I have chosen to speak on preaching under these three headings, the Man, the Message and the Method.
If preaching is not a divine activity it is nothing at all. When Paul writes about it he says, ‘We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us’ (2 Cor.5:20). These men are representatives of the most powerful of all beings, and they are beseeching men to be reconciled to the King of the Universe, but there, in that activity, by the preachers’ voices, and manner, and in their entreaty, appears the very Creator King and he himself is appealing to men: ‘Won’t you come to me from your sin? Won’t you bow to me your God? Don’t grow old without me.’ Jehovah is crying, ‘Why will you die?’ The word ‘beseech’ which Paul uses is the same term he actually employs elsewhere for the activity of men in prayer who are longing for God to save their dear ones, aching for the Sovereign Lord to do what no one else is able to do, pleading with God … ‘we beseech Thee, Almighty God, oh hear us…’ Think of the father of the prodigal longing for his son to come home from the distant city. In the activity of preaching, behind and above the voice of his herald, is the voice of the infinite, eternal and unchangeable God himself, and he is beseeching sinners to come to Christ. It is a divine act. If it is merely the engineering of man then it is nothing at all.
When Jonathan Edwards set out as a preacher he was absorbed with God. Ultimate reality to him was the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. God overwhelmed him. God laid him low. The contemplation of God was his delight. The experience of God’s nearness was heaven on earth. God was his magnificent obsession. What was there on earth that could compare to this activity of preaching the good news about the Lord of glory when it was declared not in word only, but with power and with the Holy Ghost and with much assurance? When Edwards heard Whitefield preach from his own pulpit he wept with thankfulness for all that he was hearing. We sing the words, ‘Those who know it best are hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.’
George Whitefield never had a single lesson on how to preach, but God was his alpha and his omega. He could say from his heart, ‘For me to live is Christ,’ his conscience bearing him witness that that was indeed so. There were years in his life when there was not a single day in which he did not speak to multitudes about God, and counsel individuals about God, and pray to God to assist and bless what he was doing. When he rose in the morning he would appropriate his great High Priest as his first thought for the new day. Then he sought to walk with God the Spirit throughout the day. He seized opportunities to serve the Son of God morning, afternoon and evening, and at the close of the day he commended himself to the living God. God was in all his thoughts, and under God Whitefield changed two nations. Preaching is animated Omnipotence regenerating, instructing, convicting and redeeming sinners that they may love God and be like him. In other words, preaching is a saving and sanctifying act of God.
Yet we have chosen these three simple alliterative headings for these three preachy lectures, and they are seeming (at least this minute to the speaker) so horizontal, another pathetic example of the church’s fascination with mere man, and his message, and his methods. The professing church feels comfy with such an approach. It reaffirms our restlessness in having to acknowledge the uncontrollable sovereignty of divinity, and our unspoken attitudes that ‘it’s us who are really in control. And we’ve it got it down in our notebook. We’ve got the tape. We’ve done the course. We’ve read the book. We can assess shrewdly. We know the men, and we’ve chosen the best role models, contemporary and historical.’ But, do we know God as those role models have known him? Are we a pastiche of them, or are we true pastors? We can take into the pulpit with us those notes whose preparation we’ve passed through the mesh of exegesis, historical redemptive insights, structure, a personal reference or two and application. Then on our ministry goes, year after year. It is a better ministry than thousands, but are we accepting the good at the cost of the best?
1. PREACHING: ITS CONCEPTION IN MEN.
We have to begin with men. Let me give you my apologia. It is men that the Lord chooses. There were hundreds of fishermen around the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus walked around and selected four of them. Peter and Andrew, James and John. He discriminated against all the rest. There was no hand-wringing, ‘Won’t any of you come and follow me? Will you, or will you, or you? Isn’t there one? Please come!’ cajoling, and finally berating, and a little angry, so that he screwed a half-reluctant response out of four young men. Four? Being led by One who could walk on water there should have been the march of a million men on recalcitrant Jerusalem, shouldn’t there? Let’s think big. Let’s think Madison Avenue.
Jesus’ ministry was nothing like that at all. Rather there was this enfleshment of Sovereign Grace who had become bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh, and he alked up to these four men in the middle of their working day, and in the particularity of his love effectually summoned them to become his disciples. ‘You must follow me now, and I will do something with you and in you,’ he told them. ‘I will make you fishers of men.’ They forsook all and followed him.
The call was his and the continuation was his too. Without that divine intervention and transformation then one day they would have taken over the management of the fishing business from Zebedee and from Jonas, as all their friends were going to do, and they would have been forgotten, like Whitefield might have been, becoming the publican of the Bell Inn in Gloucester, another 18th century statistic. But when the Lord effectually calls and enables then Peter does not remain an anonymous fisherman. He could throw out his net in Jerusalem and 3000 men were caught by it. God did not need a million men. He only needed one. Jonah was one man sent to Nineveh: Philip, one man sent to Samaria: Paul, one man sent to Corinth. They all proved totally adequate for the mighty task. There is nothing wrong with being a Zebedee or a Jonas. It is an honourable calling to fish. God can be glorified by it. But he will be more glorified by catching men.
I do not believe that the call of God comes by a voice, or even by a verse of Scripture leaping out at us and striking us with its heart-melting authority. I hope such experiences are yours often, so that you spontaneously hug the Bible to your breast and bless God with a lump in your throats for his word. But such peak experiences are too slender a foundation on which to erect a vocation, and then announce to other Christians that you are going to become a minister and that from now on they have to put their hands in their pockets and give money in order to feed and clothe you, plus your family, purchase you a home, a car, medical insurance and vacations in Florida.
There were four colossal decisions that I made in my life – when I became a Christian, when I became a preacher, when I asked my wife to marry me, when I accepted a call from a church in Aberystwyth. Not for one of them did I ‘have a verse.’ When I became a Christian there was a longing in my heart month after month in 1954 as I walked from my home to church, would God call me to himself in this service? And one evening, as the sermon was being preached in a little valley chapel, I received that assurance that Christ had died for me, even me. I cannot remember the text, just the impact of the Word on my life. That same longing was also given to me to marry Iola because she was happy and holy, and in my eyes she was ‘fair.’ And concerning preaching there had developed a joy in the pulpit which transcended anything else which has never left me, and I could detect a bond of indescribable blessing that had formed between myself and those who heard me which came about because of sheer vertical sovereign grace. There was identification between pew and pulpit, and a mysterious solidarity. We were ‘family’. We had entered something divine together.
So I longed to return straight home from Philadelphia and go to a university town in Wales and influence students. It seemed to me to be a worthy ambition. God even gave that to me. But no verses jumped out of the Bible to confirm any of those longings, just the Scriptures’ big themes – ‘these words are true, do this with your life, marry this sort of spouse, to desire this work is a good desire, and preach this message.’
It was my responsibility to educate that delight by reading, and by conversing with men who had touched my heart, and by hearing preachers. Certainly I had to examine myself concerning my own fitness in five key areas:-
i] vitality: was there an energy of God in the encounter of proclamation to a congregation and in never-ending pastoring?
ii] rationality: did I have common sense and a practical sagacity which, enlightened by grace, is the most important characteristic a preacher can have? I wasn’t sure of that. I am impulsive and can be silly and make ill-judgments, and all these years seem to have matured me little there.
iii] intellectual ability: if I were to spend my life teaching others was I myself apt to learn?
iv] mood: the ministry is no place for a man with mental problems, a melancholic, a depressive, an exhibitionist, an extrovert or an angry man. When the leader needs leading and the shepherd needs shepherding God help the flock.
v] spirituality: it has become an abused word: I mean godliness, the life of God in the soul. When Duncan Campbell arrived off the ferry on the Isle of Lewis fifty years ago to take part in meetings which are still talked about today the elders of the church where he was to preach met him and first asked him this question, ‘Mr Campbell, are you walking with God?’ That is what I mean by spirituality, and I will amplify it in a moment.
So by spiritual self-disciplines the sense of call becomes an educated, and an informed, and thus a conscientious human assessment. We make it about ourselves in self-examination, and other Christians make it about us. However, men can be mistaken. Most men in the Christian ministry today, I solemnly believe, have been mistaken concerning so crucial a life-changing decision as this, their own divine vocation. I am saying bluntly that God has not called them. We know from their message that God has not called them because they are contradicting his own words. They have never understood the gospel. If so many have been confused then let no one here say that ‘a misjudgement of such mammoth proportions would be impossible for me.’
We have also to say this, that no one is called by the Head until the body calls him to be its pastor. That is, until a gospel congregation invites you to becomes its pastor-preacher you are not permitted to say that the Lord Jesus has called you. You may believe he has, and long for such a call, and prepare yourself for it, but until the call of the church comes to you you may have no assurance that you have a call from the church’s head. The assurance occurs when the church’s call is given, because ultimately God’s call is mediated to you through his people. Then you go on and on, hearing the Word together, pulpit and pew, and time will go by, and there will be growth by inches, and to your amazement you will find them still saying to you 35 years later, ‘You will come back from America won’t you? You will be preaching here this winter won’t you? You will be preaching to us next Sunday, won’t you?’ And your love for them constrains you to say ‘Yes.’ And that artless call of theirs to you to teach them the Word is still the call of God.
So I have been saying that the Sovereign God (who is everywhere imploring sinners to be reconciled to himself through men) summons favoured men to himself, firstly in salvation, and then, with even more particularity, by calling some into the work of the gospel ministry. God does this by planting and nurturing a longing for this work in a man’s heart – which the Christian has to educate and evaluate through self-examination, through as full an acquaintance as possible with what this work will involve, and through a deepening relationship with God.
Though there are always sweet old people who will encourage every callow youth to enter the ministry, there are also men whose judgment we have to trust, whose favours cannot be bought, whose counsels should be sought. But we have to add that even they are not infallible. Men of maturity can be mistaken. One of our members came out of seminary and accepted a call to a church-planting ministry in Yorkshire. I actually said to him that I did not know whether he had a gift for church planting. Through his integrity, prayerfulness, faithful preaching and living without guile in the midst of the people for almost thirty years he has gathered a sizeable congregation, converted an old building into a beautiful meeting place, and planted another congregation which are meeting in a tastefully modernised old Moravian church which has also known considerable blessing in the past decade Now they are taking breath, and building the energy to plant a third church. His leadership is known in all the churches, and if there is one explanation to that success and to my dismal misjudgement of him it is found in these words, ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’
But one more factor is essential for anyone who believes that he has been called to speak as though the Holy One of Israel were addressing men through him, and that is a sense of inadequacy and awe at the vocation before him. Maybe it is there that we are found most wanting. A professor at Westminster Seminary was telling me of the questionnaire sent out to all students who apply to that school. It asked such questions as how the students judged their own abilities in such categories as counselling, in pastoring, in working with other people, in man-management, in caring for those in need, in study, in personal devotions etc. Students gave themselves 6 or 7 out of 10 in most of those categories, but when it came to their assessment of their own preaching ability candidates for study at Westminster Seminary more often than not awarded themselves 9’s or even 10’s.
How different those men were who met God in the glory of his being and perfections who called them to speak for him. Moses said, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?’ and he protested his ill-equipment, his lack of natural eloquence. Isaiah said, ‘I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips, and I have seen the King.’ It was not until he was assured of God’s call that he said, ‘Here am I, send me.’ Jeremiah said, ‘Ah, Lord, I am a child. I cannot speak.’
I know that our calling is not to the office of Jehovah’s prophets, but it is the same Jehovah Jesus we are serving. The apostle Paul had no cause to glory that he was a preacher of the gospel. ‘Necessity is laid upon me,’ he said. Peter said, ‘We cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard.’ Jeremiah had a fire in his bones. If he refused to speak he burned within, and once he spoke there would be fire without. Paul’s preaching was ‘in weakness and fear and much trembling.’ The Christian ministry is not a matter of building a library of books and parchments, using whatever other helps we might have at hand, with some confidence of our fluency of speech. It is not simply teaching people about the Bible. It is bringing God to bear upon the life of a church. It is bringing the power of God into the lives of a congregation. Its end is that people might experience the power of the Word. The Methodist, William Bramwell, confessed, ‘I die a death every time I preach. I wonder I have lived as long as I have.’ He was a man who actually had an awakening ministry, and yet he felt he did not possess knowledge enough, prayer enough, holiness enough, experience enough, love enough, and sacrifice enough to carry on as a preacher.
I am saying this, that if you have taken up the ministry easily you will drop it just as easily. I am saying that there is always an awesome gap between our ambitions and what we achieve. At times it seems to me that every street in Aberystwyth has its story of gospel rejection, and even every house and almost every slate upon the roofs. Only a sense of divine call can keep one going. But having that call then you will always preach, and no one can stop you. You will not always have a parsonage, and a salary, and a building to preach in, but who or what can ever prevent you preaching? Go into all the world and preach the gospel. That is quite different from becoming a denominationally approved minister.
I am half way through saying two things: Fear God: stand in awe of this office: don’t enter the ministry if you don’t have to. But I am now adding something else, he that desireth the office of a preacher desires a good thing, so cultivate your desire. Nurture and educate and purify it. Esteem this work, and see the need for true preachers of the Word today. I can appreciate what Dabney says in his article on what is a call to the ministry, that men of ability should be volunteering to this glorious work. I found myself regularly writing in response to the family Christmas letter two former students would send to me this sort of comment, ‘Are you still in England working for a finance company? Why aren’t you in France serving a congregation?’ They both speak French fluently, and are earnest Christians, especially the husband, and yet these two are going to be in the fishing business for the rest of their lives when they could be catching men for God. For the last few Christmases I am afraid that they have stopped sending me their Christmas letters because they are irritated by my refrain. But is it not possible to kick against the goads of God? Remember Stephen’s great words to the religious leadership of his day, ‘You always resist the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 7:51). And would there be no one at all in this distinguished congregation resisting God today?
2. ITS CONTINUANCE
Then let us presume that everyone in this distinguished congregation who has a true call to the gospel ministry is also anxious to spend his entire life in it. God has always been pleased to use favoured and gifted men who have become consumed by their message. This calling is total, so that men become their message. John the Baptist lived his message with every fibre of his being, the way he dressed, how he faced the world, where he lived, and what he ate and drank. Ezekiel was actually commanded to eat the scroll on which his message was written. His message became part of him – what Jonathan Edwards called ‘the energy of his soul.’ So Edwards kept going. Through the dangerous intoxication of the Great Awakening Edwards kept going, and in the worst days when his own congregation rejected him and he had to leave that church yet he was enabled to keep going. There were always new goals. His youth was renewed like the eagle. There is a freshness about a true preacher in old age. He is still buying books, thinking of new series, offering a considered judgment on trends and emphases, not only steadfast but abundant in the Lord’s work.
Churches are established by the preached word of God. The history of my Principality in the last half a century is proof of that. The regular preaching ministry needs no defence. Its record is its own defence. There is a church two hours away from me in South Wales where half the congregation of 75 people are converted Muslims. It began with one Muslim three years ago who was converted, who then brought members of his family to church, and then other Muslims to hear the regular preaching of the Bible. The area is deprived, unemployment is high, there is an abundance of single-families and dysfunctional families. Petty theft if rife so that the church is barricaded with steel doors. All around there are the drugs and the videos – somebody gets a video when the shop opens, watches it and then passes it to his neighbour, who passes it to his neighbour and so on until it is returned to the shop the next day, half a dozen homes having watched it, and another video if hired. So time is killed. In such a dead end place God has called these people from darkness to light. The preacher was in Aberystwyth, speaking to the Inter varsity group last month, and he brought one of the Muslims with him to give his testimony to the hundred students. There is another congregation 40 miles from me in a small market town of 1500 people in which little evangelical church for three decades nothing at all happened. It stayed at under twenty people each Sunday morning, but they did not panic. They cried to God, and in the last three years they have had steady growth to between forty and fifty each Sunday. The preacher is over sixty; he is without guile. He is never invited anywhere else to preach. He is no orator, but he serves the Word of the Lord and the Lord of the Word. He is the most unintimidating man I know, accessible to everyone. Again, the largest congregation in the whole of Wales of 700 people is pastored by a 73 year old man who has been in that church almost forty years doing a Lloyd-Jones in the mornings and a Spurgeon in the evening services. He still uses the King James Version. Not a year has gone by without many true conversions. I say that the regular ministry needs no defence.
I am saying that to continue in the ministry you need to believe in the office of preacher, and to it you have to give your best years and hours and energies. It is impossible to think of doing a bit of preaching ‘on the side’ while fulfilling your real delight which might be real estate, or managing a business, or desktop publishing. Of course there is the necessity of tent-making until there are enough wage-earners to free you for this calling, and there are countries in the world which you cannot enter as a preacher. We all appreciate that. If at all possible the ministry should be full time. What I cannot appreciate is someone who sets out to be a businessman AND a preacher. There is no one who can do justice to two highly demanding vocations at the same time – and all vocations have their demands today, especially farming. Either the business is going to ruin the preaching or the preaching is going to ruin the business. It is possible to leave your first love, isn’t it? When I was six years of age I saw my first love, a girl with blonde ringlets called Victoria Wright. I smiled at her across the hall in school and she shyly smiled back at me. I never once spoke to her, but I went home that day and told my mother, ‘Mam, I’m in love.’ But as the months went by I left that love. There must have been someone else. Judas’ first love was the Lord Jesus, and so was Demas’ but they forsook their first love for this present world and its silver. All around us are tens of thousands who for a while loved the Lord and then forsook the Lord for real estate, or the firm, or the business.
But more that gumption is needed, more than a stubborn certainty that preaching must be the climactic aspect of worship. If we are talking about this human being who is the God-called herald then we must say that he has to be a man of love. God is love. His servants must be loving men. We can take the words of the Lord, ‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples if you love…’ and it must be applied to the preacher par excellence. Those who come to know the preacher should be constrained to comment ‘We know that he follows Jesus because he is such a loving man.’ You yourself will be the last to hear those comments, or to believe they are talking about you if you should hear them, because your cry is, ‘Lord it is my chief complaint that my love is cold and faint.’
That a preacher is loving does not mean that he is saccharine, or smiles all the time to the congregation, or is utterly bland. Those are the easiest features for the devil to counterfeit. This man is united to the love of Jehovah Jesus. That is the only explanation for his manner. When the congregation are with him they know they are safe, and they feel loved. Now that love is defined for us in I Corinthians 13, and we often hear men saying that if ‘Christ’ were put in the place of ‘love’ there then that chapter would be a composite picture of the Lord. So here we have to put the word ‘preacher’ in the place of the word ‘love’ if we are to know what it is that God requires of a preacher, and then it reads thus: ‘The preacher is patient: the preacher is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. He is not rude, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. The preacher does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. The preacher always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’ What an imposing definition of love! It is not touchy-feely or warm’n’fuzzy. It is immensely and stringently ethical.
That loving is absolutely indispensable for leaders in the church. This is not some option that you can pick up or discard like a change in the order of service. The apostle is saying that without love you are as much help as a gong. Imagine the congregation gathering on a Sunday morning and the climax is hearing a gong being beaten for thirty minutes, and then they go home. That is listening to the loveless preacher, ‘the Rev. Clanging Cymbal.’ In fact, without love you are ‘nothing.’. Nothing means nothing. And I would plead with all those who teach Church Growth seminars to find a place in their theological universe for the centrality of love. To be a pastor, the preacher must be in love with his people, and he must like people and be interested in them. He must be approachable, and not defensive in his attitudes. He must welcome and not resent people who want to ask him questions about his preaching. My son-in-law is about to become the father of their fifth child, and he is a pastor in inner-city London. He was ruefully saying to me recently, ‘I am not a people person (I don’t believe that at all). I am a book person, but these four sons of mine have made me a people person.’ He is thankful for that. His wife and children have made him a more humane man. So there must be the love of I Corinthians in a preacher.
Again, God beseeches sinners through a blameless man. Would you drink the purest spring water if it were offered to you in a rusty cup? Think of the ‘Scarlet Letter.’ One minister fails to mortify his anger, and the congregation see the great letter ‘A’ on his forehead as he preaches to them. One preacher is known for his greed and the congregation sees the letter ‘G’ on his forehead. Or they see ‘L’ for lust, or ‘P’ for pride. They cannot hear anything he says because they are so distracted by that scarlet letter, and all it stands for which they have experienced in their minister. So you see why, when Paul describes a church leader, that it is on this note he begins, ‘A bishop then must be blameless’ (I Tim.3:2). What a man is will be far more important than what a man does. It is the difference between an apple tree and a Christmas tree. The fruit of an apple tree comes from within itself. The chocolate fruit of a Christmas tree is an adornment hung upon it, merely cosmetic. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good things, such as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control. They come from the life of God within the man. When the apostle describes the church leader divine graces are Paul’s priority, not his eloquence or man-management skills, or his orthodoxy – important as all such things can be – but that he is without blame. Then Paul opens up that theme in the following verses to show that he does not mean eminent perfection because he confesses that he himself is pressing toward the mark rather than having reached it, ‘not that I have attained neither am I already perfect.’ But the apostle means this, being ‘temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well’ (I Tim.3:2-4). It is the constant theme of the apostle to Timothy: ‘But you, man of God … pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness’ (I Tim. 6:11).
Preaching is different from every other form of communication. Someone has pointed out that a famous actress may have few moral scruples yet she can stand on the stage in a Broadway theatre and play Portia in the ‘Merchant of Venice’ and dissolve an audience into tears. How she lives has little influence on her power to move an entire hall of people. A homosexual actor can memorise Mark’s Gospel and recite it all in the White House to great appreciation. Those who listen become gripped by the person of Jesus and want to know more about him, but there is no direct relationship between how that actor lives off-stage and his words when he is in the limelight.
No doubt reprobate men may say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and prophesy and do many mighty works. The Lord Jesus does not deny that. They may be itinerant men, here today and gone tomorrow, leaving common people amazed. But to be a pastor living at the hearth and home of a congregation, growing old with them, accessible and observable in the darkest hours then the truths you declare are either augmented greatly or reduced drastically by how you live. Holy lives lead to a holy ministry. Anointed lives lead to an anointed ministry. The more you and I are known by our people our influence will increase or diminish according to the tenor of our lives. Paul can appeal to the Thessalonians – ‘You know what manner of men we were among you’ He says again, ‘You are our witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.’ They looked at that life and it was utterly different from anyone else’s they had ever known. They had not dreamed it was possible to live like that. It was new, and beautiful, and fragrant and the consequence was when they heard what the apostle had to say they received the message as the very word of God. We are to say right things, yes, but we are to embody them by a right example.
When I was an undergraduate I went to a planning meeting for a mission to a small town. I listened for a few hours as they planned the programme and put men in charge of music and follow-up and the counsellors and advertising etc. – the necessary features of evangelism today. When the meeting was over I stood at a bus-stop with a distinguished elderly man in a homburg hat and we talked about some of the things that had been said. Finally he said to me, ‘You know, we shouldn’t pray ‘Lord use me.’ We should pray, ‘Lord make me usable.” Then he quoted to me the words of Ecclesiastes 10:10, ‘If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put forth more strength.’ He added that the reaper with a scythe doesn’t waste any time stopping to sharpen the edge of his tool. He was talking about the instruments God uses in evangelism, and they are holy men and loving men and Christ-like men. We always quote M’Cheyne, ‘A holy minister is a powerful weapon in the hands of God.’ It’s true, but being holy is the need of the hour, not knowing the quotation. M’Cheyne goes on to say, ‘Pray, ‘Make me as holy as a saved sinner can be.” It’s a wonderful prayer, and doing it is the challenge, mortifying remaining sin by the power of the Spirit, and looking unto Jesus.
We become usable in the secret place. There are lessons we can learn only at the feet of Jesus. As a friend of mine has said, ‘It is in the context of secret prayer that the eternal verities to which we give constant mental assent become living realities. I find, and this is somewhat of a confession as well as an exhortation, that my own words mock me often when I preach – when I can say the word ‘hell’ and not feel the horror of it; when I can speak of heaven and not be warmed with a holy glow in the light of the fact that this is the place my Lord is preparing for me. I find no answer to this problem but to mediate long upon the passages that speak of these spiritual realities, and ask God the Holy Ghost to burn them into my heart. I plead with him to make real to me that the very people I look at may hear those terrible words, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.’ I find I must plead with God to make real to me that the people whose voices will say to me at the door, ‘Thank you for the sermon, pastor,’ are the very voices that may one day be uttering those cries and groans of the damned. I must ask God to help me to believe these things, to help me to preach them so often that others will know that I verily believe them. The truth that burned on Sunday can be icy cold by Monday. The truth that burned in the closet on Saturday can be lifeless on Sunday. Truths received in the crucible of waiting upon God can only be maintained in their warmth in that same context. If I read aright the biographies of the great men of God, I find that this is their unanimous testimony. All with one accord declare that if there was any secret to their ministries it was this: it was the man, cultivating his inner life in the presence of God’ (Al Martin, ‘What’s Wrong with Preaching Today?’ Banner of Truth).
Let me end this address on ‘The Man,’ with these often quoted words of a former Confederate chaplain who had known ‘Christ in the Camp,’ a man from Missouri who lived until 1913, E.M.Bounds. He would not stand exactly where we stand, but he was a man who loved Jesus Christ, and he was a man of prayer, and his most famous book, ‘Power Through Prayer,’ begins with these words, ‘We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organisations to advance the church and secure enlargement and efficiency for the gospel. The trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man or sink the man in the plan or organisation. God’s plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than anything else. Men are God’s great method. The church is looking for better methods, God is looking for better men. ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John.’ … What the church needs today is not more machinery, or better, not new organisations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Spirit can use – men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men, He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men – men of prayer’ (E.M.Bounds, ‘The Complete Works of E.M.Bounds on Prayer’, Baker, 1996, p.447).
Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth. © Copyright Geoffrey Thomas, 2000. All rights reserved.