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Or is he? Maybe you don’t hear this a lot. “He’s such a great preacher!” Or, “You should listen to him he’s outstanding!” But I’ve heard this kind of sentiment enough in the past that I am just know attempting to look at it a little more seriously — a little deeper.

Just what makes up good preaching anyway?  Do people really know?  Do Christians really know how to determine what makes up a good sermon as opposed to a poor one? Can they tell what constitutes good preaching over against lousy preaching? Is it a no-brainer, no-duh, kinda thing?  Do people just readily have answers to these questions?  Or is it not that simple? (Now, let me be clear.  I’m not asking of people know how to be critical per se.  Most of us can do that.  But do we know how to rightly be critical.  That’s the question.) I am becoming more and more convinced that many, if not most, evangelical Christians don’t know how to judge for good preaching.  And that’s a serious matter.

Recently I was struck by a sermon in a way that I’m not sure I often am. What do I mean? Well, what I’m going to say might not sound very mind-blowing, but at the present, I doubt that I’ve learned anything this big in a long time.

Let me explain.  So I was visiting a church, and the preacher was preaching a regular expositional sermon. And let me just say he was not very good (at least not in my books anyway).  From the very outset I found myself unimpressed and a little bored.  Furthermore, it appeared he lacked various qualities.  For example, he didn’t exude a passionate seriousness (a criteria perhaps I’ve made up in my mind). He seemed to lack the “priestly” quality that I was looking for (again, a somewhat nebulous, experiential, category).  Overall, I guess you could say, he was just plain normal. So, I found myself critiquing the preacher as I sat through the sermon… “Well, he should do this.” Or, “Boy, someone else could do a better job at that.”  You get the picture… Old hat, right?

But then, along the way, I started ‘listening’ again (more attentively) to what he was saying —  to the WORDS that were coming from his mouth (as opposed to ‘looking’ at the man’. And in fact, they were not outstanding words.  They were very plain actually. Nothing that was out of the ordinary at all.  Indeed, nothing that any flesh would be impressed by or attracted to.  But yet here is the all important, definitive characteristic — he spoke the truth! What do I mean my that? Don’t pretty much any and all preachers preach truth? I mean, as long as their not heretics… “Brenden, what are you driving at?” Let me explain: He was speaking the word of Christ. He was preaching Christ! He was declaring very simply the Gospel.  The simple, unadulterated, words of the Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed clearly for all to hear.  These words were not mixed, but they were free.  The free grace of the gospel was not equivocated, nor withheld, but pronounced unabashedly and unashamedly. Oh how much the world needs to hear these words.

“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom 10:14-15)

Needless to say, I was cut to the quick.   By the end of the sermon, I was moved in a way that I haven’t been in a long time. Why?  Was it because I hadn’t heard the gospel message before?  No, certainly I have — and recently, in fact, all the time.  Indeed I’ve been surrounding myself with so many, and of such quality, gospel preachers as never before. And so now let me finally get to the heart of  why this sermons struck me so much.

Even as a began listening to the words, and hearing the gospel freely preached, I began thinking in my mind.  “You know this isn’t all that bad.”  “You know this would have been really useful for me… say… last year, or maybe even a few months back”  “In fact, you know, I bet this is really good for… say… a lot of these people sitting in the pews around me.” “Especcially these young kids” “Wow, I’m sure this is so useful to them”  “But for me?”  “Well, I don’t need this message today do I?” “I don’t need this particular, simple, gospel message, specifically right now, in the very midst of whatever it is I’m going through right now.” “Do I?” “Surely something else would be helpful, more meaningful, more edifying, more instructive, more a means of grace to me right now than…than the Gospel.”

Oh such blind idolatry! It was as if God spoke to me through that sermon.  Saying, “What are you looking for?” “Here are my words for you today”.  “Here’s my Son Christ for you today.” “Take” “Receive” “Freely He’s given.” “Freely take and be strengthened by my grace”.

Oh that’s so helpful. That’s preaching.  That’s good preaching.  It brings one to worship.  And to think that it could be that simple, so simple, in fact.  In 1st Corinthians Paul talks about the “foolishness of what was preached”(1:21).

“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (2:1-5)

I want to make one more connection before wrapping this up.  The Apostle Peter said in his first letter, “If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God.” (1 Pet 4:11) Now I don’t know if Peter meant this passage for preachers in particular or for everybody in general. But, if this is at all the case in general, how much more should it be the case for ministers? Thus those who preach should do so as preaching the very words of God. Furthermore, according to our reformed understanding of the idea of a “presbyter,” a presbyter is one who “stands in” for Christ, and in a sense represents Christ before the congregation.  Well, if that’s the case, then shouldn’t these things go together? Standing in for and speaking the words for Christ?  Thus, the minister stands in for Christ, and in the place of Christ, speaks for Christ, as if speaking the very words of Christ.  This all makes sense.

I don’t know about you guys, but I find this an epiphany. I always knew (or have come more and more to believe) that there is a certain high importance to the preached word in the life of the Christian and the church.  Indeed the reformed view of the priority of preaching is something I’ve believed.  And yet now it makes total sense.

And this is why we understand the ‘preached word’ in particular to be a “means of grace”. Let me tell you folks; all that other stuff — the criteria in my head, my criticisms — all that doesn’t really matter.   What took place was very simply what I understand the reformed faith to teach; that the minster (who stands in for, and represents Christ) preaches the word of God as if they are the very words of God.  He is to preach the word of Christ – the gospel – that free and glorious grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.  That’s a means of grace.  And that’s good preaching.


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I had the pleasure of getting to visit Westminster Seminary for the first time yesterday.  And it was a pleasant experience.   I got to check out the library and the bookstore and met several very friendly students as well as some staff.  Among all the thoughts (lofty expectations, souring hopes) that one might anticipate, what has arisen to my mind has been of a more cautionary nature. (And this I hope will be for my own good.) What has been pressed upon my heart and mind is a dark and foreboding sense of the reality of apostasy in the church — even in our best Seminaries.  And I say this in no way referring to anything specific to Westminster… I mean I just arrived here!  I have nothing with which to judge.

While perusing the periodicals in the Library I happened across the ‘Master’s Trumpet’ and a sermon delivered to the Synod of New Jersey in 1858s by a man named John Hall.  It was titled ‘The Castaway Preacher.’  The subject struck my attention since it is something that has been on my mind for the last week or so.  In this piece the preacher exhorts on 1 Corinthians 9:27:

But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (ESV)

Recently I’ve been reading through 1 Timothy and thinking about the warnings Paul gives his young apprentice.  The apostle talks about having a “pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” He points out that “Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” Furthermore he exhorts Timothy to: “fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience.” And he tells him that “Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”

Whatever our initial thoughts are on these verses, we must agree these are strong words.  What is Paul getting at? Who is he talking about?  Who would fit this profile today?  Could it be me?  Could it apply to anybody around me? Are we just to be in fear? Fear of failing? Fear of sin?  God forbid, for that would be sin of itself.  So then how do we deal with an issue as tough as this one? Furthermore, I think about the stories of those who have been in the ministry and have fallen either into gross sin or even apostasy.  And one wonders how this happens.

Here are some quotes of John Hall I found particularly interesting:

“A hypocrite may deceive the holiest session, and die in the confidence of the purest church…” (12)

And regarding even the reasonableness that this question be on the minds of ministers – that they practice what they preach:

“The presumptuous sins of a preacher must be the most aggravated of all that come under that inspired designation; and it must be the highest grade of presumption for an expounder and teacher of religion to trust either in his office or his theology, to shield him from the application of such a test as this.” (13)

And then what do we look to as the answer to this problem?

“There is, then, no preventive, no remedy, but the spiritual mind. The revival we need is the revival of the piety of ministers.” (p14)

I admit, that last line is not won I’ve heard too many times before – if at all.  Usually we think of revival in terms of lay people better hearing and better obeying the message.  But here the stress is laid on the ministers own character and faith; are they watching ‘both’ their lives and their doctrine? or just one and not the other?

I will follow up with some of my own observations upto this point in my next post.  But let me leave you with an extended excerpt from Hall’s sermon.  Here we see a glimpse into the spiritual deadness which will follow many a so called minister and will inevitablly destress the church.  May God grant her mercy and grace to appoint those who are duely called.

“The signs of a castaway preacher, so far as they are distinct from those of the trials of other Christians, will appear to be such as these: he has no cordial or practical belief in what his function compels him to preach; he feels an intellectual pride, and enjoys an ambitious gratification in preaching, but has no heart in it as the means of glorifying God and restoring man; with him the ministry is no more than a profession; preaching is his livelihood. If he labour for success, it is for the sake of maintaining his professional position; he is actuated, as men are in their secular vocations; he seeks for promotion; his choice of place and occupation, and his charges, are determined by the preponderance of personal advantages; he will not forego domestic comfort for the sake of ministering in obscurity to the least provided; he finds ready excuses for retiring from labour, or for indulging indolence; he counts his life too dear to run risks; he is always looking for material reward, even for his prayers and consolations; he resorts to tempting adventures, not merely from necessity, or while the necessity continues, but from the love of gain and the pleasure of accumulation; he hoards penuriously while he preaches liberality; he loves general literature more than theology, the society of the world more than the society of the Church; he preaches and prays, visits and writes for fame and notoriety; the pleasure and excitement of the act of preaching are the effect, not of zeal, but of self-complacency; and the bible in hand.gratification or disappointment which he experiences, does not relate to the souls of the people, but to his own vanity; he looks on his fellow-ministers as competitors and rivals; he is envious and jealous; mortified at being overlooked, and ever suspicious of slights. But this is only a random sketch of particulars. Perhaps all may be comprehended in the phrase of the text by saying, that the character described is only a preacher to others . He may have the gifts of prophecy and knowledge, may speak in the tongue of angels, but he is not in himself such a preacher as Christ requires; his unction is not from the Holy One, and so he is disowned, rejected, castaway.” (p9)

All excerpts taken from the ‘Master’s Trumpet’, Issue 5, March 2009.

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