By Randy Sawyer
The Reformation Age was an era in which a recovery of preaching brought about the theological reform and ecclesiastical renewal. And it was indeed the recovery of expositional preachingthat served to fuel the reformed project. As the late Middle Ages wound to a close, Europe was suffering from severe famine. But it was “Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).
Form and shadow had replaced substance and heart. The need of the hour was for a “voice crying in the wilderness.” Into that void stepped the reformers, men committed, above all else, to heralding the Word of the living God; men like Wyclif, Huss, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.
Principles of the First Reformation
Sufficiency of the Word
Although these pulpit giants were different in many respects, it is easy to observe a number of consistencies in their lives and ministries. First, each reformer held firmly to the certainty of the Bible. The principle of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) was not an empty catch phrase with them. In a day when church tradition and papal commentary ranked on par with scripture, these men held to the sufficiency of the Word.
Accessibility of the Word
Second, each reformer believed the Scriptures should be placed in the hands of the common man. Each reformer was, in fact, driven to translate. Wyclif initiated a translation of the scriptures into English; Huss translated portions of the Word into Czech, as well as most of Wyclif’s writings; Luther worked tirelessly to provide a German translation; Zwingli and Calvin offered the scriptures in the language of their people. Thus was the Word unlocked, opened to the priesthood of individual believers.
Rightly Dividing the Word
Third, each preacher adopted a grammatical/historical hermeneutic. The key to this school of interpretation is the understanding that “God revealed himself in history, and the words of scripture had very definite meaning to those for whom they were originally written.”
It is vital, therefore, to establish the historical and literal sense of scripture. This is done by a careful study of the language, the grammar and the rhetoric of the text. The goal is to discover and develop the plain meaning to the Word. To be sure, the reformers were influenced by a scholastic model in many ways. Yet the “plain, naked meaning of the text” was of paramount importance to them.
Courageously Declaring the Word
Fourth, these men were courageous, and with their “conscience held captive by the Word of God,” they willingly braved the ecclesiastical and political powers of the day. From Wyclif, who initiated the first faint rumblings of what lay ahead, to Luther who blatantly challenged “the gates of hell,” to Calvin, who organized and systematized the reformation doctrine, these men shook heaven and earth because they could not do otherwise.
Power of the Word
Fifth, the work of these reformers clearly illustrates the claim that expository preaching is the main force in building God’s church numerically and spiritually. Each man enjoyed a tremendous numerical following. Through his “poor priests,” Wyclif’s ministry reached not only across the British Isles, but also all the way to Eastern Europe, where hungry hearts awaited the proclamation of the truth.
From Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, Huss’ preaching captivated an entire country, and rescued a people from darkness. Every time the “Father of the Reformation” preached, enormous crowds gathered.
Hear again Luther’s comment from his Table Talks,
“When I preach I sink myself down; I regard neither doctors nor masters of which there are in the church about forty. But I have an eye for the multitude of young people, children and servants, of which there are more than two thousand. I preach to them.”
Zwingli’s expositional ministry dominated a city, and in Geneva, Calvin was “the grand old man of the city” and of the reformed movement. Each successive generation still hears the echo of their expository preaching, proving that God’s church is expanded through a truly biblical ministry.
Likewise, expository preaching facilitates spiritual maturation. Observe the state of the church and all of Europe prior to the recovery of biblical preaching. See the moral decadence, the political and ecclesiastical corruption, and the blatant paganism running rampant. This era was truly characterized by a spiritual darkness.
Then observe the liberating, releasing power of truth. To be sure, years of struggle lay ahead, but the Bible had been “unlocked,” and so too had many hearts. Centuries later we are the beneficiaries of their labor, as the kingdom continues to expand, one soul at a time, through their commitment to expository preaching.
The Plea for a Second Reformation
A reformation is desperately needed today that will summon the church out of the dark age of postmodernism, with its emphasis on pragmatism and anthropocentric (man-centered) theology, back to her noble place within the economy of God. Such a renewal can only be initiated by a return to scripture, which will only result from an undying commitment to preaching the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God.
Form and shadow must be replaced by substance and heart. Methodology must once again become subordinate to truth. God must be re-established as the center of our theology and preaching.
Everything God has ever done has been accomplished through the power of His Word. Bryan Chapell in Christ-Centered Preaching writes, “God fully manifests the dynamic power of His Word in the New Testament where he writes His Son as the divine logos, or word.”
By identifying His Son as the Word, God reveals that His message and His person are inseparable. God is the Word, and the Word is God. The truths of scripture are God’s vehicle by which he reveals Himself.
Again Chapell says, “God’s word is powerful because He chooses to be present in it and to operate through it.”
Having been created by God and for His pleasure, any remedy for the human condition apart from God leaves man empty. Any attempt to proclaim God apart from His determined method is doomed the failure.
“God has chosen . . . preaching,” Paul declared. Through Bible<entered preaching God is ultimately revealed, and He alone receives the glory. The more closely the preaching is tied to scripture, the more fully God is manifested to satisfy man’s crucial longings.
A reformation is needed. But it will not be ushered in through pragmatism, man-centered theology or the latest churchy fads and forms. Renewal of the magnitude needed today can come only through the Word. May God grant us a new generation of preachers who will rightly divide the word of truth. Ecclesia simper reformanda.
Article adapted from Contact magazine, November 2001.