Zwingli and the Sufficiency of the Word in Preaching

by Nathan Rose September 8, 2016

Have you ever heard of a figure named Huldrych Zwingli? A lot of people haven’t because he died prematurely and because his legacy was eclipsed by the towering figure that is Martin Luther. Zwingli was a 16th century Catholic priest who became convinced of Protestant theology and left to Roman Catholic Church to become the reforming pastor of the Grossmünster Church in Zürich, Switzerland. During his 12-year tenure, he implemented some substantial reforms that significantly affected both his church and his city. And his primary means of change came through the preaching of God’s Word. No gimmicks and no tricks. He just opened up the Bible, read it to his people, and explained what it meant.  


When Zwingli showed up to his church for his first Sunday, he didn’t preach from the church lectionary, which was customary at that time. Instead, he preached through entire books of the Bible. He began in the gospel of Matthew, working his way through every verse until the end. And then he started with another New Testament book. Zwingli wasn’t trying to be original or even controversial. Rather, he was convinced of the necessity of Scripture in the life of God’s people. And he did this at a time when it wasn’t popular and doing so could cost him his life. But Zwingli knew what his flock needed: a steady intake of the Word of God. And he would be the one to feed them.


There’s a lot that we can learn from Zwingli. What he realized is what a lot of pastors forget. The preaching of God’s Word is sufficient to change the hearts and minds of God’s people. In fact, the only reform that Zwingli implemented during his first three years at Zürich was to preach expositionally. That was it. He didn’t make any other changes. And he did so because he was completely confident in the preaching of Scripture to successfully reform the beliefs and practices of his people. 


And that’s exactly what it did. Some of his church members intentionally broke cannon law by eating sausage during the Lenten fast because Scripture, rather than tradition, had reshaped their convictions. This action eventually led Zürich to break from the Roman Church, becoming the first Protestant city in Switzerland. 


One of Zwingli’s most well-known sermons, “Of the Clarity and Certainty of God's Word”, was preached to a group of Dominican nuns at a Swiss convent. In it he explained the power and sufficiency of Scripture. In his conclusion, he admonished his listeners to cherish and believe God’s Word above all else. If you’re reading this post, you’re probably not a nun, but don’t let his exhortation escape you:


“We should hold the Word of God in the highest possible esteem…and we should give to it a trust which we cannot give to any other word. For the Word of God is certain and can never fail. It is clear and will never leave us in darkness.”[1]


As pastors, we need to recover a Zwingli-like confidence in Scripture. We need to be convinced that the Word of God is fully capable of achieving God’s purposes. We don’t need cheap (or maybe even expensive) parlor tricks to build a church. What we need is to recover the Protestant belief in the sufficiency of Scripture and thus, commit ourselves to preaching expositionally. And the reason, as Zwingli has correctly stated, is because “[God’s] sacred Word shall prevail in Heaven and on Earth.”[2]  


[1] G.W. Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger: Selected Translations and Notes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979), 93.


[2] Oskar Farner, Zwingli the Reformer: His Life and Work, trans. D.G. Sear (Hamden: Archon Books, 1968), 51.