It seems necessary that, from time to time, there should be a restatement of some of the things most surely believed by Christians. One of the fundamental factors in the spread of the gospel is the preaching of the Word of God. No one should be permitted to forget that this is a basic principle in connection with the trust committed to members of the Christian Church. So heavily did the sense of duty press upon the great apostle to the Gentiles that he declared that "necessity is laid upon me; yea woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!" (1 Cor 9.16). There is, it is generally admitted, no real substitute for preaching, as call to witness the history of the past. Other means of spreading the truth may be legitimate and permissible, but it cannot be too emphatically pressed that they are merely ancillary. Revivals, so called, have been closely associated with effective preaching of devoted servants of the gospel. Paul was, above all things, a great preacher. So were Savonarola and Wycliffe, Calvin and Knox, Wesley and Whitefield, Spurgeon and Moody, and Torrey and Chapman.
Perhaps we need to pray for a revival of simple, straightforward, old-fashioned gospel preaching; but that will not be possible until we have men who understand both the message and their fellow-men. All good preachers have been psychologists, to a greater or less degree, not academically but practically. Their psychology was learned in the Scriptures and from their own hearts. Experience which interprets the truth of Scripture goes a long way in disarming criticism, and helps almost immeasurably in opening an avenue of approach to the heart of the unsympathetic hearer. The high level of all good preaching is summed up in our Lords words, "We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen" (Jn 3.11), the final appeal being made to the Scriptures as our Lord did with Nicodemus (Jn 3.14).
The late Mr C F Hogg had rather an interesting experience during his visit to India. After a Bible Reading given to an audience of Indian University students, in which he attempted to explain the glories of the Christian Gospel, he was approached by one of the students who asked the question, "Are you speaking out of your heart, or out of a book?". "That question", said the preacher, "made me think". It should make us all think. It is fatally easy on the gospel platform to traffic in unfelt truth: and who of us is not sometimes guilty? We may try to preach for effect only.
Good preaching, of course, is always doctrinal in character - not necessarily always deliberately so but incidentally so. Doctrine may not always be obtrusively present, but it will always be the background to every useful sermon. John Bunyan sat under the preaching of John Gifford, and he afterwards remembered the character of the saintly man preaching: "It was", he said, "scriptural, doctrinal, experimental and evangelical".
One of the outstanding features of the preaching of Puritan and Covenanting times was its positiveness. That quality made the sermons massive and impressive. Hearers could not forget what they had heard, the utterances being evidence of thorough preparation and deep and thoughtful prayer. Is there any wonder that a London merchant visiting Scotland carried away unforgettable impressions? He remembered Robert Blair of St Andrews who preached eloquently on the majesty of God; he recalled with delight the sermon of quaint little Samuel Rutherford on the loveliness of Christ; and there followed him, like a sleuth, the searching message by fearless David Dickson of Irvine on the sinfulness of the human heart.
While it would be wrong to decry or despise the simple testimony meeting, it would also be wrong to neglect the regular and systematic declaration of the central facts of our faith. Many of our gospel meetings suffer from the absence of positive, instructive, doctrinal preaching. That lack is due, in many places, to the prevalent idea that anyone is fit to preach the gospel. Never was there a more unworthy notion a notion the carrying out of which has brought many a meeting-place into disrepute, and emptied its seats. The habit, too, of changing the speaker from week to week is detrimental to positive results. It would not presage the introduction of incipient clericalism if arrangements were made for an extended series of addresses to be given by an accredited preacher whom the Lord has used in His service. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the re-introduction of such a practice is the jealousy of the pettifogging preacher whose services would no longer be required. Godly men, careful not to violate any Scriptural principle acknowledged by the assembly, should be trusted to use discretion for the glory of the gospel.
The preaching of the gospel demands the best that the preacher can give. Slipshod preparation reveals itself in unedifying vapourings. Pauls advice to Timothy is as fitting for the young preacher of today, as it was when given: "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim 2.15). Dr Moules comment on these words is worth quoting: "He was to present to God himself (the word is emphatic in the Greek), to stand ever at his Lords beck and call, tested and true before His eyes good metal all through, in respect of the single-hearted will to please Him. He was to be shy of his own notions, and indomitably faithful to the Word of the truth, the precious revelation of Christ Jesus, His work, His love, and His will; unashamed as he looked up to His blessed face, and laboured on at His command, and offered all his works to Him ".
Pauls caution to Timothy forbids fanciful interpretations of the Scripture. The preachers business is "to rightly-divide the Word of truth". Fanciful and far-fetched ideas are foreign to good preaching. The verse "enjoins on every teacher of the Word straightforward exegesis. As the subject-matter is trustworthy, let it be trustily handled" (E K Simpson).
Such preparation which makes a man full of his message will reveal itself in an unstudied eloquence which grips the audience, an eloquence which carries its own guarantee of sincerity. It is not mere "excellency of speech" (1 Cor 2.1), gaudy, thin, meretricious, tickling ears that itch for beautiful words (2 Tim 4.3). It is "not with enticing words of mans wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Cor 2.4).
Dr Hutton has described the two types of eloquence as two kinds of fire. Cheap eloquence is like a fire of paper, easily lit, flaring up into a momentary flame, giving off little warmth, and soon leaving behind it blackened remains which the last breath of air drives away. Genuine eloquence is like a fire of coal, slow of kindling, reluctant to break into flame, but, when it does so, brings with it enduring warmth and cheer. Such eloquence brings with it a message that abides.
John Ruskins axiom about speech and writing is worthy of application to our preaching. He laid it down as axiomatic that good speaking should have the two qualities of clarity and beauty. So should good preaching. The preacher should say what he has to say as clearly as possible. His clarity of address will wholly depend upon the clarity of thought arising from intensive study. He should clothe his thoughts in the most appropriate words (see Eccl 12.10). Professor Rendle Short gave this wise advice: "To speak interestingly and profitably it is needful to have thought out and studied a theme carefully, using the best available helps, and to set it out in orderly and consecutive fashion For the ordinary speaker, there is no short cut to success; he must read, think, study. In particular, he must endeavour to illustrate well".
Every good message has a subject, a central theme round which the whole message revolves. A scamper across the hills of salvation is not a suitable exercise for a half-hour on a gospel platform. Twenty minutes devoted to pressing home the salient features of one subject will be more profitably spent than forty minutes wasted on frothy nothings. The young preacher should have concern for his own limitations.
Every good preacher has an object. He knows what he wishes to achieve. One of these objectives will be to rouse the conscience, to awaken it to a sense of personal sinfulness. That characterises all successful gospel preaching.
A last piece of advice may be given. Always preach for a verdict. That was the Lords method. Study the close of the Sermon on the Mount. That was Pauls method as any of his preaching recorded in the Acts will prove. Let it be yours. End every gospel meeting with a challenge.