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The Ingredients of Great Preaching

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Archives / 1959 / August



The Ingredients of Great Preaching

Desmond Ford

DESMOND FORD, Bible Department, Australasian Missionary College


I came to Irvine, and heard a well-favored, proper old man . . . with a long beard, and that man showed me all my heart. Then I went to St. Andrews, where I heard a sweet ma­jestic-looking man . . . , and he showed me the majesty of God. After him I heard a little fair man . . . , and he showed me the loveliness of Christ"— An English Merchant Visiting Scotland, quoted in The Preachers of the Church, title page.

This simple narrative extract suggests some profound ideas to one interested in the ingredients of great preaching. First of all, it suggests that the object of all preach­ing or persuasion should be attained in­directly rather than by direct assault. Sec­ond, the listener's decisions will be made as a result of beholding his own heart, the majesty of God, and the loveliness of Christ. Third, there is a singular appropriateness apparent when the nature of the man and the nature of his message are compared. Thus the significance of the verb "showed" rather than "told" in the above extract.

As one considers the history of the first seventeen hundred years of Christian preaching, the accuracy of the above infer­ences find abundant support. First, each great preacher has endeavored to be an instrument to change the very heart and mind of man rather than just the outward habits. Thus their persuasion has been in­direct (Calvin excepted). Second, every great preacher has been both exceedingly personal and God-absorbed. His feet have been truly on the ground while, indeed, it sometimes seemed as though his head towered into the heavens. And third, such men have been revealers of truth rather than just declaimers. Their daily deport­ment as well as their high pulpit manners proclaimed them to be Christ's men.

Leaving the symmetry of our illustration, we will suggest directly the ingredients of great preaching, and then proceed to il­lustrate these from the first seventeen cen­turies of our era. For brevity's sake, only the pre-eminent ingredients will be men­tioned, and if any man possess these, he will have a certain claim to greatness how­ever many minor rules he may transgress. These primary ingredients resolve around the four M's of preaching—Man, Matter, Method, and Medium.

  1. Great preaching must be the reflection of a great man. It must faithfully mirror the strivings of a distinctively "inspired" per­sonality. It is absolutely primary that a man be literally a "good" preacher, with the emphasis on the adjective rather than the noun. We ask not for a goody-goody or a plaster saint but for an unusually God-conscious, repentant sinner who himself has been saved by grace.
  2. Great preaching has as an essential ingredient a great message. The matter is more important than the method or the delivery medium. Nothing is more impera­tive than that the preacher have not only something to say but something he must say in view of the needs of his generation. Thus, preaching becomes not only timeless in the sense of presenting the eternal veri­ties but also timely. The effective preacher is a Christian opportunist.This ingredient of a great message is more essential now than ever before because we live in a century where the hands of the clock speed dangerously at all times other than during certain preaching occasions.
  3. Great preaching will say best what it is best to say, and "blessed is the man who having nothing to say, abstains from giv­ing us wordy evidence of the fact." There will be method and organization in the as­sembling of the message. The argument will be cumulative, cogent, and connected. Its arrangement will be in harmony with the psychology of the particular congrega­tion. Always understood will be the fact that men make decisions on the basis of feeling rather than logic alone. However, the sin of omitting sweet reason is almost as unpardonable as dullness.
  4. The medium of expression in voice and manner, the physical aspects of the conveyance of truth, must match the qual­ity of the messenger and the message. Con­cerning these last-mentioned points, it could be said that although the clothing of preach­ing does not make the preaching, it cer­tainly does either enhance or mar the mes­sage. Jewels are worthy of quality caskets. History tells of one Vinet that an auditor described as "that ugly man who becomes beautiful when he speaks." Undoubtedly, Vinet had this last ingredient of great preaching—appropriate delivery.

Considering the first point—that great preaching is the reflection of a great man—illustrations seem only to hammer the ob­vious. Every great preacher would have been recognized as great though he never once occupied a pulpit. The Christ who set His face like a flint toward a known, anticipated murder, who was ever actuated by a love that knew neither discouragement nor defeat, could speak as "never man spake" because He lived as never man lived. This mark of distinctive and fre­quently harrowing soul experience was borne by almost all who followed in His steps. Paul was compelled to undergo an agonizing reappraisal of himself and his beliefs. Origen, Basil, Gregory, Nazianzen, Chrysostom—these five men knew what it was to forsake humankind for seclusion and there to deal faithfully with their own soul and with God. Born in solitude was a strength that could tame their own souls and the souls of others. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Latimer had climactic experiences akin to Paul's, whereby their spiritual and mental horizons began spin­ning like tops until from the collapse of the old life and its chaos came the cosmos of new life and ideals. Is it not significant that each of the reformers, including the Roman Catholic reformer Savonarola, knew what it was to stand alone, like a cedar on a mountain top, plucked at by storms of opposition? Such mental and spiritual fires as were endured by the great preachers molded character the caliber of steel and stamped their words with obvious validity. Such men were so cognizant of the reality of sin in their own life that many, including Ambrose, Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others, were fearful of entering the pulpit.

How ready is the man to go, whom God hath never sent!

How timorous, diffident, and slow, God's chosen instrument!

Not only were these men motivated by love for God but as with Abou ben Adhem it could be written of them that they loved their fellow men. Even the Catholic evan­gelists, such as Fenelon, Flechier, and Bour­daloue, won converts by the magnetism of love rather than by merely the power of oratory.

The personal powers of Origen were such that his students were inspired to embrace martyrdom, and followers of Savonarola were prepared to endure trial by ordeal on his behalf. The patristic fathers in several instances literally observed the command to sell what they had and give to the poor. These were men "down among the people" rather than "high and lifted up." As such, they were esteemed worthy of a hearing. It is said of Chrysostom that he was not only a man of the Word but a man of the world, in the right sense. Martin Luther is pro­verbial for his broad humanity. With Lat­imer, Wycliffe, and Knox he did not think it a sin to smile or illustrate by homely wit. These preachers had a sanctified sense of "showmanship." Each was himself an apol­ogy for his creed, recognizing that what men want to know about religion is not so much that it is reasonable as that it is real.

Our second ingredient of great preaching is a great message. Christ dealt with the fundamental problems of existence—with life, death, the judgment, mercy, and faith. To those in bondage He spoke of freedom; to those in poverty, of indestructible riches; to the ignorant He imparted true wisdom; and to the weak He offered strength. He Himself was His message. Paul and the pa­tristic preachers echoed the gospel message, adapting it to their changing conditions. It is doubtful whether we would have ever heard of A thanasius, Basil, and Gregory Nazianzen had it not been for the crisis of Arianism, which provoked their message in reply. Augustine, fresh from his experience of regenerating grace, preached a message that dealt with the root of every man's spir­itual problems. Bernard took up the refrain and showed that grace is only one of the names for ineffable love. Eckhart and Tauler stressed that personal experience of this love in the soul is the essence of true religion and Fenelon affirmed the same. In the days of Wycliffe the message was that of the primacy of the Word, and the human messenger was prepared to stand by it though the heavens fall. Luther was seized by the concept of justification by faith alone, and he became the religious Coper­nicus of his day, shifting the emphasis from the egocentric religion to the theocentrie. Calvin saw in the kingdom of God not only justification but sanctification, with believ­ers bringing forth the fruits of holiness. With Luther he proclaimed the Pauline and Augustinian doctrine of grace. He pre­sumed to go further and elaborate grace as being not only sovereign but also ir­resistible.

In each instance the message fitted the times. Needs existed that clamored for satisfaction, and great preachers were hewed by Providence to meet the needs with Heaven's message shaped for the hour. Such preaching as that of Puritans like Baxter and Bunyan, when considered in conjunction with the excesses of the pre­ceding age, could hardly be coincidental. Furthermore, such preaching could hardly prove a failure, while the average preacher of later decades was intolerably dull.

Next in importance as an ingredient of great preaching is style—to say best what it is best to say. This includes the choice of words and the arrangement of material. Such a feature will be partly conditioned by the environment of the preacher. The grand style of Bossuet, Flechier and Mas­sillon was perfectly appropriate for the elegant court of France in the seventeenth century. It certainly would not have suited Puritan England so well. For the latter, the direct simplicity of Bunyan was ideal, and the burning sincerity of Baxter mat­tered more than his lack of arrangement and finish. Jeremy Taylor would have been applauded by Louis XIV, but this twenti­eth century would hardly have endured him.

Chrysos tom was perhaps the first to bring to preaching all the arts of oratory familiar to law courts and the forum. His arguments, like those of Calvin, Bourdaloue, Tillotson, and South of later ages, were closely knit. However, it must not be taught that close logic and oratorical flourishes are the only elements of style, or even the chief elements. The great invitation of Matthew 11:28-30 is given in incomparable style in words chiefly of one syllable. Simplicity is a vital element in speech. No one could say that it was impossible to understand Luther. From a host of German proverbs and coun­try sayings, the burly Saxon drew homely illustrations. Bunyan could say of his fig­ures that they would "stick like burrs," and each simile and metaphor was sim­plicity par excellence. While Calvin did not use as many illustrations as the ones mentioned, yet his speech also was simple, direct, and forceful. The style is the man, and Calvin could have spoken in no other way. For Latimer, the unconventional was often his style, and for the pulpit master, Saurin, a dramatic approach frequently predominated, thus pleasing the congrega­tion that had booked its seats weeks before. While Bossuet appealed to the imagination and the sense of the sublime, and Bour­daloue to the conscience and reason, Fen­elon and Massillon struck more directly at the feelings and sentiments. Each David must have his own stylistic armor and Saul's will not suit. It is a far cry from the poetical oratory of Gregory Nazianzen to the pastoral simplicity of Bunyan, but each fitted its individual place admirably.

Allegory was the clothing for much of Origen's thought, and Augustine combined this with a skill for pithy phrasing. Bernard of Clairvaux seemed a mixture of the French court preachers and the German mystics, though not as exaggerated in either respect. In each case the style is the expres­sion of the man, but if it is to add to the effectiveness of the message, it must both adorn the subject and be acceptable to the hearers.

Finally we have the element of delivery. Not only the "what" but the "how" is important. It was Baxter who declared, "I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." The preacher himself must be moved if he would move his audience. The burning eye of the messenger will reach the re­cesses of the soul of each listener. They will feel that they are individually addressed and that the issues are those of life and death. As Savonarola preached he seemed at times in a condition of ecstasy. Men and women of all ages and conditions—artisans, poets, and philosophers—sobbed aloud so that the walls of the church echoed their wailings. The reporter wrote, "At this time I was so overcome by weeping that I could not go on." Savonarola himself often sat down from exhaustion and was so much affected that sometimes illness subsequently confined him to his bed for several days.

In delivery, a voice like that of Chrysos­torn is an asset, as it reflects truly the emo­tions involved in the thoughts presented, but some, such as Ambrose, have been suc­cessful without such a gift. The main ele­ment in delivery is a passionate sincerity, and preferably the force and fire of Basil of old rather than the calm incisiveness of Calvin. As a rule, we do not preach to an audience of philosophers, and there is little virtue in detached scientific appraisals. When Luther preached, young and old knew that he loved them. For the sake of his flock he left the safety of the Wartburg. Of Christ it is written, "The beauty of His countenance, the loveliness of His char­acter, above all, the love expressed in look and tone, drew to Him all who were not hardened in unbelief. Had it not been for the sweet, sympathetic spirit that shone out in every look and word, He would not have attracted the large congregations that He did. The afflicted ones who came to Him felt that He linked His interest with theirs as a faithful and tender friend, and they desired to know more of the truths He taught. Heaven was brought near."—The Desire of Ages, pp. 254, 255. This entire section of The Desire of Ages, beginning with page 253, last paragraph, expresses more preaching principles in less space than any other work we have read, and seven­teen centuries of preaching history afford constant illustration of their veracity.

Here then are the cardinal ingredients of great preaching. But "who is sufficient for these things?" Only those whose heart, mind, and tongue God has touched.

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