The Real Presence of Christ in Preaching: Further Questions and Clarifications

This article is adapted from Dr. J. Mark Beach's article, "The Real Presence of Christ in the Preaching of the Gospel: Luther and Calvin on the Nature of Preaching," in the Mid-America Journal of Theology


The crucial question we are addressing is whether preaching can be the Word of God. Modern perceptions of preaching seem inclined to answer that query in the negative. Especially in the mind of the common parishioner, Luther and Calvin’s claims about preaching might seem presumptuous, perhaps even dangerous. The reason for this assessment or reaction may be due to the kind of preaching many parishioners hear from week to week. How does the reality of daily experience comport with the high claims Luther and Calvin make about preaching? The sermons many of us hear do not “grab us” as divine speech. Sometimes—maybe oftentimes—the sermons we hear strike us as dull and uninteresting or shallow and silly. Through such preaching, parishioners feel neither challenged to live their faith nor instructed in the way of their faith. If that is the experience parishioners have had with preaching, will not their assessment of the value and importance of preaching differ significantly from Luther and Calvin’s assessment? Sermons will be viewed as useless entities, for the sermons they hear leave them untouched, unharmed, and unhealed. As a result, Luther and Calvin’s high claim that preaching is the Word of God seems preposterous, if not simply ridiculous.

Other parishioners, however, have a different experience with preaching. They appreciate and even prize their pastor’s sermons. They are prepared to say that they are blessed by the preaching they hear from week to week. Such parishioners testify that the sermons are eye-opening and life-challenging. They hear the sermon and come away enriched, informed, encouraged—even changed. Sermons are an important part of their spiritual growth and wellbeing. Nonetheless, even for people with this assessment of preaching, the claim that preaching is the Word of God might seem a bit over the top.

The questions that come to mind are not uncommon: Isn’t the Bible alone the Word of God? Moreover, if we are serious about this claim regarding preaching, that sermons are the Word of God, shouldn’t they be penned down, scripted, and added to the Canon? What is more, if preaching is the Word of God, doesn’t this imply the infallibility of the preacher? And in line with that, doesn’t the interrelationship constructed between the human being who preaches and God who speaks create an association that is dangerous? Isn’t such a relationship overinflated and grandiose? And won’t this, with respect to the preacher, open the way to demagoguery and megalomania? Won’t the preacher view himself as over-important, indispensable—even infallible—after all, his words are God’s Word? Also in this connection, but on a different note, how is this view to be distinguished from the position of Karl Barth, which tends to denigrate the divine character of Holy Scripture and render divine revelation an intermittent act?  

These questions—which are not without merit—must be addressed.

First, the high view of preaching articulated by Luther and Calvin does not mean that the biblical sermon is the Word of God in the same way that Scripture is the Word of God. They are not saying that preachers are divinely inspired the way the human authors of the Bible were inspired. Not everything preachers say in biblical sermons is the very words of God; their sermons are not God-breathed. No, preaching is the Word of God in a derivative sense. It is an administration of the Word. But surely it is not inconceivable to hear the voice of Christ through the administration of the Word of Christ, is it? God has given us his written Word so that we may have his Word preached. And when that Word is properly (faithfully) preached, the Word of God is heard, not merely Rev. So-and-So’s words. To be sure, when the preacher preaches, his words are not verbally inspired; his message is not infallible or inerrant. In fact, the preacher’s message may have a number of errors and flaws or other shortcomings. That doesn’t mean, however, that the voice of Christ doesn’t come through or that Christ doesn’t admonish his people in that sermon or instruct them or console them.

Second, the agent behind the power and efficacy of the sermon is the Holy Spirit. God has chosen preaching as a means of grace because it does what personal Bible reading often does not do—namely, apply the Word to specific, concrete circumstances. Moreover, faithful preaching opens the Word and clarifies the Word. The attribute of Scripture’s clarity or perspicuity does not mean that all parts of the Bible are clear and easy to understand. Hence the great need for preaching. When faithful preaching opens a text that was before obscure or misunderstood, are we going to say we haven’t heard the voice of Christ? Haven’t we, instead, finally heard the voice of Christ—his written Word being explained and applied?

Third, to call preaching the voice of Christ does not mean that God’s Word inscripturated is incomplete or that Christ is adding new chapters to the Bible through the Sunday sermon. God’s inscripturated Word is complete. Everything we need to know for our salvation has been given to us. However, although God’s revelation is complete, the administration of that message written in the Bible is not complete. That is why Christ instituted preaching. Thus, the explanation and application of God’s written revelation, the Bible, is ongoing. Christ is busy, through preaching, bringing his Word to bear in a concrete way to a specific people, in a specific place, at a specific time for their salvation and sanctification. Christ is the agent who builds his Church, not us! If Christ builds the Church, then by whose voice is the Church built? Surely, as Romans 10 shows us, it is by the voice of Christ himself. “And how can they believe in the one whom they have not heard” (v. 14b). This verse shows us that hearing is logically prior to believing. But we must also note what kind of hearing is required. The key phrase in this verse is often mistranslated “the one of whom.” Normal grammatical usage, however, requires this phrase to be translated “the one whom” (hou) and so indicates the speaker rather than the message. “In other words," John Stott says, "[the recipients of the gospel] will not believe Christ until they have heard him speaking through his messengers or ambassadors.”

Fourth, we must admit that some preachers have misused and misapprehended the implications of this high theology of preaching and consequently have become egotistical and inflated with self-importance. Some unscrupulous individuals have succumbed to the sort of temptation described above. When this happens, preachers do come to view themselves as virtually infallible. In their minds, their preaching of God’s Word from the pulpit is not to be disputed or questioned in any capacity—only obeyed. Such an error, however, involves a confusion of one’s person and office, and denies the necessary distinction between the administration of the Word of God and the Word of God as inspired and inscripturated. While all the abuses committed in the name of a high theology of preaching need not be detailed here, neither need we view such abuses as inevitable. In fact, Luther and Calvin’s high conception of preaching prods preachers in a different direction. Since God is the agent and humans are the instruments, preachers must approach the task of preaching with humility, even fear, and a keen understanding of their duty to handle God’s written revelation responsibly and wisely. The preacher’s words must be faithful to and in concert with the Word of God recorded in the Scriptures. This is why Luther insisted that Christ alone was to be preached—Christ as Savior, God’s definitive Word to the world. Eric W. Gritsch is correct in saying that “nothing is higher for Luther than the faithful proclamation of God’s Word, even if only a few—or indeed only one individual—proclaim it.” The centrality of the preaching of the Word is similarly expressed by Calvin. Preaching is a redemptive happening. Calvin thus insists that only the doctrine of the gospel may be proclaimed; nothing of human invention or personal fancy qualifies as preaching. Faithful preaching is not something in competition with the Bible; rather, it is a servant of the Bible. It administers the Bible. Precisely because it does that, it qualifies as the voice of Christ. 

Fifth, we need to consider the alternatives to Luther and Calvin’s view and where those alternatives lead. What are we to conclude about preaching if Christ’s voice is not heard in gospel proclamation but only the voice of Reverend So-and-So? If preaching is exclusively a human effort, not a divine activity, is it worth our time? If the sermon is merely the pastor’s sermon, how could it possibly effect blessing in the church? If Christ is not present in the proclamation of the gospel, isn’t preaching for that reason an exercise in futility, an inevitable corruption or diminishment of the Word, a wholly human and fallible enterprise? Thus, doesn’t preaching come to function as an obstacle to the Word of God itself, altogether unnecessary, since it places a person—namely the preacher—between the text of the Bible and the hearers or readers of that text?

We must be careful not to miss the passionate rationale Luther and Calvin each offer in support of their respective accents concerning the real presence of Christ in the preaching of the gospel. To be sure, as a human endeavor, it is hard to safeguard preaching from error and numerous shortcomings. The hazards are plentiful: mistaken exegesis, misapplication, allegorical fancy, cheap moralism, failure to offer anything beyond a surface reading of the text, theological error, and outright false teaching. These hazards and mistakes are too commonplace. Some of them, like theological error and false teaching, render preaching vain and invalid. Erroneous preaching is not preaching! However, not all these shortcomings—at least not automatically—undermine preaching altogether. Sermons, with their shortcomings, can still qualify as God’s speech or be taken up as God’s instrument to effect his powerful saving and sanctifying purpose.

If the conception that affirms Christ’s presence and God’s Word in human proclamation seems presumptuous, consider the alternative—namely, that preaching is only speech about God. Gustaf Wingren argues that “such a slip, once made, gradually alters the picture of God, so that he becomes the far-off deistic God who is remote from the preached word and is only spoken about as we speak about someone who is absent.” If preaching is nothing more than biblical commentary about God, why all the fuss about ecclesiastical office and divine commissioning? In fact, in a literate society, why bother with verbal proclamation at all? Would not flyers and bulletins, tracts, and printed meditations adequately serve? Moreover, why consider preaching—as most Reformed Christians are ready to do—a means of grace? If Christian preaching is merely human speech about God, then it is on its way to the homiletic junkyard, for what distinguishes this human speech about God from other human speech about God, and what accounts for its authoritative character? When Christ’s presence in the preaching of the gospel is denied, preaching is defanged and de-clawed. It is ultimately a harmless thing, a hopeless endeavor, a human effort that, like most human efforts, is weak and uncertain. Preaching—without Christ—slips into a kind of work’s righteousness.

In preaching (real preaching), however, we are not dealing merely with a man who stands in a pulpit on Sunday for some thirty minutes or so and offers his opinions (although that is what happens in false preaching). No, we are dealing with the Word of God, the Bible, administered. We are therefore dealing with Christ. God has chosen, in the foolishness of preaching, through fallible, flawed human agents, to open the Kingdom of heaven to believers and to close it to unbelievers. Preaching is indeed a means of grace, that is, the channel or vehicle through which God is pleased to effect his grace in the lives of his people.

Sixth, Luther and Calvin’s doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the preaching of the gospel must also be distinguished from the view of Karl Barth. The difference between Luther and Calvin over against Barth really finds its target in the doctrine of Scripture. For Barth, the Bible is a “human witness” to the revelation-event in Jesus Christ—in this case, the human witness of the apostles. As a human witness it is subject to all the frailties of our humanity. It is therefore fallible and error prone, yet retains a uniqueness and priority as the witness of the apostles. For Barth, revelation and the text of Scripture are not as such the same thing. This is because divine revelation is something beyond the Scripture—though Scripture, because of its apostolicity, is the occasion for divine revelation, particularly when it is preached. Revelation is Word event—the incarnational life and work of Christ—whereas Scripture and preaching attest and proclaim that event.

Barth’s doctrine of Scripture is clearly and significantly different from the doctrine Luther and Calvin espouse, wherein Scripture is reckoned as God’s speech, and therefore to be revered as if directly descended from heaven. Given Barth’s view of Scripture as a (fallible) human witness to revelation, how does preaching serve as a “form” of the Word of God based on this prior human witness? For Luther and Calvin, preaching is based on a prior and abiding divine revelation—Scripture. Yet, in Barth’s scheme, God’s freedom is most clearly manifest in making human witness the occasion for divine revelation. The preacher never controls the Word of God. The sermon, therefore, is never the Word of God on its own. Revelation is always dynamic, never static, always an event, a happening, and this at God’s privileged initiative, never captured and encapsulated—as in a sacred book. The sermon becomes the Word of God when God is pleased for it to be the avenue for such. Thus it is through the human and fallible witness of preaching that God chooses when, where, and how to reveal himself according to his own sovereign mercy. At that moment, according to Barth, this human “witness becomes the Word of God for us and at that moment is the Word of God for us.” In Barth’s theology, preaching and Scripture are really composed of the same stuff—both are fallible human witnesses to the revelation event in Jesus Christ and become God’s Word according to divine prerogative and impulse. Preaching, like Scripture, “is in itself nothing else than a human attempt to express in human words what the preacher has heard in the apostolic witness and to convey to his hearers the promise of God’s revelation, reconciliation and calling … the sermon stands under God’s own promise that he will use human words to reveal himself. And then we find the same solution: where and when it pleases God to speak through these human words, his self-revelation takes place. At that moment the sermon is God’s Word for the hearer.”

Insofar as Barth recognizes God’s freedom to act upon and bless the recipients of the preaching through the sermon, his view does not differ in any significant way from that of Luther and Calvin. Barth does not wish to see God in the stranglehold of ministers. God is free to act or not to act. Similarly, both Luther and Calvin affirm the vital role of the Holy Spirit to work in the preacher and the hearers to make effectual the divine Word that is preached. Accordingly, they deny that preaching imparts a blessing ex opere operato. However, for Luther and Calvin, a biblical sermon is the Word of God, whether the Holy Spirit chooses to make it effectual unto salvation or not. They, therefore, more strongly affirm the likelihood of gracious divine action whenever the Scripture is faithfully preached. Moreover, for Luther and Calvin, the sermon that the Spirit uses to effect blessing is derived from Scripture, and in that way, is an extension of God’s inscripturated Word; it is derived from a prior and abiding revelation of God. By faithfully explicating and applying the Word to contemporary circumstances, preaching is God’s Word, derivatively, in the present.

Barth, by way of contrast, leaves the recipients of preaching uncertain whether God will speak from Sunday to Sunday in the preaching of the gospel. Will God now decide to make the sermon, and even the Scripture for that matter, become the Word of God for us at this hour? Will this human witness, perhaps with the unexpectedness of a hiccup, become revelation? Klaas Runia maintains that the New Testament knows nothing of “the Barthian distinction of ‘indirect identity’ which must become a ‘direct identity’ where and when it pleases God.” Runia aligns himself with Luther and Calvin when he writes, in opposition to Barth’s view, that God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ “is to be found in the preaching and writing of the apostles.” Which is to say, Scripture is the Word of God, not merely a witness to a former revelatory event or the occasion for a contemporary revelatory event. Scripture is divine speech. God is speaking. And this means that when the Scripture is faithfully proclaimed, the sermon is God speaking to his church today. Thus, Barth is correct in recognizing the revelatory power of preaching and its potential for divine action and blessing, but he misconstrues the preaching event due to his misapprehension of the direct revelatory character of Scripture as God’s Word.

* * * * * 

The Protestant church today is, in our judgment, uncomfortable with the notion of the real presence of Christ in the preaching of the gospel. The idea that Christ speaks in, with, and through the sermon—that preaching exhibits a sacramental character—startles many believers. Could this be because the Protestant church today has capitulated to a different conception of preaching?

Although many believers are more than prepared to affirm the exalted nature of Scripture as the inspired Word of God, and rightly so, they fail to reckon with Scripture’s own testimony regarding the necessity of preaching. Scripture, as divine revelation, emphatically ranks the public proclamation of the gospel above private Bible reading. The reading of Scripture certainly has its place, and sometimes the Holy Spirit is pleased to use it as the sole means to bring an individual to conversion. In fact, the reason for parishioners’ disappointment with some sermons is rooted in the preacher’s failure to open and apply the text in a manner superior to the ability of the parishioners themselves. In other words, the preacher failed to do more than a parishioner might have done reflecting on the text without the pastor’s sermon. In any case, Scripture teaches that the preaching of the gospel occupies a more prominent and necessary place in the ministry of the church than personal Bible reading. Preaching possesses a priority, a higher rank of importance.

The priority of preaching is rooted in the power of preaching. Preaching is powerful because it addresses our current circumstances as the living voice of Christ, as the Word of God through the Holy Spirit. The profitability of Scripture for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness is directly tied to its proclamation—the apostle bids Timothy to preach the Word (see 2 Tim. 3:16; 4:2). Preaching, as preaching of God’s Word, possesses a contemporaneity that enables recipients of the Word to actually hear, see, and understand that Word vis-à-vis current circumstances. In other words, through the preaching of God’s Word, the Word of God is actually heard and understood—sins are rebuked, errors refuted, misconceptions and erroneous trends exposed, false ideas rebutted, and immediate questions addressed. The Good News is brought to bear on our contemporary circumstances. Preaching does this concretely and specifically. The message is received. For this reason, preaching, rather than being a diminishment of the Word, is an enhancement of the Word. The Holy Spirit is active; Christ is present; his voice is heard. Faithful preaching, then, does not compete with Scripture as the Word of God; rather, it serves Scripture as the Word of God. It ministers the Word—and what a powerful weapon in God’s hands, a weapon that kills us. In so doing, it also saves us. 

As Luther and Calvin declare: Scripture must always remain the fixed rule for preaching; in this way, we discover the fixed promise of the presence of Christ in the preaching of the gospel.

 


J. Mark Beach serves as the Professor of Ministerial and Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. 

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