Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire
[The following is a summary of an address given by Iain H. Murray at the Carey Conference 2001 at Swanwick, U.K.]
During the Second World War a Scot who was in the services and visiting London went to Westminster Chapel but the Chapel was closed, damaged by bombing, but on a piece of paper visitors were directed to a nearby hall. He described a 'thin man' wearing a tie calling the people to worship. He thought the man was a church officer, and he appreciated his prayer, but then the man began to preach, beginning quietly enough. "This must be Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones," he thought. But for the next 40 minutes he was unconscious of anything else in the world, hearing only this man's words. He had been caught up in the mystery of preaching. That man later became a well known Church of Scotland minister called Tom Allen.
When he left that service Tom Allen was taken up with the message, not the preacher. DMLJ would have thought little of conferences addresses like this one about himself. He thought messages about contemporary men had done great injury especially during the Victorian period. With man-centredness being the terrible bane of today's church there is a danger in drawing attention to personalities. DMLJ would quote the words of God, "My servant Moses is dead so arise and go over Jordan." DMLJ prevented several would-be biographers writing anything, and reluctantly consented to Iain Murray's official biography if only something could be written which would encourage those who were entering the gospel ministry.
DMLJ believed that God was the God of tomorrow who would raise up servants who would enjoy blessings that he himself had not known. Frequently when he prayed it was particularly for a recovery of authority and power in preaching.
One must add another observation, that preaching was not DMLJ's exclusive concern. He was concerned with the church fellowship, prayer meetings, and the promotion of foreign missionaries, but he was convinced that the spiritual health of the church depended on the state of the pulpit. On behalf of Christ the true preacher speaks and the Lord himself is building his church in his sovereign way. So DMLJ was conscious of what he spoke of as the romance of preaching. The preacher is but an instrument in the Lord's hands: the preacher is not in control. Preaching is the highest and most glorious calling to which anyone could be called.
So when we come to the subject of authority in preaching there are a number of ways this could be addressed and the New Testament terminology on this theme should be studied, e.g. that 'Jesus spoke with authority', the phrase 'the word came with power', and the word 'boldness' which is surprisingly frequent in the NT. Iain Murray's approach was to take the characteristics of preaching with power.
1. It always is attended by a consciousness of the presence of God.
Though a worshipper may be meeting in the midst of a large congregation of people when the preaching is with authority the individual forgets the person he has come with, and the building they are sitting in, and even the one who is preaching. He is conscious that he is being spoken to by the living God. Thus it was in Acts 2. A remarkable illustration of this is the spiritualist woman in Sandfields, drawn to hear DMLJ and conscious that she was surrounded by 'clean' power. For the first time she was conscious she was in the presence of God. Thomas Hooker had such a sense of God about him that it was said that he could have put a king in his pocket.
2. There is no problem of holding the attention of the people.
It is a problem to keep people's attention. The preacher has his chain of thought, and all the people also may have theirs which are all very different so that they are taking in very little from the preaching. But authoritative preaching gets inside people because it speaks to the heart, conscience and will. Skillful oratory cannot come anywhere near to that preaching. It made a moral and emotional earthquake in those who heard the word at Thessalonica. The well-remembered ship builder who built ships in his mind during Sundays' sermon could not lay the first plank when he was listening to George Whitefield preach. Conviction of sin and the reality of the living God became far more important to him than his business.
One Friday night in his series of lectures on theology DMLJ was preaching from Revelation on the final judgment on Babylon and listening to that exultant message it would have been impossible to have been occupied with any other subject, the great reality was such that awareness of anything else disappeared. The very date of that occasion was accurately quoted, easily memorable to the speaker because the next day he was getting married, but all thoughts of that were gone as he saw the overthrow of great Babylon.
3. Even children can understand it.
There is a mistake in thinking that preaching is chiefly to address the intellect, and thus the will. Rather preaching is to address the heart and soul of men and women. Preaching which accomplishes that can arrest a child as easily as a grown-up. Children did listen to DMLJ because of the character of the preaching and the sense of God about it.
4. It is preaching that results in a change in those who listen.
It may be repentance; it may be restoration, or reconciliation; it may be strength given for those in the midst of trials, but powerful preaching brings that change. Sometimes they went away indignant and some of them were later converted. You cannot be apathetic under true preaching. Felix trembled. There was no certainty of conversions but there was a degree of certainty that there will be power in that preaching. In Mrs Bethan Lloyd-Jones' book on Sandfields there is a reference to a professor of law at Liverpool who said that there were two men who kept the country from communism - Aneurin Bevan and DMLJ. His preaching affected communities. On November 15 1967 he was preaching in Aberfan a year after the disaster. His text was Romans 8:18 "the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory to be revealed in us." It had a great impact on the perplexed little religious community in the Taff valley.
What is Necessary for Powerful Preaching? What elements produce it?
1. Sermons will not be marked by authority and power unless they are marked by truth that the Holy Spirit can honor. The word of God is to be exegeted and explained. That has to be the heart of the sermon. There is a real danger that we become over concerned about such things as delivery, while the New Testament is insistent on the content: "let him speak as the oracles of God." The authority of the preaching comes from the text of Scripture. It is God- given power which honours his own word.
Dr Lloyd-Jones grew up in a vague sentimental era with churches fascinated with the personalities and quirks of famous men. DMLJ as a man was absorbed with the glory and the greatness of the truth. A preacher lives in the truth. DMLJ expected the preacher to go through the whole Bible in his personal devotions once each year. He expected him to continue to read theology as long as he lived. The more he read the better. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire.
In the latter part of his ministry there was a change in emphasis. In the first 30 years there was a stress on the importance of the historic faith, and then in the last decades a new emphasis emerged, not now on the recovery of truth but with the accompanying need of power to proclaim it.
2. The man himself is a part of the message. He can read all the best books and give out a whole rounded exegesis of the text, but somehow the man himself has not become a part of the truth. The less we say of ourselves in preaching the better, but the Holy Spirit does not work in preaching except through the man, and so, inevitably, not only does the message compel attention but the man himself. The man becomes a part of the message. What does that mean?
A] The preacher must know the power of the message he is bringing to others. When DMLJ was 25 and at the cross-roads of his life, he became engaged to Bethan Philips, and she became conscious that her future husband was considering becoming a preacher. She was very concerned because she had never heard him preach. At that point a letter came from a missionary society inviting them to become medical missionaries in India. She was challenged by this invitation but DMLJ had no interest at all. Bethan said to him, "But how do you know that you can preach?" "I know I can preach to myself" he replied. He knew the power of the truth in his own heart.
When he was preaching on Ephesians 2 on fulfilling the lusts of the flesh and the mind he raised the question what they were? He interjected that "as I was preparing this sermon it filled me with a loathing and hatred of myself. I look back and I think of the hours I have wasted in mere talk and argumentation. And it was with one end only, simply to gain my point and to show how clever I was" ("God's Way of Reconciliation" p.65). So DMLJ was preaching to himself before he spoke to others.
B] The Holy Spirit must produce the feelings in the preacher's heart that must be in harmony with what the Spirit has breathed out. Paul writes, "Knowing the terror of the Lord we persuade men." Again he speaks of some "with tears" that they are enemies of the cross. One finds phrases like, "I tell you weeping ...I am glad and rejoice with you all." There was something in the way these preachers used by God spoke - "I preached what I smartingly did feel," said Bunyan. A most important part of preaching is exhortation. In preaching we move people to do what they are listening to, and to this end there has to be a felt consciousness in the preacher of the truth of what he is saying. We have to bring our feelings into harmony with the stupendous nature of what we are saying. The men most used of God in their pulpits are those who know they had fallen far short of the wonder that should characterise the preaching.
C] The more he becomes part of his message then the more he forgets himself. What is the main feeling in the preacher? It should be love - to God and to man. It is the very opposite of self-centredness. Love seeks not her own. The needs of the people spoken to take over. We forget ourselves. A baptism of Holy Spirit love gives us a love for people.
Preaching Under the Influence of the Holy Spirit.
There is a total insufficiency in ourselves or in anyone else in the world, so that we cannot preach without the Holy Spirit. I Cor 2:3 - is the key text, "And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling." God makes us weak and so enables us to become true preachers. Real authority always comes out of felt weakens, and then God uses us. The preacher is the last person to be praised. To be clapped when he had finished would have horrified him.
Bethan Lloyd-Jones once listed to some men speaking about her husband and she interjected, "No one will understand my husband who does not realise that he was first an evangelist and a man of prayer." DMLJ loved the hymn of Oswald Allen, "Today thy mercy calls us..." especially these final lines:
When all things seem against us,
To drive us to despair,
We know one gate is open,
One ear will hear our prayer
That is what he believed. His public pastoral prayer lifted many burdens long before the preaching began. He rested ultimately on the Holy Spirit being given to them that ask him. The real preacher is a mere voice sounding in the wilderness. DMLJ was criticised for being too dogmatic and authoritarian. If we are preaching from God then that has to be delivered with faith and confidence that we knows what God is saying. You have to believe definite truths in order to be saved. Men have to know that they are condemned before they can be saved. There is the utter certainty of a preacher in what he is preaching. Paul says, "We have the same spirit of faith ... we also believe and we speak." That is the fundamental thing. We are going against all that the natural man believes.
DMLJ's faith came out in what he preached, that man was under the wrath of God, depraved and lost. He preached this with absolute conviction, and he followed it up with the cross, week by week. That authority was given by the Holy Spirit. It influenced DMLJ's whole way of looking at things. He was a man who stood alone for most of his life and one reason was that he was conscious that the problem with man was far deeper than people in the church were prepared to acknowledge They were thinking of 'communication to the modern man' etc. DMLJ believed that we face not the problem of communication but what was wrong in the church itself. One of the reasons that he did not take part in the big crusades was because there was something wrong in the churches themselves. He quietly stood aside, God having kept him in the way he did, he preached evangelistically each Sunday.
The test of the presence of the Holy Spirit's work is the presence of Christ himself in the assembly and known by the congregation. A maid worked in a Manse and there was great anticipation for the coming of the powerful preacher, Mr Cook. One maid was not enthusiastic, and she told the butcher she was fed up, "with all this fuss you would think Jesus Christ himself was coming." Mr Cook duly came and preached and as she heard him something happened in her life. The butcher said to her with a grin on the following Tuesday, "Did Jesus Christ come?" "Yes, he did come," she said seriously.
William Williams of Pantycelyn said, "Love is the greatest thing in religion, and without it religion is nothing." DMLJ often quoted those words. Love has to lead the way. He thought the people were not ready to hear extended series of systematic expository sermons for the first 20 years he was in the ministry. The needs of the people were paramount because love is in our hearts.