A Bit Less Preaching, Please?

December 13, 2007

Today’s Featured Toolbox is a provocative post I came across this week. Though I disagree with some of what Gordon Cheng proposes, I found it stimulating to reconsider why declarative preaching must have a central place. How would you respond to Cheng’s points? Not least – I’d be interested for any Richard Baxter experts to comment!


A bit less on preaching, please.

I’ve never really agreed with the evangelical emphasis on preaching, and never quite understood how evangelicals make so much more of this than of other forms of teaching. It seems to me that the emphasis on public preaching, or should I say perhaps ‘pulpiteering’—as against private and personal ministry through, for example, conversation or Bible study groups—is quite unbiblical.

So I was heartened today to pick up Richard Baxter’s old but still revolutionary work The Reformed Pastor to discover that he agrees with me. He makes this sharp and relevant observation about ministry through conversation (or as he calls it, ‘interlocution’):

“I hope there are none so silly as to think this conference is not preaching. What? doth the number we speak to make it preaching? Or doth interlocution make it none? Surely a man may as truly preach to one, as to a thousand. And… if you examine, you will find that most of the preaching recorded in the New Testament, was by conference, and frequently interlocutory, and that with one or two, fewer or more, as opportunity served. Thus Christ himself did most commonly preach.”

Baxter gets around the difficulty I’m thinking about by redefining preaching, which is fair enough, I suppose. The quote is from p. 228 of my Banner of Truth edition, which I got for just under five bucks, a little while ago.

UPDATE: Gordon Cheng has added a helpful clarification comment in this posts comments section. Also, R. Scott Clark of Heidelblog has already replied on his blog and in our comments section. Here is the crux of it:

The practical reason that evangelicals still emphasize preaching, to the degree that emphasis still exists, is because they haven’t yet rid themselves of the every last vestige of the theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation or the original evangelicalism (as distinct from modern evangelicalism).

The original evangelicals, i.e. the Protestant Reformers emphasized the public proclamation of the Word (law and gospel) because they were convinced from Scripture that God has made promises specifically to use and bless the preached gospel (Rom 10). We summarize this understanding of the preached gospel by speaking of the preaching of the gospel as a “means of grace” (medium gratiae). It is our understanding of Paul’s teaching in Romans and elsewhere (e.g. 2 Tim 4:2) that the Spirit of God operates with and through Word (in the law) as it is preached to convict sinners of their sin and jeopardy before the all-holy God and through the Word (in the gospel) to raise them to life (regeneration), to give them faith, and to unite them to Christ.

Thus, in Heidelberg Catechism Q. 65 we confess that the Holy Spirit “works faith faith in our hearts through the preaching of the Holy Gospel and confirms it through the use of the holy sacraments.” We have a high view of preaching as a means of grace because Paul had a high view of the “foolishness” of gospel preaching (1 Cor 2). It doesn’t seem like it ought to “work” and if you’re looking for big numbers then call Bill Hybels or Bob Schuller. They know how to pull a crowd. If you want to know about preaching, however, look at Paul at Mars Hill. He preached the law and then he preached the gospel. Did he get a great response? Well Dennis (Dionysius) and a few others (Acts 17:34) followed him. That’s what happens sometimes. The Spirit blows where he wills (John 3).

What’s the big deal about preaching? It’s the vehicle, the instrument, the means by which God the Spirit brings his elect to faith. Otherwise, it’s not big deal.

Other Toolbox This Week
Challies Top 7 Books of 2007
Alliteration Device!
Puritan 2008
Baxter – How to Spend a Day With God
Allan Jacob’s on Pullman’s Trilogy
MP3 – Carson on Jeremiah
The Foolishness of Preaching
Some Excellent Historical Theology Books
Os Guinness on Evangelical Relevance
Geoff Grogan MP3: Expository Preaching – Some Important Principles
I almost Died – Noel Piper
Derek Thomas – Puritan Preaching and Conscionable Preaching
4 Reasons It Might be Worth Visiting Israel
News Report: British Ignorance Over Nativity
That Time Before You Speak
Philip Ryken Sermons List
Why Join a Small Church
You Might be a Bi-Vocational Pastor If…
G Campbell Morgan: A Preacher Come from God (pt 2)
G Campbell Morgan: A Preacher Come from God (pt 1)
What Sam Storms Believes


  1. Hi Colin,

    Thanks for this. Here’s my reply:


  2. Scott,

    Thanks for your insightful reply. If you don’t mind, I’ve added it to the main post as an update, and linked to your blog.


  3. After 13 years at one church I am moving to a new church in January and preparing for my first preaching series, which will be working through Titus. It is striking how Paul includes preaching in the introduction to the letter: “he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me.” This is why we value preaching – it brings light! I completely agree that preaching is more than pulpiteering, but Baxter clearly wasn’t against public preaching – he was for it, as well as being for ‘conversational’ preaching. Most of the week we are preaching to people one to one or in small groups, but church history teaches that as soon as the pulpit is abandoned the light becomes diminished.

    I think another, more personal, reason for the centrality of preaching is that it is the hard work required to be able to preach a competent public sermon that gives me something to say when I am one to one with somebody.

  4. The greatest champion for preaching was Paul. I don’t understand anyone who would say that preaching is not biblical. Paul’s second letter of encouragement to Timothy states that fact. 2 Timothy 4:1-2 says “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word. Be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.” Paul’s charge is a reminder that what we do in the pulpit is not answerable to any man, but to God alone. If we are pulpiteering, then God be merciful to us, because we have sinned. But if we are preaching, kerusso in the Greek, and being mindful of our duties as proclaimers of the Gospel, then we can stand before God in a humble spirit.

  5. There is a movement against preaching because all people have heard is lifeless, fruitless, bad preaching; preaching with no heart and no Holy Spirit. They do not know the alternative. I came to Christ because of a man preaching the gospel. And we must continue preaching so that some might come to Christ.

  6. Hi Colin

    Thanks for the link to my post. R.Scott Clark alerted me to his reply on Heidelblog, which I also appreciated and completely agreed with. I also thought, with respect, that it answered a point I wasn’t making. I am a great fan of preaching, having been well taught over the years by Phillip Jensen, Peter Jensen, John Woodhouse and many other fine Sydney evangelical preachers

    (Incidentally, I see that you have the 9 Marks blog listed right up the top of your blogroll. Recently my boss here at Matthias Media, Tony Payne, and Phillip Jensen, spoke at a Matthias Media conference in Washington alongside Mark Dever).

    My point is, I think, essentially the same as the one that Richard Baxter makes not only in the quote from *The Reformed Pastor* but also in the whole book. You are no doubt aware that Baxter was a regular and faithful public preacher whose habit was to preach twice weekly to his congregation at Kidderminster.

    Like him, I am a regular preacher (I won’t claim to be as regular or as faithful!) at my church, St Paul’s Carlingford in Sydney, where I have been leading one of the congregations in 2007. So I am not at all anti-preaching, any more than Baxter was.

    But my point—and I’ve expanded on it in various ways back at my blog—is that all word ministry that is based on the explanation and application of God’s inerrant saving word, the Bible, is equally a way that God uses in a ‘sacramental’ sense (not language that I would use, but it may help make the point) to bring grace to us by his Spirit.

    I’ve tried to point to some of the biblical arguments for this in my follow-up blog entry, here,which I’ve entitled “OK, a bit more on preaching then.” 😉

    Thanks again for the blog link, and God bless.

  7. PS You can find a slightly more respectable version of both posts, merged into one at the Matthias Media Briefing website.

    God bless!

  8. I’m by no means a Baxter expert but I’ve read a fair bit. Baxter isn’t saying preaching isn’t important. In that quote he is simply saying our visitation and oversight of the congregation is an extension of the ministry of the Word. One of the strong points he makes in the Reformed Pastor is that ministers should visit in the homes and catechize families.
    As to preaching, Baxter wrote:
    “One part of our work, and that the most excellent, because it tendeth to work on many, is the public preaching of the Word…It is no small matter to stand up in the face of a congregation, and deliver a message of salvation or damnation, as from the living God, in the name of our Redeemer. It is no easy matter to speak so plain, that the ignorant may understand us; and so seriously, that the deadest hearts may feel us; and so convincingly, that contradicting cavillers may be silenced”.
    Preaching for Baxter was ‘the most excellent’ work of the Reformed Pastor because it is nothing less than a message from God. He goes on to discuss how much ministers should honor preaching through preparation and passion.

  9. Gordon,

    Thanks for your very helpful clarification on the post. I can now see where you are coming from, and don’t think I would disagree with you on the overall point you are making (promoting non-pulpit Word-ministry). One observations and one question.

    The Observation – I’m not sure the best way to frame the point is by saying “a little LESS preaching please.” Perhaps this is simply a deliberately provocative ‘post title’? (Haven’t we all done that to make a point?!) Personally, however, my approach would be to talk of ‘elevating’ other word ministries to their rightful place, ‘in line with’ pulpit ministry. Because preaching is otherwise getting such a bad wrap in our culture (and, in my opinion, in much of evangelicalism) I don’t think we want to give any help to the critics by reducing the stock of preaching – even in the language we use.

    The Question – How practically can the preaching-pastor elevate the importance of other uses of Word-ministry in his church without diminishing his commitment to preaching in the pulpit?

    On another front, I really appreciate your ministry over there with Matthias. I enjoy reading The Briefing and heartily recommend it to others.


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