Urgency in Preaching and Its Instruction (1)
The Quality of Urgency in Preaching
Preaching, by definition, should be urgent in nature. By urgency we mean preaching that has, in the words of Merriam-Webster, a ‘force or impulse that impels or constrains.’ Preaching with urgency is done when the preacher not only hopes for but calls for and expects response to the Word of God from those who are hearing him.
Robert Dabney in Evangelical Eloquence (formerly known as Sacred Rhetoric)1 defines preaching with this sense when he describes it as the ‘the soul’s virtuous energy exerted through speech’ which ‘applies to the will, the authority of God, the only Lord of the conscience,’ with the aim being to produce ‘a definite, practical volition in the soul of the hearer.’ As Lloyd-Jones states to the preacher,
You are not simply imparting information, you are dealing with souls, you are dealing with pilgrims on the way to eternity, you are dealing with matters not only of life and death in this world, but eternal destiny. Nothing can be so terribly urgent.2
Like Dabney, Lloyd-Jones believed urgency was a necessity in preaching. ‘If we do not know something about this sense of urgency we do not know true preaching.’
With over half of its content sermonic, the biblical record contained in the Acts of the Apostles would support the thesis that true preaching is urgent preaching. Using Peter’s message at Pentecost as a paradigm, urgent preaching would appear to possess these seven qualities:
l) a yearning to glorify God for his salvation (Acts 2:17,22,36);
2) an aim in the message to touch hearts as well as minds (Acts 2:14,22-23, 29, 36-31);
3) an eschatological sense that the gospel is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, thus adding authority to its call (eleven of the twenty-three verses of Peter’s sermon are Old Testament quotations);
4) a clear, congregationally-directed call to repent and escape the evil of this world (Acts 2:38.40);
5) a desire to see active faith in the hearers (Acts 2:39);
6) repeated urgings for the hearers to respond to the declaration of the kingdom of God (Acts 2:40);
7) great joy expressed when the hearers respond (Acts 2:47).
Horatius Bonar describes apostolic preaching in this manner:
Their object in preaching (the gospel) was not to induce men to commence a course of preparation for receiving Christ, but to receive Him at once and on the spot; not to lead them through the long avenue of a gradually amended life to the cross of the Sin-bearer, but to bring them at once into contact with the cross, that sin in them might be slain, the old man crucified, and a life of true morality begun. As the strongest motive to a holy life, they preached the cross.3
Truly biblical preaching is intense, urgent preaching, and homiletical students must be taught this.
As Lloyd-Jones says so clearly,
We are to preach the Gospel, not to preach about the Gospel . . . There are men who think they are preaching the Gospel when actually in fact they are simply saying things about the Gospel . . . We are not to simply say things about it, we are actually to convey it. We are the channels through which this Word is to pass to the people.
The Need for this Sense of Urgency in the Minister’s Heart
In order to be this channel, the minister of the Word of God should be first intensely affected by his own salvation. Baxter’s maxim of ‘preaching as a dying man to dying men’ has to be felt by the preacher through the experience of salvation in all its components in order to result in urgent preaching. The minister will find his preaching becoming more passionate as the doctrines of grace influence his own soul. Those given the sacred duty of instructing students in homiletics should be particularly aware of the need to help them develop a heartfelt desire to see gospel fruit in their own lives.
This is highlighted in the Westminster Larger Catechism, which asks in Question 159, ‘How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?’ Authoritative preaching by duly ordained preachers is described as needing to be done ‘diligently,’ ‘faithfully,’ and ‘plainly,’ but then we hear it is also to be performed ‘zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.’ Only those whose hearts are experiencing the zeal, love, fervency, and sincerity the Spirit of God brings through the gospel can preach in this manner and call with conviction their hearers to respond likewise. That hearers are to respond actively to urgent preaching in these areas is seen in the next question which asks, ‘What is required of those that hear the Word preached?’ The answer:
It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine: What they hear by the Scriptures: receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.
With these high and lofty goals in mind for preaching, the gospel minister should clearly have as his aim evangelistic and consecrated responses each time he opens and proclaims the Word of God. Yet sadly this is not the experience of many.
The Scarcity of Urgency in Modern Reformed Preaching
Though there are certainly notable exceptions, across the Reformed landscape it would be the testimony of many church-goers that their experience of preaching in local congregations lacks this urgency. In his indicting book Why Johnny Can’t Preach, David Gordon points out how many ministers in this generation talk about subjects, but do not bring out from the text what amounts to a ‘convincing, compelling weight on the soul of the hearer.’ According to Dabney, this would be a failure of true preaching:
The power of the orator over his hearers is far more than intellectual. It is more than sentimental, it projects the force of his volition . . . upon the will of the hearer . . . The preacher relies alone upon evangelical inducements, and refers every conviction of the reason ultimately to God’s testimony . . . the end of every oration is to make men do . . . (if it) does not end by bringing their will under the direct grasp of a ‘thus saith the Lord.’ it is not a sermon; it has degenerated into a speech.
John Stott also warned against the type of preaching Gordon decries when he said,
A preacher can be faithful to Scripture, lucid in explanation, felicitous in language, and contemporary in application, yet somehow appear cold and aloof. No note of urgency is ever heard in his voice, and no suspicion of a tear is ever seen in his eyes. He would never dream of leaning over the pulpit to beg sinners in the name of Christ to repent, come to Him, and be reconciled with God.4
Jay Adams would concur that this is the general state of modern preaching:
I have heard conference speakers, seminary professors, pastors, and just about every sort of preacher there is, from every sort of background and denomination. Yet the story is the same: poor preaching predominates. Everywhere I go I hear the same complaint from laymen: ‘Why don’t the seminaries teach men to preach?’ The question is not just part of the typical griping that goes on all the time; it has a solid basis in fact. And it is asked most frequently by those who are most sincere in their faith, not as an excuse to cover responsible behaviour, but as a genuine, heartfelt cry. Men and women (and especially young people) are being turned away from Christ and his church by dull, unarresting, unedifying, and aimless preaching.5
As Lloyd-Jones states, preaching is not just to be a talk, or a lecture, or a running commentary on a biblical text. It is declarative in nature, seeking to elicit a response from the hearers. The urgent preacher yearns for unbelievers to respond in saving faith and for believers to take definitive steps in holiness. Before addressing how urgency can be encouraged through instruction, confession is needed to promote preaching that carries this tone.
A Confession Regarding Preaching Urgency
Perhaps what is needed most in this area is public confession. In a larger chapter of his book Words to Winners of Souls, entitled ‘Ministerial Confessions.’ Horatius Bonar repeats liberally a 1651 confession of sin by Church of Scotland ministers where they make prayers to God over their preaching failures. We find that lack of urgency in preaching has long been a problem. ‘Preaching of Christ, not that people may know Him, but that they may think we know much of Him . . . Not preaching with bowels of compassion to them that are at hazard to perish.’
After listing confessions such as these. Bonar then encourages his readers to make like declarations. Praying and confessing sentiments like these would be cleansing for the church, be it in session meetings, presbytery courts, or homiletics classes.
The whole soul is not poured into the duty, and hence it wears too often the repulsive air of routine and form. We do not speak and act like men in earnest. Our words are feeble, even when sound and true . . . and our tones betray the apathy which both words and looks disguise.
Then further still:
Fear has often lead us to smooth down or generalize truths which if broadly stated must have brought hatred and reproach to us . . . We have feared to alienate friends, or to awaken the wrath of enemies. Hence our preaching of the law has been feebled and straitened; and hence our preaching of a free gospel has been yet more vague, uncertain, and timorous.
Many men in pulpit ministry feel ashamed over timorous preaching. Barrenness both in a desire for and in seeing conversions, or a lack of boldness in calling people to holiness, are often endured in a shameful silence. Yet perhaps we should remember Hannah. She was barren, prayed her desires unashamedly in public, and was blessed greatly with a son who brought prophetic preaching back to Israel. If we desire preaching urgency, we must confess our lack of hunger for it and earnestly seek it from the Spirit, whom Christ promised the Father gladly gives to us (Luke 11:l3).
Having begun with confession, Spirit-filled actions need to follow. Proverbs 11:30 says in part that ‘whoever captures souls is wise.’ What wisdom can be given and practised in homiletical instruction to help encourage preaching that calls for conversions and also sounds a note of authority as saints are exhorted onward in their godliness? Though my career as a professor is in its early stages, I am finding that the following exercise in the homiletics classroom have already begun to help develop in men a greater preaching urgency.
Unceasing Prayer Development in the Life of the Student Preacher
If men are truly called to ‘prayer and to the ministry of the word’ (Acts 6:4), then in seminary they must be encouraged to recognize not only how to prepare the Word to be preached, but how to prepare themselves and their people for when the Word is preached. This is accomplished through prayer. The Apostle Paul knew how reliant he was on the prayer support of the saints, saying to the Colossian church,
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving: praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak (Col. 4:2-4).
Paul wanted God-opened doors to people’s hearts, the ability to reveal the gospel to them, and clarity in his ministry of the Word. In short, he wanted to preach with urgency, and knew it was only through prayer that his preaching would have this quality of effectiveness.
A Course of Lectures on Preaching
The Quality of Urgency in Preaching Preaching, by definition, should be urgent in nature. By urgency we mean preaching that has, in the words of Merriam-Webster, a ‘force or impulse that impels or constrains.’ Preaching with urgency is done when the preacher not only hopes for but calls for and expects response to the Word […]
- D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers.
- Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Holiness.
- John R. W. Stott, I Believe in Preaching.
- Jay E. Adams, Preaching with Purpose: The Urgent Task of Homiletics.
Taken with permission from the Reformed Theological Journal of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, November 2014 (Notes added). The second part of this article can be found here.
Barry York is Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
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