Listening to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
At a recent Wednesday night adult Christian Education Class, the elder leading the study played for us a recorded sermon on Romans 6:11 preached on a Friday night in December 1958 by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. We were surprised and amused to hear at one point Dr. Lloyd-Jones mention that their Friday night series would be suspended for three weeks due to the approach of Christmas, just as our own Wednesday night classes were about to be likewise suspended. However, that passing remark by a minister preaching to his people forty-five years ago, and its intriguingly coincidental parallel to our own current situation, made me think more deeply about the substantial matters in that sermon delivered then and its application to us now.
The sermon we heard had a more timely ring to it than the mere reference to an approaching holiday break similar to one we were about to take. In fact, the whole message was timely. It was as fresh and powerful as if it had been preached in December 2003. A little reflection and analysis of the sermon reveals to us why this is so. In that message, the preacher employed very few illustrations, and little, if any, humor. In fact, his message was lacking many of the elements that contemporary preaching gurus deem to be essential. He did not warm up his hearers with a joke; he told no personal stories to convince his hearers that he empathized with their trials and social distractions; nor did he demonstrate by allusions to novels, films, or political events of his day how attuned he was to current events and culture. There was in that man’s sermon not an iota of what so many now strive to pour out upon their people, namely, a plethora of common rhetorical devices aimed at showing the people the relevancy, if not the cutting-edge stylishness of the gospel.
What did characterize the message preached was a sober, passionate, and powerfully gripping exposition of the Word of God. Apparently, Dr. Lloyd-Jones took seriously Paul’s charge to Timothy that he should preach the Word in and out of season (2 Tim. 4:Iff).
Nor is Martyn Lloyd-Jones alone in this commitment. When one reads sermons preached by the Puritans, by the Reformers, and by early Church Fathers, one is struck by how full their messages are of Scriptural matter. That is why their sermons stand the test of time. They are as convicting, converting, and comforting to readers now, who hunger for spiritual food for the soul, as they were when they were preached to those who first heard them. Do any of the purveyors of homiletical fluff of our day really think that their sermons will stand the test of time? Their productions, over which they labored to make them relevant, are dated and stale a few months after they have preached them.
The best that can be said about those whose sermons are crammed with spicy illustrations and humor, rather than with Scriptural substance, is that they are seeking to make the gospel understandable and acceptable to their contemporaries. The fault in this misled venture, however, lies in a serious misunderstanding of men’s true needs and the true aim and purpose of preaching.
Men do not need warm stories and easy entertainment, however much they may want such things. What natural men need is regeneration, and what the regenerate need is to be edified in the faith. The preaching of the Word of God alone accomplishes both ends.
Those who urge preachers to keep their sermons short and full of contemporary allusions and engaging illustrations do their urging from a psychological and not a theological basis. They think that since modem people’s attention span has diminished due to their addiction to television, the preacher must adopt a style of delivery that makes as few demands upon the hearers as television makes upon them. What do those proponents for dumbed-down sermons make of the rather long and elaborately structured sermon Jesus preached on the mount? Do they think if our Lord were to preach that sermon today that He would shorten it and liven it up?
True preaching does not confirm the natural man by endeavoring to show him how little the gospel will intrude into his life, and how mildly and pleasantly it will refine him. True preaching kills the natural man and raises him up a new creature who hungers and thirsts not for enjoyable novelties and cultural relevance, but for eternal verities, for righteousness that endures for time and eternity, and above all for the God who towers above the passing and pitiful fashions of this perishing world. The sooner more ministers of God’s Word cease their clever and desperate antics, calculated to achieve the approval of men, and give themselves to preaching the whole counsel of God that is ever relevant and empowering, the sooner we shall see true revival in the churches.
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia
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