“Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.”

ImageIs the Gospel clear in our preaching?  Do we drive home the important doctrines of the faith from the pulpit?  Or do we preach a feel-good, non-confrontational, sentimental, and wishy-washy message of the goodness of God and the goodness of man?  I ran across this blog post at the Scriptorium on the life and preaching of F.W. Robertson and it caught my attention.  Robertson was popular in his day not because he was a preacher of hearty convictions, but because he was a hearty preacher of little conviction other than that those of hearty conviction were wrong.  As Sanders points out here, a lack of strong doctrinal truth in the pulpit often points to a lack of doctrinal truth being lived out in the life of the preacher.

F.W. Robertson (1816-1853) was the kind of preacher people spoke of in superlatives: Charles Dickens reportedly said that “”he was one of the greatest masters of elocution I ever knew. To hear Robertson read the church prayers was in itself a liberal education.” He was very popular in his day, and after his death (on this day, August 15) many volumes of his sermons sold briskly.

He started out as a fiery young evangelical of the type that read the journals of Henry Martyn and David Brainerd. Studying at Oxford, he ran up against the Tractarians with their own, competing radicalism. In the end, he developed into neither an Evangelical nor a Tractarian, deciding that both the low church and the high church were too committed to specific doctrines and forms. Robertson opted for a form of Romantic liberal theology, and preached it exquisitely.

The height of his popularity came during his curacy in Brighton, where he preached for six years, beginning in 1847 and lasting until his death, at Holy Trinity Church. The word spread abroad that a great preacher was in the land. Luminaries like Gladstone and Tillotson would go out of their way to hear his preaching.

In the last few years, new light has been shed on Robertson’s personal life. Investigators have discovered Robertson’s private journal from the year 1849. He made his entries in a code that protected its contents from those who shared his household, but is no barrier to later scholars. What’s in the journal? No surprise: extramarital sex. The entry for October 1, 1849: “Four hours in bed with Augusta.” Mrs. Robertson’s name was Ellen, and the name of Augusta’s husband (she had one) is not recorded.

We don’t know everything about Robertson’s life or character, and it’s not possible to say precisely how he dealt with his sin. Did it torture him inescapably, or did he weave elaborate excuses and self-justifications? Was the contradiction between his Christian ministry and his actual life something that pressed down on his consciousness, or was he blithe about it? We don’t know.

One reason we don’t know is that Robertson’s sermons, whatever other merits they may have, are pervasively vague. They are vague with their liberal theology, they are vague as to personal application, and they are vague with poetic suggestiveness. The classic evangelical take-down of Robertson’s overblown reputation is the line: “Robertson believed that Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.” Spurgeon didn’t coin that one, but he loved to quote it.

To test the vagueness of the sermons, try this experiment: Knowing what we now know about how Robertson spent October of 1849, read his January 1851 sermon about David’s repentance from adultery in Psalm 51. Are there cracks in the sermon, through which we can see anything like the repentance Robertson needed? There are many fine phrases and considerable insight:

Two sides of our mysterious twofold being here. Something in us near to hell: something strangely near to God.

This psalm, written three thousand years ago, might have been written yesterday: describes the vicissitudes of spiritual life in an Englishman as truly as of a Jew.

Conscience, when it is healthy, ever speaks thus: “my transgression.”

We can not help believing that our sentiments towards right and wrong are a reflection of God’s. That we call just and true, we can not but think is just and true in His sight.

I venture to say, into true penitence the idea of punishment never enters. If it did, it would be almost a relief; but oh! those moments in which a selfish act has appeared more hideous than any pain which the fancy of a Dante could devise!

When I read Robertson’s sermon on Psalm 51, I can barely pick up the note of spiritual reality. And just when I think I might be catching it, Robertson swerves the direction of the sermon to an attack on evangelical commitments. In turn, he mocks the ideas of punishment, atonement, heaven, and hell.

Doug Wilson once described the connection between pastoral sin and vague preaching, in a blog post titled “Porn as Liturgical Corruption:”

when men preach wiggle room they often find that other men will frequently like the look of that wiggle room…. This creates a cycle — the minister is being pushed to compromise from within, and once he begins preaching more tolerant (and therefore more tolerable) sermons, he begins to be pulled. He has presented handles to those who would pull him. And so the lie about Jesus that he has allowed to take root in his heart is a lie that works its way into his manuscript. And from there into other hearts.

No doubt there are many explanations for the vagueness of Robertson’s sermonic work. “Robertson believed that Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.” His sermons were somehow or other about that.

And, of course, if there is little conviction in the life of the preacher and his sermons, how can we ever expect there to be any conviction in the life of his congregation?

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“Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels” by Isaac Williams

The Anglican Expositor is pleased to present this new edition of Isaac Williams’ Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for Sundays and Holy Days Throughout the Year.  Originally published in two volumes in the mid-19th Century, the text is now fully re-typset and offered in a single volume with up-to-date formatting.  While studying at Trinity College, Oxford Williams’ poetry caught the eye of John Keble, who took Williams under his wing.  After his graduation and ordination Williams went on to assist John Newman as curate of St. Mary’s, Oxford.  He became known for his able exposition of Scripture.  These sermons are fine examples of the art of expositional preaching.  In each sermon Williams begins with a solid exposition of the day’s Epistle as a lead-in to an exposition of the Gospel.  He ties both together with the unifying theme of the day and then concludes with  excellent devotional thoughts and practical application.  Every set of “propers” from the eucharistic lectionary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is covered.  These sermons are both an excellent devotional aid to the Church Year for laymen and a homiletic treasure trove for the preacher.
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.(Hardcover, 601 pages, US$30.00)

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.(Paperback, 601 pages, US$21.00)

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Praying Scripture to Shape Scriptural Preaching

What we pray for the people to whom we preach reflects the priorities we have for them and will impact what we preach to them.  If we are faithful biblical expositors it’s probably safe to assume that our desires for God’s flock are biblical and, hence, are what God also wants for his flock.  Praying the Scriptures back to God is the surest way to know that what we pray is in accordance with God’s will and desires.  We can be more deliberately biblical in the priorities of our preaching ministry by following this principle of praying God’s own words back to him.  One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to adapt the Spirit-inspired prayers of St. Paul for the churches in his care into prayers for my own congregation.  These prayers remind me that as I preach I need to prioritise things like helping my congregation to better plumb the depths of God’s love for us in Christ, the importance of love and reconciliation within the Body, the importance of sound doctrine and of pursuing genuine holiness.  Daily praying prayers like this for my congregation not only shapes my priorities in preaching, but gives me focus as I evaluate specific areas in which my congregation particularly needs growth.  That in turn helps to prioritise areas of focus in the pulpit.  Below are five prayers adapted from St. Paul’s own prayers in Ephesians 1:15-23, 3:16-21; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:3-6, 9-12; and 2 Thessalonians 1:4-12.  These prayers are only a starting point.  I find in my reading and study of Scripture this practice has kept me on attentive for additional passages that address other areas of need in life and ministry.

Pastor’s Prayers from the Epistles of St. Paul

 from Ephesians 1:15-23

ALMIGHTY God and Father, I give thee thanks that thou hast established in the hearts of my flock both faith in the Lord Jesus and love unto all the saints; and yet I beseech thee glorious Father, that thou wouldst give unto them the spirit of wisdom and revelation in thy knowledge.  Enlighten the eyes of their understanding, that they may know the hope of their calling, the riches of the glory of thy inheritance among the saints, and the exceeding greatness of thy power to usward who believe, according to the working of thy mighty power, which thou hast wrought in Christ, when thou raisedst him from the dead, and settest him at thy own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.  Thou hast put all things under his feet, and thou hast given him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.  Amen.

from Ephesians 3:16-21

I BOW my knee before thee, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.  I beseech thee to grant to my flock, according to the riches of thy glory, that they be strengthened with might by thy Spirit in the inner man, that Christ might dwell in their hearts by faith, that they, being rooted and grounded in love, might be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that they might be filled with all fullness of thee. I beseech thee, who art able to do exceeding abundantly above all that I ask or think, according to the power that worketh in me, unto thee be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end.  Amen.

from Philippians 1:9-11

O HOLY God, thou art my record, how greatly I long after the flock thou hast put in my charge, that their love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgement: that they might approve things that are excellent; that that they might be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto thy glory and praise.  Amen.

 from Colossians 1:3-6,9-12

TO thee, O God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, I give thanks in gazing up on the flock which thou hast entrusted to my care.  Thou hast established in them faith in thy Son, a love for all the saints, and a hope for that which thou hast laid up for them in heaven.  Thou hast brought forth in them fruit as they have heard the truth of thy gospel and known thy grace.  For this cause, O Father, let me not cease to pray for them, and to desire that they might be filled with the knowledge of thy will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding: that they might walk worthy of thee, unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of thee; strengthened with all might, according to thy glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness.  Amen.

from 2 Thessalonians 1:4-12

ETERNAL Judge, I lay before thee the persecutions and tribulations of thy church, asking that thou wouldst strengthen her with patience and faith.  Let her endurance, I beseech thee, be a manifest token of thy righteous judgement, that she may be counted worthy of thy kingdom, for which she suffereth.  As she is troubled, let thy church rest in the Lord Jesus when he shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not thee, and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from thy presence, O Lord, and from the glory of thy power; when he shall come to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in all them that believe in that day.  Wherefore, O Father, I beseech thee that thou wouldst count thy church worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of thy goodness, and the work of faith with power: that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ might be glorified in her, and she in thee, according to thy grace and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

If you find these prayers helpful, you can download a PDF that can be printed (and scaled as necessary) for insertion in your Prayer Book.  You can find more information on this topic in D.A. Carson’s excellent book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker, 1992).

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The Blog is Resting

In case you hadn’t noticed, I haven’t been posting much lately.  I spent most of November and early December working intensively on my new edition of Isaac Williams’ Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels.  The good news is that my proof copy arrived a week before Christmas.  The bad news is that it arrived at the same time I started experiencing some health problems that have significantly decreased my activity.  I am, however, on the mend and getting back into the swing of things.  Proofing Williams’ sermons is entailing more work than I thought it would and right now I’m devoting my free time to that project rather than to posting my own thoughts on preaching.  I will do my best to stay on top of keeping the Resources for Sunday page updated weekly.  Keep checking back.  When I’m finished with this latest (massive) publishing endeavour I’ll be back to posting.

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Richard Hooker’s “Works”

Richard Hooker is arguably one of the most important of the English Reformers.  Many would argue that he was the most important, despite the fact that he wrote a generation after the death of Thomas Cranmer.  Hooker, more than anyone else, drew together the loose ends of the English Reformation and tied them into the Elizabethan Settlement to define what we recognise today as the distinctive ethos of Anglicanism.  Not only is his legacy felt throughout the field of Anglican theology, Hooker’s thinking was also hugely influential in modern political philosophy, especially that of John Locke.

What’s interesting is that today, there are no reasonably priced editions of Hooker’s Works available.  When I was looking to purchase his works more than a decade ago the only edition I could find currently in print was that of the Folger Library.  Even Amazon’s discount pricing for that multi-volume work stopped my heart beating for a few seconds.  One publisher has recently put out a paperback set of Keble’s edition of Hooker with the retail price at about $60 for each of the three volumes.  Several print-on-demand publishers have made mismatched and poor quality reprints available that are based on PDF files from Google—often missing pages here and there while being overpriced and prone to falling apart.  Even if you could find a matched set of one of the old editions of Hooker on the Web, they are price-prohibitive.  I eventually settled on used copies of the two-volume Everyman set that I found online.  Even that was relatively pricey.

Hooker’s Works was one of the first things I thought about reprinting when I started The Anglican Expositor.  I like John Keble’s edition, which was the definitive critical edition until that of the Folger Library.  I thought about retypesetting all three volumes, but I simply don’t have the time for such a massive project.  The PDF files online are generally of a quality too poor for quality reproduction.  This past year I used up my quota of interlibrary loans through the Vancouver Island Region Library trying to get my hands on copies that I could scan myself. I ended up with either mismatched volumes, volumes that had been rebound too tightly to scan, or that were simply too far gone to produce usable scans.  That’s when I decided to simply use the best quality scans I could find on the Web to produce a set for my own personal use.

I mention all this because I want to be clear: This set of three volumes was not originally intended to be made public.  I’ve decided to make it public after so many friends and colleagues expressed interest.  It would appear that between the choice of a really nice edition at a high price, many will settle for a not-quite-so-nice edition for a much lower price.  These are good quality hardbacks.  I’ve gone with a casewrap binding instead of a hardcover with dust-jacket in order to save a few more dollars.  The text is good and crisp.  The downside is that because the scans underlying this printing were greyscale, they did pick up some of the page discolouration of the originals.  Most pages display a very minor  “shadow” behind the text.  The pages toward the centre of the book generally have a pronounced edge shadow in the gutter as well as occasional minor text distortion where the scanner couldn’t completely flatten the book.  Again, none of this is “severe” and none of it interferes with readability of the text.  It’s purely cosmetic.  I just want to be sure everyone’s fully aware of what they’re getting here.

The Works of that Learned and Judicious Divine, Mr. Richard Hooker, edited by John Keble, Third Edition, originally printed by Oxford, 1845.  Volume I includes Keble’s introductory material, Isaac Walton’s biography of Hooker, and Books I to IV of Ecclesiastical Polity; Volume II includes Book V of Ecclesiastical Polity; and Volume III includes Books VI to VIII of Ecclesiastical Polity as well as Hooker’s sermons and disputations.  Critical material is included throughout all three volumes.

Hooker’s Works, Volume I (Casewrap Hardcover, 608 pages, US$26.50)
Hooker’s Works, Volume II (Casewrap Hardcover, 612 pages, US$26.50)
Hooker’s Works, Volume III (Casewrap Hardcover, 757 pages, US$29.50)

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Homiletic History

When I entered seminary I signed up for the academic track.  Pastoral ministry wasn’t really on my radar.  I was planning to be a Hebrew or an Old Testament professor.  God had other plans, but since he didn’t let me in on them until I was pretty well finished with my master’s degree I never took a course in homiletics.  (I was privileged, while in Portland, OR, to spend a semester sitting in on a homiletic exegesis course taught by Dr. Jeff Iorg at Golden Gate seminary.)  I learned to preach primarily by studying the great preachers of the past and then jumping into the pulpit myself.  In my late teens I began reading sermons by the Reformers—Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli, not to mention Ridley and Latimer—and the Methodist Revivalists, especially George Whitfield.  One of my professors introduced me to Charles Spurgeon, known for good reason as the “Prince of Preachers”, and to Charles Simeon, the great evangelical prophet of 18th and 19th Century Anglicanism.  That was also when I began delving into the Church Fathers and discovered John the Golden-tongued (a.k.a. Chrysostom) and Augustine.  In more recent years I’ve benefitted greatly from the marvellous sermons of the Victorian churchmen: Pusey, Keble, Newman, Williams, and Wescott.  My library is packed with books of old sermons and anyone who benefits from my pulpit ministry is probably in greater debt to Chrysostom, Andrewes, and Simeon than to me.  If a preacher isn’t reading (or listening) to great sermons preached by others his own pulpit ministry will be the poorer for not doing so.

But one thing that I wish I’d done many years ago was study the history of Christian preaching.  The dramatic difference in style between Chrysostom and the mediaeval friars and Reformers is obvious.  The difference between the mediaeval and Reformation preachers and the Victorians is equally dramatic, and that’s not even to mention the obvious fact that today’s “Plain Style” is entirely unique as well.  An historical study of preaching helps to explain how preaching styles have changed and, most importantly, what ideas and philosophies underlay them.  Such a study explains why Augustine’s allegorical style is different from Chrysostom’s much plainer style.  It explains the often complex and formal structures used by mediaeval preachers to string together their “exempla”.  And if you understand the “high and dry” moralistic preaching of Tillotson and the Latitudinarians of the 18th Century, you’ll have much greater appreciation for the Victorians, who otherwise often seem so “sensible”, but in comparison to the Tillotsonian sermons of the previous century, are really full of conviction and passion.  A study of the history of Christian preaching gives context to all those different style and results in much greater appreciation for them.  It also makes many of those styles–especially the allegorical sermons of the Fathers or the illustration-laden sermons of the mediaeval preachers and Reformers much more approachable.

Below I’ve linked to four books that I’ve found particularly helpful in studying the history of preaching.  Sadly, the most recent was written in 1939.  None of them covers the modern era and so none of them put today’s “Plain Style” into context.  (Such a study would be very worthwhile.)  Smyth’s history covers the English pulpit from the 8th Century up to the mid-20th.  If your Latin is rusty you may find the two chapters on the Mediaeval pulpit difficult, but the book is still well-worth reading.  Dargan’s two-volume history of preaching is much broader and runs from the Apostolic era to the end of the 19th Century.  His shorter single-volume work is a more practical book in that it draws from the history of the pulpit to teach current preachers their task.  Tolle lege.

Charles Smyth — The Art of Preaching: A Practical Survey of Preaching in the Church of England 747-1939
Edwin Charles Dargan — A History of Preaching, Vol. 1, A.D. 70 to 1572
Edwin Charles Dargan — A History of Preaching, Vol. 2, A.D. 1572 to 1900
Edwin Charles Dargan — The Art of Preaching in Light of its History

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Save Some for Later

Do your parishioners feel like this on Sunday morning?

“Save some for later.”  That’s what I was advised one All Saints’ Day after I’d foolishly preached for almost fifty minutes on the day’s Gospel (St. Matthew 5:1-12).  Yes, I decided to tackle all eight beatitudes in one sermon.  It was one of the very first sermons I’d ever preached and I didn’t yet have the preacher’s sense of time.  (I still struggle with that.  Once I’m preaching, I’m focused on what I’ve got to say and on the people to whom I’m saying it.  The clock is the last thing on my mind!)  As I was preaching that sermon it seemed like quite the tour de force, but after the feedback I got, I realised that I had tried to cover too much material.  It was more than the congregation could take in, and the fact is that I gave my text short shrift. Years later when I preached through the Sermon on the Mount I gave each of those eight beatitudes a full thirty-minute sermon—and even then it was hard to do each of them full justice.  I’d have been far better off giving twenty or thirty minutes to a general overview of the beatitudes on that All Saint’s Day and the congregation would have gone away full.  Instead, I’m pretty sure they went away feeling like they’d been trying to drink from a firehose manned by a fireman with poor aim.

I’m raising this point in response to several comments I’ve received in response to the Application Grid.  “You can’t cover all of that in one sermon,” said one reader.  And he’s entirely correct.  You can’t.  If you tried, you’d be like me trying to preach on the beatitudes—in detail—in less than an hour.  You wouldn’t be doing your text justice and you’d be overloading your congregation. The point of the Application Grid is to help the preacher pull the application out of the text and to make sure he hasn’t missed something important.  Once that’s been done, it’s time to winnow things down to just a few points—or even one point—so that your sermon has a clear focus.

The Puritans were famous for trying to cover everything.  In fact, many Puritan preachers prided themselves on being able to take a single verse, a single phrase, and even sometimes a single word, and coax out of it an unimaginable number of points and then preach for an hour or two—or longer.  In one of his sermons, Richard Baxter goes on “Sixty- fifthly….”  Somehow I doubt even the most hungry of his listeners could remember more than a few of the preceding sixty-four points he’d made.  And if the Puritans could do that with a word or a phrase, imagine how many points we can potentially pack into a sermon when preaching on an entire Epistle or Gospel lesson, not to mention a combination of both!  I ran across an apt quote from Charles Simeon this past week:

“Do not preach what you can tell, but what your people can receive. Suppose I have six narrow-mouthed glass bottles to fill. I have both a large pail brimful of water, and a small tea-kettle, with a taper spout, also full of water. Which of the two shall I use in filling the narrow-mouthed bottles?”

Sometimes, I think, we preachers are prone to dumping our full pail of water over the bottles and hoping that some of the water makes it in.  Sometimes we may do worse.  I know there have been weeks that I’ve poured over a text and taken away a huge reservoir of insights—and then tried to fill those narrow-mouthed bottles by hitting them with a firehose.  Brothers, if we do that we waste the precious treasure of God’s Word.  That’s bad preaching.

By all means do pour over your text.  Be thorough in working out the practical and doctrinal applications.  But know your congregation and deliver it wisely and deliberately.  It’s better to impart a little bit of information to them in a way they can absorb and use than it is to overwhelm and confuse them with too much—no matter how edifying and life-changing it is.  Share with them the things they need or are capable of hearing today and remember that there are always going to be plenty of empty bottles coming back to the pews for another filling.  Save some for later.

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