January 18: How Shall We Preach the Gospel?

Next week we will return to the Leonard Van Horn series on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. [here’s where everybody says, Awww!!]. But with yesterday being the anniversary of the birth of Thomas Dwight Witherspoon, I thought we would post one of his last published messages. A few aspects of this message are, admittedly, dated. But there is much sound wisdom for preachers, and with an eye to the basic principles noted, applicable for anyone who would communicate the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ alone. We will return to Van Horn’s lectures on the Shorter Catechism next Lord’s Day.

THE KIND OF PREACHING NEEDED AMONG THE UNEVANGELIZED PEOPLE OF OUR COUNTRY.

tdwportrait02BY T. D. WITHERSPOON, D.D., LL.D., PROFESSOR OF HOMILETIC AND PASTORAL THEOLOGY IN THE PRESBYTERIAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, LOUISVILLE, KY.

It seems strange to speak of unevangelized people in this great Christian country of ours. And yet there are multitudes, amounting in the aggregate to millions, who never hear the Gospel preached, who make no claim to be in any true sense Christians, and who, practically considered, are as truly heathen as if they were in the heart of Africa or China. When we come to look more closely into the condition of these unevangelized people we find them falling naturally under two great classes: first, those who by reason of geographical isolation are beyond the reach of the stated means of grace; and second, those who by reason of social or spiritual isolation fail to come under the influence of the means of grace that are ready at hand.

As an illustration of the former class we have multitudes of people in secluded mountain hollows and out on the broad prairies who have no church edifice of any Christian denomination, or other place of stated religious worship, within twenty or thirty miles of their homes. They are practically without the opportunity of hearing the Gospel or of being taught the way of life. As illustrative of the latter class we have in all our great cities communities of the under classes of society, congregated by thousands in attics, basements, tenement-houses, and flats, who are within five minutes’ walk of churches and mission chapels whose doors are freely open to them, in which they are invited to seats without cost, in halls lighted, warmed, and supplied with the best services of ministry and choir; and yet who, from long-cherished prejudices and misconceptions, from a social ostracism real or imagined, refuse all invitations to enter, and live and die within sound of church bells, “so near and yet so far.” We suppose ourselves to have gotten a hearing. The unevangelized people are before us; how shall we preach?

I do not know how to answer this question better than by giving a concrete case. A few weeks since I had the opportunity, which I had long coveted, of hearing for the first time the most successful preacher to the unevangelized masses that I know. Going to the nearest railway station, hiring a horse and riding thirty miles across two mountain ranges, I came at sunset to the little county-seat in whose court-house the services were being held, there being no church edifice of any denomination in the place. It was in the latter part of May, when the people were all in the midst of the busiest season with their crops, and when it was most difficult to secure a congregation. As we entered the court-house at the hour of service I was astonished to find it packed to its utmost capacity, with many outside who could not get in. The dingy and uncomfortable court-room was only dimly lighted by one or two flickering coal-oil lamps. There were no musical attractions beyond the presence of a brother with a good voice who, accompanied by a small organ, led very simply in the singing of the most familiar Gospel hymns. It was evident that the preaching was what had gathered this great crowd of people, most of whom rarely if ever heard the Gospel preached. I had, therefore, full opportunity to study the preacher and the sermon—a sermon which, admirable from beginning to end, produced so profound an impression upon the people that I was not surprised when one of the rude mountaineers told me, after the service, that if that man preached a few days longer the court-house yard would not hold the people that would gather to hear.

Taking this sermon as a model of the kind of preaching needed, the following conclusions, I think, may be safely reached:

First, as to subject-matter, it is not necessary that we should select any out-of-the-way themes, or sensational topics, or subjects different from those that we would preach to one of our ordinary congregations of unconverted people. The text selected was John xii. 21, “We would see Jesus;” the theme, the threefold one, Jesus as a Friend; Jesus as a Savior; Jesus as a Brother. The sermon was as evangelical as possible—a simple setting forth of Christ in His varied relations to men. It is a common mistake to suppose that people who are not accustomed to attend church will not be interested in the simple story of the cross. On the other hand, if we will reflect a moment, we will see that there are reasons why they should be more interested in a simple Gospel sermon than those who are constant attendants upon the sanctuary, and yet who have not yielded their hearts to Christ. Because men never hear preaching it is not to be supposed for a moment that they do not think, and think profoundly, on the subject of religion. Many of them are the children of pious parents. They have drifted away from their early moorings, but have retained to a greater or less degree the influence of early religious impressions. All of them are, in the light of conscience, self-convicted sinners, however they may strive to close their ears to the verdict of the inward and spiritual monitor whose voice they can not altogether hush. Hence the story of the cross, of One who died for sin, of One whose blood cleanses from guilt, is just the story that they need to hear; and it comes home to them with all the more power because they have not been case-hardened by its frequent repetition in their ears, as those have who all their lives have been sitting under the sound of the Gospel. It is the dictate of the highest spiritual philosophy, as well as a conclusion from the largest experience and observation, that the subject-matter of our preaching to the unevangelized should be preeminently Christ in His person and His work; that in a stricter sense than under any other circumstances we should hold ourselves to the law of the great Apostle, and “know nothing among men save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”

But passing to a second point, when we come to the manner of the preaching, we may learn much from the study of the sermon to which I have alluded. Taking it again as my guide, I lay down as my first principle that the preaching shall be sympathetic in tone. One of the first rules laid down for the orator is, “ Make much use of sympathetic emotion.” A great writer on sacred rhetoric pronounces it “the orator’s right arm.” This is particularly true where those whom you are to address are, from causes already alluded to, disposed to regard themselves as outcasts from Christian sympathy. It is indispensable that there shall be constituted between preacher and hearers at the earliest possible moment the bond of a common sympathy. Unfortunately, the attempts to do this are often exceedingly unwise. There is sometimes a maudlin assurance of profound and pitiful concern that is so patronizing and so condescending in its tone that it offends and provokes. There is with a certain class of self-styled evangelists a species of demagogism that seeks to ingratiate itself with the non-churchgoing masses by pandering to the spirit of opposition to the churches. Men of this class denounce the churches as cold and proud and seclusive. They endeavor to make of the indifference of Christian people in general toward outsiders the dark background on which their own yearning solicitude and affectionate regard may stand conspicuously forth. There are no greater enemies to the community than these mountebanks, whose chief stock in trade consists of abuse of the churches, and who conceive it to be their mission to widen the breach between the churches and the masses of the people, and thus undermine the power of the church to do them good.

The sermon of which I speak was entirely free from both these faults. The speaker in the treatment of his first head—Christ as a Friend—set forth with wonderful power and beauty Christ’s philanthropic interest in men—all men. He dwelt upon and illustrated His sympathy with the toils, cares, sicknesses, and sorrows, especially of those in the humbler walks of life. While the preacher made no reference to his own sympathy with men, yet, from beginning to close, you were impressed with the thought that the disciple had caught the spirit of the Master, and that there was in his bosom, tho not expressed in words, something of the same divine love for the souls of men, and the same tender sympathy with them in their troubles, which he was showing to be so conspicuous a feature in the character and life of Christ. No wonder then that long before he had concluded this first head he had that great throng of rough children of the forest so completely under his power that he could move them to tears at will. And this is and must always be the first element of power in dealing with these unevangelized people. We must get hold of their sympathies. We must get into their hearts.

A second principle to be laid down is that the preaching must be candid and thoroughgoing in its dealing with sin. When our mountain evangelist had presented fully under that first head what might be called the humanitarian view of Christ in His relations to men, he passed with all the momentum of the sympathy awakened to his second thought—that men need something more than a friend—they need a Savior from sin. And never in my life did I hear a more terrific arraignment of sin, not sin in the abstract, but sin in the concrete, the sin of the men and women before the speaker as it stood out in the light of their own memories and under the scourge of their own consciences while he spoke. But for the hold which he had gotten upon them in the first head of his discourse, his hearers would have revolted against the strong arraignment; but, with that hold, his sharpest rebukes were but the faithful woundings of a friend. The arrow went home, armed with the resistless power of love.

And so I contend that in all our preaching to the unevangelized, we must deal closely and faithfully with these great questions of guilt and depravity. We must presuppose the presence and power of conscience. We must expect the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. That was an unevangelized man before whom Paul “reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come” until the man trembled. Those were for the most part unevangelized people before whom John spoke of “the ax laid at the root of the tree,” and of “the chaff to be consumed with unquenchable fire.”

A third principle illustrated in the sermon is that the preaching should be characterized by great fulness and circumstantiality of Scriptural narrative. Persons who have been trained from childhood to listen to preaching may be held for three quarters of an hour to a train of logical reasoning or doctrinal exposition; but for those without this training it will be found that a large proportion of the sermon must be occupied with incident and illustration. Fortunately for the speaker the Scriptures are a great storehouse of incidents and illustrations, supernaturally preserved, and fitted to his hand. And there is this advantage in addressing the class to whom the true evangelist goes, that these stories come to them with a freshness and with the charm of a novelty that they do not possess for those to whom they have been repeated over and over again. It was exceedingly interesting to look into the faces of the simple-hearted mountain people and watch the play of emotion as the speaker, in his inimitable way, would tell the story of Christ’s dealing with some penitent or suffering soul while He was on earth. These were the passages of his sermon that were most replete with power, and so I contend that one characteristic of all preaching to these unevangelized masses should be fulness of Scripture narrative. I have also added circumstantiality, for the preacher is apt to forget that these people are not as familiar with the details of the Gospel narratives as ordinary sermon-hearers are. In our customary preaching we may and ought to presume upon a certain familiarity with the details of the more prominent incidents in the life of our Lord. In narrating them it is sufficient to. touch upon certain salient points, to give, as it were, mere outline sketches, trusting to the memory to fill in the rest; but in speaking to those who have not had the advantages of our ordinary hearers, the Scriptural narrative needs to be presented in its minuter details, and much of the strength and impressiveness of the narration will depend upon the graphic and vivid way in which the details are presented. One great secret of success in strictly evangelistic preaching is found in this power of Scriptural narration. Mr. Moody has it to a wonderful degree. Let any one read Mr. Moody’s sermons and he will soon discover that this is one of the marked elements of his power.

But we pass on from this to a last principle to be laid down, and one upon which it will not be necessary to enlarge, because it is applicable to all speaking. It is that the illustrations drawn from actual life shall be taken from spheres of life with which the hearers are familiar. In speaking to children we draw our illustrations from child-life, because the children can understand them better and enter into fuller sympathy with them. And so it will be apparent in a moment that there are multitudes of illustrations to be drawn from the Christian fireside, the family altar, and the inner life of the church with which the class of non-churchgoers would be entirely out of sympathy. A young friend of mine, desiring to illustrate the uncertainty of all earthly possessions, took as an illustration the breaking of a bank. He prepared the sermon for a city congregation, and, telling the story in a very pathetic way, it produced a profound impression. Preaching the sermon shortly afterward in a little country church, instead of using as an illustration a sudden frost, or blight, or mildew, he repeated pathetically his story of the fraudulent cashier and the broken bank, and was very much crestfallen when an old farmer said to him, coming out of church, “I didn’t take much stock in that bank story of yours; I think if people has got no more use for money than to hoard it up in bank, some rascal ought to come along and git it and scatter it where it will do some good.” There is a certain range of experiences with which the unevangelized people can not enter into sympathy, and illustrations drawn from these will meet the fate of the very admirable illustration of the young preacher from the broken bank.

If the principles which I have laid down are the correct ones it ought not to be so difficult a matter to reach the outlying masses. If a few men of warm hearts could go among them, not alas, as many of the so-called evangelists now do, as the antagonists of the churches, but as their representatives, not to reproach the church in the hearing of these men for its imagined coldness, but to assure them of the warm sympathy pulsating in the heart of the church for them, they might be won back from their condition of religious isolation, and made to feel at home in our churches, where their spiritual interests can be conserved as they can not possibly be by street-preachings, Salvation Armies, or any other rescue methods, however valuable in themselves they may be.

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