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Application in Preaching

“Personal application has been called the ‘soul’ of preaching. A sermon without application is like a letter posted without  a direction: it may be well written, rightly dated, and duly signed; but it is useless, because it never reaches its destination.”

– J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew. 1856 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2012), 126.

“All doctrine is useless until . . .”

On Sunday morning, Lord willing, I shall complete a three month series in 1 Thessalonians. Like many other preachers, my favorite book of the Bible is the one I am preaching. This letter of Paul is no exception. Calvin, Simeon, and Stott were particularly helpful advisors as I worked through the text, and I put their books back on my shelves with thanksgiving for each man’s piety, skill, and wisdom.

When in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, the apostle writes: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we obtain insight into how Paul the pastor prayed for his congregation. He sought from God their sanctification, protection, and perseverance.

On sanctification Calvin comments: Paul “knowing that all doctrine is useless until God engraves it, as it were, with his own finger upon our hearts, beseeches God that he would sanctify the Thessalonians.” And sanctification will only be “pure and entire when [a man] thinks nothing in his mind, desires nothing in heart, and does nothing with his body, except what is approved by God.”

We pray without ceasing for God’s sanctifying grace.

Returning to an Old Friend: William S. Plumer on Psalms

Tomorrow evening at First Presbyterian Church Yazoo City I begin a series of sermons on the Psalms. One of the highlights of preparing to preach Psalm 1 is returning to an old and trusted friend, William S. Plumer’s Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks. His exposition is faithful to the text, and his doctrinal and practical remarks are full of  the pastoral wisdom that makes for solid sermon applications.

Since I purchased this book in the early 1990s, it has been my “go to” commentary on Psalms.

Nuggets from this week’s reading:

“The sum of [Psalm 1] is that the just and he alone is blessed.”

“However tried and afflicted, every servant of God has vast treasures of good things in possession and in prospect.”

“A man’s walk is the course of his life. When the tenor of one’s ways is like that of the wicked, he is wicked.”

“A good man loves the decalogue, because it is the transcript of God’s moral character.”

“It has ever been and will ever be true that if men would be saved, they must forsake bad company.”

“It is not wonder that the truly pious grow in purity. Their thoughts dwell on the most ennobling themes.”

“. . . the righteous man is on the side of duty. He honestly intends and endeavors to do what is right, because it is right and obligatory.”

“Seldom do men forsake a wicked life, until they are convinced of its misery.”

“Of all the follies of men none  can be worse than that of hiding from themselves their true condition and character.”

One of the most satisfying aspects of ministry is sermon preparation, for with it comes the opportunity in study to receive the counsel of old friends. I enthusiastically recommend William S. Plumer’s commentary to my RTS students.

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– William S. Plumer, Psalms: A Critical and Expository Commentary with Doctrinal and Practical Remarks. 1867. Carlise, PA: Banner of Truth, 1990.

Testimonies of Faith and Fortitude

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1843 was a momentous year in Presbyterian history. The founders of the Free Church of Scotland abandoned homes, incomes, and church buildings to uphold the spiritual independence of Christ’s church. Their courage captured the attention of the evangelical world, and bequeathed stirring testimonies of faith and fortitude to subsequent generations of Bible-believing Presbyterians.

Author Sandy Finlayson skillfully sketches the lives of ten of these leaders in Unity & Diversity: The Founders of the Free Church of Scotland. Bound together by love of the gospel, a high view of the authority of God’s word, confessional fidelity, and missionary outreach, these men nevertheless held a variety of opinions on controversial issues of the day: church union with other Presbyterian denominations, Roman Catholic emancipation, the evangelistic campaigns of Dwight L. Moody, and educational and social reforms in Scotland.

Conservative American Presbyterians should note the vigor with which several leader tackled widespread poverty, lack of educational opportunity, alcoholism, and other salient social ills. Their lives were spent among the people and for the people.

The author also recounts the personal foibles, bouts of pride, conflicts, and strained friendships – all helpful in reminding readers that there are no golden ages in church history when men were untouched by the frailties common to all. Until our Lord returns, learning to get along will prove hard work.

I enthusiastically recommend Unity and Diversity.

A Good Sermon Is Hard to Find

A friend reminds me that homiletics is a physician-heal-thyself enterprise, so my critiques of student sermons are restrained. But not as restrained as those offered by

“a sexton at whose church theological students frequently did the preaching. He always had three stock answers when they asked with anxious curiosity how they had done. If they had done well he would reply, ‘The Lord has been gracious’; if moderately well, ‘The text is difficult; and if badly, ‘The hymns were well chosen.'” [1]

My criticisms are more direct, but not so much as those offered by Professor James Benjamin Green, who began teaching at Columbia Seminary in 1921. After one student’s sermon, he offered this analysis: “There were three problems with this sermon: first, it was read; second, it was read poorly; third, it wasn’t worth reading.”

Another student preached a sermon titled “The Double-Barreled Gospel” and received this feedback: “What a subject! ‘The double-barreled gospel.’ Unfortunately, neither barrel was loaded.”

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[1] Helmut Thielicke in Gilbert Meilaender, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 74.

[2] David B. Calhoun,  Our Southern Zion: Old Columbia Seminary, 1828-1927 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), 356-357.

 

 

Preaching and Prayer

“Ministers must pray much, if they would be successful . . . Many good sermons are lost for lack of much prayer in study.”

– Robert Traill in The Westminster Directory of Public Worship. Discussed by Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Heritage, 2008), 33.

Three Preachers to Whom I Owe Much

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Thirty-five years ago I finished college and began preaching full-time. For a year, I served as student pastor of  Wales Presbyterian Church in Tennessee, a congregation in the old Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS). Almost everything I owned fit into my 1970 Chevrolet Impala and off I went to preach the gospel.

In addition to a King James Bible, my preaching Bible at the time, I took three valuable books. One was was actually  a booklet, the outlines and notes from John Stott’s expositions on Romans delivered at the 1979 Urbana Missions Conference. The first-time I heard Stott preach, I determined to follow his pulpit example best I could. A model expositor – clear, persuasive, and, above all, faithful to the text – he preached Christ and him crucified. At Reformed Theological Seminary, where I teach homiletics, my preaching classes listen to one of his sermons.

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The second book was  God’s Way of ReconciliationMartyn Lloyd-Jones’ thirty-three expository sermons on Ephesians 2. I knew about the former minister of London’s Westminster Chapel only because my Dad had given me a cassette recording of Lloyd-Jones preaching on Ephesians 2:1-10, which can be listened to online at MLJ Trust. A few minutes into the sermon and  I sensed that I was listening to something extraordinary. Three decades later my preaching students listen to and discuss the same sermon.

Coming across a copy of God’s Way of Reconciliation was a minor miracle. Christian bookstores in rural Tennessee are not ordinarily strongholds of Reformed theology. But while browsing the shelves of a Columbia store, I discovered God’s Way of Reconciliation, purchased it, and took home with me one of the finest examples of fervent Bible exposition and gospel preaching. Since then I’ve read many other collections of Lloyd-Jones’ sermons, but this one remains a favorite because of the encouragement it gave me during my first year of ministry.

The final book that deeply influenced me was William Childs Robinson’s The Word of the Cross, six lectures delivered at Edinburgh College in 1938. An eminent historian of Christian theology and skilled wordsmith, Dr. Robinson presents the gospel of Christ’s once for all sacrifice to satisfy divine justice and reconcile us to God.  The book is a goldmine of quotations from Reformation, Southern Presbyterian, and Scottish theologians. His interactions with the writings of liberal and neo-orthodox authors model the careful scholarship of a formidable defender of the faith, one who would persuade that “[t]he glory of the God of all grace, the good of society, the needs of men dying without the story of God’s great love, call upon us to give our pulpits anew to the preaching of the old, old story of Jesus and His love.” [The Word of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Zonervan, 1940), 141.]

Sadly, as far as I can tell, this book is no longer in print (although some of his other titles are available at reasonable prices through Amazon and Banner of Truth has released selections of his writings in Pleading for a Reformation Vision). My copy of The Word of the Cross  came from my Dad’s library. He enjoyed Dr. Robinson’s instruction while studying at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

In April 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was among the worshippers who heard Dr. Robinson’s Easter sermon at Warm Spring, Georgia. It was the last sermon the president would hear – twelve days later he was dead. This Day in Presbyerian History has posted the sermon. I doubt any gospel loving Christian will read and remain unmoved.

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