A Learned Servant

At last year’s Shepherds’ Conference, Mark Jones preached from Isaiah 50 on the third Servant Song. It’s a model of Christ-exalting exposition. It also throws several (appropriate) punches at pastors. Case in point: “Woe to that man who knows his theological books, but is ignorant of the word of God.”

The Spirit stirred my mind and convicted my heart through Jones’ preaching. May He do the same to yours.

Condemnation is Easier than Consolation

“A sustaining ministry, a gospel ministry, requires more thought more study, more insight than a condemning ministry. A finger-pointing ministry is easy. Moralism is the default setting of our minds. But it takes divine wisdom to understand God’s grace in a new way, so we can sustain weary people. Jesus gave himself fully to that ministry.”

— Ray Ortlund, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, 355.

Ferguson Lectures on Preaching

Dr. Sinclair Ferguson recently gave the John Reed Miller Lectures on Preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. His theme was “Preaching Like Paul?”

I listened to every minute last week while I lay sick in bed. There’s a lifetime of homiletical wisdom for everyone who has ears to hear.

Lecture 1: How It All Came About

Lecture 2: Him We Proclaim

Lecture 3: We Preach Christ Crucified

Lecture 4: On Not Preaching Ourselves

As Dying Men

Preaching Jesus Christ is the highest calling in Christendom. It is is the ordinary means by which God awakens cold, crusty, and callous hearts to breathe in the grace of faith. Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ to sinners’ bosoms and breasts. It is the spiritual sword God uses to assault hell’s gates and ruin Satan’s strongholds. The Sun of Righteousness dawns upon the earth to harden clay hearts and melt icy souls whenever His word is heralded. Preaching convicts, illuminates, rebukes, encourages, and enlivens the soul.

As such, faithful preaching needs the gravity of eternity.

Consider three men of old who modeled such preaching: Richard Baxter, the apostle Paul, and Robert Murray M’Cheyne.

Baxter’s Famous Maxim

Richard Baxter was a Puritan full of fire. Spurgeon said, “If you want to know the art of pleading, read Baxter.” In his autobiography, Spurgeon recounts a conversation with his wife one Sunday evening, in which he said, “I fear I have not been as faithful in my preaching today as I should have been; I have not been as much in earnest after poor souls as God would have me be. . . . Go, dear, to the study, and fetch down Baxter’s Reformed Pastor, and read some of it to me; perhaps that will quicken my sluggish heart.”

Baxter exemplified earnestness in pulpit ministry. While some of his theological convictions are tenuous, what shouldn’t be denied is the fervency and urgency that marked his heralding of Christ. It’s why he (somewhat) famously declared in his Poetical Fragments,

This called me out to work while it was day;
And warn poor Souls to Turn without delay:
Resolving speedily thy Word to preach;
With Ambrose, I at once did Learn and Teach.
Still thinking I had little time to live,
My fervent heart to win men’s Souls did strive.
I Preached, as never sure to preach again,
And as a dying man to dying men!
O how should Preachers Men’s Repenting crave,
Who see how near the Church is to the Grave?
And see that while we Preach and Hear, we Die,
Rapt by swift Time to vast Eternity!

Baxter’s call has good biblical precedent.

Paul’s Fearful Persuasion

In 2 Corinthians 10:11, Paul states, “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” In the previous ten verses, Paul writes about the security of our future in Christ because He is the sovereign judge over all humanity. The time is rapidly approaching when “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).

For Paul, preachers need the fear of eternity weighing on their hearts if they are to preach persuasively as Christ’s ambassadors. It’s been somewhat fashionable for some to think that Paul means for “fear” (phobos) to be understood as “reverential awe.” Such a view, however, softens the seriousness of Paul’s mind. As Scott J. Hafemann says, “Nothing less than real fear is involved, since in the context Paul is referring to a strong desire to avoid the negative consequences of Christ’s judgment.”

Expectancy of eternity, then, possesses vital energy for those who herald reconciliation in Christ (2 Cor. 5:18–21).

Preaching the Christ of Eternity

Like Spurgeon after him, Robert Murray M’Cheyne loved the Puritans—especially Richard Baxter. After reading Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, M’Cheyne wrote,

Though Baxter’s lips have long in silence hung,
And death long hush’d that sinner-wakening tongue;
Yet still, though dead, he speaks aloud to us all;
And from the grave still issues forth his, “Call.”
Like some loud angel-voice from Zion Hill,
The mighty echo rolls and rumbles still,
O grant that we, when sleeping in the dust,
May thus speak forth the wisdom of the just.

Baxter’s zeal for souls captured M’Cheyne and caused him to declare in an ordination sermon, “O for a pastor who unites the deep knowledge of Edwards, the vast statements of Owen, and the vehement appeals of Richard Baxter!”

He exhorted Andrew Bonar, “Speak to your people as on the brink of eternity.” To Mrs. Thain, he encouraged, “Live near to God, and so all things will appear to you little in comparison with eternal realities.” The motto with which he sealed most of his letters was, “The Night Cometh.”

M’Cheyne’s longing for eternity gave special fervency to his gospel ministry. He did not expect to live a long life, and so he aimed to “speak very plainly” of Christ. He cried, “Oh, believers, it is the duty of ministers to preach with this solemn day in their eye (Judgment Day)! . . . Would not this take away fear of man? Would not this make us urgent in our preaching? You must either get these souls into Christ, or you will yet see them lying down in everlasting burnings.” Also, the Sabbath was a taste of eternity, and thus eternal business should fill each Lord’s Day activity. He told a ministerial friend,

May your mind be solemnized, my dear friend, by the thought that we are ministers but for at time; that the Master may summon us to retire into silence, or may call us to the temple above; or the midnight cry of the great Bridegroom may break suddenly on our ears. Blessed is the servant that is found waiting! Make all your services tell for eternity; speak what you can look back upon with comfort when you must be silent.

A Missing Note Today?

I might be wrong, of course, but I daresay that the weight of eternity is a significant note missing in modern preaching. John Piper certainly agrees with me.

In his book, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, John Piper examines preachers in various revivals throughout church history. He notices Thomas Chalmers’ blood-earnestness, William Sprague’s seriousness, and Charles Spurgeon’s reverence. He then strikes at modern attempts at preaching, saying most pulpit ministry today will never bring revival. Piper writes, “It is surely a sign of the age that we preachers are far more adept at humor than tears . . . Laughter seems to have replaced repentance as the goal of many preachers.” How sad it is to realize how right he is.

Understanding the urgency of eternity puts Christ-exalting gravity in the place of man-centered levity. May every preaching prepare this week’s sermon with eternal realities before his mind, and so ascend to the sacred desk this Lord’s Day ready to preach as a dying man to dying people.

Perils in Pastoral Ministry

Sunday’s coming. The Lord’s Day is on the way. And Christ’s preachers must be ready. We must gird up the loins, go, and proclaim Christ from behind the sacred desk.

It’s my regular practice to spend time every Friday and Saturday reading something that stirs my soul for Christ and for preaching His beauty. Today it was a chapter from J. W. Jowett’s book, The Preacher: His Life and Work. The selection is titled “The Perils of the Preacher.”

Before I summarize them, let’s get to know the old man a bit.

A Grave Preacher

blrudgbgkkgrhgookjqejllmvowobjikfzeqq_35After hearing the great Dr. Fairbairn preach, Jowett told his students at Airedale College, “Gentlemen, I will tell you what I have observed this morning: behind that sermon there was a man.” Although The Preacher provides scant autobiographical information, I always have same sense in reading Jowett’s work—there is gravity in his message.

Jowett was born in 1863 in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Like many great ministers before him, Jowett initially resolved to study law. God soon called him into the gospel ministry. He went on to train at Edinburgh and Oxford before assuming his first pastoral position at St. James Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The church held over 1,000 seats, and none were empty during Jowett’s ministry.

In 1911 he became the pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. John Bishop says,

The church was crowded long before the hour of Jowett’s first service. Reporters crowded the side galleries, expecting to find a sensational preacher with dazzling oratory and catchy sermon topics on current events. Instead they found a shy, quiet little man, bald-headed and with a cropped white moustache, who spoke in a calm, simple manner.

He was at Fifth Avenue when he delivered the Lyman Beecher lectures on a pastor’s life and ministry. He stayed in New York until 1918 when he was called to succeed G. Campbell Morgan at Westminster Chapel in London. It was his last pastoral post, as he died in 1923.

The Preacher’s Perils

So, then, what are some common perils threatening pastors? Jowett mentions four.

  1. Deadening familiarity with the sublime. “I think this is one of the most insidious, and perhaps the predominant peril in a preacher’s life. A man my live in mountain country, and lose all sense of the heights. . . . The preacher lives almost every hour in sight of the immensities and the eternities—the awful sovereignty of God, and the glorious, yet cloud-capped mysteries of redeeming grace. But here is the possible tragedy: he may live in constant sight of these tremendous presences and may cease to see them.”
  2. Deadening familiarity with the commonplace. “There is an equally subtle peril of our becoming dead to the bleeding tragedies of common life.” Jowett mentions several things, but focuses mostly on a deadened sense of the tragedy of death. “Familiarity may be deadly, and we may be dead men in the usually disturbing presences of sorrow, and pain, and death. The pathetic may cease to melt us, the tragic may cease to shock us. We may lose our power to weep.”
  3. Possible perversion of our emotional life. “The preaching of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ demands and creates in the preacher a certain power worthy of emotion, and this very emotion becomes the center of new ministerial danger. . . . That is to say, the evangelical preacher, with his constant business in great facts and verities that sway the feelings, may become the victim of nervous depression, and in his nervous impoverishment his moral defences may be relaxed, the enemy may leap within his gates, and his spirit may be imprisoned in dark and carnal bondage.”
  4. The perilous gravitation of the world. “I say you meet that danger everywhere, but nowhere will you meet it in a more insidious and persistent fashion that in the Christian ministry. [Worldliness]  is round about us like a malaria, and we may become susceptible to its contagion.” “In the perilous gravitation of worldliness there is more than an illicit spirit of compromise: there is what I will call the fascination of the glittering.” “We may become more intent on full pews than on redeemed souls.

Jowett’s remedy to such pitfalls is proper: a renewed commitment to Christ through the means of grace. “We must,” Jowett declares, “assiduously attend to the culture of our souls. We must sternly and systematically make time for prayer, and for the devotional reading of the Word of God. We must appoint private seasons for the deliberate and personal appropriation of the Divine Word, for self-examination.”

Brothers of the pulpit, if we do not take heed of our doctrine and practice, we will fall into a perilous condition. And Jowett warns what that will mean:

Our characters will lose their spirituality. We shall lack that fine fragrance which makes people know that we dwell in ‘the King’s gardens.’ There will be no heavenly air about our spirits. . . . We are wordy, but not mighty. We are eloquent, but do not persuade. We are reasonable, but we do not convince. We preach much, but we accomplish little. We teach, but we do not woo. We make a ‘show of power,’ but men do not move.

Danger Lurks Near The Sacred Desk

Temptations fly at preachers as mosquitos swarm in a swamp. Archibald Alexander knew this well. To read his teachings on pastoral ministry is to read not only expert wisdom, but also experienced wisdom. No novice teacher can pen the paragraphs below.

The pulpit is perhaps, the severest ordeal of piety in the world. The man in secret might have felt humbled, on account of his sins, and seriously concerned for the salvation of his fellowmen; but when he rises in the pulpit, and hundreds of eyes are fixed on him, and multitudes are observing his performance, he can with difficult avoid feeling his attention drawn to himself, and a strong desire to acquit himself as to meet public expectation, and at any rate to rise above contempt.

And if a man has acquired already some degree of popularity, he naturally feels a strong desire to preserve the reputation which he has acquired. And these thoughts relating to his own dear popularity, may so get possession of his mind, that with every word which he utters, and every gesture which he makes, the thought may involuntarily occur, ‘How will this be received?’ Or, perhaps, in a form more hateful, ‘that is well spoken’—’that will be admired’—or ‘that will instruct the audience.’

And if he preaches with liberty, and some degree of eloquence, self-complacency is apt to arise in the mind. The deceitfulness and deep depravity of the human heart, never appears more evidently than in the pulpit. If all the thoughts which pass thro’ the preachers mind were exposed in their naked deformity to the view of the people, how would he be ashamed and confounded!

May the Lord enable His preachers to know true humility and vital piety in the pulpit. May the Lord protect us from seeking man’s praise. May He give us hearts that long to proclaim Christ alone.

Sincerity’s Proper Parent in Preaching

“Simplicity is necessary to preserve the speaker’s character for sincerity. You heard before how necessary piety is, which is the proper parent of sincerity in the pulpit. Now it is not easy to preserve the opinion of piety and sincerity in the pulpit when there is much ornament. Besides the danger of much affected pomp or foppery of style, a discourse very highly polished, even in the truest taste, is apt to suggest to the audience that a man is preaching himself and not the cross of Christ.” — Select Works of John Witherspoon, 297

Simple, Yet Significant Truth

In his foreword to Jason Meyer’s Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Christian Life: Doctrine and Life as Fuel and Fire, Sinclair Ferguson writes, “[Lloyd-Jones] did not live to preach; he lived for Christ. All preachers are differently wired; there is a wide variety in gifts and temperaments, in experience and understanding. But when a man is given over to the love of Christ in his living, it cannot be hidden in his preaching; just as sadly, if he is given over to the love of self, it will also show.”

A Worthy Model

In his edited work on the sermons of John L. Girardeau, George Blackburn describes the great preacher’s pulpit manner. Let every herald today labor to emulate this style:

His demeanor in the pulpit was dignified, grave and earnest, indicating that he fully realized his responsibility as an ambassador of Christ and a minister to dying men. I can never forget the solemn countenance he carried into the pulpit and the earnestness with which he read the hymns and conducted the services. And he threw his whole self, body, mind and spirit, into his preaching, speaking with a fervor such as I have rarely seen equalled in the pulpit, and which deeply impressed his hearers with his zeal for God and for their souls.

Reductionistic Doctrinal Preaching

Over the last decade or so, Christ-centered, biblical-theological, moralistic-averse preaching has made a resurgence of sorts in the evangelical world. One consequence, if we have ears to hear, is that such preaching can often press the mute button when it comes to Scripture’s imperatives.

He Puts It So Well

Earlier today, I read through part of John Piper’s latest book Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching and Worship. In chapter 12, Piper points out “two mistakes to avoid” when preaching a command. The first is mere moralism—”Just do it.” The second is “reductionistic doctrinal preaching.” Piper says on this mistake,

The second mistake (“You can’t do it; but Christ did it perfectly, so turn away from your doing to his doing, and enjoy justification by imputed righteousness”) minimizes the seriousness of the command, diverts attention from the real necessity of the imperative, leads to a kind of preaching that oversimplifies the urgency and complexity of Christian obedience, and turns every sermon into a predictable soteriological crescendo that trains the people to tune out and start putting their coats on. It silences the specific riches of the text by preempting them with unwarranted applications of right doctrine.”

To which I wrote in the margin, “Amen.”

Gratefully, Piper doesn’t only diagnose the problem; he offers a proposed solution. But you’ll have to take up the book and read it to find out what that answer is. Tolle lege!