A folded paper airplane hits a tree trunk, bounces back, and falls to the ground. By contrast, a sharp pointed arrow has penetrating power. In teaching and preaching, it is this “penetrating quality” that makes a gospel message effective (W.G.T. Shedd, Homiletics, 84). On one hand, we rightly understand that the truth of Scripture has its own force. At the same time, to maintain this penetrating force, how the teacher or preacher presents this truth must be complementary and supportive.
A student preacher was known for his infectious smile. While speaking on the subject of fear in the face of God’s unspeakable judgment, his countenance was aglow with that same smile. The force of the student’s message was overshadowed by his joyous expression. Force in teaching and preaching is wrapped up in both the person and what he has to say.
We draw back. We must not embellish our teaching and preaching with so-called “rhetorical devices.” We must depend upon the work of the Holy Spirit. He causes the infallible word to penetrate the heart. True indeed. But the teacher or preacher is an active instrument and participant in this process.
John R. de Witt introduces John Calvin’s Sermons on Genesis, Chapters 1-11.
The feature that struck me most powerfully is just their immediacy. As I have read them, it has quite often seemed as though I were sitting with the congregation in Geneva and listening to Calvin himself as he opened up the passage on which he was preaching and then carefully, deliberately, and sometimes with painful specificity applied its teaching to those who heard him (xvii).
Calvin makes the message of Scripture personal. He brings it home and pierces the heart. For example, when speaking of Noah, a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5), becoming drunk with wine (Genesis 9:21), Calvin warns his congregation not to use the occasional stumbling of those who teach as an excuse to ignore the exhortations of Scripture. “We must not use the occasion to say, ‘That fellow is not better than I am. And yet he is preaching to others! Why does he not first look at himself?’” (ibid., 790).
Surely statements like this one are made with pointedness and force. In fact, as T.H.L. Parker puts it in Calvin’s Preaching and quoting that great preacher, “The pastor must use vehemence and vivacité, ‘to give vigor and power to the Word of God’” (14). And before downplaying the use of so-called rhetorical devices, note Calvin’s use of dialog and the rhetorical question in this short quotation.
Penetrating power and force is essential in launching gospel arrows. “We need to be pierced. The preacher has to use vehemence, so that we may know that this is not a game” (Parker, 12).