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Not with Lofty Speech

On Eloquence in Christian Preaching

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

James Denney (1856–1917), Scottish theologian and preacher, made a statement that haunts me as a preacher. Whether we are talking about the more highbrow eloquence of oratory or the more lowbrow, laid-back, cool eloquence of anti-oratory, Denney’s statement cuts through to the ultimate issue. He said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” This has been one of the most influential sentences I have ever read regarding how to preach.

Does this mean that any conscious craft or art in writing or speaking elevates self and obscures the truth that Christ is mighty to save? Should we even talk about eloquence in Christian preaching?

“There is a way to preach — a way of eloquence or cleverness or human wisdom — that nullifies the cross.”

The question is urgent first and foremost because the apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Christ sent Paul to preach, not with eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be gutted. That makes this an urgent issue.

There is a way to preach — a way of eloquence or cleverness or human wisdom — that nullifies the cross. We should dread nullifying the cross. We need to know what this eloquence-cleverness-wisdom of words is — and avoid it.

Not with Lofty Speech

Consider a similar statement from Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1: “I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.” Or the NIV: “I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom.” Or the NASB: “I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom.” Or the KJV: “I . . . came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom.”

These passages are ominous for preachers. Most of us try to choose words and say them in a way that will have greatest impact. Should we?

Should I choose words, or ways of putting words together, or ways of delivering them, with a view to increasing their life-giving, pride-humbling, God-exalting, Christ-magnifying, joy-intensifying, love-awakening, missions-mobilizing, justice-advancing impact? Am I usurping the role of the cross and the Spirit when I do that? Is Paul saying that the pursuit of impact on others through word selection, word arrangement, and word delivery preempts Christ’s power, and belittles the glory of the cross?

Two Criteria for Eloquence

Consider with me Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians to see if he gives us enough clues to show what sort of eloquence he is rejecting and what sort he is not only not rejecting but using. Paul gives us a two-prong strategy for avoiding the wrong kind of eloquence in preaching.

Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)

First Prong: Self-Humiliation

God’s design both in the cross and in election is “that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” That is the first prong of our criterion to distinguish good and bad eloquence: Does it feed boasting? Does it come from an ego in search of exaltation through clever speech? If so, Paul rejects it. Then he continues, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).

Second Prong: Christ-Exaltation

The second design of God, not only in the cross and in election, but also in the sovereign grace of regeneration (verse 30, “Because of him you are in Christ Jesus”), is that all boasting be boasting in the Lord Jesus — the one who was crucified and raised. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31).

Therefore, the second prong of our criterion for distinguishing good and bad eloquence is: Does it exalt Christ — especially the crucified Christ?

“Motive matters to God. And people will discern what’s behind your use of language.”

The point of both prongs is this: pride-sustaining, self-exalting use of words for a show of human wisdom is incompatible with finding your life and your glory in the cross of Christ. So, let your use of words be governed by this double criteria: self-humiliation and Christ-exaltation.

If we put these two criteria in front of all our efforts to make an impact through word selection and word arrangement and word delivery — that is, if we put them in front of our attempts at eloquence — we will be guarded from the misuse of eloquence that Paul rejected. And now I see more clearly what was behind James Denney’s dictum; precisely, these two criteria: “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” Self-exaltation and Christ-exaltation can’t go together.

God Commends Eloquence

Having warned us about the wrong kind of eloquence, God invites us to join him in the creativity of eloquence. He beckons us with words such as:

  • “To make an apt answer is a joy to a man,
and a word in season, how good it is!” (Proverbs 15:23).
  • “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
  • “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).

In other words, give thought to the aptness and seasonableness and fitness and timing and appropriateness of your words. And make all of them honor the name of the Lord Jesus.

Four Hopes for Preaching

If we are permitted to pursue eloquence (powerful verbal impact) — indeed if we are invited to, and if we are guided in our pursuit of this impact by the double criteria of self-humiliation and Christ-exaltation — what would be our hope for our preaching if we succeed? Here is a starter list of four hopes, which we apply knowing that anywhere along the way, God may step in and make our preaching instruments of salvation with or without eloquence. On any given Sunday, God may take the message we felt worst about and make it the means of a miracle. If so, why give any attention to maximizing the impact of our language?

1. Keep Interest

Artistic, surprising, provocative, or aesthetically pleasing language choices (that is, eloquence) may keep people awake and focused because they find it interesting or unusual or pleasing for reasons they cannot articulate. When the disciples fell asleep in Gethsemane, Jesus said, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We need to help people’s weaknesses.

“On any given Sunday, God may take the message we felt worst about and make it the means of a miracle.”

This is not conversion or even conviction or sanctification, but it is a serious means to those ends. Sleeping people or distracted people do not hear the word, and faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word. Therefore, eloquence is like a good night’s sleep. It won’t save your soul, but it might keep you awake to hear the word, which can save your soul. So a preacher’s style may keep you interested and awake to the same end.

2. Gain Sympathy

Artistic, surprising, provocative, or aesthetically pleasing language may bring an adversarial mind into greater sympathy with the speaker. If the language is interesting and fresh enough, obstacles may be overcome — boredom, anger, resentment, suspicion — and replaced with respect and attraction and interest and concentration. These are not conversion, or conviction or sanctification, but they don’t drive a person away like boredom does. In fact, they may draw a person so close to the light that Jesus says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).

C.S. Lewis once wrote a letter to a child who had asked for advice on how to write well. Lewis’s answer is so relevant for how preaching gains a sympathetic hearing that I am going to include his five suggestions here:

  1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.
  2. Always prefer the clean, direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
  3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”
  4. In writing, don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us the thing is “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please, will you do my job for me.”
  5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

I think those pieces of advice for writing are exactly applicable to preaching.

3. Awaken Sensitivity

Fresh, surprising, provocative, aesthetically pleasing speech may have an awakening effect on a person’s mind and heart that is short of regeneration but still important as an awakening of emotional and intellectual sensitivity for more serious and beautiful things. If a poetic turn of phrase can cause people to notice the magnificence of the sun, their next step might be to see that the heavens are telling the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), and then they might confess Christ as the great sun of righteousness (Malachi 4:2).

Is that not why David, the great poet of Israel, first says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), and then, more poetically, says, “In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy” (Psalm 19:4–5)? Why compare the rising sun to a bridegroom and a runner? To help the dull mind awaken to the joyful beauty of the rising sun in the hopes that this natural kind of awakening might lead to the spiritual sight that nature is all about the glory of God. 

4. Increase Power 

The attempt to craft striking and beautiful language makes it possible that the beauty of eloquence can join with the beauty of truth and increase the power of your words. When we take care to create a beautiful way of speaking or writing about something beautiful, the eloquence — the beauty of the form — reflects and honors the beauty of the subject, and so honors the truth. 

“God will glorify himself sometimes in spite of, and sometimes because of, the words we have chosen.”

The method and the matter become one, and the totality of both becomes a witness to the truth and beauty of the message. If the glory of Christ is always ultimately our subject, and if he created all things, and upholds all things, then bringing the beauty of form into harmony with the beauty of truth is the fullest way to honor him in the crafting of our preaching.

Another way to think about this unity of truth and form is this: if a person sees and delights in the beauty of your language but does not yet see the beauty of the Lord Jesus, you have given the person not only a witness to Christ’s beauty but an invitation. You have said, “It’s like this, only better. The beauty of my words is the shadow. Christ, who created and sustains and mercifully accepts imperfect beauty, is the substance. Turn to him. Go to him.” Of course, my assumption is that your prayerful, heartfelt aim is that your language will exalt not you but Christ. That motive matters to God. And people will discern what’s behind your use of language.

Create Eloquence for His Name’s Sake

Yes, Christian preaching may be eloquent. It is not the decisive factor in salvation or sanctification; God is. But faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word. That word in the Bible is pervasively eloquent — words are put together in a way to give great impact. And God invites us to create our own eloquent phrases for his name’s sake, not ours.

In the mystery of his sovereign grace, he will glorify himself in the hearts of others sometimes in spite of, and sometimes because of, the words we have chosen. In that way, he will keep us humble and get all the glory for himself.