The Primacy of Preaching
The following is the Moderator’s Address at the Free Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1995. The Moderator was Rev Murdo Alex Macleod (Stornoway Free Church) and the address was entitled ‘the Primacy of Preaching.’
Rev. Macleod believed that there was a crisis of true preaching in the Free Church. Many of the issues dealt with in his address have greatly escalated in the 22 years that have elapsed. The need for a critical eye to be cast upon the pulpits of our land, whatever our denomination, is surely needed even more so in our day. We ought to pray for a restoration of true preaching in the pulpits of Scotland today.
The paper is as follows, and has been reproduced here with kind permission of the Macleod family…
The Primacy of Preaching
Addressing the meeting of the Synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands in 1927, that eminent Free Church man, Sir James Simpson, concluded his address by stating that the Free Church of Scotland, acknowledged to be the Church of the Reformation and of the Disruption even by the State, was fulfilling its trust with no little measure of success. “Its work,” he said, “limited in extent, is comprehensive in character. It speaks with no uncertain voice, and in a tone to be heard, on questions of religion and morals, public and private. Its ministry is evangelical and its members generally live consistent Christian lives.”
Such aims were but echoing the belief, expressed some years earlier by Stewart and Cameron in that masterly work The Free Church of Scotland 1843 to 1910, that she was faithful to the responsibility of maintaining her testimony and of carrying on her work. They said, “The same truths for which the men of the Disruption contended so grandly are held with equal firmness by the Free Church today.”
The question that confronts us nearing the end of the century is:
Have we been faithful to that trust? Does the testimony of the Church of Scotland Free today give equal emphasis to the great truths of the revelation of God‘s Word? Do we love and proclaim with equal fervour these great truths and are we concerned in our witness and ministry today to give them the place of prominence they deserve?
In this address I want to speak to you, my brethren in the ministry, and in doing so tum a critical eye, not so much on the nation or on other churches, as we are often accused of doing, but on ourselves, and engage in what I hope will be a helpful self analysis.
Preaching in the History of the Church
No one ought to question our commitment as a Church to the Word of God and to our Confessional standards. The Free Church of Scotland has not abandoned her adherence to the great truths of the Christian faith. Our acceptance of the inspired Scriptures as our primary rule of faith and life and of the Westminster Confession as our mentor in spelling out the major doctrines of the Word of God stands unchanged. Our confessional position is as acceptable today as it was in the past because of its broad Scriptural basis and its fidelity to the unchanging and unchangeable Word of God.
Believing the Word of God to be the product of the Holy Spirit, clinging tenaciously to the inerrancy and infallibility of that Word, we face the world in which God has placed us with nothing more and nothing less than that with which the preachers of the first century confronted their generation – the Word of God. They were not afraid to proclaim the efficacy of the finished work of Christ as the Rock of Salvation, nor were they afraid of the taunts of men as they preached with conviction their belief in the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and the certainty of his Second Coming. They gave themselves unhesitatingly and unreservedly to the preaching of the gospel – the good news of salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. They’ preached with conviction, with authority, with power. They preached as men commissioned by the Lord: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” They preached and the church prospered through the preaching of the Word.
It has been said: “It is safe to say that the entire history of the Church testifies to the crucial place of preaching in the life of the Church and that when the Spirit of God has been most gloriously present in the Church, the preaching of the Word was central and powerful.” The Church exists to proclaim the truth. She serves men in the name of God and to the glory of God, and she does it mainly through preaching.
On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was poured out on the apostles, so that they could declare the Word of God. Through the preaching of the gospel the Lord added to the Church such as should be saved. Paul protested to the Church in Corinth that God did not send him to baptise but to preach the gospel. Timothy was reminded by Paul to study to show himself a workman approved of God that needed not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth. “Again I charge you,” he reminds him, “preach the Word”. That Word is never bound, for it is through faith in the Christ presented in it that “men obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” Our Shorter Catechism reminds us that it is mainly through the preaching of the Word that God makes himself savingly known to men.
Preaching – the Need for Restoration
It was such emphasis on preaching that characterised the life of the Scottish Church from the Reformation days till the blight of moderatism infected its life by the beginning of the nineteenth century. The revival of religion prior to the Disruption gave fresh impetus to that kind of preaching. Yet at the beginning of this century it was claimed that there was a clamant need throughout the length and breadth of our land for a return to that honoured tradition of the Scottish Church. How much more so is that the case today. Many hearts will echo the sentiment that there is a desperate need for a restored evangel and that our most urgent need in the Christian church is true preaching.
I would submit that at the root of our problems as a church lies the need of such preaching. I would be bold enough to suggest that we have in the Free Church today a crisis of true preaching. Far be it from me to suggest that good preaching is going to solve the problems we face. But.without it the problems will escalate. The lack of good preaching will have the knock-on effect of weakening the Church’s witness from within and that, coupled with the alarming situation affecting society today, bodes ill for the professing Church of Christ.
We need to give to these great truths of the Word of God the prominence they deserve. We need to proclaim them fully and earnestly. And we need to be on our guard against the danger of being blown off that course, by directing attention to other matters albeit perfectly legitimate in themselves. While we may lament that other Churches appear to have abandoned the presentation of a robust and simple evangelicalism, we cannot avoid asking ourselves today: “Is there a need for its re-appearance in our own preaching? Are we giving to the preaching of the gospel the primacy it warrants?”
True, much of the decline apparent in the church today can be attributed to the indifference to the gospel which has gripped our people. There can be little doubt that the Spirit of the Lord has been largely withdrawn from our midst. Whatever measuring rod we may apply to the situation we cannot ignore that fact. Maybe our strength has departed and we know it not. However, there is a responsibility which lies on us and lies heavily on us at this time and we who are entrusted with the responsibility of communicating the truth as it is in Jesus must ask ourselves where we have failed in that task. Have we as a church been tried and found wanting? On the evidence available to each one of us we cannot deny the suspicion at least that this is the case. As already indicated the Free Church has not abandoned nor altered the evangelical content of its message but its appeal has little meaning for, and commands little of the attention of the ordinary man today.
Preaching: Today’s Problems
The Church’s task as she seeks to confront society today has arguably never been more difficult. That task cannot be understood adequately without a consideration of the circumstances in which we have to preach the gospel. Although this address is by no means a state of the nation survey, yet we cannot adequately appreciate the difficulty of preaching today without referring, at least, to today’s problems and issues.
Over the years there has been a fearful and alarming deterioration morally and spiritually in our nation. The teaching of the Bible as the Word of God has all but disappeared from our schools. That is little wonder when it has all but disappeared from the pulpits of our land. Our secular society is one largely denuded of traditional Christian values. Legislative measures of successive governments have catapulted society back to the brink of the paganism from which the discovery of the gospel by the grace of God liberated us. We are confronted now with the scandal of the National Lottery where the poor are seen to be the biggest losers.
In a recent newsletter from the charity Blythswood it was stated that the number of people giving to charities had fallen by 16% since the lottery started. It is claimed that by buying a ticket you are helping good causes. In fact only 5.5p of each pound spent is put at the disposal of the National Lottery Charities Board. Already national charities are complaining that the overall effect is a loss of income. We echo the sentiment of Blythswood and claim that “the introduction of the national lottery is a disgrace, a social evil in which the biggest losers are the poor”.
The spread of liberal theology in churches has led to general mistrust of the Word of God and to a rejection of the authority of that Word in preaching. A recent article in an evangelical periodical stated that “all around the country are closed, redundant churches, altars to an unknown God. They are like hulks stranded upon the shores as the sea of faith has receded. They testify to the estrangement and alienation of this generation from God, from the God of the Bible. They are empty because people are no longer drawn to them in their search for God. The lights have gone out in their darkened windows and the light of religion has gone out in the homes of our community”.
Preaching and Ourselves
But that picture is not altogether untrue of our own situation as a Church. We do not see people pouring into our churches. Very few new converts are being added to the church. Most ministers will lack the inspiration which comes from having a full church awaiting them. We have little to encourage us in our work. The indifference to gospel ordinances is reflected in declining numbers, ageing congregations and a depressing absence of young folk in our congregations. We as a Church cannot afford to be complacent and point the finger of failure at others. The rot of religious apathy has long affected our own denomination and that today in areas where years ago, we were comparatively strong. That rot is sapping at the vitals of our spiritual life.
Why have we failed to make an impact on the world around us? Looking at the question from the human viewpoint, I think there is one great question we have to ask ourselves: Is our preaching the problem? I think we can discount the suggestions offered by a few, that our form of worship, the absence of hymns and instrumental music, unwelcoming and uncomfortable buildings etc. prove a barrier to the outsider. The outsider would hardly know the difference between hymn, ballad or a psalm. These views like many others can be discounted but we daren’t discount our preaching. Our failure in the pulpit is arguably the most serious problem we face in the church.
Each one of us, at one time or another, in the face of assembled congregations and in the presence of Almighty God, professed that what moved us to enter the ministry was “zeal for the honour of God and the desire of saving souls.” These, we claimed, were the “great motives and chief inducements” for entering upon our ministry. But with so much to discourage and confronted with so much apathy and indifference, preachers become bitterly disillusioned. Their idealism can be shattered by the reality of the situation that greets them. Accordingly, there is growing evidence of discouraged, disillusioned and jaded ministries. This in tum leads to the danger of losing interest in pulpit preparation, in the spiritual interest of the people we serve and, above all, losing sight of the glory and power of the almighty God who alone can tum “the flinty ground into pools of water.”
Perhaps no letter in the New Testament is of more importance and instruction for us today than Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, his final word to his first lieutenant and to the church. In many ways Timothy seemed hopelessly inadequate for the enormous task of assuming leadership of the Christian Church. The Neronian persecution was in full swing. False teachers were seeking to destroy the very essence of the Christian faith. ”These first century errorists were propagating their anti-biblical views with an air of advanced knowledge. They proudly poured scorn on the gospel that Paul and Timothy preached. They proclaimed that only dullwits could rest in the crude ideas with which Paul had faced the world – and lost” (B. B. Warfield).
Many were abandoning the great truths of the Christian faith. If ever there was a time when the Church seemed to be teetering on the brink of extinction, it was then. What is Timothy to do? Throw in the towel? Walk away from it all? NO. Paul urges his young protege to “contend for the faith, to be strong, to endure hardship, to be faithful, not to be ashamed of the gospel or the reproach cast on it or on those entrusted to proclaim it.”
Preaching: Lessons from Timothy
I suggest to you, brethren, that this letter has much to say to us today. We would do well to heed the lessons of Second Timothy. John Stott, in his Commentary, puts it superbly: “For all around us we see Churches and Christians relaxing their grasp of the gospel, fumbling it, in danger of letting it drop from their hands altogether. A new generation of Timothy’s is needed, who will guard the safe deposit ‘of the gospel, who are determined to proclaim it and are prepared to suffer for it at whatever cost, and who will pass it on pure and uncorrupted to the generation which in due course will rise up to follow them,”
We, like Timothy, may feel inadequate, not up to the task. We too have to contend with a so called enlightened world which pours scorn on our beliefs. We are not strangers to the accusation that we are obscurantists with a crude theology, blinkered views, bigoted proclamations and defective learning. There are times no doubt, in the words of another, when ”we would rather shrink behind the battle lines” than assume the responsibility of lieutenants or captains in the warfare of doing battle for the Truth. Just as the precious gospel was committed to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:20), so it is committed to us. Just as he had to defend and preach the truth, ensure its accurate transmission to the generation to come, so have we. Ours is no small task. The question is: how do we set about it?
In the first place we are to remember the resources at our disposal. In the first Chapter of his second letter to Timothy Paul states, “God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” Indwelt by the Holy Spirit we look to him to empower us for the work. Weak and hopelessly inadequate though we may feel in ourselves, we have at our disposal the infinite resources of the Spirit of God. Let us never forget that.
Secondly, we are not to forget that which is at the very heart, and is the very essence of the gospel we preach – the reigning Lord “Jesus Christ of the seed of David, raised from the dead, according to my gospel”. “Amidst all the surrounding temptations, all the encompassing discouragements, Paul bids Timothy bear in mind, as his sufficing source of abounding strength, the great central doctrine and the great central fact of his preaching, of his faith, of his life, namely the enthroned historical Jesus directing all events to their pre-determined end” (B. B. Warfield).
Seldom has any doctrine been assailed with such venomous and contemptuous ridicule as that of the resurrection, ascension and enthronement of the Son of David in our nature. Yet no one but he who denies the authority of the Word of God can fail to recognise that, without belief in that fact, there is neither a gospel to proclaim nor a faith to attest. Timothy, caught up in the most distressing and disturbing circumstances, is reminded that the historical Jesus reigns.
Are there not times, my brethren, surveying the sheer, haphazard meaninglessness of events, when you and I need to be reminded of this great fact? It is the Christ who walked this earth who now sits on the throne of the universe. It is he who was tempted in all points like unto us who now wields the royal sceptre. If our hearts should fail us as we stand over against the hosts of wickedness which surround us, let us encourage one another with the great reminder, “Jesus Christ, of the seed of David, risen from the dead according to my gospel”.
Thirdly, Timothy is to stand firm and preach the gospel in the midst of most unpromising circumstances. The third chapter describes, in the words of John Calvin, ”the universal condition of the society in which the Church functions”. These are days of stress. The Church is like a vessel, tossed in raging seas. The age is characterised by self love, self will, lack of respect for authority, in home, in work and in the Church. The Church is confronted with scandal raisers and scandal mongers, unsocial and antisocial behaviour, disobedience, almost total absence of restraint and humility. “All the inevitable consequences of a godless self centredness.”
It is, in the words of another, “a remarkably apt portrayal of the so called permissive society, which genially tolerates every conceivable deviation from Christian standards of righteousness and truth and whose ethos has crept into the Church” (J. Stott). Timothy is to stand firm against this rising tide of unbelief, to stand firm in the faith and to be bold in the defence and in the proclamation of that faith. And that, brethren,is our task as well.
In tackling our task we must ensure that the gospel we preach is communicated properly, intelligibly and relevantly. Ours is the greatest message the world has ever heard and it behoves us to give our time and our energy to articulating it in a manner that our people find absorbing. We should never be afraid to ask ourselves, “are we doing it to the best of our ability?” If preaching is to be vital and dynamic, and if our object is to persuade men, then we must preach in the most effective way possible and avoid at all costs mediocrity in the pulpit.
Preaching and our Training for It
When the Church receives men and trains them for the ministry on the basis of their claim to have the call of God to preach, the Church does not expect them to be social workers or administrative experts or computer geniuses. If a man is not prepared to give his time and his life to presenting the truth as it is in Jesus, to the very best of his ability, that man has no right to claim that he has been called to the ministry of the gospel. In this’ connection perhaps the time has come for the Church to scrutinise more closely the claims that are made by men to a call to the ministry of the gospel.
There can be little doubt that the Church has been too ready to admit as candidates for the ministry men whose excellence of character and reality of saving grace in their hearts could not be called into question but who have proved totally inadequate to meet the demands placed upon them as preachers of the Word. We would do well to heed the waning note struck by another: “There are many ways in which excellent and gifted men of God can serve in his kingdom without assuming that they are to run where the Lord has not sent them.” A recent letter to the Editor of the Church’s Monthly Record highlighted this point by contending that “… we have a declining quality of ministry. This arises from a lack of discernment with regard to those sent for training and subsequently licensed – many quite obviously lack the gifts sufficient for the full-time ministry and one must question their calling of God”. A salutary reminder to the Church from the Church!
Prospective candidates for the ministry proceed to be equipped for their calling to a theological College second to none in Reformed circles. Just as we honour and cherish our church so we do our College. There can be no greater indication of the unfitness of a man to become an effective preacher in the service of his Lord and in the name of our church than the spirit of arrogance and pride that disdains those who are his masters. Many of us today recall, with gratitude to God, the years spent at the feet of those who were training us to become preachers of the gospel.
But we must never think that the training in the College is not capable of improvement. May I be permitted to express my own personal regret that the Special Visitation Committee to the College, of which I was Convener and which reported to the last General Assembly, did not pursue more vigorously with the Senate the need to lay more emphasis on Biblical interpretation in the College curriculum. After all, our students are being trained primarily as expositors of the Word of God. And how our day needs that emphasis! That surely is the best way of equipping men to deal with the problems and social issues that confront people today. We must ensure that prospective ministers are able expositors of the Word of God and possess the ability to apply that Word. We have to avoid the danger of turning out men gifted in almost. every or any field except that for which they entered the College in the first place – to become not only preachers of the gospel but the best preachers of the best news this world can ever hear.
Communicating the Gospel in Today’s Language
While we feed our minds and our hearts on the truths of scripture expressed by former generations we are to communicate these truths to our contemporary society in the language of today. We are to speak of the great truths in the idiom of our age. In his address at the opening of the College in 1974, Principal Clement Graham reminded the students that “we must not succumb to an improper traditionalism with regard to form of speech. Our Churches are not crypts, they are the meeting places of the people of this age to whom the truth of God’s redemption in Christ must be conveyed in the moulds that they can recognise and identify. Our meditation on the truth, or growing grasp of the truth, must yield a conscious effort to communicate what we have learned. Only so will we be preachers – not to the shadows of the past – but to the real people – the couldn’t care less people of our day.”
“Unless we make a genuine effort to attain some facility in communication to the people of our generation, we shall have denied our call. We shall offer contempt and not compassion to our people. We shall have disobeyed our heavenly vision”.
This is necessary if for no other reason than to interest our people. It was the late Professor Douglas MacMillan who said, “People have grown accustomed to listening to communicators in the media whose skills in exploiting the voice and utilising the power of language have been honed to near perfection. Christianity can no longer afford to have the Biblical message preached in language incomprehensible to the average person, or in terms which prove soporific even to the godly. If there is one thing we need in our preaching today, it is what Whitefield called “market urgency in market language”.
Preaching and its Content
Preaching in the idiom of our age must not be undertaken at the expense of content. Essential doctrine must not be sacrificed in the interest of simplicity: “We see too much preaching in our present day of a “gospel,” which has become so simple that the great doctrines of grace have been dismissed in order that the message is made more acceptable to the masses”. Such a situation must never be allowed to arise in the Free Church. The idiom by which the faith is proclaimed may need adapting to a new age, but the scriptural content of that faith must not be watered down. The great doctrines of the truth, the incarnation, the atonement, the personal work of Christ, regeneration, justification by faith, sanctification etc. must be given full expression. Our preaching must be Biblical, doctrinal and theological, it must be “the lucid exposition of revelation.”
By making our preaching as intelligible as possible, let us not lose sight of the greatness and the wonder and the depth of the Word of God. Let our preaching inform and feed the mind, recognising the appalling and abysmal Biblical ignorance of the people of our day. We should not be afraid to expound to our people the doctrines of grace, for much preaching is characterised by an emptiness of content. While we must not be indifferent to form and style, form matters little to a sermon if it lacks body. There is little point in presenting an attractive package with nothing inside it.
There must be content if the minister is to fulfil his work in building up his people in the faith. When Paul was leaving Ephesus and bidding farewell to the elders in that moving address recorded in Acts 20, he reminded them, “and now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the Word of his grace which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all them that are sanctified” (v. 32). It is through the great truths of the Word of God that the church is built up and strengthened. Whatever criticism may be levelled against the church – and some of it is justified – she must not modify the content of her message.
Preaching in its Application
We have to bring the message of the gospel to bear on the great social and moral issues of our day. By doing so the church is but following the commendable example of its illustrious forefathers – Knox, Chalmers, Begg and others. It is part of the Free Church’s continuing privilege to be associated with such worthy objects as the Bethesda Hospice in Stornoway, the Eventide Home and Thomas Chalmers Housing Association in Glasgow, housing for the homeless in Edinburgh, educational and medical work in South America, South Africa and through the Emmanuel Hospital Association in India. The church has a God-given mandate to apply herself to such issues.
It was evangelistic preaching that stirred the church to an awareness of the terrible social needs of the poor in the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whenever the gospel comes with power into the lives of men, it awakens in them Christian concern for others. “Social concern and the preaching of the evangel are not enemies but friends. The Christian’s involvement in social concerns is a natural outflow of the blessing of God in the gospel” (J. D. MacMillan). The Free Church’s involvement in such issues was not undertaken at the expense of her primary function – to preach the gospel to the poor – but as a result of her commitment to the gospel. Nevertheless, she must always be on her guard lest her primary function is relegated in the interests of secondary issues.
That truth must be applied not just to the great social and national problems of the day but also to the sins and practices which gnaw away at the life and witness of our own church – wordliness, self centredness, back biting, rumour mongering and the lack of personal holiness in our own lives. Wherever un-Christlikeness appears we must be prepared not only to expose it but to apply to it the principles of the Word of God. But the application of that Word must be made in the spirit of Christ.
We are to be filled with the love of Christ, not the supine love that refuses to recognise error in life or in creed – an attitude that leads to anarchy in the Church – but the love that recognises that Church matters can be dealt with, and ought to be dealt with, in this Spirit of Christ.
The Free Church of Scotland today is confronted with issues which, if not threatening her existence, certainly threaten her witness. Our hearts are often perplexed and anxious and sore. We seem to be taken up with issues which have little bearing on the purpose of our calling – the proclamation of the good news of salvation through faith in Christ.
There are matters which weigh heavily on our minds. To many there is a great sense of disillusionment with the Church, with the apparent emergence of an unhealthy and unbiblical spirit. And it is no part of the solution to that problem to ignore it. When matters affecting the life and witness of the Church are wilfully exposed to the public’s gaze we have departed alarmingly from the Biblical picture of the Christian church. It is no part of the church’s business to find herself embroiled in unwholesome situations. Let us love our church and seek to disseminate her message in a spirit that refuses to bow to those who, in the pursuit of their own interests, lose sight of the church’s great mission in the world. And brethren, the unfortunate consequences of all such controversies is that they lower our gaze from the most absorbing object of all – the glory of God.
Preaching and Personal Involvement
We need to recover personal involvement in our own preaching. We are to preach so as to involve our hearers in what has gripped our own hearts and minds. Whenever Paul spoke of the wonder of God’s provision of salvation in Jesus Christ he became so involved in it himself that his soul was fanned into flame at the consideration of the mercy of God in Christ. Let our hearers see that in us as we present the truth to them. Let our hearers recognise that we love the truth, that we love him who is at the heart of the truth and that we love them to whom we preach the truth. The cold, clinical approach to preaching is alien to the New Testament picture of men who became deeply involved in the presentation of the truth. Let us not be ashamed or afraid of being moved ourselves by the message with which we hope to move our hearers. We are, after all, persuaders of men.
If preaching therefore is the principal means by which God speaks to men, how ought that fact to colour and transform our lives as preachers of the gospel? Of all men we are to be “holiness unto the Lord”. It has been said that a man is what he is before God – nothing more and nothing less. “The minister is to be a holy man and he is to speak from a heart that beats in the awful apprehension of the presence of God. The stress of our times is on the fact that the minister is a Christian among Christians; and that, of course, is quite true. But he is also a man of God called to give his whole life to the service of God. A great part of his power therefore is in the credibility lent to his ministry by his own character and by his ability to say with Paul: “Brethren, be ye followers together of me” (Philippians 3: 17)” (Banner of Truth Magazine 1994).
Preaching and the Power of the Holy Spirit
Our greatest need as preachers is to be “clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:29). We need to be reminded constantly that “it is not by might nor by power but by my spirit, saith the Lord”. The gospel we preach must be accompanied by the blessing of God. We rely not on our effective communication, nor on our own mental resources, nor on our organisational ability, nor even on the brilliance and ingenuity and genius of our ministry. In short, we rely not on ourselves but on the gospel coming “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Ghost – and with much assurance” (I Thessalonians 1:5).
No address on this subject of preaching would be complete without at least one reference to the Prince of Preachers – C. H. Spurgeon. “It were better,” he says “to speak six words in the power of the Holy Ghost than to preach seventy years of sermons without the Spirit”. In his masterly book I believe in Preaching John Stott quotes an exhortation from Spurgeon which he was unable to trace in his researches, “The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher, otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning, otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were mysterious power going with it – the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. 0 sirs,” he concludes, “we might as well preach to stone walls as preach to humanity, unless the Holy Spirit be with the word, to give it power to convert the soul”. As we preach may our reliance more and more be on the power of the Spirit of God so that we go forth as men anointed in our preaching.
The need of power accompanying the presentation of the gospel is all too evident today. The judicial judgement of God on the nation affects every section of it and we are no exception. The sifting process of his judgement – bereft of his presence in our pews and of his power in our preaching – is all too painfully apparent. He who sees not that as the spiritual plight of our Church is refusing to face the facts that stare him starkly in the face. By all means let us seek to proclaim the truth. Let us not slacken in our efforts at home and abroad to bring its interests to bear on all. But adherence to the truth is not enough. It is not enough to proclaim it. Being satisfied with that can only breed complacency – yea even spiritual pride. We have to rediscover the power of the truth.
Christ in our Preaching
Amongst the many notes sounded by the gospel’s music one surely predominates – if man is to be saved from his lostness it must be through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He must be presented as the only Saviour of sinners, adequate to meet all human need. Constant emphasis must be laid on the glory of his person, the wonder of this incamation, the great mystery of his love, the necessity of his sufferings, the uniqueness of his death and the assurance of his enthronement and Second Coming. There can be no more difficult and humbling lesson for the preacher to leam, than to realise that what counts at the end of the day is not the approbation with which his efforts are recalled but the soul-absorbing view he has given of the one who is fairest of all men. It is unfortunately only too easy to draw attention to ourselves in our preaching. A good preacher is a preacher one does not notice: he hides himself in extolling his Lord.
It is said that James Denney had these words framed in his vestry: “no man can bear witness to Christ and to himself at the same time. No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”
The great goal of all our labours is to point people to him who is the Lamb of God and who is the glory in Emmanuel’s land. I often wonder if the tensions and seeming divisions that infect the church from time to time would vanish at a stroke if we were to catch the vision that was Jonathan Edwards’ when he recalled, “I had a view, that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet, appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception – which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve and follow him; and -to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity.”
In the ensuing days when weighty and serious issues, which have engaged the minds of brethren long before this General Assembly, may come before this court, let us hope and pray, that inspired by such a vision we can love one another with a pure heart fervently and be enabled to say to one another in the bonds of the gospel – “Brother, may the God of peace and of love be with you.”
I am not advocating a supine love that plays fast and loose with the great virtues of honesty in my dealings, mercy in my relationships, justice in my actions and integrity in my life, but a love wedded to all those, so that love burns in my heart with a zeal for the honour and the glory of Christ to such an extent that I am able to submerge my feelings, my ambitions, my thoughts, yea, my life in him who loved me and gave himself for me, who called me to serve him in the gospel and who placed me in this beloved denomination, whose name I cherish above my own and whose success I pray for day and night, till the day dawn, when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the face of the earth as the waters cover the face of the deep.
I began this address with a reference to an eminent Free Church man of bygone days. I close my address by referring to another eminent Free Church man whose memory many of us still cherish, the late Professor G.N. M. Collins. He concluded his opening address to the General Assembly in 1971 with words which are strangely appropriate to our situation today. “The vision of a God who is really sovereign – that is what we need and need desperately in these times. To lift up our eyes above all the turbulence of these days to the throne of eternal majesty and say, “The floods have lifted up, 0 Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods have lifted up their waves. The Lord is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea.
“It was that vision that inspired Wesley to sing amidst all the unrest and upheaval of his own times:
We have through fire and
But saw Thee on the floods
But felt Thee present in the
And shouted our Deliverer’s
Oh may the Lord give us in 1995 this vision and bring us into glad submission to his royal will for where there is no vision the people perish. May we recapture the vision of the glory and supremacy of our God in our lives and rediscover it for our preaching and say with thrilling conviction: “behold your God,” and be absorbed with John’s proclamation: “behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world”.