Preaching

J.C. Ryle on “Jelly-Fish” Sermons

prepared to stand aloneIn his terrific biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray quotes Ryle on the dangers of an aversion to “dogma” or doctrine among the ministers of the Church of England in his day. He likened this to ‘Jelly-fish Christianity,’ saying that it was,

“without bone, or muscle, or power.   . . . We have hundreds of ‘jelly-fish’ clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity [i.e. their doctrine].   . . . We have thousands of ‘jelly-fish’ sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint.” (p.186)

Ryle penned these words in the late 19th century (!), but they seem as timely and relevant in our day as ever. (Take heart, such things were not invented in our day!)

If you think about it, there are not many biblical doctrines which unbelievers (or even nominal Christians) are not likely to take offense at hearing. Scoffers, skeptics, and sometimes even professing believers often bristle at the most basic doctrines that are taught in the Bible – creation, providence, the Fall, depravity, sin, hell, the cross of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, the judgment – just to name a handful. These things are no doubt repugnant to many, and always have been. But those doctrines and many others are found throughout Scripture, and so they must be clearly preached and taught.

The temptation toward “smooth” preaching is ever-present, and probably always has been. Such sermons are no doubt designed to be pleasing to the ears of the hearers and to avoid offense at all costs. But such sermons, as Ryle observed, awaken no sinner and edify no saint. As Paul told Timothy,

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4, ESV)

People who have “itching ears” will tend to refuse to “endure sound teaching” and “turn away from listening to the truth” (v.4), but Paul says here that this is actually all the more reason to “preach the Word” (v.2)!

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the one true Head of His church, be pleased to once again raise up a godly generation of ministers – men who have spines of steel in their doctrine and doctrine in their preaching. And may the Lord use such preaching to awaken many sinners and edify the saints!

A Word of Encouragement for Pastors/Preachers

prepared to stand alone

Preaching is hard work. It requires much prayer, study, preparation, and even practice. Doing all of that on a weekly basis (and in many cases, doing so for both morning and evening services) can add up to a real grind. Who among us is sufficient for such things? It can feel rather overwhelming at times. (Hint: Pray for your pastor!)

Some preachers seem to make it look just so easy, don’t they? And it is all too easy for us to imagine that the men whom we consider our heroes of the faith from years past found no difficulties in such things. But in his recent biography of J.C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain Murray writes the following:

“He [Ryle] would later say that he was turned fifty before he learned to preach.” (p.59)

Considering that Ryle entered the pastorate at age 25, that is really saying something! Think about that – J.C. Ryle was essentially preaching twice every Lord’s day for the span of 25 years before he started to feel like he had really learned to preach! (Having just turned 50 myself, and having far less than 25 years of experience in preaching, it is encouraging to know that even someone such as Ryle felt that way once too.)

So if you are a pastor and have found the work of preaching to be rather difficult, and are discouraged by your apparent lack of progress in it, take heart – you are in good company. In two or three decades maybe you’ll start to get the hang of it, just like Ryle did!  🙂

And if you are a member of a church where your pastor(s) preaches the Word of God to you faithfully and clearly (even if unspectacularly), thank God! For that is not the case everywhere. And be patient with your pastor’s shortcomings in the pulpit – give him some time to get his proverbial sea legs under him. It might take a decade or two, but it’ll be worth it!  🙂

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.