“He was a burning and a shining light.”
– Jesus on John the Baptist (John 5:35)
In a sermon on John 5:35, Jonathan Edwards insisted that two things must be married in the heart and life of a preacher: light and heat. He must not only shine, but burn.
If a minister has light without heat, and entertains his auditory with learned discourses, without a savour of the power of godliness, or an appearance of fervency of spirit, and zeal for God and the good of souls, he may gratify itching ears, and fill the heads of his people with empty notions; but it will not be very likely to save their souls. And if, on the other hand, he be driven on with a fierce and intemperate zeal, and vehement heat, without light, he will be likely to kindle the like unhallowed flame in his people, and to fire their corrupt passions and affections; but will make them never the better, nor lead them one step towards heaven, but drive them apace the other way.[i]
Light and heat. Truth and passion. Mind and heart. Word and worship. Theology and doxology. These must always be combined in the life and preaching of a pastor. Martyn Lloyd-Jones agreed. “What is preaching?” he asked. “Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! . . . Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire.”[ii]
How can we ensure that our messages are characterized by both light and heat? What kinds of practices will yield sermons that both inform minds with the truth of God’s Word and enflame hearts with a passion for worship?
1. Allow the text of Scripture to govern your preaching.
God’s Word is truth (John 17:17) and the source of light (Psalm 119:105). The darkness of human thinking will be illuminated only to the degree that the meaning of God’s Word is made the clear and demonstrable message of our sermons.
A message will not shine if it merely makes a passing reference to Scripture with little explanation of its meaning and scant reflection on its implications for life and thought. But if God’s Word dominates a sermon, then light will be present to inform the minds of those who hear.
Paul told Timothy to devote himself to public reading of Scripture, exhortation, and teaching (1 Tim. 4:13). When Ezra led the people of Israel in a revived interest in God’s Word, he and the other priests “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). This is the first step.
2. Rely on the power of the Holy Spirit.
Never forget that God’s Spirit accomplishes what the polished eloquence of human wisdom can never achieve. Paul said it best in his first letter to the Corinthians:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
The anointing and power of God’s Spirit—what Martyn Lloyd-Jones called “the conscious smile of God” [iii]—is vital. As the old hymn says, “All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down.”[iv]
3. Keep the cross of Christ central.
But notice in this same passage the medium through which the Spirit works: the message of “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” The only preaching that is Spirit-empowered is that preaching which is Christ-centered. If you want your sermons to both illumine minds and kindle hearts, then fill your sermons with Christ.
Spurgeon once lamented the deadness of doctrine minus Christ:
I have seen, to my inexpressible grief, the doctrines of grace made a huge stone to be rolled at the mouth of the sepulcher of a dead Christ, and I have seen sound doctrine, so called, made as a very seal to seal in the dead Christ, lest by any means the energy of his grace should come out for the salvation of sinners. Oh, what is doctrine after all but a throne whereon Christ sitteth, and when that throne is vacant what is the throne to us? It is the monarch and not the throne that we reverence and esteem. Doctrines are but as the shovel and tongs of the altar, while Christ is the sacrifice smoking thereon. Doctrines are Christ’s garments; verily they all smell of myrrh, and cassia, and aloes out of the ivory palaces, whereby they make us glad, but it is not the garments we care for so much as for the person, the very person of our Lord Jesus Christ.[v]
4. Birth your sermons with the labor pangs of prayer.
Messages, like children, must be delivered. But all too often our sermons are stillborn. Perhaps prayerlessness is the cause. As heralds of God’s Word, we should devote ourselves to prayer.
In my experience it seems that many pastors are naturally more inclined toward the Word or prayer, but find it difficult to give disciplined attention to both. Consequently, the Word-oriented pastor is often a good teacher lacking spiritual affections and a heart of worship, while the prayer-oriented pastor is warm and devout, but less prepared in the pulpit. Those more inclined to prayer should probably give more attention to disciplined preparation of text-driven, Word-centered messages. Those more inclined to study need to spend more time on their knees.
We should also seek out the prayers of our people. Paul repeatedly sought the prayers of the saints in his letters—usually prayers for boldness and clarity in preaching. Spurgeon was once asked the secret of his ministerial success. His answer was to show the inquirer the “furnace room” of the church: a basement filled with praying people.
5. Never divorce proclamation from personal application.
We all know that our walk should match our talk. When our living doesn’t match our preaching, people are not likely to believe what we say. Why should they, if we don’t believe it ourselves?
John Owen said, “A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. . . . If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.”[vi]
Paul told Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16). It is easier for us to closely watch our teaching than our lives, but both are critical to pastoral fruitfulness.
Richard Baxter wrote, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine, and lest you lay such stumbling-blocks before the blind, as may be the occasion of their ruin; lest you unsay with your lives, what you say with your tongue; and be the greatest hinderers of the success of your own labors.”[vii]
When pastors give attention to these things, they will both burn and shine.
Making It Personal
- Are your sermons text-driven, saturated with Scripture?
- Do you rely on the power of the Spirit in your preaching?
- Is the cross of Christ the center of your proclamation?
- Are your messages birthed with the labor pangs of prayer?
- Does your life match your teaching?
[i] The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974 reprint) 2:958.
[ii] Quoted in Iain H. Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years: 1899-1939 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982) 97.
[iii] “Are we sufficiently sensitive, I wonder, to the presence of God? Do we know the difference between God smiling upon us and God not smiling upon us? It is the test of a preacher. . . . To me there is nothing more terrible for a preacher, than to be in a pulpit alone, without the conscious smile of God.” D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Revival (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987) 295.
[iv] George Atkins, “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship,” 1819.
[v] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Volume 8 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1975 reprint) 339.
[vi] Quoted in Sinclair Ferguson, “Preaching to the Heart,” in Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2002) 198.
[vii] Ibid., 63.