Yes, Preaching Really Does Change People
If you’ve been in pastoral ministry for any length of time at all you’ve asked the question: Is my preaching actually doing anything? Is it having any effect?
The question could be addressed on several different grounds. It could be addressed on historical grounds, pointing to the powerful effects of preaching in various times and places in the history of the church, notably, from the beginning in the book of Acts. It could be addressed on personal grounds by means of collected anecdotes—“Let me tell you about Joe and Mary Black and what God did in their lives through the faithful preaching of God’s Word.”
But without question, the most compelling response is going to be a theological one, grounded in the realities presented in Scripture regarding who God is, what he is doing, what his Word does, and what he fully intends preaching to accomplish.
AN UNDER-CELEBRATED CHARACTERISTIC
We rightly celebrate the authority, the trustworthiness, and the sufficiency of Scripture. But perhaps an under-celebrated characteristic of Scripture is its efficacy. By “efficacy” I simply mean the ability to actually accomplish what is intended.
Probably the clearest statement on the efficacy of Scripture is found in Isaiah 55:10–11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it . (italics added)
That’s a powerful statement on the efficacy of God’s Word, and it provides more than sufficient grounds for a deep conviction in the heart of every faithful preacher. Without this conviction, a pastor will regularly wonder about and doubt the usefulness of his preaching. But with this conviction fully in place a pastor will have every reason to persevere in his regular and faithful exposition of God’s Word.
WHAT GOD’S WORD IS & DOES
Think of the images the Bible uses to speak of God’s Word. It’s like a sword (Hebrews 4:12). It’s like a hammer (Jeremiah 23:29). These images evoke powerful efficacy. Even the less aggressive images of rain (Isaiah 55:10) and seed (Mark 4:14) speak of efficacy.
And think of all the things the Bible says God’s Word can do.
- It brings about faith. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
- It gives new spiritual life. “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
- It helps us grow. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).
- It sanctifies us. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).
- It searches and convicts. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
- It liberates. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).
- It refreshes and renews. “Give me life according to your word” (Psalm 119:25).
- It revives our souls and rejoices our hearts. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul … the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalm 19:7,8).
These are all things the Bible claims God’s Word can do in our lives! And there’s so much more! So is it any wonder that David says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree” (Psalm 1:1–3)? And the amazing thing is that God has ordained preaching as the primary means by which this powerful Word is brought effectively to human beings (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2).
WHAT’S AT STAKE
There’s so much at stake in our preaching. People’s lives are at stake. People are lost, alienated from God, and desperately in need of hearing the saving Word of Christ. The health of Christ’s church is at stake. God’s people desperately need instruction and encouragement from God’s Word. When God said to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” it didn’t look very promising. But God instructed him to preach and the result was absolutely marvelous. (Read the wonderful account of this in Ezekiel 37:1–14. Pay special attention to the very last line.)
There are some particularly emboldening words found in the early chapters of Deuteronomy. Very significantly, these words are often repeated by Jesus himself: “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). Don’t miss that. Man lives by God’s Word!
This is why God has called us to preach. Natural, unregenerate man comes to life by the Word of God. And having been brought to life by the Word, the regenerate man continues to be sustained and nourished by God’s Word. Peter said it so well. In a moment of spirit-inspired brilliance he spoke this truth, “Where else would we go, you have the words of life” (John 6:68).
Fellow preacher, God has promised that through this apparently weak and frail means, using weak and frail creatures like us, he will accomplish much. He has said so. He has promised to do it. Believe what God has said. The faithful preaching of God’s Word accomplishes much.
So, steady on brother. Do your work and then let the Word do its work, a work almighty God has promised will be done.