The Missing Message
September 28, 2016
While preparing talks for a forthcoming Reformation Conference, I happened across Heiko Oberman's outstanding 1961 Theology Today lecture, "Preaching and the Word in the Reformation," in which he set down what he believed to have been the three most important aspects of the preaching among the Reformers: (1) the sermon as apocalyptic event; (2) the sermon as corporate act of worship; and (3) the relation of the written and the spoken Word of God. It is the first of these to which I wish to give further consideration.
After dispelling the myth that preaching had disappeared prior to the Reformation, Oberman suggested that one of the things that was unique about the preaching of the Reformers was that it was an apocalyptic event, in which "the sermon...absorbed the medieval sacrament of penance." What the Roman Catholic Church had taken out of the preaching of the Gospel and put into the hands of the priests, the Reformers took out of the hands of the priests and put it back into the preaching of the Word and Gospel. The Reformers believed that in the true preaching of the Gospel the eternal realties of Heaven and Hell come breaking into time and space, by which the hearers are confronted by God. As sinners are confronted with their sin and the holiness of God, they are brought before the Divine tribunal in order to show them the need they have for redemption and forgiveness.
Moving on from the confrontation of the word, Oberman insisted that "the function of the sermon is to provide proper doctrinal information especially as regards the first and second advent of Jesus Christ." The preaching of Christ is central to the preaching of the Reformation because, as the Reformers understood, "the sermon does not inspire good inclinations, but moves the doors of Heaven and Hell." Oberman summed up this aspect of Reformation preaching when he acquiesced with the essence of pietistic preaching: "Where the Word is preached and man encounters Christ, he is forced to answer 'Yes' or 'No.'" Since all of these things are so, we must understand that true preaching is, "God's last word, to which no syllable will be added." Oberman brought his thoughts on the apocalyptic nature of preaching to a close by explaining how the true preaching of the word brings assurance to believers. He wrote:
For this reason the Reformation could preach the certitudo salutis, the certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law. In the words of Calvin: "When a Christian looks into himself he finds cause to be afraid or even to despair...[But] he will win a sure hope of eternal perseverance when he considers that he belongs to Him who cannot fall or fail." It gives pause to realize that this message which proved to lend the Reformation movement its reconciling and liberating power has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit.
Here, two things stand out to me as being of prime importance. First, only the preaching of the Reformation can hold forth the assurance of salvation. The greatest of all differences between the preaching of Rome and the preaching of the Reformation lies in this: "the Reformation could preach the...certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law." If that aspect of preaching is missing from our churches then we will never hold out to despairing sinners the peace for which their souls so desperately long.
Second, Oberman made the sobering observation that "this message...has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit." While recognizing that he was referring to the mainline Protestant churches of his day (which were, incidentally, at their heyday in the 1960's), we must also recognize that the same can be said of so many churches in our own day. Rome continues to be void of this all-important aspect of preaching. Liberal Protestant churches maintain the strongest possible distaste for it. Most concerning of all, however, is the realization that the better part of self-professed evangelical churches have abandoned the preaching of the Reformation. From the pulpit, churches that claim affinity with the Reformation are proving themselves to be virtually antithetical to the Reformers. In so many churches in our day, the psychological and social are trumpeted instead of Heaven and Hell, the court of public opinion rather than the Divine tribunal and a sophisticated call to self-atonement through humanitarianism rather than forgiveness of sins through the atoning death of Jesus. We should be appalled at the paltry nature of what flies under the name of preaching today. We should long for preaching that brings men and women before the eternal tribunal, that sets out Jesus Christ in His saving fulness and that calls sinners to respond to Him in faith and repentance. It is then, and only then, that we will know the same "reconciling and liberating power" that was heard and felt in the days of the Reformers.