I cannot begin to adequately describe how Sinclair Ferguson has ministered to me over the years. I find him to be the epitome of a Christ-exalting preacher and winsome churchman, who also happens to be as able a theologian as you’ll find in the pulpit.
Whenever I sense my ministerial soul needs reviving, I do three things: 1) read the pastoral epistles—along with 2 Corinthians, 2) read an old manual on ministry such as Bonar’s Words to Winners of Souls, and 3) listen to Ferguson messages. I think every pastor needs a preacher who uniquely ministers to his heart. He needs someone who can challenge, comfort, and convict. Dr. Ferguson does that for me.
Earlier this week, I came across an old series of lectures Ferguson gave on “the ministry” to a group of pastors in Northern Ireland. What a feast! He covers all the essentials in depth, and he rambles through valuable rabbit trails in each message. If your soul needs encouragement in preparation for this Lord’s Day, download the lectures below and listen away.
John Brown of Haddington (1722–1787) is an old giant of Scottish theology that has been mostly lost to history. In the late 1800s, William Blaikie said that Brown “towered above his fellows.” Reformation Heritage is trying to retrieve Brown’s legacy by republishing his Systematic Theology and his Counsel to Gospel Ministers. If you’ve never read Brown before, let me see if I can convince you to take up and read.
To do that, let’s turn to his letters on “Directions with Respect to Preaching the Gospel, and Administering the Sacraments.” Tucked away in Letter 1 of Part 3 are Brown’s rules for gospel preaching. Are these not as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago?
7 Rules for Preachers
Keep in view that it is the gospel you are preaching, and it is God ordained.
Found the sermon on the Scripture as your text and proof.
Insist chiefly on the greater points of revelation concerning Jesus Christ, faith in him, and repentance toward God through him.
Make application that it may awaken, and “captivate their affections to Christ.”
Let your language be adapted to that of the hearers, and let it be scriptural. Do not be philosophical.
Avoid anything which will detract, for example, speaking too quickly, or indistinctly, poor pronunciation, awkward gestures, wandering from the subject, useless quotations, expressions which would promote laughter. Also do not adhere too scrupulously to your notes.
Never draw attention and focus upon your honors. You are to promote the glory of Christ.
I count it a supreme blessing to study Robert Murray M’Cheyne. Never does a day go by without finding conviction or comfort in his works.
I read his sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:20–21 this morning, where Paul writes, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
In meditating on ministers being ambassadors for Christ, M’Cheyne says,
Learn from this, how we should preach, and how you should hear. We do not come in our own name, but in Christ’s. We are to do as the disciples did when they received the bread from Christ. We are to receive our message from him and give it unto you; so, in one sense, it is immaterial to us whether you receive the truth or not. Observe, we are to speak with authority. Many of you are not pleased at what we say; you say we might have spoken less severely; you quarrel at our words; but ah! if you look into your own heart, you would see, that it is not us you quarrel with, it is with Christ. Observe, still farther, that we are ambassadors; we must speak tenderly. God is love. Christ is love. I am afraid it is here we err, and show that the vessel is earthly. When Christ came into the world, it was a message of love he brought.
On which side might you err? Maybe your zealous proclamations are so loud that no hearer sense your soul is taken in love to Christ. Or perhaps, your graceful preaching is never forceful enough to break through a hardened heart. Oh, let us pray for the fullness of authority and tenderness in preaching!
I’ve spent today wading through the voluminous works by or about Thomas Chalmers, trying to understand his influence on Robert Murray M’Cheyne. As David Yeaworth says, “In Chalmers, more than any other person, M’Cheyne found the mold for his ecclesiastical and religious thought, and a worthy pattern for his own ministerial life.”
If evangelicals know anything today about Chalmers, it’s probably his sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” Few may know he was arguably the most famous British preacher at the time, a brilliant mathematician who theorized on everything from astronomy to politics to economics to social reform, and an evangelical who longed to see Christ proclaimed in slums of Scotland and far away nations.
What is remarkable is how he wielded his immense intellect to serve the church. Consider the following encouragement and warning about preaching:
By far the most effective ingredient of good preaching is the personal piety of the preacher himself . . . How little must the presence of God be felt in that place, where the high functions of the pulpit are degraded into a stipulated exchange of entertainment, on the one side, and of admiration, on the other! and surely it were a sight to make angels weep when a weak and vapouring mortal, surrounded by his fellow sinners, and hastening to the grave and the judgment along with them, find it a dearer object to his bosom to regale his hearers by the exhibition of himself, than to do, in plain earnest, the work of his Master.
Put simply: in your preaching, are you exalting yourself or the Savior?
Yesterday, Stuart Olyott gave a useful answer to the question, “What is preaching?” I want to provide one more excerpt from his book Preaching: Pure and Simple. I hope it excites your interest enough to buy the book—it’s sound, simple, and satisfying.
Sermons Need Clear Structure
Plain sermons are the best sermons. And plainness depends, to a large degree, on how easy the sermon is to follow and remember. So, what is one of plain preaching’s best friends? Olyott responds, “Our sermons will be both easy to follow and easy to remember if they always have a clear structure.” He then writes,
Preachers who love their people are fussy about the structure of their sermons. They know that the most ordinary person will never lose their way, as long as the sermon has unity, order and proportion. Unity means that the message holds together; it is not made up of several disconnected sermonettes. Order means that the sermon is made of distinct ideas which follow each other in a logical chain that leads up to a climax. Proportion means that each idea is given its proper place; unimportant things are not magnified, and important things are not played down. The worst preacher on earth will improve immediately if he remembers these three words.
Might your next sermon need some of this good ol’ fussiness?
I’ve always found Stuart Olyott to be an underrated servant and preacher. When I preached through Mark’s gospel, few expositions I listed to were as consistently edifying as Olyott’s. He is bold, pithy, and direct—in the best way possible.
His book, Preaching: Pure and Simple, begins by mining the New Testament for instruction on what preaching is. Olyott shows, as he should, that biblical preaching involves four ideas represented by four Greek words.
Preaching Is . . .
Heralding a message given by the King (kerusso): this tells us about the source of the message and the authority with which it comes.
Announcing good news (euangelizo): this tells us about the quality of the message and the spirit in which it is given.
Bearing witness to facts (martureo): this tells us about the nature of the message and the basis on which it is constructed.
Spelling out the implications of the message (didasko): this tells us about the target of the message (the hearer’s conscience) and the measure of its success (did it change anyone’s life?).
He then concludes, “Until we are clear about this, we shall never really preach at all.”
James Waddell Alexander (1804–1859) was the eldest son of the legendary Archibald Alexander, first professor at Princeton Seminary. James himself was a formidable force for Christ’s kingdom. He pastored the famous Duane Street Presbyterian Church in New York City and was eventually appointed Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Princeton.
He was an enthusiastic proponent of and participant in revival. But not the kind Charles Finney advocated—a spiritual stirring based on human engineering. Alexander once wrote about the necessary conditions for true revival. He said,
For my own part, I believe that revivals depend not so much, as is thought, upon phases of doctrine, or petty arrangements, as upon the ardent piety and zealous labours of humble Christianity, apart from all these things.
Do you want to see a revival in your ministry? Alexander would say pursue an ordinary ministry. Love Christ enough to prize holiness. Love Christ enough to proclaim Him zealously in every place. Leave the rest to our Sovereign King.
A lovely movement of retrieval is happening in Puritan studies. William Perkins is once again moving to center stage. How important is Perkins? J.I. Paker once said, “No Puritan author save Richard Baxter ever sold better than Perkins, and no Puritan thinker ever did more to shape and solidify historic Puritanism itself.” For too long the only work Christians have known from Perkins is his magnificent The Art of Prophesying. Thanks to Reformation Heritage, Perkins’ broader labor is readily available in The Works of William Perkins (projected to be a ten-volume collection).
Earlier this year Joel Beeke and Dustin Benge put together a festschrift for Steve Lawson entitled, Pulpit Aflame. The quality of festschrifts can vary greatly from one volume to the next. I was pleasantly surprised to find Pulpit Aflame abundantly useful.
One standout chapter is Sinclair Ferguson’s, “Preaching as Worship.” The chapter closer with Ferguson calling on an unknown Puritan named William Fenner. In 1657, Fenner published a work on the affections under, as Ferguson says, “a characteristically delicious Puritan title,” A Treatise on the Affections, or The Souls Pulse whereby a Christian may know whether he is living or dying: Together with a lively description of their nature, signs, and symptoms: As also directing men to a right of them.
Channeling Fenner, Ferguson gives us several reflections on worshipful, affectionate preaching.
5 Keys to Worshipful Preaching
Affections are raised, fixed, and enflamed when ministers “preach to the life,” that is, when their exposition explains, describes, and expounds reality as it is. As James VI and I note of one Puritan, “He preaches as if death were at my back.”
For this to become a reality in our own ministry of the word, we preachers must be full of affection. “Affection in the speaker is likely to beget affections in the hearer.” Fenner distinguishes this from mere externals in preaching. It is not a matter of personality type or communication skills, certainly not “emotionalism.” As Calvin notes, there are preachers who thus preach, but they leave their hearers cold and unmoved because they perceive that what they hear is only surface emotion and not truly the affections of the reasonable and volitional soul.
Preachers must be marked by godliness in their own lives. Only in this way will their own affections be pure and worshipful, and only thus will they be appropriate vessels through whom Christ will touch and move the affections of their hearers. This is merely a matter of style but a quality of life.
Intriguingly, Fenner adds that affectionate preaching will be expressed in the voice. Here he stands consciously in a long line of rhetorical theorists stretching back at least to Augustine who acknowledged that they could not explain this relationship, but they knew that it was the case. Fenner held that when the preacher’s affections are moved, this will become evident in the vehicle by which he expresses them to others.
Fenner also notes that affections are expressed and evoked through the preacher’s actions in his preaching—admitting his own limitations precisely here.
I’ve always found Tony Merida to be an underrated teacher of preachers. His revamped book on preaching, The Christ-Centered Expositor, is well worth your investment. Merida recently taught a seminar on preaching at the Bethlehem Pastors Conference that will edify any preacher.