled, the law that the Christian is prompted to keep in grateful love. Obviously implicit in divine law is divine authority. The proclamation of the grace of God in Christ by the minister of the gospel is a voice of authority not only because he speaks in our Lord’s name, but also because the matchless grace he proclaims takes on its pregnant meaning against the claims of the authoritative divine law. Grace proclaimed apart from God’s holy law is little more than pious sentimentality or a symptom of escapist religion. The authority of the holy, sovereign God invests the preaching of the gospel with power and moral relevance. This authority is not personally assumed or arrogated, but is officially bestowed by the church of Christ in the symbolical action of the laying on of hands in ordination in the name of the Savior and Lord of the church.

3. In the third place, this preaching of righteousness demands the genuine personal involvement of the preacher as he wholly surrenders his heart and his life (“I do, with all my heart”) to the Lord’s service in obedience to the full Word that must be proclaimed. His righteousness in Christ by grace must be the inefiably precious treasure of his heart as a redeemed sinner, prompting him to bend all his energies to the building of the church of Christ and his kingdom in righteousness. “The bishop, therefore, must be without reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, orderly…no brawler, no striker; but gentle, not contentious, no lover of money; one that ruleth well his own house. Moreover he must have good testimony from them that are without…” (I Tim. 3:2–7). A reading of Paul’s two letters to Timothy underscores the need for the preacher to be wholly committed to righteousness. “Keep thyself pure,” Paul charged the young preacher (I Tim. 5:22).

Corrective for Faults of the Pulpit

Reference has been made in the foregoing discussion to conceptions of preaching that are largely Wesleyan or revivalistic, and also conceptions that are of a humanistic character. In addition to these two marked tendencies in today’s pulpit we would take note of two other factors in the preaching situation. On the one hand the charge is often made that the pulpit lacks moral power, a charge that can hardly be denied. On the other hand the pulpit betrays a kind of nervousness that reflects uncertainty as to the importance and relevance of preaching.

One manifestation of this nervousness is preoccupation with innovation in worship and preaching, a preoccupation which is a fast road to the irrelevance that is feared. Among the innovations suggested to serve sometimes as aids to preaching and sometimes as substitutes arc motion pictures, dramatic productions, dialogues and conversations of various sorts, readings in poetry, musical renditions, etc. The present writer would be the last to claim that no facet of Christian truth can be communicated by any or all of these media. But, when we ask whether such media possess all of the three qualifications mentioned above, we must demur. Understanding in depth of God’s whole counsel, possession of the special authority inherent in the message of God’s total Word and officially bestowed in Christ’s name, and intense personal commitment to righteousness—these three are needful if the thrust of divine truth is to be brought to bear redemptively on human life and history. These three are needful for the development of a witnessing community who under Christ’s Lordship possess and grow in that moral-spiritual quality of life (sanctification) without which human existence is vanity and a deepening woe.

It seems inescapable that the corrective for the faults of the pulpit described in the previous paragraph is a genuine rediscovery of the real task and purpose of preaching. The apostle said, “Preach the word.” What word? The word he has just described as “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Let the church rediscover this holy purpose and the pulpit will again speak to men with the compulsive power of God’s truth and love in Jesus Christ, calling and challenging a people of God to that new obedience that exercises itself in love for God and for our neighbor in the varying circumstances of history and culture.

We repeat, such preaching is not and cannot be irrelevant. It is not claimed that such · preaching is popular, but we do well not to confuse relevance with popularity. Pagans or neo-pagans may call such preaching foolish or irrelevant, but those who are committed to the wisdom of God know that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Cor. 1:25). Therefore let God’s servants preach the Word and follow in the footsteps of him of whom it was said, “And righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins” (Isa. 11:5).

Rev. Edward Heerema is pastor of the Christian Reformed Church of Bradenton, Florida.