Advice to Preachers and Teachers (6)
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift ofprophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 1 Corinthians 13.1, 2
“Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.”
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
What makes for great preaching, preaching that issues in love for God and neighbors?
The church Susie and I served in suburban Philadelphia used an evangelism training program to equip church members to share the Gospel with the people in their Personal Mission Field.
That program involved a detailed, five-point Gospel outline, embellished with Scriptures and illustrations, which trainees would learn and practice over a series of weeks. Training included going out on evangelistic calls, in which, as the weeks progressed, the trainer would gradually work the trainee into the conversation. Finally, the week would come when the trainee, having learned and practiced and demonstrated the appropriate skills, would take the entire presentation by himself.
On one such occasion, our associate pastor took his trainee, Mike, on a call to a man who had visited the church. At the appropriate time, Perry passed the presentation to Mike, who began with a confident smile.
He started at the last point in the outline. From there, Mike proceeded to ramble through the outline of the Gospel willy-nilly, using Scriptures at all the wrong points and fumbling most of the illustrations, as Perry smiled and nodded and groaned within, and prayed for a miracle.
Mike went on cheerfully, blundering through the Gospel, until suddenly he arrived at what was known as the qualifying question: “Does this make sense to you?” The earnest and attentive hearer replied, “Yes, it does”, to which Perry, unable to stop himself, blurted out, “It does?!”
Then Mike asked what was called the commitment question: “Would you like to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord?” And the hearer said, “I would.” To which Perry, astonished, said, “You would?!”
And he did.
Mike’s presentation had been good enough. Indeed, in the sovereign grace of the Lord, it was great. It would not have passed the final test of the training, but it was rightly aimed, and the Lord used it to gather another of His sheep into the fold.
When I taught homiletics at a seminary in Baltimore, I encouraged students to read sermons by well-known and trusted preachers. I had them read sermons by Augustine, Columbanus, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, and many more, and urged them to make reading sermons a part of their ongoing pastoral development.
Two benefits can come from this: First, the Gospel is continuously preached to us as we read, and we are challenged by the preached Word to continue growing in love for God and those He has called us to serve.
Second, we learn from great preachers aspects of exegesis and homiletical style than can improve our own preaching – learning by observing, much like that evangelism training program mentioned above.
But two drawbacks or caveats need to be kept in mind when reading the sermons of great preachers. First, those are their sermons, not ours, in their style and to their hearers. We must not allow ourselves to think that great preaching comes merely by copying the style of other preachers. The sermons of great preachers should inform and shape us, and perhaps our preaching or teaching. But we must not try to affect every point, practice, or procedure of the preachers we read.
Second, great preachers can sometimes discourage us in our preaching or teaching. We can feel a bit hopeless amid the soaring rhetoric of Spurgeon, the detailed exegesis and wide-ranging use of Scripture by Calvin, or the eloquence and forcefulness of one of Edwards’ arguments. We read these sermons and say to ourselves (rightly), “I can never preach like this.” Thus, we may denigrate or underestimate the value of our preaching, and may not give the effort of preparation that effective preaching requires. We may even balk at taking on difficult or obscure texts, out of a lack of confidence in our ability to grasp the measure of them.
By all means, let the sermons of great preachers shape your life in Christ, and exercise some influence on your work. And don’t neglect to take on difficult texts for fear you won’t get them right. While you always want to preach the truth, you don’t have to be right in every respect, as it seems great preachers always are. You may even miss the mark at times, whether a little or a lot. At all times, however, you must strive to do your best and trust the Lord to apply His Word as only He can do. Augustine says we can fumble the meaning of a particular text, but still manage to inculcate something of love for God and our neighbor, as long as we keep that our aim. If we do, we’ll have done a good work. Since all the Scriptures direct us to love, that has to be true. So, if we keep love for God and neighbor the focus of our studies and preparation, we won’t have to worry too much if we don’t quite achieve the clarity or depth of great preachers from the past. Of course, we should always strive to be accurate in our interpretations and clear in our message. And if we keep our eye on love, we’ll never be too far from the mark.
Great preaching and teaching
Chuck Huckaby reminds us, “There are few preachers, however inadequate we may be, who knowingly or intentionally handle the Scripture in such a way as to lead people to detract from the Word’s call to love God or neighbor. Augustine's thinking here gives even weary preachers hope. For when we have done our best – even though, upon reflection, we see where we could have done better – we may still have hope that, despite our inadequacies, our efforts have been used to further the twofold love!”
Great preaching and teaching impacts people with the love of God, for love of God and neighbor. Our duty is to do our best – to prepare well, pray fervently, practice in our own lives the love God shows us in His Word, and then lead God’s people into His presence. There, enveloped in truth and awash in God’s love, they may be transformed increasingly into the image of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If our aim is good, and our efforts are the best we can do before the Lord, our preaching – however inadequate we may think it to be – can be used of God to nurture love in those we serve. And, at the end of the day, that is the ultimate benchmark of great preaching and teaching.
In other words, says Paul, if I have no love I am not just useless but a positive nuisance.
- John Chrysostom, Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 32.6
1. What preachers do you read? Why do you read them? How do they help form you as a follower of Christ?
2. How do you assess your own preaching or teaching? That is, how do you determine whether or not you have hit the mark of love in your preaching and teaching?
3. We don’t want to encourage shoddy preaching or teaching, but we do want to urge readers to press on, trying to improve, and making sure you cover all the counsel of God in Scripture. How can Augustine’s quote encourage you both in working hard at preparation and being diligent to trust the Lord in your preaching and teaching?
T. M. Moore
For a cogent review and handbook for preparing to preach and teach, order a copy of our book, Text to Transformation, by clicking here. Our book, The Joy and Rejoicing of My Heart, provides an overview of the whys, hows, and results of the ministry of the Word (click here). You can find books by Dr. Stan Gale at his online bookstore (click here). Helpful resources from Rusty Rabon can be purchased here.
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).