Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #13
Chapter 13. What to avoid
That’s a pretty clear chapter title!
He speaks first of the preacher himself. The central advice is: ‘watch over your natural gifts and tendencies and idiosyncrasies’ - i.e., ‘watch your strengths’, as they will tempt you to pander to yourself in preaching.
Then he applies it to the sermon itself.
The key rule, he says, is to ‘be natural’… ‘Self is the greatest enemy of the preacher … And the only way to deal with self is to be so taken up with, and so enraptured by, the glory of what you are doing, that you forget yourself altogether.’
He applies this to various areas:
- Not too much display of intellect or too little. Most young preachers display too much, and must get over it fast.
- No mere exhortation, but there must be exhortation that moves ‘to tears or to action’.
- Some polemic against false teaching, as in Scripture, but not too much.
- Don’t start with a smile and “Good morning, folks, nice to see you.” You are about a unique activity. The church is not your home and you’re not a host welcoming people into it.
The advice to ‘watch your strengths’ carries the weight of the many years of experience that MLJ had had when he wrote these words. It made me think of those aspects of preaching that I feel come more naturally to me than others, and which seem more often to elicit immediate approval from a few. You will know what yours are (and if you don’t yet, just wait a while). How easy it is to bring those ever more to the fore, freewheeling and showboating (in an understated English way, of course).
Being so taken up by the glory of what you are doing so that you forget yourself… that of course requires a solid conviction that I am not just teaching or explaining or sharing, but that through me Christ is holding himself out to people, urging them to trust and to keep trusting. What we think preaching actually is will have a deep impact on our view of ourselves as we do it. And ironically (I think MLJ is entirely right here), the more theologically exalted our view of preaching, the less likely we are to be sinfully conscious of ourselves as we do it.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #12
Chapter 12. Illustrations, Eloquence, Humour
MLJ is opposed (unsurprisingly) to reading out a manuscript in the pulpit. But (more interestingly) he’s also against memorising the sermon. The reason: if you’ve memorised it, you end up ‘declaiming’ it to people and you’re focused on remembering what comes next. That makes you focus on the mechanics of what you’re doing, which destroys the essence of preaching.
Then the regular theme of ‘freedom’ recurs: put your faith in the Spirit and not in your sermon, he says.
Then follow comments on different aspects:
Illustrations. Use them ‘sparsely and carefully’, so they don’t become an end in themselves. Too many of them lessens the ‘tension’ inherent in the gospel message.
Imagination. MLJ admits that his nationality makes him susceptible to over-imagination in the pulpit(!)
Eloquence. Be like Paul: don’t strive to be eloquent, but let it happen when it comes to you.
Humour. Since the preacher stands between God and man, humour is only proper if it arises very naturally. Using humour to ‘warm the audience up’ in evangelistic preaching is especially abhorrent.
Lines such as ‘put your faith in the Spirit and not in the sermon’ have all the pros and cons of a half-truth, I think. It’s a good corrective to the preacher who sees himself simply as delivering something that’s already finished (‘here’s one I made earlier!’), and fails to be sensitive to the work of the Spirit in the actual act of delivery. But it can lead the preacher astray in not seeing the fruits of all his preparation as equally done (he trusts) under the influence of the Spirit. Thus, the preacher isn’t faced with trusting in either his sermon or the Spirit; he’s faced with trusting in the Spirit’s work both in his preparation and in the act of delivery. I can’t see that MLJ would deny this, but it’s not his natural way of expressing it.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #11
Chapter 11. The Shape of the Sermon
MLJ here considers different elements in the shaping of the sermon.
Introduction. There are two possibilities: show the application being made in the text itself and then its applicability today, or start with the contemporary issue the passage will address.
It’s wise to show the same truth from other parts of Scripture, since many heresies began with an over-emphasis on a single aspect of scriptural truth.
The divisions/heads. They must flow naturally from the text. If they don’t, the preacher is simply parading his cleverness. A ‘golden hammer’ that taps texts so that they fall easily into natural divisions is a great gift, but most of the time this work is a great struggle.
Full text or notes in the pulpit? Both have dangers: being too ornate (full text) or lacking flesh and meat (notes).
Quotations in the sermon. On the whole, don’t. You’ve been called by God as the preacher, and people have come to hear God’s Truth proclaimed through you.
One terrific principle runs through this chapter: that people should be able to hear God’s Truth proclaimed through this preacher as directly and forcefully as possible, with absolutely nothing distracting from that, most especially the preacher’s own artfulness or cleverness. If the preacher remembers the very mixed group of people he’ll be preaching to and shapes the sermon accordingly, he won’t go far wrong.
I will try and apply this as harshly as I can to my next few sermons, asking of every bit of text-application, illustration and application: is this here because I enjoy the thought of people hearing me say something I think is impressive? Or is it here because it’s my best shot at proclaiming the Truth in a sharp and hard-hitting way?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #10
Chapter 10. The Preparation of the Sermon
MLJ now gets practical, and addresses a couple of topics:
He doesn’t want hard and fast rules. We should often be preaching consecutively through Scripture, but there are two qualifications:
- Take the opportunities provided by particular occasions to break into whatever series you are in: for example, a natural disaster and New Year are often times when people are reflecting on the frailty of their own lives.
- Don’t publish a series in advance (‘I reprobate that entirely and completely’). By all means plan ahead, but allow for ‘the freedom of the Spirit’ in, for example, taking two Sundays over a passage that you had thought you might do in one.
Whatever the preacher’s text or series or theme, every sermon must be expository, in order to allow Scripture to have its proper place.
The preparation of each sermon.
Be honest with the text: see what’s actually there, in the context, rather than what you want to be there.
Then discern the ‘spiritual meaning’, for which spiritual perception is required (MLJ refers to 1 John 2.20, 27, but I’m not persuaded that they say what he thinks they do).
The chapter ends with a strong appeal that sermon-prep should aim to get to the main thrust of the passage, and that that should be the ‘burden’ of the sermon, with several examples of sermons MLJ had heard that he felt went wrong.
Many of us publish term-cards with the sermons set out in advance. There may be all sorts of practical reasons for that kind of planning, and that has always been my practice. MLJ gives reason to question why we do that, if we do: is it simply convenient? am I doing it so that my ministry appears competent in the eyes of the world? We may decide to stick with our practice, but the questions are good ones.
The exhortation to stick with the main thrust of the passage is always needed. It’s harder than we imagine to leave such a high proportion of our exegesis, theology, illustrations and applications on the cutting-room floor, but it has to be done.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #9
Chapter 9. The Preparation of the Preacher
This is a remarkably rich chapter. In it he’s talking not about how the preacher should prepare his sermon, but about how he should prepare himself. Here are the key points:
Maintain general discipline. Don’t fritter away time, as you may do with no human boss watching over you. Set aside sermon-prep time, and make yourself unavailable to anything else for it. But don’t be guided by someone else’s hard and fast rules. We all have different constitutions and work better at different times of the day.
Pray. MLJ is honest here about his own difficulties with starting to pray in the mornings. A key piece of advice is: respond to every inner impulse to pray. It’ll never be a distraction.
Read Scripture systematically, including once through each year. Take notes as you do, which can become sermon skeletons.
Read devotionally, choosing what’s needed for your mood, just as Sibbes helped MLJ in a low period.
Read in a balanced way across different areas, including theology and church history. (MLJ’s own practice of spending the mornings of the family holiday reading theology undisturbed might not be popular with all wives and offspring.) Read not to glean information, but to stimulate your own original thinking.
Listen to music, if it enlivens you.
I found his honesty about his own struggles with prayer encouraging in my own struggles, which made his challenges not to slacken in prayer all the more powerful. The advice to yield to every inner stimulus to pray, even in the midst of pressured work-time, is very wise. We don’t pause to pray because we fear it’ll be a distraction or a time-waster; MLJ assures us that it never will.
His view of the aim of reading is helpful, too. He’s got in mind that I should do all I can so that when I sit down to prepare a sermon my mind is fresh and stimulated. (And he got me a step closer to a theological justification for listening to a little Bob Dylan every morning.)
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #8
Chapter 8. The Character of the Message
The chapter sets out ‘certain conclusions’ on the relation of the listeners to the preacher.
First, the preacher must take account of the spiritual state of the congregation. In particular, he must assume every time that there are in front of him a good number of unconverted church members. There must be an evangelistic sermon in at least one service each week, in order to address such people most directly. Real Christians won’t mind attending that service, as they will know that it does them spiritual good. If a church’s preaching aims only ever at edification of believers, over time it will produce ‘hard and cold’ members.
Second, though, the pew must never control the pulpit. ‘What is needed in the pulpit is authority, great authority.’ It is of course a spiritual authority, not a churchy or scholarly one. The preacher has been appointed by God for the task, and every Christian should delight in listening to him.
The chapter ends with some detailed observations on church architecture (flat ceilings - essential for acoustics) and pulpit design (central, raised, and with the desk at the level of the pit of the stomach - essential for the preacher being seen to have the authority that he actually has). And, in case you were wondering, wear a gown to preach (marking your authority) but never an academic hood (boasting of your irrelevant academic qualifications).
The final sections on pulpit design and preacher’s attire seem partly tongue-in-cheek; they read that way to me. MLJ seems to know that he’s giving very specific instructions which don’t entirely have the full weight of scriptural authority! But they aim to express something he is deadly serious about: the spiritual authority which the preacher has and which his sermon must be recognised as having by his hearers. In his world he had his particular ways of expressing it, a bit idiosyncratic from our point of view though they may have been.
This chapter forces this kind of question on us:
- If you are a preacher who enjoys booming at people from six feet up and have a building designed for the purpose, are you enjoying a false authority in preaching that’s based purely on worldly, cultural things?
- If you are a preacher who feels nervous at some of MLJ’s instructions, could it be that you live in a culture that is so negative towards authority that you’ve lost sight of something important about preaching? Authority can’t be avoided (just happening to be wearing the most expensively ripped designer jeans in the place is after all also a statement of authority), so in our own contexts we need to think through the right way to express it, as MLJ did in his.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #7
Chapter 7. The Congregation
MLJ has two errors in view in this chapter. On one side, he is critical more than once of young preachers he knows who became so enamoured with the Puritans that they modelled themselves on their preaching as closely as possible. On the other side, he rejects the notion that the preacher can’t seriously expect to communicate well in the modern world until he has (say) worked for six months in a factory in order to get alongside people there, or dropped language such as ‘justification’ that unbelievers don’t understand. He grasps the nettle of 1 Cor 9.19-23, and says that its main thrust is that ‘we are to do our utmost to make ourselves clear and plain and understood’. He enjoys recounting an occasion when his preaching at an Oxford University mission was described by a student as suitable for ‘a congregation of farm labourers’, which was meant by the arrogant young man as a criticism and taken by MLJ as a compliment!
What runs right through the chapter is this:
- man’s basic problem is his deadness in sin before God, and every kind of person has the same problem;
- the gospel ought to be proclaimed clearly to mixed congregations;
- the preacher can be confident that the Holy Spirit will apply to each person what they need to hear from the sermon.
Forty years on, some of us may find some of MLJ’s illustrative anecdotes quaint and dated, but his simple point is a real tonic for the preacher: no gimmicks; no cleverness on display. Instead straightforward simplicity is needed that isn’t ashamed to set out a doctrine like justification, acknowledging that it seems alien, but then expounding it so that all can understand and be drawn to Christ.
For myself, the Oxford mission anecdote was telling. Would I really have taken the intended criticism as a compliment? I can think of an occasion some time ago when a more educated church-member told me that my preaching was too simple, and wasn’t feeding them the way they wanted. If I’d read this chapter on that occasion, I would have been urged to press on and not be swayed (which I was, for a while), since the truly spiritual intellectual will want a clear, understandable message. Preachers who have not had much formal education can be encouraged; those with lots of letters after their name might need to be chastened.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #6
Chapter 6. The Preacher
The next logical question to ask, says MLJ, is: who then is to be a preacher? Important here is Acts 8.4-5, which describes all kinds of Christians as ‘gossipping the gospel’ (v.4, Greek verb: euangelizomai), but the apostle Philip as ‘proclaiming’ (v.5, Greek: kerusso). Only the latter, says MLJ, is what we call preaching. In summary, in the NT preaching is confined to apostles, prophets, evangelists and teaching elders.
This view of preaching requires a notion of the ‘call’ of the preacher. The tests of a genuine call are:
a sense of preaching being ‘thrust upon you’ in your own spirit; wise Christians confirming it; a concern for the lost; a sense of ‘I can’t do anything else’; a feeling of personal unworthiness.
All of this should be confirmed by the church discerning four things in potential preachers: a settled knowledge of the truth; a godly life; an understanding of people; ability, both in intellect and in a gift of speech. He regrets that ability is too often put first by churches.
On the specifics of training, he recommends these elements:
- thorough knowledge of Scripture
- original languages, just in order to keep a man ‘accurate’
- knowing the biblical theology that comes out of Scripture, and grasping it systematically
- church history, especially knowledge of heresies (in order to avoid them), and of great revivals (in order to stay encouraged).
Overall, preachers are born and not made, but born preachers can be improved, and the best way for them to improve is by reading the sermons of past greats.
His use of Acts 8.4-5 to discern a distinct activity of ‘preaching’ is right, I think. It’s not easy to make the right kinds of distinctions, but in the NT there does seem to be something distinct about ‘proclamation’.
The notion of the preacher’s ‘call’ has been a vexed one, with some exalting it to almost mystical status, and others denying it in order to get as many trained people out into word ministry as possible. In this chapter, it is clear that MLJ is writing in reaction against those who deny any restrictions on who may preach, so it may well be unfair to build a strong theology of ‘call’ on the basis of the proper corrective that he was offering in his context.
His emphasis on preachers needing experience of life seems pertinent to me, if they are not to slide into being lecturers. That is not always to do with age. A few men in their early twenties are able to show understanding of people’s experience of life, and some never can, however old they get.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #5
Chapter 5. The act of preaching
MLJ describes this chapter as a general introduction to sermon delivery. Certain elements must be present:
- the whole personality of the preacher being exercised, including bodily action
- a sense of authority and control of proceedings, since he has been sent to declare something
- the element of ‘freedom’, being open to ‘the inspiration of the moment’
- interplay between preacher and congregation
- liveliness (since seriousness isn’t dullness)
- zeal (since we are personally involved as witnesses)
- urgency (since the preacher ‘is there between God and man’)
- pathos (also emotion): we must love the people, and that will show in our preaching
- power (more on this later, he says).
The chief end of preaching is ‘to give men and women a sense of God and his presence’.
If we glimpse what preaching is, we’ll conclude that we’ve never really ‘preached’, but we’ll keep trying.
There is much here that is wise. I can do a good ‘delivery health-check’ on my preaching by comparing it to that list. Do I have such a desire not to be thought boring that there is too little of the seriousness of the gospel in my preaching? Am I so tied to my prepared notes that I don’t wisely adjust certain things when I see who is present and how they are reacting? I think so, sometimes.
What is intended by saying that preaching should aim to give a sense of God and his presence is also right, I think. Since the preaching of Christ ought to be received as the word of God (1 Thess 2.13), it is hard to see how that can be done without a sense in the hearers of also receiving Christ who is real and present by his Spirit.
I do find the line about concluding that I’ve never really ‘preached’ troubling. There is a sense in it of something which I can’t find in the NT. For all his acknowledged human limitations, we have no indication that Paul doubted that his preaching was truly preaching. MLJ intends by the point to spur the preacher on to greater power and zeal, and that is a good aim. He may well, though, end up discouraging the preacher by giving him too low a view of the effectiveness of his ‘ordinary’ weekly preaching.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #4
Chapter 4. The form of the sermon
He starts with some thoughts on sermon content. Our primary call is to deliver the whole message of Scripture. We much of course expound the part, but always in a way that shows that it is part of a whole. This is why systematic theology is so vital.
He then moves on to sermon form. The sermon is not an essay or lecture, since both lack ‘the element of attack’. It must always be expository, but not a verse-by-verse running commentary. The preacher should be like the OT prophets, with a ‘burden of the Lord’, that is, a single message to proclaim.
Getting more specific on sermon form, he recommends that it should:
- start with exposition
- ask of the text, ‘what’s the particular doctrine here?’, in order to get to something which is part of the whole gospel
- arrange its heading with logical progression, understood as parts of a whole
- make applications regularly throughout.
There is no doubt that his understanding of the role of systematic theology in preaching is open to abuse, if used as an excuse to jump quickly out of the text into the preacher’s favourite doctrines. But MLJ is more careful than that (at least in the theorising of this chapter). If what the preacher ultimately should preach is the gospel, then he has no choice but to engage in systematic theology, whether he likes the idea or not. MLJ’s proposed question is a good one to ask of a text: what’s the particular doctrine here?
His insistence that the sermon should be understood as a single entity, communicating one basic message, is good. I sometimes come across the idea that ‘expository’ preaching means cramming in as much exegesis as possible from as many verses as possible. Instead, preachers should expound the ‘burden’ that the text gives them to expound.