Last week we were thinking about faith and repentance. The Catechism asked what we need to do in order to escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for our sin. All of us have sinned against God. We’ve broken his law. Some of us have broken it a lot. Some have broken it a little. But we’re all lawbreakers. And every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse in this life and in the life to come. So what must we do to be saved?
We must turn from our sin in repentance and we must turn with faith to the Saviour, because all who turn from their sin in repentance and turn with faith to the Saviour, are justified, so that we’re pardoned for all that we’ve done wrong and we’re accepted as righteous in God’s sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ which is imputed to us.
And through faith in Christ we’re adopted into God’s family, so that he becomes our loving heavenly Father who cares for us and not the judge who wants to condemn us; and we’re sanctified, so that the Holy Spirit begins to work in us to renew us throughout in the image of God and we become more and more willing and able to keep his commandments; and we receive assurance of God’s love, and peace of conscience, and joy in the Holy Spirit, and progress in holiness and we’re able to persevere right to the very end of our lives, always trusting in the Saviour who loved us and gave up his life for us. And then, at death, our souls are made perfect in holiness and we’re brought into the presence of God to await the resurrection of our bodies when Christ returns to earth in glory and power.
Those are the benefits we receive when we turn from our sin in repentance and turn in faith to the Saviour. Instead of God’s wrath, we receive his pardon. Instead of his curse, we’re blessed with the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of eternal life. So, there must be faith and there must be repentance.
However, the Catechism also says that in order to escape God’s wrath and curse, in order to be saved, we must also make diligent use of the outward means by which Christ gives to us the benefits of redemption. That is, we must make diligent use of his word and the sacraments and prayer. And we’ve talked about this briefly before. How does God give us justification? By repenting and believing in the Lord Jesus. And how to we come to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus? God works through the preaching of his word to convince us of our sin and to enable us to believe in the Lord Jesus. How does he gives us peace of conscience? We hear the reading and preaching of God’s word and we’re reminded of how Christ has paid for all our sins by his death on the cross. We see a baptism and it speaks to us of how God has promised to wash away all our sins. How do we receive joy in the Holy Spirit? We hear in the reading and preaching of God’s word that Jesus Christ died for me and that message fills us with joy. But then, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we not only hear of his love, we see it, because the bread and the wine speak to us of his body and blood and the depth of his love for us. And it fills us with joy.
The Lord Jesus Christ wants to give us all the benefits of his redemption. He wants us to receive the salvation he won for us on the cross. And the way he gives these things to us is through the reading and preaching of his word and through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and through prayer. And today we’re thinking about the reading and preaching of God’s word. Listen to questions 89 and 90 of our church’s Catechism:
Q. 89 How is the word of God made effective to salvation?
Ans. The Spirit of God makes the reading but especially the preaching of the word, an effective means of convincing and converting sinners, and building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, to salvation.
Q. 90 How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effective to salvation?
Ans. We must attend to the word with diligence, preparation and prayer, receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practise it in our lives, so that it may become effective to salvation.
And the first thing to say is that it’s clear from the Bible that preaching has always been important to God’s people. Anyone who has even just skimmed through the Bible cannot help notice how much preaching there is in it. In the Old Testament, you have the prophets who were sent by God to preach his word. Think of Jonah, for instance. What did God want Jonah to do? God said to Jonah: Go to Nineveh and what? And preach against it. But Jonah ran away. And when God spoke to Jonah a second time he said: Go to Nineveh and what? Proclaim the message I give you. The same thing. And Jonah went this time and preached the message and the people believed and repented. In the Old Testament we have the major prophets: Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel and then we have the 12 minor prophets like Hosea and Joel and Jonah. And we have other prophets like Samuel. And every prophet was a preacher: someone called by God and sent to preach his word. If we only had the Old Testament, we couldn’t fail to notice the importance of preaching.
But we don’t only have the Old Testament. We have the New Testament and in the gospels we find John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. We have the Lord Jesus going from place to place, preaching to the people, saying to the people that the time had come and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe! Mark tells us how one one occasion the people were looking for the Lord Jesus because they wanted to see the marvellous miracles that he was able to perform. But Jesus said that no, he had to keep going to other places in order to preach: because that is why I have come, he said: to preach the word of God.
And then, after his death and resurrection, and before he ascended to heaven, Jesus is giving his disciples some last instructions. And in Acts 1 we read how he told them that they would receive the Holy Spirit and become his witnesses to the ends of the earth. And what he meant was that they would go out into all parts of the world to preach, to tell people everywhere about Jesus Christ and his life and death and resurrection. And sure enough, in Acts 2 the Spirit comes on them on the Day of Pentecost and a crowd gathers to see what’s going on, and immediately Peter begins to preach to the crowd about Jesus Christ. And the people believe the message. The rest of the book of Acts tells how the apostles like Peter and Paul went around the Roman Empire preaching the good news of Jesus Christ — to Jews and Gentiles, men and women, young and old, to large crowds and to small groups. Sometimes they preached and people believed; and sometimes they preached and people did not believe. But wherever they went, and at every opportunity, they preached the message of Jesus Christ.
In the NT we have two letters that the apostle Paul sent to Timothy, a young minister. And Paul is giving him advice. And the advice he gives him is this: Preach the word. And be prepared in season and out of season. In other words, at all times, be ready to preach the word. And Paul warns Timothy that the time will come when people won’t want to hear him. They won’t be willing to listen to him when he preaches. And when that time comes, keep preaching, Paul says. Keep preaching. Even when people won’t listen, keep preaching. And Paul can say that because he believes that the preaching of the gospel is powerful. He writes in his letter to the Romans to say how eager he is to preach to them. Why? Because it’s the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. Through the preaching of the gospel, God works powerfully to enable those who hear to repent and to believe so that they turn to the Saviour and are saved from God’s wrath and curse which is due to them for their sins. Through preaching, sinners are saved.
Then, to the church in Corinth Paul writes how Jews want to see signs. They want to see miracles: Show us a sign from heaven, and then we’ll believe in you. And the Greeks want wisdom. They liked philosophy and wanted to hear the latest ideas. Jews wanted signs. Greeks wanted wisdom. But what do we have to offer? Only the preaching of God’s word, which to some appears weak and foolish, but, in fact, through the preaching of his word, God works powerfully to build his church.
Do you see? You can’t read very far in the Bible without coming across someone who is preaching or who is a preacher or who is writing about preaching. In Acts 6, which we looked at this morning, we read how the apostles were concerned. The church was trying to offer practical support its members. They were distributing food to the poor. But some widows were being overlooked. And something needed to be done to ensure that the food was distributed to everyone who had need. And, I suppose, everyone looked to the apostles to sort the problem out. They were, after all, the leaders. But what did the apostles do? They appointed deacons to take care of it because, they said, it would not be right for them, the apostles, to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. They weren’t saying that waiting on tables and helping the needy was unimportant. No. In fact it was so important that people had to be appointed to take care of it. But what they were saying is that the ministry of the word — preaching — is so important, that they couldn’t let anything distract them from it. And preaching God’s word is important because God works through the reading and preaching of God’s word to save us from his wrath and curse.
Not just reading
The Catechism refers not only to the reading of God’s word, but to the preaching of his word. God uses the reading of his word — and we must all read God’s word — but God especially uses the preaching of his word. Now, this might surprise you. After all, when we read the Bible, we’re reading God’s word. There’s no doubt about that. But when we’re listening to a sermon, we’re only listening to a preacher. Surely the inspired word of God is more effective than the preaching of an ordinary man?
There are two things to say. Firstly, the preacher must preach God’s word. His job is to explain what God has said in his word. Preaching my own ideas or opinions is one thing, but preaching God’s word is something entirely different. You can take or leave what I have to say if it’s only my own personal opinion, but if what I’m preaching is a faithful exposition of God’s word, then we’re all obligated to pay attention to it.
The second thing to say here is that in God’s word we see in several places that people need someone to explain the Scriptures to them. In Nehemiah 8 we read how the Israelites, who returned from the exile, gathered in Jerusalem. And they asked Ezra to bring the book of the Law so that he could read it to them. And so, a wooden platform, or a pulpit, was built and he stood on it and read to the people and they listened attentively. And then we read the following:
the Levites helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places.
They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. Not only did they read the Law to the people, but they gave the sense of it. They explained it to the people so that they could understand God’s word.
Then in Acts 8 we have the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch who was returning home from Jerusalem. And in his chariot he was reading from the book of Isaiah. And then, Philip the Evangelist appeared. God had sent him. And we read the following:
So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’
You’re reading God’s word. Do you understand it what you’re reading? Do you get it?
And listen to what he says:
How can I, unless someone guides me?
And Philip then explained that the passage he was reading from Isaiah 53 about the Suffering Servant was describing the Lord Jesus. He needed someone to help him understand what he was reading.
And then we have the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11. Remember? Peter had the vision of the tablecloth and animals which convinced him that he should reconsider his attitude to Gentiles. And at the same time, Cornelius had a vision and was told to go and fetch Peter. And this is how Peter reported what happened:
And [Cornelius] told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’
God told Cornelius to go and get Peter so that Peter could preach to him. And as a result, Cornelius would repent and believe and be saved.
We read our Bibles, but it’s hard work. It’s hard to understand. Peter the Apostle said at the end of his second letter that there are things in Paul’s letters which are hard to understand. We read God’s word and scratch our heads. What does it mean? But God has called preachers to preach his word and to explain it to us so that we might understand it better and believe. Think of the windscreen wipers on your car, clearing away the dirt so you can get a clear view of the road. So the preacher helps to clear away our confusion and misunderstanding so that we get a clear view of God’s word and the message of Jesus Christ crucified.
The Catechism refers to two ways the reading and preaching of God’s word helps us. First of all, it convinces and converts sinners. Last week I said that the word conversion refers to repentance and faith. When someone repents and believes for the first time, they’ve been converted. And so, the Catechism is simply says that God works through the reading and preaching of his word to enable us to believe and to repent. It also refers to convincing sinners because the preaching is addressed to our mind first of all, and then to our heart and will. We need to be convinced that we’re sinners so that we hate our sin and are sorry for it and want to rid ourselves of it. And we need to be convinced that Jesus Christ alone can save us. We need to be convinced that God will show mercy to all who repent and believe in the Lord Jesus. We need to know and believe these things. And so the preachers addresses our minds. He reasons with us. He tells us what we need to know and to accept as true. And so, through the preaching of his word, God convinces us of the truth of these things and enables us to repent and believe.
And then, God’s word helps believers by building us up in holiness and comfort. In Acts 20, Paul is saying farewell to the Ephesian elders and he says to them:
And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
The word of God is able to build us up. And it builds us up in holiness because in his word God teaches us his law so that we know what he wants us to do. And it builds us up in comfort because in his word God reassures us that Christ’s blood covers over all our sins and that God is now for us and not against us.
So through the reading and preaching of his word, God works to convince and convert sinners to Christ, and he builds up believers in holiness and comfort.
However, we all know that not everyone who hears the reading and preaching of God’s word is convinced by it. Not everyone who hears is converted. And, believers are not always built up by it. Why not? Well, the Catechism explains that only the Holy Spirit makes the reading and preaching of God’s word effective. Since we are, by nature, dead in our trespasses and sins, without the power to convert ourselves, we need to Holy Spirit to come and to enable us to repent and believe. And then, having believed, we still need his help in order to be built up in holiness and comfort by what we hear. Think of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians about the plain preaching of the message of the cross. To some it was a weak and foolish message. But Paul knew that the Holy Spirit would use that weak and foolish message to convert his hearers to a true faith in Christ. Think again how God enabled Lydia to pay attention and to believe the message Paul preached in Philippi. And then, in his letters, Paul asked believers to pray for him and his preaching because he understood that without God’s help, his preaching would accomplish nothing. That’s why we need to pray and to keep praying. We need to pray for God to bless the reading and preaching of his word here on Sundays so that it does us good. And we need to pray that God will work in the minds and hearts and wills of all who hear God’s word through the week in this place.
But the Catechism also says we have a responsibility too. There are things we must do if the word is to be effective in our lives. And so listen again to what it says in question 90:
Q. 90 How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effective to salvation? We must attend to the word with diligence, preparation and prayer, receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practise it in our lives, so that it may become effective to salvation.
So, we must attend to it with diligence. In other words, we must come regularly to church to hear the reading and preaching of God’s word. And we must do so diligently. There may be a time in your life when you’re tempted to come to church only now and again. This happens in many churches now. Many take the attitude today that if I’ve nothing else on, I’ll go to church. But no, we must be diligent and regular and committed to hearing God’s word. And therefore we must watch out in case we’re ever tempted to come only now and again. And when we’re in church, we must attend to it by listening carefully. The sermon is not a time to doze, or to daydream, or to fiddle with our phones. The sermon is the occasion when God is addressing us through his word. And so, we must listen.
And we must attend to it with preparation and prayer. So, we must pray for God’s word to be effective in our own lives and in the lives of others. And we must prepare by setting aside all our business and everything else which might distract us so that we can focus upon God’s word and nothing else. We must make sure we get a good night’s sleep so that we’re not sleepy and yawning in church and too tired to concentrate.
And then, when we hear God’s word, we must receive it with faith and love. So, we must believe it and not dismiss it. And we must love it and not despise it even when it’s a hard message for us to bear.
Then, we must lay it up in our hearts by which we mean that we should ponder it through the week so that it’s not going in one ear and out the other, but it needs to go into the ear, and then into the mind, and down into our hearts.
And then we must practise it in our lives. So, if it’s a command to obey, we must do it. And if it’s a promise to believe, we must rely on it.
Of course, all things are possible with God. However, ordinarily we should not expect anyone to benefit from the preaching of God’s word if they do not come regularly, or if they do not listen to it carefully, or if they’re too tired or distracted to concentrate, or if they’re too stubborn to accept it, or if they forget it the moment the sermon is over, or if they have no intention to put it into practice.
But when we listen carefully, reverently, prayerfully, humbly, and with faith, then the Holy Spirit is able to take God’s word and work in our lives to minister to us according to our need and to give us exactly we need so that we can continue to live our lives for Christ and his glory. Think of those disciples on the road to Emmaus who heard the Lord Jesus explain the Scriptures to them. And afterwards they said their hearts burned within them as he opened to us the Scriptures. Their hearts burned within them as they realised they truth of these things and the wonder of the gospel and the glory of God. Paul resolved to preach nothing but the cross of Christ. And he resolved not to use any fancy techniques or tricks. His preaching would be plain. And yet, the Spirit was at work to convince people that this was the best news they had ever heard.