What Makes Preaching Truly Great?

Gone from us is a familiar face, a firm handclasp, a fruitful voice which preached the unsearchable riches of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.

It would be not only thankless to the memory of Dr. Peter H. Eldersveld, whose proclamation of the gospel commended itself to so many for so long, but also faithless to the Father of lights from whom this signal blessing came, were we to refuse some moments of reflection on these labors now completed. Peter was a preacher. And by this, many will say, he came quite honestly. Born fifty-four years ago in a manse in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he early became acquainted with a preacher’s trials and temptations and triumphs though association with his father, the Rev. Samuel P. Eldersveld. Having served in the parish ministry for eight years, he was called to become the radio and television voice of the Christian Reformed Church by the synod in 1946. Since that day the ministry of the Back-to-God Hour has greatly expanded. Today it is heard over more than 300 stations in the United States, Canada and several foreign lands. His average Lord’s Day audience has been conservatively estimated at over three million people. More than two million copies of his sermons have been distributed annually. His five collections of sermons—Getting the Right Pitch (1949), That Ye May Believe (1950), Of Law and Love (1954 ), The Word of the Cross (1959), and Sharing His Suffering (1961)—have been widely disseminated and read.

The question, therefore, is not out of place: What made the preaching of Peter H. Eldersveld so unique that for so long a time so many people listened to it faithfully, eagerly and fruitfully? That question ought not be considered abstract and irrelevant, even though the preacher has been taken from the scene of his earthly labors. Rather, in these days of so much poor and platitudinous preaching it may help us to understand better what kind of preaching it is that this old, sinful and desperately needy world so sorely needs and that the Lord himself has promised to provide with a hearing and honor with a blessing.

The Revealed Word

In our day when many preachers seem at a loss to know what to say and cast about in their minds and by means of their reading for novel topics and even more novel techniques of communication, Dr. Eldersveld preached the Word.

For him this was the foregone conclusion to the question: What shan I preach? He knew himself to be a man under orders. His was the commission to bring the Word and nothing but the Word. In the sacred Scriptures, which he confessed to be the all-sufficient and authoritative word of the Lord who had enlisted him for His ministry, he found the message for each Lord’s Day. For him each time the initial question was already answered. To him that Bible was God’s great gift to man—the means by which he revealed himself savingly in Christ Jesus to all who believe.

Already in his first volume of published sermons he said unequivocally, ‘1f we could get men to return to the Scripture, to read it reverently as a communication from a holy God, and to listen with humility as God speaks from its pages. and to absorb its great teaching of the way of salvation, there is no telling what a change would be brought about….But if our civilization would have the blessing of God, it must be willing to listen to His Word.”

And that sermon ends with the pointed question, “My friend, do you have the Bible—in your heart?”

The Full Word

There are those who suppose that preaching the Bible every Sunday will result in pretty threadbare sermons. In their futile attempt to catch the attention of people with itching ears, they look everywhere but in Scripture for sermonic material. They may have skimmed the surface of the Scriptures; they have failed at even beginning to plumb its profound depths. On some texts they dare not preach for fear of offending certain hearers. On others they cannot preach because of an unwillingness to pay the price of prayer and sweat and tears which goes into every good sermon. And on still others they refuse to preach, because the message is disbelieved and despised by them as old-fashioned and out-of-joint with a sophisticated and scientifically-trained world.

In sharp contrast with these Dr. Eldersveld preached the “full counsel of God.” He dared not let one aspect of divinely revealed truth go unpreached, for fear of doing injustice to the blessed Word and offending his heavenly Sender.

Many today wonder whether it is appropriate to preach today, and especially over the air to an “unknown” audience, on such themes as predestination, sovereign grace, faith as the gift of God’s Spirit, unconditional surrender of mind as well as of will and heart to Jesus Christ the Lord, the “antithesis” between light and darkness, truth and the lie, salvation and condemnation, God and the devil. On all these subjects and many others the “radio voice of the Christian Reformed Church” preached unabashedly and uncompromisingly.

How often his heart was thrilled, when in response to sermons on such and similar Biblical themes someone wrote that the Spirit had blessed that message savingly to the heart of one who had long gone astray in darkness and death. Faithfulness to the full Word perhaps did not make him popular in every quarter. It never cost him an audience, however, for this grew with the years. And in this he recognized the faithfulness of God to his own promise.

The Clear Word

One of the most unique qualities of the radio sermons which so long were heard over the Back-to-God Hour was their clarity.

How crisply and clearly his voice sounded each Sunday, when again he explained some passage of the living Word and sought to apply it specifically to the lives of those who were listening. Trained in the Reformed tradition, he loved to preach the way of salvation systematically. He never apologized for following the pattern of the Apostles’ Creed. He did not deem it repetitious to devote several sermons to the Lord’s Prayer. Time and again the central verities of the historic Christian faith were preached by him in such a way that all who heard knew precisely what he meant. His last sermons, heard after his death, were a series on the Church.

In the collection of his sermons printed in commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the broadcast, he stated his preaching stance straightforwardly in these words, “There are many definitions of preaching, but none is so concise and yet so complete as the one Paul uses in our text (“…the preaching of the cross…” I Corinthians 1:18). In one brief phrase he says it all. Whole books have been written on the Christian pulpit, and there is still much more to be said about it. But nothing can really be added to what Paul said in this one little phrase, if we construe it in terms of its New Testament setting.”

And when laying a disturbing finger on the wounds of ourselves and our world, he was equally plain. “Why is it that this way of finding God (i.e. through repentance and faith in God’s forgiveness in Christ Jesus) is so unpopular with so many people today? One reason is that it humiliates man. It tells him just exactly what God thinks of him, namely, that he is a lost sinner by nature. The truth always hurts, and especially this truth, When men are condemned by God for their sin, they try to justify themselves by condemning God, because they are unable to answer and refute his charges.” Such straight talk from Scripture made his preaching truly great.



The Timely Word

What will not be forgotten by those who heard Dr. Eldersveld often, however, was that his preaching was in the fullest sense timely.

He knew the age in which he lived. He sensed intuitively the pains and problems which perplex the modern man. He realized that in new times new questions clamored for answers. He spoke on the issues of war and peace, on Christianity versus Communism, on face relations and cultural questions, on education and labor and politics and crime and the worship of the idols of this day. He probed deeply such questions as “Why Christianity does not count” and “Communication—for what?”

Yet what made his sermons refreshingly and irresistably timely was not the questions. It was the answers. For all the answers, to Dr. Eldersveld, were resolved in the one great answer of God in Christ Jesus to the world. “You cannot change the Christian faith according to the pattern of the passing years, no more than you can remake God after the image of the twentieth century. God is God, and truth is truth, and Christianity is Christianity! And that is that! The tides of time cannot alter the Rock of Ages, nor can they alter the faith which is founded upon Him.”

And would you learn how timely was his statement of that faith in short? Then read the conclusion of a message preached several years before. “This world knows it is sick, but it doesn’t want to admit that the cause of the sickness is sin. Christ is standing here today, not first of all to give healing, but forgiveness of sins. People murmur about that, and they doubt His right to say: Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. In fact, that isn’t what they want at all. They want only healing. Let them learn that there is no healing without the forgiveness of sins. There is no cure for our sickness unless God is reconciled to us and we unto God. To everyone of you I would say that first of all you must hear the Son of God saying unto you: Son, or daughter, thy sins be forgiven thee. Only then will you hear Him say amid all of life’s troubles: Arise, take up thy bed, and walk.”

The Urgent Word

But, and this need hardly be demonstrated, the preaching which we so long heard over the air was urgent. It was suffused with a deep and demanding pastoral sensitivity. It was an instrument through which the great and good Shepherd was calling the sheep from every quarter of their wandering and waywardness back to Himself. Small wonder, then, that every sermon was conceived and brought forth in the travail of prevailing prayer to God who alone can make the preached Word fruitful to eternal joy and glory.

So much so-called preaching in our days is insipid. It may sound learned, but it isn’t life-quickening. It may appear to be sophisticated, but it isn’t sound and saving to the soul. Cast into the “indicative” mood which simply passes on tid-bits of so-called neutral information to a more or less interested listener, it falls far short of the heart. It has failed to learn the lesson which Dr. Eldersveld knew so well. How penetrating and probing were his questions which drove the hearer to search his own heart! How inescapably clear were his imperatives which rang with the demands of the Word that we repent of our sins, turn to Christ alone, and seek to live in all obedience and dependence according to the will of God. Because he loved his God, because he believed unequivocally the Word with all its commands and comforts, because he yearned over all who came within reach of his voice, he could only preach as he did—urgent in season, out of season.

For this reason the closing words of many of his messages will echo and re-echo long with their trumpet tones in our hearts….

“So make up your mind: do you want your sin. or your God; do you want to live in the dark, or in the light; do you want to be lost, or found?”

“Are you in that big number which only God can count? Are you a true believer in His Son, bought with His blood and brought into His Church? Never mind counting how many others there are before you answer the call of his gospel. How about you? This is your question, all alone. And if you can give the right answer, by the grace of God, that is enough to prove that Jesus Christ is the greatest success in all the world—the only kind that really counts in the end. For that is precisely what He came here to do: to save sinners like you and me—to call and convert and consecrate those whom God has chosen for His Church. Nobody else can do that!”

“Which is it for you, my friend: the broken cisterns or the Living Fountain?”

Such preaching and such alone is truly great preaching. It does what all good preaching seeks always to do. It abases man by showing him his own true self in the mirror of the abiding Word. It extols the great God of our salvation from whom all true preaching flows and through whom all true preaching is perfected.