Category Archives: Fresh preaching

Spurgeon on earnestness

This week I am hoping to complete the wonderful book on earnestness by John Angell James. Spurgeon also has much to say on this topic in Lectures to My Students. Here is just one example …

If I were asked – What in a Christian minister is the most essential quality for securing success in winning souls for Christ? I should reply, “earnestness”: and if I were asked a second or a third time, I should not vary the answer, for personal observation drives me to the conclusion that, as a rule, real success is proportionate to the preacher’s earnestness. Both great men and little men succeed if they are thoroughly alive unto God, and fail if they are not so. We know men of eminence who have gained a high reputation, who attract large audiences, and obtain much admiration, who nevertheless are very low in the scale as soul-winners: for all they do in that direction they might as well have been lecturers on anatomy, or political orators. At the same time we have seen their compeers in ability so useful in the business of conversion that evidently their acquirements and gifts have been no hindrance to them, lint the reverse; for by the intense and devout use of their powers, and by the; anointing of the Holy Spirit, they have turned many to righteousness. We have seen brethren of very scanty abilities who have been terrible drags upon a church, and have proved as inefficient in their spheres as blind men in an observatory; but, on the other hand, men of equally small attainments are well known, to us as mighty hunters before the Lord, by whose holy energy many hearts have been captured for the Savior. I delight in M’Cheyne’s remark, “It is not so much great talents that God blesses, as great likeness to Christ.” In many instances ministerial success is traceable almost entirely to an intense zeal, a consuming passion for souls, and an eager enthusiasm in the cause of God, and we believe that in every case, other things being equal, men prosper in the divine service in proportion as their hearts are blazing with holy love.

C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Passmore and Alabaster: London), 1881. 2:145.

The overwhelming influence of the media and earnest preaching

We don’t live in the Stone Age or Bronze Age, our era is rightly called the Information Age. We are buried alive in books, blogs, emails, websites, magazines, etc. And so are the hearers of our sermons. So why is the message of the Bible more important than the latest war headline from CNN? The listeners to our sermons may not see a big difference between the two, especially as the Middle East is birthing the next world war and gas prices close in on $4 a gallon. And those seem to have more ‘real’ impact today on sinners then dangers of a spiritually loose life now and eternity to come. What is needed (no, required!) in the Information Age is earnest preaching. Long before blogs and websites John Angell James wrote the following:

“Will anyone deny that we want an earnest ministry to break in some degree the spell, and leave the soul at liberty for the affairs of the kingdom which is not of this world? When politics have come upon the minds, hearts, and imaginations of the people, for six days out of the seven, invested with the charms of eloquence, and decked with the colors of party; when the orator and the writer have both thrown the witchery of genius over the soul; how can it be expected that tame, spiritless, vapid common-places from the pulpit, sermons coming neither from the head nor the heart, having neither weight of matter, nor grace of manner; neither genius to compensate for the want of taste, nor taste to compensate for the want of genius; and what is still worse, having no unction of evangelical truth, no impress of eternity, no radiance from heaven, no terror from hell; in short, no adaptation to awaken reflection, to produce conviction, or to save the soul; how can it be expected, I say, that such sermons can be useful to accomplish the purposes for which the gospel is to be preached? What chance have such preachers, amidst the tumult, to be heard or felt, or what hold have they upon public attention, amidst the high excitement of the times in which we live? Their hearers too often feel, that listening to their sermons on the Sabbath, after what they have heard or read during the week, is as if they were turning from brilliant gas-light to the dim and smoking spark of tallow and rush [a candle].”

- John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) pp. 194-195.

“And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:3-5, ESV).

Preaching what we study vs. preaching what we see?

There is a subtle distinction between two types of preaching that are profoundly different in nature. Bear with me in this first attempt to collect these thoughts into words.

I think the words of Christ especially make the distinction I am talking about when He said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Here, to me, is the distinction – some preachers grow content to preach mere words or a system of theology while others preach people upwards through the Bible towards a Man (Christ) and are never satisfied until their hearers come face-to-face with the Man.

Of course the Bible is central to both, as are hermeneutics, expositional capacities, commentaries, study, etc – and I’ve seen God bless both forms of preaching to His own glory. The difference is that one preaches from what is studied and the other preaches what is seen.

This, I believe, is why Spurgeon stands as the great example of preaching. Last week we looked at how he dwelled on the manifestations of Christ (John 14:22). From a vision of the unseen realities he preached. Far differently than what he merely studied or read, it was an extension of those – he preached what he saw.

Angell recently caught my attention when he said the same thing.

Lukewarmness can excite no ardor, originate no activity, produce no effect: it benumbs whatever it touches. If we enquire what were the sources of the energy, and the springs of the activity, of the most successful ministers of Christ, we shall find that they lay in the ardor of their devotion. They were men of prayer and of faith. They dwelt upon the mount of communion with God, and came down from it like Moses to the people, radiant with the glory on which they had themselves been intently gazing. They stationed themselves where they could look at things unseen and eternal, and came with the stupendous visions fresh in their view, and preached under the impression of what they had just seen and heard.

-John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) p. 64

It is also interesting to note Spurgeon’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:12 (“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known”). To him it was not so much a reference to specific passages of God’s Word giving us dim glimpses of the face of Christ but rather as we study at various times we see distant glimpses of Christ. Like a man standing at a storefront glass and seeing a silhouette in the background – sometimes we see His face in the Bible and others times we don’t. Sometimes even in the same passage one will see a faint glimpse of Christ’s face and another will not (see sermon 61).

This all leads me to another precious quote by Tozer on the subject:

Sound Bible exposition is an imperative must in the Church of the Living God. Without it no church can be a New Testament church in any strict meaning of that term. But exposition may be carried on in such a way as to leave the hearers devoid of any true spiritual nourishment whatsoever. For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God Himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience they are not the better for having heard the truth. The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.

-A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Christian Publications: 1993) p. 9-10

Almost without exception, the preacher who reads this, nods his head and assumes he is doing this is the very man who can improve much. It is a great reminder for preachers to double-check our messages lest we become preachers of literature, that we not grow content preaching what we read and study but take every opportunity to see through the Bible into the face of Christ.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image … (2 Cor. 3:18. ESV).

Trust in the Spirit more than your notes

I think the most difficult lesson to learn about preaching (especially in the beginning) was prying myself away from carefully crafted notes. This quote, from maybe the best preacher of the past century, reminds us to study hard and then become sensitive towards supernatural editing of the Spirit in the pulpit.

Preaching should be always under the Spirit – His power and control – and you do not know what is going to happen. So always be free. It may sound contradictory to say, ‘prepare, and prepare carefully,’ and yet ‘be free.’ But there is no contradiction … You will find that the Spirit Who has helped you in your preparation may now help you, while you are speaking, in an entirely new way, and open things out to you which you had not seen while you were preparing your sermon.

- Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Zondervan: 1971), p. 85.

Preaching with freshness

“My soul – never be satisfied within a shadowy Christ. … I cannot know Christ through another person’s brains. I cannot love him with another man’s heart, and I cannot see him with another man’s eyes. … I am so afraid of living in a second-hand religion. God forbid that I should get a biographical experience. Lord save us from having borrowed communion. No, I must know him myself. O God, let me not be deceived in this. I must know him without fancy or proxy; I must know him on my own account.”

This quote from Charles Spurgeon is a reminder that we must know and press close to Christ ourselves. Some of the darkest periods of church history, where the shroud of monotony covered the pulpit came at a time when preachers lived off a second-hand, borrowed communion.

Anyways, during the Middle Ages, the deadness of the churches can certainly be tied to a failed pulpit. Most noticeable was a failure of preachers to stand for God’s Word with conviction and freshness enforced with genuine godliness of character. We are reminded of the impotence of the church when God’s preachers do not preach from the freshness of personal communion with Himself but rather simply copy and regurgitate what was given by others. The result is borrowed communion and dead preaching:

“We have already had occasion to speak of the low character of the clergy during this epoch [the medieval period leading up to the Reformation]. Much ignorance, immorality, luxury and ambition [or a desire for rank], laziness, avarice, and other evil things have to be charged to their account. And this of course was at once both the cause and evidence of decay in the pulpit. For in all times the character of the preacher either enforces or enfeebles his preaching. And where the average of character is bad, no matter how noble the exceptions may be, the average of preaching will necessarily be low. Where there is a lack of true piety and conviction in the preacher the pulpit work tends to become empty, formal, frigid and without moving effect. And this is the character of much of the preaching of that age.”

“Always one of the signs of degenerate preaching – as of any literary production – is a slavish dependence upon others, past or present, a want of independence, originality, freshness. Copyists and imitators are found in every age, it is true, but when the masters belong chiefly to a former generation and the small followers mostly abound, the fall is great.”

- Edwin Charles Dargan, A History of Preaching (Solid Ground: 1905/2003), 1:308.

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