The apostle Paul:When it comes to sermons I have to admit that I have a pet peeve. And certainly it's by no means the most important thing to focus on in a sermon. That being said, this itch of mine needs to be scratched. The itch is what I would call the Essay-Format Sermon and/or the Theological-Academic Sermon. Though distinct examples of the sometimes pulpit message, they yet can both appear in the same sermon. These preached messages are more or less biblically sound and yet unfortunately mostly ineffective, in that the listening congregation, appropriately nodding their heads in agreement, often remain somewhat indifferent or unmoved by the truth presented.
Acts 19:8.And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God.
I tend to think of these two types of sermons as manifested in two different forms. The first is what I call the Essay-Format Sermon. In this sermon one finds the tour guide -commentary approach. The congregation hears a faithful travelogue through the Scripture text under consideration; think Amplified Bible as a Commentary-through-the-Bible-tour. The second is the Theological-Academic Sermon modeled on the classroom teaching experience that most pastors encounter in seminary. In the TAS the congregation hears a well crafted lecture delivered on a particular Bible text. Doctrinal truths and insights are explained. Quotes and footnote asides are highlighted. And yet while the congregation silently "Amens", they are left wondering if growth in the Christian life is somehow bequeathed to those inclined toward an academic pursuit. Is the comfort of salvation really dependent on being able to digest all this truth in order to pass a final exam at a future date? In a word, pulpit preaching is not seminary teaching.
In both types of sermons the assumption underlying the preacher's approach is that his job is solely to deliver accurate biblical truth to the congregation. Caveat Alert... yes, Christians need to learn and they need to have true knowledge of Scripture presented to them. True Biblical knowledge is indeed necessary for a true faith. John Calvin begins his Institutes of Christian Religion with:
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.True knowledge, biblical knowledge, coupled with intellectual understanding is essential. Yet when delivered to a congregation as a mere Christian informational or educational enterprise, it falls short of what is necessary to strengthen faith in Christ.
J. Gresham Machen writes in Faith and Works,
Faith is indeed intellectual; it involves an apprehension of certain things as facts; and vain is the modern effort to divorce faith from knowledge. But although faith is intellectual, it is not only intellectual. You cannot have faith without having knowledge; but you will not have faith if you have only knowledge. Faith is the acceptance of a gift at the hands of Christ. We cannot accept the gift without knowing certain things about the gift and about the giver. But we might know all those things and still not accept the gift. We might know what the gift is and still not accept it. Knowledge is thus absolutely necessary to faith, but it is not all that is necessary.Faith requires more than sound biblical information or truth. Or put another way, preaching a sermon and the hearing of that sermon are more than a cognitive affair.
The preacher of the gospel ought to appeal, we think, in every way in his power, to the conscious life of the man whom he is trying to win; he ought to remove intellectual objections against the truth of Christianity, and adduce positive arguments; he ought to appeal to the emotions; he ought to seek, by exhortation, to move the will. All these means may be used, and have been used countless times, by the Spirit of God; and certainly, we have not intended to disparage them by anything that we have just said. But what we do maintain is that though necessary they are not sufficient; they will never bring a man to faith in Christ unless there is with them the mysterious, regenerating power of the Spirit of God.This leads me to the point of this post, as well as the last two. In the sermon, the preacher should not only address the rational capacity of his hearers but also appeal to their hearts where doubts and unbelief hide. Through preaching, the Word and Spirit address the intellect and heart of unbelievers and believers alike in order to bring them to Christ with a new or a renewed faith and repentance. This heart-appeal is a matter of gospel persuasion by the preacher.
Now a preacher may rightly claim it is only the Holy Spirit who can persuade and convince a hard heart. This is indeed true. Michael Horton writes in his book, Calvin on the Christian Life,
And it is the Spirit who persuades us inwardly that what we are hearing is not merely the word of man, even of the church, but the Word of God.And yet he notes that Calvin had learned that...
the people, especially the leaders, had to be brought along to embrace the conclusions by persuasion from Scripture.The point being that 'God speaks to us not primarily to inform us, but to encounter us in judgment and grace' (Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life).
The preacher when giving a sermon is, in a certain way, facing a hostile crowd. What's that your say?! Yes, a battle rages beneath the calm waters appearing on the faces of those in the pews. The world, the flesh, and the devil are very much at work seeking to undermine the faith of the saints and entice them to doubt the goodness of God toward them in Christ as they struggle with guilty consciences. This hostility is a willful unbelief and is like a weed still present in the hearts of all Christians. Calvin from his Institutes:
In such degrees of ignorance much doubt and trembling is necessarily implied, especially seeing that our heart is by its own natural bias prone to unbelief. To this we must add the temptations which, various in kind and infinite in number, are ever and anon violently assailing us. In particular, conscience itself, burdened with an incumbent load of sins, at one time complains and groans, at another accuses itself; at one time murmurs in secret, at another openly rebels. Therefore, whether adverse circumstances betoken the wrath of God, or conscience finds the subject and matter within itself, unbelief thence draws weapons and engines to put faith to flight, the aim of all its efforts being to make us think that God is adverse and hostile to us, and thus, instead of hoping for any assistance from him, to make us dread him as a deadly foe.And yet the Christian longs for relief, for a remedy, for rescue, for the comfort of the gospel. To effectively reach and help the hearer the preacher must teach not only truth but use godly persuasion to convince of that truth those weak in faith, those struggling with the guilt of sin, and those harboring doubts of God's steadfast favor toward sinners like them. Should not the preacher seek, as he unfolds the truths of Scripture in conjunction with the Holy Spirit, to convince and persuade all of their sin, the need to soften their heart of unbelief, and to believe with a fresh faith in Jesus Christ as he is offered in the gospel? The apostle Paul:
Acts 20:20-21, 31.I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ... Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears.