September 15th, 1997
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 Corinthians 1:21
I have chosen a text for the sermon, for the message, 1 Corinthians 1:21, "It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe." "By the foolishness", moria, and one of the forms of that substantive is "moron." And moron would refer to a foolish and stupid somebody. And that is what God has chosen to convert the world, the stupid, moronic choice of preaching.
So, it refers not to the subject or the subtext but to the method, preaching. God could have chosen an angel of heaven to go through this world and present the message of the Lord Jesus. He could have placed demonstration in the sky to persuade us about the marvelous ministry of our Lord. Or, he could have had a burning pit and dangled the unbeliever over that terrible fire. But, instead, the Book says that God chose preaching to save those who are lost.
We shall discuss first the place of the preacher. It is overwhelming when we realize that God had only one Son and He made Him a preacher. Tragically, we have lost out on the centrality of biblical and expository ministry. We exalt worship but not preaching. There are seminars and courses on drama, on dance, the use of audio-visual aids. But, with some glorious exceptions, we do not train men to preach. And indeed, we create an atmosphere when the sermon seems almost expendable.
In his book, Preaching and Preachers, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones sounds a clarion call. He writes, "Ultimately, to me, the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone could ever be called. If you want something in addition to that, I would say without any hesitation that the most urgent need in the Christian church is true preaching." And that is why you are here to this place.
The sermon addresses the questions that arise in every human heart. What am I? Why am I here? What are the supreme values in life? What can I do? What are my relations with others? What is the universe? How was it created and why? If I know I have sinned, how can I find peace and righteousness? Who and what and where is God? What is my duty before Him? What might it mean to be out of harmony with the Lord God? What awaits me after death? Who, actually, is Jesus? And what is to be my relationship with Him? Those questions are a part of human nature. And for the preacher to stand up there in the pulpit and bring an answers from God to those who set out there listening is one of the great callings of heaven itself.
Now, the preacher has to be more versatile than the Sunday paper, more interesting than a baseball game, more attractive than the movies, better informed than the latest book, and more interesting and enticing than a drugstore window that is filled with all kinds of alluring aromatics. You’ve got a calling ahead of you, I tell you. So, we’re going to speak about the preacher.
Today, the preacher confronts an age in which we live and it confronts an age more absorbed with material comforts and mechanical gadgets than any generation ever before. Caught up in interest in autos, radios, airplanes, luxuries, world without end. The people he addresses are pre-committed to getting rich quick. And many of them have been brought up in a prejudice against religion. They think of faith as contrary to science and of the Bible as a collection of discredited superstitions and unbelievable myths. Actually and truly the preacher is dealing with life at first-hand and he is dealing directly with the human soul. Great preaching is more than entertainment or information, or even physical well-being, for it meets a man at the point of his inner needs of adjustment and life.
Great preaching has always been born out of great convictions about God. Great preaching on a fire with a since of the Living God is sure to come out of his reading the inspired Word. The Christ of the Gospels has come back to us and we see the great Galilean as Peter and Andrew saw Him. We know Him today as "one who speaks as never a man speaks."
Bishop Sanders of Alabama, writing on the need to improve the quality and priority of preaching, wrote,
In the multiple tasks of a pastor, his identity as a preacher may be lost. The quality of preaching may decline as he fills other functions and neglects the discipline required for effectual preaching and confidence in the superior efficacy of preaching may fade, as other ministries appear to be more redemptive.
History proves, however, that the church can exist without liturgy, without buildings, without choirs, without Sunday schools, without professional clergymen, without creeds, without even women’s societies. But, the church cannot possibly exist without preaching the Word. Preaching has power like nothing else the church has or does. Moreover, preaching reaches more people than anything else the preacher could do, whether it is teaching, visiting, administering or counseling. The time has come to restore preaching to its rightful place and primary position in the work of the ministry.
In preaching, there is power: the power of the Spirit; the power of the Word. As the Word is proclaimed, the Spirit is working in the minds and hearts of the hearers. "Rise up, O men of God, and preach!" There is something to preach about that sets men’s souls on fire: if you trace that through, it is the administration of the truth of God in His holy Word, the living Bible. And it has confronted mankind in the days of St. Francis, John Bunyan, the Pilgrim Fathers, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and a multitude of others. "What a privilege and a responsibility to be a preacher! The preacher is aware of this great responsibility."
Now, I have written down here the characteristics of a good preacher. The first I have written down here is humility. The true preacher must always give evidence of true humility. To quote Barclay, "It is not the man who approaches a task with a tremor who does it really well. It is the actor who is wrought up before the performance. It is the preacher whose heart beats faster as he waits to speak. The man who shows no tension before any task may give an effective and competent performance. But, it is the man who has the intensity of anxiety who is able to produce true greatness which competence alone can never achieve."
And if I can take a leaf out of my own life. No matter when or where, if I have an assignment to preach, I am absolutely overwhelmed with timidity and anxiety and interceding with God to help me and take care of me. And I don’t care how I struggle against it, for the seventy-one years I have been a preacher, I have never gotten away from that trembling before I stand up to speak. In this connection, we do well to remember the words of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian church, "Most gladly, most gladly, I will glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me," that in 2 Corinthians 12:9. Paul understood that only when he was weak could he be strong. Thus, I say that the first characteristic of a good preacher is humility.
The second characteristic is simplicity. Simplicity, of course, characterized our Savior’s sermons. Read through his messages in the Gospels and you will be impressed all over again at the simplicity and directness of His language. No wonder that Paul cautions his readers that, through subtlety, the Devil could corrupt their minds from the simplicity that is in Christ. That is in 2 Corinthians 11:3. I do not know of any word that more aptly characterizes our Savior, "the simplicity that is in Christ."
Now, another characteristic of a wonderful preacher is the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The secret of his humility, simplicity and authority is, "Ye shall receive power after the Holy Spirit is come upon you", Acts. 1:8. This is the anointing of the Spirit. It is more than the filling, even though it includes the filling, an anointing which gives the ability to appreciate, and love, the words of God.
Today, our danger is preaching over the heads of people. The philosopher has a jargon of his own. And the physical scientist has a jargon of his own. Alas, the preacher has a brand of his own. If God is to won the message then it has to be delivered in language understood by the people and in words dictated by the Holy Spirit. This is implicit in that statement of the apostle, where he says, in 1 Corinthians 2:13, "These things we also speak, not in words taught by man’s wisdom, but which the Holy Spirit teaches." Paul continues, "My speech and my preaching were in demonstration of the Spirit and of power."
This word here "demonstration" is used only here. It literally signifies "a showing forth" and has the force of conviction carried by the Holy Spirit. What a wonderful demonstration of the authority of Christ! In Scripture, there is always a balance between the Word and the Spirit. Right from the first chapter of Genesis, they work hand-in-hand as God says and the Spirit was moving over the face of the water. We are to be true to the Word and, then, the Spirit will drive home His message in individual lives.
It is not unlike the moment in the Old Testament when Elijah is contesting with the false prophets. After he had made all the preparation that was necessary, and had prayed, then the fire fell. Only God can bring the fire. Only we can do the preparation. An ill-prepared sermon should not expect the fire to fall. And a sermon studiously prepared without prayer may be beautiful and eloquent, but quite dead.
So, Paul brings the exhortation to Timothy, with a challenge, "Preach the Word," 2 Timothy 4:2. The command suggests a very definite commitment. It is to be an ongoing ministry. He is to make it the ongoing work of his life. That is one of the greatest needs for today. There can be no substitute for the dynamic proclamation of the truth. The preacher must be a faithful student of the Word of God. Study the Word! The great preacher Lionel Abbott never attended a seminary, the greatest prophets, also the greatest teachers and preachers, in planning the Sunday service, all say, first, consider the sermon.
The Old Testament, as well as the New, was accepted as inerrant, inspired by Jesus, by Augustine, by Athanasius, by Tyndale, by Wycliffe, by Hus, by Aquinas, by Luther, by Calvin, by Knox, by Newton, by Tasker, by Wesley, by Spurgeon, and by many others down through the centuries. You don’t have to feel that you are out there, idiotic and without understanding, when you stand up there in the pulpit and proclaim the inspired and inerrant Word of the Lord. And God’s Spirit will work with you.
Now, I have a word here about the calling of the preacher. The preacher is called to be a faithful expositor of God’s Truth. There the amazing promises of Scripture will be set in context. We should build on the rock of the Word of God, for any other foundation will, ultimately, collapse. At the heart of all worship should be the preaching and the airing of the Word of God, without which acts of worship could rapidly, rapidly, become mere repetition.
Another thing concerns the vital presence of content. What is essential in preaching is, first of all, content. It is what Paul called "the unsearchable riches of Christ," in Ephesians 3:8. In a verse that has meant much to me personally, Paul calls himself, and other first century preachers, "stewards of the mysteries of God," 1 Corinthians 4:1. He sees himself as entrusted with a vast deposit of truth, which he must dispense to others. We repeat, what is essential in preaching is, above all, content, what Paul calls "the unsearchable riches of Christ," in Ephesians 3:8. In 1 Corinthians 4:1, Paul says we are "stewards of the mysteries of God." The preacher is entrusted with a fabulous deposit of truth.
The Roman Empire was buried in evil and it was multiplied in the cities. How could Paul reach it? How could he change it? It seemed impossible and unassailable. But, then, Paul remembered the words that he spoke, characterizing the gospel, in 1 Corinthians 2:4. You don’t have to be afraid or feel condemned when you stand up to preach before this generation. The power of the Word of God is yours.
These are the marks, therefore, of a good sermon. It must have content, it must have a message. It must have variety. It must have a text. It must have a good introduction. It must have a logical outline. It ought to be imaginative. It must be definite and concrete. It must be spiritual. It is a wonderful thing if it has brevity. But, it must not be too short, either. The sermon must make people conscious of God. The preacher must make God real to the people. Expository sermons derive their content from Scripture itself. They borrow their structure and thrust from a specific passage and apply that passage with directness and urgency to contemporary life.
Most preaching lacks biblical content, causing those in the pews to drown in words, while starving for content. A professor at Calvin Seminary puts it well, "Preachers who rummage through the Bible for texts on which to hang sermons are often guilty of ignoring the Word of God. This often results in trivializing our preaching."
I have never forgotten my ordination and the Bible I received as a mark of the authority I would operate under. "Preach the Word," Paul says, 2 Timothy 4:2. Why a minister would turn aside from that, I cannot understand. Make the basis of your message that Book and give yourself to its exposition, its meaning, its permanence. In this description of what you ought to be and say and do, there is not anything comparable to having that foundation on which to stand when you preach, namely, the Word of God.
I now speak on pulpit manner. If subject matter is vitally important, so is pulpit manner. Martyn Lloyd-Jones asserted, "A dull preacher is a contradiction in terms," adding that, on one occasion, he witnessed a preacher talking about God as if he were sitting on an iceberg. The preacher must know the subject matter so thoroughly that he believes he believes it intently and feels it with abandon. Gripped by his message, he becomes transported by it. Living in it, he becomes captivated by it with an unconscious surrendering of himself, mind, spirit, emotions and body, to the compelling force of the truth he proclaims.
The pulpit is no place for iceberg squatters. So, the manner of the preacher has a lot to do with the evidence of power or the absence of it. Oh, to know the power of the Spirit, which brings with it the humility, simplicity, and authority that it is go with preaching. For the preacher to stand up there in the pulpit and be dead is, to me, unthinkable, unthinkable. Be alive!
I have often said, in speaking with preachers, if you want to double your fist, double it up. If you want to pound the pulpit, pound the pulpit. If you want to stomp on the stage, stomp on it. If you want to kneel down, if you want to raise your hands, if you want to walk down in the congregation, don’t hesitate. Be alive up there and move! I can tell you, if you will do it, it will add dynamic and power to your message.
I speak of the effect and help of a crowd. The crowd, the congregation, has an immediate psychological effect on a speaker. Regardless of the amount of study and preparation, every preacher is familiar with the flash of inspiration that occasionally sets him on fire while he is in the pulpit. His mind suddenly begins to work like a well-oiled machine. His tongue and lips articulate with the clarity of a trumpet. Combinations of words and phrases soar like a meteor. Congregations have quite an effect on you. Words that you have struggled with for hours suddenly crystallize into a single sentence. Thank God for the congregation!
Now, what do you want to say? Do you have any observations to make or any questions to ask? Yes. All you have to do is call my secretary. And I’ll give you her name and number. Her name is Elaine, E-L-A-I-N-E, and the number is 969-2400. You call and I will send you a copy of these lectures. And of course, Dr. Allen has them on video up there, he’s taking them down.
Well, being a preacher, I think he missed a great opportunity. Singing is fine. God’s message is, often, pointedly, movingly, brought to us in such a way. And a man’s testimony is fine. But, I don’t think there’s anything to take the place of the Word of God.
I so well remember, you’re talking about a camp, I so well remember, at a state camp in Oklahoma, called Fall’s Creek, there would be several thousand in attendance at Fall’s Creek. And you will find there the executive leadership of the Convention, and all of those people out there who head those associations, a very wonderful and select group of people, as well as several thousand young people and adults.
I have preached there, in these years past, several times. And I remember one time, when I preached there at Fall’s Creek, and I always, no matter what, I always expound the Word of God, and I did that morning, at the 11:00 preaching hour. I opened my Bible and expounded the Word of the Lord. And you wouldn’t believe it. At 2:30 o’clock, we were still there, in that service, 2:30. The Holy Spirit came down. And there was commitment, conversion, the presence of Jesus. There were tears, oh, dear. It was one of the highest experiences of my life.
I have a little brief word to say about our present services at the Church. There’s so much singing, I just lose the service. I like singing. But, I don’t like it ad infinitum. I think we go to church to hear the Word of the Lord.
How do I prepare a sermon? Son, when I spoke about the preparation that I make for my pulpit ministry here, in the last session here, I say, this is my thinking and my persuasion. And it’s personal, but I sure do believe in it.
When a preacher goes to a church, the first thing he should do, in delivering his first message, is to say, "I want to be left alone with God every morning." In the afternoon I’ll go to any kind of a meeting. In the afternoon I’ll take part in any kind of a program. In the evening I’ll make my contributions to whatever the church feels belongs to an organization like this. But, in the mornings, every morning, I want to be left alone. I don’t want anybody to telephone. I don’t want anybody to call. I don’t want anybody to come by the house. I don’t want anybody to see me or expect to visit me. I want to be left alone. I want to be with God. And that’s when you earnestly supplicate, when you pray for power. That’s when you go through that Book and expound its message. That’s when you and God talk together.
Well, you say, "My land, look at that. All the things you could be out there doing while you’re there in your study, in the morning." But, I can tell you this. If you will do that, when you stand up to preach the following Sunday, they’ll know you have been with the Lord. It will be a different kind of a sermon. It will be a different kind of a message. It will have the power of God in it.
I live, of course, in such a world, contacting so many, many people. And I’ve been at it so long, seventy-one years as a preacher and a pastor. Here’s what I have found out. The average length of a pastorate in the South is about two years. Now, here’s what I have found out, if you will give yourself to the ministry as I have described it, in the mornings, you’re going to spend it with God, in the books and on your knees. O dear God, if you’ll do that, forget about everything else, if you’ll do that, this is my experience, they will come knocking at your door.
I cannot tell you how many churches have sought me to come and be their pastor. Institution after institution has invited me to be its president, and I don’t what else out there in the world. But I have steadfastly given myself all through the years to that morning with God. Forget about all of that out there. It will take care of itself. If you will just be a flame for Jesus.