There is a vast difference between simply conveying information to people, which can be cold and ineffectual, and true preaching and witness.
We have a long-standing friend who was once driving in the north of Scotland with our fellow countryman the late professor John Murray of Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Professor Murray decided to turn the journey into a quiz! He asked a question: “What is the difference between a lecture and preaching?”
Our friend tried his best to come up with a good answer. But Professor Murray was not satisfied.
“Well, Professor Murray,” our friend eventually conceded, “What is the answer? What is the difference between a lecture and preaching?” “This is what it is:” said John Murray, “Preaching is a personal, passionate plea.”
Our friend again replied, “But what is the personal passionate plea?”
Quick as a flash, Professor Murray responded in Paul’s words: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”1
This is not just for the pulpit and the big public occasion. This is for the grocery store, for the golf course, for the coffee shop. Wherever we tell others about the Lord Jesus, through God’s power and with an awareness that Christ himself is the great prophet of God, we say—in our own words—“I implore you. Be reconciled to God. Receive the reconciliation that he has provided.” And when God begins to work, people say, “I didn’t know about that; tell me more.” And we can respond, “Well then, I will be glad to tell you about it. Let me tell you the story.” And so we have the opportunity to speak into the darkness of their minds and the futility of their thinking.2
Christ Walking among Us
It is essential that we do this as humble instruments of the ongoing ministry of Christ. Listen to John Calvin again:
All those, then, who, not content with the gospel, patch it with something extraneous to it, detract from Christ’s authority.3
We must be alert to this danger! Why would he say, “from Christ’s authority?” Because it is Christ’s prophetic word—in the preaching and teaching of the Bible—that is brought to bear upon our minds through the very feebleness of the instruments God chooses to use.
There is enormous encouragement for us in that. If that were not the case, then we wouldn’t really know who was doing what, would we? But when we’re aware of the fact that he has put this treasure in “jars of clay,”4 we say, “Well, it must be God who is doing this!” Listen to Calvin on this same theme:
He deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to His service, making His own voice to be heard in them. And whenever God is pleased to bless their labour, He makes their doctrine efficacious by the power of His Spirit; and the voice which is in itself mortal, is made an instrument to communicate eternal life.5
When the gospel is preached, . . . Christ walks among his people.
James S. Stewart, in the Lyman Beecher lectures delivered at Yale, uses a wonderful expression. He describes the apostles hitting the streets of Jerusalem “with a waft of the supernatural.”6
With a waft of the supernatural! He is not thinking about some of the strange and eccentric things we see on religious television. He is talking about what Peter must have felt on the Day of Pentecost.
Knowing how close he had been to becoming a complete washout, on the Day of Pentecost Peter finds himself surrounded by his fellow countrymen plus visitors from abroad. There he stands—in the very same streets of Jerusalem where he’d run to hide a few weeks before as someone who had denied he even knew Jesus. But now he addresses the crowd with such boldness and with a clarity of understanding of the Bible’s message that is simply breathtaking. That day three thousand people were baptized! Oh, yes, there was “a waft of the supernatural,” all right.
Isn’t there supposed to be?
To quote Donald McCullough: “When the gospel is preached, . . . Christ walks among his people. It’s the miracle of Christmas all over again: Christ clothed himself in humanity, spurning the language of angels to speak with the tongues of mortals.”7
1. 2 Cor. 5:20
2. Rom. 1:21
3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960, 2.15.2
4. 2 Cor. 4:7
5. Cited in James Philip, Pulpit and People, ed. M. Cameron and S. Ferguson (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1986), 13.
6. James S. Stewart, A Faith to Proclaim: The Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale University (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966), 45.
7. Donald McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1995), 127.
This article is adapted from Name above All Names by Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson.
- How to Avoid a Preaching Rut (Bryan Chapell)
- How Charles Spurgeon Learned to Preach through a Broken Heart (John Piper)
- What Is Preaching? (Lewis Allen)