Throughout church history there have been certain pastors who stood out because of their powerful preaching.
So what was the key to their success? Well, today on Truth for Life, Alistair Begg explores the essential elements found in effective preaching, and he explains why weakness is actually an advantage when it comes to proclaiming God's Word. From Augustine to the Reformation, it's kind of dark in that period, isn't it? Dark.
In fact, I'm just going to leave that as dark. There was light, but the factors mentioned above, namely rhetoric and allegory and liturgy, were all so interwoven then with all of the speculative tendencies of the logic of Aristotle, and it all got mangled up during that time and essentially strangled in the main biblical and God-glorifying preaching. That was why the Reformation had to come. And so in the Reformation we get into familiar territory, and there we get Calvin and Zwingli and Wycliffe and Huss and all the rest.
And what do they do? They essentially look back to Chrysostom, they look back to Augustine, they look back to the apostolic pattern, and they say, now, we must ground our preaching in the Scriptures. And once again, they make it clear. The issue is what is proclaimed, not the proclaimer. And also, since God speaks to man in the proclamation of the Word, no one irrespective of their level of maturity or of their theological insight is ever in a position of no longer needing or submitting in obedience to the ministry of the Word of God. None of us are ever beyond our need to sit under the teaching of Scripture. If in preaching God speaks to man, then none of us, no matter how mature, how theologically a drought we may be, we are never in a position of no longer needing or submitting in obedience to the Word.
Says Calvin, none may think that he has advanced beyond the necessity of hearing preaching because he is able to interpret the Bible for himself. None of us may advance beyond the necessity of hearing preaching, because God has ordained that the Word of God is to be preached. And there is no church without the preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, the exercise of church discipline, and so on. So we're not free to turn the church into forty-five little home Bible studies and say, that's it. It is essential that the congregation gathers to attend upon the preaching of the Word of God. And the pattern I'm suggesting to you, all of that is well established in the Old Testament Scriptures and then throughout all of history. Now, when you come to the post-Reformation era, which is vast, then we find that the same thing is taking place. In the best of preaching—the preaching of Edwards and of Whitefield, the Wesleys, Charles Simeon, Spurgeon, and so on—in all of that wonderful preaching, what do you find?
It is grounded in the Scriptures, it is focused upon Christ, and its ultimate end is the glory of God. That, I think, is the key to the success of these men. Philip Reichen, in a really helpful book, Discovering God in Stories from the Bible, says in page 124, or quotes another fellow on page 124, a boy by the name of Jack Miller, whom I don't know, concerning the preaching of these individuals, this is what he says, I am convinced that what gave evangelists in the eighteenth century remarkable power was the Whitefield Wesley confidence in the supreme authority of Christ. Jesus acted in and through them, not because they were powerful persons, but because they were empty vessels needing grace. He was the one who forgave and cleansed them. He was the one who sent them with the gospel. And he was the one who opened the hearts of hardened people to a very humbling message. By contrast, believers today typically serve a much smaller Christ. And then in one further brief quote, talking about the source of power in evangelism, he says, the leaders of the Great Awakening had extraordinary power in evangelism and renewal. They followed an omnipotent Christ, the divine warrior, and he anointed them with his missionary presence. But this power was poured out on those who knew that they were inherently powerless without a constant dependence upon the working of God's grace in their lives. Now, there is a fundamental principle in that that we need to keep coming back to again and again, don't we?
And when we survey the sort of history of preaching from 50,000 feet, if you like, and we begin to drop down on the preaching of individuals where it is effective, all that I'm saying again and again is this, that these essential elements, irrespective of personality, context, timeframe, these essential elements are found again and again. Now, what ought to be the encouragement in that for us? God, we can do that.
With your help, we can do that. Because I know, we say, that I am empty and inherently powerless. If the objective of God is that we would depend upon him, then weakness is an advantage.
If dependence is the objective, then weakness is the advantage, which is so antithetical to our day. Because we go to events like this and even sitting next to the fellow next to us, we're tempted. As soon as we start to talk about whatever it is we're involved in, we want to make sure that everybody knows how wonderfully powerful and effective everything is that we're doing. Oh, we want to couch it in the right kind of phraseology, you know, with a little bit of litotes and back off on the hyperbole and everything and say, not a few have rather than a whole ton have, you know, and so on. But essentially, it's inherent in us. Certainly inherent in me.
I don't mean to do a despite to any of you. Now, it was the kind of preaching that magnifies God that J. W. Alexander describes in this way. The great end of preaching, he says, is to glorify God and bless man by bringing sinners to the obedience of faith in Christ, promoting their sanctification, their knowledge, love, and adoration of God. Now, the risk of sounding like a broken gramophone record, gentlemen, brothers in Christ, we have to be asking ourselves, doing the post-operative study in relationship to what we're doing on a Sunday, in a series, whatever else it is, is the great end of preaching, my preaching here at this point in time, glorifying God, blessing man, bringing sinners to obedience and faith in Christ, promoting their sanctification, deepening their knowledge, their love, and their adoration of God. Now, I suggest to you that if we set that as the great, all-consuming goal, one, we will never be done, two, we will never think of ourselves more highly than we ought, three, we will always have sermon material, and four, we will be kept away from dropping down into giving our congregation what they think they need, which is really what they want, which isn't what they need at all.
And we're going to have to hold out for this in this generation. In Timothy's days, says Hanley Mool, the church, from a human perspective, trembled on the brink of annihilation. Look at the wholesale defection of the church in Asia after the tremendous revival that had taken place there. Paul says, everyone in Asia has deserted me. I'm about to die. My life is ebbing away.
I'm already being poured out like a drink offering. So you've got the death of a mighty apostle, you've got the defection of the church in Asia, you've got this little whippersnapper, Timothy, who's coming along as next in line. He's got a dreadful problem with his stomach. That's why he has to drink wine for his stomach's sake. He's naturally timid. That's why Paul has to write to the Corinthians and say, make sure that you put Timothy at his ease. He's chronologically too young. Let no man despise your youth. And people look at it and say, do you think there'll be a church in another generation?
I don't think so. It's finished. Just sit back and let it die. Humanly speaking, the church trembled on the brink of annihilation. God said, Jesus said, I will build my church.
The gates of hell will not prevail against it. Therefore, through the likes of Timothy, he picks it up and goes on. Today, the church in America trembles on the brink of capitulation.
Capitulation to the mores and philosophies and notions of our day. And that's what I think makes this whole thing so tremendously telling and vitally important. I don't think that any other kind of preaching, other than that which is owned by the Spirit of God, which is anointed by the Spirit of God, which exalts Christ, which is grounded in Scripture, can look to see God really bless it. And we're not going to assess blessing in terms of numerical things per se, but I don't think that there is much question that if a young man will take the Bible and will take his life and will lay his life down before Christ and put his nose in the Bible and his knees on the floor, at least in the silence of his own room, and cry out to God for help, that he will see remarkable things happen. Because remember, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to make much of Christ. He will not speak on his own.
He will speak only what he hears. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. That was his promise to the apostles. When God is the great overshadowing object of our message, then we have reason for confidence in going into the pulpit. Eric Alexander, referring to the preaching of Martin Lloyd-Jones, said this, Those of us who have had the privilege of hearing him will not easily forget the sense of awe which came upon one's soul as he was gripped by the glory of the gospel. And God spoke with such power through him.
Yet it was not the man who lingered in the mind, nor was the lasting impression one of human gifts or intellectual ability or personal magnetism. Rather, it was the power of truth, the greatness of God, the poverty of man, and the glorious relevance and authority of Holy Scripture which left an indelible mark on his hearers. Now listen, how would it ever be that any of our listeners would go away being struck by a sense of the greatness of God, the poverty of man, the glory of the gospel, and the authority of the Bible?
Remember what we said at the outset? Our presuppositions regarding preaching will determine the way in which we preach and what we preach. And our families who know us best and our congregations who begin to know us very well will know whether we are possessed of these passions.
They won't have to be geniuses to figure it out. Do they have a sense that their pastor has a consuming longing for God to be glorified in what takes place? Or does he, quite frankly, have a great longing to be glorified himself? For God will not share his glory with us, you know? So go ahead and glorify yourself.
But that's it. It's like when he says to the Pharisees, I hope you've enjoyed your reward. When the people said, oh, there's old praying Gregory, you know? Oh, what a great prayer Gregory is. Jesus says, well, I hope you enjoyed the fact that everyone's saying what a great prayer you are because you've had it. You've had your reward. There's nothing else. And I hope you enjoyed it when you were putting your money in.
And everyone said, my, my, look at the way they're putting the money in. Because you've had it, and there's nothing else. And he comes to me and he says, well, I hope you enjoyed it when everybody says, my, my, that was terrific, and how good that was. Because you've had it, and there's nothing else. For the day will bring our work to light.
Wood, hay, stubble, gold, silver, precious stones. The day will bring it to light. Surely that's what Paul has in mind when he says, I don't care if I'm judged by you or by anybody else. He's not being dismissive of people's interest in him or their concern for him. But he's saying, if you think I'm scared of you, you've got rocks in your head. Because I have got an appointment with God Almighty to whom I have to give an answer for every word I've spoken.
And if you think that you're going to unsettle me, don't lose a wink of sleep over it. Because I don't really care. Because I care. It wasn't because he was dismissive of people. It was because he cared so much about the fact that the day would bring it to light.
I fear less having preached to others, he says, that I myself should become a castaway. On another occasion, when Eric Alexander had as a young man been leading the service at which Martin Lloyd-Jones was preaching, Lloyd-Jones had preached for about an hour and 15 minutes, and he sat down, he came down the steps, and he sat down and just fell into the seat next to Eric Alexander. Someone else had gone up to conclude the service, and Eric, overawed by the event that had just taken place, said to the doctor, he said, how do you feel?
And the doctor said, tired. And he followed it up boldly by asking the question, in what way? Which probably annoyed him intensely, but he turned to him either then or immediately after the conclusion of the service, and he said this, I think that in doing what I have just done, this is the one occasion when a man comes closest to the experience of travail and childbirth.
That was his answer. Now we have to say that to our people, but first they have to understand that we're not up there giving a talk behind a box. We're having babies. Provided we go in with a sense of burden. But you see our presuppositions. That's why the go get them camaraderie can never be related to a sense of burden for the guy who's going, hey, go get them, doesn't understand what you're going to do. You see, if preaching were simply a man giving spiritual advice to his religious inferiors, which is what people sometimes regard as preaching, then there would be no surprise. It says, Baxter, whatever you do, let the people see that you are in good earnest. You cannot break men's hearts by jesting with them or telling a smooth tale or patching up a gaudy oration. Men will not cast away their dearest pleasures upon a drowsy request of one that seemeth not to mean as he speaks or to care much whether his request be granted. So we wonder why it is that our congregations do not cast away their dearest pleasures.
I want to assume that it's the stubbornness of their hearts, but it may be on account of my drowsy requests and that I make drowsy requests in such a way as to create the impression that I don't mean what I say, and frankly, I don't care much whether they do anything with it at all. Let me give you one final illustration from the 17th century in Scotland. Those of you who've gone to Scotland, and I hope all of you will before you die so that you can complete your education, will probably drive on the M8 between Glasgow and Edinburgh. When you drive out from Glasgow on the M8, you will be confronted by various bits and pieces, but eventually, it will be impossible for you to miss a church up on your right-hand side, which is called Kirk O'Shott's. Shott's is the name of the place, and O is of, and it's the church of Shott's. In 1630, the minister there was a man by the name of John Livingston. He was preaching at a communion season. In other words, he was preaching the week preceding the communion that led up to communion on the Sunday. And his preaching that particular week was accompanied by an unusual sense of God's presence. And so, the elders extended it by a day, asking Livingston to preach once again on the Monday. Very unusual.
Never had happened before. They had preached for a complete week. They had come to the Sunday. The communion was supposed to be the consummation of things, but the elders said, no, we think you should preach again tomorrow evening.
Livingston was a very modest, godly, humble man and was fearful of the responsibility. It's recorded that he spent most of the night struggling, some of the time in prayer. He could find no peace of soul until in the early hours of the Monday morning, God gave him a message and also an assurance that his preaching would be attended with great power. So he preached on that particular passage on the Monday evening, and the result was that 500 individuals professed faith in Christ and were added to the churches in the locality. It was a tremendous day, an overwhelming experience of the outpouring of the Spirit of God. God's glory was revealed, and it never happened before, and it never happened again in his ministry.
What's the lesson? Well, the lesson is that he wasn't preaching at Kirk of shots in the forlorn hope that God would come in at some special visitation and he would save dramatic numbers of people. But he was preaching faithfully Sunday by Sunday in a way that was grounded in Scripture, focused in Christ, exalting the Father, and God chose to just come along and go, hey, there you are Livingston, there's a wee encouragement for you. And then next Sunday, business as usual.
For most of us, it will be business as usual. God may never give us such a Sunday or a Monday. Well, there is a kind of preaching which exalts man and dethrones God. There is a kind that magnifies God and puts man in his place.
And I want us to be about the latter. One final quote from Ari Finlayson, who was the professor of the Free Church College. Let me give a word of personal testimony. It is that in a ministry of fifty years, in many hours of conscious weakness and inadequacy, and indeed of well-nigh despair in going to deliver my message, I felt strengthened and indeed emboldened by the consciousness that if I was in the will of God at the task that he entrusted to me, I was fulfilling the eternal purpose of God to some soul in my audience. And that even through my inadequacy, it would prove the power of God unto salvation to that soul by the grace and wisdom of him who, when he appointed the end, also appointed the means. That, brethren, was where I fell back right gladly on the sovereignty of divine grace and the certainty that his eternal purpose of mercy must receive fulfillment.
It was the warrant of my office and the sheet anchor of my authority and confidence. That's the kind of conviction that we're talking about. I lay all of this down as foundational, lest when we come to the issue of expository preaching, we get ourselves all tied up in knots thinking about methodology. We're not talking about methodology here, and we're not talking about style. We're talking about an approach to the people and an approach to the Bible, an approach to the sinfulness of our own hearts.
That is that, such as we've just outlined in this brief historical survey. As Alistair Begg said today, powerful preaching is grounded in Scripture, focused on Christ, and glorifies God alone. You're listening to Alistair Begg on Truth for Life, and he will be back to close today's program in just a minute. Now, October is Pastor Appreciation Month, and because of that, Alistair has been teaching on the topic of biblical preaching and how ministry reflects a pastor's careful stewardship of God's Word. If you'd like to hear all of the teaching in this series, which we call the Pastor's Study, you can listen online for free at truthforlife.org or on the app when you search for the title, The Pastor's Study. You can also purchase the complete study on a USB for just $5.
You'll find that in our online store at truthforlife.org. Now, if you enjoy Alistair's teaching, you might want to take advantage of the Deeper Faith 2023 Mediterranean Cruise. Alistair will be the guest speaker for this cruise. It takes us through various ports in the Mediterranean.
You'll explore places like Naples, Italy, Valletta, Malta, or the spectacular city of Venice in the evenings. Enjoy a time of Christian fellowship studying the Bible with Alistair. The voyage runs from August 26th through September 4th 2023. You can find out all about it and book your cabin when you go to deeperfaithcruise.com. By the way, the book we've been talking about this month, a devotional for pastors' wives called Partners in the Gospel, we're only offering it through this weekend, so if you haven't already requested your copy, you'll want to do that today. Partners in the Gospel is written as a devotional. It uses scripture to address situations that the wives of church leaders can face, and then it guides them through a biblical response and concerted prayer.
Request your copy of Partners in the Gospel when you give a donation at truthforlife.org slash donate. Now here is Alistair with prayer. Father, we pray now that the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts may be acceptable in your sight. Oh Lord, you are our strength and our redeemer, and so we commend to you our congregations and those who are the unsung heroes of our churches. May they not grow weary in doing good, and may you bless them today and bless us as we have this time of fellowship together in Jesus' name. Amen. I'm Bob Lapine. We hope you enjoy your weekend and are able to worship together with your local church. On Monday, we'll find out what it is about expository preaching that has made it so powerful through the ages. The Bible teaching of Alistair Begg is furnished by Truth for Life, where the Learning is for Living.
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