You are currently browsing the daily archive for August 30, 2010.

Yesterday, I featured Dr Carl Trueman‘s comments on the importance of leisure time, as evidenced by Martin Luther’s Table Talk, a miscellany of thoughts which his friends compiled based on their conversations with him outside of formal teaching sessions.

Today, thanks again to Dr Trueman and Martin Luther, we look at more from Table Talk, specifically, the nine marks of a good preacher, as featured in Reformation 21.  A summary of the first five of these are in ‘Luther on the Marks of a Good Preacher I’:

– ability to teach

– possession of a good mind

– eloquence

– clarity of speech

– a good memory

Why these traits over other more spiritually-minded ones?  Dr Trueman explains:

In short, the person should be able to think and speak clearly, two traits which are often intimately connected.  It seems like common sense, but these basic elements are often neglected by churches, seminaries, sessions, elder boards, presbyteries and classes.   To put it bluntly: if you cannot put a decent, clear sentence into English and speak it in a way that others can understand, you are not called to the ministry, no matter how much that inner voice tells you that God is calling you to preach, or your mum tells you you’d make a wonderful pastor.

That does not mean that you cannot be of great use to the church; but clarity of mind and speech are absolutely basic, just as important as godly zeal and sense of call (internal and external), for the office of preacher.   We need to be careful that we do not over-spiritualize the call: just as someone with St Vitus’ Dance should never be allowed to be a brain surgeon, so the one who cannot speak with coherence and confidence should not be in a pulpit.


The task for the church is thus twofold: to create a culture which reflects the Pauline culture where to desire to be an elder is a good thing, elders are honoured, and elders who teach are considered worthy of double honour; but also to avoid the kind of Protestant sacerdotalism where many think the only way of being of true value is to hold ordained office.   That requires church officers to be true servants of the people; and to have the courage to tell someone who cannot teach that, however powerful the inner call, they are not called to be a teacher.   Not an easy balance; and the latter in particular might prove tough in a culture where it is considered self-evident that every member has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of ministry.

But, as usual, Luther got it right.

Dr Trueman covers the next four characteristics in part II:

– Knowing when to stop preaching

– Really understanding one’s subject matter so as to sound confident and be convincing

– Committing one’s life and enthusiasm to preaching

– Having the ability to accept ridicule from anyone

On sermon length, Dr Trueman, who is the Departmental Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, observes:

There are few things more disheartening as a congregant than hearing a forty minute preacher preach for fifty minutes, a thirty minute preacher preach for forty minutes, or a twenty minute preacher preach for thirty minutes.  Somehow, that last ten minutes can weaken and even destroy the impact of all that has been said in the sermon to that point.  There is no virtue in length for the sake of it … Get up there, say what you’ve got to say as clearly as you can, and then sit down again.  That’s all that’s necessary.   As Luther says elsewhere in Table Talk (2643a), `I hate a long sermon, because the desire on the part of the congregation to listen is destroyed by them, and the preachers hurt themselves.’   And, as usual, Luther got it right.

My personal observation on the next two is that they — the seventh and eighth marks — go together. An all-consuming knowledge and love of one’s subject — Christ and the Gospel — infuses every word a good preacher utters.  He cannot help but make a listener innately feel that the life of Christ and the story of the Gospel is something he just has to know.  Think of your favourite television show — how you can hardly wait to watch it each week.  This is how Martin Luther and other outstanding preachers gathered their audiences. 

A few months ago, I wrote a post on the famous 18th century evangelist George Whitefield, who travelled between his native England and America.  The man was born to preach and he loved God and His Son from boyhood.  Whitefield had an irresistible urge to tell people about Christ and the Gospel, and he delivered his message such that all who heard it — from Benjamin Franklin to the noted Shakespearean actor David Garrick — also had an irresistible urge to listen to what he had to say!  Both Franklin and Garrick commented on Whitefield’s delivery.  Franklin said that Whitefield’s voice could be heard two city blocks away.  Garrick marvelled at the inimitable way that Whitefield intoned certain phrases, wishing he could do the same on stage.

Whitefield was the sort of preacher whose every waking thought was consumed by Christ and His Good News.  When Whitefield would return to Oxford, he would say:

‘Whenever I go to Oxford, I cannot help running to the spot where Jesus Christ first revealed himself to me and gave me the new birth.’

And, of his ordination:

‘My heart was melted down and I offered my whole spirit, soul, and body to the service of God’s sanctuary.’

Sadly, if a candidate for seminary uttered something similar today, his ecclesiastical interviewers would most likely recommend him for psychiatric examination. Such enthusiasm for and love of the Lord is frowned upon these days.   And we in the pews are poorer for it.

This is one of the reasons why Billy Graham struck such a chord worldwide for so many years — when his theology was purer. (Having said that, his belief at the time in UFOs is rather unsettling.) His preaching was, to say the least, unforgettably moving.  Consider that not everyone who heard him speak around the world had a good grasp of English, yet, through his heartfelt enthusiasm for Christ and His Church, they couldn’t help but truly hear — grasp that message.  I know of no one — believer or unbeliever — who ever said that Billy Graham was boring or sleep-inducing.

Back to Dr Trueman:

Sadly, the modern … penchant for cliched phrases and blather … seems more often used an excuse for boring lectures pretending to be sermons than as a basis for passionate, confrontational preaching of the Luther kind, a kind truly built on an understanding of the doctrine of justification as a living, personal reality, not a mere concept, and which in turn actually built a Reformation …  The law and gospel were objective declarations — and yet they tore hearers apart and put them back together again as they were preached, a point of which Luther was only too personally aware and which flavoured everything he did in the pulpit, from overall sermon structure to tone of voice and all points in between.

It all goes back to the old ‘It ain’t what you say but the way that you say it’.

Dr Trueman concludes:

Boring lecturers pretending to be preachers kill churches.  Period. End of story. And interesting lecturers pretending to be preachers kill churches too — not necessarily in terms of numbers (a lecture can, after all, be fascinating and pull in the intellectual punters week after week) but in terms of the formalism they engender — precisely the kind of formalism against which Luther raged so effectively..

Lecturing is not preaching.  That’s what Luther is getting at when he flags up the life or death commitment it requires … Sorry, friend — prose is not verse; lecturing is not preaching; and if, as a preacher, you can’t tell the difference, please resign and do something else with your life before you do any more damage.  Congregations deserve better than long-winded lecturers with more time on their hands than good sense between their ears.

As to the ninth mark about accepting being ridiculed by anyone, Dr Trueman writes, simply:

As usual, Luther got that one right as well.

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