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Judging from the number of books about preaching churning from the presses each year, Christian ministers are constantly looking for ways to improve their preaching. This desire for improvement is commendable. If we are to grow in grace (2 Pet 3:18), and to fan into flame those gifts that God has entrusted us (2 Tim 1:6), then every minister ought to aspire to grow in his preaching (cf. 1 Tim 4:15). No preacher is so good (or bad) that he cannot be better.
Such growth can only benefit the church. After all, it is through the sound preaching of the Word of God that, as Paul told Timothy, “you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16). Not, of course, that any minister or sermon has inherent power to save a sinner. Rather, as the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the point, “the grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word.” Further, by the ministry of the Word, this same faith “is increased and strengthened” (WCF 14.6). This fact means that people in the pew must be deeply invested in preaching. Preaching is how we will grow in the Christian life. For this reason, we need to know what makes for a good sermon. We need to learn how to listen to a sermon. We need to learn how to profit from the sermons we hear.
Few books in the Bible illustrate the relationship between the preaching of the Word and a flourishing church like the Acts of the Apostles. Alec Motyer has recently captured the point well:
Here is a principle to ponder: that which makes the Church a distinctive company in the world is the Word of God – or, putting it more concisely, the Word of God is the constitutive reality at the heart of the Church. It is what makes the Church what it is … What we call ‘the Acts of the Apostles’ is a case in point. In its twenty-eight chapters there are about thirty-seven references to the growth of the Church. Indeed ‘The Growing Church’ would be a more suitable title than ‘the Acts of the Apostles’. Of the thirty-seven or so references… twenty-four link growth with the preaching of the word of God – indeed in 12:24 the growth of the Church is actually called the growth of the Word, as if they were so closely related that they could be identified one with the other.(1)
Acts, Motyer is saying, hammers home the connection between the preaching of the Word and the growth of the church.
It is no surprise, then, that Acts is filled with examples of preaching. All but one of eleven major speeches (Stephen’s) in Acts were delivered by Peter (Acts 2, 3, 10) or Paul (Acts 13, 17, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28).(2) This fact is in itself telling. To Peter God had entrusted a ministry to the Jew; and to Paul, a ministry to the Gentile (see Gal 2:9). It is through these two apostles’ respective ministries that Luke will highlight the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (1:8), that is, from Jew to Gentile (see Rom 1:16-17). Significantly, their ministries consist of and the church expands and grows by their preaching of the Word of God. In fact, Luke uses nearly thirty different verbs in Acts to describe this apostolic preaching ministry!(3)
Acts gives us a variety of sermons. Some of its sermons are evangelistic (e.g. Acts 2, 13). At least one is addressed to an exclusively Christian audience (Acts 20). Others are apologetic in their scope (Acts 22, 24, 26). Of the evangelistic sermons, some are delivered to Jews (Acts 2, 3, 13), while others are addressed to pagans (e.g. Acts 17). Preaching is versatile. It can convert the sinner; it can edify the saint; it can refute the gainsayer. Preaching is also suited to all kinds of audiences – those who know their Bibles backwards and forwards, and those who have never even heard of the Bible; those who are cultured and learned, and those who have no formal education. What is striking is that, amidst all this diversity, the apostles preach one message. To be sure, the apostles, in the words of theWestminster Larger Catechism, “apply themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers” (Q&A 159). But that adaptability is in the service of the gospel, never at the gospel’s expense.
Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:14-41 is the first Christian sermon. That is, it is the first sermon preached after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. In that sense, it is the “mother of all sermons.” It sets the stage for the sermons that will follow in Acts. It also gives us practical guidance and direction, whether we are called to preach or are called to listen to preaching. In what follows, let us ask what principles we can glean from this sermon about Christian preaching.(4)
- Christian preaching is biblical
It seems commonplace to say that Christian preaching is biblical – “Of course! What else would it be?,” you might say. In our day, however, this point needs to be stressed. Much preaching is not biblical in the way that it ought to be. But what do we mean when we say that preaching is biblical?
One thing that strikes us in reading Peter’s sermon is how much of it comes from the Old Testament. He quotes Joel 2 at Acts 2:17-21, Psalm 16 at Acts 2:25-28, and Psalm 110 at Acts 2:34-35. Not only is Peter concerned to quote Scripture, but he is also concerned to explain the Scripture quoted. Peter takes the time to unfold the meaning of each passage that he cites. The events of Pentecost, Peter says in 2:14-15, are “what [were] uttered through the prophet Joel” (2:16). The death and resurrection of Christ (2:22-24) were precisely what David had prophesied of his Son and Lord in Psalm 16. The exaltation of Christ in his resurrection, session, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit (2:32-33) had also been foretold by David in the 110th Psalm (2:34-35). It is fair to say that Scripture is the engine that drives this sermon forward.
Christian preaching, then, is expositional. That is to say, its goal is to explain Scripture for the benefit of the hearers. Ministers do not stand before the congregation to proclaim their opinions about politics, science, culture, literature, or a host of other areas. It is not that these areas are unimportant in themselves. It is that ministers have neither the divine authority nor the promised competency to make such areas the stuff of their sermons. “The preacher’s business,” Robert L. Dabney said, “is just to show the people what is in the Bible.”(5)
This standard sets an admittedly high bar for Christian ministers. We have no right to expect our hearers to heed our words, much less listen to them, unless we are faithful to this principle. Ministers are, by definition, “servants,” called to declare the Word of God to the people of God. Our authority is neither in our own persons nor in the church of which we are part. Our authority is alone in the God we serve and in his Word, the Bible. As Calvin noted, “all the authority that is possessed by pastors … is subject to the Word of God.”(6) If we take this principle seriously, then we will not be content to utter biblical things in our sermons. We will also show our hearers where those biblical things stand in the Scripture.
- Christian preaching is Christ-centered
The undisputed center of Peter’s sermon is the person and work of Jesus Christ. Peter’s goal is to explain to his hearers who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for sinners. Therefore, Peter reminds the Jews in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost who Jesus is – “Jesus of Nazareth [is] a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know” (2:22). He is a true man, the Second Adam, and therefore qualified to be our Redeemer. He is a divinely commissioned figure – God’s Messiah (Prophet, Priest, and King). And this was a matter of public knowledge.
Peter stresses what it is that Jesus has done and the significance of that work in verses 23-26. Notice that Peter’s exposition of Jesus’ accomplishments centers upon his death and resurrection. These two great works of Christ are the very heart of Christian proclamation. The remainder of the sermons in Acts bears this out. Paul’s own summary of the Christian gospel at 1 Cor 15:1-4 states the point in explicit terms. To preach Christ is to preach Christ, crucified and raised from the dead.
The apostles preach the person and work of Christ at every turn, and to all kinds of audiences. This message presupposes the universal sinfulness of humanity. In Adam, all human beings are sinners and deserving of God’s eternal punishment in hell. Whatever the audience’s language, culture, education, or familiarity with Scripture may be, human beings are in tragic solidarity. In the Second Adam, there is forgiveness and renewal, life and immortality for all who believe. He is the “Savior of the World,” that is, his work is for Jew and Gentile. For this reason, the apostles preached the same “message of salvation” to stunningly different audiences (Acts 13:26; cf. Eph 1:13).
Today, there is much understandable concern about how to communicate biblical truth to an increasingly post-Christian, post-modern, post-everything culture. There is profound appreciation of the chasms that often lie between Western and non-Western cultures. But, of course, much the same could be said of the first century. In the face of these daunting challenges, the apostles did not choose the course of silence or inaction. They preached Christ to the perishing (2 Cor 4:3). They knew that Jesus was a Savior adapted to their hearers’ human need as sinners. It was that conviction that brought the gospel to the end of the earth, and now bears the gospel across the world.
- Christian preaching is applicatory
Peter is not merely concerned to deliver information about doctrine, biblical history, or even Jesus Christ. To avoid misunderstanding, we should stress that Peter is most certainly concerned to deliver information, and information about doctrine and Bible history and Jesus Christ at that. Biblical preaching is never less than propositional. But instruction is hardly the sum total of Peter’s preaching. In preaching, instruction is the means to an end. Peter proceeds to apply the truth taught to his hearers. “Doctrine is but the drawing of the bow,” Thomas Manton noted, “application is hitting the mark.”(7)
We see Peter doing this throughout but especially at the close of his sermon. The Jewish hearers were not only brought to intellectual conviction that Jesus was the Messiah (verse 36), but their consciences were struck with a sense of their bloodguilt in handing their Messiah over to death (cf. verse 23). They were, as I. Howard Marshall describes them, “broken-hearted and standing under conviction of sin.”(8)
Peter is both bold and specific in the way that he counsels these men and women. On the one hand, he does not shy from authoritatively delivering commands – he tells them to “repent and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ” (verse 38). He also sets before them two promises – the promise of the “forgiveness of sins,” of which Christian baptism is sign and seal, and the promise of the “gift of the Holy Spirit,” the Spirit of Christ who gives the grace of repentance to sinners (verse 38; cf. 5:31, 11:18).
Application is what sets preaching apart from a lecture or a lesson. Application is what connects biblical truth with the circumstances of the hearers. Application should draw searching questions from the Word of God for hearers to examine themselves (2 Cor 13:5). It should also provide pointed direction from the preached Word for one’s faith and practice (Acts 2:38). It should do so in such a way as to point hearers to the promises of the gospel and the resources that Christ in his grace alone supplies (Acts 2:38b-39). One word that earlier generations used to describe the kind of applicatory preaching that Luke describes here is “experimental.” Paul Helm helpfully describes the meaning of this word.
‘Experimental’ preaching means preaching that is testing, preaching that directs the believer to self-examination and action, not preaching that is dry or academic in tone or content. Nor preaching that is ‘experiential’ (in some generalized sense). Such preaching ought not to be some exotic, occasional exercise, but rather part of the staple diet of the Christian church, by which the wheat is separated from the chaff, and the believer is established in the faith that works by love.(9)
It is not enough that preaching be biblical and Christ-centered. It must also be applicatory.
- Christian preaching is urgent
Derek Thomas notes of Peter’s sermon that it is marked by a “sense of urgency.”(10) The reason for this urgency is that Christ’s death and resurrection has inaugurated what the Old Testament prophets called “the last days” (Acts 2:17). It is now a day of salvation (2:21), but this day will not last forever. The “next great redemptive event is the second coming, the date of which is unknown to us.”(11) In light of this reality, Luke tells us, Peter “continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation'” (2:40). Peter knows that his hearers are sinners, justly subject to God’s wrath. He knows that it is presently the day of salvation, and there is opportunity for them to be saved. But he also knows that that the day of wrath is coming (Rom 2:1-11), when God’s final sentence will be delivered, from which there will be no appeal. The day of mercy will be over. For this reason, Peter “exhorts” them – there is both earnestness and urgency to his message as he presses his hearers to come to Christ for salvation, and to flee the wrath to come.
Urgency is not emotional or verbal manipulation. It is not deceitful and does not engage in underhanded tactics in the desire to win converts (see 2 Cor 4:2). It stems, rather, from a healthy sense of both the character of God – his justice and mercy -and our present place in redemptive history. “We persuade others,” Paul said, “knowing the fear of the Lord” (2 Cor 5:11), and as those who know that “now is the favorable time … now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2).
If we grasp the realities that Peter grasped with like urgency, then we will redouble our efforts to preach biblical, Christ-centered, and applicatory sermons. We will feed our hearers truths from the Bible about eternal and ultimate matters, not our own opinions and prejudices about what is transitory and passing. We will point our hearers to Jesus Christ and to him crucified, the only refuge a sinner has from the coming wrath and from the flames of divine judgment; the one who alone is and gives life and light to sinful people. We will press our hearers with the claims of Scripture upon their lives, that we apply it to them in all the diversity of their circumstances.
In the apostles’ day and in the days since, such preaching was the occasion of hundreds and thousands of persons willingly bowing the knee to Christ. Of course, the Spirit is sovereign and blows where he wills (John 3:8). It is not ours to determine much less manufacture the outcome. But Acts shows us that this is the kind of preaching that God was once pleased to bless, and God’s character has not changed. It is enough for us to be faithful to the kind of preaching to which God has called his church. And if numbers should come to know the Lord and to be built up in his grace, we know to ascribe the result and the glory not to method, technique, or eloquence, but to our sovereign, triune God.
Dr. Guy Waters is Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. His latest book is How Jesus Runs the Church (P&R 2011).
- Alec Motyer, Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2013), pp. 18, 19.
- Following the reckoning of H. N. Ridderbos, “The Speeches of Peter in the Acts of the Apostles” (Tyndale, 1962), p.7. Ridderbos omits here the speeches of Peter in Acts 1,4,5,15; and of Paul in Acts 14.
- See the chart at Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan(NBST 27; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2011), pp. 99-100.
- See further the helpful surveys at Dennis Johnson, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption(Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1997), pp. 141-165; Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, pp. 88-101.
- R. L. Dabney, “The Gospel Idea of Preaching” in Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, Volume 1(repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), p. 596.
- Calvin, Commentary on John 7:48.
- Thomas Manton, A Practical Commentary, or an Exposition, with Notes, on the Epistle of James(London: James Nisbet, 1871), p. 357.
- Marshall, Acts(TNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 80.
- Paul Helm, “‘Experimental’ or ‘Experiential’?,” October 1, 2013, www.paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com.
- Derek Thomas, Acts(REC; Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2011), p. 51.
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