I want to present to you seven-fold beginners’ methodology to the true work of the ministry.
1. The work of the ministry will only be achieved by unfeigned belief in the truthfulness of the Bible.
There is nothing for the preacher more fundamental than the principle that a thing is true if Jesus Christ says so. That is the foundation on which every true ministry begins. That is why we ask every candidate wanting us to recognise his call to the ministry this question, ‘What do you think of Christ?’ ‘He is the Son of God.’ Does everyone here have that unqualified commitment? We have submitted personally to the authority of Jesus Christ over us.
Then one consequence of that is that we believe in the inerrancy of the Old Testament. We believe in its infallibility for one great reason, because Christ said that it cannot be broken. Men may say that I am a fundamentalist worshipping a book. Now, I don’t worship this book. This book is not my first principle. The Lord Jesus Christ is my first principle, but that Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, sends me to this book. The incarnate God spoke and said, ‘It is written.’ If I am a Christian then this is my fundamental posture. It is not simply ‘the Bible says,’ but ‘God in Christ says.’ I believe in the infallibility of the Son of God. My life is held captive to that, and every thought of every true preacher has to be brought into the obedience of Christ. The infallibility of the Lord is what gives me my epistemology, and it determines and rules my intellectual position. That is my first great principle, that Christ is never wrong. When he said, ‘Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female,’ (Matt. 19:4) then I acknowledge it was he who said, ‘I am the truth’ who made those statements. So it is Jesus Christ who has given me the obligation to lay the truthfulness of the opening chapters of Genesis right on the consciences of my hearers. For us, the Master is always right.
That is the first requirement of every preacher. I have to live with many unresolved difficulties, with verses in the Bible I cannot readily harmonise, with secret things that belong to God. Maybe my problem today happens to be why God does not keep gifted preachers from falling. If he has not kept them will he keep me? Maybe that is this week’s perplexity. But I also can live with such dilemmas very comfortably and very happily because I know my questioning is the inevitable consequence of the grappling of my finite mind with things that are infinite and eternal. I have peace at the depth of my soul, because my authority is Christ. I am his servant and his pupil. I know a thing is true because Christ has said it. There can never be a single effective preacher who has rejected that.
What is controlling us, even in our Christian profession? By what rule or standard do we live by? Are we going on our own way? Are we serving self, or are we being controlled, week by week, by the will of God? Let me put the challenge before you in the most concrete terms. If I held today a great belief – some conviction or other – and I had believed it for years, and my community also had, and also my family, but then I discover that it has no foundation in God’s Word – would I let it go just because God said it was wrong?
I am asking you this, because if you are going to stand before a gathering of God’s people and declare to them the will of God, how do you yourself stand in relationship to his word? I am saying to you that we face the constant peril that our thinking is only the rearranging of our prejudices. I seem to see this in churches all the time – a scant regard for the will of God. A confessional church and yet God’s will is not the supreme thing, and that makes me anxious. Are we really being controlled by the will of God? Suppose we knew that the Bible taught such and such, and that the Bible condemned such and such, are our minds really open, because if our minds are not, then how will our congregation’s be open to God’s Word? Is my life – because that is where I have to begin – one of submission to God’s will? I am painfully aware of preaching to you what I should preach to myself. But this is God’s message for you. It is the providence of God that brings me and you here, and you have to accept your providence, and it is asking you is your life one of submission to God’s will, however much that will may contradict your background and traditions, or contradict your revolt against that background and traditions?
2. The work of the ministry will only be achieved by enduring tough times.
When I speak to you about preaching I am talking about the activity of the pastor in the local church. I am not talking about the men who itinerate from church to church speaking on specialised subjects, like family life, or student ministries, or those who do the work of evangelism in different settings throughout the year. I am not even talking about men who follow other callings, like working in seminaries but who also preach on Sundays in different churches. I am not talking about retired ministers who help out on Sundays in this church or that. I am addressing my remarks to men who live by the gospel, men in the heat of the battle, who are preaching twice on Sundays and also in the mid-week meeting of their own congregation year after year. Full time preacher-pastors … full term pastor-preachers: men who are in the business of changing a congregation – whom they have grown to love – by the word of God, through ‘teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’ (II Tim.3:16). The life of the pastor-preacher is all about changing people into the image of Christ.
I am not talking about those preachers who have never become entirely comfortable in their own skin. There is always something the matter, mysterious aches and pains in odd parts of the body – the sinuses, the feet, the shoulder. They are not comfortable with themselves and they cannot make themselves at home in any of the churches which they happen to be pastoring at any given moment. They don’t know how to set about things. They are there a wee while, and away they fly for a brief encounter somewhere else. On it goes, keeping things ticking very quietly – but you can’t hear anything. I am talking today about men who are locked into a congregation, surviving by the money that the people they preach to put in the offering plate each week
These are the men who even in the longest ministries and in the happiest congregations endure a minority who would love to have someone else in the pulpit. That never changes. Amongst these preachers are many who would barely survive a vote of confidence even though some of the people voting against them would actually have been drawn into the church and professed faith under their ministries. I have in mind men who endure regular officers’ meetings with a heavy spirit, and who are often on the verge of resignation, but who go on preaching at the heart of their own congregations year after year.
This is no unusual phenomenon. It is the virtual norm for most of us pastor-preachers. All in Asia forsook the apostle Paul. If Jonathan Edwards, after that illustrious ministry, was dismissed by a majority of the 230 men who were his church members then certainly lesser preachers cannot be surprised if it happens to them. After Dr Lloyd-Jones had been four years in Westminster Chapel, Dr. Campbell Morgan, the senior minister, retired. It was 1943 and there was no unanimity in the Chapel that Lloyd-Jones should carry on as the sole pastor. In fact many who had heard him for four whole years – maybe 150 sermons – were firmly opposed to his becoming their preacher. Let me give you an instance of their scorn: Dr Lloyd-Jones invariably ended his morning pastoral prayer with the words, ‘and may the Triune God abide with us throughout the remainder of this our short, uncertain earthly life and pilgrimage’ and one man sitting in a pew would occasionally mutter out loud at that moment ‘and before we are carried out dead to the mortuary’! The object of his contempt had had a remarkable awakening ministry in Aberavon in the preceding decade in which hundreds were converted, yet the deacons of Westminster Chapel were now writing to him and asking, ‘What are your views as to the position arising from Dr Morgan’s resignation, as it affects your ministerial office?’ (Iain Murray, ‘David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981’, Volume Two, p.101, Banner of Truth, 1990). He preached into the faces of boredom and hostility – people who could snipe at his preaching because he made them feel like sinners. But Dr Lloyd-Jones survived that time, and numbers left, while he won others over, but it was not straightforward even for him.
I am saying that there is not a true preacher who is not often made aware of just how fragile his position is, who would not be surprised if a quarter of his membership were to secede this year and start another church. There is scarcely a single faithful minister who has not been misunderstood and opposed even by members of his own family – as Spurgeon was by his own younger brother. That is the reality of the Christian ministry, and it is a myth to think there is somewhere a perfect church where all the congregation hang onto every word their preacher says. There is a name for groups like that. We call them cults. The real ministry is not like that at all Your heart is often in your mouth. You find yourself looking at the PC screen and reading the words of the resignation letter you have just compiled. You may be the godly man I’ve been describing, and your message may be from the living God as I have outlined it, but that means you will certainly face trials within the church. So I am saying the true preacher has to preach with courage, and endure hardness as a good servant of Jesus Christ, and mortify his wishbone and develop a backbone.
It is no disgrace to lose a vote of confidence in a church – but the rules have to be fair. For example, instead of your having to get a two-thirds majority – which Jonathan Edwards himself would not get – your opponents have to get two-thirds support that the congregation has no confidence in you as pastor. It is not at all just when a minority can remove a pastor with almost twice as many in the meeting wanting him to stay on. True preachers endure hardness. They don’t give up. Keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on!
A friend went to Westminster Chapel earlier this month on 7th October to the annual International Christian Human Rights Conference organised by Christian Solidarity and Premier Christian Radio. There were 800 present, and Christians spoke from Egypt, Burma, China and East Timor of the sufferings the church has known there. But the most moving time was when four women entered the pulpit, Patti Tenenoff, her daughter Dora, Nancy Mankins and Tania Rich. Eight years ago they and their husbands were in Colombia working for the New Tribes Mission when guerrillas took their husbands hostage. The women have not heard a thing from them since that time. Yet they believe their three husbands are still alive, and Dora read a poem she had written when she was about twelve years of age about growing up without her father. What contented, peaceful, trusting women they were, modestly standing there and committing themselves, their husbands and the cause of Christ into God’s hands. Our friend had a lump in her throat listening to them. This is the first verse of the poem Dora wrote:
THERE ONCE WAS A MAN.
There once was a man,
a man I once knew.
Who told me stories every night,
laughed at my jokes, and held me tight.
He told me, ‘Don’t quit!
Always fight the good fight!’
He said, ‘Love the Lord with all your heart,
and serve Him with all your might!’
He begged me, ‘Do right!’
Don’t quit! Keep on. That’s our first words to men under pressure. I find a tension counselling such ministers. There have been times when I have pushed a man almost to a nervous breakdown because of the pressure he is under, and I didn’t realise it. ‘Hang in there brother! We are praying for you! Don’t quit!’ That is our initial response. But there is an additional doctrine in Scripture of brushing the dust from under your feet and moving on. But the line between moving on and sticking it out is often a razor’s edge and not a chasm, and the minister and his advisers do not always spot it. But you have the same heavenly Father as I have, and he will make things clear to you. Cleave to the Lord! So every ministry develops in the crucible of rejection.
3. The work of the ministry will only be achieved by toil.
The Lord Jesus once spoke to his disciples and said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’ (Luke 10:2). Who does the Lord send out into vineyard? Not men who want position and prestige and reputation. Not men who want security and leisure time. Not men who want a life of study. Men who labour! Men who love to work! Labourers! Men who are in love, not with theology and discussion and academic recognition, but men who will work their socks off for the Lord. Men who will sweat and toil in the work of the Lord. Men who manifest a work of faith and a labour of love all their lives through.
I realise that the Lord Jesus is not talking here in Luke 10 about the preacher but of every single disciple. This is the vocation of all the church. We are looking for men who will labour at every single level of the Christian life. Parents, and youth workers, and Sunday School teachers and elders. We are looking for those deacons who arrive early on Sunday and get the bucket and brush and wash the vomit off the church steps from the Saturday night drunks, people in charge of the book-table and the tape ministry, the people who pray in the Prayer Meeting – every single one of them labouring for the Lord. It is the most elementary challenge that a whole congregation is motivated to work for the Lord, not one sluggard from the book of Proverbs tolerated, but everyone abounding in the work of the Lord – in season when it is wonderfully convenient – and also out of season when it is not. Of course, that is your longing – to belong to a congregation of labourers for the Lord. The reality for too many of us is that those who do the most seem to have the time and energy to take on more, while those who are doing nothing have no time for anything. So often it is the lambs who are pointing sinners to the Good Shepherd while the old rams are doing nothing.
I am saying that the pastor enfleshes and exemplifies Christian labour. Six days shalt thou labour. I would expect to work until 10 p.m. every night of the week. That’s my delight of course. (I hope that this is not boasting. You cannot listen with profit if you detect pride in any preacher.) Working until 10 has not always been like that. This is just how it has developed for me. I am now in my last promised decade. If we have seven decades, and each decade is like a day in the week then today it is Saturday for me and my week has almost ended, so I am anxious to make up for wasted years. A week last Sunday at 10.45 p.m. my wife said to the 20 students in the Manse, ‘Well, now, it is time for you go home to your beds!’ At the end of the one night a week on which I take my assistant visiting with me I drop him at his home and then I call in at McDonald’s drive-in – which is just round the corner from his home – just before it closes at 11.00 and treat myself to a hamburger.
Excuse those trivial personal references. My point is that there is no method for success and growth for a minister which does not embrace labouring in the gospel. Here is the great model for us in 2 Corinthians 11:27 ‘I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Beside everything else, I face the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?’ But the great challenge of those words is this – to be labouring and toiling when we are emotionally disinclined. To be abounding in the work of the Lord when we lie, as we sometimes do, in the depths of depression, wallowing sometimes in self-pity. We know that there is a duty to attend to, and that duty is very unpleasant, unattractive and unwelcome. Do we have the maturity to stand right on top of our emotions, and in the face of our reluctance and aversion attend to what God commands us to do – even when we are emotionally totally disinclined? There is no greater peril for the Christian minister than to make our emotions the touchstone of our duties: to wait for the moment of inspiration before we pray, or do what God commands us to do. There is no more common excuse that the minister makes than saying to himself, ‘I couldn’t be expected to witness and pray and visit when I feel like this.’ Time and again we have to stand at ourselves and insist that although we lie virtually on the emotional floor of despondency we have to pick ourselves up and attend to what God commands us to do.
Are we labouring in the face of our emotional disinclination? Are we working in the face of the tremendous obstacles and difficulties that providence may often place in the way of doing our duty? More than that. Are we labouring in small things? It is one of the surest signs of ministerial maturity that we pay careful attention to matters of detail in the Christian life. The Lord’s highest commendation falls upon men who are faithful in little things. It is at that point so often we are losing this particular struggle. It may not seem much to you while in Seminary that a minister who is going to be in the pulpit at 11 on a Sunday morning has a considered prepared sermon, and that he is back there that Sunday evening with another such message. That may seem to you so very obvious – only an incidental matter. It may seem to you obvious that he knows where the doubts are in the congregation, where the backsliding is, where the tears are. It may seem trivial to you that he knows what the children’s names are, what are the significance of certain dates are for some people. It may seem just a small thing to keep certain promises, write certain letters, say thank you regularly to the Sunday School teachers, the youth leaders and those who keep the machinery of the church turning, and show genuine appreciation. It may seem to you inconceivable that there should be a minister and he does not have a time of personal devotions every day. It’s just a small thing to labour at such matters, but it is here our works are being severely tested. It is out of all this that your preaching emerges. How will they listen to you if you are remiss in these areas?
Then one closing word in this matter of labouring for the Lord. Do everything for double usefulness. I think that that is Herman Hoeksema’s exhortation. A man gave that to me at one time in my life, and it proved to be very useful. For example, if I write an article or a report I will send it to magazines in different corners of the world. I will attend conferences and listen but I will take my laptop with me and transcribe a full outline of what is said and put it on the Banner of Truth website: others then can profit from it. I will gather my sermons series together and offer them to some publisher as a book. I will aim to put a sermon, word for word, every week, or about 40 a year on our church website. I have put these three talks on preaching on the church’s website so that you can go home after this lecture and before the day is out I hope you will be able to download them all. So I preach to a congregation of up to 100 people on a Sunday night in my little town of 15,000 people on the shores of the Irish Sea, but then to a thousand more who normally visit the web and who read the sermon and download it every week. If I were going to become a John Newton having to answer many people’s correspondence with their questions I would certainly gather the letters together and if they were deemed helpful prepare them for a larger audience to read them. Do everything for double usefulness. Be always abounding in your work for the Lord
4. The work of the ministry will only be achieved by dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
We must learn to trust him, and instinctively to invoke his help at every moment of crisis in our ministries as we witness to the glory of Jesus Christ. You remember the Lord said these fascinating words, ‘do not worry about what to say or how to say it’ (Matthew 10:19). He was not warning us against study or preparation. He was not saying, ‘Don’t read and learn the Scriptures.’ But you know that sometimes we worry about the actual action of speaking. We become tense and anxious about certain occasions. We try to rehearse everything we are going to say. We attempt to have a prepared response to every foreseeable situation. Then something arises in a form we have not foreseen. We have no prepared answers, no formulae, no ready set of words and we are embarrassed by our own silence.
The answer is really this. You have come to know the Word of God, that is, known the system of doctrine that Scripture teaches, the flowing of redemptive history, and you have charged your minds to retain and memorise verses the Bible has taught. You have taken the responsibility of that upon yourself very seriously: Ephesians 6:14, ‘Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist.’ That is where the Christian soldier begins. Before he can fight he has to buckle everything together with this belt. But then, in addition I am saying, you learn to depend upon God, so that even in the moment of proclamation he will give you words. He will tell you what to say. We depend upon the Spirit of God for efficiency at every level in our spiritual lives. We are all to be Spirit-enabled people.
A PCA minister from Florida sent me a dozen sermons on the Psalms of Ascents and I listened to them. They were all written out by him word by word and earnestly read to the congregation. The sermons would have made the same flat impression upon the people if he had mailed them each a copy of the sermon and they had read them at home. I advised him that once a month he must go into the pulpit with no notes at all and speak to his people. I believe that confidence in the great fact that the Spirit helps us as we are preaching would cure many of our spiritual neuroses, and raise our whole level of preaching – if we were only prepared to believe that God would help us, and teach us on every occasion when we are standing up for him.
I remember going to a pro-abortion meeting in our town on the pier addressed by a local abortionist doctor in a roomful of feminists. I went with a wife of one of our deacons who had recently had a miscarriage. I could feel the bench we sat on trembling as she was preparing to get up and speak as some of these women talked of this ‘growth’ within themselves. I do not know if there were any more Christians there that night but Pearl and myself, but once she was on her feet her nervousness went and God helped her to speak and He made sure that not one of her words fell to the ground.
I am saying that if we enter the pulpit in a right relationship with God, with a good conscience, armed with the truth, knowing what we believe and why, with true affection for the people we are addressing, and depending upon the Holy Spirit then you will find this marvellous thing happening … you will find the Spirit coming with power and wisdom, giving you the words that are entirely appropriate to the particular situation. You may climb the steps of the pulpit thinking, ‘I do not believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. I do not believe in Jesus Christ his Son…’ You may start the service as exhausted and weary and listless and lifeless as you have ever been, but as you cry for the assistance of God the Spirit, and sing hymns to Jehovah, and read his word, and pray, and begin to preach you will find the Lord himself coming as he has come again and again, to you and to the whole congregation, filling you with his word and presence. You will preach yourself and your congregation into fulness from emptiness, and joy from the ashes of mourning.
I told my friend and counsellor Iain Murray that I was speaking here this week and he wrote to me and said, ‘Don’t be tied to a script at RTS. They need to learn freedom, liberty and actual dependence on the Holy Spirit for the exercise of preaching as well as for the preparation. We cannot be too simple. A village in New Jersey didn’t know Archibald Alexander, but was used to hearing his students, and one day they heard him without apparently knowing who this preacher was. They commented, ‘He is not as learned as the students we hear.’ The OPC church across the road from Westminster Seminary had many of the faculty in its membership, and that could intimidate many of the preachers who took that pulpit. But all that the professors wanted was for themselves, and especially their wives and chi ldren to be fed with the Word of God, and hear the gospel, and be urged to come to Jesus Christ. That is what we all want, for the gospel to come, not in word only, but in power and in the Holy Ghost and with much assurance. Don’t be bound by what your perception of what leading a Reformed preacher might expect from you. Be yourself in dependence upon the Holy Spirit.
5. The work of the ministry can only be achieved in the defence of the gospel.
I am referring to Paul’s words in Philippians 1:16, ‘I am put here for the defence of the gospel.’ There is some reluctance to do this, and all kinds of pressures within the church’s present structures. Let me illustrate that: if we go back to Blaise Pascal we meet a man who gave Christianity much of its thinking as far as defending the gospel is concerned. There is a famous statement of Pascal when he says, ‘The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know,’ and time and again men have taken that statement and they have said, ‘That is the way. You cannot bring reason to the defence of the gospel because it is a matter of the heart.’ Or you take that old saying, ‘It is easier felt than telt.’ You meet there exactly the same principle. Or you have it in the song, ‘You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.’ Come again to C.H.Spurgeon and he tells us this ‘Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a lion. Just let it loose and it will defend itself.’
Now the reality today is that all over Africa the lion has to be defended. Lions are no match against poachers with rifles. Men have it in their power to exterminate the lion and all that will be left is a curiosity we choose to visit in a zoo, not a powerful independent roaming roaring killing presence. If the lion has to be defended today certainly the gospel has always to be defended. The New Testament is full of the defence of the gospel. It is packed with examples of men reasoning in support of the Christian faith. I am totally convinced that Pascal has misunderstood the New Testament at that point.
Paul was set for the defence of the gospel. Peter tells the early church to give a reason, an apologia, for the hope they have. Almost the whole of apostolic preaching in Acts is defensive preaching. It is full of reasoning and argumentation. The early Christians were disputing in the synagogues and before the philosophers because, they said, ‘We have a defensible gospel.’ I was always glad of the apologetics department and the man who led it at Westminster Seminary. I was also glad of the impact that Francis Schaeffer made in the 1970s because of his use of the infallible Bible and emphasis on biblical spirituality.
To defend the gospel you have to remove every misunderstanding and prejudice that stands in the way of faith in Christ. You read Acts 2 and the history of Pentecost and immediately you find the church misunderstood: ‘These men are drunk.’ God is overwhelming them, and they are proclaiming a message that comes from the throne of the universe, and people dismiss them as inebriated. Right down through the ages the living church faces such calumny. ‘These people burnt witches. These people supported the monkey trial. These people destroy unity. These folk are snake handlers. These are the people who caused the civil war in the north of Ireland.’ We have to remove prejudice and misunderstanding. That is a legitimate part of our witness.
Or consider the great doctrines of the Confession which men misunderstand: predestination, the atonement, the creation, depravity, the Trinity – the church has to remove prejudice. We have to answer the objectors. There are objections to a historic Adam, a virgin birth, Christ walking on the water, the sufferings some men and women pass through, an axe-head that floats, the eternal punishment of the wicked, and we have to defend Christianity against these objections.
We have to give a reason for the hope that is in us. I was in school with a man who later led the Labour Party in Great Britain, Neil Kinnock, and there was a time when as a 13 year-old boy he came to the Christian Union we started in 1955 (he is three or four years younger than me), but he later drifted away from interest in living faith. Then at a General Election, when he was leading the Labour Party and Mrs. Thatcher was leading the Tories, he was asked what his views on Christianity were. He told them he would like to believe but felt unable to make the leap into the dark. I wrote to him and reminded him of the old days in school, the Christian Union, and told him that coming to Christ was not a leap into the dark but coming to the light of Jesus’ teaching, and claims and great works. Coming to Christ required thinking about these things very very seriously.
In the New Testament faith is the result of persuasion and conviction and demonstration and argument. We are people of hope, but that hope is not whistling in the dark to keep up our spirits. We have a light that is shining on and on. There is our faith in the resurrection of Christ. That did not happen in the dark, in a corner. Ordinary people saw the Lord for almost six weeks, and ate and drank with him. The resurrection didn’t happen in Narnia. It happened outside Jerusalem out of a tomb which was in a garden where a degree of latitude crossed a degree of longitude. I am not taking a gamble when I believe in Jesus. I am not taking up Pascal’s wager as the smart man’s option. I am persuaded that there are reasons that carry conviction, and out of them my faith comes.
On 30th September 700 people came to a conference called ‘Say Yes to Creation’ at the University of Leeds, England. Such meetings are enormously encouraging if only to shake up and disturb unbelievers’ thoughts about what they call ‘evolution.’ Dr Lloyd-Jones tells the story of a man walking down a country lane and seeing a farmer friend chasing a horse around a field. ‘What are you doing?’ he said. The breathless farmer said, ‘I want to harness this horse to plow a field, but he won’t let me catch him. He doesn’t want to work. So I am just chasing him round and round the field. I am making sure that he is not going to enjoy a day of idleness.’ So it is in our defence of the faith. If we are unable to convert evolutionists and abortionists at least by defending the faith and presenting truth to people we can stir their consciences and take away some of their happiness in their sinning.
6. The work of the ministry will only be achieved by discriminatory preaching.
Discriminatory preaching shows the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. Consider the irresistible power of the preaching of Stephen in Acts 6 and 7. This is the verdict the Holy Ghost makes about his sermons, ‘they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke’ (Acts 6:10). That is our goal. We can never be satisfied with anything less than that. You remember how Stephen was summoned to defend himself before the Sanhedrin, and when they saw him ‘his face was like the face of an angel’ (Acts 6:15). George Orwell’s last words in his notebooks were, ‘At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.’ I do believe that the indwelling of the Lord Jesus and the constant looking unto God does create a kind of facial beauty. We all know cases like that of certain people who have left their mark on us whose nobility and purity and benevolence of soul shines through the face, and to gaze at it is to be peering at a friend of God. I think that that is a beautiful grace.
Stephen preaches and he tells them at length their deplorable history and then concludes, ‘You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him’ (Acts 7:51&52). Then what happens? Are they asked to vote? Does the high priest thank him for an interesting message, and then tell the Sanhedrin that there’s a buzzer under their seats and they can all decide whether Stephen’s right or wrong? ‘Of course I’m going to be neutral, but you’re all free to vote one way or the other.’
Is that what happened? And they voted and then went home and had dinner and told their families all about it? That is not the way that service ended. Hear! ‘They were furious, and gnashed their teeth at him … and they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him’ (Acts 7:54 & 57). The sermon ended with them killing him. They had killed his Lord and now they killed him the servant, and Stephen or any preacher of the gospel would not want it any other way. What preacher wants people who hate his Saviour to say pleasant things about him? And these men were the inner circle of the most religious people in the world. And they had brought him there on trial. They had put him in the dock and they thought that they were the jury and were gong to pass verdict on him, and make up their minds how bad he was. Stephen disillusioned them of that pretty quick. He was not on trial. They were, because they had betrayed and murdered Jehovah Jesus and all that lay before them was an open-ended encounter with his Father.
Stephen wasn’t asking for a decision or a verdict. He was asking for submission and repentance. That sermon was so powerful that it cut them to the heart. Stephen wasn’t a performer, a sword juggler, he was taking the sword of the Spirit and he was thrusting it into their hearts, and he wouldn’t stop until they were convicted of sin and righteousness and judgment to come.
God has given to us the Bible, this miraculous book, and it is at the heart of the church, and he has given us men with the message of the book to declare it, but we are not seeing people being cut down by its power, and few are entering the Kingdom of God. I am saying that one of the reasons for this is that what happened in the Jerusalem Sanhedrin in not happening in too many churches today. Stephen discriminated in his preaching. In other words, he showed the difference between Christians and non-Christians. It was not simply that he had marvellous redemptive historical insights, and theologically was straight down the line, but he proclaimed the implications of the death of Christ for that very congregation – ‘you have betrayed and murdered him.’ He gave them an encounter with the Holy One of Israel He cut them to their hearts, and at least one of those who heard him began to kick against the sword. Saul of Tarsus felt the power of the truth and the sword of the word penetrating him, but he was just kicking and kicking against it. And we have to be like Stephen and get around to saying to people, ‘And what about you? What is Jesus to you? Are you seeking or are you a finder?’ Men and women are not coming to Christ because they have no need of Christ. They feel no guilt and so they have no desire for a Saviour. They don’t know what the hymnist is writing about when he says, ‘Vile and full of sin I am,’ or when he says, ‘Foul, I to the fountain fly, wash me Saviour or I die.’ We have to take the sword of the Spirit and thrust it into their hearts and prick their pride and deflate them.
What does Paul ask the church to pray for when they think about him? Boldness. They were to cry mightily to the Lord, ‘O God, give Paul courage in his life and message. Help him not to be bought by men’s smiles or fearful because of their frowns.’ We need boldness because ‘the fearful and the unbelieving shall not inherit the kingdom of God.’ One great reason the evangelical pulpit is not making an impact upon the world is that we are not preaching in a discriminatory way. Discriminatory preaching is putting our heads through the gates of hell and telling people that is where they are, because they don’t know it – in the church or in the world.
7. The work of the ministry will only be achieved by applicatory preaching.
Applicatory preaching shows the difference between obedience and disobedience in Christians. The latter half of Matthew 5 is full of applicatory preaching. Start your preaching in a new church with a series on the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord says, ‘You think you have never broken the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but God’s law also embraces the inner life of man, feelings of rage or anger. You can kill a man with your lips – ‘Crucify him, crucify him! Release unto us Barrabas!’ And you also are thinking that because you’ve never taken your secretary away for a week-end that you’ve never broken the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ but you can lust after a women in your heart without every having spoken to her, let alone touched her, and so that seventh commandment is broken. And what are the consequences of that for you? ‘You are in danger of hell fire,’ says the Lord. He brings the threat of the place of woe to Christians to break the power of indwelling sin. Now that has to be done in applicatory preaching. The word must be applied to church members, so that it sticks!
You remember how our Lord dealt with the young man from Israel’s covenant community in Matthew 19, applying to him the 10 commandments and then especially the last commandment to test whether he had conquered covetousness or not? ‘Sell all you have and give to the poor and you shall have treasure in heaven and come and follow me.’ The young man went away sorrowful. He was a very attractive and eager person who had come running to Jesus but he went away sad. Do we know that that is possible – to back away from Jesus sorrowful because the Lord has been laying down the terms of being his disciple?
When Christ had finished his personal work with this man the disciples, watching and listening to everything, cried out in amazement. What did they say? ‘How marvelously simple the three steps of salvation?’ No, they groaned and said, ‘Who then can be saved?’ If this is what it means, the whole course of our life being turned from treasure on earth to treasure in heaven, from self to Christ, and from satisfying the flesh to pleasing the Father – if that indeed is what is involved in true Christianity – who then can be saved?
The Lord Jesus did not say, ‘Ah yes, I see what you mean. The standard is impossibly high. Let me bring it down a bit.’ He said in effect, ‘You get the point, brethren? With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ Only grace can save us and only grace can keep us. That is the fruit of discriminatory and applicatory preaching. At first many people look back in amazement at us, and then with some stirrings of resentment and anger. But then some begin to see what it takes to be converted and to live the Christian life – nothing less than the power of the God who made the world. Only he can bring it to pass, and that is the first rudiments of the biblical doctrine of the Christian life. After that such a new man, finding the blessed work of God has been wrought in his own heart, does not talk about his experience, or his decision, or his profession, but of the grace of God that has caused him to wonder. ‘Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound! That saved a wretch like me!’
Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth. © Copyright Geoffrey Thomas, 2000. All rights reserved.