Cry loudly, do not hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet, and declare to my people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins. (Isaiah 58:1).
The kind of preaching done by Jesus, his apostles, the prophets who preceded them, and the great preachers who have succeeded them is sadly lacking in our day. What kind of preaching did they do? what kind of preaching generally prevails today? and what needs to change?
Consider first Yahweh’s words to his servant Isaiah. He was to cry loudly, to raise his voice. He was to charge Yahweh’s people with sedition. He was to enunciate their sins, calling them to repentance. Even a cursory look at Jesus’ teaching reveals that he taught, not as the scribes, but as one having authority (Matt. 7:29, Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32, John 7:46). So what gave him his authority? To be sure he was and is the Son of God, the very Word of God (John 1:1, 14), and this was his ultimate authority. However there was something in what he said, how he said it and directed it, that added powerfully to his authority. Note how he dealt with three different people or persons in John’s gospel. He made extensive use of the second person pronoun. To Nicodemus Jesus said, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). To the Samaritan woman he says, ‘You have well said, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly’ (John 4:17-18). And to the Pharisees he says, ‘You are from below, I am from above, you are of this world, I am not of this world . . . you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am he, you shall die your sins’ (John 8:21, 23-24). We see the same direct and pointed application in the preaching of the apostles. Peter said, ‘This man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put him to death’ (Acts 2:23). Stephen said, ‘You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did’ (Acts 7:51). And Paul said, ‘What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you’ (Acts 17:23). We see the same kind of preaching among the Hebrew prophets. Jeremiah said, ‘An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land; the prophets prophesy falsely, the priests rule on their own authority; and my people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it?’ (Jer. 5:30-31). And Isaiah said, ‘If you consent and obey, you will eat of the best of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword’ (Isa. 1:19-20). Specific, pointed, discriminating application is vital to revival preaching, and this is precisely what we need in our day, not just by itinerant evangelistic preachers but also by faithful pastors preaching week by week to their people.
Two other vital characteristics also marked Jesus’ preaching and that of his apostles and prophets. First, all were under the authority of the Holy Spirit. They were commissioned by the Father and they had the unction or anointing of the Spirit upon them. The Spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism (Matt. 3:16), the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 1:8; 2:4), and the prophets when called by God to their task (Isa. 61:1, Ezek. 3:24, 27). True revival preaching is a miracle of God’s grace where the Holy Spirit takes the words of men and applies them to the hearts of people. And second, all these men used the law of God powerfully, effectively, and savingly. They used it to show the wretched sinner his hopeless condition of judgment before the Holy One, moving him to regeneration and justification (Gal. 3:24); to reveal to nations how to live in peace (the covenant code of Exodus 21-23); and to make known the guilt of wretched saints to promote sanctification (Rom. 7:18-25). They all knew that through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20).
All the great revival preachers understood these things and used them powerfully in their preaching. Iain Murray has observed that the preaching of the 18th century revival preachers like William and Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield was vitally different from the status quo preaching of their day.1 Prior to these men the commonly accepted preaching was not calculated to break through the prevailing formalism and indifference. Archibald Alexander, writing in the 19th century, said that the habit of preachers was to address their people as though they were all true Christians and only needed instruction and confirmation. It was not a common thing to proclaim the terrors of a violated law and to insist on the absolute necessity of regeneration. Though a remarkable scholar himself, J.A. Alexander, Archibald’s son, was also a great revival preacher who made use of the second person pronoun, preaching for conviction and conversion, as well as for biblical holiness in true believers.2
So what kind of preaching prevails today? If you listen carefully to many evangelical preachers today then you will hear a common theme. Most preachers assume those present are already true believers. So they preach merely to instruct, to inform, to impart information. They major on the indicatives (all the great doctrinal truths in the Bible) but rarely preach the imperatives (the commands in Scripture). Consequently there is very little pointed application, very little use of the second person pronoun, very little use of the terrors of the law of God to convict of sin and judgment, very little preaching for a verdict, moving people to do something with what they have just heard. As a result our churches are more than likely filled with many false professors, what Jude so graphically calls ‘clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever’ (Jude 12-13). Does this not help explain the low level of gospel holiness in our churches! Though vast numbers may be in church, the consequent obedience to God is lacking. The church seems to be no different from the world.
What needs to happen? We must have revival preaching! Edwards said,
I know it has long been fashionable to despise a very earnest and pathetical (impassioned) way of preaching, and they only have been valued as preachers who have shown the greatest extent of learning, strength of reason, and correctness of method and language. But I humbly conceive it has been for want of understanding or duly considering human nature that such preaching has been thought to have the greatest tendency to answer the ends of preaching, and the experience of the present and past ages abundantly confirms the same.3
In other words, we need to get away from the casual, hand-in-the-pocket conversational style of speaking that talking heads on television do. With Isaiah we ought to cry out with a loud voice and not hold back, lifting up our voices like a trumpet, declaring to our people their transgressions. There ought to be fervency and urgency in our preaching. If a preacher does not feel what he is preaching, then how can he expect his people to feel it! Isaac Watts, the great 18th century hymn writer, also said,
Too many persons have imbibed and propagate this notion, that it is almost the only business of a preacher to teach the necessary doctrines and duties of our holy religion by a mere explication of the Word of God, without enforcing these things on the conscience by a pathetic (impassioned) address to the heart.4
So practically speaking – if you are a church member then pray for your preacher! Pray that he will either continue or begin to preach to the conscience and heart, not merely to the mind. This is the great bane of Reformed preachers. We tend to be far too cerebral. Pray for him to so live in the text he is preaching that he is caught up in the glory of it, that he sees the law of God in it, that he digs deeply into his own heart and conscience, that God would work a powerful conviction of personal sin and repentance, having tasted of the glory of Christ’s person and work, that he might, therefore, open his mouth so that the Lord may fill it with his words. Pray that his supreme desire in preaching will be to glorify God by preaching the law and the gospel, expecting regeneration and urging repentance and faith leading to justification and sanctification. Pray for God to give him the anointing of the Holy Spirit so that when he proclaims the gospel he is, as it were, a minister of fire, having come from the presence of God where he has just received the burning coals from the altar on his mouth.
And if you are a preacher, then resist the temptation to appear learned, erudite. Resist the temptation to think that all you must do is impart knowledge, to instruct. Your people’s indwelling sin as wretched saints is far too strong. It cannot be broken by mere dissemination of information. And the enslaving sin of the unregenerate in your congregation, the blinding effects of the evil one, are far too consuming to fall away by your own paltry efforts of appealing to their mind and wills. You must proclaim the terrors of the law, trusting the Holy Spirit to bring conviction, showing them Jesus, moving the people to cry out as those did at Pentecost, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37).
- For a very helpful and enlightening look at this issue see Murray’s Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, published by Banner of Truth. Pages 124-133 are a must read for any preacher wanting to change his ways.
- Theology on Fire: Sermons from the Heart of J.A. Alexander. I have been challenged and edified by reading these sermons.
- Cited by Murray in his biography on Edwards, page 126.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Al Baker’s sermons are now available on www.sermonaudio.com.
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