Aiming to Preach with Aims

We need to hear Christ in order to believe in him for salvation (Rom. 10:14). Ordinarily we hear his voice through his ordained ambassadors as they preach the gospel in demonstration of the Spirit's power (Rom. 10:15; 2 Cor. 5:19-6:2; 1 Cor. 2:5). Yet we can believe these things and still make fatal mistakes in regard to preaching. People sometimes respond in strange ways to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the preached Word. Some reason that if the Spirit alone changes people's hearts, then it does not matter how well ministers reason with sinners or, in some cases, whether anyone preaches the gospel to them at all. This is like saying that since God can keep us alive without food, he will keep us alive whether or not we eat. Dead souls result from the first way of thinking and dead bodies from the second. What God can do in his providence is a poor guide for what we should do in light of his Word.

In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul shows that preaching requires hard labor in order to achieve its ends when he writes, "Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily" (Col. 1:28-29).

The high aims of preaching demand the heavy labors of preachers. This passage asserts that ministers must preach Christ wisely for the salvation of all hearers. We learn from these truths how and why the lofty aims of preaching flow from its content and determine its manner. This reinforces previous posts on these themes and expands them in relation to the aims of preaching.

Ministers must preach Christ (v. 29a" "him we preach"). Why did Paul consistently treat Christ as the sum and substance of his preaching? Other passages surveyed in this series of posts showed that Christ is the primary object of preaching because, through preaching, Christ brings sinners to the Father by the Spirit's power. Colossians 1 adds that Christ is the primary substance of preaching (v. 29) because Christ builds his church through ministers who suffer for his sake (v. 24-25), because he is the substance of the divine mystery that God has now revealed (v. 26-27), and because union with Christ is the "hope of glory" for believers (v. 27; Phil. 3:20-21). Ministers embody Christ's ministry on behalf of the church. Christ is the reason for their sufferings, the content of their message, and the ground of their hopes. Why, then, must Christ be the sum and substance of their preaching? He must be so because ministers live in communion with Christ as they aim to bring others into communion with him, because they should be consumed with the divine mystery regarding him above all else, and because he must remain the center of their hope. Christ is the bridge between preaching the glory of the Triune God and all other subjects in relation to God. Preaching "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) without relating all things in it to Christ's person and work is like trying to view a beautiful landscape without the light of the sun. It is "him we preach?" Is it him we want to hear about?

Ministers must preach Christ wisely (v. 29b" "in all wisdom"). What does it mean to preach Christ? Negatively, preaching Christ is not merely describing Christ. What would we think of a man who described a woman clearly, accurately, and dispassionately only to learn later that the woman was his wife? Preaching is not like giving a physical description of a suspect to a detective. It is more like singing for joy over one whom our souls love (Song 3:1, 4). It is like the friend of the bridegroom waiting eagerly to introduce the bridegroom to his bride (Jn. 3:29). Positively, preaching Christ must be done "in all wisdom." Preaching Christ should be specific and direct ("warning every man"). The purposes of preaching reflect the purposes of Scripture (1 Tim. 3:15-17). Wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ includes reproof and correction as well as doctrine and instruction in righteousness. "Warning" entails application. "Warning every man" demands specific application. Preaching should be instructive as well ("teaching every man"). As Westminster Larger Catechism 159 states, "They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God." Preaching must aim to convict individual hearers by applying the teachings of Scripture to them directly. Preachers must know the people to whom they preach. Refuting irrelevant errors that people do not face is like shooting without taking aim. Preachers should visit the people to whom they preach regularly in order to know them personally and the challenges they face. Application should not be so specific that we betray trusts and embarrass people publicly in sermons, but we should be specific enough that we can warn and teach "every man." In doing so, preachers preach "wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of their hearers" (WLC 159).

Preachers must preach Christ for the salvation of all hearers (v. 29c). "Every man" appears three times in this passage. We cannot be content to leave anyone behind in preaching. We cannot adopt a "take it or leave it" mentality to the means of grace, in which we preach dull sermons and blame the Holy Spirit for the unbelief of our hearers. Preaching should be zealous and passionate. Preachers must preach "zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation" (WLC 159) Reformed preaching should neither be boring nor harsh. The pulpit is not a platform for beat up pastors to lash back at difficult people. We must keep the final goal of salvation in view. God aims to present every man perfect in Christ, not merely to justify them.

Paul concludes that preaching is dependent labor ("laboring according to his working, which works in me mightily"). By now, readers should detect a pattern in biblical texts that describe preaching. Christ is the primary object of preaching. He reaches sinners by his Word and Spirit, using ministers as his instruments. He is the subject, object, and end of preaching. This pattern raises several questions for preachers:

Do you preach to the glory of God in Christ? Doing so keeps your preaching on track. Do you preach Christ experimentally? Does Christ live in your affections in order to bring life to others through your sermons? This makes your preaching lively. Do you preach Christ pointedly? Preaching without specific and pointed application violates the biblical definition of preaching just as much as failing to preach Christ does. Pointed preaching is part of what makes Spirit-filled preaching effective. Those who repeat Christ's story without pressing Christ on individual consciences and those who press people with duties without preaching Christ fail equally in aims of preaching. Do you labor hard in preaching with the Spirit's help? 

This is what makes preaching powerful. It is not enough to read Bible commentaries, though many of preachers need to read more of them than they do. Commentaries help us understand the text, but they do not help us meet the goals of preaching. Though the Spirit is sovereign in his work, lacking zeal, vigor, or diligence in preaching is a better indicator of laziness than of faith. Preaching must be lively, convicting, instructive, specific, and laborious. Only such preaching can aim to present every man perfect in Christ.