Preaching should confront men and women with God and eternity. In order to do this, it has to be biblical. It has to tell people what God is saying in his Word. From the preacher’s point of view, this does two things. It helps to give him an authority that is far more than his own ability and gifts of oratory. People need to know that God is speaking through his servant. Secondly, it gives the preacher an endless source of material to preach. He is not dependent upon current events for his sermon topics, but has a huge reservoir of biblical teaching to draw upon.
Great preachers varied in nationality, temperament and sometimes in doctrine but they all sought to bring God to the people. This is why they made a difference. They set out not merely to inform people, but to transform them. The most drastic and radical transformation that a man can know is that from spiritual death to spiritual life. These men preached for this. They knew that the sinner’s greatest need is for regeneration, so they preached to reach his heart and soul. This governed how they preached and created in them a great desire to preach Christ, the cross and his redeeming blood.
They preached to create a conviction of sin in the unbeliever. It is not conviction of sin for a man to feel bad because he is drinking too much or generally making a mess of his life. Sin is not just a violation of socially accepted standards. To see sin only in social or moral terms will not lead people to conviction. Sin must be seen in the light of the law and holiness of God. The gospel is not an aspirin for the aches of life, to soothe and comfort people in their misery. It is a holy God’s answer to the violation of divine law by human beings whose very nature is to rebel against him.
Most people think salvation is the product of morality and religious observance. In spite of the clarity of the New Testament message, they still cling to their own efforts to save themselves. But salvation by works never creates conviction of sin because it fails miserably to take into account the holiness, purity and justice of God. It sees sin only as a moral or social blemish and not as an affront to the Lord, law and character of God. It is the law of God which produces conviction because it shows us our sin in relationship, not to society and people, but to God. It shows us that we have failed to meet God’s requirements.
A common feature of all great preachers is a longing for success-to see souls saved. Andrew Bonar says of Robert Murray McCheyne,
‘He entertained so full a persuasion that a faithful minister has every reason to expect to see souls converted under him, that when this was withheld, he began to fear that some hidden evil was provoking the Lord and grieving the Spirit. And ought it not to be so with all of us? Ought we not to suspect, either that we are not living near to God, or that our message is not a true transcript of the glad tidings, in both matter and manner, when we see no souls brought to Jesus?
‘Two things he seems never to have ceased from ñ the cultivation of personal holiness and the most anxious efforts to win souls.,
How McCheyne links these two things is highly significant. He wrote to William Burns in September 1840,
‘I am also deepened in my conviction, that if we are to be instruments in such a work, we must be purified from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit. Oh, cry for personal holiness, constant nearness to God, by the blood of the Lamb. Bask in his beams – lie back in the arms of love – be filled with his Spirit-or all success in the ministry will only be to your own everlasting confusion … How much more useful might we be, if we were only more free from pride, self conceit, personal vanity, or some secret sin that our heart knows. Oh! hateful sins, that destroy our peace and ruin souls.’
McCheyne believed that
‘In the case of a faithful ministry, success is the rule and the lack of it the exception.’
And when there was no success, no souls saved, he did not blame the people but looked first at his own heart.
BORN NOT MADE
Preachers are born, not made. Was Jeremiah the only preacher set apart by God before he was born (Jeremiah 1:5)? Was he an exception or the norm?
Preachers are not the products of education and training but are men set apart by God and equipped by the Holy Spirit for their life’s work. This does not mean that they do not need training, but above all there needs to be the call of God. Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones and Moody had no formal theological training but it was obvious that they were prepared by God and that his hand was upon them. Preaching is a special gift from God and those who have it need to guard it carefully and seek to nurture it for use to God’s glory.
Many evangelicals today have lost confidence in preaching. We may lament this and mourn the fact that in some churches music and drama have replaced preaching. But why has it happened? Is it not the fault of preachers themselves? Is it not because gospel preaching too often lacks authority, relevance and power, and consequently fails to save souls? It has been said that the most urgent need in the Christian church today is true preaching. Most preachers would agree with that but many Christians in the pew do not. That is not surprising if the preaching they hear is so sentimental as to have no substance, or so intellectual that they cannot understand it.
What is true preaching? What constitutes true gospel preaching? It involves both a proper content and a correct presentation. The gospel must be preached in a language that people can understand. In the last century, Spurgeon was pleading,
‘We need in the ministry, now and in all time, men of plain speech. The preacher’s language must not be that of the classroom, but of all classes; not of the university, but of the universe …
“Use market language,” said George Whitefield, and we know the result. We need men who not only speak so that they can be understood, but so that they cannot be misunderstood.’ Plain speech is not slang but simple language and concepts that people can understand.
Preachers will only make a difference when their preaching clearly shows to people the Lord Jesus Christ. The only difference that is of any significance is the one Christ makes in the hearts of men and women. It is possible for a preacher to make a difference to his hearers that is only temporary. He comes and preaches and makes a great impact but if you passed that way in a year’s time, you would see that there is now no longer any difference to be seen. It was only temporary and this is because it was not the gospel, not Christ, that made the difference but the preacher himself. Such preaching is only a form of entertainment. It does not confront sinners with God, but merely holds their attention for a while until something else comes along.
A SERIOUS RESPONSIBILITY
Preaching is not a hobby but should occupy a man’s whole life and thinking. The preacher sees everything in relationship to his ministry. In this sense he is never on holiday. His mind is continuously taken up with the next sermon and the next congregation. The seriousness of the matter causes what Paul calls in I Corinthians 2:3-4 a ‘trembling’. What do we know of this trembling? Why did Paul with all his great abilities preach in weakness, fear and trembling? Surely it must have been because he felt the awesome responsibility preaching puts upon a man.
Preachers who make a difference know something of this trembling. It was said of McCheyne that when he entered the pulpit, people would weep before he opened his mouth – to quote Lloyd-Jones,
‘There was something about his face, and in the conviction which his hearers possessed that he had come from God; he was already preaching before he opened his mouth. A man sent from God is aware of this burden. He trembles because of the momentous consequences, the issues that depend upon what he does.
Preaching is the most exciting and uncertain activity a man can partake in. The preacher never knows what is going to happen when he steps into a pulpit. In fact, anything can happen when the power of the Holy Spirit comes and divine unction dominates the ministry. Thomas Olivers was antagonistic to the gospel and went to hear George Whitefield preach in the open air with the intention of disrupting the meeting. But when the preacher started, he was unable to interrupt and was compelled to listen. Whitefield had a bad turn in his eye and his enemies called him Dr Squintum, but Olivers said that it did not matter which way Whitefield’s head was facing, ‘his eye was always on me.’ He was saved and went on to write that great hymn ‘The God of Abraham praise’.
Preaching is also a battle because the devil hates it. He does not mind men who get into a pulpit to give a nice, gentle homily, but he hates it when Christ is uplifted and sinners are confronted with the holy God. This battle takes many forms. Sometimes it is in the heart and mind of the preacher as he grapples with his own unworthiness. Sometimes the devil attacks him before he leaves home for church with tensions with his children. Sometimes the attack is frontal. One of the greatest preachers I have ever heard was the late Douglas MacMillan of Scotland. Douglas was preaching for us at Rugby in a series of evangelistic meetings. I was ill in bed and unable to attend. After the service Douglas came into my bedroom to see me, and I could see by his face that the service had not gone well. Some of the young men of the church had gone into the streets to try to get passers-by to come in. They persuaded two twelve-year-old boys to come. The boys came in and were quiet throughout the service but Douglas told me that he felt evil coming from one of these boys which bound him in his preaching. Douglas MacMillan was a strong man physically, intellectually and spiritually, yet this twelve-year-old boy so affected his preaching that he felt bound. That has to be the attack of Satan.
Preaching is no cosy chat but a taking on of hell in preaching the gospel to sinners. The best of sermons can be left flat and lifeless. The greatest sense of expectancy can be dashed. But the opposite is also true, and such power can come from God on to the preaching that is inexplicable in terms of anything merely human. Heaven and hell are locked in battle when the gospel is preached.
Great preachers are so only because God is pleased to bless their preaching and use them in remarkable ways. They will have other things going for them, such as natural abilities, but it is God who makes the difference. They are aware of this and are continuously sensitive to the hand of God on them. To them, this is the only thing that matters. They will prepare their sermons diligently and seek to prepare themselves spiritually, but they do not depend on these and all the time they look for divine unction