Every summer—at some time during several weeks of vacation and study leave—I try to read a book on preaching. For many summers, this has meant rereading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Preaching and Preachers. This year it meant reading a book I would have never picked up had not Alistair Begg recommended it. I’m not sure I agree with all of the theological presuppositions or with every point of practical application, but taken as a whole Heralds of God, first published in 1946 by the renowned Scottish preacher James S. Stewart, was a good, bracing tonic for the soul.
More than anything, Stewart drives home the point with relentless force that preaching is an immense privilege and preaching is supernaturally powerful.
On the privilege of preaching:
To spend your days doing that—not just describing Christianity or arguing for a creed, not apologizing for the faith or debating fine shades of religious meaning, but actually offering and giving men Christ—could any life-work be more thrilling or momentous? (57)
On the need for power in our preaching:
The very terms describing the preacher’s function—herald, ambassador—manifestly connote authority. Far too often the pulpit has been deferential apologetic when it ought to have been prophetic and trumpet-toned. It has wasted time balancing probabilities and discussing opinions and erecting interrogation-marks, when it ought to have been ringing out the note of unabashed, triumphant affirmation—“The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it!” (211)
I wonder if we believe all that? Of course, most people reading this blog will confess with fervent acclamation that they believe in preaching. But do we really?
Let me ask of those sitting in the pew, do you come to the word expectant each week, prepared in heart and mind to hear a great word from our great God? Are you convinced that what you need to hear from the pulpit is of far greater importance than what you need to see on your favorite television show, what you need to read from your favorite website, what you need to hear from your favorite podcast? Are you letting punditry shape you more than preaching? Are you willing to give your pastor the time he needs to for prayer and study—not just time away from other people’s concerns but, when necessary, to the seeming neglect of your concerns? Do you pray for your own soul that it might be fresh kindling for the word? And do you pray for your pastor that he might bring fire from heaven Sunday by Sunday?
As much as the congregation needs to be reminded of the power and privilege of preaching, I’m convinced that preachers need to be reminded of these things even more.
As much as the congregation needs to be reminded of the power and privilege of preaching, I’m convinced that preachers need to be reminded of these things even more. It seems to me that ours is not an age of great preaching. The gifted pulpiteers on cable television are usually vacuous and superficial, if not heterodox, while solid expositional teaching can be filled with exegetical truth but lacking in homiletical polish and heraldic power. Perhaps the preaching in the average church is better than it used to be. But if it is, it is hard to see when bad news and controversy in the church get all the headlines.
Over fifty years ago Lloyd-Jones declared, “without hesitation” he said, “that the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.” Is that true? If it is, then every solo pastor, every senior pastor, every man called upon to announce the good news of Christ and him crucified should take note.
If you are the main person responsible for preaching in your congregation, preaching must be your thing. You can’t let counseling or visitation crowd it out. You can’t let administration crowd it. You can’t let the pull of people pleasing crowd it out. And you can’t let the allure and expectation of nonstop cultural commentary crowd it. Of course, pastors do more than preach, and depending on their gifting, context, and the elders and staff members around them, they may be able to have a public ministry besides preaching. But that ministry must never be in place of preaching or to the detriment of preaching.
Brother pastors, we are preachers first, not podcasters. We must be preachers before we are political pundits, bloggers, tweeters, book reviewers, controversialist, or social commentators. Preaching is not all we can do but let us be careful: in our age of instant digital access and immediate digital output, a great many pastors are being pulled away from the center out to the periphery. To be a professional scholar, or a weekly columnist, or a hospital chaplain, or a daily news commentator, or a conservative activist, or a community organizer, or a social reformer, or an expert in police reform is to be called to an admirable vocation. But the calling of the preacher is to preach.
Here’s the harsh and freeing reality: you can’t do it all. I can’t do it all. Anyone paying attention can see that I do some of the things listed above. But some, not all. Some of the time, not most of the time. And never, I hope, in a way that cuts in front of the necessary task of preaching. When the apostles devoted themselves to the word of God and prayer, they were not just establishing priorities ahead of waiting on tables. They were committing themselves to preaching and praying instead of other good things they could be doing.
The Apostle Paul believed in preaching. He could not have stated his command to young Timothy any stronger. If Paul had been writing on a computer, he would have used italics, and underlined it, and made it boldface 24-point font. He underscored the central and abiding importance of preaching with a fourfold oath formula—I charge you (1) in the presence of God, (2) and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, (3) and by his appearing (4) and his kingdom: preach the word (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The word for “preach” is keruxon; it means to herald. Preaching includes teaching, but it is more than that. It is a word of proclamation, a “Hear ye! Hear ye!” announcement on behalf of the King. Preaching is no mere recitation of facts, no bare exegetical commentary. Preaching is, in the words of John Murray, personal, passionate pleading. It requires the whole man—everything he has in body, mind, and strength.
If there is a crisis of confidence in preaching, it is a crisis in the pulpit as much as in the pew. “Who is going to believe,” asks Stewart, “that the tidings brought by the preacher matter literally more than anything else on earth if they are presented with no sort of verve or fire or attack, and if the man himself is apathetic and uninspired, afflicted with spiritual coma, and unsaying by his attitude what he says in words?” (41). Brothers, we must put our best effort into preaching. We must strive year by year to get better at preaching. Dare I say, we must open ourselves to a few godly counselors for evaluation of our preaching. And above all, we must reestablish in our own hearts the centrality of preaching and our confidence in it. What Stewart said about his century is just as true about ours: “When all is said and done, the supreme need of the Church is the same in the twentieth century as in the first: it is men on fire for Christ” (220).