It was Robert Murray M’Cheyne who penned the immortal lines “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.”
That sentiment remains just as true 168 years later but the lesson still needs to be learned by the church. Are we perhaps guilty of thinking that all that is needed to make a good preacher is charisma, people skills, and a seminary education? Have we too been deluded into thinking that the ingredients that make a great salesman or CEO will also inevitably make a great pastor? Or do we believe that if we could just find the right methods and programs we could overcome all our personal weaknesses? Certainly if we look at the broadly evangelical church, we’d find copious examples of that kind of thinking. But what was it that made great preachers in the New Testament? Well, it wasn’t education alone. With the exception of Paul most of the Apostles were uneducated men. It also wasn’t programs, personality, charm, or business acumen that spread the gospel. Rather the Apostles were above all men of prayer and holiness who strove simply to minister like their Master and to be conformed to His image. I am convinced that one of the greatest weaknesses even in Reformed churches is a lack of men of the apostolic mold. To piggy-back on the title of a book by John Piper, we have far too many “professionals” and far too few humble men of prayer and piety. As EM Bounds points out in the following article, men of that type are desperately needed if we are ever to see revival…
Men of Prayer Needed
Study universal holiness of life. Your whole usefulness depends on this, for your sermons last but an hour or two; your life preaches all the week. If Satan can only make a covetous minister a lover of praise, of pleasure, of good eating, he has ruined your ministry. Give yourself to prayer, and get your texts, your thoughts, your words from God. Luther spent his best three hours in prayer.—Robert Murray McCheyne
We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations to advance the Church and secure enlargement and efficiency for the gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man or sink the man in the plan or organization. God’s plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than of anything else. Men are God’s method. The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” The dispensation that heralded and prepared the way for Christ was bound up in that man John. … When God declares that “the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him,” he declares the necessity of men and his dependence on them as a channel through which to exert his power upon the world. This vital, urgent truth is one that this age of machinery is apt to forget. The forgetting of it is as baneful on the work of God as would be the striking of the sun from his sphere. Darkness, confusion, and death would ensue.
What the Church needs today is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men—men of prayer.
The character as well as the fortunes of the gospel is committed to the preacher. He makes or mars the message from God to man. The preacher is the golden pipe through which the divine oil flows. The pipe must not only be golden, but open and flawless, that the oil may have a full, unhindered, unwasted flow.
The man makes the preacher. God must make the man. The messenger is, if possible, more than the message. The preacher is more than the sermon. The preacher makes the sermon. As the life–giving milk from the mother’s bosom is but the mother’s life, so all the preacher says is tinctured, impregnated by what the preacher is. The treasure is in earthen vessels, and the taste of the vessel impregnates and may discolor. The man, the whole man, lies behind the sermon. Preaching is not the performance of an hour. It is the outflow of a life. It takes twenty years to make a sermon, because it takes twenty years to make the man. The true sermon is a thing of life. The sermon grows because the man grows. The sermon is forceful because the man is forceful. The sermon is holy because the man is holy. The sermon is full of the divine unction because the man is full of the divine unction.
The sermon cannot rise in its life–giving forces above the man. Dead men give out dead sermons, and dead sermons kill. Everything depends on the spiritual character of the preacher. Under the Jewish dispensation the high priest had inscribed in jeweled letters on a golden frontlet: “Holiness to the Lord.” So every preacher in Christ’s ministry must be molded into and mastered by this same holy motto. It is a crying shame for the Christian ministry to fall lower in holiness of character and holiness of aim than the Jewish priesthood. Jonathan Edwards said: “I went on with my eager pursuit after more holiness and conformity to Christ. The heaven I desired was a heaven of holiness.” The gospel of Christ does not move by popular waves. It has no self–propagating power. It moves as the men who have charge of it move. The preacher must impersonate the gospel. Its divine, most distinctive features must be embodied in him. The constraining power of love must be in the preacher as a projecting, eccentric, an all–commanding, self–oblivious force. The energy of self–denial must be his being, his heart and blood and bones. He must go forth as a man among men, clothed with humility, abiding in meekness, wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove; the bonds of a servant with the spirit of a king, a king in high, royal, in dependent bearing, with the simplicity and sweetness of a child. The preacher must throw himself, with all the abandon of a perfect, self–emptying faith and a self–consuming zeal, into his work for the salvation of men. Hearty, heroic, compassionate, fearless martyrs must the men be who take hold of and shape a generation for God. If they be timid time servers, place seekers, if they be men pleasers or men fearers, if their faith has a weak hold on God or his Word, if their denial be broken by any phase of self or the world, they cannot take hold of the Church nor the world for God.
The preacher’s sharpest and strongest preaching should be to himself. His most difficult, delicate, laborious, and thorough work must be with himself. The training of the twelve was the great, difficult, and enduring work of Christ. Preachers are not sermon makers, but men makers and saint makers, and he only is well–trained for this business who has made himself a man and a saint. It is not great talents nor great learning nor great preachers that God needs, but men great in holiness, great in faith, great in love, great in fidelity, great for God—men always preaching by holy sermons in the pulpit, by holy lives out of it. These can mold a generation for God.
…The preaching man is to be the praying man. Prayer is the preacher’s mightiest weapon. An almighty force in itself, it gives life and force to all.
The real sermon is made in the closet. The man—God’s man—is made in the closet. His life and his profoundest convictions were born in his secret communion with God. The burdened and tearful agony of his spirit, his weightiest and sweetest messages were got when alone with God. Prayer makes the man; prayer makes the preacher; prayer makes the pastor.
The pulpit of this day is weak in praying. The pride of learning is against the dependent humility of prayer. Prayer is with the pulpit too often only official—a performance for the routine of service. Prayer is not to the modern pulpit the mighty force it was in Paul’s life or Paul’s ministry. Every preacher who does not make prayer a mighty factor in his own life and ministry is weak as a factor in God’s work and is powerless to project God’s cause in this world. – EM Bounds