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 Feb 22, 2018 by Alyssa Duvall

Yesterday, we announced with solemn joy that evangelist Billy Graham, at age 99, had died and passed into the glorious presence of God. Today, we wish to remember Graham and the incredible work he did for the kingdom of Christ. Listen and be blessed by his seven most powerful sermons in the videos below:

  1. Three Things You Cannot Do Without

  2. Who Is Jesus?

  3. Reaping What You Sow

  4. The Value Of A Soul

  5. How To Live The Christian Life

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What I Learned from Charles Spurgeon

Article by Alistair Begg

Pastor, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

On Sunday morning, August 5, 1855, 21-year-old Charles Haddon Spurgeon stepped behind the pulpit of New Park Street Chapel to challenge his congregation to follow the example of one of the saints who had inspired his ministry, the apostle Paul. “As a preacher of the word,” Spurgeon said of Paul, “he stands out pre-eminently as the prince of preachers and a preacher to kings.”

Young Spurgeon’s description of Paul was prophetic of his own future ministry. Within a few short years of that Sabbath morning, Spurgeon also earned the moniker “the prince of preachers” as he proclaimed God’s word to congregants from every stratum of society. The boy preacher from humble beginnings even became the “preacher to kings” as members of the British royal family filled his pews.

Lessons from the Prince of Preacher

I first heard the name “Spurgeon” as a young boy in Scotland. However, when I became a man, and began to read his sermons and writings, he endeared himself to me even more. Today, as a minister, I find in his work and life a wonderful example of what it means to be a preacher of the gospel.

1. Preach the Word

As Spurgeon stood before the congregation of New Park Street Chapel that same August Sunday to discuss what it means to preach the word, he pointed his listeners to the veracity and sufficiency of the Scriptures. “Am I to take God’s Bible and sever it and say, ‘This is husk and this is wheat?’” Spurgeon said, “Am I to cast away any one truth and say, ‘I dare not preach it’? No — God forbid!”

Throughout his ministry, Charles Spurgeon maintained an unwavering commitment to the word of God. Over time it became apparent that whether he was preaching in the Crystal Palace, before thousands in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, or with his students, Spurgeon was a man of integrity. His integrity, however, extended beyond his own personal life to encompass his concern for the gospel and theology. His preaching was forever crystal clear and Jesus-centered — qualities that have chased me down through the corridors of time to make me an unabashed fan of Spurgeon.

2. Cultivate the Heart of a Shepherd

Following the example of his Good Shepherd, Spurgeon was filled with compassion for sinners and longed to see them safely returned to the fold of God. Spurgeon firmly believed God loved saving the lost. It was a conviction that fueled his ministry. His tremendous longing to see men and women respond to the offer of the gospel was only matched by his intolerance for those who tainted the gospel of grace with the fallacy of good works.

“I find a great many preachers are preaching that kind of doctrine,” Spurgeon said. “They tell a poor convicted sinner, ‘You must go home and pray and read the Scriptures; you must attend the ministry.’ Works, works, works — instead of, ‘By grace are you saved through faith’” (see Ephesians 2:8).

“It is easier to spend five hours preparing for a sermon than to consecrate five minutes to prayer for our people.

Spurgeon was also committed to tenderly feed his flock.

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Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in the 9Marks Journal. For a concise introduction to the Reformation, please see Michael Reeves’s book Freedom Movement: 500 Years of Reformation (10Publishing).

Almost certainly, the most striking practical change at the time of the Reformation was the rise of expository preaching in local churches.

In the centuries preceding the Reformation, preaching had been in steady decline. Eclipsed by the Mass and rendered non-essential by the theology of medieval Roman Catholicism, preaching had lost the primacy it once enjoyed in the days of the early post-apostolic church.

By the 15th century, only a small percentage of people could expect to hear their priest preach to them regularly in their local parish church. The English reformer Hugh Latimer spoke of “strawberry parsons” who, like strawberries, appeared but once a year. Even then, the homily would often be in Latin, unintelligible to the people (and, perhaps, to the priest).

The most striking practical change at the time of the Reformation was the rise of expository preaching in local churches.

As for the content of these rare delicacies, they were unlikely to go anywhere near Scripture. The vast majority of the clergy simply didn’t have the scriptural knowledge to make the attempt. Instead, John Calvin wrote, pre-Reformation sermons were usually divided according to this basic pattern:

The first half was devoted to those misty questions of the schools which might astonish the rude populace, while the second contained sweet stories, or not unamusing speculations, by which the hearers might be kept on the alert. Only a few expressions were thrown in from the Word of God, that by their majesty they might procure credit for these frivolities.

As a result, ignorance of God’s Word and gospel was profound and widespread.

Centrality of the Sacred Desk

In eye-catching contrast, the reformers made the sermon the focal point of the church’s regular worship, even emphasizing it architecturally through the physical and conspicuous centrality of the pulpit. And while today we tend to think of the leading reformers as theologians (and therefore, not preachers), it was preaching—especially expository preaching—that normally defined and took up the bulk of their ministry.

For a quarter-century in Wittenberg, Luther preached through the Bible, usually at least twice on Sundays and three times total each week.

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Nearly seven decades since his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Bonhoeffer’s influence lives on, largely because of his classic devotional writings (especially The Cost of Discipleshipand Life Together), his penetrating questions on what it means to live as a Christian in the modern world (found in his later writings Letter and Papers from Prison and Ethics), and his riveting and challenging biography. But at the center of Bonhoeffer’s engagement with the world was his understanding of the prominent and unique role of preaching. Bonhoeffer’s close friend Eberhard Bethge claimed that “Bonhoeffer acted and analyzed out of a responsibility for preaching . . . the Bonhoeffer who taught, the Bonhoeffer who was obedient to the Word, the Bonhoeffer who was involved, was governed by preaching and its majesty” (Fant 1975, 3). Further, Bethge explains, “Preaching was the great event in his life; the hard theologizing and all the critical love of his church were all for its sake, for in it the message of Christ, the bringer of peace, was proclaimed. To Bonhoeffer nothing in his calling competed in importance with preaching” (Fant 1975, 7-8). Similarly, John D. Godsey describes Bonhoeffer as “a man for whom preaching was an integral part of life” (Fant 1975, 6). Preaching played such an important role in the thought and life of Bonhoeffer that Victoria Barnett argues that we cannot “understand Bonhoeffer the resistance figure of Bonhoeffer the theologian without understanding Bonhoeffer the preacher” (Barnett 2012, x). Preaching stands as the central and unifying event that brings all of the facets of Bonhoeffer’s life into focus.

This emphasis on preaching is surprising given the fact that Bonhoeffer spent very little time in a regular pulpit ministry. Although he preached consistently throughout his adult life, he spent only two periods serving in a congregational pastoral position, both of which were outside of Germany. While awaiting ordination in 1928, Bonhoeffer served as a pastoral assistant to a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain. He then returned to Berlinfor further academic writing and teaching, before accepting a pastoral call to two German-speaking congregations in London, which he would serve from the fall of 1933 to the spring of 1935.

He left London to return to Germany in order to establish an underground seminary for the training of pastors for the Confessing Church. When the seminary was shut down by the Nazis in 1937, he continued training pastors through collective pastorates. Eventually, because of the threat of military conscription, Bonhoeffer accepted a position in the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization that was a center of the Resistance movement, in which he served until his arrest on April 5, 1943. Over the next two years he would be imprisoned until his execution, on April 9, 1945.

Because of the limited time that Bonhoeffer spent in a weekly preaching ministry, his entire collected works contain only seventy-one complete sermons (Barnett 2012, xi). He almost never spoke to large crowds, the only possible exceptions being his addresses given at ecumenical gatherings outside of Germany. But as Bethge comments, preaching to large groups of people did not really appeal to him. “He preferred a small, easily defined congregation that could move with him as he developed his train of thought” (Bethge 2000, 389).

Bonhoeffer the Preacher

Bonhoeffer’s first attempts at preaching began in 1925 at the age of nineteen. He was excited by the opportunity because he realized the life-giving effect that a sermon can produce. His professor of practical theology, Friedrich Mahling, commended his effort, calling it very fine “in content and form, in its dashing masculine style and heartfelt goodness, pure truthfulness and conscientious seriousness” (Bethge 2000, 90). His examination sermon on Luke 9:51-56 contained the directness that would mark his preaching, as he declared, “the walls of the centuries separating us from this story have fallen away. We face Jesus eye to eye.” But his examiners judged that he needed more work in his transition from the academy to the church, determining that he “will have to discard some things and learn some things before he is able to write a really finished sermon. . . . He is lacking in clarity” and must “cultivate a simple and noble simplicity” (Bethge 2000, 91).

During Bonhoeffer’s time in Barcelona, he gained his first hands-on experience in congregational ministry. The pastor of the church, Fritz Olbricht, seemed grateful for the relief and gave Bonhoeffer frequent opportunities to preach. In addition to other responsibilities, he preached nineteen sermons. Bonhoeffer worked hard on his sermons, writing to his parents on November 27, 1928, “Writing sermons still takes up a great deal of my time. I work on them a whole week, devoting some time to them every day” (Fant 1975, 9). He struggled with his motivations when his preaching was well received, yet acknowledged, “But on the other hand, who wouldn’t be pleased about a full church, or that people who haven’t come for years” (Bethge 2000, 111). When Olbricht noticed that the number of worshippers would significantly increase on the Sundays when Bonhoeffer was scheduled to preach (regular attendance was only around 40 people), he stopped announcing the preaching schedule ahead of time (Bonhoeffer 2012, 7).

Bonhoeffer’s Barcelona sermons contained many of the themes that he would continue to develop throughout his life. He spoke of man’s absolute dependence upon God’s grace and the direct opposition between true faith and religion, several times using Karl Barth’s analogy of the Tower of Babel to describe the futility of religion. His preaching also evidences the demanding and serious nature of discipleship in this world. In a sermon preached on April 15, 1928, he said, “the world is full of God, this notion becomes threatening and frightening precisely because it demands responsibility. Our life and action are not to be meaningless. . . . Every moment of our life is related to God” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 5). In this sermon Bonhoeffer also emphasizes the centrality of the Bible by stating that there is “no moment in life when Jesus’ word does not have something to say to us. Our entire life stands under that word and is sanctified by that word” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 4).

During Bonhoeffer’s Barcelona ministry, his sermons were not as strongly biblical as they would increasingly become later in his ministry. For his texts he consistently selected brief, biblical phrases and topically developed the theme. Bethge says that in these sermons, Bonhoeffer’s language “borders on flowery, and he made sweeping assertions” (Bethge 2000, 112). He also made more frequent use of personal references and illustrations than he would in the later years. Even though some sections of his sermons were too difficult for his congregation to fully grasp, the warmth of his pastoral concern that they received during the week increased their reception.

Several years later, while teaching at the University of Berlin in 1931, Bonhoeffer experienced a shift that would significantly influence his subsequent preaching and ministry. Bonhoeffer did not like to speak about conversion because of what he saw as the overemphasis of personal testimonies among the pietists; he consistently thought that telling any personal story was a distraction from speaking about Christ. Yet even Bonhoeffer described this event as when he became a Christian. One contributing factor in this change was his friendship with Franz Hildebrandt, who pushed Bonhoeffer further in the direction of the Bible and Luther. Bonhoeffer rarely mentioned this transformation but did describe it in a letter to a friend several years later in 1936:

Then something happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible . . . I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it—but I had not yet become a Christian. . . . Also I had never prayed, or prayed only very little. For in all my loneliness, I was quite pleased with myself. Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed. I have felt this plainly, and so have other people about me. It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became clearer to me how far that must go. . . . The revival of the church and the ministry became my supreme concern (Bethge 2000, 205).

The effect of this event produced a remarkable change in the direction of Bonhoeffer’s life. Prior to this his intention was to pursue an academic career, but now he began to move in the direction of parish ministry (a move that was at first resisted by his father, a university professor in neurology and psychiatry). Throughout his early life, he had not regularly attended church, but now he became an active churchgoer and longed for preaching and the sacraments. His own preaching became focused on the Bible, and he began to preach on longer passages rather than brief phrases. This experience also significantly impacted his writing, which moved away from discussing others’ ideas to expounding the message of the Bible. According to James Woelfel, “his early interest was in the formal problems of dogmatic theology,” but he began “increasingly to devote himself simply to the material dogmatic task of interpreting the Holy Scriptures.” Woelfel further observes that in contrast to his earlier writings (The Communion of the Saints and Act and Being), “Bonhoeffer’s writings after 1932 consist largely of theological exegesis and homiletics” (Woelfel 1970, 208). This is reflected in Klass Runia’s assessment of The Cost of Discipleship as “one of the most penetrating expositions of the Sermon on the Mount” (Runia 1964, 16). Bonhoeffer’s connection to the Christian faith had been as an intellectual studying theology; now he became a deeply committed Christian. Now his preaching had a newfound “urgency which had not been characteristic of them before, an urgency that insisted upon a single-minded devotion to Christ” (Fant 1975, 14).

In April 1936 Bonhoeffer further described these convictions in a letter to his brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher, who, in contrast to Bonhoeffer, continued in the path of liberal theology:

Is it . . . intelligible to you if I say I am not at any point willing to sacrifice the Bible as the strange word of God, that on the contrary, I ask with all my strength what God is trying to say to us through it? Every other place outside the Bible has become too uncertain for me. I fear that there I will only bump into my own divine Doppelgänger. . . .

And I want to say something to you personally: since I learned to read the Bible this way—which has not been long at all—it becomes more wonderful to me with each day. . . .

You wouldn’t believe how happy one is to find the way back from the wrong track of some theologies to this elemental thing (Bethge 2000, 206).

These deepening convictions led to an increased sense of the primacy of preaching since preaching is the way that God speaks his word to his people. In his first sermon in London on October 22, 1933, upon accepting the pastorate of the St. Paul’s and Sydenham Churches, he described the criterion by which a congregation should assess a pastor’s ministry: “There is really only one question for a congregation to ask of its pastor: Are you offering us the eternal world of God, the word of life, wherever you can, in the pulpit and in daily life? Or are you giving us stones instead of bread?” (Bonhoeffer 2012, 89). He then described the miraculous nature of preaching:

This is what makes a sermon something unique in all the world, so completely different from any other kind of speech. When a preacher opens the Bible and interprets the word of God, a mystery takes place, a miracle: the grace of God, who comes down from heaven into our midst and speaks to us, knocks on our door, asks questions, warns us, puts pressure on us, alarms us, threatens us, and makes us joyful again and free and sure. When the Holy Scriptures are brought to life in a church, the Holy Spirit comes down from the eternal throne, into our hearts, while the busy world outside sees nothing and knows nothing about it—that God could actually be found here. Out there they are all running after the latest sensations, the excitements of evening in the big city, never knowing that the real sensation, something infinitely more exciting, is happening in here: here, where eternity and time meet where the immortal God receives mortal human beings, through the holy Word, and cares for them, where human souls can taste the starkest terrors of despair and the ultimate depths of God’s eternity (Bonhoeffer 2012, 90).

Bonhoeffer practiced and advocated the use of a simple and direct style in preaching so as not to distract from the word of God. In his homiletics lectures at the underground seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde, he passed this focused style on to his students. He warned that the “movement of the word to the congregation should not be hindered by the preacher, but rather he should acknowledge it. He should not let his own efforts to get in its way” (Fant 1975, 128). He further emphasized a strict restraint in preaching:

I must refuse to indulge in tricks and techniques, both the emotional ones and the rhetorical ones. I must not become pedantic and schoolmasterish, nor begging, entreating, urging. I do not try to make the sermon into a work of art. I do not become unctuous and self-centered or loud and boastful. By forsaking my personal ambitions I accompany the text along its own way into the congregation and thus remain natural, balanced, compassionate, and factual. This permits the Word’s almost magnetic relationship to its congregation. I do not give life to it, but it gives life to me and to the congregation (Fant 1975, 138).

He advised his students to be well prepared before stepping into the pulpit because this “allows the greatest amount of factual, direct preaching from the pulpit. Only the unprepared preacher has to use the techniques of emotionalism, shouting, or exercising influences through pressure. These techniques betray his insecurity” (Fant 1975, 149). He again warned against the use of excessive expression because of the nature of the preaching task: “Truthfulness and factuality suggest simple methods. They discourage senseless shouting and emotional excitement in preaching and worship. We are witnesses, not the trumpets of the Last Judgment” (Fant 1975, 172).

Even though Bonhoeffer advocated a strict simplicity in preaching, that does not mean that he did not believe in using vivid language. Reflecting on his own sermons, he “noticed that the most effective sermons were those in which I spoke enticingly of the Gospel, like someone telling children a story of a strange country” (Fant 1975, 12). His Finkenwalde students recounted that he encouraged them “to speak colorfully” (Fant 1875, 38). He understood that the greatness of the message required that the preacher attempt to convey the greatness of that about which he spoke. In a sermon preached in Berlin in May 1932, he began:

One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough. A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. People should run and not be able to rest when the gospel is talked about (Bonhoeffer 2012, 34).

An excellent example of the affection-stirring use of language can be found in the concluding sermon in a four week series on 1 Corinthians 13, which he preached to his congregations in London. When expounding the phrase “the greatest of these is love”, he climaxes by asking a string of nine questions, all of which begin with the words “What can be greater than . . . ?”

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Haddon Robinson grabbed an ice pick and headed out the door to join his gang. They were intent on avenging the murders of three of their members.

Association with a gang was a matter of survival for a young man growing up in the Mousetown section of Harlem in the 1940s. Haddon’s mother had died when he was a boy, and his father worked a 2 to 11 p.m. shift, so no one was home to stop him.

As the gang members emerged from an alley, a policeman apprehended them. For whatever reason, the officer singled out Haddon, searched him, and found his ice pick. “What do you plan to do with this?” the officer asked. “Chop ice,” Haddon replied. At that, the officer kicked him to the ground, swore at him, and made him return home. That night, several of Haddon’s fellow gang members would lose their lives in a brutal brawl. As he later reflected, “The foot of that policeman was the hand of God in my life.”

Life Devoted to Preaching

God’s hand continued to work in Haddon’s life, shaping him into a devoted follower of Jesus who eventually became a dean of evangelical preaching. He is best known for his book Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages—first published it in 1980 and currently in its third edition. I once asked Haddon how he was able to make his book “sing.” He told me he delivered the first draft orally to his secretary while pacing back and forth in his office.

On July 22, 2017, Haddon entered the presence of the Lord. He died in his sleep almost three years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I am one of his many former students who will be forever grateful for his imprint on our lives. This self-described “latchkey kid” from a vicious, violent district in New York City taught us grace, godliness, and how to preach the Scriptures.

Haddon’s interest in preaching began shortly after his conversion to Christ when Harry Ironside, the renowned pastor of Chicago’s Moody Church, visited New York City. Of Ironside’s preaching, Haddon wrote in his diary: “He preached for an hour and it seemed like 20 minutes; others preach for 20 minutes and it seems like an hour. I wonder what the difference is.” A few years ago, Haddon said: “I have devoted my life to answering that question.”

Haddon’s call to preach was solidified while a student at Bob Jones University. There, he heard leading preachers in chapel and often spent Friday nights in the library reading sermons and books about preaching. When he enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary, the school didn’t offer classes in preaching. During his senior year, a few classmates asked him to teach them how to preach. This eventually led to an invitation for Haddon to return from an assistant pastorate in Medford, Oregon, to teach homiletics at DTS. “I went back because they needed a ‘low-dollar person,’” he recalled. “They hired me on the basis of gift, not education.” Haddon often quipped that friends would marvel at how he didn’t become an atheist after listening to so many student sermons.

When I reflect on how Haddon shaped evangelical preaching, I think of three particular convictions he taught and modeled.

1. Need for a Big Idea

Haddon wrote his classic preaching textbook in an era when expository preaching was often reduced to an exegetical lecture. He was concerned that listeners would walk away from a sermon “with a basketful of fragments but not an adequate sense of the whole.” One of his witticisms (which his students called “Haddonisms”) expressed his concern: “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.”

The hallmark of Haddon’s approach to exposition lies in identifying and communicating a biblical text’s “big idea.” Some have questioned this approach, arguing that it’s artificial and works better in some passages than in others. They’re concerned about reducing the richness of a text to a single idea. Yet Haddon saw the “big idea” approach as a way of communicating a biblical text precisely so that listeners could access its riches. He observed: “Sermons seldom fail because they have too many ideas; more often they fail because they deal with unrelated ideas.”

Haddon believed preachers are not ready to preach a text until, in the words of John Henry Jowett, the big idea “has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.”

2. Need to Exegete Both Text and Listener

Robinson insisted his students work hard to understand both the text and the listeners to whom we preach. I remember him grilling me in class over my exegesis of a passage in the Gospel of Mark. My fellow students and I had to exegete a particular text and then discuss how we would preach it. I remember saying, “This is how I plan to preach this text.” Haddon replied, “No you won’t. Try it again.” So I tried it again, and he said: “That won’t do. Try it again.” By the end of my presentation, I was frustrated. Yet Haddon approached me after class and told me how glad he was to have me in his DMin program in preaching. I realized he was pushing us to understand deeply the author’s intended meaning.

Haddon also insisted that we exegete our listeners. What do they value? What are their needs? What do they need explained, validated (proved), or applied when they hear a biblical text proclaimed? He had no patience with the “stained-glass voice” and “three points and a poem” approach of many pastors. He believed it dulled the senses of listeners. I remember Haddon interrupting a sermon one of my classmates was preaching in class. He suddenly started waving his arms and said, “Stop right there! Stop. Do you use that kind of a voice when you order a meal at McDonalds? Then don’t use it when preaching.” He chided the sermon outline of a friend of mine, saying: “That sounds like it came out of a book called Simple Sermons for Sunday Evening.”

3. Need for Godliness

Haddon admonished his students with Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 4:16: “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” He warned us: “When you fail to walk with God, you walk on the edge of an abyss.” This is something he modeled well. Haddon was a man of God before he was a spokesman for God. He was a man of godly integrity, a man of tenderness as well as toughness. I never once heard him criticize his critics, though I remember the opening to one of his prayers: “Lord, I am a sinful man in need of your grace.”

Though brilliant and full of insight, Haddon was not full of himself. In 1996 a Baylor University poll named him one of “The 12 Most Effective Preachers in the English-Speaking World.” Once, when asked about the honor, Haddon shook his head: “How in the world do you come up with a conclusion like that?” As he has famously said: “There are no great preachers, only a great Christ.”

Selfless Servant

Part of Haddon’s godly grace was his expression of love and care to others. I’ll never forget how he encouraged and prayed for a struggling yogurt shop owner near Gordon-Conwell’s campus. She had come to faith in Christ through his radio ministry and couldn’t believe he was “that Haddon Robinson.” He gently insisted that we, his students, give her our business to help her pay her bills.

When I had to miss my graduation ceremony at Gordon-Conwell due to a family member’s illness, Haddon called the day after to tell me how sorry he was and to inquire about my family member. By the end of the phone call, he agreed to fly to Montana—where I was pastoring at the time—to present me with my hood and diploma. This seems rather remarkable, but it was a rather typical act of kindness for Haddon.

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Early this morning, on July 22 2017, Dr. Haddon Robinson departed this world and went home to heaven!

One of the most common questions I hear related to preaching is, “How long should a good sermon be?”

The best answer I’ve heard is from John MacArthur who said, “As long as it takes to cover the passage adequately. If you have nothing worthwhile to say, even twenty minutes will seem like an eternity to your people. ”

We did a little research of our own to discover just how long the most watched preachers in America preach. You might be surprised by the results. We certainly were.

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The screen printer standing in my living room was trying to sell me on a new four-color process for the kids Bible club shirts my church needed. One problem: he came to the door asking for “Mike,” not “Mark” because I kind of forgot to tell him the truth… (I used to use a pseudonymous email address out of overblown security concerns.)

We still joke about that. He’s now one of my best friends. But back then I had no idea of the wonderful story of God’s grace in his life. He and his wife were brand new to the area, and my wife and I invited them over and started a friendship. We found out that this clean-cut young man had, not too many years back, been a drug addict. As a last resort his non-Christian family had sent him to a Christian program in a rural area. Most guys go there to get clean, and they’re willing to use the God stuff temporarily if it will help them get their lives back from drugs and alcohol.

But my friend’s experience was different: God wouldn’t let him be temporary. He got hold of this young drug addict’s heart. After graduating from the program, he immediately went on staff, then married the daughter of another graduate. The screen-printing gig was his first venture into “the real world” since coming clean and turning to Christ. He was full of faith, hope, love, and zeal. He and his wife found a church that was known for engaging (ahem, read: wild) worship services, not so much for theological depth.

Pins and needles

So I was surprised when, one Sunday, he called me and asked if he could come to my church, where the proportion of wildness to theological depth was rather different. “Of course!” I said; I was thrilled. But I immediately became afraid, too. My pastor was going through Isaiah. We had just made it to chapter 21, a somewhat recondite passage full of judgments on people such as the Dedanites, Temanites, and Kedarites. I had to listen to a lengthy expository message through the ears of a guy sitting next to me who, as best I knew, had never heard an expository sermon.

To make matters worse, the title of the message that evening was “Shuddering Over a Harsh Vision.” That was me: I envisioned my friendship with this guy ending. In my vision, he was looking at me like I was an alien, and he was heading back to a church where he could be sure he’d never have to hear about the Dedanites again.

My pastor, an experienced expositor who also taught preaching, said something at the beginning of the message that I’d never heard him say before: “This is one of those obscure passages of Scripture that, if it went missing, no one would notice.” Oh no, I thought. The pins and needles under my pew cushion grew longer, and I was required to sit on them throughout the detailed explanations required to get us all through Isaiah 21.

When the service was over, I couldn’t bear to ask my friend what he thought. I didn’t want to put him in the awkward position of having to tell me with a glazed expression, “Church is not supposed to feel like a sentence-diagramming party.” So I changed the subject of our conversation to something else, maybe football.

He changed it right back. With deep feeling he said, “Wow. . . Now there’s one part of the Bible”—and here he held up his hands to indicate the space of about a chapter—“that I understand.”

Shortly thereafter my friend and his wife were eating up the kind of in-depth Bible teaching I was afraid to introduce him to that Sunday; they listened with the zest of someone who has just discovered that meat exists.

Exposition

Expository preaching is sometimes criticized (and sometimes rightly so) for being all about understanding and not about feeling. All head, no heart. But you had to be there to see my friend’s eyes. Few people get excited about hour-long expositions of Scripture. He did, because he had the new heart of the New Covenant. He hungered to know God’s words.

John Piper advocates preaching that is what he calls “expository exultation”—head and heart. And in my experience there’s nothing quite like it. The capacity for deep feeling is itself made deeper by a greater depth of exposition. I’ll never forget singing “The Church’s One Foundation” with my fellow church members after we’d been treated to an exposition of that foundation in Ephesians 2.

As is nearly always the case, Piper’s “expository exultation” is only an encapsulation of Jonathan Edwards, who said in Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England,

I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection. I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. (387)

After hearing a message on a harsh prophetic vision, a congregation is supposed to shudder—as Isaiah himself did in this portion of his book (“My heart staggers; horror has appalled me”). The Bible, rightly preached and rightly understood, creates negative feelings as well as positive in hearts made soft to God’s words. The Lord evidently thinks we need to hear passages of comfort as well as of warning. The Bible clearly instructs us both to love the Lord and to fear him. A New Testament preacher must bring in gospel comfort, too, but not by removing the teeth from God’s warnings.

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While beginning to sense God’s call to ministry in February of 1998, I joined a car full of college-aged men to travel north from Mobile, Alabama, on I-65 to Birmingham, to attend the Conger Lectures on Preaching at Beeson Divinity School. ‘The Supremacy of God in Preaching’Friends described that year’s lecturer as the “John MacArthur of the North.” His name was John Piper.

So there I sat in the Hodges Chapel at Beeson, hanging on his every syllable. With each word, my call to ministry intensified. The Minneapolis pastor spoke as one having authority—an authority rooted in God’s Word and accentuating God’s glory.

It was an introductory dose of what all who’ve heard Piper have come to expect—an unveiling of the majesty and supremacy of God. That day I grabbed a copy of his book The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Baker). I quickly devoured, marking up every page. I’ve since re-read it every few years, and now, 25 years since its initial publication, it deserves renewed attention. (Baker recently published a revised and expanded edition to mark the anniversary.)

6 Takeaways from an Enduring Volume

How has the volume stood up over a quarter-century? It remains as powerful, convicting, and encouraging as at the outset.

Here are six takeaways:

1. To preach is to put one’s deepest beliefs on display.

For better or worse, what comes out in the pulpit each Sunday will, over time, reveal what the preacher truly believes and prizes. At the most foundational level, this begins with his theological presuppositions. Mark it down: the preacher’s presuppositions always shape the sermon. Luther and Spurgeon’s Christ-centered hermeneutic impacted their exegesis and their preaching. Calvin’s God-centered approach did the same.

Piper’s God-centered “Christian hedonism” radiates throughout his preaching. It also drives this book. Piper puts preaching on a higher ground—pointing preachers to engage the true, deep longings of the human heart. As he observes, “People are starving for the greatness of God, but most of them don’t even know it.”

2. The preacher should point his people to the grand truths of God.

In doing this, it is not that the preacher dismisses felt needs; he eclipses them. Piper writes:

My burden is to plead for the supremacy of God in preaching—that the dominant note of preaching be the freedom of God’s sovereign grace, the unifying theme be the zeal that God has shown for his glory, the grand object of preaching be the infinite and inexhaustible being of God, and the pervasive atmosphere of preaching be the holiness of God. . . . Then when preaching takes up the ordinary things of life—family, jobs, leisure, friendships; or the crises of our day—AIDS, divorce, addictions, depression, abuses, poverty, hunger, and, worst of all, unreached peoples of the world, these matters are not only taken up. They are taken all the way up to God.

3. The preacher should be relentlessly and precisely biblical.

After all, the preacher is to be God’s mouthpiece—his human spokesman—and it is high treason to misquote, misrepresent, or under-dignify the King and his Word. When the preacher vaguely references Scripture, Piper warns:

We are simply pulling rank on people when we tell them, and don’t show them from the text. This does not honor the Word of God or the work of the Holy Spirit. I urge you to rely on the Holy Spirit by saturating your preaching with the Word he inspired.

4. Balance gravity and gladness in the pulpit.

Reading The Supremacy of God in Preaching is a refresher on the majesty of God and the gravity of preaching. It is simply impossible for a warmhearted, thinking preacher to finish the book without sensing anew the weightiness of the preaching task. But Piper couples the call to gravity with a plea for gladness, rooted in the character of God:

Gladness and gravity should be woven together in the life and preaching of a pastor in such a way as to sober the careless soul and sweeten the burden of the saints.

There is a difference between being glad and being giddy, between being weighty and being dour. Strive for the former; reject the latter.

5. Preach to stir up holy affections within your people.

Piper perceptively observes:

Good preaching aims to stir up “holy affections”—such emotions as hatred for sin, delight in God, hope in his promises, and tender compassion. The reason is that the absence of holy affections in Christians is odious.

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“One act of obedience is better than one hundred sermons.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

February 2018
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