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Preachers may be partly to blame; hearers are also. The truth, so expressed as to make men feel it, is liable to be characterized by such taste as inelegant.
The truth, the bald truth, and nothing but the truth, is feared by men. They want to make aprons of fig leaves to conceal its nakedness, so that their worldliness shall not be shocked. If the term is used by which Christ designated the place of future punishment, the whole congregation sometimes shudder and dodge their heads as suddenly as if a shell had burst over them. An impression largely prevails, that the word of God, squarely and definitely preached, will harden
Yet if men are not moved by such easy preaching as is demanded, the preacher is thought inefficient. If the truth is presented plainly, so that sinners are moved by it, the means are unwarranted, or the truth preached is heresy, or those converted under such preaching are not every-day Christians. Between two such fires the preacher must stand. He must please God, or please man. Natural inclination leads him to turn from casting stones, to throwing turf. If he does, Satan sneers; souls remain at ease, and go quietly to ruin; unfaithful Christians sit easily upon their cushions; the salary is raised and all goes on beautifully, because the pews have driven the pulpit to inanity. Perhaps this is an extreme, but instances are not wanting which justify our language.
But the aim of preaching is, or should be, to meet wants which men have, whether they feel them or not. The pulpit can not afford to degrade itself by yielding to such taste. The pulpit is set to declare the oracles of God. That, and that only should be its business. It matters not how eloquent and finished a discourse may be in other respects, it is not a good sermon if it so lacks point and clearness as to fail of fixing some leading and important truth in the minds of those who hear. It will fail in its highest aim-conviction.
The only legitimate feeling that can be awakened by true preaching is a salutary spiritual emotion. It may be joy, it may be sorrow, it may be a sense of sin, it may be opposition even. In any case, it will be a salutary spiritual emotion that will be awakened, if preaching is what it should be-direct, pungent. True, our æsthetic taste may be gratified by beautiful figures. Our sense of rhetorical excellence may be pleased with finished periods. We may be charmed with elegance of manner and diction. It is right that this should be so. But any farther than these excellencies are helps to fix the impression of truth taught in the sermon they are defects, because widely aside from the single aim of preaching. Culture is valuable for the preacher if he will make it obedient to the demands of a gospel which is for the poor as well as the rich, for the unlearned as well as the learned. It is well enough to be the Lord Bishop of London, if this station will help one to be a more efficient servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. If not, it is better to be like that preacher who thanked God because he had no library but the Bible and Encyclopædia of Religious Knowledge. Culture with the Spirit of God is a mighty power in the pulpit. Culture without that Spirit is sounding brass. Sermons and preachers were ordained to promulgate the gospel in all its phases, and nothing else. Everything that will help in this, or can be made to help in it, is legitimate. Everything which does not conspire to this one end is athwart the serinon, an incubus upon it. Call to mind those preachers who have no Saviour, and no gospel to preach, and you will have illustrations. A preacher may be admired; he may fascinate by oratory, philosophy, poetry, and yet never preach the gospel. We by no means underrate the good report of men. We by no means discountenance throwing out every attraction that will draw men; but draw men to Christ, not the preacher, to honor God, not man. The tears of penitence, the humility, the self-searchings, the sweet assurance of hope, the mighty faith that attended the preaching of such men as Edwards, Nettleton, and others, attest the power of the pulpit a thousandfold more than all the encomiums lavished upon merely magnificent oratory or elegant style. The best seals of the efficiency of the ministry are its fruits. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Such fruits are unimpeachable witnesses of the definiteness of our presentations of divine truth. They, more
than anything else, prove that we know what we say, and why we say it. With this end in view should we study and write and preach, namely, to save men. To promote this end we should take care that we and our hearers know what we say. Then will our preaching be definite.
The SECOND cause of indefinite preaching we shall notice is, selecting subjects without special reference to the demands of an audience. We have heard of weddings where some such lugubrious tune as Windham was sung by the guests. The ludicrousness of such a performance would mar the joy of the occasion, and the beauty of the tune. The two things do not belong together. It sometimes happens that sermons do not belong to the occasion on which they are preached. No existing circumstances demand gem. Of course such want of fitness kills them as presentations of truth. In Christ's sermons no such want of fitness can be found. He knew what was in men, and did not need that any one should tell him. His themes were always exactly suited to the pressing wants of those to whom he spoke. How he spoke straight to the heart of the Samaritan woman, taking a want she was then seeking to satisfy as his text. He never preached about his themes, but the themes themselves. His sermon on the mount is not a collection of abstractions, but an epitome of religious truth which we know not how to increase nor diminish, valuable to be applied in all exigencies of Christian practice, and exactly adapted to meet the wants of any soul. How his parables seized upon any occurrence, supposable or actual, and freighted it with some truth that would then and there apply to some special case. Any place was to him a pulpit, anything a text if it suggested a truth which could be applied, and
any lost soul a sufficient audience. He preached for his time and its pressing wants. What he said applies with equal force as time comes and goes, and will to the end, because he spoke as never man spoke.
If preaching has any object, it is to persuade men. If persuasion is to be accomplished in any way, it is by specially adapting subjects in hand to living issues and immediate interests. Perhaps it is not strange that men sometimes misjudge of the fitness of a theme. There is all the more reason why we should study fitness. A sermon loses much of its persuasive power if its subject does not seem to fit some living issue, or present want of the people, or is not made to fit them. Those who hear may be constrained to say it is a fine finished production; but honesty will compel them to add, What of it? The theme was well discussed, and clearly presented, but it did not hit my case. Such a sermon, with no persuasive power, must seem indefinite. If it has point, the point does not appear. Because the subject, being irrelevant to the present demands of an audience, is not aimed that way. If a preacher would have the point of his discourse seen and felt, he must aim it at men, and that too the men directly before him. Of course, the preacher must know his people, and preach accordingly. IIe can not afford always to erect imaginary targets, when so many real ones are before him every Sabbath. It could hardly be called effective preaching to denounce the sins of idolatry and neglect to speak of the scarcely less direful sins in the Christian communities where we live. Perhaps a preacher in a pulpit in the country might wax eloquent over the enormities committed in cities, but would it not be far more definite and effective to assail the sins of which people in the country are guilty, and to tell his people of the guilt which lies at their doors? What folly for the hunter to seek game in distant forests, when the groves about his own dwelling are full. Perhaps preachers sometimes lose their power over men by going so far away for themes that their hearers can have no definite and vital relation to them.
If a theme, in itself considered, does not meet the wants of an andience, yet it does not occasion indefiniteness in preaching, if the discussion of them is so used in an application, or by way of inference, that it is made to fit the wants of an audience. Truth is very flexible, and can be used in application to suit cases to which it might otherwise seem foreign.
This leads us to the third cause of indefinite preaching which we shall notice. It is, a total want of application or appeal.
That is a poor story which has no moral. The story of the cross is full of lessons. That sermon which has no application nor appeal, does not tell this wondrous story with best effect, if at all. Some themes apply themselves. You can not treat them without making an appeal. Other themes, although very pertinent, need to be applied in order that their full force may be felt. Subjects that are general may be so applied as to become of special interest to those who hear. The proofs of the existence of God from nature is a general subject. Most hearers accept this doctrine without question. Yet what power it may have in application to make men feel the omnipotence of God, and see it everywhere, and fear to sin against him. The same is true of a large number of subjects which are legitimate themes for the pulpit. How often we hear of revivals which follow searching presentations of those doctrines of the gospel which most people accept. Any discourse is indefinite and lacks the fundamental thing which distinguishes a sermon from every other production, if it lacks a direct, simple, specific, pungent application of the truths discussed, so as to show their immediate relation to those who listen.
The generic idea of a sermon is, an oral address, to the popular mind, upon religious truths contained in the Bible, elaborately treated, with a view to persuasion. But a sermon loses its distinctive power of persuasion when inen are not made to feel that its truths are addressed to them, and are for them individually. The theme may be elaborately discussed, but if the discussion is not so turned as to hit any one, no one will be persuaded. The audience will be left to apply the sermon, and they will be more liberal to others than to themselves. If possible a sermon should make the application of its truth so manifest that no one can escape froin it, if he would. If we would persuade a man, we must first make him acknowledge the truth of what we say, and its truth and pertinency when applied to him.
To accomplish this end a theme should be selected and studied with reference to some special application, and the discussion should all point to the same end, so that when the