However, I am directing my remarks to men who have reasonable grounds to assume that they have been given sufficient gifts to stand as preachers of the Word of God. In regard to this class of men, there are several areas in which contemporary preaching is marked by glaring defects.
First of all, most preaching today, even in good Reformed circles, lacks substantial biblical content. One of the unique things about the great preachers of the past, the thing that makes their written sermons live hundreds of years after they were written, is that they are marked by their weightiness of substantial biblical content. What is it that gives the sermons of these great ambassadors their spiritual power? It is this. They are packed full of solid biblical substance, so that one feels that standing between him and the preacher is a wall of divine truth; that the issue is not with the hearer and the preacher, but with the hearer and the Word of God being conveyed to him by the preacher. That is precisely what men ought to sense when they hear us preach. Of course — and here we see again the relationship between the man and his message — much of the problem of preaching today in respect of its lack of biblical content, is due to the fact that men are too busy running the ecclesiastical machinery of their churches to soak their minds and spirits in the truth of Holy Scripture. It is only when the preacher’s mind is saturated in Holy Scripture, that the Holy Spirit will bring to remembrance the truth of God in the context of preaching, and enable the servant of God to wield the Sword of the Spirit with power and authority. Then, even the illustrations and allusions will in great measure be drawn from the very words and thought patterns of Holy Scripture.
Secondly, much contemporary preaching is defective in that it lacks solid doctrinal substance. We have suffered from a mentality that has regarded doctrine and theology as some form of a medieval hobgoblin! The fact of the matter is, that truth is beautiful in its unity and symmetry. Doctrinal preaching is that preaching which is always disciplined by the framework of the whole counsel of God. It refuses imbalance and lopsidedness, and seeks to set every individual facet of truth into the context of the whole spectrum of divine truth. These first two factors must be fused together in an ever increasing measure in the life of the true servant of Christ. Doctrinal preaching which is not exegetically founded and textually oriented, will lead to a philosophical orthodoxy. On the other hand, dealing with texts and the exegesis of those texts without showing the inter-relationship of truth, will lead to a disjointed and fragmented concept of divine truth.
A third area in which the substance of contemporary preaching is marked by glaring weakness, is in the matter of practical application. In many ministries there may be solid biblical content, a great measure of doctrinal substance, but very little practical application in which men are made to see the implications of the content and doctrine, so that they may know how to adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. In regard to this general principle, I would like to suggest three areas in which Reformed circles are weak. What I now say applies to those of us who hold, without embarrassment, to that system of doctrine set forth in the great creeds that came out of the Reformation.
In the first place, our preaching is weak because of its failure to spell out the necessity and nature of evangelical repentance. In our overreaction against a form of ‘works-salvation’ and in our reaction against Arminian activism, I think that some of us have fallen into the philosophical habit of thinking, ‘How can I preach man’s responsibility to repent when I know he has no ability to do this?’ Apparently this problem did not bother the Apostle Paul. No one spoke more dearly than he of man’s utter inability to do anything spiritually good apart from the direct sovereign work of God. Yet he spoke most dearly of man’s responsibility to repent When he reviews his ministry to the Ephesian elders he says, ‘I testified to you publicly and from house to house, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ’ [Acts 20:21]. In Acts 26:20 he says that at Damascus, and throughout Judea, and to all the Gentiles, he preached that ‘men should repent and turn to God and do works meet for repentance.’ I have had the very unhappy experience of preaching in churches that include the doctrine of repentance in their official creed, in their confessions and in their catechisms, but where it was obviously not a doctrine preached and believed in by the rank and file of the members of those churches. Often, at the conclusion of a series of sermons on the subject of repentance, I have had people come to me expressing great amazement, and saying that they had never heard such things, even though they had spent a number of years within the framework of a good, solid Reformed church. Now, it is not that they did not hear the word ‘repentance’. They had heard it, but because the duty, the nature, and fruits of that repentance were not clearly spelled out, they were not sufficiently convinced of its nature and necessity. All who listen to us preach for any measure of time should come to the conclusion after sitting under our ministries, that unless they repent and bring forth the fruits of repentance, they will perish even though their heads may be packed full of objective and correct orthodoxy. One of the dear marks of the ministries of the men whom God has used in past days is that they all, without exception, spelled out the necessity, the nature, and the fruits of evangelical repentance.
A second area where the content of our preaching is weak in specific application, is in the matter of presenting the whole Christ to the whole man. It is to be feared that we have returned to a Romish concept of faith in our day. We must never forget that one of the great issues which the Reformers brought into focus was that faith was something more than an ‘assensus’, a mere nodding of the head to the body of truth presented by the church as ‘the faith.’ The Reformers set forth the biblical concept that faith was ‘fiducia’. They made plain that saving faith involved trust, commitment, a trust and commitment involving the whole man with the truth which was believed and with the Christ who was the focus of that truth. The time has come when we need to spell this out clearly in categorical statements so that people will realise that a mere nodding of assent to the doctrines that they are exposed to is not the essence of saving faith. They need to be brought to the understanding that saving faith involves the commitment of the whole man to the whole Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, as He is set forth in the gospel. If this is done, we shall no longer hear all this talk about ‘believing’ but not ‘surrendering.’ Our evangelical circles are filled with evidences of unbiblical attempts to divide Christ as Saviour and as Lord. Much of the deceptive heresy based on this concept of a divided Christ would be swept away by the dear preaching of the whole Christ to the whole man.
There is a third area of weakness in content. This is a very sensitive area, and one in which we are woefully weak in contemporary Reformed circles. The area to which I refer, is that of the necessity of setting forth the distinguishing traits of a true believer. Involved in this is the need for dearly stating the difference between the grounds of salvation and the assurance of salvation. I have found in my experience of moving in Reformed circles, that the moment a few people begin to do some scriptural self- examination, when they begin to obey II Corinthians 13:5, that men look upon this scriptural exercise as second cousin to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. People look upon doubt as the most terrible thing in the world. What we fail to realise is that doubts which are produced by honest self-examination in the light of the objective standard of the Word of God, may be the best thing that ever happened to some people. I have often said that doubts will never damn a man, but sinful presumption will. As long as the Scripture says again and again, ‘Let no man deceive you . . . let no man deceive himself . . . be not deceived,’ we dare not presume or lead others to presume that all is well. What are these exhortations for? If self-deception is not a very real possibility, then why is the Bible replete with exhortations against self-deception? All of these warnings become meaningless gibberish if they are merely talking about a hypothetical possibility. However, if people could come into the circle of the external church and be deceived under the ministry of the apostles, so that they felt it necessary to say, ‘Brethren, make your calling and election sure’, much more do we ourselves need to face up to the fact that we may have some deceived people coming into the professing church under our anaemic ministries. When this conviction grips us, then we will cry out to them, exhorting them to make their calling and election sure, to examine and prove them selves whether they be in the faith.
In keeping with this concern, we must set before them the scriptural distinctions between a true believer and a spurious believer, such as are found in the parable of the sower. I have found that such preaching never harms the true child of God. The most searching applicatory preaching in this area will serve to bring the true child of God to a more solid assurance. The only thing that stands to be harmed by a close scrutiny is the counterfeit. Suppose I were to go to my local bank, to deposit two twenty- dollar bills. If the teller were to take them and say to me, ‘Just a minute, Mr Martin, I think there might be a counterfeit here.’ If those bills are genuine, they stand to lose nothing by the close scrutiny which the bank teller gives them. In fact, they gain some thing. If he takes them to the back of the bank and places them under a magnifying glass, and examines them as to their genuine ness, if they are genuine, I shall never be more confident of their genuineness than when they come back unscathed by close scrutiny. The only one that stands to lose anything is the counterfeit. This principle is true in searching applicatory preaching which sets forth the distinguishing marks of a true believer. The only one who stands to lose anything under a scriptural and balanced preaching of these things is the spurious believer. And he ought to be disturbed now while the day of salvation is still with us. If we err in making unscriptural distinctions, and unnecessarily trouble the godly, may the Lord open our eyes and bring us back from the error of our way! However, this is not the practical danger in our day. Rather, we are lulling people to sleep through our failure to set before them in a dose experimental way the matks of true faith as opposed to the faith of the demons. [See James 2:19].
Brethren, the Bible gives us many explicit statements which we may set before our people. Jesus said ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.’ Let us not fear to tell our people that if they are not hearing and following Him they have no grounds to claim they are His sheep. Let us dare to tell them that though they may know all about the fact that our Lord has had His sheep upon His great heart from eternity in the covenant of redemption, though they may know all the facts of how He died for His sheep with a particular intent in His death, and how the Holy Spirit effectually calls them, the issue which we must press upon them is this: Are they hearing His voice? Are they following? We must not back off from pressing such issues. We must press the issues as set forth in the First Epistle of John, where the Apostle declares, ‘These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God that ye may know that ye have eternal life.’ [I John 5:13]. What things did John set before them? Did he give them a string of texts upon which to place their fingers for assurance? No. Rather, he gave them a series of tests, by which they were to examine their lives. He said, ‘Hereby we do know that we know Him if we keep His commandments.’ Again, ‘Hereby we know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.’ The consciences of our hearers need to be wounded in order that they might ask the question, ‘Am I truly in the faith in the light of the objective standard of the Word of God?’
What is wrong with preaching today? I am convinced that in these areas of the content of our preaching, there is great need for a return to the above-mentioned biblical truths, and a warm applicatory preaching of them.
THE MANNER OF THE MESSAGE
Having touched on the substance of our message, I wish to apply myself very briefly to the area of the manner of the message. The three things that ought to characterise the communication of divine truth are: urgency, orderliness, and directness.
Genuine urgency is the mother of true eloquence. A man seeking to arouse people from their sleep because of the imminent danger of fire will find little success in his mission if he simply ambles up and down the hallways of the burning dwelling mouthing with correct English pronounciation some words regarding the imminent danger. However, let a man be convinced that those lives are truly in danger, and that their deliverance hinges on his ability to stir them into immediate action, and such a man will not fail to rouse people from their sleep and cause them to take the necessary action for their safety. The urgency of such a man is not primarily born of adeptness in the arts of elocution, but it breaks forth out of the womb of genuine concern and urgency. Urgency in some, because of personality, temperament, or because of built-in microphones, may express itself in volume. In others, it may be expressed in other ways in which urgency finds her own overtones.
Urgency will cause us to labour in the area of securing and maintaining vital audience contact in the context of preaching. If we have come into the pulpit not simply to deliver an oration but to communicate urgent truth to needy men and women, we shall not rest unless we have their attention. Spurgeon confessed that whenever he saw a child who was not listening to him, it bothered him so much that he would tell a special story or anecdote to regain the attention of that youngster before proceeding with his sermon. Spurgeon would be the first to confess that only God could cause the truth to go home to the hearts of men with saving power. However, he knew that his job as a preacher was to get that truth into their ears, and that unless he had the ears of men he was failing in his task. Brethren, that is your job, to get the ears of men. God alone can get the truth into the heart, but you must give yourself to gaining their ears.
Holy Spirit-wrought urgency will also drive us to work cultivating the art of communicating to men in a popular vocabulary. When we use a given word in the context of preaching and receive that ‘long ago and far away’ look, we should immediately sense that the word we have used has not registered. If we are sensitive to this, we will then use a different word. One author has said ‘Vanity will make a man speak and write learnedly; but piety only can prevail upon a good scholar to simplify his speech for the sake of the vulgar. Such a preacher, though his worth may be overlooked by the undiscerning now, will one day have a name above every name, whether it be philosopher, poet, orator, or whatever else is most revered among mankind.’ Another has said, ‘It is not difficult to make easy things appear hard; but to render hard things easy, is the hardest part of a good orator and preacher.’ Oh, my brethren in the ministry, let us cry to God for the grace of humility and Holy Spirit urgency that will cause us to discipline our vocabularies to the level of our hearers.
Also, this matter of urgency will drive us to work at applicatory preaching. Perhaps the most difficult part of a regular pulpit ministry is the work of application. But just as a competent physician who longs for the health of those committed to his care will not be content unless he knows the specific maladies of his people and is able to apply specific remedies, so the true servant of God will press beyond the generality of need and of God’s ability to meet that need; he will labour to know the specific expressions of sinful need and then to apply the specific remedies set forth in the fulness of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the next place, the manner of our delivery should be marked by reasonable orderliness. In preaching the truth of God to men, we must never forget that they are men whose minds are so constructed as to be able to receive thoughts in a logical structure. The mind simply cannot receive truth when it comes as one big formless blob. We must seek to send our people home with a few stakes driven into the mind, and certain aspects of the truth of God hung upon those stakes.
Finally, consider with me the necessity of directness in the manner of our preaching. There is a most excellent section on preaching the gospel in Charles Bridges’ book The Christian Ministry. In this section, he comments on the matter of directness by saying ‘For this end, we must show them from first to last, that we are not merely saying good things in their presence but directing what we say to them personally as a matter which concerns them beyond expression.’ When one reads the sermons from the great preachers of the past, one is struck with their holy directness. One feels as though these sermons of the old masters are boxing him up into a corner where he must do something with the truth with which he is being confronted. Joseph Alleine in his Alarm to the Unconverted stands as a classic illustration of this principle. Again and again he backs the sinner against the wall, as it were, with questions which cause the sinner to reflect upon his way, upon his own state before God. He will ask him, ‘Are you at peace? Show me upon what grounds your peace is maintained. Is it scriptural peace?
Can you show the distinguishing marks of a sound believer? Can you evidence something more than any hypocrite in the world ever had? If not, fear this peace more than any trouble, and know that a carnal peace commonly proves to be the most mortal enemy of the soul. Whilst it kisses and smiles fairly, it fatally smites, as it were, under the fifth rib. Now, conscience, do your work, speak out.’ From this point Alleine goes on to press the issue in even more directness to his readers.
With such examples as these from which we may learn, may God deliver us from simply saying good things in the presence of a gathered people, and enable us so to preach that men will know that we are saying weighty things to them personally.
What is wrong with preaching today? I am sure that many of the faults are exemplified in my own life and ministry as much as in others, but I would suggest that together we consider the problem of preaching today as a problem of the MAN — in the area of personal devotional experience, in the realm of practical piety, and in the purity of his motivation. What is wrong with preaching today? Some of the problem is in the MESSAGE — the substance of what is preached, and in the manner in which it is being communicated. May God grant that where any of these things legitimately apply to us we may suffer the word of exhortation, and by the grace of God apply ourselves to be more effective communicators of the truth of the Word of God to our own needy generation.
This address was originally given to the Ministers’ Conference of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church at Westminster Theological Seminary in September 1967. In revising the transcript for publication Mr Martin has sought to retain the sermonic style.