A Spurgeon Preaching Thought: Bible

“Love your Bibles. Keep close to your Bibles.” 

Perhaps one of the greatest privileges of the preacher is also one of the greatest dangers: time with the Bible.  We have to go above and beyond a casual reading of Scripture in order to speak it out to others.  The risk is that it become a professional tool, rather than a life-giving gift from God himself.

One area where this can show is in that of our confidence in Scripture.  We need to be confident in the Bible, but where does that confidence come from?  It is easy to settle for an academic confidence, birthed out of knowing the facts that build a presentation on the authenticity and authority of the Bible.  But as John Piper has helpfully challenged us in recent years, our confidence should not be built on something that is external to Scripture itself.  Here’s Spurgeon on this matter:

We accept it as the very word of the living God, every jot and tittle of it, not so much because there are any external evidences which go to show its authenticity, — a great many of us do not know anything about those evidences, and probably never shall,– but because we discern an inward evidence in the words themselves. They have come to us with a power that no other words ever had in them, and we cannot be argued out of our conviction of their superlative excellence and divine authority. (Quoted p41 of Reeves.)

Rather than gradually learning a convincing argument for the Bible’s reliability, we need to be meeting Christ there so that our confidence is birthed by the Spirit himself at work in us.  What would Piper say, quoting Edwards, that we “ascend to the truth of the gospel in a single step, which is its divine glory…” there is more to chase there, but for now, let’s finish with a paragraph that we could well pray with Spurgeon:

O living Christ, make this a living word to me. Thy word is life, but not without the Holy Spirit. I may know this book from beginning to end, and repeat it all from Genesis to Revelation, and yet it may be a dead book, and I may be a dead soul. But, Lord, be present here; then will I look up from the book to the Lord; from the precept to him who fulfilled it; from the law to him who honoured it; from the threatening to his who has borne it for me, and from the promise to him in whom it is “Yea and amen.” (quoted on p48 in Reeves.)

[Be sure to get a copy of Mike Reeves’ excellent book on Spurgeon.]

Some Spurgeon Preaching Thoughts

I’ve recently been reading Michael Reeves’ excellent book, Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ (Crossway, 2018).  As you would expect, Spurgeon said a lot that can be helpful to preachers.  I’d like to share some quotes and chat about them, but be sure to buy the book and have a helpful read!

“Great hearts are the main qualifications for great preachers.” (p28)  Too often we fall into thinking that a great preacher is made by great learning, or great skill, or great presentation, or even great personality, but Spurgeon is pushing deeper here.  He is pointing to the relational core of the preacher and saying that to be a great preacher, we need to be in a very healthy relationship with Christ, with self, and with others.  The problem is that many preachers have character issues that others excuse as personality quirks.  Great learning, great skill, great force of character, and so on do not compensate for problems at the core of a person.  Hear more of Spurgeon:

“A man must have a great heart if he would have a great congregation. His heart should be as capacious as those noble harbors along our coast, which contain sea-room for a fleet. When a man has a large, loving heart, men go to him as ships to a haven, and feel at peace when they have anchored under the lee of his friendship. Such a man is hearty in private as well as in public; his blood is not cold and fishy, but he is warm as your own fireside. No pride and selfishness chill you when you approach him; he has his doors all open to receive you, and you are at home with him at once. Such men I would persuade you to be, every one of you.”

We live in an age of perpetual noise, of constant distraction, of increasingly accepted narcissism.  The 21st century is not the ideal time to grow the kind of heart that Spurgeon describes here, but we must.  Perhaps it is time to put our phones on silent, turn off the social media, and invest time into private prayer, personal enrichment and enriching fellowship.  Have a conversation. Read a book.  Intercede for dear folks in your church.

We cannot be corporate managers of churches and expect spiritual results.  We are in the business of heart change.  May our hearts lead the way.

Preacher, What Do You See?

This is an important question.  If you can’t see what you’re preaching, then your listeners won’t see it either.  That’s true with Bible stories and illustrations and applications and visionary leadership of the church and so on.  But most important is not what you see, but who.

C.H.Spurgeon wrote that “We shall never have great preachers until we have great divines.”  Yet we live in a busy and very noisy world: a world of phone calls, emails, text messages, emergencies, easy travel, financial complexities, family responsibilities and ministerial intricacies.  Not the easiest place to keep the gaze of our souls firmly fixed on our core vision.  Our core vision is not a philosophy of ministry, a theological stance or sense of calling. Our core vision is God Himself.

Jesus spoke to a theological giant of his day late one evening – a man who had political clout, theological nous and societal import.  He pointed his thoughts back to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.  People were saved back then by looking at that serpent.  No work, no effort, no responsibility, nothing.  Just looking.  In the same way must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes, has faith (as just defined in the previous sentence), will live.  Faith is more about the gaze of our heart and soul than it is about credal affirmations or signatures on doctrinal statements (while recognizing the vital nature of right doctrine).

Now if I can shift from Jesus in John to Paul’s writings for a moment, isn’t the whole Christian life a faith life?  We certainly don’t switch into works mode once saved, may it never be!  So preacher, how’s your faith?  How’s your gaze?  Without that constant gaze in the right direction, you may be many things, and you may achieve many things, but you won’t be what Spurgeon called “a divine.”

We have the privilege of being so captivated by the greatness and grace of our Lord that every moment of our lives is lived in the shadow, no the glory, of that vision. A deep awareness of who God is will continue to drive us back to His Word, diligently pursuing more of Him so that we might respond further. This is not about discipline and effort, this is about delight and response. We dive into His Word so that we might see Him more clearly, be captured more fully, and be stirred more deeply. Then we will preach more effectively.

Our preaching should flow from a personal intimacy with God and a personal passion for His Word. That is what our people need.

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Impositional Preaching

Some of the greatest preachers of recent history have built sermons on single verses.  I tend not to do that.  Am I saying I know better than them?

Dr Lloyd-Jones, not to mention Spurgeon, and others, have demonstrated extended sermon series that essentially preach a single text at a time.  Surely if we were to be preachers after their kind today, then we should pursue the same kind of ministry?  Actually, I think not.

First, let’s recognize what these men did. Spurgeon sometimes resorted to an allegorical exegesis of the text, but not always.  Lloyd-Jones tended to preach the Bible’s theology radiating from the impact point of a single verse.  That is, since the word “justified” is in this verse, what all could be said from the whole canon on that theme (perhaps in this message, perhaps over several).

Second, let’s recognize what wannabe’s often do. Today when I hear people building messages from single texts I tend not to hear people with the pedigree of Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones.  I do hear some allegorical, not to mention fanciful, interpretations.  These lack credibility and authority.  I also hear some waffling messages padded with poor cross-referencing that shows neither theological acumen, nor precision in respect to recognition of biblical connections (nor genuine understanding of the theological needs of the listener).  In an era where listeners will look at the text and dismiss apparently unfounded sermonizing, we would do well to reevaluate the efficacy of many “single verse” approaches to preaching.

Third, let’s realize that imposition is not exposition. Too often the preacher has the mindset of seeking to utilize the text as a series of pegs on which to hang their thoughts.  All too often those pegs are not divinely intended to hold the weight placed on them.  The Bible is an intricate and powerful construct of divine design.  Sadly, all too often preachers take a twig from the oak tree and assume it will bear the same weight as the oak was designed to hold.  Impositional preaching is not exposition, it is a pale imitation of what some greats from church history did.

Fourth, let’s realise that exposition is about honouring God, not historical figures. I deeply respect Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones, as well as many other preachers through church history that I do not seek to emulate every week.  My view of expository preaching is built on my understanding of the nature of God’s Word.  As I seek to explain it, to demonstrate its relevance, to say what it says and seek to somehow make the message do what it does, I am pursuing a contemporary ministry of expository preaching.  I may fall short of historical models, and yet at the same time I may at times get closer to honouring the intent of the text.  I pray that God will enable me to have a fraction of the impact of these great men.  I pray that God will equip me to be a preacher of His Word, rather than one who seeks to reproduce a historically bound model of ministry.

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Okay, One More Spurgeon Quote

Honestly, I’m at Keswick this week, moving on Monday, and a little overwhelmed, so I am resorting to an easy source for quality thought-provoking material.  Spurgeon.  Following on from yesterday and thinking about preaching to save souls, here’s a blast worth receiving:

If we ourselves doubt the power of the gospel, how can we preach it with authority?  Feel that you are a favored man in being allowed to proclaim the good news, and rejoice that your mission is fraught with eternal benefit to those before you.  Let the people see how glad and confident the gospel has made you, and it will go far to make them long to partake in its blessed influences.

Preach very solemnly, for it is a weighty business, but let your matter be lively and pleasing, for this will prevent solemnity from souring into dreariness.  Be so thoroughly solemn that all your faculties are aroused and consecrated, and then a dash of humor will only add intenser gravity to the discourse, even as a flash of lightning makes midnight darkness all the more impressive.  Preach to one point, concentrating all your energies upon the object aimed at.  There must be no riding of hobbies, no introduction of elegancies of speech, no suspicion of personal display, or you will fail.  Sinners are quick-witted people, and soon detect even the smallest effort to glorify self.  Forego everything for the sake of those you long to save.  Be a fool for Christ’s sake if this will win them, or be a scholar, if that will be more likely to impress them.  Spare neither labor in the study, prayer in the closet, nor zeal in the pulpit.  If men do not judge their souls to be worth a thought, compel them to see that their minister is of a very different opinion.

Some things have changed ever so slightly, but the bulk of this quote is well worth pondering in respect to our preaching today.  Perhaps it would be worth spending a season in prayer, asking God to make the souls of those around as important to us as they are to Him.  That might prompt prayer, and preaching, as never before.

(Quote from Thielicke’s Encounter with Spurgeon, pp58-9.)

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Preacher, Use Strategy

I typically teach with reference to the arrow and the target (i.e. the main idea and the message purpose respectively).  In order to deliver the arrow to hit the target, strategy is necessary.  This might mean preaching in the clear and logical manner of a deductive message, or it might choosing the slightly trickier, but when effective, very effective, inductive message.  A preacher needs to think through how to preach the text as effectively as possible.  This is strategy.

It encourages me to see this type of language used by Spurgeon.  Let’s taste a bit of that:

Again, brethren, if you wish to see souls saved, we must be wise as to the times when we address the unconverted.  Very little common sense is spent over this matter.  Under certain e there is a set time for speaking to sinners, and this comes as regularly as the hour of noon. . . . Why should the warning word be alway at the hinder end of the discourse when hearers are most likely to be weary? . . . When their interest is excited, and they are least upon the defensive, then let fly a shaft at the careless, and it will frequently be more effectual than a whole flight of arrows shot against them at a time when they are thoroughly encased in armor of proof.  Surprise is a great element in gaining attention and fixing a remark upon the memory, and times for addressing the careless should be chosen with an eye to that fact.

Spurgeon here raises an interesting thought.  Not only should strategy influence our choice of sermon shape and content, it should also influence our decision about timing and target within the group who are listening.  I know I tend to address the unsaved near the end.  Why?  I’ve been impressed with Andy Stanley’s direct approach in introductions on several occasions.

When will you target the unsaved this Sunday?  What about the saved by lethargic?  The excited and passionate?  The naturally skeptical?  The comfortable?  We often think through messages from all angles of the text, but why not think through all angles of those listening.  There is diversity there, a good military campaign would think through that variety.  So would a sporting gameplan.  Why not in the most important battle of all?

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Love People To Jesus

Lacking motivation for anything productive (post-preaching experience, anyone?), I decided to dip into Thielicke’s Encounter with Spurgeon again.  Guess how many paragraphs I had to read before being ready to offer another post (and that largely by quotation)?  One.  Check this out:

“Among the important elements in the promotion of conversion are your own tone, temper, and spirit in preaching. If you preach the truth in a dull, monotonous style, God may bless it, but in all probability he will not; at any rate the tendency of such a style is not to promote attention, but to hinder it.  It is not often that sinners are awakened by ministers who are themselves asleep.  A hard, unfeeling mode of speech is also to be avoided; want of tenderness is a sad lack, and repels rather than attracts.  The spirit of Elijah may startle, and where it is exceedingly intense it may go far to prepare for the reception of the gospel; but for actual conversion more of John is needed – love is the winning force.  We must love men to Jesus.  Great hearts are the main qualifications for great preachers, and we must cultivate our affections to that end.  At the same time our manner must not degenerate into the soft and saccharine cant which some men affect who are forever “dearing” everybody, and fawning upon people as if they hoped to soft-sawder them into godliness.  Manly persons are disgusted, and suspect hypocrisy when they hear a preacher talking molasses.  Let us be bold and outspoken, and never address our hearers as if we were asking a favor of them, or as if they would oblige the Redeemer by allowing him to save them.  We are bound to be lowly, but our office as ambassadors should prevent our servile . . .”

Back to me again.  Rather than repeating some of the gems in that paragraph, I have to ask why so many today are so quick to think only in black and white terms, to fail to differentiate within categories.  If you speak of the importance of love, then you are tarred with the same brush as the “dearing” crowd mentioned above.  If you mention the importance of tone, then you are sometimes considered a performance focused homiletician who doesn’t care about content.  Let’s be bold and outspoken, proclaiming the gospel with great hearts for God, never talking the molasses that disgusts the manly, but loving people to Jesus.

Stock-Fish and Dentures

I am sure I will come back to both Thielicke and Spurgeon in the days to come, but let’s end this Thielicke on Spurgeon week with another hefty paragraph.  In a sense it brings us full circle, back to where we started – the need to seek to improve our preaching.  Let’s drink deep of the water in this paragraphian well:

Have we not taken the perfectly proper recognition that it is not we but the Word itself that creates a hearing for itself and made of that recognition a “pretext for evil,” an excuse for slovenly neglect of rhetoric? Is it not a misconception of the doctrine of justification when we allow “by faith alone” to become an abstention from works, including the work of rhetoric?  When a man preaches the pure Word of God and the pews are empty or those attending go to sleep in church, we are all too ready to make a virtue of our lack of sues and talk about the offense that must necessarily accompany the preaching of the gospel.  We have a great talent for persuading ourselves that it is not only the stones which can cry out but that the empty pews will testify for us.  And yet it may have been due only to the miserable structure of our sermons that people who value intellectual order were unable to follow them without torturously abusing their minds, and finally giving it up.  Perhaps it was also our poorly used voice that caused people to indulge in church rather than at home their desire for sleep.  Or we stood like stock-fish in the pulpit, or we revolved our arms like paddle wheels, or we kept threatening with our fists, or rattling our dentures – in short, we did not pay enough attention to, we did not cultivate, the instrumental factor.  We did not grieve over the poorly fired, porous “earthen vessels” of our disorderly sermon outlines and our miserable rhetoric.  On the contrary – what a strange perversion! – we were pleased with them because, after all, the wretchedness of the vessel seemed only to enhance the treasure it contained. (p.17)

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)

Selah.