I have been considering for some time the desperate condition of preaching in the West. I have even toyed with the idea of writing a booklet entitled Serious Preaching. Such preaching is out of vogue, but I still believe in it. Please know that I’m not talking about serious sweating. It used to be said that if a man didn’t fill his hanky with sweat, make himself hoarse with screaming and wind up walking on about two inches of his pants cuff, he hadn’t really preached at all! Billy Sunday, the baseball-player-turned-evangelist of the early 1900’s, was like that. But, with all the humor and quaintness of his message and style, after reading his sermons (and even hearing one on tape) I am left empty. He could rivet a sinner with words like a machine gunner, he could wave his chair and compel them to listen, he could lure them down the “sawdust trail” (his words, by the way), but all in all, nothing very important was said. It is easy to wave a Bible and yet never preach it. There are many who have fought hard for the inerrancy of Scripture who don’t sufficiently break open the Bible they fought for. No, What we need is doctrinal preaching…real solid truth.
J.B. Gambrell (1841-1921) was such a preacher. He was a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, an editor, and a Christian statesman called lovingly “the great commoner”; but primarily he was a preacher. He said this:
“We may invigorate our faith and renew our courage by reflecting that divine power has always attended the preaching of doctrine, when done in the true spirit of preaching. Great revivals have accompanied the heroic preaching of the doctrines of grace, predestination, election, and that whole lofty mountain range of doctrines upon which Jehovah sits enthroned, sovereign n grace as in all things else. God honors preaching that honors Him. There is entirely too much milk-sop preaching nowadays, trying to cajole sinners to enter upon a truce with their Maker, quit sinning, and join the church. The situation does not call for a truce, but a surrender. Let us bring out the heavy artillery of heaven, And thunder away at this stuck-up age as Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon and Paul did, and there will be many slain of the Lord, raised up to walk in newness of Life.”(“Obligations of Baptists to Teach Their Principals,” Baptist Principles Reset, The Religious Herald Company, 1902)
You may argue that the people will not listen to such preaching. That is not altogether untrue. Paul reminded us that there will be a time when “they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth..(2 Tim. 4:3-4). This passage reminds me of the plague of frogs during Pharaoh’s day. “They gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank.” (Exodus 8:14) Unfortunately, our plague has not come and gone like theirs but is with us still. And it stinks!
Here is the problem. The preacher preaches what the people want to hear with a particular inclination never to offend. Now preachers ought not to offend unnecessarily. They ought to gargle and wear deodorant and be kind and unabrasive by method. We are to live at peace with all men, as much as possible. But the truth does offend. So the grand truths are often avoided and replaced with some innocuous how-to’s void of the sturdy doctrinal stuff that makes men out of spiritual mush. Often such messages are psychological and not theological. And if a doctrine is broached which is controversial (and they virtually all are when preached correctly—Jesus couldn’t even give a marriage seminar without opposition!), then men-fearing preachers will treat it so lightly, touch it so gingerly, speak of it so generally, plead it so weakly, believe it so loosely, that the truth is neutralized down to nothing worth getting excited about. Snooze. And the preacher says, “No more doctrinal sermons; they won’t hear them.” How a preacher can use the same Bible that spawned the Protestant Reformation, launched the modern missionary movement, and put his forbears on the block, and never stir up anybody is a mystery to me.
So let me suggest that you go to your pastor and say something like this: “Pastor, I’m ready—ready to listen to something deeper, more substantial, even more difficult (if you’ll explain the terms) than I have put up with before. Lay it on thick, and I’ll listen intently. As for me and my house, we’re going to grow.” You see, it is not that people are unable to hear stronger sermons: it’s that we’ve become lazy listeners. People died for those doctrines you take for granted! What Paul meant by milk is not what we mean. We want Kool-Aid. Milk is at least good truth in a digestible form for babies, but Kool-Aid is pure taste plus nothing. And oh how we crave it!
For my friends who are preachers reading this article, let’s repent of this shallow preaching! Do not hold back what God deemed important enough to put in His Word. Paul said, “I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. “ (Acts 20:27) But brace yourself: some will not approve. It will cost you to preach the truth. What right, though, do we have to do otherwise? What right do we have to make God out to be Someone other than He really is in order to make people like Him more? Honor God by declaring the truth about Him. As Gambrell said, “God honors those who honor Him.” And then be prepared to see the beautiful results of your work. I am convinced that if revival comes in our day, it will come through a resurgence of knowledge about the true nature of God, man, and sin. May I suggest that you consider the topics of the character and work of God Himself, the absolute depravity of man, the despicable nature of sin, the judgment of the damned and of the believer, the subtleties of false profession, the demands and grace of repentance, the justification through the cross of Christ, the nature of biblical sanctification or holiness, the electing work of God, the redeeming work of the Son, the application of redemption to the called by the Spirit, the fear of God, etc., etc.
As you preach, some will caution you to be balanced. It is a wise thought if understood correctly. But there is another way to look at the idea of balance. Why not try to balance the years of weak, half-hearted platitudinal sermonettes your people have been hearing with good sound doctrine? Every sermon cannot be balanced. You should not expect it to be. Jesus’ sermons were not. Please do not fear leaving the people with some question. I would think that it would be a very good thing for people to leave the building on Sundays with a head full of question. At least they are thinking again and not just nodding. At least it is stirring them up from their sleep. You couldn’t be more like Jesus in your preaching if you leave them wondering and working through the questions. Jesus left head-scratching wherever he went. Do not fear being like Jesus.
As the great doctrines are preached, interject your application all the way through. Spurgeon said, “I used to put the application at the end of my sermon. That is a good rule; but as I found sinners rather sleepy at the close, I generally now, after a piece of doctrine for the building up of the saints, let fly at sinners when they are not expecting it. The shot takes them unawares…” Our doctrines are not the dry bones of crusty old theologues, but the living and life-changing words of God! It should be natural to mix our doctrine with appeals both to the lost and the saved. If it burns in us, it will be most certainly so.