In recent weeks The Center For Gospel Culture has been hosting Sermon Labs. Led by Stephen Um and Richard Lints, we’ve been getting together on Wednesday evenings to learn and talk about what it means to and how we might more faithfully preach the gospel. A small part of the conversation has been the ways in which great preachers of the past have approached the task. Particularly, we’ve centered in on three different perspectives: redemptive-historical (Geerhardus Vos), law-gospel (Martin Luther), and heart-revival preaching (Jonathan Edwards). The hope is that we can get all three of these modes of preaching in conversation so that the gospel might be proclaimed in such a way that the mind, will, and affections are all confronted with God’s grace in Christ as revealed in all of Scripture.
While each of the above-mentioned theologian-preachers is worthy of study, I found myself particularly drawn to Edwards and the emphasis he placed upon the heart in preaching. To learn more I picked up Douglas Sweeney’s Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word: A Model of Faith and Thought. Sweeney’s book is a very easy read and is particularly helpful for those considering, pursuing, or involved in vocational ministry. Although his main focus is not upon Edwards’ preaching, he has a section on this aspect of Edwards’ ministry that is quite insightful (pp. 73-82).
As I read, I was grabbed by the way that Sweeney described Edwards’ preaching. Maybe you will be too:
“There was something in his preaching that grabbed his listeners by the
heart, wrapped their attention around the Word, and sent them away with
food for thought” (77).
Of course Edwards has gone down in history as a great preacher, but what was it that caused him to be remembered as one who “grabbed his listeners by the heart”? An early biographer identified three qualities that distinguished Edwards’ preaching from that of others (77-8):
1. “The great pains he took in composing his sermons”
2. “His great acquaintance with Divinity, his study and knowledge of the Bible”
3. “His great acquaintance with his own heart, his inward sense and relish of divine truths, and the high exercise of true, experimental religion”
Number three is where I want to land this brief reflection.
If a preacher is to preach the gospel to the hearts of his hearers, it must first have a rock-bottom impact on his own. When the gospel takes root in our lives it does at least the following: It allows us to have a “great acquaintance” with our own hearts without the despair that might otherwise arise from an encounter with our own brokenness. It opens to us a world of historically manifested truth that takes us by surprise and reorients our entire lives. And, finally, by it we are invited in to an “experimental,” experiential, affectionate life of faith. In short, the preacher who understands that the message of the gospel must first (and constantly) remake his own heart is the most likely to preach in a way that “grabs his listeners by the heart,” wraps them around the gospel, and sends them off well-formed and well-fed.