Him We Proclaim: Christ as the Subject, End, and Power of Preaching

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that preaching is the primary activity of the church because God never changes and man’s need never changes. 

“…the moment you consider man’s real need, and also the nature of salvation announced and proclaimed in the Scriptures, you are driven to the conclusion that the primary task of the Church is to preach and proclaim this, to show’s man’s real need, and to show the only remedy, the only cure for it.” (Preaching and Preachers, pg. 26)

For Lloyd-Jones, the preaching of the gospel is not one task amidst a host of equal priorities, but the primary activity of the church. If this is so, we need to have a robust theology of Christian preaching. In my mind there is no better starting point to that end than Colossians 1:28-29. There we learn that Christ is the principal subject, end, and power for preaching.

28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Col 1:28–29)

The antecedent of “him” is Christ in 1:27,  To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Jesus Christ is the principal subject of all Christian proclamation.

The words “Him we proclaim” remind us that ministry is not about the minister. The minister is not the point of ministry and churches do not exist to make the minister’s name great. Gospel ministry is about the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Like the focus on a camera these words bring the priority of ministry into clear view. That priority is summarized in the brief phrase “Him we proclaim.” 

Along with a principal subject, preaching also has a primary purpose, “that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” The maturity or perfection that Paul is speaking of here is the end of the Christian life, that final day when the the church is presented to Christ in glory. If this is the purpose, we can say that preaching does not just aim for the conversion of sinners, but the perseverance of the saints. 

When this becomes our aim, we avoid the error of bringing the church into conformity to ourselves. John Calvin helpfully reminds us, ”If ministers wish to do any good, let them labour to form Christ, not to form themselves, in their hearers.”

The motivation to adopt this end for preaching is found in Colossians 1:22,. Paul tells us that Christ, “…reconciled (us) in his body of flesh by his death, in order that he might present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” When pastors prayerfully aim to present the saints mature in Christ they are aligned with Christ’s own purposes for the church. 

Christ is the end of preaching.

If this type of preaching is to be done faithfully, it must be done with necessary discipline and in the appropriate power. “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he works powerfully within me.”

There is a story about the famous evangelist D.L. Moody, who on his first Sunday as pastor in Chicago recounts visiting Charles Haddon Spurgeon in London. Here is a summary of Moody’s impression of Spurgeon.  

“What impressed him most was not the praise, though he thought he had never heard such grand congregational singing; it was not Mr. Spurgeon’s exposition, fine though it was, nor even his sermon; it was his prayer. He seemed to have such access to God that he could bring down the power from heaven; that was the great secret of his influence and his success.”1

I think the Pauline prayers throughout his letters support the idea that the power of God is accessed through prayer. There is not an ounce of power in and of ourselves that can accomplish preaching’s great end, but we can trust that those who depend upon God in prayer will be empowered by God in Christ. If we are going to be faithful preachers of Christ for the maturation of the church, then we must both toil and labor while depending upon the power of Christ.

Christ is the power of preaching 

Fellow pastors, we will preach many sermons and in all of them it must be Him that we proclaim. Those sermons will be preached from a variety of biblical texts and from them all it must be Him that we proclaim. We will preach those sermons to a number of people (some of us more than others) and to each one it must be Him that we proclaim. As we do, may we depend on the power of God working in and through us.

My Prayer for Preaching

 I’ve often heard it said that Spurgeon ascended to preach repeating the words, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, I believe in the Holy Ghost, I believe in the Holy Ghost.” It was his prayer for power and an expression of dependance on God for the task of preaching.  Andy Davis, one of my favorite expositors today, has said that he repeats Jesus’ words in John 21 “Feed my sheep, feed my sheep, feed my sheep.”1

These habits are good, because they redirect the preacher to the source of his power and the purpose of his preaching. While I don’t repeat the same phrase while ascending the small steps to the platform at Hermon Baptist Church, I have found myself repeating the same prayer before each sermon: exalt your name, edify your church, evangelize the sinner. This prayer captures what I aim to accomplish in every sermon. 

  1. Exalt your name

Preaching is not merely the communication of information. Preaching is the exaltation God’s glory in Jesus Christ as revealed in Holy Scripture. I long for my people to behold this glory and adore the person in whom it is revealed (John 1:14). In the New Testament we learn that Jesus Christ has inherited the name that is above all names (Phil. 2:9; Heb. 1:4). Since I am convinced this is the divine name, praying for the exaltation of God’s name is to pray for the exaltation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ.  

  1. Edify your church 

When the saints gather on the Lord’s day, the Spirit works through the preaching of the Word of God to renew the saints into the image of God. To hear the Word preached is to really hear the living God address his people for the purpose of maturity and sanctification. This prayer is inspired by 1 Timothy 4:15-16 and Colossians 1:28-29.  

13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching…15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Ti 4:15–16)

28 Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (Col 1:28–29) 

  1. Evangelize the sinner 

When Paul praises God for the saints in Thessalonica he notes their reception of his gospel preaching. 

13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Th 2:13)

For any and all present who don’t know the Lord, I pray that God would evangelize the sinner. First, this is a prayer for gospel clarity. I want every sermon to be the proclamation of God’s work in the gospel and a call to repentance and faith. Second it is a prayer for the unbeliever to receive the Word for what it really is—the Word of God. 

Since these are my aims and I am insufficient to execute them by my own power, I will continue to pray: exalt your name, edify your church, evangelize the sinner. 

A School in Slow Spirituality

In the midst of washing bottles for a four month old, eagerness to change the laundry, and the maneuvering around a loaded sink came the words, “Want daddy, want daddy, want daddy.” These are the words Isaac, my seven year old son with both Down syndrome and fetal alcohol syndrome uses to make requests of me. “Want daddy” is Isaac language for, “Daddy, I want x.” As usual, I asked what he wanted. Also as usual, Isaac repeated “want Daddy” instead of stating his request. After the fourth repetition, my voice began to raise and say shaper, “No, Isaac, what…do…you…want.” He replied, “Water.”

Isaac often moves at this own pace. He is often slow to respond, slow to obey, and slow to act. As an average Western American, I value the productive use of time. What frustrated me about our conversation was that Isaac seemed to be taking up the valuable time during his brother’s nap. My son only wanted water. I only wanted to be left to work. In a moment, the priority of productivity over the being present with my son became clear.

This became all the more evident that same evening when I sat down to read Kelly Kapic’s outstanding new book You’re Only Human. In a chapter challenging our obsession with efficiency Kapic borrows from theologian John Swinton and says, “It is not difficult to see how easily we have imposed a scale of “being efficient” onto our perception of “being human,” consequently valuing people in terms of productivity and speed.”

This correct observation pierced my heart, because I also have raised concerns about how we might dehumanize fellow image bearers in our articulation of the imago Dei. It is not hard to understand how daily parenting problems can discourage, but what if lamenting these challenges leads me to miss what Isaac is teaching me?

Leaning again on Swinton, Kapic writes, “Affirming finitude as part of the creaturely domain, Swinton challenges us to realize that “love has a speed” and we should discover the beauty of “slow and gentle disciples” who are easily missed and ignored but are actually vital to the kingdom of God. We sense that we need to slow down and listen to Christ, to see him in the vulnerable and needy, and to confess our own neediness in the process.”

These lessons not only offer edification for the individual Christian, but for the corporate life of the church. This is the insight Jason Whitt brings out by suggesting the church may learn a lot by including people with disabilities in worship.

“They remind the church that God has given the church all the time it needs, whether that means allowing the person who does not speak well or quickly to read Scripture or pray; walking slowly to the communion table with one whose gait is slow; or creating spaces that are accessible to everyone, not just who are able to rush from task to task. The fear is that including people wit disabilities into the life of the church will slow members down. This slowing down, however, may help speed up the moral formation of the church.”

Repentance may very well begin with acknowledging that God has given Isaac as a gift not so much for how I might help him, but how he might help me slow down, listen to Christ, and confess my own neediness. Perhaps we’re all in too much of a hurry and as we rush from task to task our spiritual formation is stunted. Repentance may very well result in enrolling in a school of slow spirituality.