The phrase “the chief end” is well known, appearing in the first question and answer of our Shorter Catechism:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.
Many today who know virtually nothing of the Catechism are still familiar with this question (would that they knew the other 106 questions and answers!). As familiar as it may be, some may not quite understand what it means to refer to a “chief end.” Thomas Vincent helpfully defined this phrase, as “that which man ought chiefly to aim at, or design, to desire, seek after, and endeavour to obtain, as his chief good and happiness; unto which his life and his actions should be referred and directed.”
In speaking on this question of the Catechism, Thomas Boston identified three different things which must be present for God’s glory to be our chief end:
- When whatever end we have in our actions, the glory of God is still one of our ends in acting.
- It must not only be our end, but it must be our main and principal end, that which we chiefly design.
- When it is the ultimate end, the last end, the top and perfection of what we design, beyond which we have no more view, and to which all other ends are made subservient, and as means to that end.
With that point clarified, let us consider this question as it applies to the preaching of the Word of God. This may be considered in two respects.
- Man’s chief end [in preaching] is to glorify God [to declaratively glorify God, i.e. worship him], and to enjoy him for ever [to experience true fellowship and communion with him in spiritual worship].
- Man’s chief end [in preaching] is to glorify God [that God’s glory would be manifested, i.e. that God would glorify himself], and to enjoy him for ever [in the hearers’ being drawn into spiritual fellowship with him, i.e. in their salvation].
Just as the Catechism holds out two things as the one “chief end of man,” so there are really two things comprehended in the one “chief end of preaching”: the worship of God, and the salvation of the hearers.
Preaching is, on the part of the preacher, an act of worship; and the design, aim, and goal of preaching is to lead the hearers into worship. “The sound preaching; and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God with understanding, faith, and reverence” is one of the “parts of the ordinary worship of God” (Confession of Faith 21.5)—we might say, the “chief” part of ordinary Sabbath worship. Likewise, the design and goal of preaching is that both preacher and hearers would be saved (1 Tim. 4:16). In this case, “salvation” is a concept large enough to embrace both the conversion of those who are still dead in trespasses and sins, and the sanctification of those who are already converted.
When considering “the chief end of preaching,” or “the chief end of man in preaching,” notice some of the items that do not make the cut:
- Performing and explaining exegesis of the biblical text;
- Demonstrating where the text is in the flow of redemptive history; and even,
- Giving application to the hearers (whether or not such application is searching or convicting).
It is my conviction that the root problem with what passes for preaching in many Reformed pulpits today is not dry intellectualism, manuscript reading, lack of application, or commentary-style lectures. The root problem is a tendency to take some of the above subordinate ends (as well as others), and substitute them as the chief end. Many of these other problems would tend to resolve themselves, if this were addressed and corrected.
Proper interpretation of the Scriptures is important; both the immediate context of a passage and its larger redemptive context are important to consider; and “application is the life of preaching” (James Durham). But strictly speaking, these are all means by which one accomplishes the chief end of preaching; they are not the end themselves.
If you are a preacher or minister of God’s Word, I would ask that you consider these questions, and search your own heart, as well as your own preaching.
1. Do your sermons breathe a spirit of worship? Do you, by your words, even mannerisms, seek to evoke reverence to God on the part of your hearers? Do you speak of Him as “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity” (Isa. 57:15), unto whom we must approach in worship only through the blood of His Son (Heb. 10:19)? More than this, are you actively worshipping God during the whole time that you are preaching to your congregation? Or are you rendering praise and glory to the Triune Jehovah through your lack of preparation in the Word? your want of due reverence when in His presence in a special way? your jokes which would be questionable anywhere else, but which are blasphemous when delivered from the pulpit? or your failure to lead worshippers in worship, during the most important part of the worship of God?
2. Seeing that the preaching of the gospel is the instrument God uses to awaken, convert, and sanctify its hearers; do you preach, so that your hearers would be saved? Before, during, and after the sermon, are you in fervent prayer to God that He would bless His own means to the conversion of souls? Are you gripped by the reality that your hearers almost certainly include those who are lost, hell-bound sinners, heading for a Christless eternity? Are you persuaded in your own mind and heart that the sanctification and holiness of your hearers is so important, that without it they shall never see the Lord (Heb. 12:14)? Or do you preach as a practical hyper-Calvinist—perhaps in your creed affirming the free offer, but never actually offering Christ and His salvation? Do you have more concern when you refer to the wrong tense or aspect of a Greek verb, than when you preach without regard to your hearers’ souls? Do you think that you can “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), without preaching the gospel (Acts 8:25), or preaching Christ (Acts 8:5, 35), and Him crucified (1 Cor. 1:23)?
“For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat” (Heb. 5:12). Learn again your Catechism, and seek after that chief end, not only in your life in general, but in your preaching as well; and may the Lord richly bless you and your preaching this coming Sabbath.
If you are one who ordinarily sits under the ministry of the Word (rather than one who ordinarily preaches the Word), consider this “chief end” as it pertains to you. Your aim, your goal, in hearing the preaching of the gospel, must be to worship the Lord, and to be saved (whether you are converted or unconverted). Your ultimate goal must not be that you would receive farther information or instruction, or even that you would be emotionally moved by the preaching.
Yet many, particularly in churches blessed with experiential preaching, seek as their main aim and goal that they would have their feelings or affections raised—that they would feel in their souls the truths being proclaimed, or the admonitions or warnings urged. It is certainly true that good preaching will involve these things, as the Word of God is applied to the whole man, including the affections. But unless your chief end in hearing the Word is God’s worship and your salvation, your desire to have your affections stirred up is a replacing of the chief end with another subordinate end.
Thomas Boston, after referring to a person who “prays more fervently, hears attentively, and strives to get his heart affected in every religious duty he performs,” concludes with these frightening words: “Wonder not at this, for there is nothing in it beyond the power of nature, or what one may attain to under a vigorous influence of the covenant of works.” Do not rest content under the preaching of the Word if your “heart is affected in every religious duty”—do not rest until you have closed with Christ, as He is held forth in the gospel; and may He have all the praise and glory for your salvation.