Preaching

R.L. Dabney on the Preacher as Herald

dabney-eeR.L. Dabney’s book on preaching, Evangelical Eloquence, makes a very strong case for the practical of expository preaching. That is, preaching through entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse, with the aim of making known “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) to the people of God.

In a chapter entitled, “Cardinal Requisites of the Sermon,” he deals with “the general qualities which must characterize the structure of every sermon” (p.105). It is telling that the very first one of these qualities that he states as a cardinal requisite of true biblical preaching is that of “textual fidelity” (or sticking to the text, so to speak). There he writes,

The best argument to enforce upon you this virtue is suggested by the same fact – that the preacher is a herald. The first quality of the good herald is the faithful delivery of the very mind of his king. Our conception of our office, and of the revealed word as an infinitely wise rule for man’s salvation, permits us to discuss the text in no other spirit.” (p.105)

A firm persuasion of the truth of the calling of the preacher as a herald of the King ought to lead those of us who have the great privilege and responsibility to be pastors and preachers to stick to the text (to tell the truth of it), to preach through entire books of the Bible (to tell the whole truth of it), and to not mingle it with ideas that are not truly present in the text (to tell nothing but God’s truth).

Only then can the preacher say, with the Apostle Paul, that he is ‘innocent of the blood of all men because he did not shrink back from declaring to them the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:26-27).

Sinclair Ferguson on the Preaching of the Word

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315How important is the preaching of the Word of God in the lives of God’s people? How does its importance rank in comparison to things such as personal Bible reading or devotional study? Or small group Bible study?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes the following observation:

“Although set at a discount today by comparison with participation in either personal Bible study or more particularly group Bible study, neither of these, valuable as they may be, can substitute for the transforming power of the preached word.” (p.49)

Now Ferguson is not denying or downplaying the benefits of personal or group Bible studies. Far from it! But he is saying something that seems to go against conventional wisdom in many church circles today. What he is arguing for is the centrality of the preached Word of God in the life of the church.

If you want to grow in grace as a Christian, personal Bible reading and study are very good things. So is small group Bible study. But there is something special about the preaching of the Word of God. This is also the teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 89) which speaks of how the Word of God is made effectual to salvation in the lives of believers:

“The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

Another way of putting it would be to say that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God in the lives of believers. And He certainly uses our own personal reading and study of the Word. But it is “especially the preaching of the Word” that He makes effectual in the lives of God’s people!

So if you are a believer in Christ and desire to see the Holy Spirit at work in your life, making you grow in grace and transforming your life more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ, make it your practice to diligently attend upon the preaching of the Word in public worship. There is simply no substitute for the preached Word in the lives of God’s people!

When a Sermon Degenerates Into A Speech

dabney-eeWhat is the difference between a sermon and a mere speech? How can one tell the difference between the two?

In his book on the subject of preaching, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) makes the following observation:

“The preacher relies alone upon evangelical inducements, and refers every conviction of the reason ultimately to God’s testimony. I elaborate this all-important distinction carefully; perhaps my reasons for it are difficult to grasp, because of their simplicity. The end, I repeat, of every oration is to make men do. But the things which the sermon would make men do, are only the things of God. Therefore it must apply to them the authority of God. If your discourse urges the hearer merely with excellent reasons and inducements, natural, ethical, social, legal, political, self-interested, philanthropic, if it does not end by bringing their wills under the direct grasp of a “thus saith the Lord,” it is not a sermon; it has degenerated into a speech.” (Evangelical Eloquence, p.34)

Surely Dabney is correct here. At the end of the day, if the force behind a sermon does not reside primarily in the authority of the Word of God (“a thus saith the Lord”, as Dabney puts it above), then it is not truly a sermon at all, but has “degenerated into a speech.”

It may be a fine speech – it may be carefully crafted and articulated; it may even “make men do” something, and so be thought to be effective, but it is not a sermon in the most basic sense of the word, and therefore has no place in the pulpit of a Christian church.

In the preaching in our churches, let us (again, to borrow Dabney’s phrase) rely on evangelical inducements alone, and seek to bring the wills of our hearers under a direct grasp of the truth and authority of the Word of God in Scripture. The Lord’s people need sermons, not speeches.

Becoming “Sermon-Proof” (John Owen on The Dangers of Sin)

mortificationofsinIn his book, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen notes (among other things) the importance and necessity of having “a clear and abiding sense” in our minds and consciences of “the guilt, danger, and evil of sin” (p.65). Without a clear, biblical understanding of sin for what it really is, we will be ill-equipped to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit (Romans 8:13).

There he points out a number of the many dangers that sin poses to us, the first of which is the danger of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). He writes:

“This hardening is so serious that your heart becomes insensitive to moral influence. Sin leads to this. Every sin and lust will make a little progress in this direction. You who at one time were very tender and would melt under the influence of the Word and under trials will grow ‘sermon-proof’ and ‘trial proof.'” (p.68)

Sermon-proof. What a sobering phrase! It is bad enough that so many in our day simply avoid hearing the preaching of the Word in public worship altogether; but how much worse is the condition of those who, though they regularly attend the preaching of the Word, nevertheless have grown immune to its benefits.

Sermon-proof. That is a fitting description of the people of Isaiah’s day:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV)

To be sermon-proof is to continually hear, but not understand, to see, but not perceive. And what is the end result? A refusal to “turn” (or repent) and “be healed.” No wonder the writer of the book of Hebrews warns us of the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13)!

Are you sermon-proof? Do not content yourself with the mere hearing of sermons. Hearing sermons is certainly a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Hearing sermons, even on a regular, weekly basis is no firm evidence that one is not sermon proof. One can hear sermons until the proverbial cows come home, and yet do so with no benefit whatsoever.

Let us learn to attend the preaching of God’s Word in public worship “with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.90).

And, as the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it, let us “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13, ESV).

The Shorter Catechism on the Primacy of Preaching

1710_largeThe Westminster Shorter Catechism concludes with a very helpful section dealing with the outward and ordinary means of grace (Q.88-107). The means of grace are the “ordinances” of Christ, “especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer” (Q.88). That is basically an outline of the contents of the remainder of the catechism. It deals with the Word in Q.89-90; the sacraments in Q.91-97; and prayer in Q.98-107 (which is more or less an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer).

How is the Word of God a means of grace? The Shorter Catechism says the following:

Q. 89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation? A. The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

The Holy Spirit working through the Word of God makes it a means of grace. That is, He makes the Word effectual for “the convincing and converting sinners” (bringing them to faith in Christ at the beginning), and of “building them up in holiness and comfort” (ongoing throughout the Christian life), “through faith” (because the Christian life is by faith from beginning to end – Romans 1:17). So in a lot of ways, that means the Word of God is central in the Christian life.

But notice that the catechism specifies that it is “especially the preaching” of the Word that the Holy Spirit makes effectual unto the salvation of sinners.  Do we have such a high view of the preaching of the Word on the Lord’s day? Do we believe that it is not just one means among many of evangelizing the lost and bringing them to repentance and faith in Christ, but actually the primary means that God uses to do so? Perhaps if we rightly understood the primacy of preaching in evangelism, we might be much more enthusiastic about inviting our friends and neighbors to church.

And what of the Christian life, and sanctification? According to the Catechism (and Scripture, of course – see 2 Timothy 3:16-4:2), the preaching of the Word takes preeminence there as well (or at least it should). Can you live the Christian life and grow in grace the way that you should apart from diligently attending upon the preaching of the Word of God? Simply put – no. Private reading and study of the Scriptures is certainly necessary and helpful, but that is no substitute for the preached Word.

William Perkins on Preaching

PerkinsThe great Puritan preacher and writer William Perkins (1558-1602) lived only 44 years (!), but has had a tremendous impact on preachers of the gospel of Christ for well over 400 hundred years. He is often referred to as “the father of puritanism.”

His influence lives on through his written works, one of the most helpful of which is his book, The Art of Prophesying, which deals with the work of the pastor in preaching and in prayer. In his Foreword to the Banner of Truth Trust “Puritan Paperbacks” edition of that very book, Sinclair Ferguson notes that “Perkins’ pulpit ministry was characterized by biblical exposition marked by great ‘plainness of speech’ (2 Cor. 3:12).” That same plainness of speech is also evident throughout the book.

Perkins there gives a very brief summary of what is involved in preaching. He notes that true biblical preaching basically involves four (4) things:

  1. Reading the text clearly from the canonical Scriptures.
  2. Explaining the meaning of it, once it has been read, in the light of the Scriptures themselves.
  3. Gathering a few profitable points of doctrine from the natural sense of the passage.
  4. If the preacher is suitably gifted, applying the doctrines this explained to the life and practice of the congregation in straightforward, plain speech. (p.79)

That list may seem rather simple, but how often are these things neglected or ignored? How common is it really to hear preaching that conforms to these basic standards? Consider Perkins’ fourfold description of preaching re-stated in the form of a set of diagnostic questions:

  1. Is a particular text of holy Scripture read? (Do the people hear the clear reading of the Word of God?)
  2. Is that same text then clearly explained? (Are the people made to understand meaning of that text of Scripture?)
  3. Are a few profitable points of doctrine being expounded from the text? (Are the people really being taught the great doctrines of the gospel?)
  4. Lastly, are those doctrines being applied to the life and practice of the congregation? (Are the people being made to see the difference that the gospel should make in their daily lives?)

If you are a preacher, how do you answer those simple questions with regards to your own preaching? I hope that you can say with a clear conscience that you preach the Word of Christ like this from week to week. It may not impress many of your hearers, but that is the way that sinners are led to the Savior; and that is the way that saints are built up in their most holy faith as well. Such preaching no doubt pleases God, and that should be our first concern, shouldn’t it?

If you are a church member who attends public worship regularly and so listens attentively (right?) to the preaching of the Word of God, are these the kinds of things that you look (or listen) for? Are these the things by which you judge preaching to be good or bad? If this is the kind of preaching that you hear from week to week, no matter how unimpressive and unspectacular it may seem – thank God for it! Count yourself truly blessed indeed! Many who sit under far more impressive-sounding preaching are not being fed and built up the way that you are.

What the church needs today (and has always needed) is not so much talented preachers who are able to captivate an audience (not that there is anything wrong with talent), but rather men of God who are willing to do the hard work of prayerfully studying the Scriptures, and plainly making known what is taught there.

May the Lord Jesus Christ be pleased to grant more such men in our pulpits – that His church may be built up, to the glory of His great Name.

The Westminster Standards on Preaching

Directory_for_Public_WorshipThe Directory for the Publick [sic] Worship of God (circa 1644) is a very helpful (even if much neglected) part of the Westminster Standards. It gives us clear instructions on nearly every aspect of the public worship of God in the church, including such things as how the Scriptures are to be read (and by whom!), the right manner of corporate prayer both before and after the sermon, the proper way to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as many other things.

Not surprisingly, it also contains a brief section outlining the right manner of preaching the word of God. These directions are as helpful as they are simple, and it would no doubt be of great benefit to the church to get back to these basics of biblical preaching.

In the Directory the Westminster divines note that the preacher ought to have three (3) primary concerns in his preaching:

First, the preacher must ensure that the matter be the truth of God. In other words, is what the preacher says truly biblical? Not just the truth, but specifically the truth of God. That is to say that the matter of the sermon must be found in the Word of God. Many things might be true enough in and of themselves, but are not really the subject matter of Scripture. A sermon simply must be true and biblical.

If what is being said in the pulpit is not the truth of God, then it really isn’t a sermon (at least not a Christian one) at all. It may be truly rousing oratory; it may be a very informative lecture; it may even be a fine motivational speech; but it is not a sermon in any meaningful sense of the word.

Second, the preacher must see to it that the truth that he preaches is contained or grounded in the specific text of Scripture that he is preaching. Sometimes preachers preach the right doctrine (see #1 above), but do so from the wrong text. In other words, the matter of the sermon must actually be the matter of the text itself. If not, how will the hearers understand how the preacher arrived at the points or conclusions that he is seeking to impress upon them?

You could say that every time a minister preaches a sermon (if he is doing so according to what the Westminster divines say here), he is not just teaching the flock what the Word of God says, but is also implicitly teaching them how to study the Word of God for themselves! What a blessing and added benefit that would be for any church!

Third, the preacher must primarily emphasize what the text itself primarily emphasizes. In other words, the preacher’s main point(s) ought to be so derived from the main point(s) of the Scripture text, that they are one and the same. And in this way the hearers are to be best edified. The central message of the sermon should be the central message of the text of Scripture. If not, can it really be said that the text itself was properly preached?

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of His church, grant that His ministers would preach His Word faithfully. And may they preach according to these simple rules found in the Directory – that their preaching might be biblical, that it might be based upon the text of Scripture itself, and that it might emphasize what the text itself emphasizes.