We Don’t Believe You!

Thielicke responds to Spurgeon’s insistence on the necessity for the farmer to sharpen his scythe (the need for Sabbath, for rest, for sabbatical, for vacation, for refreshment, as well as for preparation and, indirectly, training) with this:

Nor can the fisherman always be fishing; he must mend his nets.  . . . Whereas Spurgeon enjoins us to remember that preachers must not think too highly of themselves as instruments but in faith accept that they are dispensable, we hound our young vicars – not everybody does this, I know, but many do! – chasing them from examinations into the bustling business of pastoral service in the big cities, from funerals to marriage, and from the pulpit to doorbell-ringing, opening the pores of the body of Christ to all the bacilli against which, after all, we should be mobilizing the antibiotic of our message of peace.  We keep killing flowers in the bud, because we no longer let things grow because down underneath we have forgotten how to pray “Thy kingdom come,” and in its place have put our “manager’s faith,” our belief that everything can be produced and organized.

How true this is today.  If you are in leadership in a church, what would be the most honest label for what you do?  Spiritual leader?  Or People Pleaser?  Or Program Manager?  Or Schedule Maintainer? Or, well, fill in the blank as you choose.  Too easily the demands of ministry turn the spiritual into the stressed, the example into the bad example.

Health warning: what follows is likely to make you feel convicted and you may need to lie down.  You may not be able to concentrate on other things for a few minutes, perhaps longer.  You may need to kneel with the urge to pray, to confess, to repent.

We preach “Do not be anxious!” – and at the same time worry ourselves to death about whether everybody will he this.  We say, “God reigns” – and still we run about madly keeping the ecclesiastical machinery going.  We proclaim man’s passive righteousness (the righteousness that comes from God)- and still we behave like activists.  We preach eternity; but when Jesus asks us, “Did you have enough of everything?” we will have to reply, “Oh, no; we didn’t have enough time.”  This is why we preach peace and radiate restlessness.  This is why we give stones instead of bread, and men do not believe us.  The faith is refuted by the incredulity of those who proclaim it. (p.12)

Borrowed Light

Thielicke, speak to us about Spurgeon . . .

For Spurgeon the really determinative foundation of the education of preachers was naturally this work on the spiritual man.  The education of preachers must not be directly pragmatic; it must not be immediately directed to preaching as its goal.  Otherwise the process of education becomes an act of mere training, the teaching of technical skills.  The preacher must read the Bible without asking in the back of his mind how he can capitalize homiletically upon the text he studies.  He must first read it as nourishment for his own soul.

This is vitally important, but easily neglected or misunderstood.  Too often homiletics is treated as a subject that fits only in some sort of pragmatic department of training institutions, somehow distinct from Bible, Theology, Spirituality, Divinity.  How wrong to view homiletics as the mere teaching of teachnique – tips for public speaking.  While there is real value in training in the skills of passage study, sermon formation and delivery, homiletics is so much more.  Ultimately the educator is not to teach a man to preach, but to teach a man, and to teach him to preach. (Adapt that sentence as you prefer for gender neutrality, but it simply doesn’t work to make that gender neutral by pluralising the terms.)  True biblical preaching is born out of the spiritual reality in the preacher, not just some assemblage of tips and techniques.  Let’s go back to Thielicke, this next part is priceless:

For the light which we are to let shine before men is borrowed light, a mere reflection.  He who will not go out in the sun in order to play the humble role of a mirror, reflecting the sun’s light, has to try to produce his own light, and thus gives the lie to his message by his vanity and egocentric presumption.  Besides becoming unworthy of being believed, he is condemned to consume his own substance and expend his capital to the point of bankruptcy.  Because he is not a recipient, he must himself produce and seek to overcome the empty silence within him by means of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.  Thus he ends in the paralysis of emptiness, and his empty, droning rhetoric merely covers up the burned-out slag underneath. (p10)


Of Inner Screens and Communion Closets

Some more of Thielicke on Spurgeon:

When Spurgeon speaks, it is as if the figures of the patriarchs and prophets and apostles were in the auditorium – sitting upon a raised tribune! – looking down upon the listeners.  You hear the rush of the Jordan and the murmuring of the brooks of Siloam; you see the cedars of Lebanon swaying in the wind, hear the clash and tumult of battle between the children of Israel and the Philistines, sense the safety and security of Noah’s ark, suffer the agonies of soul endured by Job and Jeremiah, hear the creak of oars as the disciples strain against the contrary winds, and feel the dread of the terrors of the apocalypse.  The Bible is so close that you not only hear its messages but breathe its very atmosphere.  The heart is so full of Scripture that it leavens the consciousness, peoples the imagination with its images, and determines the landscape of the soul by its climate.  And because it has what might be called a total presence, the Bible as the Word of God is really concentrated life that enters every pore and teaches us not only to see and hear but also to taste and smell the wealth of reality that is spread out before us here.

Those who listened to these lectures of Spurgeon lived . . . in the atmosphere of the Bible.  They no longer needed to be exhorted to take the Bible seriously; it penetrated into what the psychologists call the “image level” of their unconscious.  Even the admonition to prayer was hardly needed, for the words that reached the hearer were spoken by one who himself had come out of the stillness of eternal communion with God, and what he said to the hearer had first been talked about with the Father in heaven.(v9)

Vivid preaching that reaches deeper than mere words ever could, aiming to transform the listener at every level of the heart, soul, spirit; penetrating to the screen in the inner man, so the vivid and striking reality of Scripture is lived even in the hearing, all coming from one who is personally intimate with the God whose Word he preaches.  It can’t get much better than that!

Theme Number One in the Church

I picked up a copy of Helmut Thielicke’s Encounter with Spurgeon.  Essentially it is a 45 page reflection on Spurgeon’s homiletics by a theologian you might not expect to rave so wildly about his work and ministry, followed by selected highlights from Spurgeon’s writings.  I have not read Thielicke since studying ethics at seminary, but I will have to be disciplined not to just copy most of the 45 pages here in the next few days!  However, I do think this can be a Thielicke on Spurgeon week as far as this blog is concerned.

It would be well for a time like ours to learn from this man.  For our preaching is, to be sure, largely correct, exegetically “legitimate,” workmanlike and tidy; but it is also remarkably dead and lacking in infectious power.  Very often it strikes us as an unreal phantom that hovers above and is isolated from what people feel are the actual realities of their life and what they talk about in their language.  There can be no doubt that for many preachers it is simply an escape when, in the face of this failure to get returns in the area of preaching, they take flight into the cultivation of liturgical ceremonial and even make a virtue of the vice of wanting to ignore the times and live in some timeless, spiritual world.

In this desperate situation which threatens to break down even the best of men – for it is a desperate thing to feel the burden of souls committed to our charge and not to be able to do anything about it – everything depends upon our gaining some standards for that which is “Theme Number One” of the church – our preaching. (p.2)

We can be technically good, but effectually useless.  If the preaching doesn’t connect with listeners in a meaningful way, then it is a ghostly imitation of the real thing.  So, for many preachers struggling with their ineffectual ministry, it is an easier cop out to act as if it is good to be irrelevant and aloof.  But souls are going to a lost eternity and we can’t do anything about it, and yet we can, we must, do this one thing – we must pursue effectual preaching because that is the main thing in the church.