Preaching is more than lecturing. It is more than exhortation. It brings Christ home to the hearts of men and confronts them with his living grace and power. It is not only that Christ is discussed—it is too easy to discuss people in their absence—but that he is proclaimed; even that he proclaims himself by taking over the personality of the preacher and speaking through him.
John the Baptist was such a “voice.” Pilate also, in his way, was nearer to proclamation than many preachers. He stood before the mob with Jesus at his side and proclaimed “Behold the Man!” There were two factors in his proclamation: (1) he proclaimed Jesus in his presence; (2) he proclaimed him, not to the winds, but to the people present. In his hour of crisis, Pilate was both “Christ-conscious” and “people-conscious.” Both are necessary for effectual preaching. Soliloquy will not do, however spiritual and “Christ-conscious” the speaker may be, for it is not directed toward men and their needs. Nor will “discussion” do, however aware the preacher may be of the human situation. Christian preaching must bring God down to men—to particular men.
How often on the radio we hear a sort of religious recital, as if a man said, “I am speaking: you may listen or not, but I will speak. It is fine to have an audience, but I can speak without one, for I get great pleasure from my own speaking.” How vain! Preaching must have direction—from and to. It should make men sit up and face Christ, as corporate prayer should make them kneel down and worship him. For the true preacher is saying, “Christ is here and is speaking to you. You had better hear him now, for you will have to later!”
It is all very well to compare preaching to Pilate’s presentation of Christ to the people, but they are not the same. No, but in true preaching Christ is just as present as he was then. It is often lamented that the Holy Spirit is the least understood Person of the Trinity, but surely we see why this is so; for the Holy Spirit comes not to speak of himself, but to glorify Christ. Where preachers are intent on glorifying Christ (and only crucified men can do so!), the Spirit is there with all his aid. All true showing forth of Christ is by the Holy Spirit. We are, therefore, to consider how the Holy Spirit manifests Christ in preaching.
Christ And Scripture
Christ is proclaimed in his Word and by his Word. The first qualification of the preacher, therefore, is that he acknowledge the Bible to be the Word of God, and that he understands that it was Christ by his Spirit who caused to be written “in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” There is no use saying that the Bible “contains” the Word of God if in our modern understanding of the word we mean to infer that it does so inter alia. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable …”; its truth is therefore not partial and intermittent, but complete and permanent.
A prevailing wind of doctrine fails to see this because it confuses revelation and inspiration with illumination. Revelation is what God has made known to us once and for all by the inspiration of his chosen writers; illumination is the work of the Spirit in bringing the truth of the “closed Book” to light. The art treasures of London’s National Gallery remain intrinsically the same during the hours of darkness when they cannot be seen. We remain as essentially alive during the hours of unconsciousness in sleep as when we are awake. It is because we are alive that we can awake. It is surely a plain error of fact to say that the Bible “becomes alive” in the divine-human encounter, when what we mean is that it awakes and shines forth its light and truth into the dark mind of man. The revelation of Christ in the Holy Scriptures is a work of God established long before we were born, and owes nothing to us, nor can it be subtracted from or added to by us. It is the “word of the Lord which liveth and abideth for ever.”
The Spirit’s Illumination
But revelation and inspiration without illumination are useless; for man is by nature dark and cannot see the truth in the Word of God until he is enlightened. Why is it that one man preaching can bring spiritual light to bear on the sacred page and make the Book live, while another makes it seem the dullest book on earth? Because the Holy Spirit who was active in revelation and inspiration is present and active or is not present and active in illumination. The difference between a good and a poor preacher is not one of natural gift. That “gift” is necessary, we agree, but not necessarily natural gift. Some preachers can make people listen to them, but the test of a true preacher is whether he can make men listen to Christ, and that not with a little temporary interest but with lasting effect. What we hear by natural gift, of language, logic, passion, and powers of persuasion, may stir profoundly, but all this may be done equally well on the secular rostrum or in the theater. A true preacher may have a natural gift and aptitude for peaching. God is not foolish or perverse in his choices, but since God loves to do a hard thing, he may well choose men of no natural gift to do his work and add to them the spiritual gift of utterance. Who shall distinguish between natural and spiritual gift in preachers who have been used of God? The endowment of power and anointing of the Spirit sounds so “natural”! In this matter the need of the naturally eloquent is just as great as the need of the naturally tongue-tied.
Unfortunately, these things are too little understood by listeners to sermons, who are often quite unable to distinguish between the soulish-and the spiritual, not to say between the spiritist and the spiritual, in preaching; whereas the writer to the Hebrews tells us that the Word of God in action “pierces to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit.” Many who for the first time come under the sound of Holy Ghost preaching are mortally offended because while they may consider themselves expert sermon-tasters, having much experience of eloquent preaching, they have never been exposed to the white light of the Spirit. The atmosphere of the theater and the concert hall is so native to modern man that when it is produced in church he is pleased to believe that it is right and that the Holy Spirit is there. But while the Holy Spirit in former revivals produced overpowering experiences and created deep emotional sensations in many, that is not his essential work, but to convince of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come, and to be a savor of life unto life and death unto death.
The Spirit’s Power
How can a man ensure the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in his preaching? The Word must become flesh again; the preacher must become the vehicle of the Holy Spirit, his mind inspired and his heart inflamed by the truth he preaches. This will depend not primarily on what he preaches or how he prepares, but on what he is in himself. As his physical presence cannot be hid, no more can his spiritual condition be hid from the discerning. This is terrifying. In a vestry in Aberdeen these words used to confront the preacher ere he mounted the pulpit stairs: “No man can glorify Christ and himself at the same time.” If the Holy Spirit is to speak through the preacher and the preaching he must have clear passage—not through a void, but through a mind and personality laid open in all its delicate and intricate parts to the operation of the Spirit, to the end that his total powers may be willingly and intelligently bent to the present purpose of God.
What are the requisites of such dedication? A man must know Christ personally as his Saviour and Lord. He must also be sure of his call to the ministry, as sure as he is of his conversion; for God will never anoint a man for service to which he has not called him. We are sometimes dismayed when a man steps down from the ministry to follow a lesser calling, but is it not a good thing when he realizes that he had intruded into holy things without divine authority? When a man knows that he knows Christ and is called by him to minister his Word, he must believe the truth and accept the authority of that Word, for himself, and for those to whom he is sent. It is here that what he is and what he believes, however privately, is exposed to the discerning. Men may have private and secret reservations concerning the Word of God, and these not only as to Genesis and science, literalism and infallibility, but with cardinal doctrines, such as holiness or hell. These may never be aired in public, and so the preacher may gain a reputation for evangelical orthodoxy, but there is no converting or edifying power in his preaching. No one is very different for it, nothing much happens. Why not? Because while a man may hide from men, and from himself, what he doubts or disbelieves, he cannot hide it from God, and God will not give his Holy Spirit to those who doubt and disbelieve.
The Spirit’s Sword
There can be no doubt that the underlying secret of fruitfulness in preaching is in one’s attitude to the Word of God. The Word of God is the sword of the Spirit, but when men sheath it in the scabbard of their own limited conceptions and beliefs, it is powerless to do its two-edged work of saving and judging. To listen to and sense the multifarious quibbles, qualifications and guarded cautions with which a preacher hedges his utterances is to understand why the Spirit of God is not let loose among the people. The man does not believe. He strangles the Word he is supposed to be declaring even in preaching it; for it is faith, not un-faith, that brings God down to men. Yet preachers seem so proud of their unfaith. Is it because we think we have the Almighty in a corner bowing to our superior intelligence? Surely it must be because we think we can add something vital or subtract something superfluous, that we hedge with so many reservations and provisos. Think of an eminent scholar and eloquent preacher using nine weaker words apparently to avoid saying that Jesus bore our sins.
How should we think that we are personally involved in the content of the Word of God? We are only errand boys, trusted to be faithful and to deliver what is sent. To tamper with a parcel is grave misconduct on the part of a messenger, and has serious consequences: That we are more than errand boys is a lie of the devil and of our own conceit, for the only living preachers are “dead” ones, who know that they are no more than a “voice” sent to deliver what has been given them, without personal interference.
But there are further considerations. The prophets of old were called not only or always to be “preachers” for a lifetime, but to deliver specific messages (cf. 2 Chron. 20:14). The man who knows Christ and is called to be a prophet may yet find the Holy Ghost “desert” him because he is preaching out of turn or without specific commission. He may be preaching in the wrong place, or from the wrong motive, or the wrong message. He may be powerless for no other reason than that he is not in God’s appointment. He may have left his God-given post for personal or domestic reasons, to please his wife or educate his children or to escape persecutors. Though none of these are trivial reasons, if they do not please God he certainly cannot bless disobedience and has promised that “if ye forsake him, he will forsake you.”
The Sermon Itself
What of the sermon itself? What kind of sermon does God bless? It is not a question of whether it is carefully prepared or not, or written or not, but whether it is the Word of God for the occasion and for the people gathered to hear it. In this connection, although the same sermon may be preached many times because it is a God-given burden on the heart of the preacher, it is doubtful if the same manuscript is adequate to very different occasions. A man may fashion his utterance into an expression which he cannot improve (happy man!) and into which he cannot subsequently read new, deeper or truer insights, but if so, is he not in a dangerous state of “perfection”? It is surely not unworthy of each occasion he preaches the same sermon that he revise it! A well-known preacher nonchalantly stuffed two sermons into his pocket as he set out for a village church, not sure which he would preach and apparently not very exercised about it either. It was not surprising that discerning folk who came from afar to hear him preach were bitterly disappointed at his lack of conviction. We must get the Word for the day and for the occasion. This is not too much for our hearers to ask of us.
Walking In Fellowship
But the Word may be right, and the occasion also, and yet the sermon flat. Is there no end of the considerations that govern effective preaching? They are not few, but this above all—that the preacher be walking in close fellowship with the Lord, all known sin confessed and forsaken, forgiven and cleansed. For each message he must go down again into personal death, and probably into spiritual agony, ere he come up with a living word for his hearers. God will only give his unction to those who do his work in his way.
Unction may not be experienced before the service or even before the sermon begins: it may be quarter, half or more delivered before it seems to grip. It may not seem to grip at all. We must beware subjective judgments on our own work. If we know that all is well as we essay to preach, then we are to go through with it faithfully and leave it with God. Before we begin there may be a burden, or not; there may be coldness of heart that strikes fear into us; there may be accusings of the evil one, or the congregation may be restless, or some disconcerting face may catch our eye, or it may suddenly seem that the Word is inappropriate—the devil has a thousand ways of putting God’s servants off.
But if the preacher knows that he is the man for the moment and has the word for the people, if he has sunk himself into Christ for the message, its preparation, and its delivery, and has also prepared the hearts of his hearers by previous private prayer, he may expect the living Word of God to come forth. And he must believe that it will come forth and that it is coming forth, and must thereafter go home in this steadfast assurance and leave it with God.
No man who fulfils these conditions, however hard or unrewarding or discouraging his task, can ultimately fail. He must succeed, for God is faithful. But the important things are these: He must be sure that the Holy Spirit gave the Word and that only the Holy Spirit can preach it. For the Spirit is not a Preacher, but the Preacher. If we want an audience to applaud us, let us rely on all the tricks we know; but if we want fruit from our preaching, holy and lasting, let us rely on the Holy Spirit.
Paul Harvey was still in knickers and not yet 16 when he made his first radio announcements. After World War II, in which he served as Director of News and Information for the Office of War Information in Michigan and Indiana, his rise to radio fame was meteoric. One station alone received 10,000 requests for his obituary of President Roosevelt, which started, “A great tree has fallen.…” Monday through Friday he is heard over the American Broadcasting Company at 12 noon, CST.
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