According to the Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons, a very essential task of the elders is to supervise the teaching of the ministers of the Word: after all, no erroneous doctrine may be preached and the congregation is to be built up in every respect. Nowadays it is common practice in our churches that the work of the minister in preaching is discussed from time to time in the meetings of the consistory. The term “sermon evaluation” is commonplace, but it does not exactly cover the content of the agenda item. The fact is that it is generally not about the discussion of any particular sermon, but about a brotherly conversation about the preaching itself, i.e., the ministry of the Word as it has been entrusted to the minister as a primary calling.
A few months ago Rev. M.H. Sliggers wrote a worthwhile article about this in our magazine. Coincidentally, I had also been occupying myself with this topic. What I am writing here is only intended to further illuminate a few points.
1. One of the first questions for the elders is of course whether the preaching is according to the sound doctrine (see Titus 1:9; 2:1, 8). What is in view here concerns the doctrine that is according to God’s Word. Someone who brings the gospel must guide the word of truth along a straight path (see 2 Tim. 2:15), and needs to ensure that what he teaches agrees with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and that it accords with godliness (1 Tim. 6:3), in short, he needs to abide in the teaching of Christ (2 John 9). There has to be “purity” in the doctrine, a “sound speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:7, 8).
The Form for Ordination of ministers of the Word says that God’s Word must not only be “pure”, but also is to be served in its entirety. Based on the example of Paul, “the whole counsel of God” needs to be proclaimed (Acts 20:27). The choice of texts may not be one-sided. The message must not be reduced. The preacher has to resist the temptation to preach only what people like to hear nowadays!
2. The Form for the Ordination of elders mentions in the second place: the congregation is to be edified in every respect. All the work of the office bearers has as its goal the edification of the congregation (Eph. 4:12; 2 Cor. 12:19). This applies particularly to the preaching. This building up is about a growing in depth: strengthening the members of the church to be filled with all the fullness of Christ (Eph. 3:19; 4:13ff), but also about growing in size: with a missionary focus on “those who are outside” (Phil. 2:15; 1 Peter 2:9). Through the preaching the congregation needs to grow in faith and in love (2 Thess. 1:3), increase in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18), be holy in all its conduct (1 Peter 1:15), and abound in love for one another and for all (1 Thess. 3:12).
The form speaks of being built up “in every respect”. That is a sign of attention for the sermon evaluation. No need of the congregation may be neglected in the preaching. Weaknesses need to be given attention. The preaching must be truly focused on the struggles, temptations and difficulties in which the congregation finds itself.
3. In the preaching the Word has to be administered. The congregation must be introduced to the treasury that is the Word of God. This implies that the minister will involve himself in the exegesis of the text and the context. That is what he has been trained to do. I often hear the complaint that sermons fall short on this point and do not show sufficient study. The congregation has the right to be instructed. The exposition of the Scriptures is essential for a good sermon. The preacher needs to be serious about the explanation of the text. In doing so, the place of the text in the whole of God’s Word should not be overlooked. The full message of the Word must always be proclaimed.
4. Christ needs to be proclaimed in the preaching (Col. 1:28). Of Philip it is said: “And beginning with this Scripture, he told him (the eunuch) the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). A sermon without Christ is not a sermon. The Old Testament Scriptures also bear witness of him (John 5:39; 1 Peter 1:11). Following the example of Philip, the preacher must take his starting point from the text and show how it speaks of Christ. This does not mean that preaching is exclusively about Christ. The work of the Father and that of the Holy Spirit must certainly receive attention. The preaching will need to be trinitarian. But this trinitarian aspect is captured in the Christological focus: the Father of whom we are speaking is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Father for the sake of his Son (see 2 Cor. 1:3; Eph. 1:3); the Spirit given to the congregation is the Spirit of His Son (Gal. 4:6) or the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9). Compare how the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the work of the Father in Lord’s Day 9 and of the work of the Spirit in Lord’s Day 32!
5. The preaching must take into account salvation history. Scripture does not give us stand-alone stories, but it proclaims to us the one story of God culminating in the birth of the Redeemer, and of the Saviour who has come. When preaching about Old Testament content, one should not put an easy equation sign: Abraham did this and therefore we now need to do that. God’s work has progressed. Salvation is now “nearer than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11). The work of Christ and the coming of the Spirit gave us greater responsibility (Heb. 10:29). The Old Testament figures first of all have their place on God’s road to Bethlehem (Acts 13:36). This position should not be forgotten, no matter how much they are also examples to follow in their faith (Heb. 11:4ff) and in their failures serve as a warning to us (1 Cor. 10:6). This redemptive-historical aspect sometimes seems to be respected less. I hear from elderly people the complaint that “exemplarism” is back on the pulpits and that sermons rather often tend to become sermons based on a specific “motto”.
6. Christ needs to be proclaimed: not only what he has done for us, but also what Christ is doing in us. This implies then also everything that his Spirit is realizing. Fellow Christian brothers speak here of the “appropriation” of salvation. The activity of the Spirit needs to receive attention in the preaching. How he is working and what he accomplishes in us. What characterizes God’s children and what do they experience when the Spirit renews them? I would like to refer here to what the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort have to say about this. Does the preaching help the congregation to experience the faith correctly? Does the congregation know how to speak about the scriptural spiritual experiences?
7. Luther already stated, “Du weißt, der Glaube ist ein unruhig Ding” (Faith is a troubled thing). Does the preaching deal with the difficulties, the doubts and temptations that God’s children are facing in their faith life? Do the “counter voices” receive attention, which are voiced in our modern way of life, raising questions amidst a world full of violence and injustices? Is the preaching pastoral in the sense that it comforts the fainthearted and the “weak” (1 Thess. 5:14)?
8. In preaching the kingdom is opened and closed, as we confess with HC Lord’s Day 31. Is it taken into account that there may be unbelievers and hypocrites in the congregation, and is God’s judgment proclaimed to them? In our present time people want to hear about love and security. However, the proclamation of God’s wrath and judgment cannot be missed in the preaching if there is to be any ministry of “the keys” from the pulpit.
9. Legalistic preaching unnerves the hearers and makes people despondent. In the preaching, God’s promises must always be put first in order to exhort from there. The Canons of Dort state that the promise of the gospel is to be proclaimed openly along with the command to repent and believe (II.5). The preacher is the bearer of a very joyful message; he must proclaim the gospel. And on the basis of this the exhortation is sounded (see Rom. 12:1; Col. 3:1; 1 Thess. 4:8). In the covenant one can speak of “a promise and an obligation”, but what the Lord asks of us, he first promises us! Precisely because this is the case, the congregation has to realize that without holiness no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14), and therefore an exhortation needs to be in place for daily repentance.
10. The call to self-examination may not be lacking in the preaching (see 2 Cor. 12:5). What is important here is the “rightness” and “genuineness” of faith. Do we accept everything the Lord says, do we truly know the Lord Jesus, is our life according to his Word? There is always the danger of a “dead faith” (James 2:17). True faith is a faith working through love (Gal. 5:6). It becomes evident in good works. In the preaching, attention needs to be paid to what characterizes God’s children. Elders can also find much about this in our confessions (e.g., in HC LD 12, 33; Belgic Confession Art. 29; Canons of Dort I.12; V.2, 12).
11. The Form for the Ordination of Ministers of the Word also mentions as their task “to expose all errors and heresies”. This certainly also needs to happen from the pulpit. Modern errors that threaten the congregation may not be ignored. In the pulpit the preacher must be the shepherd “par excellence”, watching over the flock (see Acts 20:29). It is traditionally the preaching based on the Catechism, which is particularly suited to this refutation.
12. There is a need for proper leadership (1 Tim. 5:17) in preaching and teaching. The right way must be shown (Isa. 30:21). That is the way of conversion and of faith, of obedience and self-denial, of the hidden relationship with God, of love for one’s neighbour and of love “toward all”.
I have provided here some points of interest, which, in my opinion, can provide greater depth and scope in the discussion, or evaluation of the preaching in the meeting of the consistory. I am aware that I am far from exhaustive. The presentation by the minister, his use of vocabulary, his attention to young people and the elderly, his way of “coming across”, all of these are matters that I have not touched upon. Much has been written about this. I have limited myself to the more substantial aspects of the preaching.
It is my hope that the above may be of service in the brotherly discussion about that for which the elders too bear a great deal of responsibility. It is a conversation of which I gladly expect that it will be conducted with much love and wisdom, in the realization that the preaching is a wonderful, but not an insignificant task and that God’s power is accomplished in weakness!