Mostyn Roberts on the three hearts of preaching


A lot of preaching is bad. Sometimes it is bad because the man is simply not a preacher. It may be bad because he has not worked at his exegesis, or sorted out his structure, or done his background reading, or applied it or illustrated it. There are many reasons why a sermon may be bad.

But does that make preaching itself a bad idea?

The creative Word

God creates through his Word. Genesis 1 makes that clear; as Psalm 33:6 reminds us ‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.’ The Lord upholds all things by his word of power (Hebrew 1:3) and by the sword from his mouth he will destroy his enemies (Revelation 19:21, cf 2 Thess. 2:8). Ezekiel brought to life a valley of dead bones by preaching (Ezekiel 37:1-14). In the gospel era, it is through open statement of the truth, proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord, that God causes light to shine out of darkness in our hearts (2 Cor 4:6), causes us to be born again (1 Peter 1:23) and to exercise faith (Rom 10:17). God’s Word does things. There is something creative and sustaining about preaching but also destructive – it can tear down as well as build up, be the aroma of death as well as the fragrance of life (2 Cor:10:4-6; 2:14-17).

Authorised by God

R. L. Dabney reminds us that ‘Our warrant for our office as preachers is first the example and precedent of prophets and teachers in the church, Old Testament and New Testament, and second the teaching of Jesus’.

Jesus himself, as is often pointed out, came as a preacher (Mark 1:14,39) for which purpose the Spirit of the Lord anointed him (Luke 4:18). Jesus sent the apostles out to preach (Mark 3:14). The apostles after Pentecost gave priority to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). In Acts 15:7 Peter claims that ‘…God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.’ God therefore chose the man (Peter) and the method (Peter’s mouth, preaching). The gospel, writes Peter again, was ‘announced to [you believers] through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven…’(1 Peter 1:12).

The Word of God, says Motyer, is the ‘constitutive reality’ of the church in Acts and points out that of 37 references to church growth 24 are linked to the Word, so that Luke can even write at Acts 12:24, ‘the word of God increased and multiplied’. The New Testament does not leave us with many options for communicating the gospel and building the kingdom of God. It is by word of mouth.

Christ exercising authority in the world and the church

Alec Motyer encapsulates the truth when he says that preaching is the answer to the question ‘how does the risen Christ exercise his authority?’ He points out that in the Great Commission, as recorded slightly differently in all four gospels, preaching is what Jesus commands and empowers his disciples to go and do. A popular definition of preaching might be something like ‘the public proclamation of God’s Word by a man commissioned by God for the task’. One could add other things – as to the message, to preach Christ; as to the purpose, to save souls. But the basic definition will do. John Stott for example says that preaching is indispensable to Christianity for Christianity is in its very essence a religion of the Word; that it is also unique to Christianity. Without preaching there would be no viable Christianity, certainly no church.

Why is such a method of communication so important to Christianity? Preaching is proclamation. It is central to Christianity because it is the king speaking through his messenger. It is God personally addressing his church and his world. In preaching we not only hear about Christ, we hear him (Romans 10:14, see ESV note; cf 1 Peter 4:11). There is personal encounter. This is far more than imparting information for minds to consider. It carries an implicit command to listen and a summons to believe. To preach is an act of faith and humility; it should be heard in faith and humility. If preaching is the way the risen Christ exercises his authority, to reject, belittle or undermine preaching is therefore an act of treason against the king and one of sedition in the church.

Preaching and teaching

But what is ‘preaching’ as opposed to teaching?

Preaching includes teaching, the addressing of information to the mind. Yet it is more than teaching (though in the New Testament teaching is far from merely intellectual as it is often accompanied by words such as admonish or exhort eg Col 3:16, 1 Tim 6:2). Preaching combines teaching with proclaiming a given message, witnessing to facts and proclaiming good news. In 2 Timothy 1:11, Paul describes himself as a ’preacher and apostle and teacher.’ Though there is evidently overlap, he cannot mean the same thing by these titles. Preaching is proclaiming a message, and the content of the message is Christ. Preaching is addressing the mind with the intention of changing that mind. You present truth to the mind of the hearer and you witness to the facts concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. You do so with application and persuasion. You want that person to repent and believe; if already a believer, to repent more and believe more. You preach the law as part of preaching the gospel, you address the conscience to convict of sin, and you point to Christ. Your desire is for your hearers to know salvation or progress in sanctification. You open the Scriptures forcefully for the salvation of unbelievers and the sanctification of saints. As Dr Lloyd Jones said, there is an ‘element of attack’ in preaching that is not in teaching. It is important to teach well if you are a preacher, but to assess the effectiveness of preaching by criteria that measure the relative effectiveness of teaching methods, is wide of the mark. It is comparing apples and pears.

Motyer reckons 97 words for communicating the gospel are used in the New Testament, 56 of which are what he calls ‘declaratory’ (that is, making known the truth, such as proclaim, teach, speak); others are ‘persuasive’, pressing it home,  (such as urge, beseech, persuade). The word usually translated preach or proclaim (kerusso, to herald) appears 59 times, to ‘preach the good news’ 54 times and to ‘testify’ in various forms 77 times. Combine these three ideas with ‘teaching’ says Stuart Olyott, following Edmund Clowney, and you have preaching.

The three hearts of Preaching

Preaching demands the heart of the preacher not just his head; it demands his body too, but that is another subject. It is a message that comes through the heart of the preacher, aimed at the heart of the listener. It embraces all the preacher has and aims at changing the whole life of the listener. It is not just imparting information, though the imparting of information is essential for life-change to take place.

Where does the message come from? We may say, I hope without irreverence, from the heart of God. The ‘heart’ of God is Christ and especially Christ crucified. To preach Christ as crucified and Christ as Lord, is pretty much to sum up the gospel.

So preaching is a matter of three hearts: from the heart of God, through the heart of the preacher to the heart of the listener. Of course, the reception the message gets is out of our control – it may get no further than the listener’s ears, if that far. But the transformed life, a life eventually presented mature in Christ, is the preacher’s aim.

Preaching, discussing, sharing?

If we take such preaching seriously we shall realise that, while there are other legitimate forms of Christian communication, we can never do without preaching nor should we ever wish to do without it. Paul, it is true, is described as ‘reasoning’ with the Thessalonians (Acts18:4). Do we then jettison traditional preaching for discussion groups? Alec Motyer points out that the word translated ‘reasoned’ means ‘to argue a case’ in the sense of presenting and supporting a point of view with the aim of winning the other person over. ‘It is a mistake to reduce dialegomai to a bland meaning like “discuss”. It is much more specific: it means ‘making out a case’, marshalling and presenting evidence as compellingly as possible. It accords with …the priority of the mind and understanding’. In other words, it is what a preacher should be doing all the time. Discuss by all means, on gospel issues and spiritual things; but do not pretend it is preaching or make it a substitute for preaching.

The necessity of the Holy Spirit

In a classic passage on preaching Paul reminds us of the limitation of even the very best preaching. He did not preach the mystery (or testimony) of God with lofty speech or wisdom, he reminds the Corinthians. He decided to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. He was with them in weakness and in fear and in much trembling; his speech and message were not in plausible words of wisdom ‘but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God’ (1 Cor 2:1-5).  Paul has a particular message here for the Corinthians but a general one for us. Only by the Holy Spirit will preaching attain its goal. Christian faith must not rest in the cleverness of the arguments or the persuasiveness of the preacher. The knowledge that he is the herald of the King reduces a preacher to humility, not pomposity or posturing. Faith must be created by God and rest on God. This is accomplished through the ‘folly of what we preach’ (1 Cor. 1:21) but also by communicating that message in complete dependence on the Spirit. This is the true glory of preaching. It is the Word of God, carried by the power of God regenerating souls to the glory of God.

It is the message about Christ from the heart of God, through the heart of the preacher, to the heart of sinners, to the praise of his name.

References from:

Dabney, R.L., Evangelical Eloquence (Banner of Truth, 1999)

Lloyd-Jones, D.M., Preaching and Preachers (Hodder and Stoughton, 1971)

Motyer, Alec, Preaching? Simple Teaching on Simply Preaching (Christian Focus, 2013)

Olyott, Stuart, Preaching Pure and Simple (Bryntirion, 2005 / EP, 2012)

Stott, John, I believe in Preaching (Hodder and Stoughton, 1982)