Our Calvinist brethren in the English-speaking world have established a reputation for their fine sermons and for bringing home the truths of the Gospel. 

Recently, the Revd R C Sproul and the Revd Al Mohler discussed the seeker-sensitive church (H/T: Old Paths Paved).  Does it work?  Well, it’s certainly not Calvinist, although an increasing number of Reformed churches are opting occasionally for the son-et-lumière ‘experience’.  Here’s what they have to say — and this goes universally for Protestant and Catholic churches in today’s world:

The pastors voice the same criticisms that we on this blog and many others concerned have regarding the absence of orthodoxy:

– corporate worship is about praying together as a congregation to give glory to God not gimmicks to entice the unchurched

– people attend church to meet needs in their lives and to receive answers to the eternal questions

– watery, feel-good sermons do not translate the Gospel message and they never will

– the only way that the man in the pew can receive true spiritual sustenance is by hearing the Word and a sermon about the Gospel

It’s a seven-minute discussion which is well worth a listen.

Going back in time, preaching the Gospel also proved problematic.  However, the difficulty then was making people feel too uncomfortable.  Here is what the Revd William B Sprague wrote in 1834 about sermons in the America of his day.  He warned ordained ministers:

Men do not wish to be disturbed in their pleasures by having the danger of their condition set before them, or to be wounded in their pride, by being told of their inability to accomplish their own salvation; and hence, when these great truths have been presented even with the utmost affection, they have often been met with a spirit of malignant opposition; and the preacher has been publicly denounced, and his motives assailed with an unhallowed and bitter asperity. Nay, so deep is the enmity of the heart against these peculiar truths, that it has not unfrequently happened, that those who have exhibited a strong attachment to their minister during the season of their carelessness, have, under the influence of an awakened conscience, become so sensitive to the truths he has preached, that they have openly become his enemies, and in some instances, have even taken the lead in an attempt, not only to neutralize his influence, but to ruin his character

It’s a case of responding with the truth to ‘itching ears’ but not going overboard to such an extent that the pastor alienates the congregation and unwittingly turns them against himself. Yes, the pastor is obliged to deliver a biblically-based sermon. And, Sprague says that by keeping their points simple and unembellished, pastors can convey the Gospel message effectively:

… you must not only bring out its offensive truths, but you must do it with great plainness and simplicity. There is a way of mixing up the truth of God with the wisdom, or shall I say folly,–of man; of neutralizing the effect of the doctrines of the Bible, by burying them up amidst the speculations of human philosophy. In opposition to this, you are to hold up the truth just as it is, and to trust to that alone in the hands of God’s Spirit to do the work, unaided by any reasonings or speculations that are of mere human origin. What you have to do is to wield the naked sword of the Spirit; and if you attempt to improve it by any devices of your own, you will inevitably blunt its edge and prevent its efficacy.

Yet, explaining the Gospel is not enough.  The pastor must apply it to the congregation before him without becoming personal.  He must tell them what the Bible passage means to them in their lives, now and after death:

When you spread before them the utterly ruined condition of the sinner, and the fearful scenes which must open upon him in the next world, if he enters that world unconcerned, you are to endeavour to carry home to them the conviction that they are the sinners described, and if they are in any degree awakened, instead of lulling them to sleep by mere general representations, you are still to hold up their true character as guilty rebels, and to show them that there is no way of escape except by the blood of the everlasting covenant. It is only in proportion as the preaching of the Gospel is discriminating, and is brought to bear directly upon the consciences and personal interests of men, that we have a right to calculate upon its legitimate effect: anything else will never be the fire and the hammer to break the flinty rock in pieces.

Sprague says that it is also important to choose one’s subject matter wisely and be open to guidance from God:

You will have occasion for this in the selection of your topics, with reference to the peculiar circumstances and needs of your congregation; for what at one time may be fitted to produce the most happy effect upon an audience, may, under different circumstances, be worse than a mere dead letter. While fidelity requires that you should preach the whole counsel of God, it is the dictate of prudence that you should rightly divide the word of truth; and that in selecting your subjects of discourse, you should give careful heed to the indications of divine Providence. On the same ground you should endeavour to avoid a tedious uniformity in your discourses, both as it respects the subjects and your manner of treating them; for unless the mind is relieved by some degree of variety in these particulars, it will inevitably, contract a habit of listlessness.

The pastor must not speak out of turn or commit character assassinations:

Indeed, whoever commits these errors is more than imprudent: he sins against the dignity of his office, and exposes himself to the pity of the church, and the contempt of the world. You are indeed at liberty, nay, you are solemnly bound, to take off the covering from the carnal heart, and show it in the light of day, festering in its own depravity ; and you are to endeavour to make every unconcerned sinner feel that this is precisely his own case; but this is widely different from designedly holding an individual up to popular odium, and especially in the spirit of anger or retaliation.

You may wonder if Sprague found a pastor who could preach this way.  Yes, in fact, many, enough to fill a book about great preachers before 1850. One was the Revd Samuel Danforth (1626-1674) of Massachusetts, who, admittedly, had passed from this life into the next long before Sprague was born.  Sprague wrote in his Annals of the American Pulpit about this noted Puritan:

As a preacher, he was remarkable for sustaining all his positions by arguments from Scripture; for adhering closely to the main object before him; for a free, clear and rapid utterance; and for a depth and power of feeling which in almost every sermon manifested itself in tears … He was particularly watchful against the inroads of immorality among the young.

In conclusion, an effective sermon must:

– Address a Scripture passage directly

– Keep on-topic

– Be delivered clearly and at the right speaking pace

– Appeal to the emotions

– Apply what the Scripture passage says to relevant faults and failings of the congregation

Would that we had such fine preaching everywhere today.