Robert Bruce and Preaching
‘No man in his time spake with such evidence and power of the Spirit . . . many of his hearers thought no man since the apostles spoke with such power.’ (John Livingston)
Whilst he was in the ministry at Edinburgh, he shined as a great light through the whole land, the power and efficacy of the Spirit most sensibly [palpably] accompanying the Word he preached. (Robert Fleming)
When it was known that Bruce was to preach, the people of the country around would flock together to hear him . . . The popularity of such preaching as his was one thing that helped to originate the great Communion gatherings that came to be such a marked feature of later Scottish religious life. . . Bruce is said to have been the means of converting several thousands of souls. (Principal John Macleod)
These are three typical testimonies to the powerful preaching of Robert Bruce of Kinnaird (1554-1631). Let us try to discover the secret of that power.
1. His reverence for God
The first secret of Robert Bruce’s pulpit power lay in his reverent attitude to the God and Saviour whose Word he was to preach. Rob Fleming noted that Bruce always viewed himself as nothing more, yet nothing less, than ‘an ambassador of Jesus Christ.’ Consequently he always sought ‘to have his spirit deeply impressed with the majesty of that God of whom he was to speak.’ Accordingly, we find Bruce reminding others of what weighed most heavily on his own heart:
The love of God, and the holy fear of his Majesty, should be predominant in thy heart; that, suppose thou have to do with a king or emperor, let not the love and fear of the king prevail in thy heart, but lift up thine eyes to the majesty of God, and rather offend the king a thousand times before ye offend God once.
Two incidents in Bruce’s ministry exemplify this point. On 25 June 1602 Bruce met King James VI at Perth.
No prince [said Bruce in unmistakable tones] hath power to give instructions to another prince’s ambassador. I am the son of God’s ambassador! Place me where God has placed me [i.e. in the pulpit at St Giles, Edinburgh] and I shall teach fruitful doctrine, as God shall give me grace.
A little before James’s death Bruce told him:
The Lion of the Tribe of Judah [i.e. Christ] is now roaring, in the voice of His Gospel, and it becomes all the petty kings of the earth to be silent!
This reverence for the majesty of Christ, imparted to Bruce on his call to the ministry, accompanied him wherever he preached. His abiding sense of whose he was and whom he served invested him with a constant awareness of his own ministerial authority, an authority delegated to him by the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find him exhorting his hearers to ‘reverence the Word of God’ and ‘the ambassador also.’
2. The Sincerity of His Aims
The second factor behind Bruce’s pulpit power was the sincerity of his aims in preaching. These aims were two: to be faithful to his divine Master’s Word and to profit the souls of his hearers. ‘Faith leans upon the Word of God,’ he affirmed, ‘and will do nothing till it get a warrant out of His mouth.’ He confessed,
I have ever a regard to my warrant, and their profit and amendment to whom I direct it . . . to edify them . . . and if it were possible, that they might be turned to God . . . I speak nothing from a malicious heart, but of love.
With such noble aims always before him, Bruce did not fail to leave permanent impressions of his message on others. Once after hearing him, Robert Blair wrote:
his whole sermon did press this truth of the soul’s being immortal, a serious impression of it in the heart is something else than a swimming in the head.
When Bruce aimed to bring ‘assurance and certainty’ and ‘comfort’ to God’s people, he always directed believers to seek them in the Word. These privileges, he argued, are not engendered in the heart by the words of men or angels, but are ‘wrought in the heart by hearing of the Word of God.’ Nor are they given ‘by hearing of the word of the Law, but by hearing of the word of the promise of mercy, of the glad tidings of mercy and salvation in and through Christ.’ He asks,
What comfort is there to be found, but it is in the Word? What comfort can a Christian heart wish, but it is in the Word? Yea, I say more . . . the Word is daily and continually sounded; therefore seek to get comfort of the Word in time. Look that ye hear the Word with great reverence, and study to practice it daily more and more in your daily life and conversation.
3. His Method of Preparation
The third secret of Bruce’s pulpit power lay in his method of preparation for preaching. This contained two factors, diligent study and earnest prayer.
(a) Diligent Study of the Word of God
Bruce was known, says Robert Fleming,
to take much pains in searching the Scripture, that he might know the mind of the Spirit of God, by comparing spiritual things with spiritual, and in preparing apposite matter for the edification of his hearers.
He certainly knew the ‘Church Fathers’ and ‘Scholastic Doctors’ intimately, but looked exclusively to Holy Scripture for all his teaching. This he claimed to have studied more closely than any other book. Like John Knox before him, Bruce was a man of one book. His Geneva Bible (his ‘great house Bible’), his Hebrew and Greek Testaments, and his Septuagint (Greek Old Testament, quoted by our Lord and his apostles), meant far more to him than even Augustine, Tertullian and Chrysostom. A perceptive remark of his opens a window onto Bruce’s view of the Word he preached: ‘Only the Holy Spirit is the true historiographer, and the Bible the only true history.’
(b) Earnest Prayer for the Presence of God
Coupled with the deep study of Holy Scripture was Bruce’s earnest prayer for the presence of God in his preaching. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he insisted, ‘must be present by His Spirit in the heart of the speaker; the speaker must enjoy the presence of Jesus Christ by His Holy Spirit.’ Like Moses, Bruce could (and probably often did) say: ‘If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence’ (Exod. 33:15) before he ascended the pulpits of Scotland.
Doubtless it was the conjunction of these two factors — diligent study and earnest prayer — that drew from John Livingston, who heard Bruce often, the priceless observation that
It is most probable that no gift, no pains a man takes to fit himself for preaching, shall ever do good to the people or himself, except a man labour to have and keep his heart in a spiritual condition before God, depending on Him always for furniture [equipment, preparedness for action] and the blessing. Earnest faith and prayer, a single aim at the glory of God, and good of people, a sanctified heart and carriage [conduct, the way we carry ourselves], shall avail much for right preaching. There is sometime somewhat in preaching that cannot be ascribed either to the matter or expression, and cannot be described what it is, or from whence it cometh; but with a sweet violence it pierceth into the heart and affections, and comes immediately from the Lord. But if there be any way to attain to any such thing, it is by a heavenly disposition of the speaker.
4. His Keen Sensitivity to Spiritual and Eternal Realities
The fourth element behind Bruce’s pulpit power was his keen sensitivity to spiritual and eternal realities, and the burning urgency with which he strove to convey those realities into the hearts and consciences of his hearers. According to his biographer, D. C. MacNicol:
Bruce’s secret power in the pulpit is the note of reality and urgency which is ever present in his words. The world at hand has ceased to have any fascination for him, because two other worlds have opened out before his view: hell beneath his feet, but also heaven. . . overhead.
So, he entreats everyone:
If it were but once in the day, lift up your hearts to crave eyes of God that ye may see heaven, that ye may see hell, and that He would give you grace to embrace the one and eschew the other.
In a most searching sermon on conscience, he declared:
When the Lord wakens thy conscience, there is never a sin but it shall start in thy memory, and bring such a horror with it that of all pains it is the greatest; yea, the burning of the carcase in hot lead is nothing to the trouble of conscience.
It was by bringing a sense of the torments of hell before his hearers that Bruce sought to dissuade them from living the kind of life that would certainly take them there. For what are those torments chiefly but the eternal gnawing of ‘a conscience unappeased’? Little wonder, then, that through such penetrating preaching, Bruce ‘made always an earthquake upon his hearers, and rarely preached but to a weeping auditory.’ (James Kirkton)
5. His Faith in the Power and Mercy of God
The fifth reason behind Bruce’s pulpit power was his own faith in the power and mercy of God. To him, God was the living God. When he preached, therefore, he really believed that God would clothe his Word with power and exercise his mercy, so as to attain the chief ends for which he gave it. ‘God forbid,’ he thundered, ‘that God should forget . . . to accompany His Word with a power to ding down those that will exalt themselves against Him!’
This dynamic view appears in his remarks on creation. It ‘cost the living God but a word,’ he says, to make both this world and the next. Creation shows us ‘the unspeakable power that is in the mighty and living God, whose Word was so potent.’ Just as potent will his Word be when ‘the time of love’ for his elect arrives.
‘One of the greatest fishes caught in his net,’ comments Robert Wodrow quaintly, ‘was the excellent Mr Alexander Henderson.’ This staunch Episcopalian from Leuchars desired to hear Bruce preach at a communion some distance from his own charge. Here, where few if any knew him, Henderson
placed himself in a corner of the church where nobody should notice him. When Mr Bruce entered the pulpit, and rose up to preach, as his custom was he stood silent for some minutes, which astonished Mr Henderson a little; but he was yet much more moved by the first words he uttered, which were those of our Lord: ‘He that cometh not in by the door, but climbeth up another way, the same is a thief and a robber,’ which words were powerfully sent home upon his conscience, and by the blessing of God, as he afterwards owned, were the instrument of his first conversion. (Robert Wodrow)
Henderson was to become a ‘most singular ornament’ of the Scottish Church during its Second Reformation.
Similarly, Bruce expected God to show mercy to sinners under his preaching.
There is no sin, how heinous soever it be, nor any multitude of sins, how great soever they be in the unrenewed man, that can stay the mercy of God from him from the time he be called to the truth, through the preaching of the Word.
God delights to show mercy to the most hardened sinners. Therefore, he urges: ‘Ye that want [lack] this disposition, despair not, but seek knowledge and feeling,’ for they shall be given to those ‘for whom mercy is appointed,’ when ‘the time of His appointment [has] come . . . Therefore crave of God that this your hearing may be profitable, that in your souls ye may feel and subscribe this to be true.’
6. His Holy Character
The sixth factor contributing to Bruce’s pulpit power was his own holy character. As Principal John Macleod wrote: ‘His influence was that of the holy life and of the spoken Word clothed with power.’
Behind Bruce’s holy life lay his intimate friendship and close walk with God. This friendship is beautifully seen in his recollections of his banishment from Edinburgh following the Gowrie Plot of 1600, because he refused to hurt his conscience by exonerating King James from all complicity in the affair. ‘I rode forward,’ he recalled, ‘and there was none in company with me except myself . . . and my God. Alone, yet not alone, because the Father is with me.’
On his final banishment to Inverness in 1622, having left his ancestral home at Kinnaird, he was accompanied part of the way by family, friends and a few ministers. When ‘he had taken his leave of them, and the whole company were mounting, his horse was brought out last.’ Just as he was setting his foot in the stirrup, Bruce
stopped, and stood with his eyes fixed towards heaven, in a muse for nearly a quarter of an hour. The rest . . . rode softly on; and none of the company observed it but an intimate friend of his . . . His friend took the freedom to ask him what he was doing . . . Mr Bruce answered him, ‘I was receiving my commission and charge from my Master to go to Inverness, and He gave it me Himself before I set my foot in the stirrup; and thither I go to sow a seed in Inverness that shall not be rooted out for many ages.’
Holiness was a distinguishing feature of Bruce’s whole character and ministry. Did not M’Cheyne say that a holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God?
7. The Presence of God
The final explanation of Bruce’s pulpit power, and the one that accounts for the previous six, is that God was with him wherever he preached. As Robert Fleming observed, with Bruce ‘the success of preaching depended wholly upon the presence of God.’
Each one of these seven explanations of Bruce’s pulpit power has a profound message of its own for our own shallow and powerless age. Cumulatively, they shout into our ears: revere the majesty of God; always be faithful to his Word and profitable to your hearers; prepare your sermons with diligent study and earnest prayer; seek a keen awareness of spiritual and eternal realities; trust the power and mercy of God to be at work while you are preaching; pursue holiness, in both character and life; seek the presence of God, in all you think, feel, speak and do. May Bruce’s God be merciful to us and grant us these gracious privileges, for his name’s sake.