The Reforming Power of Expository Preaching Part 1

By Randy Sawyer

The church of the Middle Ages was a massive and powerful institution. The pope, as supreme authority in Christendom, exercised a moral rule over both ecclesiastical and political matters. The church buildings and the services held in them were very similar everywhere. The universal use of Latin facilitated communication, and the laity as well as the clergy were deeply devoted to the dogma that had evolved over the previous centuries.

Crumbling Foundations

In spite of the appearance of stability, however, the very foundation of the church was disintegrating, and without significant reforms the church was in danger of total collapse. Reformation was needed both morally and theologically.

Morally the church was infected with corruption. The papal court was a hotbed of conspiracies, plots and intrigues. Half the popes between 1417 and 1517 fathered illegitimate children, and the lesser clergy and monastics were given to absenteeism, bribery and licentiousness.

The church also needed reform on the theological level. The teachings of the church had gone astray to the point that it no longer resembled “the doctrine of the apostles” and church fathers. It was imperative that the church return to the sources of Christianity, especially the study of the Holy Scriptures.

Courageous Reformers

Though there were significant signs of decadence, many courageous churchmen voiced a deep desire for reform. These reformers sprang from divergent backgrounds and at times held to conflicting theological viewpoints. But each shared the conviction that God’s Word is supreme and they had been chosen to proclaim that Word.

In On the History of Preaching, John Broadus summarized the preaching of the Reformation Age:

“lt was a revival of biblical preaching. Instead of the long and often fabulous stories about the saints and martyrs, and accounts of miracles, instead of passages from Aristotle and Seneca, and fine-spun subtleties of the schoolmen, these men preached the Bible.”

It was indeed the recovery of expositional preaching that served to fuel the Reform movement. Who were these courageous reformers? Who were these men who tore asunder the fabric of Roman Catholicism to herald the dawning of a new day?

The Morning Star

John Wyclif is sometimes known as the Morning Star of the Reformation. Born in 1330 into an English family, Wyclif went to Oxford to study and by 1370 had become Oxford’s leading philosopher and theologian. In his 40s, Wyclif became involved in politics, siding with the government in its disputes with the Papacy.

During that time his views became increasingly radical as he questioned the rights of a corrupt clergy to control church properties. Just when his beliefs became most radical, the political climate changed, and he lost his government support. Shortly thereafter, the pope condemned 18 of Wyclif’s statements in a series of bulls.

In 1378, with this pressure mounting against him, Wyclif retired to a country parish. There he continued to write and encourage those seeking reform.

Besides maintaining the inerrancy of scripture, he claimed that the Bible contains the whole of God’s revelation.  There is no need for any further teaching to be supplied by church tradition, the pope or any other source. Furthermore, the Bible is to be made available to all Christians, the laity as well as the clergy.

Accordingly, Wyclif translated the Bible into English and then went out to preach God’s Word. Wyclif died of a stroke in 1384, but his disciples, the Lollards, continued to teach his doctrine. They carried his ideas throughout Europe and helped pave the way for the 16th century English Reformation.

Wyclif’s most significant contribution to preaching was his use of the “naked text,” or exposition of the gospel message without the accumulation of tradition. He insisted that preaching should be based upon the biblical text alone. He believed that a preacher must preach only the “unsullied laws of God.”

“Scripture to him was the ‘magistrum optimum,’ higher than reason and tradition.” His firm adherence to the “naked text” revived the superiority of pulpit evangelism over mere ceremonialism, and became the model for other reformers.

At the Council of Constance, the works of Wyclif were condemned. Thirteen years later in 1428, Wyclif’s bones were dug up and burned.

A biographer commented, “They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighboring brook. Thus the brook conveyed his ashes into the Avon, the Avon into the Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas and they into the main ocean. And so the ashes of Wyclif are symbolic of his doctrine, which is now spread throughout the world.”

The Bohemian Reformer

Wyclif’s teachings greatly influenced the Bohemian reformer, John Huss. Wyclif writings were already known in Bohemia in the 14th century, but in 1401 Jerome of Prague brought from England copies of his more radical theological works. As early as 1402, Huss was regarded as the chief exponent of Wyclif’s views. From his strategic position as rector and preacher Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, Huss sought to preach only the “naked text.”

In preaching on I Corinthians he said, “l would remind you how I preached to you the gospel.” Then exhorting the priests of his day, he continued, “Preach the gospel, not some entertainment or fables, or plundering lies, so that the people with attentive minds will accept the gospel and both the preacher and the hearer will be grounded by the faith in the gospel.”

Huss often preached a series of sermons consisting of a running commentary on a whole scripture passage. In so doing, he gathered numerous quotations from widely scattered sources to add credibility to his proposition. Huss did not employ expository preaching as the modem definition would suggest, but his sermons were a departure from the tedious traditions of his day and were thoroughly scriptural.

The greatest aspect of Huss’ preaching, however, was his passion. Charles Dargan said, “ln his preaching Huss carried more weight by the strength and sincerity of his convictions than by those more pleasing and impressive talents which we call eloquence.” People loved to hear him preach because of the zeal they saw in him.

John Broadus wrote: “John Huss was an eloquent and scholarly man and his “fervid” sermons in favor of moral and ecclesiastical reformation long made a great impression.”

Though his voice was silenced at the stake at Constance in 1415, the fires of reform ignited by his biblical preaching set ablaze the hearts of his countrymen. Today, in the center of Old Town Square, Prague, stands a memorial to the Czech Reformer. So great was influence over his native land that Prague became known preeminently as the home of Huss.

The Naked Text

Both Wyclif and Huss were committed to preaching the “naked text” and in an era when church tradition and papal commentary ranked on par with Scripture, these men courageously held to the sufficiency of the Word. Their work demonstrates clearly theReforming Power of Expository Preaching(Part 2 will show how this principle is demonstrated in the preaching of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.)

Article adapted from Contact magazine, July 2001.