Category Archives: John Angell James

Christmas book recommendation: An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times by John Angell James

Christmas Book Recommendation:

An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times by John Angell James

Early this year, my friend Charlie recommended this book to me. It has become one of my favorites. Published by The Banner of Truth, An Earnest Ministry, aims to keep pastors urgent in their tasks. Earlier this year we quoted from it many times. Read those quotes here. A little-known book that makes a great present for pastor-friends!

Earnest preaching and worldliness

It is easy, I have found, to fall into a lull in preaching where I forget that souls are eternal and the body is quickly fading. Our country is in need especially of earnest preaching that reminds sinners every week that the temporal life will soon peel back like a stage background to reveal the eternal world (1 Cor. 7:31). Naturally the world and even Christians tend to think more about the temporal world than the eternal. This breads a host of problems and sinful thinking.

So back to John Angell James’ powerful book, An Earnest Ministry. This week we will look at the need of earnestness from the pulpit concerning specific topics of concern. I think it is especially important to note that James is not forgetting the Spirit’s work in all of this. He does not think earnest ministry alone saves and sanctifies. He understands earnest preaching as a type of serious preaching that the Spirit of God answers to and blesses (see pp. 190-191). Here then is the first reason that makes earnest preaching so needful: Worldliness.

“What can be sufficient but an intense devotedness on the part of ministers to make things unseen and eternal bear down the usurping power of things seen and temporal? Who but the man that knows how to deal with invisible realities, and to wield the powers of the world to come, can pluck the worldling from the whirlpool of earthly mindedness, which sucks down so many, or prevent the professing Christian from being drawn into it? If our own minds are not much impressed with the awful glories and terrors of eternity, we cannot speak of these things in such a manner as is likely to rescue our hearers from the ruinous fascinations of Mammon. How we seem to want a Baxter and a Doolittle; an Edwards and a Howe; a Whitefield and a Wesley, to break in with their thunder upon the money-loving, money-grasping spirit of this grossly utilitarian age!”

- John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) pp. 192-193.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25, ESV).

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).

The god of laughter and earnest preaching

Our era is marked by an addiction to humor. Plot-less movies bring in millions of dollars in revenue simply because of their power to make fun of life or otherwise humor the viewer. At the same time this era we live could be much more serious about the eternal world about to crash into each soul. Preaching must stand in contrast to this god of laughter because we serve a God who expects a seriousness and fear from us.

The following quote by John Angell James, written before television and the entertainment/comedy boom, says this addiction to entertainment is another motivation for serious and earnest preaching.

“It is hard to conceive how earnestness and spirituality can be maintained by those whose tables are covered, and whose leisure time is consumed, by the bewitching inspirations of the god of laughter. There is little hope of our arresting the evil, except we make it our great business to raise up a ministry who shall not themselves be carried away with the torrent; who shall be grave, without being gloomy; serious, without being melancholy; and who, on the other hand, shall be cheerful without being frivolous, and whose chastened mirthfulness shall check, or at any rate reprove, the excesses of their companions. What a demand does this state of things prefer for the most intense earnestness in our Sabbath-day exercises, both our prayers and our sermons! In this modern taste we have a new obstacle to our usefulness of a most formidable kind, which can be subdued only by God’s blessing upon our fidelity and zeal. Men are wanted, who shall by their learning, science, and general knowledge, give weight to their opinions, and influence to their advice, in their private intercourse with their flocks; and shall, by their powerful and evangelical preaching, control this taste, and counter it by a better.”

John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) pp. 198-199.

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11, ESV).

Medicine or medical lectures?

“Like a good physician, who is watchful for the effect of his medicines upon his patients individually, according to their specific varieties of diseases, he will endeavor to ascertain the impression which his sermons have produced on particular persons. He will aim to attract to him the anxious inquirers after salvation, and for this purpose will have special meetings for them, will invite and encourage their attendance, will cause them to feel that they are most welcome, and by his tender, faithful, and appropriate treatment of their cases, will make them sensible that they are as truly the objects of deep interest to him as lambs are to the good shepherd. And though he will very naturally wish not to be too frequently broken in upon in his private studies by those to whom he has appointed set times for meeting him, yet a poor burden trembling penitent will never find him engaged too deeply or delightfully in study, to heal his broken heart, and to bind up his wounds. It is really distressing to know how little time some ministers are willing to give up from their favorite pursuits, even for relieving the solicitudes of an anxious mind. They read much, and perhaps as the result, preach well-composed, though possibly not very awakening, sermons; but as for any skill, or even taste, for dealing with convinced sinners, wounded consciences, and perplexed minds, they are as destitute of them as if they were no part of their duty. They resemble lecturers on medicine, rather than practitioners; or they are like physicians who would assemble all their patients able to attend, in the same room, and then give general directions about health and sickness to all alike, but would not inquire into their several ailments, or visit them at their own abodes, or adapt the treatment to their individual and specific disease.

It is admitted that some men have less tact, and still greater destitution of taste, than others, for this department of pastoral action; but some skill in it, and some attention to it, are the duty of every minister, and may be acquired by all: and no man can be in earnest without it.

He who can only generalize in the pulpit, but has no ability to individualize out of it; who cannot in some measure meet the varieties of religious perplexity, and deal with the various modifications of awakened solicitude; who finds himself disinclined or disabled to guide the troubled conscience through the labyrinths which sometimes meet the sinner in the first stages of his pilgrimage to the skies, may be a popular preacher, but he is little fitted to be the pastor of a Christian church.”

- John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) p. 150-151.

Preaching with earnestness and simplicity

Speaking of faithful preachers, George Whitefield (1714-1770) stands out in my mind as one of the greatest examples. Besides being graciously blessed with hundreds of conversions under his ministry, what makes Whitefield impressive was his simplicity and earnestness wrapped together:

“Much of the wondrous power of that extraordinary man lay in his voice and action … [Think of the text of his sermons] delivered with an utterance appropriate to their nature; with an eye melting into tears; a voice tremulous with emotion, shrill yet full, now swelling into thunder, and then dying away in soft whispers; one moment apostrophizing God, and the next piercing the sinner’s conscience with an appeal that was as sharp arrows of the Almighty; at one time pouring out a stream of impassioned pity for the sinner, and the next moment a torrent of burning indignation against his sin; his very hands, and every gesture all the while seconding his matchless elocution and seeming to help his laboring soul; all this being not the trickery of an artificial rhetoric to catch applause, but only the expression of his burning desire to produce conviction in his hearers; not the acting of a man striving after popularity, but the spontaneous gushing forth of a heart agonizing for the salvation of immortal souls! What oratory must that have been which extorted from the skeptical and fastidious Hume the confession that it was worth going twenty miles to hear, which interested the infidel Bolingbroke, and warmed even the cold and cautious Franklin into enthusiasm? In those discourses which roused a slumbering nation from the torpor of lukewarmness, and breathed new life into its dying piety, you will find no profound speculation, no subtle reasoning, no metaphysical disquisition; for these never formed, and never can form, the staple of pulpit eloquence: but you will find ‘thoughts that breathe, and words that burn;’ and that when delivered with the magic of his wondrous voice, spoke, by the blessing of God, life into thousands dead in trespasses and sins.”

- John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) pp. 123-124.

No place for a lukewarm pulpit

“And then what is the purpose for which this truth, so grand, so awful, so sublime, is revealed by God, and is to be preached by us? Not simply to gratify curiosity; not merely to conduct the mind seeking for knowledge to the fountain where it may slake its thirst; no, but to save the immortal soul from sin, death, and hell, and conduct it to the abodes of glorious immortality. The man who can handle such topics, and for such a purpose, in an unimpassioned careless manner, and with an icy heart, is the most astounding instance of guilty lukewarmness in the universe: to his self contradiction no parallel can be found, and he remains a fearful instance how far it is possible for the human mind to go in the most obvious, palpable, and guilty inconsistency. A want of earnestness in the execution of that commission, which is designed to save immortal souls from eternal ruin, and to raise them to everlasting life, is a spectacle which, if it were not so common, would fill us with amazement, indignation, and contempt.”

- John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) p. 185.

A clear sermon is not a complete sermon

"But though a careful analysis of the text should form the basis of all our sermons, there must be something more than mere exegesis, however clear, correct, and instructive. We have to do not only with a dark intellect that needs to be informed, but with a hard heart that needs to be impressed, and a torpid conscience that needs to be awakened; we have to make our hearers feel that in the great business of religion, there is much to be done, as well as much to be known … We must not only direct but impel our hearers. They all know far more than they practice of the Bible: the head is generally far in advance of the heart; and our great business is to persuade, to entreat, to beseech. We have to deal with a dead heavy vis inertiae [at rest stays at rest] of mind; yea more, we have to overcome a stout resistance, and to move a reluctant heart. If all that was necessary to secure the ends of our ministry were to lay the truth before the mind; if the heart were pre-disposed to the subject of our preaching, then like the lecturer on science, we might dispense with the hortatory manner, and confine ourselves exclusively to explanation. Logic unaccompanied by rhetoric would suffice; but when we find every sinner we address, acting in opposition to the dictates of his judgment, and the warnings of his conscience, as well as to the testimony of Scripture; sacrificing the interests of his immortal soul to the vanities of the world, and the corruptions of his heart; madly bent upon his ruin, and rushing to the precipice from which he will take a fatal leap into perdition; can we, in that case, be satisfied with merely explaining, however clearly, and demonstrating, however conclusively, the truth of revelation?"

- John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) pp. 87-88.

What earnest preaching does to hearts

"There is a silent and almost unconscious process often going on in the mind of those who are listening to the sermons of a preacher really laboring for the conversion of souls. 'Is he so earnest about my salvation, and shall I care nothing about the matter? Is my eternal happiness so much in his account, and shall it be nothing in mine? I can meet cold logic with counter arguments; or at any rate, I can raise up objections against evidence. I can smile at the artifices of rhetoric, and be merely pleased with the displays of eloquence. I can sit unmoved under sermons which seem intended by the preacher to raise my estimation of himself, but I cannot stand this earnestness about me. The man is evidently intent upon saving my soul. I feel the grasp of his hand upon my arm, as if he would pluck me out of the fire. He has not only made me think, but he has made me feel. His earnestness has subdued me.'"

- John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) pp. 30-31.

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