What is Preaching?

6219394930_2580c323aa_bI’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 . . .

  1. Heralding a message given by the King (kerusso): this tells us about the source of the message and the authority with which it comes.
  2. Announcing good news (euangelizo): this tells us about the quality of the message and the spirit in which it is given.
  3. Bearing witness to facts (martureo): this tells us about the nature of the message and the basis on which it is constructed.
  4. 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.”

What Brings Revival

James-W.-Alexander-Frontispiece-from-Vol.-1-of-his-Memoirs-by-Hall-7-28-20151James 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.

In Praise of Plain Preaching

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).

If you’re unfamiliar with Perkins, you could pick up this little biography or this useful treatment of his Sermon on the Mount expositions. Or you might watch Sinclair Ferguson’s recent lecture entitled, “William Perkins: A Plain Preacher.” It’s full of wisdom and usefulness.

5 Keys to Worshipful Preaching


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

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Fenner also notes that affections are expressed and evoked through the preacher’s actions in his preaching—admitting his own limitations precisely here.

Foundations of Preaching

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.

Book Recommendation: On Pastoral Ministry

A couple of weeks ago I came across John Henry Jowett’s 1912 Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale University entitled, “The Preacher: His Life and Work.” What a work! Jowett’s exhortations on the ministry are some of the more exhilarating ones I’ve read in some time.

Behind the Message, There Was a Man

blrudgbgkkgrhgookjqejllmvowobjikfzeqq_35After hearing the great Dr. Fairbairn preach, Jowett told his students at Airedale College, “Gentlemen, I will tell you what I have observed this morning: behind that sermon there was a man.” Although The Preacher provides scant autobiographical information, I had the same sense in reading Jowett’s work—there was a weight in its message.

Jowett was born in 1863 in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Like many great ministers before him, Jowett initially resolved to study law. God soon called him into the gospel ministry. He went on to train at Edinburgh and Oxford before assuming his first pastoral position at St. James Church in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The church held over 1,000 seats, and none were empty during Jowett’s ministry.

In 1911 he became the pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. John Bishop says,

The church was crowded long before the hour of Jowett’s first service. Reporters crowded the side galleries, expecting to find a sensational preacher with dazzling oratory and catchy sermon topics on current events. Instead they found a shy, quiet little man, bald-headed and with a cropped white moustache, who spoke in a calm, simple manner.

He was at Fifth Avenue when he delivered the Lyman Beecher lectures on a pastor’s life and ministry. He stayed in New York until 1918 when we was called to succeed G. Campbell Morgan at Westminster Chapel in London. It was his last pastoral post, as he died in 1923.

Pithy and Practical

The Preacher contains seven different lectures: 1) The Call to Be a Preacher, 2) The Perils of the Preacher, 3) The Preacher’s Themes, 4) The Preacher in His Study, 5) The Preacher in His Pulpit, 6) The Preacher in the Home, and 7) The Preacher as a Man of Affairs. If you read anything in the book, read lectures 2, 4, and 5. Here are a few appetizers for you to meditate on:

  • “We may become so absorbed in words (of preaching) that we forget to eat the Word.” (42)
  • “We may become more intent on full pews than on redeemed souls.” (54)
  • Worldliness will cause “our characters to lose their spirituality. we shall lack that fine fragrance which makes people know that we dwell in ‘the King’s gardens.’ There will be know ‘heavenly air’ about our spirits.” (55)
  • Worldliness will cause us to be “wordy, but not mighty. we are eloquent, but we do not persuade. We are reasonable, but we do not convince. We preach much, but accomplish little. We teach, but do not woo.” (57)
  • If the gospel “is to be the weighty matter of our preaching, we surely ought to be most seriously careful how we proclaim it. The matter may be bruised and spoiled by the manner. The work of grace may be marred by our own ungraciousness.” (101)
  • “Happy-go-lucky sermons will lay no necessity upon the reason nor put any constraint upon the heart. Preaching that costs nothing accomplishes nothing.” (114)
  • “Here (in private prayer), more than anything else, our secret life will determine our public power.” (158)
  • “Men never learn to pray in public: they learn in private. We cannot put off our private habits and assume public ones with our pulpit robes.” (159)
  • “If men are unmoved by our prayers they are not likely to be profoundly stirred by our preaching.” (159)

Where to Find It

You can find reasonably priced reprints of Jowett’s book on Amazon. If you don’t want to spend money from your book budget, you can read it for free on Archive.com or Google Books.

Tolle lege!

Resources for Preaching the 10 Commandments

10 Commandments Podcast

Sometime back in 2014 I decided we’d spend the next few summers at IDC walking through the Pentateuch. It’s impossible to understand the rest of Scripture from the first five books. Also, because they are largely narratives, we wouldn’t need to spend years upon years getting through them.

So, last summer we journeyed through Genesis, largely shaping each sermon around a particular character or patriarch. June 2016 came around, and we began Exodus. The plan was to finish up chapter 40 at the end of September. But God’s Spirit gave me a hitch about that scheme, a hitch that asked, “Why not preach a “series within a series” on the 10 Commandments?”

I may never again preach through Exodus. Did I want to miss out on the opportunity to think carefully about one of the Old Testament’s most important sections?

An Oddly Compelling People

As we lead our little congregation, there are a few things we want to be true about IDC (a praying, disciple-making, welcoming, and singing church). Should God allow these few things to flourish in our lives, we believe a kind of congregational life will arise. You could call this corporate life as being mere faithfulness. But we like to think of it as oddly compelling. We find Scripture instructing God’s people to love the Lord in such a way that the world thinks us odd. But odd need to be off-putting. It seems to us that the biblical view of “odd” is quite compelling. “People will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven,” Jesus said. Faithful churches are strange to the culture—strangely attractive.

What best summarizes the church’s oddly compelling lifestyle? Those “Ten Words” once written on stone tablets, now written on human hearts.

Recovering a Forgotten Friend

I could be my personal experience, but a special study of the 10 Commandments seems to have disappeared from evangelicalism. The saints of old would give us a good talking to about this. For what were the ordinary tools of catechesis the church used throughout the centuries? The Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and . . . yep . . . the 10 Commandments.

I have many theories on why gospel-preaching churches no longer hold the Stone Tablets’ hands. The fundamental reason surely is the widespread neglect of the Old Testament in most churches. We’ve so rightly divided Scripture that we assume the Old Testament belongs not only to a different age but different people. But even if you’re theologically convinced the Commandments belong to a former age, you can’t deny that they are still instructive—in some way—today (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6, 11).

At least that’s what we believe at IDC. So, Lord willing, on September 11th we will stare at those stony scratches Moses made.

7 Useful Resources

I’m thankful there is a cottage industry of resources on the 10 Commandments. But cottages tend to get crowded. Best friends can thus be hard to find. Here then are some of the most helpful resources I’ve found in my study (with publishers’ description included).

1596380365mHow Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments by Edmund Clowney. For many Christians, conditioned to emphasize our freedom from the law, Jesus’ words seem strange, even incompatible with the gospel of grace. If Jesus did not abolish the law, then how should we look at the Ten Commandments today?

Clowney explains how Jesus intensifies the law and expands its scope to every situation in life. But as the author did so often during his ministry, he goes further, finding Christ in the law and showing how he fulfills it for his people. Thus believers will learn more, not only of God’s character revealed in the law, but also of the gospel with its focus on Christ.

Divided into eleven chapters, each with study questions for reflection and application, this book is an ideal resource for group study and personal growth.

0875522378mTen Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life by Joachim Douma. The Ten Commandments provide “the fundamental pointers we need for our concourse with God and our neighbors,” writes Professor J. Douma in this work. As the subtitle indicates, the Ten Commandments are a manual for the Christian life, relevant to all thought and experience.

In this commentary on the commandments, Douma tackles the difficult yet practical issues of our time with insight, thoroughness, and faithfulness to God’s word. Discussions of the commandments span current issues from religious art to sorcery and witchcraft, from Sunday observance to civil disobedience, from abortion to euthanasia and suicide.

Because the commandments speak to every area of life, this volume lends itself to a wide range of uses. Pastors, professors, counselors, and thoughtful laypeople will gain much wisdom and direction from this careful, up-to-date exposition of the Ten Commandments.

9781601780638mThe Rule of Love: Broken, Fulfilled, and Applied by J.V. Fesko. In The Rule of Love, J. V. Fesko gives an introductory exposition of the Ten Commandments. Beginning with the importance of the prologue, and then addressing each Commandment in turn, he sets forth a balanced and biblical approach that places the law in proper perspective. Throughout the book, Fesko analyzes the historical context of God’s giving the law in order to help us accurately understand the moral demands God places upon humanity.

Yet, Fesko does not stop there; he also discusses the covenantal and redemptive context in which the law was given. Thus, he shows that the law is not presented to us in order for us to present ourselves right before God. Rather, it demonstrates our failure to love God as we should and points us to Christ and His perfect obedience in all that God requires of us. Fesko also shows how Christ applies the commandments to His people by the indwelling power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

This is an excellent survey of the Ten Commandments that promises to bring about a more accurate understanding of the proper uses of the law, as well as engender profound gratitude for all that God is for us in Christ.

080246372XmThe Law of Perfect Freedom: Relating to God and Others Through the Ten Commandments by Michael Horton. The Ten Commandments are not Moses’ bright ideas or simply God’s suggestions; they are God’s categorical requirements. In The Law of Perfect Freedom, Michael Horton weaves theological truth with practical application to help believers live out the Ten Commandments. Understanding how to live out these commandments brings vitality and victory to our walk with God.

9781581349832mKeeping the Ten Commandments by J.I. Packer. They are often mistakenly considered God’s ‘rules’—his outdated list of do’s and don’ts that add up to a guilt-ridden, legalistic way of life. But as beloved author and Bible scholar J. I. Packer probes the purpose and true meaning of the Ten Commandments, readers will gladly discover that these precepts can aptly be called God’s design for the best life possible. They contain the wisdom and priorities anyone needs for relational, spiritual, and societal blessing—and it’s all coming from a loving heavenly Father who wants the best for his children.

Not only does Packer deliver these truths in brief, readable segments, but he includes discussion questions and ideas for further study at the end of each chapter. This book will challenge readers to view the commandments with new eyes and help them to understand—perhaps for the first time—the health, the hope, and the heritage we’re offered there.

0875523757mThe Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses by Vern Poythress. What does the Old Testament have to do with Jesus Christ? Everything.

The first five books of the Old Testament were written centuries before the birth of Jesus. Yet they intricately involve him. Here Vern S. Poythress explores Genesis through Deuteronomy, demonstrating how the sacrifices and traditions of the Hebrews graphically foreshadow Christ’s relationship with his people. Dr. Poythress also explains how the penalties of the law refigure the destruction of sin and guilt through Jesus.

Christ himself is the key that unlocks the riches of the Old Testament. With remarkable clarity and insight, Poythress opens the door to our understanding the law of Moses and its relationship to the gospel.

0851511465mThe Ten Commandments by Thomas Watson. In this book Thomas Watson continues his exposition of the Shorter Catechism drawn up by the Westminster Assembly. Watson was one of the most popular preachers in London during the Puritan era. His writings are characterized by clarity, raciness and spiritual richness. The series of three volumes, of which this is the second, makes an ideal introduction to Puritan literature.

There are few matters about which the Puritans differ more from present-day Christians than in their assessment of the importance of the ten commandments. The commandments, they held, are the first thing in Christianity which the natural man needs to be taught and they should be the daily concern of the Christian to the last.

In The Ten Commandments Watson examines the moral law as a whole as well as bringing out the meaning and force of each particular commandment. In view of the important function of the law in Christian life and evangelism this is a most valuable volume.

And Don’t Forget!

In addition to the books above, every preacher would be wise to consult the Westminster Shorter Catechism for precise commentary and the Heidelberg Catechism for pastoral counsel. They are like perfectly aged, truth-filled wine for the soul. Your heart will be glad.




3 Properties of Sermon Style

Preaching Style

Largely due to Doug Wilson’s gloriously incessant postings of Shedd quotations I cried, “Ad Fontes!” and ran down an old copy of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology. I may write an extended review in the future, but all I’ll say for now is, “Feast away my preacher friend. Feast away.”

Shedd served as a Professor of English Literature for part of his academic career. Literary and rhetorical skill shine through on each page (hence why Wilson can ransack the book for pithiness). This brother knows what style is and teaches us how to preach it.

3 Fundamental Properties of Style

Shedd writes, “The fundamental properties of good discourse are as distinct and distinguishable as those of matter. Many secondary qualities enter into it, but its primary and indispensable characteristics are reducible to three: plainness, force, and beauty.” The Union man goes on to admit such characteristics aren’t peculiar to evangelical preaching, but they do have “a special reference to Sacred Eloquence.”

When people have asked me how they can pray for my preaching I’ve typically said, “Pray that it be bold (Eph. 6:20) and clear (Col. 2:2).” Shedd merely adds a third marker—beauty. If you need convincing that beauty belongs in the discussion just read Psalm 96 and Steve DeWitt’s book. Since finishing Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, I’ve started praying each day for God to make my sermons more plain, forceful, and beautiful.

To whet your appetite for an exploration of Shedd’s instruction, let me string together some choice remarks on each stylistic property.

Plainness in Preaching

  • “The understanding is the avenue to the man. No one is affected by truth who does not apprehend it. Discourse must therefore, first of all, be plain.”
  • “Plainness of style is the product of sagacity and keenness. A sagacious understanding always speaks in plain terms. A keen vision describes like an eye-witness.”
  • “Everything that covers up and envelopes the truth should be stripped off from it, so that the bare reality may be seen. There is prodigious power in this plainness of presentation.”
  • “When the style is plain, the mind of the hearer experiences the sensation of being touched; and this sensation is always impressive, for a man starts when he is touched.”
  • “The preacher should toil after [plainness], as he would toil after virtue itself.”
  • “The preacher whose head it right, and whose conscience is right, will soon come to possess a love for this plainness.”

Force in Preaching

  • “[Force] in discourse renders it penetrative. Plainness is more external in its relations to the mind; force is more internal.”
  • “Force is power manifested,—power streaming out in all directions, and from every pore of his mind.”
  • “The oratorical power of the preacher depends on his recipiency; upon his contemplation of [truth].”
  • “The preacher’s first duty, in respect to [force], is to render himself a biblical student . . . He is one whose mind is continually receiving the whole body of Holy Writ into itself in a living and genial way, and how, for this reason, is becoming more and more energetic in his methods of contemplation and more and more forcible in his modes of presentation. A truly mighty sacred orator is ‘mighty in the Scriptures.'”
  • “Force is electrical; it permeates and thrills.”
  • “Perhaps the sole cause of the success of the radical orator . . . [is that] he is a man of one lone idea. . . . As a consequence he is an intense man—a forcible man. His utterances penetrate.”

Beauty in Preaching

  • “The best definition of beauty is . . . multitude in unity.”
  • “So long as the sermon is destitute of unity, it must be destitute of beauty.”
  • “Method (organization), unity, and simplicity are essential properties of true beauty.”
  • “There is no danger of an excess of unity and method in the sermon. The closer and more compact the materials, the simpler and more symmetrical the plan, the better the sermon.”
  • “The preacher should always make beauty of style subservient to plainness and force.”

If you’re looking for a fast and free way to read Shedd’s work, here you go!

Preaching & Piety

Preaching and Piety

“It is, perhaps, an overbold beginning, but I will venture to say that with its preaching Christianity stands or falls.” So began P.T. Forsyth when he delivered the Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale University in 1907. Trepidation may have constrained the Scottish theologian as he stood in the throes of New England modernity, but we can confidently acquit him from the charge of being “overbold.” He simply read his Bible well.

Preaching Has Power

God’s word tells us the Christian life is, this side of heaven, is lived “by faith, not by sight.” In other places we are told, “Faith comes by hearing,” and “anything that does not proceed from faith is sin.” Because faith is central, we can boldly declare preaching to be central. For preaching is the ordinary means by which God awakens cold, crusty, and callous hearts to breathe in the grace of faith. Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ to sinners’ bosoms and breasts. It is the spiritual sword God uses to assault hell’s gates and ruin Satan’s strongholds. The Sun of Righteousness dawns upon the earth in His heralded word to harden clay hearts and melt icy souls. Preaching convicts, illuminates, rebukes, encourages, and enlivens the soul.

Power for Piety

It is then, perhaps, my overbold beginning to say that with its preaching Christian spirituality stands or falls. There is a direct correlation between the substance of preaching and the promotion of spirituality. Our Lord Jesus proved this to be true when He asked the Father to sanctify His people in truth. Hearing God’s truth sanctifies God’s people. Preaching promotes piety. Do you want to know what a church believes theologically? Listen to her preachers. Do you want to know what a congregation confesses about spirituality? Sit in on the sermon.

Not only do Scripture and experience bear witness to the correlation between preaching and piety, church history does as well. Memorial plaques of mighty preachers line the hallowed halls of our faith. These were preachers who compelled particular visions of spirituality. In this hall we hear of Chrysostom’s zeal, Augustine’s understanding, Patrick’s earnestness, Bernard’s compassion, Calvin’s reformation, Edwards’ learnedness, Whitefield’s affection, M’Cheyne’s love, and Spurgeon’s power.

What Kind?

If my thesis is true—that there is clear link between a church’s preaching and piety—we pastors have here a reason for stop and stare at our spirituality. Not just our individual spirituality, but our corporate life as well. We should often ask (however painful it always is), “What marks our church’s life together? Where are we strong? Where are we struggling?” Honest examination is good for the soul. Honest evaluation is always needed. The point of this brief post is that how you answer those questions reveals much about your church’s pulpit ministry.

What kind of piety does your preaching promote?

A Sermon for the Ages


Every once in a while, it seems, you read something and know you’ll never forget it. That happened to me this week.

Yesterday, I finished a doctoral seminar on Jonathan Edwards at The Institution. One of the required readings was Edwards’ sermon entitled, “The Excellency of Christ.” Dr. Nettles (who led the seminar) said this sermon “is the best thing written in the English language.” “Hyperbole!” you cry. “Possibly,” I reply. But I’m prepared to join Dr. Nettles’ cause. For outside of Holy Scripture, I’ve never read anything so soul-stunning and holy-affections-generating as this message. Here is Edwards’ heart for Christ written in ink. Here is doctrinal preaching at its finest. Here is biblical meditation at its zenith. Here is a fearfully deep reach into the unsearchable riches of our Savior.

Consider this paragraph taken from Edwards’ encouragement “to accept of Jesus, and close with him as your Savior”:

And here is not only infinite strength and infinite worthiness, but infinite condescension, and love and mercy, as great as power and dignity. If you are a poor, distressed sinner, whose heart is ready to sink for fear that God never will have mercy on you, you need not be afraid to go to Christ, for fear that he is either unable or unwilling to help you. Here is a strong foundation, and an inexhaustible treasure, to answer the necessities of your poor soul, and here is infinite grace and gentleness to invite and embolden a poor, unworthy, fearful soul to come to it. If Christ accepts of you, you need not fear but that you will be safe, for he is a strong Lion for your defense. And if you come, you need not fear but that you shall be accepted; for he is like a Lamb to all that come to him, and receives then with infinite grace and tenderness. It is true he has awful majesty, he is the great God, and infinitely high above you; but there is this to encourage and embolden the poor sinner, that Christ is man as well as God; he is a creature, as well as the Creator, and he is the most humble and lowly in heart of any creature in heaven or earth. This may well make the poor unworthy creature bold in coming to him. You need not hesitate one moment; but may run to him, and cast yourself upon him. You will certainly be graciously and meekly received by him. Though he is a lion, he will only be a lion to your enemies, but he will be a lamb to you. It could not have been conceived, had it not been so in the person of Christ, that there could have been so much in any Savior, that is inviting and tending to encourage sinners to trust in him. Whatever your circumstances are, you need not be afraid to come to such a Savior as this. Be you never so wicked a creature, here is worthiness enough; be you never so poor, and mean, and ignorant a creature, there is no danger of being despised, for though he be so much greater than you, he is also immensely more humble than you. Any one of you that is a father or mother, will not despise one of your own children that comes to you in distress: much less danger is there of Christ’s despising you, if you in your heart come to him.

Read the whole sermon here and let me know what you think.