In our last blog post we noted that a proper understanding of Christian doctrine involves spiritual discernment – the inward ability, imparted by the Holy Spirit, to understand and appreciate the great spiritual truths of Scripture. And we briefly alluded to several great preachers down through history who demonstrated this quality in their preaching. This week I thought it would be worthwhile to take a closer look at some of them in particular.
The first one we shall look at is the great Scottish Reformer John Knox. James Melville described Knox’s preaching this way: Knox would typically begin by quietly exegeting the passage at hand, and then after about a half an hour he would turn to application. And the, as Melville put it, he would become “so active and vigorous, that he was likely to ding the pulpit in blades and fly out of it . . . he made me so to quake and tremble, that I could not hold a pen to write” (W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God, p. 270. I have modernized somewhat the archaic Scots’ English.).
John Bunyan was a 17th Century English Baptist preacher and the author of the famous book The Pilgrim’s Progress. Even though he had very little in the way of formal education he was a very effective preacher. Huge crowds would gather to hear him preach, including, among others, the learned Puritan theologian John Owen. Once King Charles II asked Owen how a learned man like himself co go “to hear a tinker prate.” Owen is said to have replied, “May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning” (Owen, Works, Vol. I, p. xcii).
So what was Bunyan’s secret? He himself tells us. After having gone through a long and arduous conversion experience, Bunyan was eventually called to preach. He describes his approach this way:
“In my preaching of the word, I too special notice of this one thing,
namely, that the Lord did lead me to begin where his word begins
with sinners; that is, to condemn all flesh, and to open and allege,
that the curse of God by the law doth belong to, and lay hold on all
men as they come into the world, because of sin. Now this part of
my work I fulfilled with great sense, for the terrors of the law, and
guilt for my transgressions, lay heavy on my conscience. I preached
what I felt, what I smartingly did feel, even that under which my poor
soul did groan and tremble to astonishment.
Indeed I have been as one sent to them from the dead; I went
myself in chains; and carried that fire in my own conscience, that I
persuaded them to beware of . . .”
(Grace Abounding, ¶¶ 276,277)
One of the greatest preachers of all time was the 18th Century English evangelist George Whitefield. In 1740 he had the occasion to visit Northampton, MA where the famous colonial American theologian Jonathan Edwards was pastor. Shortly afterwards Edwards’ wife, Sarah Edwards, wrote to her brother James Pierrepont in New Haven, CT and gave him this description of Whitefield:
“It is wonderful to see what a spell he casts over an audience by
proclaiming the simplest truths of the Bible. I have seen upwards
of a thousand people hang on his words with breathless silence,
broken only by an occasional half-suppressed sob . . .
“. . . our mechanics shut up their shops, and the day-labourers
throw down their tools, to go and hear him preach, and few
return unaffected. A prejudiced person, I know, might say that
this is all theatrical artifice and display; but not so will anyone
think who has seen and known him.
“He is a very devout and godly man, and his only aim seems to
be to reach and influence men the best way. He speaks from a
heart aglow with love, and pours out a torrent of eloquence which
is almost irresistible . . . “
(Dallimore, Whitefield, Vol. I, p. 539).
Likewise Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous 19th Century English Baptist preacher, had no formal theological training. And yet here is how one listener described his preaching: It was
“. . .one of the richest and ripest sermons, as regards Christian
experience, all the more wonderful as being the sermon of so
young a man, I ever heard . . . such was the simplicity of his
style, the richness and quaintness of his illustrations, his intense
\ earnestness, and the absolute and admirable naturalness of his
delivery, it told upon his audience generally, and told powerfully . . .
But to return to the sermon, and its effects on the faces! How
intensely fixed were they on the preacher – how eager to hear
every word he uttered – how fearful lest they should fail to
catch the least! Tears were now to be seen trickling down them;
and then, again, pale and careworn though many of them were,
they might be seen beaming with light and joy, and brightening
(Spurgeon, Autobiography, Vol. I, p. 337)
The great American evangelist D.L. Moody was a man with practically no formal education at all, and yet he was mightily used of God in the conversion of sinners. One of his addresses was described this way:
“His incentives against sin, and his lashings of the conscience,
were awful. He seemed to be wrestling with an unseen power.
Beneath those burning words men’s faces grew pale under a
a conviction of the broken law of God. Then he began with
the wooings of the Gospel, in a strain of tender and heartbreaking
entreaty; and before he was through the whole audience seemed
(Pollock, Moody, p. 102)
Billy Sunday was another famous preacher with little or no formal education – he had been a professional baseball player before being converted and becoming an evangelist. Yet even so great a scholar as J. Gresham Machen could not help but be impressed by Sunday’s preaching. Reporting on a meeting in Philadelphia in 1915 at which Sunday spoke Machen wrote:
“. . . the total impact of the sermon was great. At the climax,
the preacher got up on his chair – and if he had used a step-ladder,
nobody could have thought the thing excessive, so dead in
earnest were both speaker and audience! The climax was
the boundlessness of God’s mercy; and so truly had the sinfulness
of sin been presented, that everybody present with any heart at
all ought to have felt mighty glad that God’s mercy is boundless.
In the last five or ten minutes of that sermon, I got a new
realization of the power of the gospel.”
(Stonehouse, Machen, pp. 223-224)
So what was it that made these preachers effective? Certainly part of it was natural gifts, but that does not account for all of it. The deeper reason is that God had done a mighty work of grace in their hearts; the Holy Spirit had made them deeply sensitive to spiritual truths, and had given them an intense love for lost souls. And thus, when the stood up to speak, what struck their listeners was how real it all was – the preacher was real, heaven and hell were real, God was real!
Charles Haddon Spurgeon summed it up like this:
“In preparing a sermon, wait upon the Lord until you have communion
with Christ in it, until the Holy Spirit causes you to fell the power of
the truth which you are to deliver . . . Before you attempt to give out
the word to others, get it into yourself.”
(An all-round Ministry, p. 189).
Oh, that we had preachers like that today!