The Act of Preaching

Posted on July 2, 2013


“Preaching is something that one recognises when one hears it.” – MLJ, ‘Preaching and Preachers’, pg. 81

In an effort to better understand what preaching is and who the preacher is, I have embarked on a journey into history, reading classic works by and about historical pillars of the faith. Last night I finished up chapter 5 of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones lecture series, Preaching and Preachers, and wanted to share his thoughts on ‘the act of preaching’. The following are 10 essential elements in the act of preaching as given by Dr. Lloyd-Jones. Though lengthy, I hope it blesses you whether in the pulpit or atop the box on the street corner:

1. Personality – The first is that the whole personality of the preacher must be involved. That is the point, of course, that was brought out in the well-known definition of preaching by Phillips Brookes, that it is ‘truth mediated through personality’. I believe that is right, that in preaching all one’s faculties should be engaged, the whole man should be involved. I go so far as to suggest that even the body is involved…the entire person [is] engaged – gestures, activity and son on. I do not want to make too much of this, but you will remember that when Demosthenes was asked what is the first great essential in oratory, his reply was “Action’. Then he was asked, ‘Well, what is the second greatest desideraturm?’ He replied again, ‘Action’. ‘Well’, they said, ‘what is the third most important point?’ Still the reply was, ‘Action’. There is no doubt about this; effective speaking involves action; and that is why I stress that the whole personality must be involved in preaching (pgs. 81-82.)

2. Authority –  The second element I would emphasise (sic) is a sense of authority and control over the congregation and the proceedings. The preacher should never be apologetic, he should never give the impression that he is speaking by their leave as it were; he should not be tentatively putting forward certain suggestions or ideas. That is not to be his attitude at all. He is a man, who is there to ‘declare’ certain things; he is a man under commission and under authority. He is an ambassador, and he should be aware of his authority. He should always know that he comes to the congregation as a sent messenger. Obviously this is not a matter of self-confidence; that is always deplorable in a preacher. We have the word of the Apostle Paul himself, that when he went to Corinth he went ‘in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling’. We also should always be conscious of that. But that does not mean that you are apologetic; it means that you are aware of the solemnity and seriousness and the importance of what you are doing. You have no self-confidence, but you are a man under authority, and you have authority; and this should be evident and obvious (pg. 83).

3. Freedom – The next quality in this general view of the preacher, and of this ‘act’ of preaching, is the element of freedom. I attach very great importance to this. Though the sermon has been prepared in the way we have indicated, and prepared carefully, yet the preacher must be free in the act of preaching, in the delivery of the sermon. He must not be too tied to his preparation and by it. This is a crucial point; this is of the very essence of this act of preaching. I am not thinking merely in terms of having a manuscript with him in the pulpit, for he can be tied without having a manuscript. All I am saying is that he must be free; free in the sense that he must be open to the inspiration of the moment. Regarding preaching as I do as an activity under the influence and power of the Holy Spirit, we have to emphasise (sic) this point because the preparation is not finished just when a man has finished his preparation of the sermon. One of the remarkable things about preaching is that often one find that the best things one says are thing that have not been premeditated, and were not even thought of in the preparation of the sermon, but are given while one is actually speaking and preaching…This element of freedom is all important. Preaching should be always under the Spirit – His power and control – and you do not know what is going to happen. So always be free. It may sound contradictory to say ‘prepare, and prepare carefully’, and yet ‘be free’. But there is no contradiction, as there is no contradiction when Paul says, ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (Phil. 2:12-13). You will find that the Spirit Who has helped you in your preparation may now help you, while you are speaking, in an entirely new way, and open things out to you which you had not seen while you were preparing your sermon (pgs. 83-85).

4. Seriousness – The next element is that of seriousness. The preacher must be a serious man; he must never give the impression that preaching is something light or superficial or trivial…a preacher of necessity must give the impression that he is dealing with the most serious matter that men and women can ever consider together. What is happening? What is happening is that he is speaking to them from God, he is speaking to them about God, he is speaking about their condition, the state of their souls. He is telling them that they are, by nature, under the wrath of God – ‘the children of wrath even as others’ – that the character of the life they are living is offensive to God and they are under the judgment of God, and warning them of the dread eternal possibility that lies ahead of them. In any case the preacher, of all men, should realise (sic) the fleeting nature of the life in this world. The men of the world are so immersed in its business and affairs, its pleasures an all its vain show, that the one thing they never stop to consider is the fleeting character of life. All this means that the preacher should always create and convey the impression of the seriousness of what is happening the moment he even appears in the pulpit (pgs. 85-86).

5. Zeal – A preacher must always convey the impression that he himself has been gripped by what he is saying. If he has not been gripped nobody else will be. So this is absolutely essential. He must impress the people by the fact that he is taken up and absorbed by what he is doing. He is full of matter, and he is anxious to impart this. He is so moved and thrilled by it himself that he wants everybody else to share in this. He is concerned about them; that is why he is preaching to them. He is anxious about them; anxious to help them, anxious to tell them the truth of God. So he does it with energy, with zeal, and with this obvious concern for people. In other words a preacher who seems to be detached from the Truth, and who is just saying a number of things which may be very good and true and excellent in themselves, is not a preacher at all…Nothing is so fatal in a preacher as that he should fail to give the impression of personal involvement (pgs. 87-89).

6. Warmth – That leads inevitably to the next element, which is Warmth. To use a term that is common today, the preacher must never be ‘clinical’. So often the preacher is. Everything he does is right, is indeed almost perfect, but it is clinical, it is not living; it is cold, it is not moving, because the man has not been moved himself. But that should never be true of the preacher. If he really believes what he is saying he must be moved by it; it is impossible for him not to be. That leads to warmth of necessity. The Apostle Paul tells us himself that he preached ‘with tears’. He reminds the Ephesian elders of that in Acts 20. And as he refers to certain false preachers in Philippians 3 he does so with ‘weeping’…If a man’s heart is not engaged I take leave to query and to question whether he has really understood with his head, because of the very character of the Truth with which we are dealing. This has been true, of course, of all the great preachers of the ages. Whitefield, it seems, almost invariably as he was preaching would have tears streaming down his face. I feel we are all under condemnation here and need to be rebuked. I confess freely that I need to be rebuked myself. Where is the passion in preaching that has always characterised (sic) great preaching in the past? Why are not modern preachers moved and carried away as the great preachers of the past so often were? The Truth has not changed. Do we believe it, have we been gripped and humbled by it, and then exalted until we are ‘lost in wonder and praise’? The preacher then is a man who for these reasons and in these ways makes contact with the people who are listening to him. Far from being detached, there is rapport. This comes out in his voice, in his manner, in his whole approach; everything about him shows that there is this intimacy of contact between the preacher and his congregation (pgs. 89-90).

7. Urgency – The preacher must always be ‘urgent in season and out of season’ says Paul to Timothy; again for the same reason, because of the entire situation. That is what makes preaching such an astonishing act and such a responsible and overwhelming matter…What are you doing? You are not simply imparting information, you are dealing with souls, you are dealing with pilgrims on the way to eternity, you are dealing with matters not only of life and death in this world, but with eternal destiny. Nothing can be so terribly urgent…If we do not know something about this sense of urgency we do not know what true preaching is…the message of the Gospel is something that cannot be postponed, because you do not know whether you or the people will be alive even in a week’s time or even in a day’s time. ‘In the midst of life we are in death’. If the preacher does not suggest this sense of urgency, that he is there between God and men, speaking between time and eternity he has no business to be in a pulpit. There is no place for calm, cool, scientific detachment in these matters. That may possibly be all right as a philosopher, but it is unthinkable in a preacher because of the whole situation in which he is involved (pg. 91).

8. Persuasiveness – For exactly the same reason preaching must always be characterised (sic) by persuasiveness. ‘We beseech you in Christ’s stead be ye reconciled to God.’ Surely the whole object of this act is to persuade people. The preacher does not just say things with the attitude of ‘take it or leave it’. He desires to persuade them of the truth of his message; he wants them to see it; he is trying to do something to them, to influence them. He is not giving a learned disquisition of the text, he is not giving a display of his own knowledge; he is dealing with these living souls and he wants to move them, to take them with him, to lead them to the Truth. That is his whole purpose. So if this element is not present, whatever else it may be, it is not preaching (pgs. 91-92).

9. Pathos – the trouble with some of us is that we love preaching, but we are not always careful to make sure we love the people to whom we are actually preaching. If you lack this element of compassion for the people you will also lack the pathos which is a very vital element in all true preaching. Our Lord looked out upon the multitude and ‘saw them as sheep without a shepherd’, and was ‘filled with compassion’. And if you know nothing of this you should not be in a pulpit, for this is certain to come out in your preaching. We must not be purely intellectual or argumentative, this other element must be there. Not only will your love for the people produce this pathos, the matter itself is bound to do this in and of itself. What can possibly be more moving that a realisation (sic) of what God in Christ has done for us? Any attempt therefore to consider and to understand it should move us profoundly (pg. 92).

10. Power – If there is no power it is not preaching. True preaching, after all, is God acting. It is not just a man uttering words; it is God using him. He is being used of God. He is under the influence of the Holy Spirit; it is what Paul calls i 1 Corinthians 2 ‘preaching in demonstration of the Spirit of power’. Or as he puts it in 1 Thessalonians 1:5: ‘Our gospel came not only unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance…’ There it is; and that is an essential element in true preaching (pg. 95).

Posted in: Preaching