[The following is the August 27, 2012, convocation address presented to faculty and students at Heidelberg Theological Seminary, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Rev. Pollema serves on the Board of Trustees for the seminary.]
Convocation is a call or summons to assemble, usually an ecclesiastical or academic assembly. A seminary convocation is a combination of both. This evening it is appropriate that we focus on preaching. Why preach? Why preaching? Preaching serves a very specific purpose that is set forth in the text for this evening: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 10:17) This evening we consider the importance of faith and preaching and how they are inseparably linked. At the same time, it will show that Heidelberg Theological Seminary has a vital role to fulfill.
In the parable of the Unjust Judge (Lk. 18:1-8), Jesus teaches that when His second coming is seemingly slow in coming, believers are not to become discouraged, but, like the troublesome widow to the judge, should persist in prayer, knowing that He hears their prayers, and will, indeed, come at the right time. He will come suddenly and without delay and put an end to the distress into which His chosen ones will be plunged by an evil and hostile world. There is to be no doubt that Jesus will come again and that God will then make the righteous cause of the faithful to triumph completely and forever. Jesus then closes the parable with this question: “Howbeit, when the Son of man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” This, I believe, explains the urgency of the Apostle Paul’s charge to Timothy: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” (2 Tim. 4:2–4) Has that time arrived?
A Frightening World
Jesus’ question is intended both as a warning and a prediction. It is a warning that believers should take heed not to let faith waver, even though Jesus’ coming may seem to be delayed. It is also a prediction, a sign of the times, that at His second coming, the vast majority of people will live in unbelief.
There are many things that frighten us today. As a nation, we are holding our breath from one crisis to the next, never knowing what lurks around the corner. Islamic radicalism and terrorism are a continuing threat. Marriage, homes and families are falling apart and divorce is rampant. The world has invaded the church and many now teach that evil is good, and good, evil. Our schools are largely undisciplined. The prison population is the highest it’s ever been. Unwed mothers and illegitimate children are increasing out of all proportion. Pro-abortionist judges have no concern for the life of the unborn and willingly and legally commit murder and then turn around and protest how inhumane it is to put a murderer to death. Many of these judges are more concerned about animal rights and how to prevent cruelty to animals. Sodomy, or homo-sexuality, and all kinds of sexual perversion are now fashionable and openly promoted on television and the movies. Sin that once slunk down back alleys, now struts down Main Street!
Yes, there are many things that frighten and alarm us. But as frightening and fearsome as these things may be, there is something even more frightening, and it is really at the bottom of all the things that cause fear and fright. I’m talking about the absence of faith, of true faith—whereby we hold for truth, all that God has revealed in His Word, and a hearty trust in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The absence of true faith is the most terrifying of all. If there is anything that assures that humanity will corrupt itself irretrievably and finally pull down destruction upon its head, it is the absence of true faith, with the result that everyone does what is right in his own eyes. Such people assume that they are like God, deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil. It’s the temptation in the Garden and questioning what God says that is constantly being repeated (cf. Gen. 3:1–7).
Why is there such a dearth of true faith today? The answer is directly related to what is happening on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, and especially to that part of worship that has become increasingly unpopular. I am referring to preaching. Today preaching and sermons are considered dull and boring, and for most, way too long. Many churches, if they have not eliminated the sermon, have shortened it to a mere fifteen minutes at best, and have introduced other things in its place, things that are more appealing, more exciting, more entertaining. But by doing so, they have cut the very heart out of worship and have eliminated that which alone can lead to salvation and to growth and understanding of God’s Word. The words of the apostle Paul cry out for attention by the church today: “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” (Rom. 10:17)
Sadly, there are so many mistaken notions about faith floating around these days that it is almost impossible to talk clearly about this subject. Many people think that it is little more than an opinion somewhat randomly chosen or something you just feel like having or feel like discarding. As a result, most people today have discarded theirs because they never had true faith. They feel they can’t know anything for sure, and as far as behavior is concerned, they pretty much follow their own impulses, which they fortify with elaborate rationalizations. They may recognize the Bible as a great book and that there is a God, but further than that they are not willing to go. They simply live for themselves. The deterioration of faith and erosion of certainty is the greatest danger facing us today. At the same time, it exposes the great task as well as the great failure of the visible church today.
The Necessity of Preaching
True faith is rapidly disappearing. What can be done about it? One thing is certain. We will not be able to recover true faith until we first understand what it is and how it must come. According to the Bible, such a faith in Jesus Christ comes by means of preaching. As the great truths of Christ and the Word are presented, there are people who are captured by the Spirit of Christ and they will come to know and confess “that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” (HC Q21) Such a confession occurs when people are exposed to the preaching of the Word of God. The preaching of the Word is the divinely- instituted means through which it pleased God, in Christ, to draw sinners to Himself. This is how the Lord finds His own and bestows upon them the gift of true faith (cf. Eph. 2:8). This is how the Lord found me. That is how the Lord found you. To be drawn to Christ, sinners must hear His voice, His own Word to them personally. Nothing less will do unto salvation. The word of man is powerless. Only the Word of God has the power to save, for it alone is “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12) Only God’s Word can bring life to the spiritually dead. For thus the Lord declares: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live.” (Jn. 5:25)
The apostle Paul emphasizes this very thing in our text (Rom. 10:5–17). After saying “whoever believes on Him shall not be put to shame” (vs 11) and “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (vs 13), he poses the question: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” In the “Greek it does not say “of whom they have not heard,” but “whom they have not heard.” “The meaning is that it is absolutely necessary that they hear the voice of Christ speaking to them!
How could it be any different? How could the mere word of man or all the begging of a preacher ever take the place of the mighty Word of Christ unto the salvation of a sinner? How could anyone believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, except through and upon His own Word? Salvation, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life, is a mighty big package! It takes true faith. How can the mere word of man create such faith in the heart of one who is spiritually dead, corrupt of heart, and darkened in his understanding? The fact of the matter is that it can’t! Such faith can be wrought in the heart only by God’s own Word, spoken by Himself. Thus Paul went on to say: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” (vs 17) One must hear the voice of Jesus say: “Come unto Me, and rest.” (cf. Matt. 11:28) One must hear Him call: “Come unto Me and drink.” (Jn. 7:37) He must stand at your and my spiritual grave and say: “Arise from the dead.” (Eph. 5:14) Then, and only then, can you and I cast ourselves upon Him, come to Him, and find the promised rest.
Prior to this, of course, is the work of God the Holy Spirit in regeneration (cf. Jn. 3:1–8; I Cor. 2:14), preparing the seed-bed of the heart, changing the heart of stone into a heart of flesh (cf. Ezek. 36:26–27), making the soil good for the seed, resulting in the effectual preaching and call of the Gospel, clearly indicated in the record of the conversion of Lydia: “And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, one that worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened to give heed to the things which were spoken by Paul.” (Acts 16:14) Attesting to this are Peter, James, and Paul: “Having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.” (1 Pet. 1:23) “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth..” (Jas. 1:18) “For the Word of God is living and powerful” (Heb. 4:12), It is “The power of God unto salvation, (Rom. 1:16) “and shall not return void, but shall accomplish for what it was purposed.” (Isa. 55:11) It is “to one the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life.” (2 Cor. 2:16) There are those who will be hardened, to whom the precious corner stone becomes a “stumbling stone and a rock of offense.” (Rom. 9:33) But to His own the good Shepherd says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me, and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” (Jn. 10:27–28)
It pleased the Lord to speak this mighty Word by which He calls from the dead and draws men to Himself through preaching. For that, one needs a preacher. After the Apostle Paul points out the necessity of hearing the very word of Christ, he goes on to ask: “And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’” (Rom. 10:14–15; cf. Isa. 52:7) Note that the preacher must be sent. Strictly speaking, only the church can authorize preaching. One may witness for Christ. One may give an answer to anyone that asks a reason for the hope that is in him. One may confess his faith. One may and should tell others all about Christ. But one cannot preach unless he be sent. This is easily understood when one bears in mind that preaching is the authoritative deliverance or proclamation of the Word of God and that Christ gave this command to preach His Gospel to His Church (cf. Matt. 28:18–20), for He gave to His Church “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:11–12)
The Heidelberg Catechism recognizes the importance of preaching when it speaks of the office of the Keys in Q/A 83 and 84: What is the office of the Keys? “The preaching of the Holy Gospel and Christian discipline; by these two the Kingdom of Heaven is opened to believers and shut against unbelievers.” How is the Kingdom of Heaven opened and shut by the preaching of the Holy Gospel? “In this way: that according to the command of Christ, it is proclaimed and openly witnessed to believers, one and all, that as often as they accept with true faith the promise of the Gospel, all their sins are really forgiven them of God for the sake of Christ’s merits; and on the contrary, to all unbelievers and hypocrites, that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation abide on them so long as they are not converted. According to this testimony of the Gospel, God will judge men both in this life and in that which is to come.” Preaching is the means of grace, for the preaching of the Word is indispensable to faith in Christ. The quote from the prophet Isaiah, calling the feet of those who preach, beautiful, has in view the runner or messenger who brings the good news of victory from the battlefield, a fitting metaphor for the victory over sin and death that comes through the preaching the gospel.
Preaching and Faith
If there is not a vital, enthusiastic proclamation of Jesus Christ, “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6), faith is going to disappear. This is the major reason why this is such a skeptical and dangerous age. Where, today, do you hear a forthright, bold presentation of the whole counsel of God’s Word? There are all kinds of men today who gladly wear the clerical garb, but they wouldn’t ever want to be caught announcing that Jesus Christ is God’s only begotten Son and His name the only name given among men whereby they can be saved (cf. Acts 4:12), and that Christ’s atonement is substitutionary in nature, applied to those chosen by God from eternity (cf. Eph. 1:4ff).
Many so-called Christian religious leaders dilute the gospel message in so many ways and present a Christ of their own making, that no one can ever be expected to arrive at true faith by listening to them. It’s true that our universities and colleges are teaching many godless philosophies, but the greatest single cause of the absence of true faith today is because too many ministers are ashamed of the gospel and do not believe that “it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.” (Rom. 1:16) Under the guise of broad-mindedness and wearing the stylish robes of intellectualism, many religious leaders have surrendered, one by one, the cardinal teachings of the of God’s Word. But listen to the Apostle Paul, who was among the best educated of his day: “For Christ sent me. . .to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.’ Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, It pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe.” (1 Cor. 1:17–21)
In conclusion, a word to you, the beloved congregation: How is your faith coming? Have you connected faith and preaching? Yes, you enjoy a good sermon now and then and you don’t mind attending a worship service if it doesn’t interfere with more important things. Do you, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church to learn the Word of God (cf. H.C. #103)? Or has that not yet become your first priority? If this is the case with you, then you should admit that you don’t really know how true faith comes or you are not all that committed to strengthening it. The reason or fault for this is you yourself because you have not been in a position to receive this faith or nourish it. True faith doesn’t just drop out of the blue all of a sudden while you are working, setting the table, or doing the laundry. This kind of faith doesn’t overwhelm you while driving home from work, the store, or when you are out for a good time. This kind of faith doesn’t just happen, but it happens under certain circumstances. It is born in people’s souls when they are exposed to the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word of God. When people hear the marvelous truths of the gospel found in the Bible, then, and only then is God pleased to capture their hearts and make them believers. Hearing and knowing the truth can set them free from the false and vain philosophies of this world (cf. Col. 2:8). Let us pray that God will use Heidelberg Theological Seminary to train more truth tellers!
“Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” How essential it is to have churches and a denomination (or denominations) where God’s Word is faithfully preached—where Jesus Christ is preached as God’s only begotten Son who alone can save His people. I remind you that the first mark of the true church is the faithful preaching of the Word. You must listen to such preaching and teaching as often as you can—every Sunday, and in-between when possible. If you do that, you will discover the truths about Jesus that you must know in order to have true saving faith. You must invite others to come and hear this preaching. Only then is it possible for faith to come, the very faith that is in such short supply today. The greatest need of the hour in these dangerous times is true saving faith. That can come only by hearing the Word. That means more preachers and preaching by those who are not ashamed of the gospel, but know that it alone is the power of God to everyone that believes for, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”