The church of the twenty-first century faces many crises. One of the most serious is the crisis of preaching. Widely diverse philosophies of preaching vie for acceptance among contemporary clergy. Some see the sermon as a fireside chat; others, as a stimulus for psychological health; still others, as a commentary on contemporary politics. But some still view the exposition of sacred Scripture as a necessary ingredient to the office of preaching. In light of these views, it is always helpful to go to the New Testament to seek or glean the method and message found in the biblical record of Apostolic preaching.
In the first instance, we must distinguish between two types of preaching. The first has been called kerygma; the second, didache. This distinction refers to the difference between proclamation (kerygma) and teaching or instruction (didache). It seems that the strategy of the Apostolic church was to win converts by means of the proclamation of the gospel. Once people responded to that gospel, they were baptized and received into the visible church. They then underwent a regular, systematic exposure to the teaching of the Apostles, through regular preaching (homilies) and in particular groups of catechetical instruction. In the initial outreach to the Gentile community, the Apostles did not go into great detail about Old Testament redemptive history. That knowledge was assumed among Jewish audiences, but it was not held among the Gentiles. Nevertheless, even to the Jewish audiences, the central emphasis of the evangelistic preaching was on the announcement that the Messiah had come and ushered in God’s kingdom.
If we take time to examine the sermons of the Apostles that are recorded in the book of Acts, we see a somewhat common and familiar structure to them. In this analysis, we can discern the Apostolic kerygma, the basic proclamation of the gospel. Here the focus in the preaching was on the person and work of Jesus. The gospel itself was called the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is about Him; it involves the proclamation and declaration of what He accomplished in His life, in His death, and in His resurrection. After the details of His death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God were preached, the Apostles called the people to be converted to Christ—to repent of their sins and receive Christ by faith.
The gospel itself was called the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is about Him; it involves the proclamation and declaration of what He accomplished in His life, in His death, and in His resurrection.
When we seek to extrapolate from these examples how the Apostolic church did evangelism, we must ask: What is appropriate for the transfer of Apostolic principles of preaching to the contemporary church? Some churches believe that a person is required to preach the gospel or to communicate the kerygma in every sermon preached. This view sees the emphasis in Sunday morning preaching as one of evangelism, of proclaiming the gospel. Many preachers today, however, say they are preaching the gospel on a regular basis when in some cases they have never preached the gospel at all, because what they call the gospel is not the message of the person and work of Christ and how His accomplished work and its benefits can be appropriated to the individual by faith. Rather, the gospel of Christ is exchanged for therapeutic promises of a purposeful life or having personal fulfillment by coming to Jesus. In messages such as these, the focus is on us rather than on Him.
On the other hand, in looking at the pattern of worship in the early church, we see that the weekly assembly of the saints involved a coming together for worship, fellowship, prayer, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and devotion to the teaching of the Apostles. If we were there, we would see that the Apostolic preaching covered the whole of redemptive history and the sum of divine revelation, not being restricted simply to the evangelistic kerygma.
So, again, the kerygma is the essential proclamation of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and rule of Jesus Christ, as well as a call to conversion and repentance. It is this kerygma that the New Testament indicates is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). There can be no acceptable substitute for it. When the church loses her kerygma, she loses her identity.
Dr. R.C. Sproul was founder of Ligonier Ministries, founding pastor of Saint Andrew's Chapel in Sanford, Fla., and first president of Reformation Bible College. He was author of more than one hundred books, including The Holiness of God.