Evangelistic proclamation has for centuries assumed a major role in the communication of the church. But the contemporary moment has witnessed an attenuation of the evangelistic thrust in many pulpits. Some even feel its effectiveness is over for today’s world. Surely this cannot be so! Yet it is surely true that effective evangelistic preaching demands much care and consideration if it is to be genuinely communicative and redemptive in the contemporary scene.
Three things seem absolutely necessary to communicative evangelistic preaching today. If preaching the simple gospel is to regain its historical role these principles are vital. First, the content of the proclamation must have serious attention. For evangelistic preaching to be successful, there has to be a clear-cut, positive presentation of the biblical meaning of the gospel.
Second, an effective methodology is essential. Here is where awareness to the preaching situation should be paramount. The final consideration is the preacher himself. God’s spokesman must embody qualities as God’s servant if the preaching is to be with effect. As Philip Brooks has often reminded us, preaching is always the communication of “divine truth through personality.” The preacher’s personhood itself is central. Let us look at these three principles in some detail.
The Content of Evangelistic Preaching
Although few ever appreciate the type of preaching that grows out of a bigoted and narrow doctrinal dogmatism, there is to be no “uncertain sound” from the pulpit when the gospel is proclaimed. As Douglas Webster has stated:
A mood of uncertainty about the heart of the Gospel, the Lord of the Church, and the Savior of the world, is unworthy of Christians and bodes ill for the future of missions if it is allowed to be encouraged or persists. Describing the first mission to Thessalonica St. Paul wrote: ‘When we brought you the gospel, we brought it not in mere words but in the power of the Holy Spirit, and with strong conviction, as you know well” (I Thess. 1:5, NEB). Christian, even theological, humility is not synonymous with vagueness.1
What then is the evangelistic message? What is that “foolishness of the proclamation (kerygma)” (1 Cor. 1:21) that God uses to save people? What is the gospel (evangellion) that is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16)? These verses and the implication of Paul’s statement to the Corinthians and Romans is a vitally important issue in regard to evangelistic preaching.
C. H. Dodd’s Approach to the Kerygma
Ever since C. H. Dodd wrote his classic little volume The Apostolic Preaching and Its Development, much interest has centered on the idea conveyed by the New Testament word kergyma (and its synonym evangellion). Its importance is patent, for in the term is found the essence of the good news we are to declare in evangelistic proclamation.
As Dodd approaches the subject, he makes a quite unbending distinction between kerygma and didaskein. He defines as teaching, i.e. ethical and moral instructions on the Christian life. Occasionally, he tells us, it includes what we would today call apologetics. But didaskein is quite different from kerygma. Kerygma alone is preaching of the nature of a “public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world.”2
Dodd concludes that much of the preaching in the contemporary church would not have been recognized by the early Christians as kerygma. What we hear in large measure on Sunday morning in many congregations is either teaching, exhortation (paraklusis), or a homilia, i.e. a discussion on the Christian life and thought directed to those who already believe.3
To preach evangelistically in the New Testament sense of the word, Dodd contends, has for its object — at least the great bulk of the time — the gospel of Jesus Christ. He deduces:
For the early church, then, to preach the gospel was by no means the same thing as to deliver moral instruction or exhortation. While the church was concerned to hand on the teaching of the Lord, it was not by this that it made converts. It was by kerygma, says Paul, not by didache, that it pleased God to save men.4
What then is this primitive kerygma? What is the essence of the proclamation? Dodd’s understanding of the essential kerygma, first in Paul’s epistles, can be summarized in the following manner:
– The prophecies are fulfilled and the new age is inaugurated by the coming of Christ.
– He was born the seed of David.
– He died according to the Scriptures, to deliver us out of the present evil age.
– He was buried.
– He rose on the third day according to the Scriptures.
– He is exalted at the right hand of God, as Son of God and Lord of quick and dead.
– He will come again as Judge and Savior of men.5
Dodd grants that the evangelistic preaching of Paul probably contained more than this, but it at least has the above if it can be called evangelistic proclamation at all.
Moving on to consider the preaching of Peter and the others as found in early Acts, Dodd discerns six basic elements in their kerygma. First, the age of fulfillment has dawned. The messianic age has come (Acts 2:16 ff.). Second, this new age has taken place through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And a brief account of this is always given. The concepts of the Davidic descent, the Lord’s ministry, his vicarious death, and his glorious resurrection are presented. Moreover, these truths are presented in the context of scriptural prophecy fulfilled as determined by the foreknowledge of God.
Third, by virtue of the resurrection, our Lord has been elevated to the right hand of God as messianic head of the “new Israel” (Acts 2:33-36). In the fourth place, the Holy Spirit is the sign of Christ’s power and glory (Acts 2:33). Fifth, the messianic age will reach its consummation in the return of Christ (Acts 3:21). And lastly, the kerygma in Acts always closes with an appeal for repentance, the offer of forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the assurance of salvation in the life of the “age to come” (Acts 2:38-39). Dodd then summarizes, “We may take it that this is what the author of Acts meant by ‘preaching the kingdom of God.'”6
A contrast between the Pauline proclamation and the Jerusalem kerygma makes it clear that Paul emphasized three things that are not as explicit in the preaching found in the early chapters of Acts. One, in early Acts Jesus is not normally called the “Son of God.” His titles are more in line with the prophecies of Isaiah. But Dodd states that the idea of Jesus as Son of God is deeply embodied in the Synoptic Gospels and these first three books of the New Testament were probably little influenced by Paul; the preachers of Acts were surely not averse to the idea of Jesus as Son of God.
Two, the Jerusalem kerygma as over against Paul’s preaching does little in declaring that Christ died for our sins. As Dodd puts it, “the result of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the forgiveness of sins, but the forgiveness is not specifically connected with his death.”7 Three, the Jerusalem kerygma does not emphatically assert that the ascended Lord intercedes for us as does Paul. As for the rest of the points in Paul’s gospel, they are all found in the early sermons of Acts.
Michael Green and the Kerygma
Since the time Dodd wrote his classic, the bookshelves of pastors’ studies have been filled with volumes that build upon his essential thesis. Wide and varied have been the approaches of these works.8 Criticism of Dodd’s ideas have naturally been raised.
Recently, for example, Michael Green has contended that “there has been undue concentration on what has become technically known as the kerygma.'”9 He holds that Dodd and others may well have made the kerygma far too fixed. At one point he even raises the question as to whether or not there even was a fixed kerygma.10 He argues that “the probabilities of the situation would militate against undue fixity in the presentation of message.”11 What is to be grasped, Green argues, is that the background and understanding of the listeners helped determine what aspect of the truth of Christ was to be preached. Green is not alone in this contention. This is also the approach of Professor C. F. D. Moule in his Book, The Birth of the New Testament. Eduard Schweizer writes along similar lines in an essay found in Current Issues in New Testament Interpretation. Perhaps the best full-scale treatment of this problem is found in R. C. Worley’s work Preaching and Teaching in the Early Church. It must be recognized, Green tells us:
It would be a mistake to assume from studies such as those of Dodd that there was a crippling uniformity about the proclamation of Christian truth in antiquity, that there was a basic homogeneity in what was presented. Nor was this variety always the result of the supposedly rigid and conflicting theologies which were prevalent in different sections of the ancient Church… But much of the variety will have been necessitated by the needs and understanding of the hearers. Evangelism is never proclamation in a vacuum, but always to people, and the message must be given in terms that make sense to them.12
Still, Green grants, “there was a basic homogeneity in what was preached.” What then is this “basic homogeneity” as Green sees it? He believes we shall not go far wrong in taking three basic points as essential to the Word the first-century church proclaimed.
First, they preached a person. Their message was frankly and unapologetically Christocentric. This gospel message was not so much centered on his life and public ministry; rather, it was upon his death and glorious resurrection.
Green holds in the second place that the early church proclaimed a gift. It was the gift of forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of adoption and of reconciliation. That kind of grace made “no people” the “people of God.” Concerning the idea of a gift, the emphasis was placed upon the gift of forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Third, the first-century church looked for a response from their hearers. The apostles were anything but shy in asking men and women to decide then and there for or against Christ. They expected results — positive results. These early preachers declared people must do three things in the light of the gospel:
1. They must repent. This was first and foremost.
2. They must exercise faith. A continuing life of faith was called for, but it must begin by a “leap of faith.” True faith is inseparable from repentance.
3. The apostles preached baptism. It was seen as the seal on God’s offer of forgiveness and the essence of the response to that offer in repentance and faith.13
From this perspective, Green presents his understanding of the kerygma. And though there is probably validity in his criticisms of Dodd’s more inflexible approach, it is clear he also sees the essential proclamation as a definable, propositional body of theological truth concerning Jesus Christ.
The Kerygma in Douglas Webster
Douglas Webster in Yes to Mission presents his grasp of the kerygma in four basic principles. He begins by reminding us that “mission implies that the church does have something to say.”14 He states, therefore, that evangelistic preaching is always to center upon:
1. The person and character of Jesus Christ. He really did live and was unique above all other men.
2. The teaching of Jesus Christ. He said things about God, life, the Kingdom of God, and human destiny as no one had ever spoken before.
3. The death of Jesus Christ. The death of our Lord was the turning point in all history and God was ultimately active in it.
4. The resurrection of Jesus Christ. Death did not end it all for the Lord; rather it was the end of death, for He is a living Savior.
Webster correctly points out that, though some want to add more to the gospel than the above four essential points, it is certain that “we cannot have less, if we are to retain the Gospel at all.”15
Now what is to be learned from these and other varied approaches to the kerygma? Two lessons seem vital. To begin with, whether one taxes the more rigid view of men like Dodd or a more flexible approach like that of Green or Webster, there is still an essential and basic content to evangelistic proclamation if it is to be biblical in nature. There are specific theological and historical realities that must be clearly understood and declared in the presentation of the gospel. And it is clear that these basic truths center in and around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Moreover, these realities must be related to life as people struggle over life’s meaning.
Second, it must be stressed that our evangelistic messages must contain the essential kerygma if we are to expect God’s full blessings upon our preaching. So many so-called evangelistic sermons today seem rather bereft of the real biblical content of the kerygma. Mere appeals to the imagination, emotions, etc. are not what the New Testament understands by preaching the gospel. “We preach Christ”; this must be our theme in all our attempts to win men and women by preaching. Any preacher who aspires to preach the gospel must be very careful to embody the essential content of the kerygma in all of his evangelistic messages. “Great gospel preaching,” to use an old cliche, if it is true biblical gospel preaching, is filled with kergymatic content.
The Methodology of Effective Proclamation
As important and fundamental as the content of evangelistic preaching is, it is not the whole story of effective proclamation. The proper “preaching situation” is vital to the success of evangelistic declaration. The “preaching situation” is the entire setting of what transpires in a meaningful evangelistic preaching experience. It should always be remembered that the activity of preaching is not merely a means for conveying the content of the Christian faith. Preaching is a unique activity in the Christian context. It is an Event — an Event wherein God meets man. It is actually and in reality a form of God himself addressing people. As H. H. Farmer has put it:
Preaching is telling me something. But it is not merely telling me something. It is God actively probing me, challenging my will, calling me for decision, offering one His succour, through the only medium which the nature of His purpose permits Him to use, the medium of a personal relationship. It is as though, to adopt the Apostle’s words, “God did bessech me by you.” It is God’s “I — thou” relationship with me carried on your “I — thou” relationship with me, both together coming out of the heart of His saving purpose which is moving on through history to its consummation in His Kingdom.16
Right here the distinctive nature of effective evangelistic preaching appears. This is why preaching can be seen in one sense as a sacrament. Preaching is only distinctively Christian preaching insofar as it is both uttered and listened to in faith. In other words, baffling as it may seem, preaching is God’s activity, i.e. it is God encountering people in the extreme and supreme crises of their lives. Real preaching — kerygma or didache — depends upon the preacher conveying the sense of the living, saving activity of God in Christ.
These principles of the evangelistic preaching situation indicate a number of things. Initially, preaching must always be viewed as a personal encounter. God confronts people in the preaching situation on a Person-to-person level. As Farmer expressed it, “God’s ‘I — thou’ relationship with me is never apart from, is always in a measure carried by, my ‘I — thou’ relationship with my fellows.”17
In this light one can see the position of the proclaimer. In the first place, he must be intimately related to God in an “I — Thou” sense. If he loses the reality of God’s presence in his preaching, all is lost. He must also be related to his hearers in this “I — thou” manner of understanding relationships. The preacher stands, as it were, at the corner of a right-angled triangle. He is related vertically to God and horizontally to his hearers in the preaching situation. In the context of this setting God completes the triangle and confronts and addresses needy people. Moreover, there is give and take in all directions of the triangle. It is an existential encounter par excellence. As Miller puts it,
The Romanist says, “When the priest pronounces the tremendous words of Consecration, he reaches up into the heavens, brings Christ down from his throne, and places him upon an altar to be offered up again as the victim for the sins of man.”
Protestantism, when it is true to its genius, does something better. When the Protestant preacher preaches — if he really preaches in the terms set forth here — the living Christ, who is always present in the fellowship of his people, both in heaven and on earth, expresses himself not in dumb symbol but in living reality, and offers once again to men the reconciliation with God once accomplished by His death and resurrection and now eternally available to all who will believe. Men do not see through superstitious imagination and as mute observers a magic transformation of material symbols by the official intervention of a priest. They are confronted by the living Christ himself, who chooses to make his eternal redemptive Deed effectual by making the word of the preacher become His own word in the fellowship of the members of His body.18
The immediate implication of this kind of preaching is that it is costly. Effective evangelistic proclamation does not come easy. The preacher is giving of himself. The relationship is of an “I — thou” nature, not an “I — it.” That always costs! The proclaimer is pouring out himself to God on the vertical dimension and pouring out himself on the horizontal to the people. He so gives of himself in the preaching experience that he is drained.
Preaching can be painful when one gives of oneself as one ought. The pulpit is not a place to be cool and casual in spirit and attitude. It was Paul who said, “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears” (Acts 20:31, RSV). This implies the final point.
The Preacher Himself
In the last place, a word about the man who declares God’s message is in order. Dr. Raymond Brown reminds us that the effective preacher today must have three essential qualities.19 He must first be an acute observer. It takes more than just understanding the Scriptures to be a preacher who is relevant to today’s world. He must be a student of his contemporary society. He must know his world. The late D. T. Niles said, “If we want to talk with God we had better find out something about the world because that is the only subject in which God is interested.”20 The same surely is true if we want to speak for God. Roger Schutz has correctly confessed that often “we allow ourselves to be caught up in a Christian environment that we find congenial and in the process create a ghetto of like-minded people who are quite unmindful of the real world.”21 We must preach to real people in real life. The gospel must be related to life, as previously emphasized.
The preacher must also be a compassionate listener. As Brown puts it, “Before he talks he must learn again to listen.”22 He must listen on a two-fold level: he must listen to God, and he must listen to people. He speaks for God to the needs of people. How can he effectively communicate unless he is genuinely open to both? We need to emulate the spirit of Ezekiel when he said, “I sat where they sat and remained there astonished among them.” That was where the prophet learned to be God’s spokesman.
Finally, the preacher must be a discerning teacher, one who truly preaches the Word. The need is obvious. If ever there was a day of alarming ignorance concerning the Word of God, this is that day. May God make his spokesmen who are faithfully “holding forth the word of life” (Phil. 2:16 KJV).
It can now be said by the way of summary that the evangelist must simply be a “man of God.” He must be one who walks with God. He must know by experience — daily experience — the One for whom he speaks. As Farmer has well said, “I suppose in the end the secret lies in the quality of our own spiritual life and the extent to which we are ourselves walking humbly with God in Christ.”23 That is what makes for effective, evangelistic preaching. And that can revitalize the pulpit again.
1Douglas Webster, Yes to Mission (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1966), p. 20.
2C.H. Dodd, Apostolic Preaching and Its Development (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936), p. 7.
3Ibid., p. 78.
4Ibid., p. 8.
5Ibid., p. 11.
6Ibid., p. 24.
7Ibid., p. 25.
8Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970), p. 61.
9Ibid., p. 48.
10Ibid., p. 60.
11Ibid., p. 61.
12Ibid., p. 115.
13Ibid., p. 150-152.
14Webster, p. 18.
15Ibid., p. 19.
16Herbert H. Farmer, The Servant of the Word (London: Nesbit, 1941), p. 27-28.
17Ibid., p. 58.
18Donald G. Miller, Fire in Thy Mouth (New York: Abingdon Press, 1954), p. 34.
19Raymond Brown, “Preaching Today” (an unpublished address delivered at Spurgeon’s College, London).
23Farmer, p. 90.

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