On the Primacy of the Pulpit & Throwing Shade at Puritan Preaching

I’ve taken to reading Patrick Fairbairn’s Pastoral Theology: A Treatise on the Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor. In the work, he delves into the multifarious characteristics and aspects of the pastorate. The bulk of the discourses derive, mainly, out his lectures on the Pastoral Epistles (on which he also has a published commentary par excellence). In chapter four, “The More Special Duties of the Pastoral Office,” Fairbairn spends considerable time discussing the primacy and preeminence of the sermon, every facet, of which, ought to be examined so as to bring the glory of Christ to the forefront. Such should be the endgame for every discourse delivered by the pastor.

In an extended discussion on the structure of the sermon itself (that is, its order and arrangement), Fairbairn proceeds to cast aspersions on the method of preaching mostly associated with the “Puritan divines.” He writes:

Nor does the result [that is, proper order and arrangement of sermons] come to be materially different when texts are split, as it were, into fragments, and each part taken as the ground of a separate discourse. For, though this seems in one sense to be making much of the text, in reality it is making little . . . The Puritan divines were fond of this method. A single text very commonly became in their hands the introduction to a whole body of divinity, or gave occasion to an entire series of discourses on some branch of Christian life or experience. [Richard] Baxter’s Saint’s Rest is a specimen, certainly one of the best specimens, of this kind of sermon writing; and so also are the more important of [John] Howe’s works . . . They all started from an appropriate text, and by successive discourses from this they grew into considerable treatises. Howe was possessed of a singularly rich and elevated cast of mind, so that he could infuse a measure of freshness and variety into a system that was essentially monotonous, and throw out new thoughts and illustrations even when traveling anew the same paths which had been trodden before . . . To a congregation, also, it must have been wearisome to hear always the same text announced for consideration, not on one or two consecutive Sabbaths merely, but for months. The simplicity and freshness of gospel preaching was to a considerable extent lost by such a method . . . (151–52)

How’s that for some late-nineteenth-century shade throwing!

I love how articulate Fairbairn is in his dismantling of the Puritan mode of sermon exposition and delivery. Yet, to a serious degree, Fairbairn’s discussion on the primacy of the pulpit (and the sermon, specifically) has quite nicely coincided with Jared C. Wilson’s discussion of the same is his latest work, The Gospel-Driven Church. In chapter five, “Steering from the Stage,” Wilson discusses the concept of changing the trajectory of your church by infusing your sermon(s) with a generous dose of the glory and grace of the gospel. “The pulpit is the prow of the church,” he writes. “Where it goes, the church will go.” (96) Thus, if one is adamant about maintaining the entertaining, “attractional,” “seeker-sensitive” mode of ministry, one should carry on incorporating as many pop-culture references, one-liners, and platitudes as possible. This will certainly secure a connection with the audience that will be sure to attract more attendees in future services. However, if one desires to truly inspire his congregation, he ought to commit himself to exulting and extolling the “glorious gospel of the blessed God.” (1 Tim. 1:11) So writes Wilson:

Christ’s glory changes people, so we must emphasize his glory over our good ideas. (99)

I recently published an article entitled, “On a Serious Approach to Preaching,” in which I expressed a “sobering” in the preparation and delivery of my sermons. I have been inundated, of late, with even more thoughts in a similar vane. It is my chiefest desire that I don’t preach for myself, for the acclaim of peers or the applause of men. Such is often the case with the quippy, witty style which accounts for the lion’s share of modern preaching. In the preacher’s attempt to endear himself (and his church, perhaps) to ears that might otherwise be closed off, he has unwittingly sabotaged the listener’s (and the church’s) potential for spiritual growth and depth. What’s more, he has denigrated the office Christ has given him. “The preacher of Christ’s salvation,” writes Fairbairn, “necessarily stoops from his proper elevation, when in the very discharge of his office he makes himself known as a humorist.” (140) A blithe, farcical approach to sermon preparation and delivery was detested by Fairbairn, and ought to be found similarly intolerable by us, as well. He goes on to cite (of all people) Richard Baxter, whose abhorrence of “ticklish” preaching was well articulated:

Of all preaching in the world that speaks not stark lies, I hate that preaching which tendeth to make the hearers laugh, or to move their minds with ticklish levity, and affect them as stage-players used to do, instead of affecting them with a holy reverence of the name of God. (134)

Again, preaching of this sort is often employed because of the felt or figured demand to attract more people into the sanctuary on a given Sunday. If the fundamental principle that drives your church is “more bodies,” then tailoring your message so that bodies will come only makes sense. “If you preach it, they will come,” if you will. But such line of thinking, while successful in the short-term, is proven inadequate and inefficient in the long-term. Fairbairn goes on to say that preaching of this kind, that is, “of a less solid, though possibly of a more showy and sentimental kind, may be relished for a season; but, like a surface stream, it is sure to discover its own shallowness, and will soon be forsaken for what is really fitted to enlighten and edify.” (146) Such, too, is the preponderance of Wilson’s argumentation in The Gospel-Driven Church (which, if you haven’t figured already, is a consummate ecclesiological work), in which he accurately states, “The way a church wins its people shapes its people.” What you attract bodies with is what you’ll be required to maintain those bodies with. “Consumeristic values and pragmatic methodology,” he continues, “will win consumers and pragmatists. If they aren’t won by the glory of Christ, they aren’t won to the glory of Christ.” (37)

Such is why the preacher (meaning, me) ought to be firm and fervent in his commitment to expositing the Scripture with an eye to the grace and glory of the crucified Christ. Nothing else informs or inspires the people of God like his gospel. There’s nothing that compares to tendering and propagating the adamantine truth of the forgiveness of the Heavenly Father to sinners — to mitigating his message of mercy. The preeminent substance of all our (my) sermons ought to be the profoundly simple, immensely wonderful message of God’s glad tidings for all men, tidings of peace and hope through the passion and death of God’s own Son. Anything less, anything different is an abdication of the duty with which I have been entrusted as a pastor. So writes Wilson:

Sermons that have nothing of the gospel of Jesus Christ in them are not Christian sermons. A Christian may be preaching them. The text may be a Christian text. But if the gospel isn’t there, neither is real Christianity. (100)

I’m not a lecturer. I’m not an entertainer. I’m not a comedian. Nor am I a spiritual guru or a motivational speaker or a “life coach.” I am an ambassador of the Living God who’s been charged to steward God’s truth. Such is what pastors are. They are shepherds of the gospel of truth and grace. Heralds of glory. They are “the special keepers and dispensers of Heaven’s peculiar treasure!” writes Fairbairn. “The living conduits of that divine word which God Himself delights to magnify above all His name!” (59) And such is what the pulpit ought to be reserved for: the declaration of that glory, the dispensing of that grace which can only be found in Jesus’s name. The pulpit possesses an unusually particular purpose; it has “a special object,” writes French theologian Alexander Vinet, “which is to introduce the Christian idea into life.” (51)

And so it is my earnest prayer that I persist in this “special object” of gospel propagation and magnification. That I resist the urge to curtail or contaminate Jesus’s message of mercy with the superficial, shallow banter that tickles the fancy and itches the ear of the modern churchgoer but does nothing for their soul. (2 Tim. 4:3) My prayer is congruous with the psalmist’s when he pleads for the Lord’s grace for his wandering heart. “I have sought you with all my heart; don’t let me wander from your commands . . . I wander like a lost sheep; seek your servant.” (Ps. 119:10, 176)

References

  • Patrick Fairbairn, Pastoral Theology: A Treatise on the Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1875).

  • Alexander Vinet, Homiletics; or, The Theory of Preaching, translated and edited by Rev. A. R. Fausset (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1858).

  • Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).