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When I entered the ministry, there had been so much said about Election and Sovereignty, that I found it was the universal hiding place, both of sinners and of Christians, that they could not do anything, or could not obey the Gospel. And wherever, I went, I found it indispensable to demolish these refuges of lies. And a revival would in no way have been produced or carried on, but by dwelling on that class of truths, which hold up man's ability, and obligation, and responsibility.
It was not so in the days when President Edwards and Whitefield labored.
Then, the Churches in New England had enjoyed little else than Armenian preaching, and were all resting in themselves and their own strength. These bold and devoted servants of God came out and declared those particular doctrines of grace, Divine Sovereignty and Election, and they were greatly blessed. They did not dwell on these doctrines exclusively, but they preached them very fully. The consequence was that because in those circumstances revivals followed from such preaching, the ministers who followed continued to preach these doctrines almost exclusively. And they dwelt on them so long that the Church and the world got entrenched behind them, waiting for God to come and do what He required them to do; and so revivals ceased for many years.
Now, and for years past, ministers have been engaged in hunting them out from these refuges. And here it is all- important for the ministers of this day to bear in mind that if they dwell exclusively on Ability and Obligation, they will get their hearers back on the old Armenian ground, and then they will cease to promote revivals. Here are ministers who have preached a great deal of truth, and have had great revivals, under God.
Now, let it be known and remarked, that the reason is, they have hunted sinners out from their hiding places. But if they continue to dwell on the same class of truths till sinners hide themselves behind such preaching, another class of truths must be preached. And then if they do not change their mode, another pall will hang over the Church, until another class of ministers shall arise and hunt sinners out of those new retreats.
A right view of both classes of truths, Election and Free- agency, will do no hurt. They are eminently calculated to convert sinners and strengthen saints. It is a perverted view that chills the heart of the Church, and closes the eyes of sinners in sleep. If I had time, I would remark on the manner in which I have sometimes heard the doctrines of Divine Sovereignty, Election, and Ability preached. They have been exhibited in irreconcilable contradiction, the one against the other. Such exhibitions are anything but the Gospel, and are calculated to make a sinner feel anything rather than his responsibility to God.
By preaching truth in proper proportions, I do not mean mingling all things together in the same sermon, in such a way that sinners will not see their connection or consistency. A minister once asked another: "Why do you not preach the doctrine of Election?"Because," said the other, "I find sinners here are entrenched behind Inability." The first then said he once knew a minister who used to preach Election in the forenoon and Repentance in the afternoon. But, bringing things together that confound the sinner's mind, and overwhelm him with a fog of metaphysics, is not wise preaching. When talking of Election, the preacher is not talking of the sinner's duty. It has no relation to the sinner's duty. Election belongs to the government of God. It is a part of the exceeding richness of the grace of God. It shows the love of God - not the duty of the sinner. And to bring Election and Repentance together in this way is diverting the sinner's mind away from his duty. It has been customary, in many places, for a long time, to bring the doctrine of Election into every sermon. Sinners have been commanded to repent, and told that they could not repent, in the same sermon. A great deal of ingenuity has been exercised in endeavoring to reconcile a sinner's "inability" with his obligation to obey God.
Election, Predestination, Free-agency, Inability, and Duty, have all been thrown together in one promiscuous jumble. And, with regard to many sermons, it has been too true, as has been objected, that ministers have preached: "You can and you cannot, you shall and you shall not, you will and you will not, and you will be lost if you do not!" Such a mixture of truth and error, of light and darkness, has confounded the congregation, and been the fruitful source of Universalism and every species of infidelity and error.
(g) It is of great importance that the sinner should be made to feel his guilt, and not left to the impression that he is unfortunate. I think this is a very prevalent fault, particularly in books on the subject. They are calculated to make the sinner think more of his sorrows than of his sins, and feel that his state is rather unfortunate than criminal. Perhaps most of you have seen a lovely little book, recently published, entitled "Todd's Lectures to Children." It is exquisitely fine, and happy in some of its illustrations of truth. But it has one very serious fault. Many of its illustrations, I may say most of them, are not calculated to make a correct impression respecting the guilt of sinners, or to make them feel how much they have been to blame. This is very unfortunate. If the writer had guarded his illustrations on this point, so as to make them impress sinners with a sense of their guilt, I do not see how a child could have read through that book and not have been converted. Multitudes of the books written for children, and for adults too, within the last twenty years, have run into this mistake to an alarming degree. They are not calculated to make the sinner condemn himself. Until you can do this, the Gospel will never take effect.
(h) A prime object with the preacher must be to make present obligation felt. I have talked, I suppose, with many thousands of anxious sinners.
And I have found that they had never before felt the pressure of present obligation. The impression is not commonly made by ministers in their preaching that sinners are expected to repent NOW. And if ministers suppose they make this impression, they deceive themselves. Most commonly any other impression is made upon the minds of sinners by the preacher than that they are expected now to submit. But what sort of a Gospel is this? Does God authorize such an impression? Is this according to the preaching of Jesus Christ? Does the Holy Spirit, when striving with the sinner, make the impression upon his mind that he is not expected to obey now? Was any such impression produced by the preaching of the apostles? How does it happen that so many ministers now preach, so as, in fact, to make an impression on their hearers that they are not expected to repent now? Until the sinner's conscience is reached on this subject, you preach to him in vain. And until ministers learn how to preach so as to make the right impression, the world never can be converted. Oh, to what an alarming extent does the impression now prevail among the unrepentant, that they are not expected to repent now, but must wait God's time!
(I) Sinners ought to be made to feel that they have something to do, and that is, to repent; that it is something which no other being can do for them, neither God nor man; and something which they can do, and do now. Religion is something to do, not something to wait for. And they must do it now, or they are in danger of eternal death.
(j) Ministers should never rest satisfied, until they have ANNIHILATED every excuse of sinners. The plea of "inability" is the worst of excuses. It slanders God so, charging Him with infinite tyranny, in commanding men to do that which they have no power to do. Make the sinner see and feel that this is the very nature of his excuse. Make the sinner see that All pleas in excuse for not submitting to God are acts of rebellion against Him.
(k) Sinners should be made to feel that if they now grieve away the Spirit of God, it is very probable that they will be lost forever. There is infinite danger of this. They should be made to understand why they are dependent on the Spirit, and that it is not because they cannot do what God commands, but because they are unwilling. They are so unwilling that it is just as certain they will not repent without the Holy Ghost, as if they were now in hell, or as if they were actually unable. They are so opposed and so unwilling, that they never will repent in the world, unless God sends His Holy Spirit upon them.
Show them, too, that a sinner under the Gospel, who hears the truth preached, if converted at all, is generally converted young; and if not converted while young, he is commonly given up of God. Where the truth is preached, sinners are either Gospel-hardened or converted. I know some old sinners are converted, but they are rather exceptions, and by no means common.
2. I wish to make a few remarks on the manner of preaching.
(a) It should be conversational. Preaching, to be understood, should be colloquial in style. A minister must preach just as he would talk, if he wishes fully to be understood. Nothing is more calculated to make a sinner feel that religion is some mysterious thing that he cannot understand than this formal, lofty style of speaking which is so generally employed in the pulpit. The minister ought to do as the lawyer does when he wants to make a jury understand him perfectly. He uses a style perfectly colloquial.
This lofty, swelling style will do no good. The Gospel will never produce any great effects until ministers talk to their hearers, in the pulpit, as they talk in private conversation.
Otherwise they will not be understood. In the New Testament you will observe that Jesus Christ invariably uses words of the most common kind.
The language of the Gospel is the plainest, simplest, and most easily understood of any language in the world.
For a minister to neglect this principle is wicked. Some ministers use language that is purely technical in preaching. They think to avoid the mischief by explaining the meaning fully at the outset; but this will not answer. It will not effect the object in making the people understand what he means. If he should use a word that is not in common use and that people do not understand, his explanation may be very full, but the difficulty is that people will forget his explanations, and then his words are so much Greek to them. Or if he uses a word in common use, but employs it in an uncommon sense, giving his special explanations, it is no better; for the people will soon forget his special explanations, and then the impression actually conveyed to their minds will be according to their common understanding of the word. And thus he will never convey the right idea to his congregation. It is amazing how many men of thinking minds there are in congregations, who do not understand the most common technical expressions employed by ministers, such as regeneration, sanctification, etc.
Use words that can be perfectly understood. Do not, for fear of appearing unlearned, use language which the people do not understand. The apostle says: "If I know not the meaning... he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me" (1 Corinthians 14:11). And: "If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (v. 8). In the apostle's days there were some preachers who were marvelously proud of displaying their command of language, and showing off the variety of tongues they could speak, which the common people could not understand. The apostle rebukes this spirit sharply, and says: "I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue" (v. 19).
I have sometimes heard ministers preach, even when there was a revival, when I have wondered what that part of the congregation would do, who had no dictionary. So many phrases were brought in, manifestly to adorn the discourse, rather than to instruct the people, that I have felt as if I wanted to tell the man: "Sit down, and do not confound the people's minds with your barbarian preaching, that they cannot understand."
Preaching should be parabolical. That is, illustrations should be constantly used, drawn from incidents, real or supposed. Jesus Christ constantly illustrated His instructions in this way. He would either advance a principle and then illustrate it by a parable - that is, a short story of some event, real or imaginary - or else He would bring out the principle in the parable. There are millions of facts that can be used to advantage, and yet very few ministers dare to use them, for fear somebody will reproach them. "Oh," says somebody, "he actually tells stories!"
Tells stories! Why, that is the way Jesus Christ preached. And it is the only way to preach. Facts, real or supposed, should be used to show the truth. Truths not illustrated, are generally just as much calculated to convert sinners as a mathematical demonstration. Is it always to be so?
Shall it always be a matter of reproach, when ministers follow the example of Jesus Christ in illustrating truths by facts? Let them still do it, however much the foolish reproach them as story-telling ministers! They have Jesus Christ and common sense on their side.
(d) The illustrations should be drawn from common life, and the common business of society. I once heard a minister illustrate his ideas by the manner in which merchants transact business. Another minister who was present made some remarks to him afterwards. He objected to this illustration particularly, because, he said, it was too familiar, and was "letting down the dignity of the pulpit." He said all illustrations in preaching should be drawn from ancient history, or from an elevated source, that would keep up the dignity of the pulpit. Dignity indeed! Just the language of the devil. He rejoices in it. Why, the object of an illustration is to make people see the truth, not to bolster up pulpit dignity.
A minister whose heart is in the work does not use an illustration in order to make people stare, but to make them see the truth. If he brought forward his illustrations from ancient history, it could not make the people see; it would not illustrate anything. The novelty of the thing might awaken their attention, but they would lose the truth itself. For if the illustration itself be a novelty, the attention will be directed to this fact as a matter of history, and the truth itself, which it was designed to illustrate, will be lost sight of. The illustration should, if possible, be a matter of common occurrence, and the more common the occurrence the more sure it will be not to fix attention upon itself, but to serve as a medium through which the truth is conveyed.
The Savior always illustrated His instructions by things that were taking place among the people to whom He preached, and with which their minds were familiar. He descended often very far below what is now supposed to be essential to support the dignity of the pulpit. He talked about hens and chickens, and children in marketplaces, and sheep and lambs, and shepherds and farmers, and husbandmen and merchants. And when He talked about kings (as in the marriage of the King's son, and the nobleman that went into a far country to receive a Kingdom), He made reference to historical facts that were well known among the people at the time. The illustration should always be drawn from things so common that the illustration itself will not attract attention away from the subject, but that people may see, through it, the truth illustrated.
(e) Preaching should be repetitious. If a minister wishes to preach with effect, he must not be afraid of repeating whatever he may see is not perfectly understood by his hearers. Here is the evil of using a written sermon. The preacher preaches right along just as he has written it down, and cannot observe whether he is understood or not. If he should interrupt his reading, and attempt to catch the countenances of his audience, and to explain where he sees they do not understand, he grows confused. If a minister has his eyes on the people to whom he is preaching, he can commonly tell by their looks whether they understand him. If he sees that they do not understand any particular point, let him stop and illustrate it; and if they do not understand one illustration, let him give another, and make it clear to their minds before he goes on. But those who write their sermons go right on, in a regular consecutive train, just as in an essay or a book, failing, through want of repetition, to make the audience fully comprehend their points.
During a conversation with one of the first advocates in America, he expressed the view that when preachers experience difficulty in making themselves understood, it arises from the fact that they do not repeat their points sufficiently. Said he: "In addressing a jury, I always expect that whatever I wish to impress upon their minds, I shall have to repeat at least twice; and often I repeat it three or four times, and even as many, times as there are jurymen before me. Otherwise, I do not carry their minds with me, so that they can feel the force of what comes afterwards." If a jury, under oath, called to decide on the common affairs of this world, cannot apprehend an argument, unless there is so much repetition, how is it to be expected that men will understand the preaching of the Gospel without it?
In like manner the minister ought to turn an important thought over and over before his audience, till even the children understand it perfectly. Do not say that so much repetition will create disgust in cultivated minds. It will not disgust. This is not what disgusts thinking men. They are not weary of the efforts a minister makes to be understood. The fact is, the more simple a minister's illustrations are, and the more plain he makes everything, the more men of mind are interested. I know, in fact, that men of the first minds often get ideas they never had before, from illustrations which were designed to bring the Gospel down to the comprehension of a child. Such men are commonly so occupied with the affairs of this world, that they do not think much on the subject of religion, and they therefore need the plainest preaching, and they will like it.
(f) A minister should always feel deeply upon his subject, and then he will suit the action to the word, and the word to the action, so as to make the full impression which the truth is calculated to make. He should be in solemn earnest in what he says. I heard a most judicious criticism on this subject: "How important it is that a minister should feel what he says.