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The Roaring Of Christ Through Biblical Preaching
by Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne

One Lord’s Day as Robert Bruce (1554-1631) ascended the elevated pulpit at St. Giles Kirk in Edinburgh, King James VI was comfortably perched in his royal gallery overlooking the congregation from the rear. The relationship between Bruce and the Stewart King, though once amicable, became strained due to Bruce’s unwillingness to negotiate the truth in light of James’ unscrupulous politics - especially as it concerned the newly established Presbyterian Church of Scotland (1560). On this particular Sunday, after Bruce commenced his sermon, the King showed his contempt for Bruce by carrying on a loud and impudent conversation with his courtiers. Bruce paused for a moment, and the King quieted down. However, when Bruce began preaching again the King continued his ill-mannered conversation. After this took place a third time, the fiery Scottish preacher looked up to the royal gallery and declared:

It is said to have been an expression of the wisest of kings, When the lion roars, all the beasts of the field are [quiet]: the Lion of the tribe of Judah is now roaring in the voice of his Gospel, and it becomes all the petty kings of the earth to be silent. [1]

Robert Bruce’s courageous words remind us that Jesus Christ is, indeed, roaring in the preaching of His Gospel. And according to many, our Savior’s voice is never louder or clearer than when His Word is faithfully preached verse by verse, chapter by chapter, through entire books of the Bible. This proven method of gospel proclamation has been historically referred to as lectio continua preaching.

Lectio continua preaching finds its roots in the early church and patristic era. Its use, however, was revived and greatly expanded during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. When Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) arrived at the Zurich Grossmunster in 1519, it was his desire to introduce lectio continua preaching to his congregation by moving systematically through the Gospel of Matthew. At first, some members of his chapter were suspicious of this innovation. They were not comfortable replacing the standard lectionary with this seemingly new approach. But Zwingli explained to them that the lectio continua was not new at all. On the contrary, important figures such as Augustine (354-430), Chrysostom (347-407) and Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) all employed this homiletical strategy. Zwingli is also quoted by his successor Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) as saying that “no friend of evangelical truth could have any reason to complain” about such a method. [2]

Zwingli rightly believed that the quickest way to restore Biblical Christianity to the churches of western Europe was to preach the “whole counsel of God” verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, year after year (Acts 20:26-27). Other reformers agreed and followed his pattern. Just ninety miles north of Zurich the city of Strasbourg enjoyed solid lectio continua preaching from men such as Martin Bucer (1491-1551), Wolfgang Capito (1478-1570) and Kaspar Hedio (1494-1552). Johannes Oecolampadius (1482-1531) boldly preached the lectio continua in Basel. And how could we ever forget John Calvin (1509-1564)? Between 1549 and 1564 the Genevan Reformer preached sequentially through twenty-five books of the Bible (over 2000 sermons). [3]

The example of these Reformers has been emulated by preachers throughout the centuries, from the Post-Reformation age down to the present. But why? - you may ask. What are the advantages to this ancient homiletical method? Haven’t we acquired better, more contemporary methods of preaching? Is the lectio continua method of preaching relevant in the twenty-first century context? In a day when biblical preaching is being increasingly undermined and marginalized by media/story/therapy/personality-driven sermons, even among the self-avowedly Reformed, these are important questions to consider.

Shortly before the Apostle Paul was martyred in Rome by Emperor Nero, he penned a second epistle to Timothy. In what were some of his final words to his young disciple he wrote: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus ... preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (II Timothy 4:1-2). This directive was not only meant for Timothy. No, it is the primary duty of every Christian minister (and church) to carefully heed and obey these timeless words - for according to God’s divine blueprint, it is chiefly through the faithful preaching of the Scriptures that Christ saves, sanctifies and comforts the beloved Church for which He died [4]. In other words, the preaching of the Gospel - from all of Scripture - is the divinely sanctioned and efficacious means by which Christ is communicated to the elect. For this reason alone the lectio continua method of preaching should be the predominant, regular practice of our churches, providing a steady diet of Christ from the entirety of God’s Word. But there are also several other reasons why we should employ the lectio continua as our chief method of biblical proclamation. Here are just three:

Preaching sequentially through biblical books provides both minister and congregation with direction, protection and confidence. From time to time I ask my church-going family and friends what their pastor is presently preaching on. Usually their response is a blank stare and a sheepish smile. In large part this is due to the fact that there is very little continuity in preaching. These days pastors are often quickly moving from one unrelated topic/text to another. In this scenario pastors are always furiously searching for their next sermon idea, and the folks in the pew are never quite sure what’s coming next. Lectio Continua preaching, however, gives clear direction to both pastor and congregation, leading them, from start to finish, through one biblical book at a time. This provides healthy continuity and direction, giving the shepherd and his flock the opportunity to carefully meditate upon those verses which have already been preached, and to diligently prepare for forthcoming texts. In addition, important hermeneutical emphases are more easily identified when moving verse by verse through entire books (e.g. literary analysis, historical context, logical flow of argument, etc). It is good for churches to know where they have been and where they are going when it comes to the preaching of God’s Word.

Lectio Continua preaching also furnishes protection. First of all, when done faithfully, preaching sequentially through books of the Bible protects the congregation from the pastor’s “soap box” issues. Congregations shouldn’t have to wonder week after week what new topic/idea their pastor is going to introduce. Rather, they should be able to come to the sermon confidently knowing that their pastor’s aim is to faithfully exegete and proclaim the text that immediately follows last week’s text. Secondly, there is also protection for the pastor. When preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible, a preacher, in most cases, cannot be rightly blamed for “cherry picking” particular passages for devious purposes. Also, with the lectio continua method, the pastor is protected from his own sinful inclinations to ignore difficult or controversial texts. Congregations need to understand and embrace the truth that “All Scripture” - not some or most of it - “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Tim. 3:16).

In addition to direction and protection, the lectio continua, at its best, instills confidence. Confidence is instilled in the preacher because he knows he is not preaching his own set of ideas, but rather the inspired, inerrant, authoritative, all-sufficient, life-transforming Word of God. Preaching lectio continua replaces timidity with confidence; not confidence in one’s own abilities, but in God’s wonderful and emboldening promise to bless the faithful heralding of His Gospel (e.g. Isaiah 55:10-11). In addition, when systematic expository preaching is the standard fare, congregations attend worship with the joyful confidence of knowing that they will hear the voice of their Savior, and not someone else.

Robert Bruce fearlessly declared to his king that “the Lion of the Tribe of Judah is now roaring in the voice of his Gospel.” To be sure, there are other legitimate methods of preaching. However, the lectio continua is the homiletical method that best displays the efficacious, soul-saving, Hell-conquering roar of the crucified, risen and exalted Lord Jesus Christ.

 

{This article was first published in the Nov./Dec. 2010 issue of Modern Reformation Magazine and is used here by permission.}

 

1. This delightful story is part of an entire chapter dedicated to Robert Bruce’s life and ministry in Iain H. Murray’s A Scottish Christian Heritage (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006), 46-47.

2. Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Black Mountain, NC: Worship Press, 2004), 195.

3. T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s Preaching (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992), 159.

4. See Romans 10:14-17; I Cor. 1:18-21; I Peter 1:22-25, 2:2-3; WSC Q#89.