Preaching Christology or Preaching Christ: What is Preaching?

Good teaching begins with definitions. Effective schoolteachers tell their students what they are doing and why in order help students learn well. This often means defining terms specific to each subject. Math students need to learn what a hypotenuse is and students of physics need to understand what mass, acceleration, and velocity mean. The Bible also has its own vocabulary, which includes "preaching." Yet many Christians sit under sermons, and some even preach them, without a working definition of what preaching is in light of Scripture.

In 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2, the Apostle Paul gave an implicit definition of preaching when he wrote, 

"Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For He says: 'In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.' Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation."

The passage cited above implies that preaching is a public authoritative proclamation of the gospel, through ordained ambassadors of Christ, who plead with people to be reconciled to God on Christ's behalf, on the grounds of Christ's person and work. Understanding what preaching is helps us understand its purposes and what we should expect when listening to sermons. This is important because Christ designed preaching to be an ordinary part of evangelism and discipleship (Matt. 28:19-20).

This text teaches us what preaching is. Preaching is a public, authoritative proclamation of the gospel. Paul's preaching was public proclamation. He implored people and he pled with them. His self-description as an "ambassador" meant that his preaching carried authority. Whether referring to the twelve apostles (Matt. 10:5-15) or to the seventy-whom Christ sent (Lk. 10:1-12), Christ words apply: "He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me" (Matt. 10:40)." Preachers implore sinners and plead with them on Christ's behalf. This is how they "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5). Preaching is "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18) through which Christ's pleads with and implores us through his messengers. When we receive the message of Christ's ambassadors then we receive Christ. When we reject their message then we reject the Christ whom they preach. This is true with respect to all faithful gospel preaching. Preaching comes with the authority of Christ through his ambassadors and we must submit to Christ through it.

We also learn here who preachers are. Preachers are ordained ambassadors of Christ. In 2 Corinthians, Paul defended his ministry at length against false apostles (2 Cor. 2:17, 11:5). In doing so, he not only defined the nature and purposes of his apostolic ministry, but he established the pattern of gospel ministry more broadly. Being an ambassador implies gifting, calling, and ordination. I will address the last link in this chain more fully in my next post in relation to Romans 10:14-17. Preaching is defined primarily in relation to office. Christ gifts church officers for their office and he gives officers as gifts to his church. Ephesians 4:11 teaches that the ascended Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as gifts to his church. Some of these teaching offices were extraordinary and temporary while others are ordinary and permanent. Yet all of them instruct the church for its purity and unity, its maturity and growth in Christ, and its protection from false teaching (Eph. 4:12-16). Believers in general evangelized (euangelidzomai) as they were scattered abroad while Philip preached (keruso) Christ (Acts 8:4-5). All teaching offices come from Christ and revolve around proclaiming his person and work. Christ preached the kingdom of God (Mark 1:39). Christ cleansed a leper, warning him to tell no one (Mark 1:40-44). Yet the man preached (keruso) without being gifted, called, and ordained (v. 45). All Christians must evangelize, yet not all are permitted to preach. All Christians are Christ's servants, but not all Christians are Christ's ambassadors.

We learn next why Christ appointed preaching and preachers. Preachers plead with people on Christ's behalf to be reconciled to God. Preaching flows from the fear of the Lord in preparing people for the final judgment (2 Cor. 5:9-11). The love of Christ compels sound preaching (v. 12-15). Preaching aims to provide a true view of God's savings aims through his person and work (v. 16-19). Preaching is God's act of calling sinners to be reconciled to him through Christ (v. 20, 6:1-2). As we must define preaching in relation to office, so the Christ, who is the source of church offices, dominates the content of preaching.

Lastly, preaching is founded on Christ's person and work. Preaching is possible because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Preaching proclaims Christ's person and work for the salvation of all (v. 21). God reconciles sinners to himself in Christ because Christ is fully God, enabling him to match God's infinite majesty and the infinite weight of sin. He is fully man, enabling him to obey, suffer, die, and rise in his human nature for us. God becoming man alone could enable God to purchase the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Christ became sin for sinners, removing God's wrath and curse from them, so that sinners might become the righteousness of God in him, being justified freely through him (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 3:24). Christ gifts and calls preachers to be his ambassadors by virtue of his ascension (Eph. 4:8). He makes preaching possible through making himself the ground of the message preached. We must receive Christ by faith through preaching as he presents himself to us through his ambassadors.

This passage helps us understand what preaching is both negatively and positively. Negatively, not all gospel proclamation is preaching. Neither does all preaching have the right object. Preaching must impart the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) in a way that that demonstrates that all of the promises of God are yes and amen in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Positively, preaching is the public, authoritative, proclamation of the gospel through ordained ambassadors of Christ. Preachers plead with people to be reconciled to God on the grounds of Christ's person and work. Preaching is Christ's ordinary means of seeking and saving the lost. This means that there is continuity in how preaching addresses believers as well as the unconverted. Paul implored Christians at Corinth "not to receive the grace of God in vain." Christ is set forth in preaching to believers and to unbelievers alike because the accepted day of salvation is a perpetual "now." All subsequent posts in this series will expand and explain the ideas presented here. We must understand what preaching is in order to understand how and why we should listen to sermons. Do we receive Christ through his ordained ambassadors as we press onward and upward towards the culmination of our salvation in Christ? (Phil. 3:14).

*This is the first in a series of posts on "Preaching Christology or Preaching Christ." 

Dr. Ryan McGraw is Professor of Systematic theology, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Heavenly Directory: Trinitarian Piety, Public Worship, and a Reassessment of John Owen's Theology (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014); The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), Christ's Glory, Your Good: Salvation Planned, Promised, Accomplished, and Applied (RHB 2013), and, By Good and Necessary Consequence (RHB 2012).