A Preacher’s Decalogue
Sinclair B. Ferguson
Forty years exactly have passed since my first sermon in the context of a Sunday service. Four decades is a long time to have amassed occasions when going to the church door after preaching is the last thing one wants to do—even if one loves the congregation (sometimes precisely because one loves the congregation and therefore the sense of failure is all the greater!). How often have I had to ask myself, “How is it possible to have done this thousands of times and still not do it properly?”
Yes, I know how to talk myself out of that mood! “It’s faithfulness, not skill, that really matters.” “How you feel has nothing to do with it!” “Remember you’re sowing seed.” “It’s ultimately the Lord who preaches the word into people’s hearts, not you.” All true. Yet we are responsible to make progress as preachers, indeed evident and visible, or at least audible progress (1 Tim 4:13, 15 is an instructive and searching word in this respect!).
All of this led me while traveling one day to reflect on this: What Ten Commandments, what rule of preaching-life, do I wish someone had written for me to provide direction, shape, ground rules, that might have helped me keep going in the right direction and gaining momentum in ministry along the way?
1. Know Your Bible Better
Often at the end of a Lord’s Day, or a Conference, the thought strikes me again: “If you only knew your Bible better you would have been a lot more help to the people.” I teach at a seminary whose founder stated that its goal was “to produce experts in the Bible.” Alas I was not educated in an institution that had anything remotely resembling that goal.
As an observer as well as a practitioner of preaching, I am troubled and perplexed by hearing men with wonderful equipment, humanly speaking (ability to speak, charismatic personality, and so on), who seem to be incapable of simply preaching the Scriptures. Somehow they have not first invaded and gripped them.
I must not be an illiterate. But I do need to be homo unius libri—a man of one Book. The widow of a dear friend once told me that her husband wore out his Bible during the last year of his life. “He devoured it like a novel” she said. Be a Bible-devourer!
2. Be a Man of Prayer
Reflecting on this reminds me of one moment in the middle of an address at a conference for pastors when the bubble above my head contained the words “You are making a complete and total hash of this.” But as my eyes then refocused on the men in front of me, those men seemed like thirsty souls drinking in cool refreshing water, and their eyes all seemed to be fixed on the water carrier I was holding! Then the above-the-head-bubble filled with other words: “I remember now, how I urged the congregation at home to pray for these brethren and for the ministry of the word. They have been praying.”
Alas for me if I don’t see the need for prayer or for encouraging and teaching my people to see its importance. I may do well (I have done well enough thus far, have I not?) . . . but not with eternal fruit.
3. Don’t Lose Sight of Christ
Me? Yes, me. This is an important principle in too many dimensions fully to expound here. One must suffice. Know and therefore preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
What do I mean? Perhaps the point can be put sharply, even provocatively, in this way: systematic exposition did not die on the cross for us; nor did biblical theology, nor even systematic theology or hermeneutics or whatever else we deem important as those who handle the exposition of Scripture. I have heard all of these in preaching . . . without a center in the person of the Lord Jesus.
Paradoxically not even the systematic preaching through one of the Gospels guarantees Christ-crucified centered preaching. Too often preaching on the Gospels takes what I whimsically think of as the “Find Waldo Approach.” The underlying question in the sermon is “Where are you to be found in this story?” (are you Martha or Mary, James and John, Peter, the grateful leper . . . ?). The question “Where, who and what is Jesus in this story?” tends to be marginalized.
4. Be Deeply Trinitarian
Surely we are? At least in some of our churches, not a Lord’s Day passes without the congregation confessing one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But as is commonly recognized, Western Christianity has often had a special tendency to either an explicit or a pragmatic Unitarianism, be it of the Father (liberalism, for all practical purposes), the Son (evangelicalism, perhaps not least in its reactions against liberalism), or the Spirit (Charismaticism with its reaction to both of the previous).
John’s Gospel suggests to us that one of the deepest burdens on our Lord’s heart during his last hours with his disciples was to help them understand that God’s being as Trinity is the heart of what makes the gospel both possible and actual, and that it is knowing him as such that forms the very lifeblood of the life of faith (cf. John 13–17).
Our people need to know that, through the Spirit, their fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. Would they know that from my preaching?
5. Use Your Imagination
All good preaching involves the use of the imagination. No great preacher has ever lacked imagination.
What do we mean by “imagination”? Our dictionaries give a series of definitions. Common to them all seems to be the ability to “think outside of oneself,” “to be able to see or conceive the same thing in a different way.” In some definitions the ideas of the ability to contrive, exercising resourcefulness, the mind’s creative power, are among the nuanced meanings of the word.
Imagination in preaching means being able to understand the truth well enough to translate or transpose it into another kind of language or musical key in order to present the same truth in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, feel its power—to do so in a way that gets under the skin, breaks through the barriers, grips the mind, will, and affections so that they not only understand the word used but feel their truth and power.
Luther did this by the sheer dramatic forcefulness of his speech. Whitefield did it by his use of dramatic expression (overdid it, in the view of some). Calvin—perhaps surprisingly—did it too by the extraordinarily earthed-in-Geneva-life language in which he expressed himself. So an overwhelming Luther-personality, a dramatic preacher with Whitefieldian gifts of story-telling and voice (didn’t David Garrick say he’d give anything to be able to say “Mesopotamia” the way George Whitefield did?), a deeply scholarly, retiring, reluctant preacher—all did it, albeit in very different ways. They saw and heard the word of God as it might enter the world of their hearers and convert and edify them.
6. Speak Much of Sin and Grace
If that is true of Paul’s “preaching” in Romans, it ought to be true of ours as well. Sin and grace should be the downbeat and the upbeat that run through all our exposition.
But there are some cautions. Preaching on sin must unmask the presence of sin, and undeceive about the nature of sin, as well as underline the danger of sin.
This is not the same thing as hammering a congregation against the back wall of the “sanctuary” with a tirade! That requires little more than high levels of emotion. A genuine, ultimately saving, unmasking and undeceiving of the human heart is more demanding exegetically and spiritually. For what is in view here is the skilled work of a surgeon—opening a wound, exposing the cause of the patient’s sickness, cutting away the destructive malignancies, all in order to heal and restore to life.
There is only one safe way to do this. Spiritual surgery must be done within the context of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Only by seeing our sin do we come to see the need for and wonder of grace.
Truth to tell, exposing sin is easier than applying grace; for, alas, we are more intimate with the former than we sometimes are with the latter. Therein lies our weakness.
7. Use “the Plain Style”
Do not make eloquence the thing for which you are best known as a preacher; make sure you get the point of the passage you are preaching, and that you make it clear and express its power. True evangelical eloquence will take care of itself.
The “masters” of clear style can teach us here. Paradoxically, in this context, two of them were themselves Anglicans. C. S. Lewis’s counsel on writing applies equally to preaching:
Use language that makes clear what you really mean; prefer plain words that are direct to long words that are vague. Avoid abstract words when you can use concrete. Don’t use adjectives to tell us how you want us to feel—make us feel that by what you say! Don’t use words that are too big for their subject. Don’t use “infinitely” when you mean “very,” otherwise you will have no word left when you really do mean infinite!
In a similar vein, here is J. C. Ryle’s counsel: “Have a clear knowledge of what you want to say. Use simple words. Employ a simple sentence structure. Preach as though you had asthma! Be direct. Make sure you illustrate what you are talking about.”
8. Find Your Own Voice
We ought not to become clones. Some men never grow as preachers because the “preaching suit” they have borrowed does not actually fit them or their gifts. Instead of becoming the outstanding expository preacher, or redemptive-historical, or God-centered, or whatever their hero may be, we may tie ourselves in knots and endanger our own unique giftedness by trying to use someone else’s paradigm, style, or personality as a mold into which to squeeze ourselves. We become less than our true selves in Christ. The marriage of our personality with another’s preaching style can be a recipe for being dull and lifeless. So it is worth taking the time in an ongoing way to try to assess who and what we really are as preachers in terms of strengths and weaknesses.
9. Learn How to Transition
Years ago I took one of our sons for coaching from an old friend who had become a highly regarded teaching professional. My son was not, as they say, “getting on to the next level.” I could see that but no longer had (if I ever had!) the golfing savoir faire to help. Enter my friend, and within the space of one coaching session, the improvement in ball-striking was both visible and audible (there is something about the sound of a perfectly struck drive—or home run for that matter!).
For all its criticism of the pragmatism of evangelicalism, Reformed preaching is not always skilled in this area. Many are stronger on doctrine than on exegesis and often stronger on soul-searching than on spiritual up-building. We need to learn how to expound the Scriptures in such a way that the very exposition empowers in our hearers the transitions from the old patterns of life in Adam to the new patterns of life in Christ.
How do we do this? To begin with by expounding the Scriptures in a way that makes clear that the indicatives of grace ground the imperatives of faith and obedience and also effect them. This we must learn to do in a way that brings out of the text how the text itself teaches how transformation takes place and how the power of the truth itself sanctifies (cf. John 17:17).
10. Love Your People
John Newton wrote that his congregation would take almost anything from him, however painful, because they knew “I mean to do them good.”
This is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study; it means that my preaching will have characteristics about it, difficult to define but nevertheless sensed by my hearers, that reflect the apostolic principle:
What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Cor 4:5)
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