This article looks at the reading of Scripture and the preaching of God’s Word in the worship service. This article looks at preaching as the ministry of reconciliation.

Source: The Messenger, 2011. 3 pages.

The Reading and Preaching of Scripture in the Worship Service

The Reading and Preaching of Scripture🔗

Following the reading of the Law, the minister or, if it is a reading service, the elder, will select a Scripture portion either from the Old or New Testament and proceed to preach or read a sermon based on a passage chosen from the chapter just read. This was not always the procedure followed in the Church. In the early Church the Scripture passages that were read often had nothing to do with the text on which the sermon was based. The so-called lectionary prescribed that on each Lord’s Day three Scripture selections be read, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament Epistles and one from the Gospels. The purpose was that in this way the entire Bible would be read regularly.

The Genevan Directory of Worship🔗

The Reformers departed from this method, not because they thought it was wrong but because they preferred to preach sermons based on the passage(s) read. In the Directory of Worship in Geneva, Farel wrote:

Preachers should take a text from Holy Scripture, read it completely as Christ did in the synagogue of Nazareth and after reading it he should expound it word for word without omitting anything and citing other passages which may help illustrate his text without going outside Scripture lest the pure Word of God be confused with the filthy language of men.

This last statement no doubt was aimed at Rome’s practice of according equal and often superior authority to man’s words. But the principle enunciated here was correct: preaching should be exposition of God’s Word without bringing in human ideas, which more often than not contradict Holy Scripture. Scripture reading and preaching of the Word, then, were seen as a unity.

Preaching the Whole Bible🔗

Preaching should be the explanation and application of the Word read during the worship service. In other words, the Reformers did not accord Bible reading a separate and independent liturgical status. Still, they tried to cover the whole Bible in their preaching. Calvin usually preached right through the books of the Bible and most Puritans did the same. Generally speaking, they avoided taking texts at random and preferred preaching consecutively. Later, this custom fell into relative disuse and more freedom was given to preachers who felt the urge to take a different passage each Lord’s Day. The pros and cons of both methods continue to be debated to this day (see Iain Murray’s article in The Messenger of March 2010, p. 6).

Preaching as Ministry of Reconciliation🔗

Both sides, however, agree that preaching of the Word should be given top priority. Nothing may usurp the place of preaching in the worship service. Preaching is the appointed means of salvation. We not only have the Word of reconciliation but also the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19).

Calvin extols the value of preaching this way: Christ is no longer with us on earth, but He does meet with us in the preaching of the Gospel, which is a sign that He has not left us. Christ speaks audibly in every ministry of the Word. Whenever the Word is preached right He comes down to us and stretches out His hand toward us.

Every faithful minister is an ambassador for Christ through whom God Himself pleads with sinners to be reconciled to Him (2 Cor. 5:20). It is Christ who by His sacrifice on the cross reconciles sinners to God and God to sinners. By our fall in Adam man not only became estranged from God but God was also alienated from man. His wrath is revealed from heaven against sin and sinners alike (Rom. 1:18). But God has sent His Son into the world to propitiate or remove that wrath by an all atoning and all-sufficient sacrifice.

Preaching means declaring what God has done in Christ for sinners, but also what He does through His Spirit in sinners by applying the merits of His Son to sinners. In our preaching we must and may call sinners to believe in Him who made peace with God and thus reconciled them to God.

Reconciliation Presupposes Enmity🔗

This is the Gospel or Good News, which comes to us as sinners, i.e., enemies (Rom. 5:10). This is a vital element of Gospel preaching, namely the declaration that those who are addressed are all enemies by nature whether they sit in church pews or lounge on the beach on Sunday. Unless that is made clear the preaching of reconciliation makes no impression on the hearers. The reason why so few preachers today present the Gospel with the same solemnity and urgency as the apostle Paul evidently did is that they assume that their audience is mostly, if not entirely, made up of friends instead of enemies.

This is a dangerous assumption. It is true that that there is a difference between preaching to the church and to the world. The former may be called covenantal or congregational preaching and the latter missionary or evangelistic preaching. But while these two types of preaching need to be distinguished from each other, it is wrong and even dangerous to separate them as if they represent completely different categories of preaching aimed at completely different audiences.

Ideally, of course, the church should be made up of true confessing believers and their children in which case preaching will focus on nurturing and encouraging each other in the faith. But to proceed from the ideal means closing one’s eyes to the reality in which the church finds itself due to sin.

Idealistic or Realistic Preaching?🔗

Dr. H. Bavinck writes in his book, Saved by Grace, the Holy Spirit’s Work in Calling and Regeneration:

This approach to (idealistic) preaching leads people gradually to confuse believing the confession with confessing belief, yielding a situation of dead orthodoxy that is satisfied with an intellectual assent to doctrine and that bothers itself very little with the disposition of the heart and purity of life ... Are we not members of the church? Did we not receive baptism when we were young? Did we not make profession of our faith, and have we not participated in the covenant meal? Just as Israel exalted itself because of its descent from Abraham and because of the temple of the Lord in its midst, so too many New Testament church members often build their hope for eternity on the outward ecclesiastical privileges in which they share, and they surrender themselves to a false security.p.122

Covenantal and Evangelistic Preaching not Mutually Exclusive🔗

Congregational preaching, therefore, Bavinck continues, needs to include a healthy dose of evangelistic preaching, i.e., there needs to be a regular summon to self examination, repentance and faith.

For no matter how inestimably great the blessings already are that God bestows upon us when from our birth we are included in the covenant, born in a Christian church to Christian parents, baptized with holy baptism and nurtured in a Christian family – all these blessings are still not enough. Each person is confronted with the obligation of personal, saving faith; for only one who believes in the Son has eternal life … No one, whether inside or outside the church, will enter the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again of water and Spirit. Not the church, and not the ministers of the Word but only God in heaven brings about salvation. Ibid., p.127

What Bavinck states is solidly based on Scripture. Wherever Paul went preaching the Gospel his basic message was: Be reconciled to God! As Christ’s ambassador the apostle’s mission was to call sinners in and outside the church to repentance and faith. That call included the command to lay down the weapons of enmity and to surrender to Him against whom man has rebelled. And of course, this is still the task of ministers of the Gospel.

Appropriating the Grace of Reconciliation🔗

“Be ye reconciled” means: enter into the grace of reconciliation; embrace the truth that Christ who knew no sin was made to be sin on man’s behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). What does such entering involve? It is not just a matter of accepting the objective fact that God has reconciled the world to himself. To do so meaningfully and savingly involves the recognition that you are a sinner, yes, an enemy of God, exposed to the wrath of God. It is only those who see their need of reconciliation who will seek such reconciliation. When such people hear the message, “Be ye reconciled,” it will come as a surprise and something that seems almost too good to be true. They will need to be persuaded that this is indeed true and true for them! In Paul’s words, they need to be beseeched!

The Puritan, Thomas Goodwin says in a sermon on this passage: “In all whom God means to reconcile to Himself after He has humbled them He fixes a secret persuasion on their hearts that He is ready to be reconciled to them, if they will be reconciled to Him. He reveals what a gracious God He is, and how He freely pardons. Just as He employs the Law to convict us of our highhanded rebellion against the Most High, so He uses the Gospel to make known the wondrous provision He has made to satisfy the claims of the law and to meet our deep need.”

Our Reformed fathers confessed this glorious truth in Article 20 of the Belgic Confession in these words:

We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent His Son to assume that nature in which the disobedience was committed to make satisfaction in the same and to bear the punishment of sin by His most bitter passion and death. God therefore manifested His justice against His Son when He laid our iniquities upon Him and poured forth His mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation, out of mere and perfect love, giving His Son unto death for us and raising Him for our justification that through Him we might obtain immortality and life eternal.

May the preaching in our Free Reformed Churches continue to be in complete harmony with Scripture and the Reformed Confessions based on it.

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