In Praise of Fussy Preaching

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.

41ZqPN9ZkLL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_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?

2 Things Necessary

“There are two things which I have always judged chiefly requisite in a pastor, as he standeth related to his people—viz., labour and love. The former is a work of the head, the latter of the heart: faithful labour will speak his love, and sincere love will sweeten his labour. Labour without love is unacceptable to God; as a sweet perfume without fire, it cannot send forth its pleasant, fragrant savour. Love without labour is unprofitable to men; like Rachel, it is beautiful, but barren; both together—as soul and body are the essential parts of a man—are the whole of a minister.” — The Works of George Swinnock, 4:53.

Ministerial Roots

J.C. Ryle on the importance of practicing prayer, not just preaching its value:

It was said by an old writer that Luther’s habits of private prayer, and John Bradford’s habits of private prayer, were things more talked of than practised and imitated. Private prayer is one grand secret of the strength of the ministry. It is here that the roots of the ministry, practically speaking, are to be found. The ministry of a man that has gifts, however great, but who does not give the closet the principal place, must sooner or later become jejune and ineffective.

Quoted in Iain Murray, J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone, 83.

Plan Ahead

“A prayer should have a plan as much as a sermon . . . Extemporaneous prayer, like extemporaneous preaching, is too often the product of the single instant, instead of devout reflection and premeditation. No man, no creature, can pray well without knowing what he is praying for, and whom he is praying to. Everything in prayer, and especially public prayer, ought to be well considered and well weighed.” — Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, 271.

Christ in the Front, Not in the Footnotes

We Preach Christ

Preachers are covenant heralds of The King of King. “Him we proclaim.” We know “nothing except Christ and him crucified.” We declare “Jesus Christ as Lord.” “We preach Christ crucified.”

Or do we?

The Glory of Christ Front and Center

I’m not yet done with it, but Sinclair Ferguson’s The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, & Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters is routinely magnificent in its meditations on ministry.

For example, in chapter two Ferguson drives home the danger of separating the benefits of Christ from the person of Christ in preaching. He writes,

Wherever the benefits of Christ are seen as abstractable from Christ himself, there is a decreasing stress on his person and work in preaching and in the books that are published to feed that preaching. That is accompanied by a stress on our experience of salvation rather than on the grace, majesty, and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Is it possible that most preachers reading these pages own more books on preaching (and even on preaching Christ!) than they own on Christ himself?

If that is true (a survey would certainly be illuminating), we should probably ask a further question: Is it obvious to me, and of engrossing concern, that the chief focus, the dominant note in the sermon I preach (or hear), is ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’? Or is the dominant emphasis (and perhaps the greatest energies of the preacher) focused somewhere else, perhaps on how to overcome sin, or how to live the Christian life, or on the benefits to be received from the gospel? All are legitimate emphases in their place, but that pace is never center stage.

When I read that, I write in the margin, “Most convicting, Dr. Ferguson. Bless you.”

Don’t Put Him in the Footnotes of Your Sermon

In that paragraph quoted above Ferguson offers, in a footnote, an illustration for how we commonly let Christ’s benefits supersede a focus on Christ himself. He says,

This [separation] might be illustrated by the way in which, for example, John Owen’s work Of the Mortification of Sin has undoubtedly been read by many more younger ministers than either his Glory of Christ or Communion with God. That may be understandable because of the deep pastoral insight in Owen’s short work; but it may also put the practical cart before the theological horse. Owen himself would not have been satisfied with hearers who learned mortification without learning Christ. A larger paradigmatic shift needs to take place than only exchanging a superficial subjectivism for Owen’s rigorous subjectivism. What is required is a radical recentering in a richer and deeper knowledge of Christ, understood in terms of his person and work. There can be little doubt that Owen himself viewed things this way.

Christ the Center

Dear brother preacher, the Lord’s Day is right around the corner, and we must ask afresh, “Whom will we preach?” That’s the most important question, even more than, “What will we preach?” We preach Christ because Christ is the gospel. Let our preaching lift the chin of our congregation to consider Christ dead, buried, risen, and ascended to heaven. Let our preaching call for sinners to get into Christ. Let our preaching sound forth the sweetness of a Savior crushed in our place.

Let us not tear asunder Christ from His benefits. Let us preach the Benefactor who graciously gives His benefits to all who believe.

He’s Got it Right

“It is our calling [as pastors] to woo and win souls to Christ, to set him forth to the people as crucified among them, to present him in all his attractive excellencies, that all hearts may be ravished with his beauty, and charmed into his arms by love.” — John Flavel

The Purposes of Gospel Ministry

The “grand aims [of gospel ministry] are to exalt Jehovah, the Creator, Redeemer and Judge of the world; to overthrow the power of Satan, the prince of all evil; to save mankind from sin and hell; to banish vice and all other evil from the earth; to bring true happiness to the lost children of Adam; to build up a glorious Church amidst the ruins which sin has wrought; to prepare citizens for the heavenly world who shall behold and share the infinite blessedness of the Son of God. Surely it must be a calling of no ordinary importance which God has appointed for such ends.” – Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology, 7.

A Man of the Word

“There are so many things that will demand your attention in those early days of the pastorate, yet nothing is more important than getting to know the Word of God thoroughly, accurately, and confidently. Immerse your soul and mind and heart in this Holy Word. Spend hours reading it. Steal away moments to meditate on it. Engage in the hard work of memorizing it. Read an entire book in one sitting. Memorize and outline for each of the sixty-six books so that you know what they contain. . . . Your people need to know that you know the Word of God and that you speak with authority because you are rightly handling the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15).” – Jason Helopoulos, The New Pastor’s Handbook, 62-63.

Preaching Nourished by Prayer

The Pastor and Prayer

It’s a perennial question, “Where should you start a book on preaching?” You could give a brief theology of Scripture, survey its primacy in church history, or you could do something totally different like write a chapter on prayer. That’s exactly where Gary Millar and Phil Campbell begin their book Saving Eutychus: How to Preach God’s Word and Keep People Awake. That emphasis seems just right. That apostles did say they would devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). So, when a book self-consciously reflects this order my interest is automatically piqued.

Gary Millar takes five pages and fills them with punch and pith on the necessity of prayer if we are ever going to keep Eutychus awake. His sage counsel is summarized with these points: 1) resolve now to pray fervently for your own preach, and 2) make sure that your church prays together for the preaching.

Putting It Into Practice

To illustrate the power of the second point Millar recounts his experience at Gilcomston South Church. I found the example of this community stirring. May it do the same for you and lead to you place greater emphasis on prayer in your preaching ministry. Millar writes,

From 1988-1991 (when I was a theological student), I was part of a remarkable church family. Gilcomston South Church of Scotland in Aberdeen wasn’t a huge church. Nor was it a particularly ‘happening’ church. We met twice on a Sunday, had a midweek central Bible study and a Saturday night prayer meeting—and that was it. There was an organ, and we sang five hymns or psalms (often to Germanic minor tunes). The pastor, William Still, preached steadily through the Bible (this was still relatively novel at the time, even though he had been doing it for 40 years). But what set that church family apart was its very simple commitment to ‘the ministry of the word nourished by prayer’ (as Mr. Still would repeatedly say). I have never been part of a church family that had a greater sense of expectancy when we gathered to hear the Bible explained. And I have never been part of a church family where prayer was so obviously the heartbeat of everything that went on. And I have never been part of a church family where God was so obviously present week by week as he spoke through his word. And, it seems to me, there might just be a connection.

Of course ‘Gilc’ was, and is, just like any church family—full of flawed, messed-up people like you and me. But those of us who had the privilege of ‘passing through’ went on from there with an indelible sense that preaching and praying go together. It was just part of the DNA of the church family. The precious group of 50 or 60 people who met week by week at the Saturday night prayer meeting spend most of the two hours praying for the proclamation of the gospel elsewhere—in other churches in our city, in Scotland, and on every continent around the world, one by one. Eventually, someone would pray, ‘And Lord, spare a though for us in our own place tomorrow . . .’ and the others, who had been praying faithfully on their own all through the week for the preaching at Gilc, would murmur a heartfelt ‘Amen.’