Church and Preaching: The Connection
The preaching of the Word of God is a central, defining activity of the church. Preaching makes the church. To put it the other way around, preaching is for the sake of the church. So, preaching belongs to the church as much as the church is defined by its preaching.
Since in both of these ways the church is why we preach, what to preach is in large part determined by how we understand what the church is. Notice, also, that what we preach will always signify why we preach, even if the preacher hasn’t thought about the connection.
If I enter a store and find it full of groceries, I should think, “this is a grocery store.” If a storefront says “grocery store,” but inside are only office supplies and few or no edibles, the store is misnamed. It is an office supply store, no matter what the sign out front says, even if the employees tell each other they work at a grocery store. The name of a thing should match what it really is and what is really does.
The relationship between the preaching and the church is the same. If the preaching is to the glory of God in Christ, then we may say: that is a Christian church. If we preach our own ‘wisdom’ (which is no wisdom at all), or if we preach for our own self-satisfaction or worldly gain, if we preach behavior that mimics the fruit of the Spirit but not the Christ whose Spirit it is, or if we preach anything other than the gospel, then we must say: that is not a Christian church, but a theatre of self-glory and a house of confusion (1 Cor 2-3; Gal 1:10).
What is the Church? – Ecclesiology
As with other doctrines, there are visible and invisible aspects to the doctrine of the church. On the one hand, the church is the people of God, called by the Father out of darkness and into light (1 Peter 2:9). This is the catholic or universal church. It is a work of God by grace, in realization of his eternal, electing love. As dry bones take on flesh again (Ezek 37), God raises from death in sin a people for himself, a city of God unto his own glory. We may say: where the redemptive work of the Spirit is, there is the church.
In this life, human beings have no epistemic access to these realities. We cannot know the details of God’s eternal, saving love and redemptive will, nor can we really see the work of the Spirit; there are no infallible, empirical predictors of any person’s eternal state. But it is basic to saving faith that God long ago promised this redemption (Rom 1:2; Heb 1:1-2), that he has accomplished it (Rom 1:4-5; 3:21-22; Heb 1:3-4, 9:25-27), and that he will return to consummate it and make all things new (Job 19:25; Acts 1:11; 17:30-31; Heb 9:28; Rev 22:12; 20); those whom he foreknew he calls and justifies, and will surely glorify (Rom 8:29-30).
On the other hand, Christ established a visible church (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8; Eph 4:11-16), just as God in Gen 12:1-3 established an identifiable people, the Abrahamic people, to be His own, and then raised up Israel, his own holy people, his treasured possession (Ex 19, Rom 9). The visible church is the institutional church, the real-time gathering of the faithful.
This is most important: the invisible redeeming work of God is accomplished with visible means (Rom 10:14-17).
A group of Christians is a church when (1) they have elected leadership for teaching and discipline; (2) they administer the sacraments according to Scripture; and (3) the Word of God is preached. A church can do more than that (Acts 6:1-4); but if it does not do these things, it is not a church in the biblical, institutional sense. A group of Christians is the church, in a sense, because they belong to the body of Christ; but without these essential elements they do not constitute a church.
The purpose of the church is dual. (1) The gathering of the saints is first. This means bringing the lost into the sheepfold, winning new converts—witnessing, evangelism, missions, preaching. (2) The second is the perfecting of the saints. ‘Perfecting’ refers to the progressive maturity of the church through teaching, discipline, discipleship, preaching, and so on. It also includes, like pottery in a kiln, searching out impurities. Those impurities can be ‘wolves’ who have entered the sheepfold (Acts 20:29; Gal 1:6-10), or residual sins in the hearts of Christians (Rom 6; 7:7-25; Gal 5:16-26; Col 3:1-10).
The relationship between the visible and the invisible is fascinating. Following the lead of Scripture, it is best to think of the perfected and completed invisible church as the final realization and goal of the visible. The visible is, for now, an imperfect work-in-progress. Christ himself, in and through the Word by the Spirit, works to gather and perfect his church, anticipating the fullness of redemptive history when the saints will be revealed in glory with him, when the ‘invisible’ church will be a perfect, unimpeachable, publicly glorified people holy to the Lord—the hope of Romans 8:18-30, and the bride of Revelation 19. The visible church is real. Christ works there, in and through the visible ministry of the Word, by the Spirit. But the invisible is ultimate, final, and definite—and will be visible in the end. Again, for now, until Christ returns, the visible is the means of accomplishing the invisible.
Of the invisible, says Paul, “you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8)
Of the visible means, he writes, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).
We build with tools and various materials—a hammer and nails, a saw, wood, steel, and concrete. In that case the product will be a visible structure, made by human hands. But the church is a different sort of thing. It is made of redeemed image-bearers (1 Cor 3:9, 16), and its foundation and superstructure are Christ and Him alone (1 Cor 3:10-18). For this reason, Paul, in planting churches and preaching the gospel, “decided to know nothing . . . except Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
Church and Preaching: Implications
What should be preached from the pulpits of our churches? The ecclesiology above gives us a single, simple answer: past and future redemptive promises, redemptive accomplishment of God in Christ, and the hope of consummation. This is, in fact, nothing other than the orientation of the entire New Testament: that what no eye has seen nor ear heard has been revealed and accomplished in the fullness of time; that the lamb-king of the new heavens and earth has received all authority and when all his enemies have been subdued he will return to judge and call home those who are his. As a hymn has it (with the alternative ending):
This is my Father’s world; let me ne’er forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world; the battle is not done, Jesus who died will be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.
The church is a work of God. In one sense, His hand in building the church is itself invisible. But in Scripture the visible means that He uses are instituted: the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper), care and discipline of the flock, and especially the preaching of Christ according to the Scriptures.
Notice the connection between Christ and Scripture. It is certainly possible, and actually extremely common, to ‘preach’ from the text of the Bible without preaching the gospel of Christ. Jesus Himself addressed this problem (John 5:39-40). Unfortunately, this is an easy mistake to make. The mistake is easy to make; but it is not a near miss; it is completely mistaken.
Many of the words the Bible uses are familiar to us: love, hope, compassion, holiness, obedience, God, spirit, spiritual, and so on. But words do not matter so much as the meaning of the words. Many times preachers use words from the Bible but without regard for the biblical meaning of the words—just as any person in the world may use these words to mean just about anything. The biblical meanings of words should lead us to the gospel—the innocent vicarious death of the only mediator, the promises and accomplishment of God in Christ. But if biblical words are used without biblical meaning, no connection to the gospel will be available. In fact when biblical language is secularized, the gospel is expelled. Either no connection will be made, and worldly values will be preached; or a bad connection will be made, and Christ will be borrowed to support worldly values; or a different Christ will be preached. The worst fact we have to face is this: the same dangerous pairing of biblical word with unbiblical meaning can even happen with the word “Jesus.”
In sum: when we preach Scripture, we must preach Christ (Luke 24:44-48); and when we preach Christ, we must preach the Christ of Scripture, the mediator between God and man—not a special friend, moral example, or ancient wise man. He must be proclaimed as the Son of God (Matt 16:16; John 1:34, 17:3), in the full offense and wonder of his glory and mediation, and we must cling to his ministry as the only way, truth, and life (John 6:68, 14:6).