Diligent Study Is a Requisite for Fresh Preaching
One of the questions official church visitors will ask the elders and deacons is whether their pastor studies diligently? There have been times in the history of the church that the church visitors also insisted on visiting the pastor's study to look at his library. This would give them an impression of the pastor's tools for preparing his sermons and other related work in the congregation. To be sure, the question is not merely: does he spend enough time in his study reading theological journals and working his way through new books? The real question is: Does he adequately prepare himself for preaching God's Word by thorough exegesis? It is possible for pastors to announce a different text each Lord's Day morning but preach essentially the same sermon. One could preach the same fixed schematic exposition of spiritual concepts.
Sometimes the congregation feels that the pastor has about ten sermons, for which he continually selects new texts. This question of the church visitors relates to the words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 13:52: "Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven resembles a head of a household who brings out of his storehouse things new and old." The pastor is to dig up new and old treasures out of the Word. There was in Christ's message the continuity with the Old Testament and at the same time a variety of truths and applications. New things are to be brought out without letting go of the old things. That requires a labour in the sweat of his brow.
It is part of the privilege of being a pastor that he may be the first one to benefit from his studies. It is not good if a pastor does not desire to bring out to the congregation those "new treasures," which have become precious to his heart. He deprives the congregation of the inexhaustible riches that are stored up in God's Word. He must "mine them." He needs to go down into the shafts and search the Word of God. This has been characteristic of the Reformed tradition always and again to search and expound the Scriptures.
A pastor has a great deal of resource materials available to him. Yet he does have to look for them and make use of them. The poverty of many sermons consists in failing to exegete the passages. All attention needs to be given to expounding the Scriptures. The words of the Scriptures and the rich message given through the Spirit need to be opened and expounded right up to the heart of the Bible itself: the cross of Christ. It requires spiritual exertion on the part of the pastor. It requires all the strength of one's heart and mind to lay bare the message of the Scriptures. But it is rewarding. Surprising lessons are brought to light and the congregation must be brought to share in the joy. The exposition of the Scriptures therefore deserves all one's attention.
Exegesis is much more than consulting commentaries. You can tell when a pastor has simply consulted a few commentaries on some difficulties, but for the rest has not "beaten upon the text," as Luther would say. Adolph Monod said on his death-bed:
We must give ourselves trouble. For here, as in every part of the Christian life, God will have us be labourers with Himself; and the knowledge of the Bible, and a relish for the Bible, are the fruit and recompense of this humble, sincere, and persevering study.
If this holds true for the exegesis of the Bible, it also goes for the application that is, concretely opening up the message of that text to the congregation. It is not right to expound a text and then to bring out arbitrary or schematized applications. Here too, Scripture offers a wealth of material, there should not always be the same application.
Mind you, new things does not mean "novel things." Some men seem bent on finding things out of Scripture by labouring with it. Hugh Binning writes:
Let others be wise to their own destruction; let them establish their own imaginations for the word of God and rule of their faith; hold you fast what you have received, and contend earnestly for it; add nothing, and diminish nothing. Let this lamp shine till the day dawn, till the morning of the resurrection, and walk ye in the light of it, and do not kindle any other sparkles, else ye shall lie down in the grace in sorrow, and rise in sorrow.
Discussion at the meeting of council
There is a task for council in this regard. At regular intervals, council should conduct a brotherly discussion about the method, content, presentation, and reception of the preaching. The elders and the deacons do not need to have studied Hebrew and Greek to know whether the pastor does make use of these languages to exegete the Old and New Testament. The text must be expounded and applied. It needs to be done in such a way that the Word of God from that passage (or that single text) the message of sin and grace in its surprising fullness comes to the pastor and the congregation. The Word must be proclaimed. The everlasting Gospel is to be trumpeted forth.
That can be done only when the pastor places himself under that Word and knows himself to be one with the congregation.
Then it is hard to think of any greater privilege than to be a minister of the Gospel of God's grace. There where the Spirit of Christ causes the power of grace to be at work, there the congregation always and again shall experience the surprising riches of the Gospel. And there the preacher himself stands in humility and yet without fear under the Word that he has preached. We should follow Martin Luther's example. He studied for his sermons, and therefore could preach them in a new, refreshing and personal way. He preached the Word of God with conviction.
Luther closed his sermons in a way that remind of the words he uttered before the emperor and the estates of the empire in the Diet of Worms: "Here I stand! I can do no other! May God help me, Amen." It pictures him in the power of the Word. The pastor who goes on the pulpit in such a way can also come down from the pulpit. He has done his work in dependence on the Lord. He may leave the blessing and fruit to the Lord. We can only plant and water. The Lord gives the increase (1 Corinthians 3). That makes us humble. At the same time it gives us the confidence that He will complete His own work. The pastor labours in that hope. The congregation shall receive the Word of God as from the mouth of the Lord Himself.