I recently read Carl Trueman’s Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. This powerful little book offers some great insights into various topics including preaching. Here are a few excerpts from Professor Trueman’s book (republished by Christian Focus Publications).
The sermon: God’s Method
For those, however, standing in the line of the Reformers, humanity, even in its highest natural spiritual exercises, is in a state of utter rebellion against God, and no elaborate string of words, no compelling argument, no passionate speech will ever bring a single individual to Christ. It is only as those words bring with them the Holy Spirit of God bearing witness to Christ that the sermon becomes adequate to its task. Thus, we preach, we speak the words of God not because this is the marketing method most likely to appeal to the unbeliever but simply because this is God’s appointed means of coming to individuals and bringing them to faith. Indeed, precisely because it is so weak and hopeless by the world’s standards, it brings that much more glory to God when souls are saved and lives turned round through this medium.
Of course we must use language with which the congregation is familiar; of course we must be aware that we are talking to people in the twenty-first century and not the sixteenth; and of course we must be culturally sensitive in what we say; but preach we must because this is God’s chosen means of spreading the news of the kingdom. Preaching is not just a communication technique, and must never be considered as such; it is bringing the very words of God to bear upon the life and needs of sinners and of the congregations of God’s people. For this reason, if for no other, the sermon must remain central in our worship…..
When preaching fails
Furthermore, it is surely no coincidence that the marginalizing of the sermon is evangelical life has led not so much to a collapse in zeal for the gospel – for there are many, particularly young people, who come from churches where preaching is not central yet have an enviable zeal – but has led to a dramatic decline among the laity in knowledge of exactly what that gospel is. Working with evangelical students, it never ceases to astound me how little some of them know. Yes, they love Christ and trust him for forgiveness; but ask them why they have confidence that he forgives them or what the cross achieved, and one is often confronted with a reply which speaks about some nebulous experience or feeling which they have rather than a reference to the cross or to covenant promises.
The reason for this lack is almost always their church background: fellowships where great emphasis may well be placed upon a vital and vibrant Christian life but where preaching is at a discount. The result is that their minds are empty of great Christian truths and their faith has less than fully stable foundations, being built on pious experiences rather than a well-thought-out biblical and doctrinal worldview rooted in the identity of God himself as found in his revelation. We need to know that we can be confident that God is faithful because of what he has done throughout history, not because we ourselves had some experience at some point in time; and how are we to know this unless somebody tells us?
The preacher’s responsibility
The first thing that a preacher needs to realize, therefore, is the seriousness of the task he is undertaking: on his shoulders rests the responsibility of giving his people solid rock on which to build their lives; and in preaching, he is moving the divine Word of God from the divinely inspired text through the words of his sermon to the hearts and minds of his people. He is thus handling, so to speak, the Word of God, something which is both an immense privilege and an awesome responsibility.
He must therefore take care that he gets it right and that his attitude towards the task is one appropriate to its gravity. As Richard Baxter declared, ‘I preached as a dying man to dying men.’ The pulpit was thus no place for clowning or levity or entertaining his congregation; every Sunday it was a place where, perhaps for the last time, he had an opportunity of speaking to men and women about the great things of God. We, of course, live in age where entertainment is one of the be-all-and-end-alls of life; but Christianity is always to an extent counter-cultural, and this is one point on which we cannot afford to be anything else.
The preaching ministry is thus something which should not be entered into lightly; nor is the sermon something which either minister or congregation should approach in a light or trivial manner. The preacher has the responsibility of both expounding God’s truth and of doing so in a manner which confronts his congregation with the awesomeness of God’s greatness and holiness and the vastness of his grace and love.
It takes, therefore, a particular kind of man with a particular calling to perform this task.