On the Simplicity of Gospel Exposition
One thing among many that I am currently in the midst of learning is that there is a grave difference between writing well and speaking well. Which is to say, just because something flows nicely in the written word does not necessarily (and I would say, very often it does not) translate smoothly to the spoken word. It’s no secret that I love writing and have found it to be an incredible avenue in which to grow my faith, learn the faith, and connect my faith to everyday occurrences. Indeed, I would say that through the course of several years of writing and journaling, it is the process itself of composing an article that I find the most rewarding — for in that process lies the searching out and solidifying of truth.
That, to me, is why I still write. The blank page gives my soul ample room to not only be illustrative but also inquisitive of God’s truth. I am earnest in my pursuit of crystallized truth and creative words to express that truth. But I am likewise cognizant of the reality that my progression as a writer does not really hold any bearing (not should it) on my stylistic choices as a pastor.
In chapter four of Patrick Fairbairn’s Pastoral Theology, which is an extended discussion of “The More Special Duties of the Pastoral Office,” there is a section on preaching style that is worthy of consideration for any pastor, young or old alike. Fairbairn asserts that notwithstanding the minister’s academic attaintments or scholastic fervor, it is more needful that the gospel is declared with simplicity and succinctness. Indeed, there’s something to be said for the simple message of God’s glad tidings for all men, tidings of peace, hope, and joy. He writes:
There may be little danger in the present day of introducing into the pulpit the kind of academical style of discourse which was by no means unusual with a certain class of ministers in the last century . . . Such a style of pulpit ministrations may now be regarded as gone into deserved oblivion; but there may still, and, unless special care is taken to prevent it, there will remain a tendency with those who have been trained to habits of study, and are more conversant with books than with men, to fall into methods of discussion and modes of speech which are not level to the capacities of the people, at least do not properly reach their bosoms. And if there is any considerable tincture of fancy in the preacher’s constitution, or prompting of literary ambition, there will be the additional danger of his overshooting the mark by using similitude too remote from common life, and displaying a fondness for what will only be regarded as playful sallies or pretty conceits. (182–83)
How devastating to have this said of your preaching! That it was outside the capacities of the very people whom you have been called to shepherd in the truth. That instead of proclaiming the gospel, you frolic with “playful sallies or pretty conceits.” That in contrast to “sound doctrine,” your discourse amounts to nothing but the itching of men’s ears. (2 Tim. 4:3) Nothing, I would say, is more damaging to the mission of the church or the testimony of the pastor than this: that his sermons consist of intellectual orations that fail to adequately inform and impress upon the congregants in his charge the urgency and applicability of the gospel. Such, too, is what English churchman Dr. Robert South maintains when he writes that nothing is “more preposterous than for those who were professedly aiming at men’s hearts, to miss the mark by shooting over their heads.” (436)
Indeed, the simplicity of the gospel ought to remain simple. This isn’t to say that there are no complex or complicated doctrines in which pastors are required to wade through the course of their preaching. Yet, the complexities of God’s Word ought never to outweigh the accessibility of the truth and grace of Christ, which are exceedingly abundant. To that end, “how anxious should the ministers of the gospel be,” continues Fairbairn, “to use great plainness of speech, that the simple in heart may understand, and nothing which it is important for sinners to know may lie hidden from their view under the folds of a learned phraseology.” (181)
Such was St. Paul’s method when writing to the Corinthian church. “When I came to you, brothers and sisters,” declares the apostle, “announcing the mystery of God to you, I did not come with brilliance of speech or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.” (1 Cor. 2:1–5; cf. 2 Cor. 11:6) He wasn’t chasing eloquence or elegance; rather, the only thing he wanted the church to remember was Jesus’s passion and death. Uniqueness or scrupulous overemphasis on flowery language was of no benefit to him.
Again, this isn’t to say that a pastor can or should be careless with his expressions or diction in the pulpit. Neither am I asserting that a preacher ought to be complacent in his study and practice of the pastorate. What I am saying is that the simplicity of the gospel message doesn’t need the pastor’s casuistic innovation. In fact, as Jared Wilson rightly states in The Gospel-Driven Church, “all too often our creativity and intelligence don’t adorn the gospel but obscure it.” (77) Let us, then, strive not to obscure but bring into the brilliant light of day the glory and grace of Christ Jesus by proclaiming nothing but the glory and grace of Christ.
Patrick Fairbairn, Pastoral Theology: A Treatise on the Office and Duties of the Christian Pastor (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1875).
Robert South, Twelve Sermons and Discourses on Several Subjects and Occasions, vol. 5 (London: Bowyer, 1724).
Jared C. Wilson, The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).