Despite modern conventions and the temptation to entertain and woo, the pastor’s primary duty is to preach and teach the Word of God. Alistair Begg explores this duty, encouraging pastors to preach with zeal for God’s glory and a concern for presenting the Gospel’s clearly. When a pastor is in touch with God, in love with his people, and on fire with the Bible, the wonder of Jesus’ redeeming love remains foremost in his congregation.
I hardly have a text for what I’m about to do, so I’ll just arbitrarily take 1 Thessalonians 2. I’m allowing myself a measure of freedom in this context, a freedom that is partly due to the challenge of, you know, talking about how things should be done in a way that sometimes, if you try and tie it to do exposition as well, you neither do the exposition nor talk about what’s going on.
And so, 1 Thessalonians 2:
“You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. [We’d] previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in spite of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. [We’re] not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.
“As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.
“You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”
Well, we’ll pause there.
I want to address the question of the effective performance of our primary pastoral duty. The effective performance of our primary pastoral duty. And if any in the class immediately puts up their hands to say, “Excuse me, sir, what is our primary pastoral duty?” then you’re gonna have to go immediately to the bottom of the class and stay behind for a very long detention. The assumption must be, surely, that our primary pastoral duty is the preaching and teaching of the Word of God. God has made us heralds of his good news.
Now, the fact is, of course, that that question is routinely up for discussion, it would seem, in every generation. I was reading this week a book by late Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan, which was, I noted from the flyleaf, written in 1953. And in 1953 he was, immediately in his introduction to this book, acknowledging the fact that the contemporary environment in which he was writing challenged the very notion of the primacy of preaching. And he talked about the proliferation of motorcars in England, and the arrival of new forms of communication, disillusionment with the Lord’s Day itself, and so on, and he said, “You know, all of these things are challenging the very idea that preaching has any primacy at all.” And it made me smile because it’s the very same thing that we read constantly in publications, saying, you know, “Preaching is in the shadows now, and it has been superseded by all kinds of other things, and if you want to be an effective pastor of God’s people, then really you need to devalue this notion of preaching and teaching the Bible and put your emphasis on the things that are able to communicate and impact people.”
And it is, of course, I think, the work of the devil in every generation to sow these seeds in the minds of men, thereby causing them to lose confidence in the Scriptures, to be diminished in their zeal for the Bible, to be sliding in their convictions, and as a result, when they get into the pulpit, they have lost the battle before they ever begin. And they don’t need to have a sign on a baseball cap or something saying, “I’ve lost the battle”; it becomes very, very quickly obvious to all who are listening to them. One cynical sage, commenting on a particular congregation that he had been attending for some time, and attending the evening service, and he said that, having been there for some time, “God, if he ever attended this place of worship, always slipped out quietly, it seemed, just before the sermon,” and that there was no indication whatsoever that God was involved in what was taking place in the communication of the Bible.
Now, borrowing from Roy Clements, for whose restoration we continue to pray, let me say a couple of things concerning this whole notion, which is prevalent. I’m not gonna quote the names of the people who are circulating the country telling young men that they ought to really forget preaching, at least in terms of giving any diligence to it—it’s the kind of thing they can get over with in maybe seventeen or eighteen minutes; better to have a brief homily and get on with the other aspects, the liturgical aspects, that will help to impact a postmodern generation.
There are two underlining notions, I think, that tend to that. One is just the basic idea that preaching doesn’t do any good. Right? Preaching doesn’t do any good. People say, “Why would you do preaching? Preaching doesn’t do any good.” And there’s a psychological element in this; I mean, the psychology departments of our universities will say things like “monodirectional communication”—which is essentially what preaching is, in the sense of a speaker and listeners, although it’s not all that it is—but “monodirectional communication can reinforce attitudes and beliefs that are already held, but can only very rarely effect real change in the opinions of people.” So it can reinforce convictions, it can serve the function of a cheerleader and say, “Come on, now!” to a group of people who are already convinced of the validity of what’s being propounded, but it cannot actually in… only in the rarest of cases actually effect real change. And so, the argument goes, especially from human psychology, that if you want to change people, then you have to give up on the monologue, and you’re gonna have to move to dialogue, at least at some level, and probably in a more intimate context.
So, if you allow that to be true even for a moment, then you have to say a number of things, and one is that Jesus in his earthly ministry, then, was guilty of the greatest faux pas, wasn’t he? Assuming for a moment that he would move from place to place and preach and teach the kingdom of God, that he would herald the gospel of God, that he would do so not as anything other than a proclaimer of God’s truth.
So the flaw in the argument that it doesn’t do any good is not a flaw in the psychology, but it is a flaw in the theology—namely, that people who argue this way see preaching as something less than what it is in the Bible. They see preaching as simply the attempt of a man to overcome the thinking of other men and women who happen to be present at that time. It’s analogous, if you like, to a marketing exercise. The preacher shows up, and he has a product; it’s called the gospel. He has consumers; they’re called the congregation. He actually himself fulfills the role of the salesman, and his job, like any good salesman, is to try and overcome the resistance of the consumers to the purchase of his product. And therefore, he’s gonna have to do his level best.
Now, when you read the Bible, of course, there’s one overwhelming reason why the analogy isn’t any good at all, and that is because the preacher doesn’t overcome consumer resistance. The preacher cannot ever overcome consumer resistance. All that preaching does is reveal the resistance. Because the gospel is veiled. So when you preach, people realize that they have resistant hearts, and it becomes apparent.
In the parable of the sower, as Jesus told it, it was fairly straightforward, wasn’t it? “The sower went forth to sow and when he sowed, he sowed one kind of seed…” and the whole emphasis of the parable is not on the nature of the approach of the sower but is upon the nature of the hearts of the recipients. But a contemporary approach would tell the parable of the sower in terms of one soil and four different kinds of sower, rather than one soil and four different kinds of hearts . And it would go along the lines of, “Well, one sower went, and he tried just the straightforward forty-minute exposition, and that didn’t work. And then another sower, he went, and he tried the twenty-minute exposition with drama, and that didn’t work. And then the third one, he tried, you know, five minutes of rambling with thirty-five minutes of monotonous singing, and that didn’t work. And then the fourth one, he came up with a wonderful way to do it, and that worked, and we’ve written a book about it now, and you can get that book. And if you do what he did, then you will have thousands of people that will immediately come to your church.”
I don’t mean to be dismissive of anything at all in saying that, but that is contemporary logic, isn’t it? And so we sit and we look at our congregation, we say, “Look at this thing I’m dealing with here! I can’t get this off dead center. What am I gonna do now? I’m gonna have to go and find the latest methodology, the latest technology, the latest whatever it is to get this thing going. And I tried this one and that one and that one and that one, and apparently this is the one that is working. This is the flavor of the week; therefore, we’ll use the flavor of the week, and we’ll be off to the races.”
Well, of course, when you think about it for just a moment or two, you realize that it is for this reason that a monologue is actually the ideal means of communication, because what preaching of the Word does is simply to make the person in whom God is already secretly at work by his Spirit self-conscious of the fact. The preacher is merely the instrument whereby people who are being saved become aware of the fact. Did you get that? The preacher, then, is the instrument showing people who are being saved… they’re saying to themself, “What is happening to me? I’m listening. I’ve been here for seven months, and I never once listened; today I am listening. What is happening? It’s the same old stuff, the same old boy, same old lousy illustration, same old bore, but what’s happening to me?” What’s happening to me is that the Spirit of God is at work. He’s regenerating the person. They’re being born again to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. There’s something is taking place inside of them.
And much of the trouble with contemporary preaching, especially of the gospel, is simply that it is built on the fallacious assumption that anybody can and will respond to the gospel if it’s only presented to them in a proper fashion. So all you have to do is be able to figure out the proper way to do it, and if you do it the proper way, then you press button A, press button B, and out comes all these Cs—all these little Christians. But what does Paul say? He says that men and women are blind, that men and women are dead, that men and women have their fingers in their ears, and they don’t even have within themselves the desire to pull their fingers out or take the blinkers off their eyes.
So do you think for one nanosecond that anything that you and I are going to do is gonna affect that in any meaningful way? Oh, we can build crowds; that’s relatively easy. We can gather clusters of people; there are all kinds of techniques for that. But we cannot see people come to Christ except by the Spirit of God. We want to use logic, we want to use appeal, we want to use every possible means we can. But if a person responds, it’s not the triumph of our logic, it’s not the wonder of our appeal, it’s not the skill of our illustrative work; it’s the triumph of God in the heart of the sinner. So that preaching reveals the transformation; it doesn’t actually produce it.
So preaching will be effective not because by all accounts it is the best means of communication—because it actually isn’t—but because it is God’s chosen means of communication by which other men and women’s eyes will be opened to an awareness of his grace. That’s why it’s such a solemn thing to declare the Word of God.
Now, I spent too long on that; I didn’t mean to.
The second issue—the second thing that people say—is not simply it doesn’t do any good, but secondly—and this is probably more prevalent—“People won’t listen to preaching these days.” People won’t listen to preaching these days. People don’t listen to preaching anymore. Okay? Isn’t that what they say? “I mean, why are you doing this, pastor? I mean, why don’t you get around and do something useful, like some of the other members of the community? I mean, what’s wrong with some of these things?” So, if you want to attract the group, then dump the long sermons, bring in drama, music, film, celebration, think constantly about how you’re packaging the gospel; look at the world of entertainment, see how they do it, see what makes people laugh, then make people laugh, look at advertising techniques, and then fashion your appeal and your presentation accordingly.
Now, all of the above is not irrelevant. All of the above need not necessarily be set aside. But none of the above, individually or together, can be used as a substitute for preaching. And the reason is because God has determined that it should be this way. The task of the evangelist is to press the truth upon people’s minds and on people’s consciences in the plainest kind of way. And so the test of our evangelistic strategy is not to ask the question, “How did people enjoy that? Do you think that people had a good time? Do you think they went away happy and contented?” The test is really, “How much did people learn from that? Were people confronted with the immensity of the disparity between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man? Or did they just simply go out having a little inoculation of religion?” The question is not “How electric was the atmosphere in which it took place?” but “How clear was the gospel in its presentation?”
Now, I’ve been to a lot of boring services, and I’ve preached at a number of them myself, as my congregation can attest to, but it is simply not true to say that people won’t listen to preaching. Yes, they will listen to preaching. If people are being awakened spiritually to their need of God, by golly, they’ll listen to preaching. Okay? If they’re being awakened spiritually, they hunger and thirst, because they have a quest within them for a truth which can only be satisfied by the living Word of God. So if they’re being awakened spiritually—which again is a reminder to us that we must pray, that we must pray about the preaching, for the preaching, in the preaching, during the preaching. We must adjure our congregations, “Undergird us with prayer! We’re not very good. We’re not very capable. We’re not very bright. Our hearts are stony. Please,” we say to our congregations, “pray for us.” For the same sermons will produce a different impact in this great mystery of God’s providence, because these people are being awakened spiritually, and so they listen to the Bible.
And the fact of the matter is, if they’re not being awakened spiritually, then no amount of gospel entertainment or evangelical gimmickry will do a single thing. Right? So what a waste of time and energy, unless what we’re trying to do is
Put on a show
And leave them laughing when they go;
And if you care, don’t let them know,
Don’t give yourself away.
I’ve looked at life from both sides now, you know,
From up and down,
And still somehow…
Drama, music, film, celebration can complement preaching, but they do not, cannot communicate the Christian message as plainly and as unambiguously as you do in preaching. That’s why Paul says that “[we set] forth the truth plainly.” And the medium, the very imperfection of what happens, if you like, is a constituent part of what God is doing, as Paul to Corinth, isn’t it? You know he says, “When I came, I wasn’t one of these guys or one of those guys; I wasn’t particularly impressive, I shook a lot. You know, if there was any demonstration at all, apart from the sweatiness of my palms, it was somehow or another that God chooses to pick up wee characters like me. And some of you came to trust in Christ”—nobody more amazed than Paul himself.
So just, then, acknowledging those things and setting them aside for a moment, if we’re going to say that we must be effective in the performing of our primary task, we need to acknowledge what is being said, and is being said in Christian journals, and is being said in seminary classes, and is being said continually throughout the country: “Preaching does no good—it can’t, by definition—and people won’t listen to preaching.”
Now, given that the battle rages fiercely, given that we like a challenge, we say, “Fine. We’ll take that on. ‘With God all things are possible.’ ‘By my God I can run through a troop; by my God I can leap over a wall.’ Therefore, we will ask God to show himself strong in our generation through the stumbling, bumbling attempts of the likes of us to fulfill the promises of his Word in relationship to the teaching and preaching of the Bible.”
Now, what I want to do in the balance of my time is to take from John Owen five statements that he made concerning this. They are all his statements, and any of the drivel that comes underneath them is all mine. So I can guarantee you the five statements are worth the notes, and then you can basically drift off, and then when I say, “Number two,” then you come back in again and get the second one. I’m not going to elaborate on this unduly; it’s a good exercise for us to think them out on our own.
He says if we are going then to be effective in the teaching and preaching of the Bible, we need, ourselves, “spiritual wisdom [and] understanding of the mysteries of the gospel.” “Spiritual wisdom and understanding of the mysteries of the gospel.”
Now, the verses that came to mind when I looked at that were these, and I’ll just quote them to you; I won’t ask you to keep looking them up: “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great”—1 Timothy 3:16—
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.
Now, you just sit with a cup of coffee in the afternoon for a little while, you take that verse, and you say, “What an amazing, mysterious notion this is: that the God of the universe appeared in a body. The incarnation.” Try and bring our hearts and our minds underneath the immensity of this truth. Set aside the fact that we already wrote four papers on that in our systematics class, or we did whatever else it is, and we have the sort of theological formulaic element of it down. That’s not what Owen is talking about. He’s not talking about our ability to articulate things, first of all. He’s saying if you and I are going to be effective communicators of the gospel, then we have to be, ourselves, invaded by spiritual wisdom and an understanding of the mysteries of the gospel.
Paul, when he writes again to the Corinthians in that opening section, that’s what he’s talking about, isn’t he? He’s talking about this amazing wisdom; he said, “We’re not talking here about words of human wisdom. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it’s the power of God, for it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the intelligence of the intelligence I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man?” and so on, “Where is the scholar?” What is Paul doing there? He is imbibing, if you like, the mystery of the gospel. He’s not dealing in the realm—2 Corinthians 1:12—of fleshly wisdom but of heavenly wisdom. In Romans 11, when he finally taps out his ability to write concerning the vastness of all that he is conveying, he eventually finds himself just bursting out in praise, doesn’t he?
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
‘[Who’s] known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things
[And] to him be the glory forever [and ever]! Amen.
And you get the sense that this is coming down upon him, as it were, and then it is issuing from him.
And you read Owen—you try to read Owen—you read a page of Owen, and you have to wipe the sweat from your brow. You lay down your dictionary, and you think about it for a while. And even with a gap of time and intellect, you say, “I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what it is that Owen’s even on about when he talks about spiritual wisdom and an understanding of the mysteries of the gospel.” To the extent that I don’t know what that means, my congregation can’t know what it means. I mean, if I think what that means is The Four Spiritual Laws, you know? “Well, I was thinking today about the mysteries of the gospel: ‘God loves you, has a wonderful plan for your life, you’re foolish and sinful,’” and so on. Is that it? Is that the extent of our thinking? Have we ever been brought down under this mystery? Do we even want to be? Do we wonder why there’s nothing mysterious about our preaching? Nothing that speaks of “the wisdom that comes down from heaven, that’s first of all, pure and peaceable, and gentle and open to reason”? Well, you can’t produce that out of a spiritual vacuum; I can’t. So Owen was onto something here, wasn’t he? We’ll have to figure it out; we can’t spend longer now.
Secondly, he said it was imperative that there was “the experience of the power of truth in our own souls.” “The experience of the power of truth in our own souls.” You see these words? Experience. Capital E. Power. Truth. Soul. He’s not talking here about the ability for us to process information in our minds, and so, having grasped enough intellectually, to communicate from our heads to the heads of other people. We are not giving lectures. This is not a monologue; this is a dialogue, and the dialogue is actually between the Spirit of God and the heart of man, via the strange mechanism of the human larynx and tongue. And that in itself is a great mystery.
When you read the prophets in the King James Version, I think something of this grips us, doesn’t it? If you go to Malachi, or Habakkuk, or any of the rest of them, in the NIV or in the modern translation it says, “The oracle of God,” you know, “to Malachi.” Well, you go to the King James Version, it says, “The burden of”—“the burden” of God to Malachi. I have laid a burden on you, Malachi.” You see, now he is experiencing the truth in his own soul. I’m not sure I know much about this, but I do know that Owen is right: if it doesn’t dwell in power in us, it will not pass in power from us. There’s a reason why we can’t preach powerfully. There’s a reason why we sound at times like we’re reading the jolly Yellow Pages. There is a reason why we can hear ourselves speak, which is the worst of all sermon—when we can audit our own homiletical performance as we’re going along.
I’ve told you this story before; I think it’s the best illustration of it. We go to the next point, but… Eric Alexander leading the service, Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching; Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaches his heart out for an hour and fifteen minutes, sits down. Eric Alexander’s a young man, he’s excited to be introducing Lloyd-Jones, he’s there with this great expositor of Scripture, and as he sits beside him as the ministry ends, he says to the doctor, he says, “How do you feel?” Can you imagine him, thinking…? But anyway, he was gracious, and he turned and he said, “Tired.” That wasn’t enough for Eric as a young man, and he said, “In what way, doctor?” And then Lloyd-Jones’s great reply: “Young man, I think this is the closest that a man will ever come to the experience of childbirth.”
Now, you see, that is a level that is way beyond this prematched, warm-up garbage in some greenroom somewhere, with a bunch of empty-headed goons who have decided that you, because you have the gift of the gab, are going to be able to go out to a gaumless group of people and, by the mechanisms of human intellect, skill, and oratory, and so on, employ your abilities to overcome their consumer resistance. It’s no wonder that they say, “Go get ’em!” We should all be flat on our jolly faces, on the ground, asking God to get them. ’Cause only God can get them.
I mean, how many people have been converted so far this year under our preaching? What’re we doing? Do you think it may have anything at all to do with the fact that our experience of the power of truth in our own souls is so limited in relationship to what God desires to give his children? That our spiritual thermometer is so low that it is no surprise to discover that a kind of air-conditioning, refrigerated consumer mentality has pervaded our pews, and the people expect little because they get little, and they know that it is apparently not of great consequence to the pastor; therefore, why should it be of great concern to us? When it got ahold of Paul, he said, “The love of Christ constrains me.” You have that: “constrains me, compels me.” It’s like the pushing out of a child in the pains of labor. It’s like … “Okay, breathe now, Mrs. Begg. Okay, now push.” I hope you’re as challenged by this as I am.
Thirdly, he said if we’re going to effectively be involved in doing this, there needs to be “spiritual wisdom [and] understanding of the mysteries of the gospel,” and “the experience of the power of [the] truth in our own [lives],” and thirdly, a skill in dividing the Word of God correctly. Skill in dividing the Word of God correctly. Having said all that we’ve said, we now need to turn to the whole aspect of the practicality of doing what we do. And we don’t, in coming to this third point, obviously, set aside the two previous points or all of the emphasis that we’ve already given to the primacy of the Spirit and to the absolute necessity of God being at work. We recognize that all of our gifts—whatever they are, spiritual or natural—are completely useless in our communication in and of themselves. They’re totally useless, unless as preachers we are in touch with God, in love with our people, and on fire with the truth. In touch with God, in love with the people, and on fire with the Bible.
At that point, what God has equipped us with, naturally and spiritually, may then come to a position of usefulness. Until then, we may be like somebody standing on a railway platform, calling out train times, with crowds walking past; every so often someone paying attention, but by and large people saying, “I don’t know why that fellow’s standing there. Why’s he doing that? Why’s he standing out there doing that? I don’t understand a jolly word he’s had to say. And I’ve been coming here for seven weeks. If my mother put food on the plate the way he puts truth on my plate that I’m supposed to eat, I may as well forget a knife and fork and just bury my face in it and suck on it in the hope that it may engage some orifice in my head and find its way to some position of usefulness. But in terms of going at it appropriately, there would be no reason to, because all I get are big slabs of information, great chunks of truth, great things that apparently matter to him, but it for sure doesn’t matter a hill of beans to me, and I’m not sure I understand why he’s so concerned about it at all. His sermons are like the guy…” You remember that little poem, “I shot an arrow [in] the air, it fell to earth, I [know] not where.” That’s an average sermon. Like the visit of Christopher Columbus to, you know, the United States: when he set out, he didn’t know where he was going; when he got there, he didn’t know where he was; and when he got back, he hadn’t a clue where he’d been. That’s the average sermon.
So how do we hope our congregations to do anything with that at all? How are they supposed to do anything with that? You know, I hadn’t been in the forces; I wish I had been. If I had my life over again, I’d enlist just for one of those uniforms, and also to get a couple of muscles at least somewhere on my body. But I know, because I’ve seen the stuff: they give them guns and they fire at targets. Isn’t that amazing? Targets! They fire at targets. The average sermon is like a guy with a small automatic pistol, firing all over the jolly place. He’s a danger to be around. If anything happens to hit you, it’s a miracle, and hopefully it will not be fatal. There’s a reason why people say preaching does no good: because a lot of it does no good. There’s a reason why people say people will not listen to preaching: because they shouldn’t listen to the jolly preaching—it’s so bad, it’s so clumsy, it’s so artless, it’s so unformed, it’s so downright patently the fullness of laziness.
You go in a carpenter’s workbench, he uses wood. He tells you, “I got this piece of wood in such and such a place, and if you’ll notice, I’m going to use the back of it for a cello. It has beautiful grain. It is wonderful. You’ll see how it takes, for example, the plane when I put it on. Look at how it does,” and he waxes eloquent on it. The individual takes the cello and says, “This is the medium that I use in order to communicate this,” and they take the cello, and they play it, and it produces all this wonderful new noise. What is the medium for the preacher? Words. Words! Are you good with words? What do you think your vocabulary is? How many words do you think are in your vocabulary? Do you think there are more words in your vocabulary in the last ten years, as a result of your ability to read and process information, than were present in your vocabulary when you finished high school?
I’ve been working on this project of Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening. I’ve gone through ten months, every single morning, every single night, reworking all the material. I have Young’s Analytical Concordance in front of me, I have a thesaurus beside that, I have two volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary that go from A to M and from N to the end, and I do not go ninety seconds without turning up one of those four aids. And the amazing thing about Spurgeon is this—we’re not just talking about anachronistic use of language—the amazing thing about Spurgeon is this: that every time I come across a word and I look it up, it is the exact word. You know, it’s not like he came up with a funny word. To me it seems like a funny word: “Why are you using that word?” And then I look it up, and I say, “That is the absolute perfect word to convey what he’s doing.” So how would he do now? Because nobody in the whole of America, nobody in the whole world, understands the word! You know, Spurgeon’s dead; he took all those words to the grave with him. And so far the rest of us have been getting by on a lot less information ever since.
We need to take care with words. Can I encourage you about this? I bought a little dictionary the other day in the airport, just so I could keep it with me; I’m so into dictionaries at the moment. And I flew home from Los Angeles, my wife said—I never spoke to her hardly at all; I was wearing those Bose earphones, which allows you to ignore everybody around you, which is not a good thing, but it’s an honest acknowledgment on my part—so I had the earphones on and a little Webster’s Dictionary. And she said somewhat cheekily when we got off the plane when we were starting to get our bags, said, “Well, did you enjoy reading your dictionary?” I said, “Yeah, as it happens. Yeah!” But I was going through definition after definition after definition—I didn’t know hardly five words on a page! And words are my craft!
You know, I haven’t analyzed this at all, and I don’t even know, but I bet I use the same words all the jolly time. I’ve used “jolly” at least five times! You gotta come up with another adjective than that; that’s hopeless! And the practicality of it, I want to say to you again—and you must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”—but I really think the key to your ability to verbalize effectively—especially if you go off extemporaneously on a tangent—your ability to do that well will be as a result of your willingness to write things down in the process of your preparation. And you know, it’s not going to do to jot down a few headings and then trust to the inspiration of the moment, ’cause you don’t have a good enough vocabulary to go and grab information. Neither do I. You know, I don’t have a broad enough grasp of the English language to be able to pull down the right word in the moment. So I’m gonna have to do the hard work of finding the right word in the darkness of the evening hour, so that in the light of the morning hour I may be able to employ that word.
So we learn our craft by… And this is, incidentally, “skill in dividing the Word of God correctly”; I launched off on it, I freely acknowledge that. I told you that his heading is a good one, my extrapolations are here nor there. We understand 2 Timothy 2:15: cutting it straight, making sure that we’re not distorting Scripture, that we’re not setting one piece of theology against another, and so on. I’ve gone to a much more tertiary level of things, if you like. But the way we do this is by reading books about it, by studying the lives of others who’ve done it or are doing it, and by doing it. You know? It’s on the job. We learn on the job. You just have to get going and do it. And some success and some failure, but you hopefully get better.
The computer programs now are fantastic for a golf swing; I’m sure you’ve all seen them if you’ve gone to a golf pro. What he does is he videotapes you, and then he takes you into his little studio, and he says, “Now, what I want to do is I want to show you your swing, but I want to give you the opportunity to have your swing compared with any golfer from this vast array.” And so if you decide you can have Freddie Couples, who he has brought up on the screen beside you, and then he sets the swing plane up of Freddie Couples, and then he superimposes you on Freddie Couples, and he shows you your swing plane. Yes he does. And you might think you were doing good till you got yourself up against the swing plane of Freddie, or the swing plane of Tiger, or whoever you want to be up against.
Now, I know that we’re not supposed to compare ourselves, we’re not supposed to do these things. But find somebody that at least approximates to the way you want to teach and preach the Bible, and then copy them. Copy them. I don’t mean copy their intonations. I don’t mean copy their funny mannerisms or try and be them. But copy them in the way that you would copy the swing plane of somebody else. Because there are certain rudimentary elements in what is happening, in simply taking the club away on line and bringing it back on line, that if somebody, as you visualize them, helps you to do that, then go ahead and do it. And if it helps you to have that person in mind as you’re doing that, then go on.
Fourthly—and just say a word and then we’ll be through—fourthly, there needs to be spiritual discernment concerning the condition of our congregation. If we’re gonna be effective in preaching and teaching, there needs to be spiritual discernment of the condition of our congregation. Eric Alexander last year said, “We have to preach to the congregation we have, not the congregation we wish we had.” All right? So you just have finished your studies, you just did a DMin, and now you think you’re an intellectual. Your wife knows you’re still a intellectual pygmy, but you’ve decided that you’re now going to give them the great benefits of whatever you just discovered. Frankly, you hadn’t much of a clue what you were doing yourself, but it hasn’t stopped you from launching into this series, which is absolutely dreadful and bears no correlation to where your congregation is.
Now, how will we ever know where our congregation is unless we’re with our congregation, unless we have a sense of where they are, however that comes? Whether it comes flooding at as with emails, whether it comes as a result of meeting people in the grocery store, whether it comes as a result of sitting with them in their bereavement and in their disappointments, whether it comes in talking with children as we happen just to meet them in the corridor, whether it comes as a result of sitting down with them for a moment or two—with a little girl that drew us one of those dreadful pictures of ourselves preaching and so on that we take up and stick on our wall and thank God that she was there—whatever it is, somehow or another, we have to get that. Because people are our books . People are our books. And that is not to say that it is a kind of consumer-led approach to our teaching series, but it sure matters that we understand those to whom we speak.
That’s why I read, incidentally, from 1 Thessalonians 2. He says, “You know how we were with you: we were like a mom. We were like a mother with you, as a mother is gentle with her children.” A mother gets down where her children are. A mother gives herself to her children. The whole of her life is essentially given over to accommodating herself to her children, so that she might provide for them in a way that they’re able to absorb. That’s what we’re supposed to do as well. And “as a father,” he says, “we did what a father should do; that is, we gave you moral guidance, and we gave you a framework. We were exhorting you, and encouraging you,” and so on. And a father knows the needs of his children, a father delights to give good gifts to his children, and a father makes and keeps his promises.
Now, I’m not gonna get into the whole “Well, we’ve gotta understand the philosophical milieu in which we’re ministering”; it’s kind of boring now with this postmodern stuff. Let’s just say this: postmodernism, deconstructionism, taken to its logical conclusion is absolute stupidity. Nothing means nothing, and everything means everything , and everything and …. Right? It’s just absolute nonsense.
You know, the lecturer who’s teaching deconstructionism tells his class, “And this, and so on, and everything else,” and a boy puts up his hand, says, “I’m really disappointed with you, speaking as you’ve just done in such a way concerning the Aborigines in Australia.”
“Well,” the teacher says, “I didn’t say a thing about the Aborigines in Australia.”
“Oh,” said the student. “Well, that’s what it sounded like to me.”
Words work, despite the philosophical, idiotic ramblings in the ivory towers. Words work, and God’s words work best. We have in the Word of God objective, verifiable truth. And if you lose conviction concerning that, then you and I have lost our ability to convey the truth with effectiveness.
And the flip side of the postmodern question, of course, is the fact that men and women now, in terms of trying to understand things not simply on a cerebral level, but they want to process them emotionally and everything else—fine, acknowledge that in your congregation. Recognize that that’s the truth. And so, in the use of narrative, and in the explication of the parables, it’s not illegitimate to ask, in teaching the material—once we have done as we were instructed yesterday and made sure that we have the melodic line and made sure that we have the theological principle—it’s not wrong at all to say, “Can you imagine how the woman felt in going into that hostile crowd and unloosening her hair and using it to wipe the feet of Christ?” It’s not illegitimate to do as we were bid last night, to say to them, “Isn’t it amazing how God only had eyes for Naomi? Do you ever feel that God perhaps has missed you? That God knows your name?” And appeal to them on the level of feeling, not as a result of the absence of intellect but on the basis of it, if you like.
Spiritual discernment of the condition of our congregation will save us from a lot of silliness. I’ve told you before, I think, but I can’t resist telling it again—it’s my favorite story on this, and I’ve only got a few favorite stories—but I was playing golf with a fellow in Scotland many years ago. He was my senior, he was a pastor, I was… I don’t know what I was, but he was the big guy, and I was the wee guy. And we played golf, and I asked him a lot of questions, and then we had fish and chips, and then I went home. I went back to my wife, and I said to her when we got home—she said, “How’d you get on?”—and I said, “This and this,” and I said, “Mr. X,” I said, “He’s leaving his church.”
She said, “He is?”
I said, “Yeah.”
She said, “He told you that?”
I said, “No, he didn’t tell me that.”
Said, “Well, how do you know he’s leaving his church?”
“Well,” I said, “When I was on the golf course this afternoon, I asked him what he was doing in the evening service in his teaching program. And he told me, ‘The five points! I’m giving them the five points!’” I can’t say it with the vehemence necessary, the way he communicated. It was like, “I’m giving these idiots the five points!” So I told my wife, “He’s leaving his church.” Within six months, gone.
He was not paying attention to his congregation! He had a bee in his theological bonnet, decided to unleash it on them. Poor unsuspecting souls on a sleepy Sunday evening, and my friend here: “Take that, and take that!” you know. Like Sir Brian [Botany], in the… the guy who wrote… doesn’t matter. You know, big Sir Brian [Botany], you know:
Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on.
He went among the villagers and bopped them on the head.
On Tuesdays and on Saturdays, but mainly on the latter day,
He moved among the villagers, and this is what he said,
“I am Sir Brian!” (ting-ling)
“I am Sir Brian!” (rat-tat)
“I am Sir Brian, as bold as a lion—
Take that!—and that—and that!”
Those were the days when poetry was gentle, before all these horrible video games that turned our children into monsters. That was written by Lewis Carroll, I think—or whoever did Hook or whatever, I can’t remember. Doesn’t matter, the point’s gone, time’s gone.
Last thing, last thing, last point: Zeal for the glory of God and a compassion for the souls of men. You’ll never preach effectively without a zeal for the glory of God and a compassion for the souls of men. You know this story; it’s so well worn, isn’t it? Henry Martyn goes to Persia, he sees a picture of Christ bowing down before Muhammad, and he writes in his journal, “I could not endure this. It would be hell to me to see Jesus always thus dishonored.” Post-9/11, Christ has been dishonored from the strangest of sources because we equivocate on the absolute, exclusive claims of Jesus of Nazareth as “the only name under heaven given among men by which they must be saved.” And only a zeal for God’s glory and a genuine compassion to see people come to Christ will allow us then to work our way systematically and consecutively through the Scriptures, recognizing that when we preach the Bible, if we do so properly, we are almost inevitably, all the time, preaching the gospel. ’Cause it’s all about the wonder of Jesus and his redeeming love. It’s all about redemption.
James S. Stewart—whose books you should find in the used section and fight over them, and grab them for yourself, and take them away if there are any there—in his little book Heralds of God, talking about this zeal for glory and compassion for the souls of men, he puts it in this way. And with this quote we’re finished, and we’ll go to lunch:
Redemptive work is always costly. There is no hope of ease for the faithful servant of the Cross. It is involved in the very nature of his task that he can never be at the end of it. Not his to evade the burden and the heat of the day: physical weariness, sickness of heart and bitter disappointment, the strain of the passion for souls, all the wear and tear of vicarious burden-bearing—these he will know in full measure. He may even find himself wondering sometimes why he ever accepted a commission in a warfare in which there is no discharge. He may have moods when a haunting sense of anti-climax overwhelms him. [It’s] one thing to set out gallantly when the flags are waving and the drums summoning to a new crusade, but [it’s] quite another thing to keep plodding on when the road is difficult and the initial impetus has spent its force and the trumpets of the dawn have ceased to blow. [It’s] one thing to have inspirations: [it’s] another to have tenacity. “My little children,” wrote Paul to the Galatians, “of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you”: a swift and startling turn of phrase giving a profoundly moving insight into the price of true Christian ambassadorship.
Incidentally, is this craft in the use of language? He was not a natural at this; he learned this.
it is by no breath,
Turn of eye, wave of hand, that salvation joins issue with death!—
and if ever a man finds the work of the ministry becoming easily manageable and surmountable, an undemanding vocation without strain or any encumbering load of care, he is to be pitied, not congratulated: for he has so flagrantly lost touch with One whose ministry of reconciliation could be accomplished and fulfilled only through Gethsemane and Calvary. “Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” Unless something of the [pastor’s] life-blood goes into his quest for souls and into the word he brings them from the Lord, the quest remains fruitless and the word devoid of delivering power.
I hope these rambling thoughts will help us as we try and encourage one another to plod on, to plod on. The other man’s grass is always greener, incidentally. We all have the places we think we’d like to be. Sometimes because Mr. So-and-So won’t be there, but I’m telling you, he’s there; he reincarnates himself. Those suckers followed me across an ocean. And if we had this, if we had that, if we had the next thing… There’s no ideal place to serve God except the place he sets you down. And we all need to know that.
Father, I tremble at delivering this, lest I should think that, having talked about it, I know experientially what I’m talking about. And I, along with my brethren, acknowledge the phenomenal wisdom of Owen, the penetrating analysis with which he lays out these five simple and yet profound points—a plumb line against which we gauge ourselves and come up short. And were it not for the message of last evening, we would be tempted to throw in the towel and head for the hills—that you choose to use the weak to confound the strong and the foolish to make little the wisdom of the world. And thank you for the reminder to us that if dependence is the objective, then weakness is the advantage.
And so we ask that you will come to us in our weakness and grant to us your strength. We pray that we might help each other and encourage one another in the individual places to which you’ve called us. Bless us as we eat together around the tables. Thanks for those who prepared the food, and thank you for the ability to eat and digest food and go about the business of the day.
Hear our prayers, and let our cry come unto to you. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
 See Donald Coggan, “A Specious Lie,” in Stewards of Grace (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1958).
 W. E. Sangster, The Craft of Sermon Construction: A Source Book for Ministers (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1951), 11.
 Gerald Bullett, The Pandervils (1943; repr., London: Bloomsbury Reader, 2011).
 See Matthew 13:3–23; Mark 4:2–20; Luke 8:4–15.
 1 Peter 1:3 (paraphrased).
 Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now” (1967). Lyrics lightly altered.
 2 Corinthians 4:2 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 19:26 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 18:29 (paraphrased).
 John Owen, “The Duty of a Pastor,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 9:454.
 1 Corinthians 1:18–20 (paraphrased).
 Romans 11:33–36 (NIV 1984).
 James 3:17 (paraphrased).
 Owen, “Duty of a Pastor,” 9:454. Paraphrased.
 Malachi 1:1 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 5:14 (paraphrased).
 Owen, “Duty of a Pastor,” 9:455.
 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Arrow and the Song.”
 Philippians 2:12 (KJV).
 Owen, “Duty of a Pastor,” 9:456.
 See Matthew 7:11.
 A. A. Milne, “Bad Sir Brian Botany,” in The New Oxford Book of Children’s Verse, ed. Neil Phillip (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 154. Paraphrased.
 Owen, “Duty of a Pastor,” 9:456.
 John Sargent, Memoir of the Rev. Henry Martyn, B.D.: Late Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and Chaplain to the Honorable East India Company (Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong and Crocker and Brewster, 1820), 407. Paraphrased.
 Acts 4:12 (paraphrased).
 James S. Stewart, Heralds of God (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946), 198–99.
 1 Corinthians 1:27 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 119:169 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.