This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series: Preachers and their preaching
- Preachers and their preaching – John Calvin
- Preachers and their preaching – the Puritans
- Preachers and their preaching – Charles Simeon
- Preachers and their preaching – Phillips Brooks
- Preachers and their preaching – C.H. Spurgeon
- Preachers and their preaching – D.M. Lloyd-Jones
- Preachers and their preaching – J. Sidlow Baxter
- Preachers and their preaching – John Stott
- Preachers and their preaching – Fred Craddock
- Preachers and their preaching – Simon Ponsonby
Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) was one of the most influential British preachers of the 20th century. His impact on the revival of reformed evangelicalism was incalculable. He stood firmly within the Puritan tradition: he modelled in his preaching both their painstaking analytical expository method and also shared their commitment to what might be called ‘experientialism’ – a passionate desire that through preaching men and women might be brought into vital contact with the living God.
The centrality of preaching
At the beginning of Preachers and Preaching Lloyd-Jones stated his conviction that preaching was the greatest need both of the church and the world:
‘To me the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called. If you want something in addition to that I would say without any hesitation that the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and the most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also.’
He was convinced that the record of history supported this:
‘You cannot read the history of the Church, even in a cursory manner, without seeing that preaching has always occupied a central and a predominating position in the life of the Church, particularly in Protestantism. Why then this decline in the place and power of preaching; and why this questioning of the necessity for any preaching at all?’
What kind of preaching is needed? And what kind of power is needed in order for that preaching to have its desired effect?
In Preaching and Preachers Lloyd-Jones insisted that expository preaching is not merely a running commentary on the biblical text:
‘A sermon should always be expository. But a sermon is not a running commentary on, or a mere exposition of, the meaning of a verse or a passage or a paragraph.
‘The essential characteristic of a sermon is that it has a definite form, and that it is this form that makes it a sermon. It is based upon exposition, but it is this exposition turned or moulded into a message which has this characteristic form.
‘A phrase that helps to bring out this point is one which is to be found in the Old Testament in the Prophets where we read about ‘the burden of the Lord’. The message has come to the prophet as a burden, it has come to him as an entire message, and he delivers this.
‘I maintain that a sermon should have form in the sense that a musical symphony has form. A symphony always has form, it has its parts and its portions. The divisions are clear, and are recognised, and can be described; and yet a symphony is a whole. You can divide it into parts, and yet you always realise that they are parts of a whole, and that the whole is more than the mere summation or aggregate of the parts.
‘A sermon is not a mere meandering through a number of verses; it is not a mere collection or series of excellent and true statements and remarks. All those should be found in the sermon, but they do not constitute a sermon. What makes a sermon a sermon is that it has this particular ‘form’ which differentiates it from everything else.’
As is well-known, Lloyd-Jones would spend months – sometimes years – preaching through a book of the Bible. Part of his rationale for taking it so slowly was his conviction that a Pauline epistle (say) was a summary of what the apostle would have said in much greater detail if he had been actually present with his readers:-
‘It is vital that we should understand that an epistle such as [Romans] is only a summary of what the Apostle Paul preached. He explains that in chapter 1 verses 11-15. He wrote the Epistle because he was not able to visit them in Rome. Had he been with them he would not merely have given them what he says in this Letter, for this is but a synopsis. He would have preached an endless series of sermons as he did daily in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19.9) and probably have often gone on until midnight (Acts 20.7). The business of the preacher and teacher is to open out and expand what is given here by the Apostle in summary form.’
That may be so. But it is better (in my humble opinion) to assume that Paul would have intended his letter to have been read out to the church, and to have been assimilated at a single hearing (although, no doubt, they would have benefitted from repeat hearings!).
One trouble with preaching so slowly through a book of the Bible is that the overall argument is obscured. It is true that Lloyd-Jones would frequently remind his hearers of where they were in the apostle’s flow of thought. But it is somewhat counter-productive to be listening to a sermon on, say, Romans 3, knowing that it will be some years before you reach chapter 11, even though Paul himself would have reached it within half an hour!
But there is another problem with making such slow progress through the biblical text. This is the problem of what might be called ‘hypergesis’. This is the danger of paying such close attention to the text of Scripture that we see more in it than is actually there. I came across an example of this in a little book of Christmas Sermons preached by Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones is speaking about the opening words of Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ (Luke 1:46-47)
The preacher said,
‘First, let us notice the depth of feeling with which she spoke, which is conveyed in these words. She said: “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Now she drew a distinction between her soul and her spirit. This is a very interesting theological point…I think we are reminded here and elsewhere in Scripture that whether the soul and spirit are essentially one or not, there is a distinction between them. The soul in general refers to the rational powers. When the expression soul is used in this way in contra-distinction to spirit, it is meant to refer to the intellect, to the feelings, to the way in which we correspond with one another and have fellowship and relationship with one another. The soul is essentially the rational part of man.
‘Then the spirit represents the perception. There is a difference between ability and understanding. There is a difference between knowledge and perception. The spirit is a higher faculty, a higher aspect of this possession which was all have. It includes the capacity for worship. The soul, in other words, is that which links us to all that round and about us; to man and to animals, to history and to the world and all we can see…
‘So Mary uses two expressions, “my soul” and “my spirit”, by which she means that she is moved in the very depth and centre of her being…’
…and so on. Mary speaks of her ‘soul’ and her ‘spirit’, and, says the preacher, we are meant to distinguish between the two.
Now, there’s nothing heretical here. In fact, it’s quite helpful. But is this the meaning of the text, or even a reasonable inference from it? I don’t think so. I think it’s reading something into the text.
The key, perhaps, is in Lloyd-Jones’ use of the word ‘contradistinction’. He wants to pay such close attention to the text that he needs the two things (‘soul’ and ‘spirit’) to mean slightly different things. But, surely, on this occasion he has paid such close attention to the detail that he has missed the point. And the point is that Mary’s song is cast in the form of a piece of Hebrew poetry, in which the two terms are clearly meant to be synonymous.
As Leon Morris says in his commentary on this passage,
‘We should not make a difference between soul and spirit, the change being due to the requirements of poetic parallelism.’
And William Hendriksen concurs:
‘In the present case it would be wrong to posit any clear distinction between psyuche and pneuma.’
I know it’s impertinent of me to find fault with the preaching of great preachers such Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones and others. But the danger is that if we lesser mortals slavishly try to copy them, we may end up committing all their mistakes and avoiding all their good bits!
As a general rule, let expository preaching be based, not on a single word, phrase, or sentence of Scripture, but on a complete unit of thought such as a paragraph. That way, we give the Spirit of God the best opportunity to speak through us into the hearts and minds of our hearers.
Lloyd-Jones was a student of the 17th-century Puritans and the 18th-century revivalists. The doctrine of the former and the experience of the latter shaped his thinking in two important ways. Firstly, he observed a lack of power in much contemporary Christianity (including its preaching). Secondly, he advocated a view on ‘the baptism of the Holy Spirit’ that, in his view, would help to remedy that lack.
We can accept Lloyd-Jones’ diagnosis without subscribing to his proposed remedy.
Lloyd-Jones thought he found his doctrine in Scripture, spending much time in Ephesians 1:13f:
‘[Christ,] in whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.’
He was working, of course, from the Authorised Version (quoted above), and seized on the implication, in that translation, that the ‘sealing with the Holy Spirit’ is a post-conversion experience (‘after that ye believed’).
Lloyd-Jones rounded off his lectures on preaching with a chapter entitled ‘Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power’, announcing that he was going to talk about ‘what is after all the greatest essential in connection with preaching, and that is the unction and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
His two-stage approach is almost certainly based on faulty exegesis of several biblical texts to which Lloyd-Jones, and is laden with theological and practical problems.
Lloyd-Jones appeals to 1 Thess 1:4f –
‘For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and pin the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake.’
He applies this as follows:
‘It gives clarity of thought, clarity of speech, ease of utterance, a great sense of authority and confidence as you are preaching, an awareness of a power not your own thrilling through the whole of your being, and an indescribable sense of joy. You are a man possessed,’ you are taken hold of, and taken up. I like to put it like this—and I know of nothing on earth that is comparable to this feeling—that when this happens you have a feeling that you are not actually doing the preaching, you are looking on. You are looking on at yourself in amazement as this is happening. It is not your effort; you are just the instrument, the channel, the vehicle: and the Spirit is using you, and you are looking on in great enjoyment and astonishment. There is nothing that is in any way comparable to this. That is what the preacher himself is aware of.’
Carl Trueman is, I think, only a little over-critical:
‘There are numerous problems with this passage. While it is no doubt inspiring and certainly instills in the reader something of the mysterious romance of preaching, it is ultimately a species of subjective mysticism. That preaching in the Spirit is somehow analogous to an out-of-body experience is nowhere taught in the Bible. Further, building on his incorrect understanding of 1 Thessalonians 1:4–5, it makes the subjective experience of the preacher a key factor in the effective nature of that which is preached. This is both theologically without warrant and experientially inaccurate. It places a subjective category at the very heart of Lloyd-Jones’s understanding of preaching.’ (In A Legacy of Preaching, p1213.)
But, as Trueman acknowledges, none of this should prevent us from sharing with Lloyd-Jones a concern for passionate, purposeful and fruitful preaching, and for us to look to God, upon whose Spirit we must depend utterly:
‘Do you expect anything to happen when you get up to preach in a pulpit? Or do you just say to yourself, “Well, I have prepared my address, I am going to give them this address; some of them will appreciate it and some will not”? Are you expecting it to be the turning point in someone’s life? Are you expecting anyone to have a climactic experience? That is what preaching is meant to do. That is what you find in the Bible and in the subsequent history of the Church. Seek this power, expect this power, yearn for this power; and when the power comes, yield to Him.’
Lloyd-Jones famously defined preaching as ‘logic on fire’. This, writes Trueman,
‘neatly captures a number of his concerns. Preaching is to be structured, to have coherent theological content, and to set forth an argument. It is not to be a debate or a conversation, but rather a confrontation between the truth of God and the hearts of fallen human beings. It is to be rooted in biblical exposition which, for Lloyd-Jones, meant either a short passage or a single verse. It is not to be merely entertaining, but it is also not to be dull. Rather, it is to grip the mind of the preacher (and to do so in a manner obvious to his listeners) such that he is not preaching about the gospel but is preaching the gospel—something which involves him, confronts him, and to which he himself stands in a certain urgent, existential relation.
He held fast to the twin convictions that preachers must prepare thoroughly and that they must look to God in order for the sermon to have the desired effect on the congregation.
If, as Lloyd-Jones taught, the most important thing in preaching is the power of the Holy Spirit, then it followed (in his thinking) that preaching methodology should be given a much less prominent place.
He strongly held that preachers are born, not made. This did not mean, of course, that a young preacher could not improve. But it did mean that he would learn more from observing older and more experienced preachers.
He regarded formal theological education with suspicion, thinking that it encouraged intellectualism:
‘The chief thing is the love of God, the love of souls, a knowledge of the Truth, and the Holy Spirit within you. These are the things that make the preacher. If he has the love of God in his heart, and if he has a love for God; if he has a love for the souls of men, and a concern about them; if he knows the truth of the Scriptures; and has the Spirit of God within him, that man will preach.’
He regarded books such as Sangster’s The Craft of Sermon Construction with disdain. In fact, he was dismissive generally of books on ‘how to preach’.
He had little time for sermon illustrations, and even less for personal anecdotes. He thought that these drew attention away from the biblical text and towards the preacher.