How do we judge effectiveness in preaching of the Word? In the past, there have times when I stepped down from the pulpit that I say to myself, “I didn’t do a good job.” When I say this, I usually mean–not that I wasn’t faithful to the text or didn’t prepare well–that I didn’t preach with my usually high energy. I made more mistakes that unusual. My recitation of Scripture passages from memory was off and so on.
But then a few saints would shake my hand on the way out and say, “Thank you for that Word. I needed it.” Why? Because the Holy Spirit has already, I believe, begun to apply the preached Word.
Now I take a sacramental view of preaching, that is, believing that the faithful proclamation of the Word is a means of God’s grace, agreeing with the Second Helvetic Confession, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful.”
To speak of of the preaching of the Word as a sacrament may not sit well with many believers, especially if you’re Baptists, who frown on the term “sacrament,” thinking “superstition or the like.”
And we may speak of sacrament as either a means of saving grace or sanctifying grace, depending on the context. Consider this: (1) Paul says the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Referring to God, James writes, “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth” (1:18 NIV). Peter adds, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23 NIV). And after quoting from Isaiah 40, Peter concludes with this: “And this is the word that was preached to you” (v. 25). This happens when the Holy Spirit applies savingly Christ and his benefits to the sinner who has received thus by faith (2 Thess. 2:13).
(2) And we may also speak of the proclamation of the Word as a means of sanctifying grace, that is, one of God’s means of delivering Christ and all his benefits, to his covenant community. I believe we see this in Acts 20:32 when Paul says to the Ephesian elders, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (ESV).
Therefore, to the minister of the Word–whether in the pulpit, in your home, at Starbucks, in the library, a parking lot, or wherever–I leave you the following from Michael Horton, which I believe, along with what I’ve argued above, answers the question of “how do we judge effectiveness in preaching?”
“The power of the Word lies in the ministry of the Spirit, not in the ministers themselves. We do not need great preachers, but faithful preaching of the word.” (Pilgrim Theology, p. 351, emphasis added)
In other words, when we faithfully preach the Word, the Spirit does his work, of either saving or sanctifying.