The New Testament and the Priority of Preaching in the Church (Part 2)

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Continued from a previous article.

II. The Priority and Purpose of Proclamation in the New Testament Church

The priority of proclamation in Jesus’ ministry is transferred to his disciples as well. Luke in his Gospel states that during Christ’s public ministry, Jesus appointed seventy-two people to go two by two into the surrounding villages to proclaim the “Kingdom of God is near” (Lk. 10:9). He promised them that when they would preach to the crowds, he would speak through their words (Lk. 10:16). In a similar event in Matthew, Jesus’ commissions the twelve apostles to go and preach the message that the “kingdom of heaven is near” (10:7). While Jesus gave his disciples authority to heal sicknesses and cast out demons, this was within the larger context of preaching his message (10:1-8): a message not intended for a select few, but one meant for the entire world (10:26-27).

This priority did not change after Christ’s death and resurrection. Before his assumption into heaven, Jesus commanded his followers to go into all the world and make disciples (Mt. 28:19). After the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples on the day of Pentecost, they were empowered to preach in Jerusalem, and the church was formed. The Gospel was then proclaimed in Judea and Samaria where it was received with “great joy’ (Acts 8:8). The Gospel message was then preached in Antioch to the Gentiles and the “Lord’s power was with them” (11:19). In Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to go and proclaim the Gospel in the Roman world, preaching first to the Jews and then the Gentiles (13:2-3). The Book of Acts concludes with Paul’s arrival in Rome, with the declaration that Paul “proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ — with all boldness and without hindrance,” and with the anticipation that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be proclaimed to the uttermost parts of the earth (28:31). While there were threats to the priority of preaching, as in the dispute of the daily distribution of food to the widows (6:1-3) and the controversy surrounding the incorporation of the Gentiles into the Church (10:9-48; 15:1-29), the apostles were able to maintain their focus and continued their proclamation of the “word of God” (6:3; 15:35).

The preaching of the gospel by the disciples became a means by which the Kingdom of God broke into human existence.

In a similar way, just as Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God was a means through which the Kingdom broke into human existence, the preaching of the Gospel by the disciples became a means by which the salvific effects of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were experienced by the New Testament Church — a means by which the Kingdom of God broke into human existence. The purpose of proclamation by the disciples was made clear by Christ. In the same way, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were necessary in order to bring about the redemption of humanity, so the proclamation of the Gospel is also necessary to bring about God’s saving plan for humanity. After his resurrection Jesus told his disciples that this plan was a fulfillment of Scriptures, “This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…” (Lk. 24:46-47). It is not enough that Christ lived, died, and was raised from the dead. These facts must be proclaimed in order that they may become a saving reality for individuals. Hence, the Apostle Paul spoke not only about the cross of Christ, but also about the message of the cross as the power of God to save (I Cor. 1:18); he spoke not only about people being reconciled to God through Christ, but about the power of the “words of reconciliation” to bring about reconciliation to God (II Cor. 5:19). Again, the work of Jesus and the proclamation of that work by the disciples makes possible the work of salvation and the experience of the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps, this is made most clear by Paul in Romans. Paul teaches that everyone that “believes” in Jesus Christ (10:9) and calls upon his name “will be saved” (10:13). Paul then asks the question, “How, then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (10:14-15). He goes on to clarify that “faith” that brings about salvation is a gift from God that comes from “hearing the word of God” (10:17). Preaching the word of God is the means by which God works in humanity to bring faith in Jesus Christ. Without the preaching of the Gospel, what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection can not be brought about in human hearts and lives. The Kingdom as proclaimed and inaugurated by Christ can not be realized apart from the proclamation of the Gospel — apart from the preaching of the “word of God.”

In summary, the priority given to preaching in Jesus’ public ministry is transferred to his disciples. This is seen in the disciples’ work of proclamation before and after the resurrection of Christ. While the life, death, and resurrection of Christ accomplished the objective work of salvation, the preaching of the Gospel is what God uses subjectively to make it possible in people’s lives. This is the purpose of Christian proclamation. Through preaching of the “word of God,” Christ works through the disciples’ proclamation to establish the kingdom of God here on earth and prepare humanity for the consummation of that Kingdom in the age to come. Just as there is no kingdom apart from Jesus Christ, there is no kingdom without the proclamation of the Gospel. Proclamation makes possible Christian faith in Christ and actualizes the salvific work of Christ in the present experience of humanity. Hence, Christ commissions the apostles to preach, with proclamation as the clearly stated priority in the New Testament Church.

III. Relevance to Contemporary Protestantism

In regard to the present state of Protestant churches, three related points can be made. First, in the mission and ministry of Protestant denominations, proclamation of the Gospel must remain central, as demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus, the early New Testament Church, and encapsulated in Protestantism’s historic articles of religion and confessions of faith. The Kingdom of God is experienced and advanced through the proclamation of the Gospel. Where the message of Jesus is preached and the word of God is proclaimed, the Kingdom in its life-transforming reign becomes possible. God’s reign as established through Jesus does not happen apart from Christian proclamation. If the Church wants to transform human societies and cultures, then the Church must not forsake or minimize the priority of preaching “the pure word of God.”

If the Church wants to transform human societies and cultures, then the Church must not forsake or minimize the priority of preaching “the pure word of God.”

Proclamation of the “pure word of God” has this power because it is one of the primary means or channels of God’s grace in the world. In any discussion of God’s grace, which may be defined simply as the “unmerited” work of God for humanity, in humanity, and through humanity, the question must be asked, “How does God communicate His grace to people? How does God work in people?” The Scriptures reveal that God communicates His grace through appointed “channels” or “means.” While recognizing other means of grace and other channels through which God works, the New Testament makes clear that divine grace is communicated first and foremost through the preaching of the Word of God.

Second, and intimately related to the first point, the content of the proclamation must center on the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Christ. Jesus Christ must be the Word of God proclaimed. He is the key to the present experience of the reign of God in human life and the future as well. As such, the Church’s social witness must be marked by an unapologetic and vocal witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He must be the primary content of the Gospel proclaimed. Proclamation without focus on Christ’s salvific life is rendered powerless to bring about true life-transforming change in human lives. Where Jesus Christ is not preached, there can be no experience of the power of salvation. For example, the United Methodist Church has an admirable history of teachings on social justice, advocacy for disenfranchised groups through governmental legislation, and empathetic identification with the least and the last of human society; however, these actions are weakened and incomplete apart from proclamation centering on the salvific life of Christ.

The Church’s social witness must be marked by an unapologetic and vocal witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Finally, as has already been intimated in what is stated, the “word of God,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is meant for the entire world. Jesus intended the Gospel to go to every nation and every culture, to the whole world and not just a part. Unfortunately, some Protestant denominations have been timid and reluctant to preach the Gospel in other cultures where Christianity is not already present. There has been a tendency to see other world religions as equally valid, as another “word of God,” on par with the Gospel. However, to refuse or neglect taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ into every culture is to deny them access to grace that can bring true personal and social transformation. Historic Protestant Churches must recommit to world evangelism in obedience to the command of Christ and in true love for those who have not had access to the transforming power of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and exaltation, made available through proclamation.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is not by accident that Protestantism has emphasized the priority of Gospel proclamation in historic doctrinal standards. This emphasis is grounded in the public ministry of Jesus, the commission given by Christ to his disciples and in the practice of the early Church. Proclamation is the primary means by which the Kingdom of God is advanced in the world. Christ works through the Church’s proclamation to create in people’s lives the reality described in it. Protestant Churches in their mission and ministry, in the recovery of their social witness, must once again commit themselves to the task of preaching the “Word of God,” of proclaiming the Gospel. While proclamation is not the only means by which God’s redeeming and transforming grace is made available in the world, it is central. True social change, true inculcation of the Kingdom of God, can not happen apart from sharing the Gospel. In this regard the Church must recover what is clearly stated and indicated in her doctrine of the Church, summarized in her doctrinal standards.

Chris Bounds
Chris Bounds is Professor of Christian Doctrine at IWU and former Scholar in Residence/Professor of Theology/Gardner Professor for the Promotion of Holiness at Asbury University. He was awarded his M. Phil. in 1994 and Ph. D. in 1997 from Drew University with a focus in systematic theology.