What’s Wrong With Preaching Today?

I regret the negative way in which this topic has been cast. I think most of us have enough sense of logic to reason from the topic to ourselves, and therefore to conclude that this will be an attempt to expose weaknesses in our own preaching. I wish that the title had been a bit more positive. Perhaps “Hints to Improve Contemporary Preaching” would have been more suitable. However, this is the topic that has been assigned to me and so I shall seek to proceed within its framework.

By way of introduction, let me say something about the sources of my observations. One would have to be omniscient to be able to make final and absolutely accurate pronouncements as to what is wrong with preaching today. It would also demand that one be exposed to all preaching, be invested with infallible gifts of analysis, and on that basis make some official and pompous pronouncements. Obviously, I make no claim to any of these things. Hence, though the source of my information may be rather limited, I trust that the observations made from the limited source will be valid. It was my privilege to spend five years engaged in a full-time itinerant ministry, during which time I was exposed to great sections of the spectrum of evangelical life here in the United States and in Canada. During the past six years in the pastorate, I have ministered in a number of churches and conferences of various denominations. The sources of my observations are things I have seen and heard in these respective ministries.

Also, by way of introduction, I should say something about the standard of comparison. Something is judged to be good or bad in terms of its proximity to an absolute standard. Of course, in the realm of what is effective or good preaching, there is no single, comprehensive standard. However, I do believe we can glean from the Scriptures a somewhat accurate standard as to what good preaching is by examining the preaching of the prophets, the apostles, and of our Lord Jesus Christ. Another basis of comparison is to be found in the lives, ministries, and sermons of the great preachers of past ages. When I use the term “great preachers,” I am not thinking of men who are known primarily for their ability to embellish the truth of God with great rhetorical effects, or who are known for their proficiency in the art of elocution. Rather, Tam thinking of men who were instruments of God in moving other men Godward. Into this particular category I would place such men as Whitefield, McCheyne, Spurgeon, Edwards, Baxter, Bunyan, etc. By using their sermons and the effect of their ministries as a basic standard, I hope we shall be able to make some valid comparisons between their ministries which were marked by great preaching, and thereby be enabled to see the great paucity of the same in our day, and discover some of the causes of this deplorable condition.

How shall we approach this vast subject? I would suggest that all failures in preaching today are basically the failure either of the man who preaches or of the message he brings. We dare not separate these two things—the man and the message. One cannot isolate the man from the message he communicates because there is a deep fusion of the man and the message in the context of preaching. We shall consider “What’s Wrong With Preaching Today,” first of all, in terms of the man who preaches, and then in terms of the message he communicates.

Let us consider together for some time this matter of what’s wrong with preaching in terms of the man who preaches. I wish to state a principle, illustrated from the Scriptures, and then apply it in several specific areas. The principle is this: that unless we would degrade preaching to a mere elocutionary art, we must never forget that the soil out of which powerful preaching grows is the preacher’s own life. This is what makes the art of preaching different from all other arts of communication. A well-known actress may be famous for her moral escapades. She may live like a common harlot. Yet, she can enter the theatre at eight o’clock on a Wednesday night and play the role of Joan of Arc in such a way as to move the entire audience to tears. The way in which she lives may have no direct relationship with the performance of her professional art. An actor, equally profligate in his own life, may walk upon the same stage to act the part of Martin Luther in such a way as to send shivers up and down our spines, and leave us determined to be better men and preachers. But again, there may be no direct relationship between how the actor lived prior to his entrance upon the stage and his subsequent performance upon the stage. It is readily admitted that the Scriptures teach that there are times when men appear on the scene who have great ministerial gifts, but who are devoid of sanctifying grace. See Matthew 7:21–23. The history of the church also records the deeds of men who were used sovereignly by God in the exercise of ministerial gifts who proved ultimately to he devoid of sanctifying grace. I believe, however, that this particular problem of deception would primarily apply to those engaged, in the kind of ministry where they were not around their listeners long enough for their lives to either add or detract from the impact of their ministry. Therefore, limiting this principle to the context of pastoral preaching, I believe it is a valid rule (with some few exceptions) that powerful preaching is rooted in the soil of the preacher’s life. It has been said “A minister’s life is the life of his ministry.” If preaching is the communication of truth through a human instrument, then the particular truth thus communicated is either augmented or reduced in its effect by the life through which it comes. The secret of the preaching power of Whitefield, McCheyne, and the other men I have already mentioned, is found not primarily in the content of their sermons or in the manner of their delivery. But rather, it is found in their lives: lives so clothed with power and lived in vital communion with God that the truth became a living principle when it came through such a vessel. Their anointed lives became the soil of their anointed ministries. This principle is particularly true in the life of a resident pastor. The more you and I are known by our people, the more our influence will increase or diminish according to the tenor of our lives.

In order to illustrate this principle from the Word of God, let me suggest several passages for your consideration, not by way of detailed exegesis, but to catch the overriding impact of their truth. In writing to the Thessalonian Church which he was privileged to found by his ministry among them, Paul says in I Thessalonians 1, “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God, for our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake.” He states that there was a direct relationship between the gospel coming “in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” and the kind of men who preached it. You will find that same thought developed in the 2nd chapter of the same letter where Paul says in verse 10, “Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblamably we behaved ourselves among you that believe.” Then he says in verse 13, “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God which effectually worketh also in you that believe.” There is a vital relationship between these two things. He says, on the one hand, “You know how we conducted ourselves,” and on the other hand “we know how you received the word.” These two things are not to be isolated. Paul and his companions stood as living embodiments of the power of the Word of God, so that when they spoke that Word it came with authority to their hearers. Notice that the apostle does not shrink to use a testimony as to the manner of his living as a witness to the validity of his preaching ministry. In Titus 2 there is some detailed instruction as to what Titus should preach and teach. However, Paul commands Titus in verse 7, “In all things, shewing thyself a pattern of good works.” In other words, as ministers of God we are not only to proclaim right things by precept—but we are to embody these right things in a right example. Then, of course, there is that classic passage, I Timothy 4:16, “Take heed to thyself and to thy teaching; continue in these things. For in doing this thou shalt save both thyself, and them that hear thee.” In essence, Paul is saying: “Timothy—carelessness in your own personal life will result in some measure of shoddiness in the discharge of your responsibility to the souls over whom the Holy Ghost has made you an overseer. Failure to take heed to yourself will in some measure result in failure to see the saving purpose of God wrought in the hearts of those to whom you minister.” I have made these remarks as one who believes without reservation Paul’s statements of truth concerning the immutability of the purpose of God and of the surety of the salvation of all his elect. Yet, we must not bleed out of this passage in I Timothy its obvious implication, that Timothy would not be that instrument of God that he could be unless he took heed to himself and then to his teaching.

It is interesting that in the requirement for the teaching elder as set forth in I Timothy 3:1 and in Titus 1:6, the first requirement for anyone aspiring to this office is not doctrinal, but experimental. “If any man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must he”—and what is the first word?—“blameless.” He must be a man known for his consistent and practical godliness. In the passage found in Titus, the latter part speaks of one of the requirements as that of “holding fast the faithful word.” However, the 6rst requirement set out is in the realm of the minister’s life. Why? For the simple reason that Paul lived and ministered under this conviction that the life of a man’s ministry was the minister’s life itself. I believe these passages suffice to enunciate the principle, although much more could be brought forward to establish this particular point. It is no surprise to me that preaching has fallen into bad days when the clear priorities of these ministerial requirements have been snubbed. In ordination councils men are grilled for hours in an attempt to discover their ability to refute heretics on minute theological points, whereas seldom is any question asked regarding the advance in personal and domestic piety which factors the apostle Paul placed at the top of the list of ministerial requirements.

By personal observation of my own weaknesses and the weaknesses of my brethren in the ministry, I am forced to conclude that preaching today is defective because of a failure to be watchful in several areas. First of all, the area of one’s personal devotional life. I said earlier that some of these conclusions were based upon my observations made while going from church to church as an itinerant minister. One of the most shocking discoveries made during this time was the fact that very few ministers have any systematic, personal devotional habits. I made it a practice to meet with the host pastor to pray and to share areas of common concern. When we would finally tear away that cursed facade of professionalism, and begin to be honest with the Lord and with each other, and confess our sins one to another and pray one for another, the confession came out again and again that the Word of God had ceased to be a living Book of devotional relationship to Christ and had become the official manual for the administration of professional duties. Is it any wonder that the ministry of such men is marked by doctrinal imbalance? Is it any wonder that there is such coldness of heart? Is it any wonder that there is little close, searching application of Scripture when the great majority of contemporary preachers admit that there is no systematic exposure to the Book of God for the purpose of personal illumination and sanctification? In II Timothy chapter 3, a passage which we love to quote when we are demonstrating the truth of the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures, there is a word spoken to us as the servants of God that is most searching. The apostle Paul says to Timothy in verse 15, “that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures”—and this is their first function—“which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. They have led you to faith in Jesus Christ and unto the salvation that is in Him. But, Timothy, that is not the only function of the Scriptures. All Scripture is given by inspiration of Cod and is profitable for doctrine (for teaching), for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” Notice, that he explicitly states that the inspired Scriptures are for the perfecting and maturing of the Man of God. In other words, the entirety of divine revelation should have as its primary function in the life of the servant of God, his own personal sanctification. No preacher is furnished to preach simply by possessing a gift to analyze a text and by the ability to lay it out in verbal form! If the word he would preach to others has not first of all been the instrument of his own personal indoctrination and instruction unto sanctification, he is not fit to declare it to others. This is the function of the Word of God in the life of the preacher. and this function must always be primary.

As preachers, you and I are first of all Christians, and secondly Christian ministers. And that order must never be reversed. You and I are to take heed to ourselves, and then, and only then, to our doctrine. We are to save ourselves first of all, and then, those that hear us. Jeremiah declared, “Thy words were found and I did eat them, and thy words were unto me the joy and rejoicing of my heart.” Too often we must make the confession, “Thy words were found and I did examine them, and they were unto me the form and substance of the sermon in my head.” By contrast, the weeping prophet could say, “Thy words were found and I did assimilate them to myself personally—I experienced their exhilarating power in my own life.” This is precisely what Paul is telling Timothy—“Let that word teach you. Get your doctrinal instruction on your knees with an open Book, so that the principles of truth come not as icy propositions merely resting on the surface of your mind, but see to it that they come as more sensient living truths burned into the fibres of your heart. Let that word teach you, Timothy, let it reprove you. Let it whip you. Let it correct you. Let it instruct you in the way of holiness that you may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”

My own heart is smitten again and again when I think of our Lord’s words to the church at Ephesus as found in Revelation 2. He gives, first of all, a word of commendation. He speaks of their doctrinal correctness and of their faithful administration of discipline. But, following this commendation he says, “Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee because thou hast left thy first love. Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen and repent and do the first works, or else I will come and remove thy candlestick out of its place.” Their heads were correct in judgment; their hands were busy in service; but their hearts had become cold in affection. The Lord Jesus said to them that just as surely as the maintenance of correct doctrine in the head and the sustenance of God-directed activity in the hands arc necessary for effective witness, so also is the maintenance of the burning heart an indisputable necessity. Nothing had been defective in the head or in the hands, but in the heart, and the Lord Jesus spoke to that issue and said, “Unless it is corrected, I will remove your candlestick out of its place.”

In the light of these portions of the Word of God, the indispensable necessity of the preacher’s personal devotional life should be clearly seen. God has ordained that by this means we might keep up the constant cultivation of our hearts. The Word of God, dear brethren, must be to us first of all, that Book which we relish because here we see the face of the God whom we love, who has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ. We should eagerly peruse its pages because we long to know his will, and we long to be worshipers of his person. We should be found often and long in the pages of holy Scripture because we long to have our service and all that we do and are shaped and molded by the living words of the living God.

Preaching has fallen into bad times, not only because of the failure of the man in a personal application of the Word of Cod to his own heart, but also in the matter of secret prayer. In Spurgeon’s Lectures To His Students, a book that I try to read periodically, Spurgeon says, “It may scarcely be needful to commend to you the sweet uses of private devotion, yet I cannot forbear. To you as the ambassadors of God, the mercyseat has a virtue beyond all estimate. The more familiar you are with the court of heaven, the better shall you discharge your heavenly trust. Among all the formitive influences which go to make up a man honored of God in the ministry, I know of none more mighty than his familiarity with the mercyseat. All that a college course can do for a student is coarse and external compared with the spiritual and delicate refinement obtained by communion with God. While the unformed minister is revolving upon the wheel of preparation, prayer is the tool of the great Potter by which he molds the vessel. All our libraries and our studies are mere emptiness compared with our closets. We grow, we wax mighty when we prevail in prayer. Prayer will singularly assist you in the delivery of your sermon. In fact, nothing can so gloriously fit you to preach as descending fresh from the mount of communion with God to speak with men. None are so able to plead with men as those who have been wrestling with God on their behalf. It is said of Joseph Alliene, ‘He poured out his very heart in prayer and preaching. His supplications and exhortations were so affectionate, so full of holy zeal, life and vigor that they quite overcame his hearers. He melted them so that he thawed and mollified and sometimes dissolved the hardest of hearts.’ Prayer may not make you eloquent after the human mold but it will make you so truly eloquent for you will speak out of the heart. And is not that the meaning of the word ‘eloquence’? It will bring fire from heaven upon your sacrifice, and thus prove that it is acceptable to the Lord. As fresh springs of thought will frequently break during preparation in answer to prayer, so will it be in the delivery of your sermon. Most preachers who depend upon God’s Spirit will tell you that their freshest and best thoughts were not those which were pre-meditated, but ideas which came to them flying as on the wings of angels, unexpected treasures brought by a sudden celestial hand, seeds of the flowers of paradise wafted from the mountains of myrrh.” When that divine amatus comes upon the servant of God all his mental faculties seem augmented and his powers of expression and his capacity to feel the truth of God are enlarged beyond the measure of nature. He becomes another man when clothed by the Spirit. The Spirit, in a way that is mysterious to us, is precipitated in answer to prayer. The promise of our Lord has never been negated: “How much more shall he give the Spirit to those who ask him.” As Paul declared in Philippians 1, “This shall turn to my salvation—or deliverance—through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” It is in the context of secret prayer that the eternal verities to which we give constant mental assent become living realities. I find, and this is somewhat of a confession as well as an exhortation, that my own words mock me too often when I preach. When I can say the word “hell” and not feel the horror of it; when I can speak of heaven and not be warmed with a holy glow in the light of the fact that this is the place my Lord is preparing for me; 1 find no answer to this problem but to meditate long upon the passages that speak of these spiritual realities, and ask God the Holy Ghost to burn them into my heart. I plead with him to make real to me that the very people that I look at may hear those terrible words, “Depart from me ye cursed, into everlasting fire.” I find I must plead with God to make real to me that the people whose voices will say to me at the door, “Thank you for the sermon, pastor,” are the very voices that may one day be uttering those cries and groans of the damned. I must ask God to help me to believe these things; help me to preach them so that others will know that 1 do believe them. The truth that burned on Sunday can be icy cold by Monday. The truth that burned in the closet on Saturday can be lifeless on Sunday. Truths received in the crucible of waiting upon God can only be maintained in their warmth in that same context. If I read aright the biographies of the great men of God, I find that this is their unanimous testimony. All with one accord declare that if there was any secret to their ministries it was this. It was the man, cultivating his inner life in the presence of God. Therefore, I submit to you the proposition that as we consider what’s wrong with preaching today, this is the root of the problem. How could men ever teach some of the things they teach in the name of orthodoxy if they were on their knees pouring over the Scriptures? No, they are not on their knees pouring over the Scriptures, and hence they are simply parroting what their peers have said. How can we who say we believe the biblical doctrines speak of them in such a perfunctory way if we are receiving those truths from God in the context of living communion with him. We shall speak of them with the glow and fire of heaven upon our souls if we are receiving them in the glow of his presence. Hence, the problem of preaching today lies in the man who preaches, first of all in the area of the personal devotional life.

Another area of failure in the man is that of practical piety. The ministry of many a church is being terribly hampered by the absence of practical piety in the life of the teaching elder. It is significant that in I Timothy 3, having mentioned that the man must be blameless, Paul immediately moves to a specific area, that of the potential elder’s domestic life. “If any man be blameless, the husband of one wife, having children not accused of riot or unruly, for if a man rule not his own house, how shall he rule the house of God?” And I say, not sensoriously, but with true concern, that many pulpit ministries of some precious servants of God are being negated by the failure of practical piety in the realm of domestic life. I know of a situation that came to my attention recently where a minister was actually asked to resign his church because of the wagging tongue of his wife. The problem was not basically the man’s message or his ministry, but his failure to rule his own house, and even to bring his wife into line in the area of her gossiping tongue. How dare we ministers call upon others to be obedient to the Word of God, if we are blatantly disobedient in this matter? God so clearly says that to qualify for the teaching elder’s position our own houses must be ruled well. It does not say that they must be ruled perfectly; it does not say that we have power to infuse grace into the souls of our children. But, if we do not have clear principles and our own lives are not sufficiently weighty by their own godly example as to rule our houses, how can we rule the house of God? That’s the vital question. It is my own personal conviction that if a man fails to meet this requirement, he has no more right to remain in the ministry than if he fails in one of the other requirements. I would not presume to judge in individual cases, for that is God’s work, but certainly it cannot be of God that in church after church, there is little pulpit power because the life of the minister is so shoddy in the area of practical piety, particularly in domestic matters.

Another area of practical piety which holds peculiar danger for the minister is that of his non-professional speech. A dear servant of God once said to me, “You cannot be a clown and a prophet both. You have got to make a choice.” I hope I have made the right choice. This does not mean we will not be truly human and that we shall feel there is something sinful in the natural ability to laugh, and in the natural exhilaration that comes from a hearty laugh. However, this forced, unnatural effort to be a “joker” amongst our people must be done away. The transition from the clown to the prophet is a difficult metamorphosis! If seriousness, not fleshly sombreness, but true seriousness, is not the mark of our lives in our normal contacts with our people, let us not expect that when we ascend the pulpit, some kind of magical process will immediately cause them to sit trembling before the words of God. They will rather think that we are play-actors. If they never see us regarding the issues of eternity seriously in their presence individually and non-professionally, we shall not see them gripped by the sobriety of these issues as we communicate them ministerially. The problem with our preaching, brethren, is the shoddiness of our lives in the realm of practical piety as expressed in domestic life and in our speech.

Let me mention another area, that of the use of our time. Let your people suspect you of laziness, and though you may have an occasional all-night prayer meeting pleading for pulpit power, it will not be your experience. Let your people suspect you of laziness, and the respect that is a part of pulpit power will be gone. In the light of the fact that we have no time clock to punch, there is an added necessity that we be men of great personal discipline. Perhaps we would do well to make our own “time clock,” and keep a record of how much time we are actually spending in giving ourselves to “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” Too often we have become very proficient in the unholy art of “puttering.” I would describe that art as the ability to be occupied with non-essential trivials in such a way as to deceive ourselves and our people into thinking that we are busy about the work of God’s kingdom.

Then, there is the matter of the purity of our motivation. How often when I have gone into churches have pastors come (very apologetically because I think they realized that their cowardice was showing when they said it), and would say, “Now, brother, I’m so glad you’re here this week. There are couple of situations which I trust the Lord will give you liberty to touch on in your preaching. We have some young people that sit in the back row and fool around, and I’ve never said anything to them. Perhaps you might be able to. Then, there is another situation…” and on and on they go, expressing areas which they know should be dealt with, but which they have been too fearful to touch upon. Oh, brethren, how we need purity of motivation if we would experience power in the pulpit. Let me suggest three areas that involve a proper motivation: first and primary, the fear of God. The best definition 1 know of the fear of God is found in John Brown’s Commentary on I Peter where he uses eighteen pages to expound the little phrase “fear God.” The essence of his comments on that section is that the fear of God is an attitude and disposition in which one regards the smile of God as his greatest delight, and hence his primary aim, and the frown of God as the greatest thing to be dreaded and avoided. A man who walks in the fear of God amongst men as the servant of men, but with an eye single to the smile or frown of God, is the man whose motive is such that his tongue will be loosed to speak the mind of God. God said to Jeremiah, “Be not afraid of their faces lest I confound thee before them. They shall fight against thee, but they shall not prevail against thee for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee.” Jeremiah had previously said to the Lord, upon the indication of God’s call to the prophetic office, “But I am a child, I know not how to speak” God said to Jeremiah, “Say not, I am a child, for to whomsoever I shall send thee thou shalt go, and whatsoever I command thee, thou shalt speak.” God was saying in essence, that his call to the prophetic office was not a matter of his experience or age, but that God was looking for a vessel that would go where he would send it, and would say what he would command it In I Thessalonians 2:3 the apostle Paul declares, “As we were allowed of God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak not as pleasing men, but God who trieth our hearts.” One of the elements of powerful preaching is preaching as a man that has been liberated. Liberated from what? From the ensnaring effects of the fear of men. You are never free to be an instrument of blessing to your people unless you are free from the effects of their smiles and their frowns. People know when you can be bought by their smiles and beaten by their frowns. It won’t take them long to discern whether or not you are a man who is not affected either by their smiles or frowns. Such a man is a free man in Christ. The Word of God declares, “The fear of man bringeth a snare.” Such fear will snare your tongue, so that when those flashes of spiritual light come to you in the pulpit, and there are applications that you know will sting and wound some choice member of the church, if your eye is to men, you will be unable to give utterance to that which you know you ought to. But when you are free from your people’s smiles or frowns, you are at liberty to be an instrument of blessing to them. I submit that if there is to be an increased power in the pulpit, there must be a return to the purity of motivation, comprised in the first place of the fear of God.

Secondly, pure motivation will involve love of the truth. We are called upon to declare the whole counsel of God. See Acts 20:26. Paul declares that only as he did this was he pure from the blood of an men. He declared the whole spectrum of divine revelation. There is only one reason why we preach the fact that men are lost, bound in their sins, and under the condemnation of God—it is the fact that God declares it to be so, and out of love to his truth we proclaim it. Whether it is palatable or unpalatable truth, our love of the truth is such that we want the whole world to know all that God has revealed.

The third area touching this matter of purity of motivation is love to men. I am convinced, brethren, that this is what will drive us to applicatory preaching. We must have such a love for men that we cannot stand to see them slumber under our ministries. We must have such a love that will drive us to a sense of responsibility to do all within our power to make the truth of Cod live to them. McCheyne said, “The man who loves you the most is the man who tells you the most truth about yourself.” In II Corinthians 7 Paul asks a question, “Am I sorry that I made you sorry?” In answer to his own rhetorical question he said, “I am glad I made you sorry, because your sorrow led to your salvation.” In another place he said, “Am I loved the less because I tell you the truth?” He went on to say, “I am sorry but I am going to love you anyway and continue to tell you the truth even if you don’t love me.” What hinders us in being faithful to men is really a form of self love. We love our own feelings so milch that we are not willing to run the risk of offending people and getting them angry at us. Oh, they may perish in hell, but that is all right just so long as they perish loving us. I have heard people say of certain ministers, “That man surely preached in a fearless manner.” Why, brethren, that ought to be said of everyone of us, because our love to men is such that we are willing to communicate the truth, truth which they may not relish, but which is for their good and their salvation.

What’s wrong with preaching today? Well, certainly, some of the problem lies with the man who is preaching, both in the area of personal devotional habits, practical piety, and in purity of motivation.

Pastor Albert Martin is minister of Trinity Church of West Essex, Cedar Grove, New Jersey. He delivered this material at the Ministers Conference of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church held at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, in September 1967. We appreciate his willingness to allow us to present the contents of this lecture to our readers in this and a following installment.