Ellen White and the essence of preaching
What Seventh-day Adventist pioneer Ellen G. White said about preaching is a wonderful contribution to pulpits all around the world. Of the material she wrote on the mode and content of preaching, two factors strike as foundational. First, she directed ministers to focus on the Bible as the source of all preaching. “Let the Word of God speak to the people. Let those who have heard only traditions and maxims of men, hear the voice of God, whose promises are Yea and Amen in Christ Jesus.”1 Second, she held that at the core of preaching—in content and in appeal—should stand Jesus Christ. “Jesus is the living center of everything. Put Christ into every sermon. Let the preciousness, mercy, and glory of Jesus Christ be dwelt upon until Christ is formed within, the hope of glory.”2
This article will show that a biblical and Christ-centered approach to homiletics is essential to ensure that the gospel is preached with power and conviction. The article will also explore the domino effect of not applying such counsel in contrast to the results of its faithful application.
The goals of preaching
Biblical exposition. According to Ellen White, the first goal of preaching is to present to the audience what the Bible says in a particular passage or about a specific topic. A biblical sermon should expound the biblical text and make it “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17, NASB).
Ellen White alludes to preachers who would often begin with a text from the Bible and then end up preaching from “the newspapers.”3 She warns, “If ministers who are called upon to preach the most solemn message ever given to mortals, evade the truth, they are unfaithful in their work, and are false shepherds to the sheep and the lambs. The assertions of man are of no value. Let the Word of God speak to the people.”4
God alone can provide insight and understanding, and that comes from a study and presentation of the Word. White wrote: “Oh, that it might be said of ministers who are preaching to the people and to the churches, ‘Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures’! (Luke 24:45).”5
When preachers study the Bible personally and prayerfully before they take the pulpit, they will discover treasures and beauty in each verse. “If we study the word of God with interest, and pray to understand it, new beauties will be seen in every line. God will reveal precious truth.”6
White says further on this topic of being led by the biblical text: “The Word of God is to be his [the minister’s] guide. In this Word there are promises, directions, warnings, and reproofs, which he is to use in his work as the occasion may require.”7
Christ-centered approach. Second, Ellen White commends a Christ-centered approach in preaching. A sermon that does not have Jesus Christ at its heart does not qualify as a sermon. Even today, countless sermons either do not mention Jesus or make only meager references to Him.8 White highlighted this grave error in one of her indictments of the preaching of her time: “There have been entire discourses, dry and Christless, in which Jesus has scarcely been named.”9 She further wrote, “In our ministry we must reveal Christ to the people, for they have heard Christless sermons all their lives.”10
Throughout much of Adventist history, there have been problems with Christ-centered preaching. The General Conference session of 1888 finds two sides forming in the church: on the one side, righteousness by faith in Christ; on the other side, righteousness by faithfulness to the law. Trusting in Jesus was at odds with trusting in one’s obedience. During this time, Ellen White remained consistent in her call to Christ-centered preaching. She appealed for the centrality of Jesus in sermons and practical daily life.11
The true call for introspection comes from her appeal to everyone who wants to enter the ministry: “Dare not to preach another discourse until you know, by your own experience, what Christ is to you.”12 Christ-centered sermons come from Christ-centered preachers.13
Ministry to others. According to White, the most practical goal of preaching is ministry to people. Just as counseling, healing, and Bible study are pastoral ministries, so is preaching a ministry, and a significant one at that. When a minister of the Word appreciates this fact, then he or she will be humbled, and the approach to writing a sermon and presenting it to the congregation will be impacted accordingly. Ellen White counsels the preacher, “With a humble heart and a willing mind he is to search this Word, that for the benefit of others he may draw from the storehouse of truth things new and old.”14
Results of not following her counsel
When an Adventist preacher departs from the biblical text and does not have a Christ-centered focus, a domino effect results. We can review five such outcomes that befall such a preacher and his or her preaching: (1) the Bible is no longer the authority of the preaching; (2) the preacher replaces the authority and voice of the Bible; (3) the preacher is alienated from the congregation; (4) God is removed from the pulpit; and (5) legalism begins to thrive.15 Skipping over words of Scripture, or reading into the text what is not there, results in bad exegesis, bad hermeneutics, and bad homiletics.
When the Bible is no longer the authority, a hermeneutic of “I” may creep into the sermon, and the preacher becomes the source of authority. Taken from another sermon, the preacher says: “My friend, I want to tell you, on the authority of years of experience . . .” What he’s saying here is, “I would say no,” or “I would say yes.”16
When the preacher assumes this position of authority, he or she loses the connection with the congregation. When this authority is assumed from the pulpit, the speaker is isolated, viewed as already living the demands that the sermon will be demanding from the congregation.17
Since the Bible is muted and the preacher takes the position of authority, God is also removed from the pulpit. For a sermon on Joshua 3:5, the preacher may say: “God wants to go before you. God wants to lead you. God wants to help you. . . . The Jordan story tells us what we must do.”18
Sadly, the preacher places God on the sidelines. God wants to act but cannot. Why? Because, in this case, the congregation has to act first. Between the amazing acts of God in the past and His amazing acts in the future, the preacher inserts the acts of the congregation in the present. The focus of the sermon falls on the acts of man and not on the acts of God. Effectively, God is made impotent and removed from the pulpit. The ultimate outcome of this, then, leads the preacher into a legalistic arena. When the Bible becomes mute, the preacher takes up the authority, and the pulpit is devoid of God: and the final domino, legalism, falls. Continuing with the above example of the sermon on Joshua 3:5, the preacher starts a sequence of imperatives: “you must . . . we must . . . you must.”19
In this scenario, the preacher fails to show the miraculous acts of God in the past, present, and future. As a substitute, he or she has directed the attention of the people to themselves. Only through their deeds can God now be triggered into action.20
White’s cautions in sermon preparation
Ellen White gave several cautionary guidelines for sermon writing. One of these guidelines was to present a clear and proper exposition of the Biblical text. Although she never used the homiletical term dis-exposition, White does point out this error in several places.21 One example is in The Great Controversy: “In order to sustain erroneous doctrines or unchristian practices, some will seize upon passages of Scripture separated from the context, perhaps quoting half of a single verse as proving their point, when the remaining portion would show the meaning to be quite the opposite. . . . Thus do many willfully pervert the Word of God. Others, who have an active imagination, seize upon the figures and symbols of Holy Writ, interpret them to suit their fancy, with little regard to the testimony of Scripture as its own interpreter, and then they present their vagaries as the teachings of the Bible.”22
This passage warns the preacher against (1) using verses out of con- text, (2) quoting texts to substantiate personal arguments, (3) imaginative interpretations of symbols and figures, (4) imposing onto a text one’s own view, and (5) presenting personal notions as instructions of Scripture.23
Another wise caution in sermon preparation can be found in Ellen White’s answer to a question raised by Halbert M. J. Richards the father of the founder of the Voice of Prophecy, H. M. S. Richards, Sr. When asked, “How should I use your writings in preaching?” Ellen White replied: “Here’s the way to use them. First, ask God to give you your subject. When you have the subject chosen, then go to the Bible until you know for sure what the Bible really teaches on that point. After that, turn to the writings and see what you can find on the same subject and read that. It may cast light on it or guide you into other scriptures or make some point clearer. When you go to the people, however, preach to them out of the Bible.”24
Her counsel, if followed, will ensure that the Bible will remain the sole source of authority in preaching. The preacher will go before the people as their fellow servant, God will remain in the pulpit, and legalism will not easily find a foothold.
While this article is not a complete discussion of Ellen White’s thoughts on homiletics, it attempts to elucidate the essential components of sermon preparation and presentation. It shows that the goals of preaching are to be biblical, Christ-centered, and a ministry to others.
One unifying component present throughout this discussion is that the biblical text must remain foundational in the preparation and delivery of a sermon. After all, the heartbeat of the sermon is energized by its substance, essence, and content.25 This is where White places her emphasis. For her, as shown earlier, the sermon begins and ends with the Bible text.
We have also noted the domino effect of not following her guidelines: the Bible is muted as authority; the person of the preacher replaces that authority and voice; the preacher becomes alienated from the congregation; God is sidelined from the pulpit; and legalism begins to take a foothold.
The essence of homiletics in the teaching of Ellen White is that the preacher (a) has a personal relationship with Jesus, (b) is able to translate that relationship into a living testimony, and (c) studies the Bible and brings it to the listeners. When this is followed, the pitfalls can be avoided and the gospel can be freely preached with power—that is why Ellen White could write that preaching should be “God’s chosen agency for the salvation of souls.”26
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1 Ellen G. White, Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1995), 188.
2 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 186.
3 Ellen G. White, “Spiritual Benefit the Object of Camp-Meetings,” Review and Herald, June 23, 1891. Cf. White, Pastoral Ministry, 188.
4 White, Pastoral Ministry, 188.
5 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 3 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 188; cf. White, Pastoral Ministry, 189.
6 White, Pastoral Ministry, 189.
8 J. Cilliers, Die uitwissing van God op die kansel (Kaapstad: Lux Verbi, 1996), 2.
9 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 8 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), 271.
10 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 17 (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1990), 74.
11 See Mervyn Warren, “But Where Is the Lamb?: An Ancient Question for Modern Pulpits,” Ministry, Dec. 2007, 19.
12 Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1962), 155.
13 See White, Pastoral Ministry, 192.
14 Ibid., 189.
15 Cilliers, 140, 141.
16 Ibid., 86, 87, emphasis added.
17 Ibid., 96, 97.
18 Ibid., 102, 103, emphasis added.
20 Ibid., 42.
21 See Nestor C. Rilloma, “The Divine Authority of Preaching and Applying the Word: Ellen G. White’s Perspective in Relation to Evangelical Viewpoints,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 16, nos. 1–2 (2005): 166.
22 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1939), 521.
23 Rilloma, 166.
24 J. R. Spangler, “The Editor Interviews H. M. S. Richards,” Ministry (Oct. 1976):5–7.
25 Mervyn A. Warren, Ellen White on Preaching (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2010), 9.
26 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church,vol. 5 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 87.