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Founders Journal 74 · Fall 2008 · pp. 22-27

The Posture of Preaching

Tom J. Nettles

By "posture" I do not refer to the alignment of one's body when standing. Good posture, of course, is advisable, for one breathes better, projects his voice better and shows respect for the uprightness and symmetry with which God created His image-bearers. No better instruction on this feature of pulpit address can be found than that offered by Spurgeon in his Lectures to my Students. In his brief apology for this two lecture series, Spurgeon summarized the intent by assuming that "No minister would willingly cultivate a habit which would blunt his arrows, or drift them aside from the mark; and, therefore, since these minor matters of movement, posture, and gesture may have that effect, you will give them your immediate attention."[1] But I refer to one's mental and spiritual posture. In what position does a person place his mind and heart as he approaches the time of pulpit proclamation? Within what framework does the preacher of the gospel align his thoughts as he prepares to stand before the people of God to deliver the message of God from the book of God?

My experience in considering this issue does not come from a long history of week by week preparation to give soul care to one group of people over several years of pastoral labor. My preaching has been occasional in churches where I served as an assistant to the pastor, in conferences, a few interims, or one Sunday at a time in different churches. I have heard many sermons, however, as a church member and as a regular attendee at chapel through eight years of seminary life as a student and thirty-three years as a professor. And, as is true in virtually every Christian's relationships, many friends who attend church talk about sermons and preachers and the impact that certain styles of pulpit address have on them.

Content trumps everything. The reconciling work of Christ must be central to the message and omnipresent in the sermon portfolio of every pastor. By reconciling work I mean the incarnation of the Son of God, His life of tested and perfected righteousness, His substitutionary death submitting to a wrath not His due but ours, His resurrection by the glory of the Father, His appearances and post-resurrection commissions and instructions, His ascension, His sending of the Spirit, His present work of intercession and the hope of His coming again. By omnipresent I mean that each and every sermon must make some conscious and conscientious connection to the Messiah-driven nature of divine revelation. A sermon is not a Christian sermon unless it leads us to Christ; a text is not a biblical text unless it is seen in its connection to Christ. None of the promises are ours apart from Christ but "as many as may be the promises of God, in Him [Christ] they are yes" and only in Him do we find the assured and final affirmation that we may indeed live to the glory of God (2 Corinthians 1:20). Every law was given by Him to drive us to Him, every deliverer of Israel pictures what only Christ does. Every Psalm gives praise to the King of kings, every proverb shows us that wisdom is bound up in the cross of Christ, every prophet lets us know that in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son. Christ Himself taught us this when He called two disciples "foolish men and slow of heart" because they failed to "believe in all that the prophets have spoken." Had they perceived correctly the prophetic message, they would have known that it was "necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory" (Luke 24:25, 26). He instructed them, therefore, "beginning with Moses and with all the prophets" and "explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures" (27) Without Christ in His suffering and glory all sermon content is trivial humanism.

Next to content, however, no listener can ignore the impression made by delivery. Delivery is affected, moreover, not only by the disciplined use of body and vocal inflection, but by the state of mind a preacher has prior to his taking his assigned place of instruction and admonition before the people of God. So infused are matter and manner that one's posture of presentation may allow the content to glow with magnetic fervor or bleach it into pale, insipid, even obnoxious hues by its impact on the existential credibility of the messenger. A serious message on the cross may wither from the flippant humor and ill-placed jocularity of the messenger. A message about the humiliation of Christ and the consequent necessity of humility on the part of his followers may crumble under the weight of the cavalier and detached carriage of the messenger. A message on the love of God may sag into mere amusement by the amateurish histrionics of the messenger. In short the most glorious and compelling message possible may lose credibility by any number of ways in which a lack of earnestness becomes prominent.

Jonathan Edwards, in his Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, observed, "I think an exceeding affectionate way of preaching about the great things of religion, has in itself no tendency to beget false apprehensions of them; but on the contrary a much greater tendency to beget true apprehensions of them, than a moderate, dull, indifferent way of speaking of 'em.'" He argued that great earnestness did as much to settle the judgment in favor of truth as great learning and concluded, "Our people don't so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched." We, however, need a heavy portion of both. The truths of divine revelation, flowing like hot lava from heart and lips burning with intense passion for God and souls, makes truth not only heard but felt. Spurgeon added, "One of the excuses most soporific to the conscience of an ungodly generation is that of half-heartedness in the preacher. If the sinner finds the preacher nodding while he talks of judgment to come, he concludes that the judgment is a thing which the preacher is dreaming about, and he resolves to regard it all as mere fiction."[2]

While Edwards specifically wrote to defend the exuberance of preachers in the first Great Awakening and to deflect the severe criticism they received in an attempt to discredit the revival, his argument that manner, the emotional and spiritual overtones, of delivery colors the content is widely applicable. Given our great tendency to sin and self-centeredness, certain particular steps should be taken consciously to give the best opportunity for an earnest manner commensurate with the glory of the message.

First, we should consider who we are--sinners prone to have our tongues corrupt the whole course of nature and defile our entire body because it is set on fire by hell. We preachers will be judged harshly for the wrong use of our tongues. On this we should meditate at several points during the week; we should recall those times that words spoken too quickly or with too little thought have hurt relationships and dishonored God. How much more will a word unfitly spoken, even the right word unfitly spoken, be a dishonor to God if we stand as His messenger and fail to mortify the flesh in our style of delivery. The immediate suggestions to the mind of light anecdotes or ex tempore comments about oneself or the congregation hardly ever advance the cause of the gospel in a message and usually lighten the mood so that seriousness due the proclamation can not be regained.

Second we should consider who the people are--the sheep of God who need a shepherd that is not a mere hireling. The shepherd may protect the sheep by steering them clear of pitfalls, brambles and sheep-eating carnivores. Calls to repentance, therefore, based on biblical admonition, mandate and law should run liberally through the messages that we preach if we earnestly care for the souls of those that hear. Aside remarks, however, that draw more attention to the feelings of the speaker than the glory of the message hardly ever edify or endear one to the call of Christ. Self-conscious efforts to evoke a periodic "Amen" from the congregation may interrupt meaningful reflection on the part of the more serious listeners and could indicate that the minister is more interested in an immediate affirmation of a series of one-liners than a prolonged engagement with a biblical argument. Worse than that is the attempt to insult the congregation into response by clever, or not so clever, manipulations to shame: "Are you people awake yet?" "Are you thinking about beating the Methodists to the cafeteria?" or "Hello?!" after a failed attempt to create a chuckle.

When they hear our voice, will they indeed hear the voice of the Shepherd that gave His life for them. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "You are our letter, written in our hearts known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God." This periodic consideration of who the people are, how Christ has died for them, how the Spirit has called us to them and hopefully written them on our hearts as persons to be cared for will make our public messages to them filled with transparency, earnestness, godliness and joy with the intent of edifying them by setting Christ before them. Instead of evoking a laugh from them, the point of our message should bring weeping from us and them for the reality of the eternity that looms before us mortals, the eternity in which we face the flaming eyes of the righteous judge whose vision will burn away every refuge except the cover of Christ's obedience.

Third, meditate seriously and purposefully on the glory of Christ. The apostle Peter indicates that this action occupied the prophets prior to Christ's coming. They "inquired carefully" as to what type of person or time might be required to fulfill the Spirit's predictions concerning "the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories" (1 Peter 1:10, 11 ESV). They labored over the revelation that they had with such intense interest that the Spirit made a separate revelation to them that the answers would not come in their lifetime. These vital and compelling aspects of divine intervention were reserved for a subsequent age and could only be understood in light of the appearance of the person Himself. Only through Christ is the veil taken away, and, then, only "when one turns to the Lord" (2 Corinthians 3:14-16). Their turning to the Lord, moreover, was the result of hearing the "word of Christ" preached (Romans 10:17). After Christ's ascension, the revelation was made in its fullness to the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5) even as they preached "the good news… by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven" (1 Peter 1:12). The good news consisted of issues of redemptive truth that even the angels did not fully grasp and which they evidently learned through the preaching of the apostolic generation. As a result of the impact of this preaching, in which the sufferings of Christ and His subsequent glory were highlighted, Peter could admonish the churches to "set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:13). Every admonition, every word of encouragement, every bit of instruction that Peter wrote relates immediately to the sufferings and glory of Christ. Their ground of acceptance is in His sufferings and their hope for the future is in His glorification (1:2; 2:24; 3:18; 4:1, 2; 5:1, 10). Their reason for patience in all their trials is the suffering and glory of Christ (1:3-9; 3:14-18; 4:12-14). Their impetus for holiness is in the sufferings and glory of Christ (1:13-21; 2:18-23; 4:3-6). The energy and example for loving the brethren comes from the gospel of Christ's suffering and glory preached to them (1:22-25; 3:8, 9; 4:7-11). If a preacher would understand a text and be inspired to preach all that it contains, he must spend time during the week reflecting on the glory of Christ in His cross, His resurrection, His intercession and His coming.

Fourth, be saturated with the sermon text and bear it consciously in mind throughout the sermon. In addition to thorough preparation in all the relevant helps available to him, meditation on the text should heighten its importance in the preacher's mind so that he grasps the potency of the eternal blessings of grace flowing from it and can think of nothing more worthy of his allotted time than the display of Christ through its truth. Be determined that those that hear this sermon will know this text and how its parts radiate from Christ and His sufficiency as Savior and Lord and bend back upon Him, reflecting His glory from a unique facet on the jewel of Scripture. Keep reminding the hearers that "Our text tells us so." We would never want to do away with the massive variety of helps available today to expedite exegesis and give critical clarity to the meaning of a text. But we must also recognize that Scripture is its own best interpreter. A personal knowledge of the text, its surrounding context, and an intimate acquaintance with the whole Bible makes meditation on a particular text an edifying experience personally and lends power to one's preaching. A. T. Robertson had broad acquaintance with large numbers of preachers that in truth were men of one book. He observed:

This was literally true in some instances, for some of the early Baptist ministers were too poor to possess even a modest library. In some cases the old preacher would own Cruden's Concordance or Matthew Henry's Commentary. But the preacher who had only a copy of the English Bible often made such diligent use of it that he literally knew it. He could quote chapter and verse for his positions and expound Scripture by Scripture; a method not to be despised by the modern interpreter. Sermons out of the Concordance may be fearfully and wonderfully made, but sermons made out of the Bible which one has at his fingers' ends may be charged with power and can certainly claim the promise of God to bless his Word in a sense not true of some modern disquisitions and essays. If some of the interpretations were at times crude and lacking in historical perspective, they at least reflected the light of truth. They were loyal to Christ and preached the reality of sin, the need of a Saviour, and the power of Christ to save sinners of the deepest dye. The pioneer preacher believed his gospel with all his heart and had no doubts about it, for he had put it to the test in too many instances. He was a man of power largely because he was mighty in the Scriptures and was full of faith in God.[3]

Fifth, be single minded in staying with the text and aware of the presence of Christ during the time of delivery. Many clever asides and easily-permitted digressions would remain in the realm of the unspoken where they should be joined by many others were the preacher to cultivate a deep-consciousness of Christ's presence with His people during the time of the ministry of the word. The clutter of superfluous comments could be swept away entirely if we kept in mind that the demands of the text should determine the contour and intent of every sentence. Such concentration on text and Christ would defy the insertion of jokes. Free-standing fabrications of incongruity or implied ridicule simply for the sake of a laugh will not contribute to but will interrupt both the cogency of thought and the pertinent pathos necessary for penetrating a heart with truth and love. Late night talk shows may thrive on this material, but Christian pulpits will wilt right along with the souls that are periodically injected with the virus of insincerity. Jokes have nothing to do with the biblical text and the attempt at teasing relevance out of them is so strained that the congregation usually sees through the charade, and gospel seriousness flies away to find refuge somewhere else. If you seek such jokes in the sermons of Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Whitefield, Wesley, Owen, Howe, Bunyan, Gill, Andrew Fuller, Richard Fuller, Robert Hall, John A. Broadus, James P. Boyce or Charles Spurgeon you will come up empty. They give no advice about it nor example of it. I doubt if the consideration of such a communicative device ever occurred to them for their view of the task before them did not admit of it. Spurgeon sometimes employed humor, but it was always in the flow of thought--an epigram, a pithy proverb, an arresting image, an astute observation about human nature in its relation to divine things, a statement of irony--that sealed, rather than concealed or nullified, the truth being discussed. Boyce's sermons so overflow with earnest solicitude for the spiritual health of his hearers that one can almost feel the warmth generated by his devotional energy. Edwards' intensity for the truth of his doctrine and the salvation of his hearer, concerns intertwined at every phase of his sermon, reverberate with palpable power even from the printed page. Richard Fuller's saturation with the applicability of his doctrinal and textual theme left no space in his mental apparatus for a jocular spirit to shoulder its way into his thinking.

One should not infer from any of these suggestions that a minister of the gospel must be less, or more, than human. He should, however, recognize the sinful tendency that humans have to trivialize the sacred and mortify that urge. He should recognize the sinful tendency to use the tongue as an instrument of hell and fear the outcome. As one called to a transcendent task, he must not create a subterranean climate. As one given specific instructions about the chief function of his calling, he must avoid adding his own bright ideas about what would make it more compelling. "Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. … But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Timothy 4:2, 5). Hold fast the faithful Word that by sound doctrine you can exhort and convince those that contradict it; and show yourself to be a model of good works. In your teaching show integrity, gravity, sincerity, sound speech that cannot be condemned (Titus 1:9; 2:7, 8 paraphrased).


Notes:

1 Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1990 [four volumes in one]), 2:97.

2 Ibid., 147.

3 The Christian Index, 21 October, 1915, 9

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