4 Characteristics of Earnest Preaching
I have always been drawn to those who can speak with creativity and with conviction. This was true before my conversion, and is especially true today. Since my conversion, I find myself hungering to hear the word preached. When it comes to preaching, there are two basic things that I want to hear from a preacher: the word of God and earnestness. If he doesn’t bring the word of God, he has nothing to say. If he isn’t earnest, I’m tempted to not believe him. As I evaluate my own preaching, and coach other preachers, I find that earnestness is one of the areas that needs the most attention. A man’s earnestness in preaching is often the hand that grips the hearer and brings him along side the preacher to the truth proclaimed.
C.H. Spurgeon, in his sermon "Earnestness: It’s Marring and Maintenance," wrote:
Many of them have family trials, and heavy personal burdens to carry, and they frequently come into the assembly cold and listless, with thoughts wandering hither and thither; it is ours to take those thoughts and thrust them into the furnace of our own earnestness, melt them by holy contemplation and by intense appeal, and pour them out into the mould of the truth.1
Earnest preaching is not a matter of volume or cadence. But it is something we can grow in. So, what are the common characteristics of earnest preachers? Though there are many, here are four straightforward characteristics that can be diligently sought out and implimented into the preaching of any man called to be an earnest minister in the pulpit:
Know the Text
Of course one has to exegete the text. You can’t get to the truth without it. Apart from the hard work or of hermeneutics we have nothing to say. But knowing the text means more than busting out commentaries and deciding what the proper interpretation of a passage is. It means being intimately familiar with the text, pouring over the words of Holy Scripture with intensity, prayer, and thoughtful consideration of what God’s message means for the church. An earnest preacher is one who has the word hidden in his heart. He may not always be in the word, but the word is always in him.
Feel the Truth
One never really knows the text he intends to preach until he first preaches it to himself. Earnestness is never found in a preacher unless he has felt the power and persuasion of the word of God. Before we stand up to preach to others we must first address our own souls, confronting our own sins, tearing down our own idols, and pointing our hearts to the gospel. If God’s word really is a double edged sword that pierces the soul and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart, then it will first have its work in the preacher before it has its work in the pew. We are to preach as Richard Baxter did, as dying men to dying men, or as Spurgeon said, we must “preach Christ crucified with crucified hearts.” (Spurgeon, Earnestness: It’s Marring and Maintenance). An earnest preacher is one who has experienced the glories of God’s word for himself and is challenged and changed by it.
Love the People
It is hard to be earnest in our preaching if we do not love the people we address. Do you want to be an earnest preacher? Then you must love the people God has placed before. You must know the people: their sins, their afflictions, their doubts—you must care for them, addressing their hearts with the truth as a man driven by love for God and the people. Preachers only “prosper in the divine service in proportion as their hearts are blazing with holy love.” (Spurgeon, Earnestness: It’s Marring and Maintenance). Earnestness flows from love, and leads us to feel for those hearing. George Whitefield was once preaching to the masses who seemed unaffected by the Scripture. As he continued to preach he began to weep, and he explained that he weeps for them because they do not weep for themselves.
Keep the Sermon Simple
Finally, earnestness is helped greatly by simplicity. Too many preachers spend too such time developing homiletical structures that are complex and cute, but are rarely compelling. We don’t need clever preachers, we need clear and compelling preachers. A simple style—as opposed to an artificial and rhetorical style—is then essential to earnestness; for who can believe that man to be intent on saving souls, who seems to have labored in his study only to make his sermon as fine as glittering imagery and high sounding diction could render it. I could as soon believe a physician to be intent on saving his fellow-creatures from death, who, when the plague was sweeping them into the grave, spent his time in scattering over his patients flowers or perfumes, or writing his prescriptions in beautiful characters and classical latin. John Angell James, in his book An Earnest Ministry, put this so well when he wrote: "Affectation is bad enough anywhere; in the pulpit it is intolerable."2
Simplicity in preaching is better because it means less to be distracted by, less to wade through, and more to remember. Ditch the unnecessary complexities in your sermon that do not benefit the hearers by leading then directly to the truths of the word. Doing so frees the preacher from artificial restraints to let loose with the message God has put upon his heart.
R. A. Torrey offered the following profound observation that summs up the need to "be dead in earnest" in the pulpit whe he wrote:
Only the earnest man can make the unsaved man feel the truth of God’s Word. It is well to let the passage we would use with others first sink deep into our own souls. I know of a very successful worker who has for a long time used the one passage, “Prepare to meet thy God,” with every one with whom she has dealt. But that passage has taken such complete possession of her own heart and mind that she uses it with tremendous effect. A few passages that have thoroughly mastered us are much better than many passages that we have mastered from some text book. One of the great needs of the day is men and women who are thoroughly in earnest, who are completely possessed with the great fundamental truths of God’s Word. The reader of this book is advised to ponder upon his knees such of the passages suggested in it as he decides to use, until he himself feels their power. We read of Paul that he “ceased not to warm every one night and day with tears.” (Acts 20:31.) Genuine earnestness will go further than any skill learned in a training class or from the study of such a book as this.3
1. An excerpt from C.H. Spurgeon lecture to his students, "Earnestness: Its Marring and Maintanence."
2. John Angell James An Earnest Ministry (London: Hamilton, Adams and Co., 1848) p. 92
3. Torrey, R.A., How to Work for Christ a Compendium of Effective Methods. Chicago; New York: James Nisbet & Company, 1901. pp. 173-174.
J.C. Ryle Simplicity in Preaching
Martyn Lloyd-Jones' 1968 Westminster Seminary lectures on "Preaching and Preachers"
Eric Alexander What is Preaching?