Posted by: Andrew Webb | December 18, 2008

Recommended Reading “What is Biblical Preaching?” by Eric Alexander

biblicalpreachingPastors are sometimes more reticent than reporters when it comes to revealing their sources. But I’ll go ahead and and let you know that I first encountered EM Bound’s advice regarding the link between the pastor’s piety and the power of his preaching through Iain Hamilton, who in turn discovered it via Eric Alexander. But that particular emphasis certainly isn’t original to to modern preachers like Alexander or even 19th century writers like Bounds, you’ll find it in the writings of experimental Calvinists through the ages, including Princetonians like Archibald Alexander, Puritans like Watson, Baxter, and Owen, and even Reformers of the 16th century (there is a great vein of this in the writings of Tyndale and even Calvin, for instance)

In any event, given the modern day cynicism regarding the notion that there might be a link between prayer, piety, and the efficacy of preaching, I want to strongly recommend a wonderful little booklet recently published by P&R as part of their Basics of the Reformed Faith series entitled “What is Biblical Preaching?” The booklet is by the aforementioned Eric Alexander, and while the series itself is intended to introduce laymen to Reformed doctrine, this particular pamphlet is more applicable to the needs of pastors. Indeed, it is actually based on a series of lectures originally delivered to pastors on the subject of preaching. entitled

Anyway, in keeping with the theme of the earlier post, here’s a section from the booklet, in which Alexander discusses the vital spiritual dimension in preaching. I hope this will help to sharpen and clarify the previous post:

BIBLICAL PREACHING IS SPIRITUAL IN ITS ESSENCE

This is one of the most vital truths about biblical preaching. Let me explain what I mean: the task of true preaching is not essentially intellectual or psychological or rhetorical; it is essentially spiritual.

Left to ourselves, we may do many things with a congregation. We may move them emotionally. We may attract them to ourselves personally, producing great loyalty. We may persuade them intellectually. We may educate them in a broad spectrum of Christian truth. But the one thing we can never do, left to ourselves, is to regenerate them spiritually and change them into the image of Jesus Christ, to bear his moral glory in their character. While that is the great calling of the church of Christ, it is essentially God’s work and not ours.

So it is possible to be homiletically brilliant, verbally fluent, theologically profound, biblically accurate and orthodox, and spiritually useless. That frightens me. I hope it frightens you, too. I think it is of this that Paul is speaking when he says, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (I Cor. 3:6-7). It is very possible for us to be deeply concerned about homiletical ability and fluency and theological profundity and biblical orthodoxy, but to know nothing of the life – giving power of God with the burning anointing of the Holy Spirit upon our ministry. Campbell Morgan (Lloyd-Jones’s predecessor at the Westminster Chapel) divulged that at one crucial stage in his ministry he was in precisely this position, and sensed that God was sayingto him, “Preach on, great preacher, without me.” Alan Redpath used to say that the most penetrating question you could ask about any church situation was, “What is happening in this place that cannot be explained in merely human terms?”

So there is a world of difference between true biblical preaching and an academic lecture or a rhetorical performance. We are utterly dependent on the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Thank God, he uses the weak things of this world to confound the mighty, and the things that are not to bring to nothing the things that are (1 Cor. 1 :2,8). This is why it is absolutely essential to marry prayer to the ministry of the Word. In our ministries prayer is not supplemental; it is fundamental. Of course we subscribe to the principal that “this work is God’s work, not ours.” We subscribe to that because we are biblical Evangelicals, but the logical corollary of that statement is that prayer is a fundamental issue in the ministry of the Word, as in every part of our labor, and not, as we tend to make it, a supplemental matter.

E. M. Bounds, who wrote the remarkable little booklet Power through Prayer, says, “The church is on a stretch if not on a strain, looking for better methods. But men are God’s methods and while the church is looking for better methods, God is looking for better men.”

That, of course, does not mean that we should not be interested in methodology. Nor does it mean that we have to be stupid enough to ignore new ideas and new insights, or to be careless in our administration and exploration of methods that are valuable and effective. But we do need to ask God to write on our hearts that this task he has given us is spiritual in essence.

[From "What is Biblical Preaching" by Eric J. Alexander, P&R, 2008]

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Responses

  1. You know, I would not deem to argue the excellent point other than to make the following observation: there is a difference between noting a corollary between piety and the efficacy of preaching and making it dependent on one’s piety. God, of course, is free to make his Word powerful and effective, regardless of the mouth he uses to proclaim it. This is comforting, when you think about it. Who is as pious as he should be? Who spends enough time in prayer, etc? I suspect fewer than we would care to admit.

  2. Dear RevKev,

    I tend to find that on this subject we have a tendency to adopt an attitude very similar to the attitude that 90% of modern day ministers have towards the Christian Sabbath; namely, that most people don’t keep it, and nobody keeps it perfectly, and yet churches continue on, so therefore it can’t be that important. We seldom ask the fundamental question of what impact the loss of the Sabbath has had on society, the church, and the overall holiness of our congregations? And I would argue that the long term impact has been catastrophic.

    Similarly, we look around and see relatively prayer-less churches (experience and statistics indicate that the prayer meeting is either non-existent or the worst attended meeting in most orthodox Reformed churches) and prayer-less pastors, and yet the church goes on. Therefore we conclude that prayer is as Alexander put it, merely a supplement to our ministry. If we are broad evangelicals we conclude that what is necessary are programs and methods and if we are Reformed we conclude that what is needed is homiletical precision and excellence. We seldom ask what the long term effect of the loss of prayer and piety is.

    One of the things that I have been endeavoring to point out here at BOSC is that the majority of our conservative Reformed churches are struggling; it is common to find membership in or below the 50 member mark, and while I don’t have stats on this, I’d say that it is possible that the majority of our conservative plants fail. The reason for that is not just that we have abandoned the methods of our OSP forebears but because the most powerful weapon in our armory, the prayers of righteous saints, is virtually unheard of. We may have adopted portions of the style of the Puritans, but we don’t have much of their substance.

    Brother, I can tell you this, I’ve had days when I’ve poured myself into preparation and produced a sermon that was as flawless as I could make it, and been ridiculously proud of it as well, and then watched as it flopped around on the floor like a dying fish while the congregation struggled unsuccessfully to even stay awake. On the other hand, I’ve had sermons that were to my mind inferior, and yet the saints have been praying for me, and as a result the sermon has gone forth with unction to receptive ears. The lesson? In the end without God’s blessing all our efforts will be to no avail. We plant, we water, HE gives the growth. Or as Alexander put it:

    “So there is a world of difference between true biblical preaching and an academic lecture or a rhetorical performance. We are utterly dependent on the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Thank God, he uses the weak things of this world to confound the mighty, and the things that are not to bring to nothing the things that are (1 Cor. 1 :2,8). This is why it is absolutely essential to marry prayer to the ministry of the Word. In our ministries prayer is not supplemental; it is fundamental. Of course we subscribe to the principal that “this work is God’s work, not ours.” We subscribe to that because we are biblical Evangelicals, but the logical corollary of that statement is that prayer is a fundamental issue in the ministry of the Word, as in every part of our labor, and not, as we tend to make it, a supplemental matter.”

  3. Andrew,

    You seem to be ignoring the fact that there are small churches that do put the emphasis on prayer as you describe, and will remain small their entire existence. And I’m sure those “dying fish” sermons you mention were not due to the fact that no one happened to pray for you that week. This seems to me (as well as calling the first great awakening a true God-sent revival, while the second was not) to be a matter of interpreting providence.

    I’m not saying prayer is unimportant. What I am saying is that there are certain things we ask for that won’t always be granted. And if you make the pastor’s sermon depend on his prayer life, he’ll do what you seem to be doing. Namely, blaming failure on lack of prayer. Week 1: bad sermon – must be because I didn’t pray enough. Week 2: good sermon – I must have prayed. Week 3: bad sermon – I prayed, but I must not have been desperate enough, and on and on… This is a fail-proof lens to view success/failure through since you will always no what the problem was, and you will always know how to fix it. The question is, whether this is really an honest and biblical way to look at things.

    As humans, we like the idea of having control. That is, if we’re getting different outputs from the same input, we’d like to know why it is and it bugs us not to know. What you’re suggesting is a method that will provide some relief to that incessant desire for control– real or imagined. The truth is God often answers our prayers in ways we don’t like or don’t expect (or both).

    Prayer is important. But the reason I pray is not because I think that I need to pray just a little more for God to bless the sermon, or because I think that he’ll grant what I ask as long as I do my part correctly. Just because I don’t always get what I want, I’m not going to forfeit prayer, neither will I automatically suppose that God has a prayer quota that he’s waiting for me to reach before he grants what I ask. Rather, I’ll accept my creaturely status of not always knowing how God answers my prayers. I’ll trust that he is wiser than I am and knows what he’s doing even if I don’t see it. The continuance of our prayer stems from the assurance that God knows better than us. Out of gratitude we petition that his kingdom come and his will be done (which is very often not our will).

    It’s not a matter of less emphasis on prayer and more emphasis on homiletics. That’s a false dichotomy. Is it really the case that the reason pastors aren’t praying enough is because they trust in their eloquence, or intelligence? Maybe for some, but it’s a harsh generalization to pin the blame on that alone. It’s that New School dichotomy between head and heart that’s at work here. While we old-schoolers only have head-knowledge, you new-schoolers have the right heart knowledge. The difference here comes back to our understanding of what true piety is. We’ve already discussed this part, so I’ll leave it at that.

    Why do we have to emphasize prayer by making the sermon’s efficacy dependent on it? This is certainly a way to guilt people into praying, but one wonders whether it is a biblical reason. Don’t read all of this as me saying prayer is unimportant. Prayer is important, but not for the reasons you are saying.

    Apologies for yet another long comment.

    -Joshua L.

  4. I believe we are all agreed that God is sovereign, and will do whatever He pleases in heaven above and on the earth below. I believe we are also agreed that God has ordained the prayer of faith as a means to accomplish His ends. Further, we are agreed that what God requires He graciously grants.

    Let us not fall into the trap of diminishing the Bible’s teaching regarding our responsibility.

    Matt 17.20-21 “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

    Mark 9.29 “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”

    Romans 15.30 “I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.”

    This prayer was not answered according to Paul’s desire, but his prayer was urged with this understanding: “by God’s will”. This surrender to God’s will did not hinder his request that they “strive” in prayer.

    Ephesians 6.18-20 “To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplications for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”

    The list goes on (James 4.2-3; 5.13-18).

    It is true that God is not beholden to our prayers or lack thereof. Yet, it is too much to deny a Scriptural relation between God’s acting on us to pray and God’s acting through our prayers.

    I’m not accusing anyone of stating otherwise. Nor am I saying that Bounds’ remarks don’t need some qualification. I just don’t want to see us lose sight of this Biblical correlation.

  5. An excellent passage. The apostles did say that they would give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. The order is not insignificant. Without the Spirit coming down as a mighty rushing wind, we will be impotent.

    This reality has led me to feel a great burden for ardent prayer in small, conservative Reformed churches. Sadly, few feel that need. But it behooves us as men of God not to wait for the people, but to cry to heaven ourselves with greater earnestness. I think one thing that can be done is for ministers who feel this burden to find (at least partial) outlet in calling the colleagues and spending seasons of prayer by phone. I have began to do this a couple of years ago with great personal encouragement. And as Rutherford said, many sparks make a good fire.

  6. The excerpt on your post was intriguing. I was able to go to CBD and read even more of the booklet. Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. Have you seen the new Archibald Alexander Collection from Logos Bible Software?

    I thought you might be interested: Archibald Alexander Collection (20 Vols.)


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