10 Commandments for Preachers, Part 1

Dr. Sinclair Ferguson offers #’s 1-5. Here they are {I especially like #4. I’ve been accused lately of saying “Triune God” in excess…I took this as a compliment! Can we be TOO Trinitarian? Never!}…

Dr. Ferguson says:

Listening to or reading the reflections of others on preaching is, for most preachers, inherently interesting and stimulating (whether positively or negatively). These reflections then are offered in the spirit of the Golden Rule, and only because the Editor is a long-standing friend!

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! Everything from “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?

Once one begins thinking about this, whatever Ten Commandments one comes up with, it becomes obvious that this is an inexhaustible theme. My friend, the Editor, could easily run his journal for a year with a whole series of “My Ten Commandments for Preaching.” I offer these ten, not as infallible, but as the fruit of a few minutes of quiet reflection on a plane journey.

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. The result? Life has been an ongoing “teach yourself while you play catch-up.” At the end of the day seminaries exist not to give authoritative line-by-line interpretations of the whole of Scripture but to provide tools to enable its graduates to do that. That is why, in many ways, it is the work we do, the conversations we have, the churches we attend, the preaching under which we sit, that make or break our ministries. This is not “do it yourself” but we ourselves need to do it.

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. I mean this with respect to preaching. Not only in the sense that I should pray before I begin my preparation, but in the sense that my preparation is itself a communion in prayer with God in and through his word. Whatever did the apostles mean by saying that they needed to devote themselves “to prayer and the ministry of the word”—and why that order?

My own feeling is that in the tradition of our pastoral textbooks we have over-individualized this. The apostles (one may surmise) really meant “we”—not “I, Peter” or “I, John” but “We, Peter, John, James, Thomas, Andrew . . . together.”

Is it a misreading of the situation to suspect that preachers hide the desperate need of prayer for the preaching, and their personal need? By contrast, reflect on Paul’s appeals. And remember Spurgeon’s bon mot when asked about the secret of his ministry: “My people pray for me.”

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 they 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). That is a text far easier to preach as the first sermon in a ministry than it is to preach as the final sermon.

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.

The truth is it is far easier to preach about Mary, Martha, James, John, or Peter than it is about Christ. It is far easier to preach even about the darkness of sin and the human heart than to preach Christ. Plus my bookshelves are groaning with literature on Mary, Martha . . . the good life, the family life, the Spirit-filled life, the parenting life, the damaged self life . . . but most of us have only a few inches of shelf space on the person and work of Christ himself.

Am I absolutely at my best when talking about him, or about us?

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).

This is, doubtless, a caricature. But my concern here arises from a sense that Bible-believing preachers (as well as others) continue to think of the Trinity as the most speculative and therefore the least practical of all doctrines. After all, what can you “do” as a result of hearing preaching that emphasizes God as Trinity? Well, at least inwardly if not outwardly, fall down in prostrate worship that the God whose being is so ineffable, so incomprehensible to my mental math, seeks fellowship with us!

I sometimes wonder if it is failure here that has led to churches actually to believe it when they are told by “church analysts” and the like that “the thing your church does best is worship . . . small groups, well you need to work on that . . ..” Doesn’t that verge on blasphemy? (Verge on it? There is surely only One who can assess the quality of our worship. This approach confuses aesthetics with adoration).

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 chapter 13-17). Read Paul with this in mind and it becomes obvious how profoundly woven into the warp and woof of his gospel his understanding of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is.

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. Does this not contradict the immediately preceding observations that the truth of the Trinity should not be thought of as speculative metaphysics? No. Rather it is simply to state what the preaching masters of the centuries have either explicitly written, or at least by example, implied. All good preaching involves the use of the imagination. No great preacher has ever lacked imagination. Perhaps we might go so far as to say it is simply an exhortation to love the Lord our God with all of our . . . mind . . . and our neighbor as ourselves.

Scripture itself suggests that there are many different kinds of imagination—hence the different genre in which the word of God is expressed (poetry, historical narrative, dialogue, monologue, history, vision and so on). No two biblical authors had identical imaginations. It is doubtful if Ezekiel could have written Proverbs, for example!

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.

What is the secret here? It is, surely, learning to preach the word to yourself, from its context into your context, to make concrete in the realities of our lives the truth that came historically to others’ lives. This is why the old masters used to speak about sermons going from their lips with power only when they had first come to their own hearts with power.

All of which leads us from the fifth commandment back to where we started. Only immersion in Scripture enables us to preach it this way. Therein lies the difference between preaching that is about the Bible and its message and preaching that seems to come right out of the Bible with a “thus says the Lord” ring of authenticity and authority.

This is, surely, a good place to end the “first table” of these Commandments for Preachers. Now it is time to go and soak ourselves in Scripture to get ready for the “second table.”

Advertisements

3 comments

  1. What a thoroughly enjoyable post! Having never read Dr. Ferguson before, it is a happy surpise to be introduced to him this way.

    If I may, Benji, I would hope to assure you that –(since it seems from last Sunday’s message that you may be a little concerned whether we, your congregation, are in danger of tiring of it)– speaking for myself at least, that I am very pleased with your “Christ-crucified centered preaching” and it is easy to see that you also have the attitude of worship in which you “at least inwardly if not outwardly, fall down in prostrate worship that the God whose being is so ineffable, so incomprehensible to my mental math, seeks fellowship with us.”

    Praising our LORD for having blessed us with YOUR ministry at this time, and our Lord Jesus for having been The Word for you to proclaim to us, and the Holy Spirit who empowers you to preach to us “in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, feel its power,” and Who has been opening our hearts, ears, eyes and minds to receive the knowledge of the glory of Him.

  2. Some good slooge, great to share when I teach preaching.

    Are we gonna get some 6-10 soon?!

    I think I’m gonna audit a class from Sinclair at wts.edu/dallas this semester. It would be grand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s