The second lesson we must learn from this Biblical coupling together of proclamation and appeal is the complementary one: we must never make the proclamation without then issuing an appeal. If one had to choose between the two, I would rather have the proclamation than the appeal, but fortunately we are not faced with this choice. We are to find room for both proclamation and appeal in our preaching if we would be true heralds of the King. I am not presuming to say what form this appeal should take. Nor am I advocating any particular evangelistic technique or method. I am simply saying that proclamation without appeal is not Biblical preaching. It is not enough to teach the gospel, we must urge men to embrace it.
Naturally, there are many factors which inhibit preachers from making this appeal. There is a kind of hyper-Calvinism, which regards the call to repentance and faith as an attempt to usurp the prerogatives of the Holy Spirit. Of course we agree that man is blind, dead and bound; that repentance and faith are the gifts of God; and that men are unable to turn from their sins to Christ without the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul taught these truths. But this should not stop us from beseeching men to be reconciled to God, for the apostle Paul did this also! Other preachers have a great horror of emotionalism. So have I, if this means the artificial stirring of the emotions by rhetorical tricks or other devices. But we should not fear genuine emotion. If we can preach Christ crucified and remain altogether unmoved, we must have a hard heart indeed. More to be feared than emotion is cold professionalism, the dry, detached utterance of a lecture which has neither heart nor soul in it. Do man’s peril and Christ’s salvation mean so little to us that we feel no warmth rise within us as we think about them? (John Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961], 57-8).
I listened to John Piper’s biography on John Owen today, “The Chief Design of My Life: Mortification and Universal Holiness.”
The presentation is one hour and 33 minutes long. I worked while I listened so the level of my attention varied throughout the message. I caught the last 10 minutes of the audio quite clearly, or perhaps it caught me. I included the text below. I bolded the text that spoke most powerfully to me.
I needed to hear the challenge at the end. It is so true. As a pastor, I put out sermon after sermon. A sermon can be like a widget on an assembly line if I’m not careful. I present a finished product to the congregation week after week. The task of sermon preparation is constant. Consequently, my soul can shrivel even though I may be a sermon crafting machine. It is one thing for me to spend time preparing a meal for others. It is entirely another for me to partake in and be nourished by the meal I have prepared.
I share this with you in the hopes it will encourage you if you are regularly involved in preaching or teaching the word of God.
Owen was authentic in commending in public only what he had experienced in private.
One great hindrance to holiness in the ministry of the word is that we are prone to preach and write without pressing into the things we say and making them real to our own souls. Over the years words begin to come easy, and we find we can speak of mysteries without standing in awe; we can speak of purity without feeling pure; we can speak of zeal without spiritual passion; we can speak of God’s holiness without trembling; we can speak of sin without sorrow; we can speak of heaven without eagerness. And the result is a terrible hardening of the spiritual life.
Words came easy for Owen, but he set himself against this terrible disease of unauthenticity and secured his growth in holiness. He began with the premise: “Our happiness consisteth not in the knowing the things of the gospel, but in the doing of them” (see note 61). Doing, not just knowing, was the goal of all his studies.
As a means to this authentic doing he labored to experience every truth he preached. He said,
I hold myself bound in conscience and in honor, not even to imagine that I have attained a proper knowledge of any one article of truth, much less to publish it, unless through the Holy Spirit I have had such a taste of it, in its spiritual sense, that I may be able, from the heart, to say with the psalmist, ‘I have believed, and therefore I have spoken’ (see note 62).
So for example his Exposition of Psalm 130 (320 pages on eight verses) is the laying open not only of the Psalm but of his own heart. Andrew Thomson says,
When Owen … laid open the book of God, he laid open at the same time the book of his own heart and of his own history, and produced a book which … is rich in golden thoughts, and instinct with the living experience of ‘one who spake what he knew, and testified what he had seen’ (see note 63).
The same biographer said of Owen’s On The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded (1681) that he “first preached [it] to his own heart, and then to a private congregation; and which reveals to us the almost untouched and untrodden eminences on which Owen walked in the last years of his pilgrimage” (see note 64).
This was the conviction that controlled Owen:
A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us (see note 65).
It was this conviction that sustained Owen in his immensely busy public life of controversy and conflict. Whenever he undertook to defend a truth, he sought first of all to take that truth deeply into his heart and gain a real spiritual experience of it so that there would be no artificiality in the debate and no mere posturing or gamesmanship. He was made steady in the battle because he had come to experience the truth at the personal level of the fruits of holiness and knew that God was in it. Here is the way he put it in the Preface to The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated (1655):
When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth,—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us,—when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men (see note 66).
That, I think, was the key to Owen’s life and ministry, so renown for holiness —”when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.”
The last thing Owen was doing at the end of his life came was communing with Christ in a work that was later published as Meditations on the Glory of Christ. His friend William Payne was helping him edit the work. Near the end Owen said, “O, brother Payne, the long-wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world” (see note 67).
But Owen saw more glory than most of us see, and that is why he was known for his holiness, because Paul taught us plainly and Owen believed, “We all with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord are being changed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next.”
A good word from Martin Luther on the importance of preaching the gospel in Christ’s person and work before moving to preaching Christ as an example. As a preacher, we might unwittingly miss the gospel in our pursuit of making application.
Be sure, moreover, that you do not make Christ into Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do, as if the gospel were simply a textbook of teachings or laws. Therefore, you should grasp Christ, his words, works, sufferings, in a two-fold manner. First as an example that is presented to you, which you should follow and imitate. As St. Peter says in I Peter 4, ‘Christ suffered for us, thereby leaving us an example.’ Thus when you see how he prays, fasts, helps people, and shows them love, so also you should do, both for yourself and for your neighbor. However this is the smallest part of the gospel. For on this level Christ is of no more help to you than some other saint. His life remains his own and does not yet contribute anything to you. In short this mode [of understand Christ as simply an example] does not make Christians but only hypocrites. You must grasp Christ at a much higher level. Even though this higher level has for a long time been the very best, the preaching of it has been something rare. The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that before you take Christ as an example, you accept and recognize him as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that it is your own (Martin Luther, “Proclamation Verses Moralism” in Richard Lischer, ed., Theories of Preaching [Durham, NC: Labyrinth, 1987], 97).
For [expository preaching’s] successful accomplishment, however, a preacher needs must be a man of prayer. For every hour spent in his study-chair, he will have to spend two upon his knees. For every hour he devotes to wrestling with an obscure passage of Holy Writ, he must have two in the which to be found wrestling with God. Prayer and preaching: preaching and prayer! They cannot be separated. The ancient cry was: “To your tents, O Israel!” The modern cry should be: “To your knees, O preachers, to your knees!” (E.M. Bounds, The Necessity of Prayer, 66)
Google makes an astounding number of words available to us. Whether the words are spoken in podcasts or written on blogs, articles, and books, it is simply staggering. The availability of so many words is both a blessing and a cursing. It is a blessing because one can download outstanding Biblical preaching and teaching from some of the finest Christian preachers and teachers alive today. It is also a cursing because, conversely, one can also just as readily access some really bad preaching and teaching.
Please understand, I do not say this from the perspective of one who has arrived as a preacher. While I work hard to bring expository, doctrinally rich, and practically useful sermons, I know I miss the mark more often than I’d like. You can listen to our church podcast and draw your own conclusion. Nevertheless, to observe that the one can quickly discover some really bad preaching on the internet is simply the frightening reality.
Contemporary preaching may be devoid of truth or lacking in conviction or both because we lack the confidence that God has something to say today. God not only spoke in times past, recorded in the Bible (Hebrews 1:1-2), but because we hold God’s word in our hands, God still speaks. The notion that God still speaks is at the heart of this piercing quote from Albert Mohler in his book He Is Not Silent. His words are a pointed call to all of us preachers to preach expositionally and to do so with passion and conviction or go do something else. They are also an important reminder to all Christians of the timelessness and timeliness of God’s word for our lives in this generation.
I fear that there are many evangelicals today who believe that God spoke but doubt whether He speaks. They know and talk about the fact that God spoke in the Old Testament but think now that He no longer does so and that they must therefore invent new ways to convince people to love him. But if you call yourself a preacher of God’s Word, and you think that all of God’s speaking was in the past, then resign. I say that with deadly seriousness. If you do not believe that God now speaks from His Word—the Bible—then what are you doing every Sunday morning? If you are not confident that God speaks as you rightly read and explain the Word of God, then you should quit.
But if you do believe that—if you truly believe that God speaks through His Word—then why would you substitute anything else in place of the expository preaching of the Bible? What is more important for your people than to hear from God, and how else is that going to happen unless you, like Ezra, open the book, read it, and explain it to them? Just as in Deuteronomy, this is a matter of life and death, and far too many pastors who deeply believe that God does speak have abandoned His voice in Scripture (R. Albert Mohler, He Is Not Silent, 57-8).
While preparing for Sunday’s message on 2 Corinthians 5:17, I came across a great quote from William Barclay. I disagree with Barclay on some points, including on his understanding of the phrase “fear of the Lord” in 2 Corinthians 5:11. He suggests,
It is not so much the terror of the Christ he really talks about. It is rather awe and reverence that he means (Barclay, The Letter to the Corinthians, 207).
We will agree to disagree on this interpretation. However, he nails it with his comments on v. 12 which reads, “We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.” Here’s what he says. This is a tremendous reminder for all preachers and teachers of God’s word and also for every one who proclaims Christ in their daily spheres of influence.
Paul is trying to persuade men of his own sincerity. He has no doubt whatever that in the sight of God his hands are clean and his motives pure, but his enemies have cast suspicion on them, and he wishes to demonstrate his sincerity to his Corinthian friends. This is not from any selfish desire to vindicate himself. It is from the knowledge that, if his sincerity is questioned, the impact of his message will be injured. A man’s message will always be heard in the context of his character. That is why the preacher and the teacher must be beyond suspicion. We have to avoid, not only evil, but the very appearance of evil lest anything make others think less, not of us, but of the message which we bring (emphasis added, Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, 208)
You talk about something that hits hard–nothing hits harder than a well-placed sermon application. Consider Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. The body of the sermon runs from v. 2 through v. 50. It is an excellent recounting of Israel’s history. Stephens also weaves in Scripture throughout his discourse. It is a homiletic masterpiece. Moreover, as Stephen waxes eloquent there isn’t much with which his audience disagreed. Until v. 51. This is when Stephen begins to “meddle.” He says,
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.  Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered,  you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it (Acts 7:51-53).
The hammer came down. The sermon hit people between the eyes. Stephen didn’t even need a single stanza from “Just as I Am.” The people responded. Oh boy, did they ever respond.
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him . . . then they cast him out of the city and stoned him (Acts 7:54, 58a).
When I read this text it provided a powerful reminder of the importance of application in my sermons. As a preacher, I have a responsibility to speak plainly and pertinently to my audience. This is precisely what Stephen did. His application hit his hearers like a hammer and evoked a response. A pointed sermon application led to the first Christian martyr. Let’s be faithful in proclaiming and applying the text to the lives of our hearers.