As the Chief and Central Work of the Christian Minister
We must go to the New Testament in order to find our foundation for a right estimate of Preaching; we must ask what our Lord said of it as He called and sent forth the first Christian preachers; and what were the thoughts and feelings of the Apostles in reference to the work entrusted to them. We find, first, that the men whom the Lord called to His service in the Kingdom of Heaven were all called to preach. And, secondly, that the men whom He called and sent all recognise Preaching as their chief work, and as one of great responsibility.
I. Both these points are seen in the descriptions and illustrations of the Minister's work which we find in the New Testament.
The illustrations which our Lord uses are most significant. "Come ye after Me," He says, as He calls the first pair of Apostles, "and I will make you fishers of men." And in one of the parables in Matt. 8. He says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a net cast into the sea, and gathering of every kind. But the only means for catching men is the Word of the Kingdom, the Word of the Gospel; that is both rod and line and net.
In Matt. 9:36-38 the disciples are bidden to pray "the Lord of the harvest" to "send forth labourers into His harvest." The labourers wanted were reapers, and the only means suggested for garnering the harvest is the message entrusted to them as to the nearness of the Kingdom, as in 10:7: "As ye go, preach, saying, The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." The familiar Parable of the Sower is on the same lines, describing Christ Himself, and by implication His servants also, as sowing the seed which is the Word of the Kingdom.
The same thought appears in all these illustrations; whether as fishermen, or reapers of a ripe harvest, or as sowers of seed which would afterwards yield a harvest, their chief work was to preach the Word which was being made known to them. By such figurative speech their minds were prepared for the clearer and more definite charges, and the fuller descriptions of their work as preachers, which we find towards the close of the Lord's Ministry. The chief of these descriptions is that His servants were to be witnesses, who would testify of Him in conjunction with the Holy Spirit; they would testify out of the fulness of the knowledge gained already through their association with Him on earth; and out of the fulness of the further knowledge of Him which they would gain through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The words in John 15:26, 27 are remarkable: "When the Comforter is come... He shall bear witness of Me, and ye also bear witness." They would be bearing witness in co-operation with the Spirit. We have the same expression in Luke 24:44-49 and Acts 1:8. The combination of the two thoughts is to be observed: "ye shall receive power" and "ye shall become witnesses unto Me." Their inspiration would be in order to witness-bearing.
The recorded charges to the Apostles after our Lord's resurrection confirm what was emphasised during the later Ministry. Peter was charged to "feed the lambs" of the Lord's flock, and to "feed" and "tend" the sheep. He was to be a pastor, a shepherd, acting on behalf of the Chief Shepherd: but milk and strong meat alike are found only in the message of the Gospel; and the feeding and tending can only be by the use of that message, in preaching and teaching.
Nearly the last words of the Lord before His ascension were the solemn and emphatic charge to His servants to "preach the Gospel," and "make disciples of all nations." Nothing can be more explicit as a declaration of the chief work which He was committing to His representatives. The language of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles shows us how the Apostles themselves conceived of their work. They use for the most part echoes or reminiscences of our Lord's own words. Soon after Pentecost they asked for the appointment of deacons that they themselves might be free to devote themselves to what they recognised as their proper work, viz. "the ministry of the Word, and prayer."
Paul, in describing his work in his address to the Elders from Ephesus, speaks of it as "declaring," "teaching," "testifying"; adding that the ministry committed to him by Christ was to "testify the Gospel of the Grace of God."
This is the/thought which in one form or another we find in his Epistles; e.g. in Rom. 1:1-5 he says/he had been "separated unto the Gospel of God"; he had "received grace and apostleship unto obedience to the faith," etc. And he adds, "so, as much as in me is, I am ready-to preach the Gospel to you that are in Rome also" (ver. 15). It was that purpose which made him desire to come to Rome.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians is rich in descriptions of his work. With the strongest emphasis he says, "Christ sent me, not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel" (1:17). His work had been "proclaiming the mystery of God," the essence of it being "Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (2:1, 2). He uses a remarkable series of figures in 3:6-15, all illustrating the "speaking" and "feeding" of vers. 1, 2. He and his helpers had been fellow-workers with God in planting and watering, in husbandry and building; such had been their work, the instrument being always the Truth.
In 1 Cor. 4:1 we have another important description of the Apostles' work: "Ministers," that is, officers, "of Christ, and Stewards of "the mysteries of God." Stewards in the sense of Luke 12:42: the "faithful and wise steward, whom his Lord hath made ruler over His household, to give them their portion of meat in due season." Paul so thought of himself and his fellow-workers, and desired to be "so thought of"; they were dispensers of the Word of God.
We have yet another illustration bringing out the same point in the account of Paul's conversion, where the Lord gives him his commission (Acts 9:15): "he is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My Name." In agreement with this the Apostle describes his work in 2 Cor 2:14, 15 as being to make manifest "the saviour of His knowledge in every place." He regarded himself as a mere "earthen vessel" (4:7) charged with the precious fragrance which he only lived to make known.
In 5:18-20 he describes himself as an Ambassador of Christ, entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, and beseeching men on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God. He uses a similar illustration in 1 Tim. 2:7, he is a preacher, that is, a Herald; in 2 Tim. 1:11 and Tit. 1:3 he speaks of his message as the Herald's proclamation which it was his supreme duty to make known. As in Acts 10:42 Peter says, "who commanded us to preach to the people"; that is, to proclaim their message as Heralds.
Illustrations and descriptions of the Christian Minister's work could be multiplied, but these are sufficient to show that in our Lord's view, and in the conviction of the Apostles, the chief and central work of the Minister is to preach. The Pastoral Epistles are very definite on this point. And at the same time the greatness and importance of the work are clearly set forth, and its awful responsibility.
II. These impressions are deepened if we consider carefully the prominence which is given to preaching in connection with the Call to the Ministry. The Ministry, as we have already said, is not a profession which a man chooses for himself because his tastes lie in that direction, or because he thinks it will secure him a satisfactory means of support. No doubt-there have always been those who have for such reasons sought entrance into the Ministry; as in the old times men sought recognition as prophets, or admission into the ranks of the priesthood of false systems of religion, for the sake of the position and its emoluments. But the true Christian Minister, like the Prophet of old, is called of Christ to undertake the great responsibility. As Horton says: "He is called of God, called to receive the message of God." Verbum Dei, p. 28. Christ calls the man: the Church recognises and ratifies it. Christlieb puts it well: "For the ministry of the word in the congregation the preacher, even if already converted and equipped with the necessary teaching gift and culture, requires today a special call, an official authority. This is (a) Divine;... no one should enter the preacher's office unless he is sent, and knows himself to be an ambassador of Christ." Holding fast the "necessity of this inward Divine call as the deepest foundation of the office,... so on the other hand we insist also (b) on the necessity of the human call through the regular officers of the Church, by whom the Lord completes His calling externally, and who have on their side in this matter to seek for and to follow the Divine Will."
Wherever in the New Testament the Call to the Ministry is spoken of, preaching is the point made emphatic. This has been already shown in the case of the Twelve and of Paul; and is also made plain in the case of Timothy and Titus. Timothy was chosen by Paul, and the two Epistles addressed to him show that whatever other duties were laid upon him, preaching was to be his first work; and he in turn was to choose out "faithful men, who should be able to teach others also."
It is the Lord's action all through; in these latter cases He called men by the Holy Spirit, who guided Paul and the Church, as in the former cases He called the men Himself. This we believe to be the Lord's continued work; He still calls men to the Ministry by the Holy Spirit. He still guides the Church in her great responsibility of determining whom the Lord is calling.
1. As to the mode of the Call: it is essentially an impression produced on the mind and heart and conscience by the Spirit of God that one ought to preach: a deep conviction, often unwelcome, as in the case of Moses and Jonah when the call to particular service came to them; and as in the case of Timothy, as we gather from expressions in the Second Epistle; e.g. 1:4, 7, 8; 2:3. The form of the impression will vary according to temperament and education; and the conviction will be deeper and stronger in some cases than others. And the first indication of the Call may be from without, as in the case of the Apostles and of Timothy; a minister or other worker being impressed with a man's fitness. But the fundamental point in nearly all cases is the conviction of a call to preach. Christlieb well describes it "The Divine calling and commission of the preacher is seen partly in that special spiritual gift of teaching, the preaching charisma bestowed by the Lord; partly in the sincere inward desire, free from self-seeking, to dedicate himself to the distinct clear impulse and leading of the Spirit, to the witness-calling and nothing else; partly also in outward appointments and indications on the part of the Heavenly Chief Shepherd of the Church through His representatives on earth."
Dr. Burton, in his Yale Lectures on Preaching, has some excellent remarks on the "pull of numerous forces"—" the variety of God's operations in selecting and constraining His servants."
2. The Church has to determine the fitness of the man before giving him public recognition as called of God to the work.
All Evangelical Churches agree with us that the three test questions are: First, has he grace? That is, personal piety; spiritual life; experimental knowledge of Christ and His salvation; and real Christian character. Has he the mind of Christ? the disposition of Christ? the tenderness and sympathy which Paul speaks of in 1 Thess. 2:7, 8? The disposition of Christ is essentially sympathetic; without this the preacher will never get into close touch and sympathy with his hearers. This is essential. To quote Christlieb: "Since preaching in its inmost nature is a bearing testimony, and its most effective operation rests principally upon the giving of a living and Spirit-filled testimony, the fundamental requisite for the preacher is the personal knowledge and experience of salvation, or faith in his own heart and the anointing of the Holy Spirit."
Secondly, has he gifts? Natural gifts touched by the Spirit of God; gifts that will develop in him the instincts of the Shepherd. Gifts of heart as well as mind and body that will make him a live preacher, able to speak to the heart and conscience. Has he capacity of mind and body for the work of preacher and pastor; including capacity for study and the power of public speech; the power to order thought and express it in clear speech? "In addition to the personals experience of salvation, a special gift of teaching, a spiritual aptitude or skill in teaching, is requisite, through the bestowal of which God fulfils and declares the sovereign right of His. choice for this calling."
Thirdly, has he fruit? Have there been results in the experimental stages of preaching showing that he is able to interest people in his message; and that the Hand of the Lord is with him, so that the conviction and conversion of men, or at least their edification and helping, are secured? Methodists lay greater stress on preaching in the earlier years of training than some other Churches. It is only by the actual practice of preaching that a man can learn how to preach; only so can he gain freedom and efficiency.
Nothing can be more stimulating and solemnising to a minister than the frequent contemplation of this aspect of his work; he has been called and sent by the Lord Himself. There is evidently no uncertainty in the minds of the Apostles, or in our Lord's own thought, as to the place of preaching in the work of the Christian Minister; it is his supreme work, the thing for which he is specially separated from all other work. He is the servant of Christ; His officer, His ambassador and herald and witness; His workman, sowing the seed, reaping the harvest, feeding and tending the sheep and lambs of His flock. He is called and sent for these definite purposes; and in all the many-sided description of his work, preaching is clearly chief; all his other duties spring from this and group themselves round it.
We cannot therefore emphasise too strongly the importance of preaching. It is the means which the Lord has appointed for the extension of His kingdom and the salvation of men. It is the means by which the Church was created and has been maintained, and revived time after time when her life had decayed. The power of preaching has been manifested all through the ages since Pentecost; there has never been a great revival except by its instrumentality, Methodism, like Christianity itself, owes her very existence to preaching; Methodism was a revival of primitive Christianity by means of preaching. Ker, in his History of Preaching, says: "No one will talk lightly or flippantly of sermons or preachers who thinks upon the. thousands upon thousands of men who in all the countries of Europe and in all the Churches, with the most varied ability, but many of them with the very highest, have devoted themselves to God's work in speaking for Him to their fellow-men. What a different Europe this would have been, poor as in many respects it is, and what a, different country ours would have been, but for the seeds of truth and freedom and devotion that, among many weeds, have been sown by theses preachers of the word." And again: "Christianity has shown that it possesses the power of public speech in a special and unprecedented degree. In Greece and Rome we have distinguished orators:—yet it is only when Christianity enters the world that we see its highest achievements. If the value of speech may be best measured by its effects, then no other sphere in which language has been employed can be compared with Christian preaching; for by what the Apostle calls its 'foolishness' it has produced unparalleled results." The great aim therefore of every Minister who would see revival and progress in the Church committed to him must be to master the secret of effective preaching. Only preaching can accomplish what is needed in the quickening and upbuilding of the Church, and the gathering in of outsiders. Power in preaching is not a thing of the past; as the need of it is as great as ever, so its efficacy is as great as ever if right methods be adopted.
This line of New Testament teaching brings out certain other points of importance: First, the grave error of the Sacerdotalist or priestly view of the minister's position, as held by the Roman Catholic or the High Anglican. There is no word descriptive of Christian Ministers in the New Testament which implies priestly office or function; no such word is ever applied by our Lord to Himself, or used in reference to the Apostles; all the passages we have considered describe the Minister in quite other ways. The Sacerdotalists make the Sacraments central and all-important as vehicles of the Grace of God: the Holy Spirit passing into the child's nature when the "priest" sprinkles the water; Christ Himself being given along with the consecrated elements as the "priest" hands them to the recipient. Hence they regard preaching as a subordinate function of comparatively small importance; with them the Sacraments are central. With Evangelicals the Word, the message of the Gospel, is central, as being the instrument which the Holy Spirit uses for His work of conviction and regeneration, as the hearer of the Word becomes a believer and receives Christ. In all other religions the priestly function is prominent and central; in Christianity the Minister is Evangelist and Prophet and Teacher rather than Priest.
Secondly, the nature of the preacher's authority is seen to be authority as the bearer of a message from God. It is delegated authority; of the same kind as the authority of a herald or art ambassador; it is official rather than personal. We claim a hearing from men, not because of personal qualifications, or special knowledge, as in the case of a lecturer on some subject in which he is an expert or specialist; but because we represent One who has a right to the attention of all men as their Sovereign Lord; One who not only rightly claims authority over all, but is also-full of love for all and is seeking to save all. It is in His name that we call to the sons of men.
We claim a hearing also because we are the bearers of a message that is of supreme value as well as authority. Phillips Brooks speaks of the life of nobleness and usefulness for the man who "preaches truth and duty on their own intrinsic authority"; and who wins "personal power and influence because he does not seek them, but seeks the prevalence of righteousness and the salvation of men's souls." As in 2 Cor. 4:2, where Paul says, "commending ourselves to every man's conscience by the manifestation of the truth." We bear a message from God that we have pondered deeply, and have felt the power of in our own heart and conscience; a message that by the power of the Holy Spirit often so touches men that they even think that the preacher is making personal allusions. They recognise their own character and needs as they listen, and should be able to see that the salvation of the Gospel meets their case. And yet for the preacher to assert his authority is to provoke antagonism; it is authority that must make itself felt without occasion on his part to assert it. And so the power of the preacher is not the power of rhetoric or of oratory, though these may help in the attractive and forcible delivery of the message; it is the power of one whom God has sent with a message to men's hearts and consciences, and to men's needs, with the demonstration of the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, the distinction between the functions of the Pulpit and the Press. These are often compared, and it is said that the Press is superseding the Pulpit. That can never be; the functions and provinces of the two are different, though their respective provinces sometimes "march" together; and sometimes their objects are identical. Instruction, appeal, warning, encouragement, exhortation, bearing on moral subjects, are found in the Press as well as heard in the Pulpit. The appeals of the Press are often of high tone and of noble quality, and are the utterance of men of deep conviction. But at the heart of the true preacher's message is the declaration of the Will of God; he calls men to become reconciled to God, and to receive from Him the gift of righteousness and to follow after the high standard of righteousness which is exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ. And his appeals are those of the living voice; face to face he speaks to men, calling them to listen and to give heed and turn to God. However high our estimate may be of the greatness of the work of the Press, these are fundamental distinctions.