Drinking Deep for God’s Sake

H.I. Hester Lectureship on Preaching | Kansas City, Missouri


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

If God is really going to be supreme in our preaching, like I argued he should be two days ago, and if we are really going to portray him in such a way that he becomes alluring to people so that the nerve of sin is cut in their lives and they are weaned off sin and brought to lead lives of radical risk-taking obedience called love, if we’re going to preach in such a way as to make God that compelling and that alluring in people’s lives, then the question now on this third day becomes, what sort of preachers must we be? What sort of men must preachers become? And how do you become that way and stay that way?

The answer is: We must go deep in our grasp of the greatness of God and we must be passionate in our love for the glory of God. And we must be unwaveringly confident in the triumph of God, and from the track of the electron to the path of the galaxy and everything in between, we must be totally persuaded that it all has to do with God. And we must be God-besotted from the crown of our head to the bottom of our feet. We must be filled with all the fullness of God, as Paul says in Ephesians 3:19. And we must be overwhelmed with the wonder and the joy that God has been pleased to make himself known to us and to call us into the ministry of making this great God known to us. That’s what has to happen to us. Deep in God, passionate for God, confident of God, God-entranced, God-besotted, full of wonder that we know him, that he knows us, that he’s called us.

If we’re going to portray him as supreme and alluring, the last two days, then we have to be that way. The question, then, for this morning is, how does that happen? How do you become that kind of person? Now in seminary and then how do you stay that way and become more that way over the next thirty to fifty years?

Far from the Wells of Salvation

I want to take you to a text from which I will try to draw out an answer. If you have a Bible, I invite you to open it to Isaiah 12:1–6. What I find in this chapter, in these verses, is the source of preaching. You’ll have to keep your ears peeled and watch the logic of the sentences so that you’re with me in this.

You will say in that day:

“I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
      for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
      that you might comfort me.

“Behold, God is my salvation;
      I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the Lord God is my strength and my song,
      and he has become my salvation.”

“God’s purpose for us every day for the rest of our lives is to draw water from the wells of salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the Lord,
       call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
      proclaim that his name is exalted.

“Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
       let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
       for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

Notice especially verse 3 and its connection to verse 4. I hope that one of the things you pick up from the very method of my speaking is that connections between clauses are rich with theology. Verse 3 says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Now the effect of this deep drinking at the wells of salvation is this. “And you will say in that day, ‘Give thanks to the Lord.’” In other words, you will speak to people. You will say something. You’ll be a preacher. You will draw water and you will say.

Get the connection? This is the source of preaching. You become a preacher by drawing waters from the wells of salvation. You draw waters from the wells of salvation and you will say. That’s the main thing I saw in this text. God’s purpose for us every day for the rest of our lives is to draw water from the wells of salvation. One of the greatest enemies of the pastorate and of preaching is drying up for the preacher, and if the preacher dries up, thousands perish.

Churches are destroyed by pastors who fall out of love with God. The ministry becomes mechanical, and they get excited about carving ducks in the basement for three hours every night. What was once a hobby of relief becomes a consuming escape. They’ve got to do the work because they’ve got no other training, and they’re dry as a bone, and the churches begin to perish. That’s a great enemy, and therefore I would venture to say, the highest priority for the preacher is not to dry up. The highest priority for the preacher is to find wells of salvation from which he can drink every day and from those wells say, “Great is the Lord,” and mean it because he has drunk it up.

More Than Conversion

Now, let’s dwell on this phrase for a minute, the wells of salvation. You are seminary students, a lot of you, anyway, and you know this truth, but let me draw it out because most preaching, by the way, is reminder. Don’t ever come to the pulpit thinking that they know this. Of course, they know it, or they ought to know it. But we wouldn’t have the book of 2 Peter if Peter didn’t believe in saying things they already knew. We wouldn’t have Philippians. What you need to do is just find fresh ways of saying things people already know.

You already know this, but I’m going to say it anyway. Salvation is a big concept and reality and it is not simply what happened when you repented and were converted. It is that. Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Past. It is done. But, also in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 1:18: “To us who are being saved it is the power of God.” So you were saved, and you are now being saved. And also in the Bible is Romans 13:11: “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” What? I thought we had it. No, you don’t have it.

It has happened to you, it is happening to you, it will happen to you, and we’re in the midst of this glorious thing called salvation that really starts in eternity with our election and ends in eternity, if you can talk about ending in eternity, I suppose that’s a contradiction, when we are everlastingly made increasingly happy in the presence of God forever and ever and ever. That’s salvation. It’s not just a little thing, did you get saved? That’s glorious because it introduces you into something glorious, but the glorious thing is not that event. The glorious thing is that reality which we are now swept up into.

More Than One Well

Now, I think that’s part of the reason why we should not stumble over the fact that there’s an S on the end of the world “wells” — wells of salvation. Watch out because somebody might preach an eloquent sermon on that to the fact that there are many ways to heaven. Many ways to get to God. There’s a Muslim way, and there’s a Hindu way, and there’s a Jewish way, and then there’s a Christian way, and we know that because it says wells of salvation not well of salvation. And I suppose there would be audiences that would hear that and say, “Oh, good, I always wanted to believe that anyway because it seems so arrogant to go about the world saying, ‘There is one name given among men by which we must be saved.’”

That’s not what it means. I think we need to think about that, though. Why wells? You will draw water. You preachers will draw water from the wells of salvation. Here’s my explanation of what’s in that. If you’re crossing a desert, say, from Egypt to the Promised Land, there better be more than one well. There better be a well in Egypt as you get started or nearby, and there better be a well up near the end of the journey at the Jordan, and along this route, there better be some more wells. There better be an Elam well and some others.

Otherwise, as you walk through the wilderness of your life on the way to paradise, you’re going to drop dead in the desert. If you can’t drink here and tomorrow drink here and tomorrow drink here, you’ll perish in the wilderness. There are many wells, but what do we mean when we say that? Here’s another clue from the text. Look at verse 2: “Behold, God is my salvation.” Now, help me here. These are wells of what? Who is my salvation? Put the two together. In one word with three letters, when you put your face in the water, what are you drinking? Let’s read this verse then.

“Behold, God is my salvation.” These are wells of God. These are wells with the purest, wonderful, refreshing reality of God into which we drop our bucket of prayer. “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength.” God is my strength. Whatever’s at the bottom of this well-called salvation that makes me refreshed and strong to go another day’s journey through the wilderness of my life is God. It’s really not hard to be a God-centered preacher if you just preach Bible.

“The Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” my well. The wells of salvation, here’s my interpretation. The wells of salvation are the places and the times where you draw near to God and drink from the fountain of living water that he is. So there are as many wells in your life as there are meetings with God. There are many, I hope, meetings with God, and they can be had in the most horrible places — emergency rooms, the gravesides, the hospital beds, and the counseling offices with your wife and so on. There are places where God will bubble up for you if you will pause and drink from him.

“It’s really not hard to be a God-centered preacher if you just preach Bible.”

Salvation is not just past, and it’s not just out there at the resurrection. Salvation is everywhere you will dig into it, dig a well, and find it’s flowing underneath you, and you can tap into this subterranean, glorious reality of salvation called God. God is my salvation. Any place, any time, including right now if you feel so discouraged, you can hardly listen. I pray God will do that for you right now.

I think our first priority, pastors and burgeoning pastors, is to drink at the wells of salvation every day. That’s our first priority. We’ve got to know this God, we’ve got to get our faces into the water. Jump in all the way some days, not just face, and bathe and saturate yourself with God and cherish his supremacy.

The Seminary of Suffering

Now, let me draw something else out of this text that may surprise you and I don’t want to make too much of it, but I think it’s real. There is space between the wells where we have to walk. I think the story of the Old Testament, the story of the people in the wilderness, the story of Joseph, the end of the book of Genesis, what you read of the people of God in the Bible and of the people of God in biography is that there’s space, wasteland, desert between the wells. It may be short and it may be long, and in the providence of God, we don’t often know why it’s short and why it’s long and why it’s as hot and scorpion-laden as it is, but it’s there.

I think the lesson I will draw out from this is without that space, not only will you not love the well, but you will not preach from a broken heart to broken people. Suffering is absolutely essential in the life of a preacher between the wells and around the wells. God has a thousand ways to humble us and break us and make us tender and knock the hard edges off of some of us, and I don’t think there would be the serious, pensive, deep, strain the music of our lives if there weren’t pain in our lives. Our music, the music that we make in preaching, the music that we make in counseling, the music that we make at a bedside will be chipper.

Somebody is lying in a hospital bed being told that they have leukemia and they’re 21 years old, this is real from my church right now, and they’re going to have to try a bone marrow transplant with and it’s only 80 percent of what it should be, they don’t want anybody chipper at their bedside. Thank you, leave the jokes. Leave the chipper, pastoral bounce outside. Show me you have been broken. Show me you’ve tasted some of this. Speak with a tone of voice and a look in your eyes that shows you’ve laid here. If you never have, that may be very hard for you, so brothers, do not begrudge the seminary of suffering. Don’t begrudge it in the marriage. Don’t begrudge it with your children. Don’t begrudge it with your health. Don’t begrudge it with your finances. Thank God, he’s making a preacher out of you — and a pastor, a shepherd.

My Past Fears

For example, I’ll give you an example from my life, and I’ve written this in Future Grace. From eighth grade to my sophomore year in college, I could not speak in front of a group. My throat would freeze, my shoulders would become tense, my heart would beat 200 beats a minute. I could see it pushing my shirt. I could not speak in front of any class. I was a pretty good academic student, and so I could have been a vice president or a treasurer of the freshman class or something but I couldn’t give the speeches. You have to give a speech. I never became an officer of any class.

I remember a horrible moment. You only think I’m talking about butterflies that all of you have and how hard it is for you to get up in front of a group, but you can do it. I couldn’t. I remember thinking, they want you to read a report of your science project in the ninth grade. I sit in the middle row halfway back. This day is emblazoned on my memory, as are many others. I have a half a page written about my balloon experiment. Static electricity makes balloons stand apart from each other.

I got a paragraph written, and I said, maybe instead of putting it in the piece of paper that would make noise and shake, I will put it on a firm spiral binder. And here it comes down the line toward me. What happened inside of me was just horrible. I mean, I could hardly breathe. My shirt was moving with my heart. My hands were shaking. My voice was totally closed off. When the person in front of me got up to go speak, I got up and left the room and went to the bathroom and just cried. That’s ninth grade. Then went back and hoped she wouldn’t call on me, and I just said to her after class, “I couldn’t do it.”

Civics, tenth grade. “John, you have to give an oral book report.” “I can’t give an oral book report.” “Well, if you don’t give an oral book report, you can’t get better than a C in this class.” “I’ll take a C.” I took a C. The only C I made in high school. That’s the way it was. My mother took me to a psychologist. This is 1962. One, nobody went to psychologists, especially Christians. This woman had me look at some Rorschach charts and tell her what I saw. When she was done, she said it’s my mother’s fault. I was so mad. I stormed out and never went back.

I said there’s one person in this world who understands me. There’s one person in this world who is getting me through. There’s one person who rubs my back at night when I’m crying and crying. There’s one person who suggests that maybe at training union next Sunday when I’ve got to give a one-minute talk, I would put it on a notecard and maybe that would help. You’re telling me she’s the problem? I’ll never see you again.

Now, as I look back on those years, eighth grade to sophomore year of college, and I won’t go into how God got the victory over this, although I will simply say that if the pastor of White Oak Baptist Church were here to today, he’s dead, he’s in heaven, and if he saw this, his mouth would drop open and he would say, “I have seen the grace of God, and I am glad.”

The Making of a Preacher

Now, the point is this. When God clogged my mouth, he was still in my heart and making a preacher. When he broke me again and again and again and again and didn’t answer my prayers, I thought for all those years that made me desperate, I was finding him in dark places because there was no place else to turn. He cut me off of the fast track of popularity. I was simply an outsider, in order that he might keep me close to himself and make me desperate for himself.

“Not one of your prayers is prayed in vain.”

I really do believe he was making a preacher in those days because to be on the fast track of popularity and to find it easy to speak doesn’t make a person deep. It doesn’t make a person soft and warm and gentle and empathetic. It doesn’t make a person passionate and zealous. It just makes a person glib and popular. I view now, though I don’t laugh and I don’t minimize it, I go to creativity nights at my sons’ schools, where you have to all do something oral in public, and I watch one tall, gangly fellow with pimples. I had the worst case of acne that anybody I knew because I was so nervous, my hormones were all over the place. I watched this kid, this is what’s happening now, and I could hardly sit through the torture they put that kid through. The same thing happens inside of me watching this kid try to read his four-line poem in creativity night at Calvin Christian School. Everything comes back to me. I’m just torn to pieces. Why do you put this kid through this? I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t force it if he didn’t want to do it. So it’s still very much with me.

But what a difference, frankly, I think would be in my life if I hadn’t spent certain cloudy afternoons sitting on my front lawn at the top of Bradley Boulevard looking out over Dellwood Forest towards Piney Mountain and listening to a train about ten miles away and wondering what would happen if I would just get on that train and disappear, where nobody asked why the preacher’s kid can’t talk. What a difference if I hadn’t spent any days sitting under a dogwood tree. I remember the dogwood tree in my front yard, and I would sit under it trying to write a poem for my mother because she was the one person who understood.

That was the making of a preacher. I don’t begrudge it anymore. I thank God for it, and I just want to plead with you, preachers, when you walk between the wells in the dry places and your prayers seems like they’re not getting answered, God’s making a preacher. God is making a preacher if you’ll let him. If you’ll submit to that, he’s making a preacher. Don’t begrudge him.

Let me read you the biblical warrant for that outside this text. Second Corinthians 1:6: “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.” You hear that, preacher? If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort when you patiently endure the same sufferings.

Let me just point you to Martin Luther and what he said. Luther said, “There are three ways to become a preacher.” He gave three Latin words. Oratio, meditatio, tentatio. Now, oratio, we all know. You’ve got to pray and pray and pray and pray, and you’ve got to meditatio. You’ve got to be in the word and meditate and meditate. But not many people know tentatio. We run from tentatio. He translated it in German, Anfechtung, which could be translated in various ways like attack or trial or temptation, and he meant suffering.

He thanked the Pope for making his life miserable. He based it on Psalm 119:71: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” That’s why I used the phrase, the seminary of suffering. You’re going to learn some great things here. You’re not going to learn the main things here, probably. The main things are going to be taught to you in the dark nights when the key things here either become real or you become superficial.

All the exegesis, which is indispensable, and all the seeing of the careful connections between clauses using the original languages, which I also regard as incredibly valuable — I’ll be careful not to use the word indispensable, lest I ruin the day for everybody — both are wonderfully fruitful in ministry. I don’t know what I do without them. There will come a day when all of that will explode between the wells with sustaining grace or you will stay superficial.

Not in Vain

Last night, not everybody was here, of course, but I put it in the form of a poem.

Not grace to bar what is not bliss,
   Nor flight from all distress, but this:
The grace that orders our trouble and pain,
   And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.

You won’t ever discover that except between the wells, so don’t murmur and don’t get angry. Humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God. Cry out with David, “How long, O Lord,” and say with him in Psalm 40:1–2:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth. Many will see and put their trust in the Lord. That may take five years.

There’s nothing in that psalm that says how long you’ll be in the mire. I have a man in my church who came to us from Arizona depressed. He was depressed for eight years, scarcely able to function. He’d come to church and sit there like a zombie. One day, being saturated in prayer all these years, being surrounded with the word of God, with good biblical counseling, he came to, like a prodigal son, and he stood in front of the bathroom door and he woke up, as though from a dream, and for the last seven years has been one of the most fruitful ministers of our church.

I have no idea why the Lord would ordain him for eight years of unanswered prayer or, better to say, eight years of delay until all the prayers gathered in a bottle were poured out in front of a bathroom when the time was full. Not one of your prayers is prayed in vain. We have a little saying at our church. Tom Steller, my associate for eighteen years, loves to say it. When you pray, nothing never happens. God stores up your prayers in a bottle, and in time, he will pour them out in ways. For me, it took 25 years to understand what God was doing in my teenage years. Maybe you’re not in the place that you can yet understand what he was doing in the cancer, in the loss of the child.

What Will We Say?

Back to the wells. “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day” (Isaiah 12:3–4). You will say. In other words, preaching is born out of drinking, which sustains you through the wilderness. You will drink and you will say. Maybe in closing, I could just point to two kinds of saying, and I’ll leave off a large part of this message just because I’ve brought in too many parentheses and we’re going to be out of time.

Missions Mobilization

The first thing you’re going to preach is missions mobilization. Isn’t that amazing? Have you noticed that? Have you noticed this? “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say . . .” What do you say? What do you preach when you come up from drinking God at the bottom of this well? “You will say in that day: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples’” (Isaiah 12:4).

“If you want to excite your people about world evangelization, talk about the God of world evangelization.”

Now think about this with me, pastors. I want to leave this with you. This is ordained of God that I can only get this far in my talk, because this may be where he wants me to end. This may be his word to you. Say to your people, “Make known his deeds among the peoples.” Notice, it isn’t, when you come up from drinking, pastor, make known his deeds among the peoples. That’s not what it says. It says, “Say . . . make known his deeds among the peoples.” Meaning, preach missions mobilization.

Here’s the lesson I’ve learned for twenty years now about missions mobilization. If you want to excite your people about world evangelization, don’t talk about world evangelization. Talk about the God of world evangelization. People are so tired about hearing about the cooperative program. I’ll only mention that because I could say the same thing in my denomination about our cooperative program, which I believe in and I praise God for the cooperative program. There wouldn’t be thousands of missionaries on the field today without that amazing cooperative program, but I’ll tell you, that doesn’t turn anybody on, especially young people in the churches today.

But tell them about God and the triumph of God in world evangelization. Tell them about unreached peoples where he means to have worship from those people, and then give a little footnote. You want to know how to get there? Be a journeyman this summer, and then journeymen gets tapped in to God and the vision of God to finish the great commission and see that he is worshiped and praised and exalted about the Dongxiang of northern China, where there isn’t anybody right now.

Get Operation World. You may have a Southern Baptist counterpart to that, I don’t know, but be willing to reach outside your denomination and take some of these broader evangelical tools by which you can discover a people group for every day of the year and pray over them. And pastors, if you burn for this, they’ll get it. Then you’ll see missionaries over the years begin to rise up. You’ll see people praying for missions. They’ll stop praying for aunt Mary’s toenail at the prayer meeting. They’ll stop, “I got three unspoken requests tonight.” Pray for the world.

You want your people to have a big heart for God, get them to know God and then get them to know his mission, and the prayer meetings will be transformed so that people come and they’ll start wrestling for people groups. They’ll start wrestling against the powers of darkness over the Muslim world. No, you will feel like life has come. I get that, and I think it’s legitimate to get it from this text. When you drink from the wells of salvation, you will say, pastor, “make known his deeds among the peoples.”

Proclaim the Glories of Jesus

What else will you say? You will become a missions mobilizing pastor, and you will become a God-exalting preacher. I’ve said it already, but I’ll close with it. It’s in verse four.

You will say in that day:

“I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
      for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
      that you might comfort me.

“God can bring peoples to himself from every people and tribe and tongue and nation.”

“Behold, God is my salvation;
      I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the Lord God is my strength and my song,
      and he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the Lord,
       call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
      proclaim that his name is exalted.

In other words, you don’t just get them to go, you give them the message. What are you supposed to proclaim when you go? The answer is: say, “God is exalted. His name is exalted. We know his name. It’s a name that’s above every name. It has a human face. It’s Jesus Christ, who will one day be Lord of lords and King of kings when his whole kingdom comes on this earth.”

You tell your people, “That’s our message.” Fill your mouth with the glories of Jesus. One of the reasons for preaching a God-centered gospel is that they will feel their hearts growing and exploding with a message worthy of about a billion Muslims. I mean, we could be overwhelmed with the thoughts of the Hindu world and the Muslim world. You could be absolutely overwhelmed with the unreached peoples, unless the pastor has not been giving little psychological how-to’s to get along but has been saying, “Our God reigns and he can do this.” He can triumph over the Muslim world. He can bring peoples to himself from every people and tribe and tongue and nation. If you don’t preach a great God, how can the people have confidence he’s going to triumph over the nations and bring the peoples to himself?

I’ve got eight pages I’m leaving out on the how to drink from the wells. It’s about prayer, it’s about Bible reading, it’s about fasting, it’s about all the disciplines, and you’re getting it straight from Don Whitney. He knows it better than I do. Take his classes. Read your Bibles. Pray like crazy.

But mainly, find the wells every day. When there’s a space, if it’s long, if it’s short, don’t give up on the wells. Know that the wells are coming, and you can bore it. If you get so discouraged and so depressed that you feel unable to even dig and drink, wait patiently for the Lord. Wait patiently for the Lord. Call up from what he has given you in the past and taste the little bit that’s left. Surround yourself with people to get their hands on you and pray for you and love you and ask God to lift the darkness from you. And I promise you, there is an edge to the wilderness, and there are wells in the middle, and they will open to you. You will walk onto the horizon someday and there will be an oasis with many palm trees, and you will lie down and drink from your God who is your salvation, and you will rise up and preach. Your people will be thankful for the wilderness wanderings you have patiently walked through.