A Critical, Scolding, Fault-Finding Ministry? (Grimke)

Meditations on Preaching

Sadly, some preaching is full of critical, fault-finding, and inflammatory themes and tones. Some preachers develop a hypercritical attitude and it constantly shows up in their preaching and teaching. All they ever seem to do is criticize other people and positions. And, of course, sometimes laypeople who constantly hear hypercritical sermons develop hypercritical attitudes themselves. All this benefits no one, causes conflicts, and is a dark spot in Christian circles – and sometimes Calvinistic circles specifically. Ironically, sometimes preachers who believe the doctrines of grace don’t always display grace in their preaching and teaching. They might preach about grace, but they preach in a way that is not gracious. Speaking of this, I really like how Francis Grimke addressed this topic:

“A scolding ministry is not likely to be a happy one or a helpful one. It creates an atmosphere that is not favorable to profitable seed-sowing. It indisposes people to listen as they should to what is being said. The truth should be spoken, and spoken plainly, but not in a censorious, fault-finding spirit. People get tired very soon with that kind of ministry. The preacher, if he is wise, will not shut his eyes to what is wrong about [around] him, but it is a mistake for him to be all the time harping on the dark side of things. There is a time for reproof, for rebuke, for calling people sharply to account, but that doesn’t mean that it must be kept up continually. It is a mistake to do so.”

Francis Grimke, Meditations on Preaching, p. 49

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Praised for our Preaching? (Grimke)

Meditations on Preaching I recently picked up this short book called “Meditations on Preaching” by Francis Grimke.  To be honest, I hadn’t heard about this book before but after looking into it seemed like the book would be worthwhile to read.  And it for sure is!  It’s full of great Christian wisdom on preaching.  If you’re a pastor and you need some encouraging thoughts on preaching, do get this book!  So far it’s been a blessing to me.  Here’s one quote I read today that was convicting and helpful:

Too often, we preachers feel, that we are not doing very much, that our work is not succeeding, unless someone is constantly swinging the censer under our noses. It is when we are praised, when our sermons are spoken of in complimentary terms, that we feel that we are succeeding most. And, when we preach, Sabbath after Sabbath, and no words of commendation are heard, we are apt to feel a little discouraged, to think that we are not succeeding. Unfortunately, too many of us (such is poor human nature) want to be praised. We look for it, we expect it: we often think more of a word of commendation than anything else. It is certainly a weakness, a pitiable weakness, a thing to be ashamed of. We ought to be content to do our work, with no thought of self, but only of the glory of God. Too many of us are like the Pharisees in this respect. It is the glory of man that we are thinking of, and that we are hankering most for. It may be natural, but it is a thing for which we should despise ourselves.

Here’s another I appreciated:

“I am not asking God to fill the house with listeners, but I am asking him to send to the services those who need to hear the message which I am to give and to prepare me to give it and prepare them to receive it.

One more:

“No man’s ministry is a failure, however meager the results, if he has been faithfully and earnestly preaching the gospel of the grace of God, holding up to dying, sinful men God’s message of redeeming love.  Such a ministry is not, could not be, a failure.”

Francis James Grimke, Meditations on Preaching (Madison: Log College Press, 2018).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Spurgeon’s Allegorizing

  Charles Spurgeon mentioned to his students that within certain limits it was OK to “spiritualize” a text.  He spent some time explaining this point in Lectures to My Students.  It’s not exactly easy to get a precise definition of what it means to “spiritualize” a text; it has to do with the interpretation of Scripture, which is a huge topic in itself.  However one defines it, there is an overlap between spiritualizing and allegorizing.  In fact, I would argue that Spurgeon’s sermons sometimes contain allegory.

One example is his sermon on Genesis 7:15 which is called “The Parable of the Ark.”  I recently read this sermon in my studies on Genesis 6-9.   While Spurgeon says in the introduction he’s going to give a “parable” on the ark, it’s really an allegory.  Here’s Spurgeon’s allegorical interpretation of the “one window in the ark”:

I have often wondered how all the creatures could see through one window; but I have not wondered what was meant by it, for I think it is easy to point the moral. There is only one window whereby Christians ever get their light. All who come to Christ, and receive salvation by him, are illuminated in one way. That one window of the ark may fitly represent to us the ministry of the Holy Ghost. There is only one light which lighteneth every man who cometh into the world if he be lightened at all. Christ is the light, and it is the Holy Spirit of truth by whom Christ is revealed.

…There was only one window to the ark; and though there were first, second, and third stories to the ark, all saw out of one window; and the little saint, who is in the first story, gets light through the one window of the Spirit; and the saint, who has been brought up to the second story, gets light through the same window; and he, who has been promoted to the loftiest story, has to get light through the same window too. There is no other means of our seeing except through the one window made to the ark, the window of the Holy Spirit. Have we looked through that? Have we seen the clear blue sky above us?

While it is true that the Holy Spirit gives illumination, it is certainly not the meaning of the ark’s window.  The window in the ark was just a window in the ark, not a veiled reference to the Holy Spirit.  In fact, there could have been more than one opening in the ark depending on how one translates the very difficult phrase in Gen. 6:16a.  Some scholars say there may have been an 18 inch (a cubit) opening all around the top.  Whatever the case, Spurgeon clearly missed the meaning of the text.

I’m not saying Spurgeon was a terrible preacher.  He was human and made many mistakes like the rest of us.  And some of his sermons were better than others. I just wanted to point this out to help us avoid the error of allegorizing a text like this.  Αnd it is helpful to remember that even our favorite preachers err and it’s healthy for us to admit that.  This will keep us from emulating their error.  It will also keep us from idolizing our favorite preachers.  And it reminds us that God can [thankfully!] accomplish his purposes through fallible preachers and imperfect sermons.

The above quote by Spurgeon is found in Spurgeon, C. H. The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons. Vol. 53. London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1907, p. 270.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Seven Adverbs of Pastoral Duty (DPW)

 (This is a re-post from June 2012)

Aside from writing the magnificent confession and catechisms, the Westminster divines also wrote a directory for public worship (DPW) which was approved in 1645.  One section of this directory that has always stuck out for me is where it explains the duties of the pastor in simple, clear, biblical terms.  Here are the seven points – which I’ve summarized and edited.

“The servant of Christ is to perform his ministry…”

1) Painstakingly, not doing the work of the Lord negligently.

2) Plainly, so that the uneducated may understand – delivering the truth not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, lest the cross of Christ be made of no effect; not using unknown languages, strange phrases, and rhythmic sounds or words; citing non-biblical texts and authors sparingly, even if they are so elegant.

3) Faithfully, looking to the honor of Christ and the conversion, edification, and salvation of the people; not seeking his own gain or glory; keeping nothing back which promotes these holy ends; not showing favoritism but pointing out the sins both of the lowly and the mighty.

4) Wisely, explaining all doctrine, encouragement, and rebuke in a manner that is clear; respecting the situation of the congregation, not mixing his own intense enthusaism for something or bitterness.

5) Seriously, in a manner fitting for God’s Word, avoiding all gestures, expressions, and words that may lead people to despise the ministry.

6) Lovingly, so that the people may see and know that he genuinely desires to do them good.

7) Truthfully, as taught by God’s Word and persuaded in his own heart that it is true; publicly and privately living according to the truth in order to be a godly example to the flock; watching over his own life and doctrine as well as that of the congregation, with the goal that the truth of God be preserved, souls converted, and that he himself may receive blessing from his labors in this life and in the one to come.

Allow me a few comments on these seven adverbs describing the ministry. First, these seven points are based on Scripture.  They also lead the pastor and his congregation back to Scripture.  Second, these words describe the pastor as a servant – a servant of Christ primarily but also his church.  This means that neither culture, desire for popularity, personal preferences, nor “itching ears” drive the pastoral ministry.  Third, these seven points fight against the current notion that a successful pastor is one who is likable, trendy, “twitterable,” and amusing.  In other words, they call the pastor to Christian maturity, piety, and wisdom and away from Western culture’s fixation on youth, looks, fame, and entertainment.

A pastor’s duty and goal, therefore, is to serve Christ by faithfully explaining his Word (law and gospel) to his people – for their Christian good and his glory.  Perhaps we can apply John 3:30 to the pastoral ministry: he must increase, but I must decrease.

By the way, you can find this part of the DPW in the appendix of Westminster Confession of Faith (but I’m sure it’s also online and in other books).  I strongly encourage pastors to read it!

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Spurgeon’s Preaching: A Critique (Greidanus)

Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method Greidanus, Sidney cover image   Charles Spurgeon (d. 1892) doesn’t need much of an introduction in Calvinist circles.  We all know that the Lord used Spurgeon’s preaching to bring many to Christ and to build his people up in the faith.  I’d guess that Spurgeon is one of the most quoted preachers in history.  He’s beloved by many for a good reason: he pointed people to Jesus!

But Spurgeon’s preaching had some serious weaknesses or shortcomings.  I’m one of the few Calvinists who aren’t particularly drawn to read Spurgeon’s sermons because of these weaknesses.  In fact, after reading quite a few of his sermons, they’re not very high on my “to read” list.  Yes, they are devotional, edifying, and have a great emphasis on the gospel.  But Spurgeon’s sermons are not great examples of well-rounded expository preaching.

Sidney Greidanus spent some time discussing Spurgeon’s preaching in Preaching Christ from the Old Testament.  I don’t have time or space to summarize or quote the whole section and the many footnotes, but here are parts of it worth reading:

Even the most generous reviewers will admit that Spurgeon makes many errors in his interpretation of Scripture.  They will usually attribute these errors to his lack of formal theological education and/or lack of time.  But it is also clear that his single-minded concern to preach Jesus Christ often leads him to reading Christ back into the Old Testament text.  In other words, he frequently fails to do justice to the literal sense and the historical context of the Old Testament passages.  He does not ask about the intention of the original author; he does not inquire about the message for Israel.  Instead, he tends to use the Old Testament text as a “springboard” for his message about Jesus Christ.  He can do so all the more readily because he usually selects extremely brief texts (‘singular texts’), a fragment instead of a literary (message)  unit.  …Of the 532 sermons examined by [John] Talbert, ‘Spurgeon used only one verse or a part of one verse of Scripture in almost 70% of the messages….’  Although these brief texts will send people home with a clear idea of the point(s) of the sermon, a textual fragment is usually an open invitation to twist the meaning intended by the inspired author.

…Spurgeon vowed that if he would ever find a text ‘that had not got a road to Christ in it,’ he would ‘go over hedge and ditch but I would get at my Master…’  Frequently Spurgeon fails to see the right road to his Master, and, instead, travels through the swamp of typologizing and allegorizing.  He may warn his students about Origin, but Spurgeon’s own method is arbitrary and lacks any form of control.  He not only teaches that allegorical interpretation is a legitimate form of ‘spiritualizing,’ but he also preaches numerous historical narratives as if they were allegories.  Today we would call this a genre mistake.

Greidanus does give a few more gentle critiques of Spurgeon’s preaching; these are a few I thought were helpful.  I don’t believe Spurgeon was a horrible preacher and that no one should read him.  But I do believe it’s worth mentioning these flaws in Spurgeon’s preaching to help fellow preachers avoid them and to keep readers from adopting them.  Of course, no mere man has ever preached a perfect sermon and no preacher is perfect.  Thankfully God uses imperfect sermons preached by imperfect men to glorify himself and bring people to Christ!

The above quote is found on pages 160-151 of Preaching Christ from the Old Testament.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015