The Pastor and the Pulpit Part 3: The Place of Eternal Significance - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonPastoral Theology and Expository Preaching Articles
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As simple exhortations we have seen that the pulpit is a place of dread, and a place of worship. Now we move onto the place of eternal significance. At first glance, this might be redundant. If the pulpit is a place where the preacher views the exercise of preaching as dreadful, as in a sense of awe and esteem, and he views it as a place of worship, then it obviously has eternal significance to him. However, as a place of eternal significance, it is not only a place that matters eternally, or that we should view it as such, but that such a view should impact the manner in which we preach because of that reality. In other words, because life and death and heaven and hell are either gained or lost every time the preacher stands in the pulpit, the preacher should preach like a dying man to dying men every time he stands in the pulpit. There is no excuse of being too tired, too lazy, too melancholy, too “anything.” He will view the pulpit as too eternally significant to let a preaching engagement go by that he has not opened matters of eternal importance with vigor, passion and conviction.
Since it is a place of eternal significance, the congregation should leave the sanctuary (wheresoever you may worship together) as if eternal choices have been placed before them and eternal ramifications are shaking their world from top to bottom. If the preacher has done his part, and preached with fervency, passion and power in the unction of the Spirit, then the exercise given in the pulpit, and the reality behind the sermon, will lodge in the mind of the hearer (those listening of course) as a festering wound until some action on their part is taken to amend it. Preachers, then, must treat the pulpit as gaining or losing that which is eternally significance. Their operation in that pulpit, and the power and passion for which they preach, should press the hearer to make no mistake as to the seriousness of their message and their Gospel intent. Christ is set forth beckoning the listener to eternally significant choices. And yet, it is all too often that the hearers come and go each Sunday with no persuasion one way or the other. Why?
Recently, my wife and I visited a church where the doctrine was orthodox, the liturgy did not violate the Regulative Principle, and the historical confessions were upheld as important. One would think that such a church would house some of the greatest preaching of all time, with all the weight and seriousness that things eternally significant can muster. But this was not the case. Let me illustrate it this way – imagine that you work in the desert under the hot sun. You are, for all intents and purposes, a slave to a rich master who was building a railroad from one of the desert to the other. All day long you toiled in the hot heat, with little water and food to sustain you – you barely made it through each day. At the end of the day, though, the rich master would treat all his workers to a special glass of ice cold soda pop with ice (you choose your favorite) that revitalized the workers completely. There you are at the end of the day, just waiting for that tall drink to sparkle across your tongue and cool you down. With such an illustration contemplating even now, Pavlov’s dog is salivating and yearns for a cold soda from the fridge – I’ll be right back…okay then, now that I have my tasty drink in hand, cold and icy, I’m going to take a drink. [DRINK] Well, I must tell you, it was worth the trip. My thirst is quenched and the sparkling soda pop is tantalizing my taste buds as the carbonations bursts all over my palate. I hope you get the picture! Now let’s apply it to preaching. In the same way that special revitalizing soda pop to a hot worker is a desired blessing, so preaching is a blessing to the desirous Christian. They work all week (as a worker in the hot sun) in dealing with sin, trials, temptations, sufferings, and the like. When they come to church they want to drink down the sweetness of an ice cold soda pop that refreshes them, and aids them in their daily walk to glorify the Living God. Preaching the message of the Living God to the people of the Living God should be filled with passion and fervency, “carbonation or bubbles” if you will. Now, imagine again the entire fictitious illustration – but the worker goes to take a sip and finds the soda pop as flat as flat can be. No fizz, no coldness. Just a warm flat soda with no pop. It is not that the drink is not soda pop – it certainly is soda. But it has lost its fizz. It is warm and as flat and unattractive to drink as gathering up a glass of sand and drinking it down! And so, the illustration serves its purpose. Though a church can be doctrinally right and have their liturgical ducks in a row, if the soda pop has lost its fizz, and is now at room temperature, no one will want to drink it. Preaching without fizz is flat and unattractive (its sin). Such preaching may be true, and it may be right, but preaching is not preaching if one is not really preaching! They wind up doctrinally correct but boring. So even though the church we visited was doctrinally right, and Confessionally right, I left thinking that the preacher could not have believed what he said from the pulpit. If he believed it, really believed it, he would have preached it that way. Instead, he was like a soda pop that lost its fizz and remained at room temperature. I was not inclined to drink.
It is the great dread of every preacher to wonder if he is boring the people. But what preachers seem to forget is that it is a travesty to be boring! To be boring is to lose sight of the eternal significance of the pulpit. To be boring is to blaspheme the word of God because the Word of God is not boring. “Boring” means tiresome and wearisome. Gospel preaching ought never to be boring to God’s people. Certainly, there will always be “someone” who finds the preaching boring. But overall, preaching ought never to be boring to everyone. The vitality of the church will depend in a great manner on the fervency and passion of the preacher behind the pulpit who knows he is delivering heaven or hell to every one of the people listening. Baxter said, “The best matter will scarcely move them, if it be not movingly delivered…the want of a familiar tone and expression is a great fault in most of our deliveries, and that to which we should be very careful to attend.” It is one thing to know what you are doing wrong in preaching, and even another thing to amend what you are doing wrong. Most preachers do not know either, and go along as though there are no problems. But preachers in general should be delicately aware of their own passion and fervency in preaching that they may preach with eternal significance every time they stand in the pulpit. Baxter again says, “It seldom reacheth the heart of the hearer which cometh not from the heart of the speaker.” Thus, every hearer must take up the charge to sit under “the most convincing, lively, serious preacher that possibly you can.” Are you convincing, lively and serious in your preaching?
Preachers who understand the pulpit as something which holds eternal significance will take up the gauntlet of preaching with power and passion. The Reformers and Puritans called this unction. Unction simply means anointing. Preachers who believe that the pulpit holds a place of eternal significance will pray for unction. Unction is not manufactured, though many TV preachers manufacture “fervency” quite easily. Take a lesson – even heretics are excited about what they preach – but this not unction. Unction is a result of the sermon itself settling into the heart of the preacher, preached with fervency and passion, and attended by the Holy Spirit to affect the hearts of the hearers. It affects both the preacher who preaches in the manner he preaches, and listeners who listen in the manner they listen. Spring says, “The constituent elements of this power are more than human, yet are they entrusted to men.” Without such a fervency, without passion, the Word is not preached, it is “shared” or “spoken,” and we can do without men who get up just to hear themselves speak. Instead, God wants preachers to preach his Word. Perkins says, “Therefore you must preach God’s Word, as God’s Word, and deliver it just as you received it.” We have received the word with power. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.” If we have received it in power as the Word of God, then it should be preached as the Word of God – powerfully. 1 Corinthians 4:20 says, “For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.” And also 2 Corinthians 6:7, “By the word of truth, by the power of God.” Thus, unction, being a center stage in the manner in which Gospel preaching occurs, is done with fervency and passion, in unction, in power: 1 Thessalonians 1:5, “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost.” How can a man who says he believes in the Gospel as it is given from Genesis to Revelation as something powerful, preach in a manner that bores the people of God? Will the unbeliever who listens to him believe the preacher believes what he says? Certainly not! Will the people of God who listen week in and week out believe him? Certainly not! And this kind of preaching ahs an affect on the people of God and is noticeable in the manner in which they live outside of church.
On the other hand, Jesus Christ was a preacher with passion and fervency, with great unction. Calvin says, “We see that he [Christ] was anointed by the Spirit to be a herald and witness of his Father’s grace, and not in the usual way; for he is distinguished from other teachers who had a similar office. And here, again, it is to be observed, that the unction which he received, in order to perform the office of teacher, was not for himself, but for his whole body, that a corresponding efficacy of the Spirit might always accompany the preaching of the Gospel.” Jesus Christ had a huge following of those who wanted to hear Him. Some came to have their fill of bread. But most of the time you find throngs of people around Him desiring to hear the Word of God preached. They were amazed at His preaching. Luke 4:22 says, “So all bore witness to Him, and marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth.” He was filled with the Spirit and anointed by the Holy Spirit to preach good tidings to the meek. Isaiah 61:1 says, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek.” Christ was anointed, and then commissioned preachers to partake of the same spiritual blessings to preach the same message of salvation. It is a message of eternal significance. Matthew 4:17 says, “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The apostles did the same as they were commissioned, “and as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 10:7)” Preaching about things of eternal significance is preaching about the coming of the kingdom of Heaven in the person of Christ and His work. Is this of little consequence? When Jesus preached was He boring? When the apostles preached were they boring or without passion? The commission of the preacher to preach the Kingdom is as William Perkins says, is to rescue men from hell, “[to] deliver a man from hell.” Will your preaching do that? As Spring says, “It is a solemn truth, but one which the Bible utters, that eternal happiness of men is suspended upon the receiving the Gospel thus preached in Christ’s name.” You, as a preacher, are ambassadors to the Gospel message. You are Christ’s commissioned men. Preach like it! Jesus was never boring, and those who listened to him bore witness to His preaching as amazing. So with Jesus, His commissioned apostles were amazing in the same way. Acts 4:13 explains, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.” When people hear you preach do they believe you have been with Jesus?
Sound doctrine, purposeful preaching, and unction lead to experimental preaching. In experimental preaching there is a “concern to bring the objective truth of God’s Word to bear on people’s hearts…there is a concern to address people’s experience of the truth under consideration…there is a concern to lead people to an experience of the transforming power and grace of God in regard to that truth…[and it] is marked by a concern to stimulate greater godliness in the hearer.” But one can be doctrinally correct, have a wonderfully outlined sermon, and yet, have no spiritual vigor or unction. Baxter says, “In the name of God, brethren, labour to awaken your own hearts, before you go to the pulpit, that you may be fit to awaken the hearts of sinners.” In the name of God brethren, listen to Baxter! The power and unction of experimental preaching is indicated “by those immediate and direct influences, which it exerts in producing and sustaining the interests of truth and godliness among men, and fitting them for a higher and nobler state of being.” Good preaching that remains eternally significant, then, is discernable. Those who hold the importance of eternal significance in the pulpit will preach more effectively and more fervently than those who are apt to forget for whom they preach – and that is God. When this is lost, when the element of eternal significance is lost, there is a perversion of the pulpit, and “a perversion of the pulpit is surely followed by spiritual apostasy in the Church.” Experimental preaching takes the eternal significance of the Word of God and delvers it to the people of God in a manner which awakens souls. This preaching is accompanied by unction and the power of the Holy Spirit. As Murphy says, “He cannot preach aright in any other way.”
If a preacher preaches without the mindfulness of the eternal significance of the pulpit, subsequently without fervency, passion, and unction, what kind of preaching is it? Let us not mince words: it is wicked and sinful. Murphy right states of boring preaching, “to preach in a cold, unfeeling manner, to preach without earnestness, is sinful. It shows in the preacher a heart that is hard.” Such preaching we can do without, though it characterizes most of what we find in Reformed pulpits to the detriment of the church: doctrinally right, passionless “church speaking”. It shows that ministers do not really care for their people. Murphy rightly sates, “If ministers cared more for their people and less for their own sermons, they would be more useful.” Baxter rightly says, “Hard studies, much knowledge, and excellent preaching, if the ends be not right, is but more glorious hypocritical sinning.” Again Baxter says, “It is no small matter to stand up in the face of a congregation, and to deliver a message of salvation or damnation, as from the living God, in the name of the Redeemer. It is no easy matter to speak so plainly, that the most ignorant may understand us; and so seriously that the deadest hearts may feel us; and so convincingly, that the contradicting cavillers may be silenced. The weight of our matter condemneth coldness and sleepy dullness. We should see that we be well awakened ourselves, and our spirits in such a plight as may make us fit to awaken others. If our words be not sharpened, and pierce not as nails, they will hardly be felt by stony hearts. To speak slightly and coldly of heavenly things is nearly as bad as to say nothing of them at all.” Such a sense of eternal significance should attend every preacher into the pulpit. D. Martyn Lloyd Jones explains this solemnity and seriousness when he says, “You remember what was said of the saintly Robert Murray McCheyne of Scotland in the last century. It is said that when he appeared in the pulpit, even before he had uttered a single word, people would begin to weep silently. Why? Because of this very element of seriousness. The very sight of the man gave the impression that he had come from the presence of God and the he was to deliver a message from God to them. That is what had such an effect upon people even before he had opened his mouth. We forget this at our peril, and at great cost to our listeners.” Based on the eternal significance of the pulpit, and your own ability to preach and deliver the message of God to the people, what affect do you have on the congregation? It is, of course, God’s Word which has the affect, but remember, it is filtered through your passion and your personality.
If you are dull and boring as a person or a preacher, so the message will be dull and boring. There is no escape from your disposition unless you repent of it and the Holy Spirit replaces that sinful bore with a fervent preacher. Remember, only God can make a minister of Jesus Christ. And it behooves me to press you not to run to the fictitious example of Jonathan Edwards, of which it seems every boring preacher on the planet runs to for cover since they say Edwards was boring and monotone. Please, first be sure you know the facts – Edwards was no boring preacher, and was not monotone. Old wive’s tales abound. Secondly, unless you are of the intellectual and spiritual stature and balance of Edwards, or have the ability to affect so many hearers by sweet oration and biblical verbiage alone as Edwards did, there is no need to run to him. Rather, get on your knees and repent of your lifelessness and your sin. Instead of trying to justify a boring sermon, a passionless sermon (if you can call any real “sermon” passionless), amend your ways, as Baxter said, and learn to preach. Repent of your lack of zeal and your inadequacy and instead begin to learn afresh the solemnity, seriousness and eternal significance that you should have to preach in the pulpit. Do this with passion and unction. Either that, or get out of the pulpit and into the pew and allow someone who understands the eternal significance of the pulpit to replace you. Eternity is weighed in the balance for all your hearers. How you preach is as important as what you preach. Preaching doctrinally good sermons at the expense of passion and actual belief of those sermons is to preach in vain. How could a Reformed Preacher really believe what he knows the Word of God to teach and not preach it with fervency and passion? It is, in my estimation, impossible. He cannot really believe it.
Certainly, preachers are far and few between. William Perkins says they are one in a thousand. For every one thousand preachers you round up, you have in there, one real preacher. These true preachers are molded by God in a specific way, and in our day and age this “way” is often neglected, at the very least. Rev. John Newton said, “None but he who made the world can make a Minister of the Gospel.” The eternal significance of the pulpit must be re-attained and understood afresh that ministers would be ambassadors for Christ instead of propagating their own agendas. Under such a mindfulness of the act and exercise of preaching, those sermons will in fact be attended by the unction of the Spirit of Power, and its affects duly seen on the people and in their lives. The next time you preach, preach with passion and fervency, and then preach that way every time after.
——————————————————————————– Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 149. Baxter, Compassionate Counsel, 19. Baxter, a Christian Directory, 475. Gardiner Spring, The Power of the Pulpit, (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1986), 84. William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1996) 85. John Calvin, Institutes, 2:15:2. Perkins, Prophesying, 117. Spring, Power of the Pulpit, 117. Murray A. Capill, Preaching With Spiritual Vigor, (Geanies House, Christian Focus Publications: 2003) 16-18. Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, 148. Spring, Power of the Pulpit, 5. R.L. Dabney, Evangelical Eloquence, (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1999) 27. Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology, (Audobon, Old Paths Publications: 1996), 188. Murphy, Pastoral Theology, 191. Emphasis mine. Ibid., 200. Baxter, Reformed Pastor, 126. Baxter, Reformed Pastor, 128. D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, Preaching and Preachers, (Grand Rapid, Zondervan: 1972), 86. Iain Murray says that “if” Edwards read any of his sermons, no one complained about it (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1996) 95). He was not as charismatic as his grandfather Solomon Stoddard, but Edwards was no caricatured preacher of monotonous nonsense. Anyone who has read his sermons is spiritually aware of his insight, passion and the fervency which such doctrine edifies. John Newton, Newton’s Works, vol. 5, (Carlisle, Banner of Truth Trust: 1988) 62.