Reformed worship (III): the ministry of the Spirit in preaching...

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(NOTE: This is the third post in a series on Reformed worship. Here are the firstsecondfourthfifth, and sixth.)

We have shown how Calvin and his fellow Geneva reformers were willing to live without weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper, yet there was not one service ever held in Geneva and her surrounding parishes that failed to place the reading and preaching of God's Word front and center. So why the growing shift to an emphasis of the sacraments in worship, over and against preaching?

There are many contributing factors, but one is in reaction to the American church of the twentieth century. In many corners, the church started taking on the naturalistic and materialistic culture around it, broadly accepting the mistaken theology that the Lord’s Supper is merely a memorial ordinance—a good way for us to rehearse in our minds what Jesus did for us long ago. Thus, as we started to rediscover the spirituality of the sacraments, we again recognized that Jesus Christ is really and spiritually present in the sacraments and, in them, He gives us Himself for our spiritual food. This is good, but in this...

pendulum swing there is the constant danger of moving into sacramentalism; and in Federal Vision, the pendulum is swinging fast.

So is the solution to again de-emphasize the supernatural work of God in the Lord’s Supper?

Not at all! When it comes down to it, it is not the over-spiritualization of the sacraments that is the problem, but rather the non-spiritual way we approach the preaching and hearing the Word of God. Both are means of grace.

Although rarely denied, theologically, the practical denial of the supernatural work of preaching is the particular temptation of the Big Brains that would like to devise a Novel Theological Understanding capable of propelling us into their New Future of Protestantism. The old message, is, well, so old. How can I show how smart I am if I just say the boringly normal things that have been taught for two thousand years? How will I ever be able to publish in a journal of Mutually Self-Congratulatory Thinkers? What about all my Insights of Extraordinary Value?

But as preaching has become more and more a lecture of profound understanding of Biblical theology, the spiritual hole in a man’s heart still needs to be filled. In our worship, we need help becoming more spiritual. We come to the worship service hungry for God's grace. We always place at the peak of our worship what is transcendent, and a restoration of spirituality of the sacraments to the center of worship is an attempt to fill that hole. But it is a misplaced attempt.

We can learn a lot from James Bannerman, who has blessed the Church with his writing of The Church of Christ. In a simple and straightforward manner, Bannerman points out that the difference between non-sacramental ordinances such as preaching, and sacramental ordinances such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, is not one of spirituality. Both preaching and the Lord’s Supper are means of grace communicated to us both naturally and spiritually. They are communicated naturally in speaking and hearing, in bread and wine. But both are conveyed spiritually, too: Reformed believers recognize the real presence of Christ in the Supper. But we also give the right emphasis to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in preaching. We are in good company—the Apostle Paul did the same.

Hear the Apostle Paul’s description of spiritual preaching in 1 Corinthians 2. He certainly didn’t speak of preaching as the natural part of worship, before we get to the transcendent and spiritual stuff.

And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory; but just as it is written,

“Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard,
And which have not entered the heart of man,
All that God has prepared for those who love Him.”

For to us God revealed them through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2)

You might say that you do not deny the spirituality of preaching, but do your actions match your words?

As a pastor, if your sermon is dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit, you are going to have to take risks, but the natural man sees risks as foolish. You will have to come to your worship service “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” But again, such risks are necessary in order for the faith of your congregation not to rest on your persuasive words, but rather on the power of God.

Depending on the power of the Holy Spirit is the foundation of New Testament leadership of worship. The gathering of believers in worship is rocked by the power of God.

As a member of the congregation, do you believe in the spirituality of preaching? Do you expect a well-organized, logical conveyance of orthodoxy, or do you want to hear something that sounds foolish if you fail to listen with spiritual ears? If your pastor preaches dependent upon the work of the Holy Spirit, addressing your conscience and your heart, do you punish him for it? Would you prefer for him to preach persuasive words of wisdom so that you will not have to face the Holy Spirit?

Pastor, is your sermon “taught by human wisdom”?  Then, by all means, cut it to twenty minutes. Cut it even shorter. Save time for the “real” spiritual stuff at the end where you say God finally feeds your congregation real food.

But if you are speaking “not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual with spiritual,” then the preaching of the Word is the ministry of the Spirit. And what better food can you give your sheep?