The swift spread of the Reformation is attributable in large part to the effective preaching of individuals such as Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in Switzerland, and John Knox in Scotland. Each of them recognized the power of the preached Word not simply to change hearts, but to reform the church and society. Already in the first chapter of the popular Second Helvetic Confession (1562), penned by the Swiss pastor Heinrich Bullinger, one finds this startling phrase: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” The power of the Word of God, in other words, cannot be frustrated even by fallible and frail preachers. What people receive through preaching, in spite of the weak vessels through which it is communicated, is and remains the Word of God.
Quite distinct from the comparatively laconic homilies of Roman Catholicism or even high church Anglicanism, Reformed sermons have typically included exegetically rich, deep, and sometimes protracted expositions of the text of Scripture coupled with pointed contemporary applications (what some have dubbed “expository preaching”). Scripture is engaged in this homiletic not as an anthology of isolated moral stories but as the true and unified story of the world in which the Son of God, Jesus, is the protagonist.
Aside from a particular homiletic approach or style, Reformed preaching also uniquely features the distinctive accents of Reformed theology. Mindful of God’s good intentions in creation, Reformed preaching summons faithfulness to the Great Commission of the Gospels, but also to the cultural mandate of Genesis. The objective of such preaching is not simply to see sinners saved but to see the saved embrace their “secular” callings as vocations from God himself. In fact, Reformed preaching envisions redemption as so cosmic in scope that the redeemed community today is essentially God’s pilot project for the ultimate renovation of all that is broken in creation—the ultimate reconciliation of all that is estranged.
Perhaps most importantly, Reformed preaching deconstructs human conduct and culture to reveal the consistent power of evil and the pervasiveness of sin. Were it not for the amazing grace of God, all human initiatives would be doomed to failure. But where sin abounds, grace superabounds. That truth, beauty, and goodness can still shine so brightly in this fallen world, among those who believe and those who don’t, is a powerful tribute to the liberality of God’s grace.
The world today is of course significantly different than it was when the Reformation first launched. The best of today’s Reformed preachers are no less attentive to the Word, though they often envision, as never before, the unchurched in attendance. The Reformed preacher today is less “town crier” and more, as John Stott would say, “bridge-builder.” While experiencing the deep rift between today’s world and the world of the Bible and increasingly expecting if not even respecting skepticism, Reformed preaching does not waver from announcing the good news of Christ as Savior and Lord.