The Gravity and Gladness of Preaching

Ockenga Lectures on Preaching | South Hamilton, Massachusetts


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

Well, not too far from here, about 250 years ago, Jonathan Edwards’s preaching sparked a great awakening, as you know, in the churches. He was a great theologian and he was a great man and a great preacher. We can’t copy him, but we can learn a lot about the gravity and gladness of preaching from Jonathan Edwards.

He was a man of extraordinary intensity. I remember the first time I read his resolutions, and there were 70 of them printed in a little Banner of Truth page. I’ve got them all Xeroxed now, tucked away all over the place and categorized. And one of them that moved me at the time that he wrote as a young man was, “Resolved, to live with all my might while I do live.” He was a man of extraordinary earnestness and intensity and total seriousness in preaching. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration: total seriousness in preaching. You will look in vain in the 1,200 extant sermons for a joke.

Zeal for God

He preached an ordination sermon in 1744 and said to the young man,

If a minister has light without heat, and entertains his auditory with learned discourses, without a savor of the power of godliness, or any appearance of fervency of spirit, and zeal for God and the good of souls, he may gratify itching ears, and fill the heads of his people with empty notions; but will not be very likely to reach their hearts, or save their souls.

He had an overwhelming conviction about the reality of heaven and hell, and it absolutely shaped everything that he did and the demeanor in which he did it. He was much criticized, as you know, by the more formal clergy in Boston for the emotional excesses that they thought he fostered in his fervency of preaching and his lavish displays of heaven and hell, and in defense, he wrote in 1741, talking about hell and why one ought to use a sense of urgency and earnestness to preach to warn people:

If any of you that are heads of families saw one of your children in a house all on fire, and in imminent danger of being consumed in the flames, yet seemed to be very insensible of its danger, and neglected to escape after you had often called to it — would you go on to speak to it only in a cold and indifferent manner? Would not you cry aloud, and call earnestly to it, and represent the danger it was in, and its own folly in delaying, in the most lively manner of which you was capable? Would not nature itself teach this, and oblige you to it? If you should continue to speak it only in a cold manner, as you are wont to do in ordinary conversation about indifferent matters, would not those about you begin to think that you were bereft of reason yourself?

That was his defense to Charles Chauncy for why he spoke the way he spoke about hell. From the testimonies of contemporary people, however, Edwards had a very odd and uninspiring homiletical style. It wasn’t because he had a dramatic flair and it wasn’t because he spoke extemporaneously. When he wrote these things and when he was in the flush of the Great Awakening, he was still writing out his sermons in full and basically reading them from these little manuscripts that you can see down at the Beinecke Library at Yale. Well, what was his power then? Wherein consisted the successfulness of this preacher?

Sereno Dwight, who gathered together his memoirs and lived a generation after Edwards died said this,

One of the positive causes of his great success as a preacher was the deep and pervading solemnity of his mind. He had at all times a solemn consciousness of the presence of God. This was visible in his looks and his demeanor. It obviously had a controlling influence over all his preparations for the pulpit, and was most manifest in all his public services. It’s effect on the audience was immediate and not to be resisted.

And then Sereno Dwight tells of asking a man named Mr. West (I have no idea who he was), who was old and had heard Edwards himself (Dwight hadn’t) what Edwards’s secret was and whether he was an eloquent preacher. And this is what this Mr. West said

If you mean, by eloquence, what is usually intended by it in our cities; he had no pretensions to it. He had no studied varieties of the voice. And no strong emphasis. He scarcely gestured, or even moved; and he made no attempt, by the elegance of his style, or the beauty of his pictures, to gratify the taste, and fascinate the imagination. But, if you mean by eloquence, the power of presenting an important truth before an audience, with overwhelming weight of argument, and with such intenseness of feeling, that the whole soul of the speaker is thrown into every part of the conception and delivery; so that the solemn attention of the whole audience is riveted, from the beginning to the close, and impressions are left that cannot be effaced; Mr. Edwards was the most eloquent man I every heard speak.

Now selected the key phrases from those two testimonies: intensity of feeling, weight of argument, deep and pervading solemnity of mind, savor of a power of godliness, fervency of spirit, a zeal for God, and these are the things that I mean by the gravity of preaching. If there was one thing that we can learn from Jonathan Edwards, it’s something about the seriousness and the earnestness and the gravity of our calling in the preaching office.

Blood-Earnestness

Let’s look at another person. A hundred years later across the ocean in Scotland, a hypocritical pastor named Thomas Chalmers got converted in his little parish named Kilmany. He became a tremendously powerful force among the evangelicals for world missions. In fact, I commend very highly the little book The St Andrews Seven. If I had been speaking on missions this week, I would have brought a hundred copies with me and given them away, like I did out at Western Seminary two weeks ago. I believe that book would turn you upside down so fast.

Well, Chalmers is one of the “St Andrews Seven,” the other six are missionaries to India, except for the 18-year-old who died after he had two volumes of memoirs written. He had a tremendous impact on world missions. He had a tremendous impact on the church from his pastorate in Glasgow and then his two professorships in Saint Andrews and Edinburgh. His fame as a preacher spread far and wide. Why? Well, James Stewart describes his preaching like this:

He preached with a disconcertingly provincial accent, with an almost total lack of dramatic gesture, tied rigidly to his manuscript with his finger following the written lines as he read.

Andrew Blackwood, in his book Protestant Pulpit, describes him like this:

He was in bondage to is manuscript and used long sentences.

Well, what made this man so powerful and life changing for so many people? Well, James Waddell Alexander was teaching at Princeton Seminary at the time, and a man named John Mason came back from having heard Chalmers, and Alexander took him aside and asked him, “What’s the key? Tell me about this preacher!” And in one sentence, Mason said, “It is his blood-earnestness.” It is his blood-earnestness.

And my goal tonight is to leave you with as strong an impression as I can about the importance of blood-earnestness in preaching. I don’t think we’re in any danger today of mechanically imitating Jonathan Edwards. If we were, I might say things a little differently, but I don’t think that’s on the horizon. We have fallen so far from the conception of preaching that would imitate an Edwards or a Chalmers, that that is not one of the things I’m worried about.

I say we’ve fallen, because whether or not you should use a manuscript, whether or not you should preach two hours or half an hour, whether or not your sentences should be long or short, whether or not there should be stories or no stories, the glory of these men’s preaching was their blood-earnestness, their intensity, their passion for their subject matter, and we’ve fallen very far from that — I think so far, that for me to try to make this plain to a typical audience (and I don’t think you are a typical audience), would be almost impossible because there are no categories with which people operate today that could process what I’m trying to say and interpret it in any other terms than: morose, boring, dismal, sullen, gloomy, surly, unfriendly, cold.

Those are the categories that will leap immediately to the mind of people, and if you in your churches labor with intensity to create a holy hush across the congregation, you can bank on it: you will be criticized as cultivating an unfriendly and cold church. Because most people simply have had no experience of the kind of gladness I’m going to talk about tonight, which flows from a massive conception of the greatness of God and the glory of his grace and the atmosphere of holiness. And all they can imagine is that the absence of chatter in a congregation means the presence of stiffness, awkwardness, and unfriendliness — and those are the only categories with which they can interpret what might happen if a holy hush fell upon the people of God in a momentous moment of gravity.

And so they strive for gladness, which they ought to do, because the only categories they have are light-heartedness and chipperness and talkativeness. And pastors, by and large, have absorbed this view, this narrow view of gladness and friendliness in the churches, and they cultivate it across the land with a pulpit demeanor and a verbal casualness that make blood-earnestness like Chalmers or the pervading solemnity of a Jonathan Edwards unthinkable, absolutely out of the question. And the result is a preaching atmosphere and a preaching style that is plagued by triviality and levity and carelessness and flippancy and a general spirit that nothing of any eternal import is going to happen here this morning.

Gravity and Gladness Woven Together

So, my thesis is this: gladness and gravity should be woven together in the life of a preacher and his preaching, in such a way that the careless should be sobered and the saints should have their burdens sweetened. Now, I choose the word sweetened to avoid certain connotations and to create certain others: to avoid the connotations of glib, petty attempts to stir up a happy feeling in the congregation; and to connote something very deep that is laced with gravity. Another way to state the thesis would be this: love for people does not make light of weighty matters, hence gravity; and love for people does not commend an obedience that is not supported by the strength of joy, hence gladness.

You know, when Jesus said of the lawyers, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders,” it’s the next phrase that’s just as important: “but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4). And of course, Jesus’s alternative was Matthew 11:28–30:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

And that’s not because obedience is simple. “The way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14). But it’s because he comes underneath and the yoke becomes light, because he lifts his finger to help. And so in preaching, if you’re going to lay a yoke on people — which we must: the yoke of Christ — there must be a preaching for gladness, as well as an atmosphere of gravity. So, my thesis is that they must be woven together in such a way as to sober the careless and to lighten the load and sweeten the burdens of the saints.

Gladness in Preaching

Let’s talk about the gladness of preaching for a little bit. I am continually amazed that — actually, I’m not anymore; I used to be — when I say that if a pastor is to love his people, he must pursue his joy in ministry, and they would just scratch their heads and shake their heads and they couldn’t process this commendation of pursuing your own joy in ministry for the sake of your people in love. Because there is, I think, for the last say two hundred years or so in the Christian community, an assumption, since Immanuel Kant at least, that to pursue your own joy is the absolute contradiction of love. And we have been told again and again that it’s OK to get the spinoff of love as joy. An unintended result of happiness is OK. But as soon as you target joy, you’ve abandoned the way of love. That’s everywhere.

That is stock-in-trade Christian dogma, which is why Ayn Rand, who wrote Atlas Shrugged, hated Christianity and died and went to hell. I wrote her a letter before she died, including a long paper that I wrote, pleading with her to reconsider. She had a great mind and so many right things to see and thought Christianity was sheer absurd altruism, which she interpreted as abandoning higher values in favor of lower values. She’s wrong, and yet I knew why she thought that: it lingers in the air of every church that self-denial means that, and that to pursue your own joy in ministry is unloving to your people. And I’m going to show you from Scripture that it is not. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that if you abandon the pursuit of your joy in ministry, you abandon love, you strive against God, and you harm your people.

Shepherd with Joy

Now if you brought Bibles on this night, you can take them out and turn with me to Hebrews 13, then I’ll show you a text that has become determinative for me as a pastor in trying to know how to love my people as I ought. Hebrews 13:17 goes like this:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy [meta charas] and not with groaning [stenazontes], for that would be of no advantage to you.

Now every pastor who reads that cannot be indifferent to his joy in ministry, lest he be indifferent to the advantage of his people. If you are indifferent to your joy, you are indifferent to the benefit of your people, because this text says so plainly that if they don’t pursue their ministry with joy, their people will be hurt — not helped. A joyless ministry is destructive to the congregation. It dare not be left as an optional icing on the cake of obedience; it is obedience. To be happy in the work of God is part of obedience, if you love your people.

Sheperd Willingly and Eagerly

Now, why? Why? We’ve got to ask why. You must get on the inside of this man’s mind here, but before I pose the question why, let me support it with another text, 1 Peter 5:2–3, which is a great eldership text for people like me, and Lord-willing, many of you.

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly.

Now, how would you paraphrase those two adverbs, willingly and eagerly? Am I stretching it to say that means gladly? I don’t think so. So, we are commanded here — all of us pastors — are commanded not to labor under the burden as though it were a constraint upon us. We’re commanded to be willing and eager about our work. Be happy in the ministry.

Now, why? Why would a congregation be hurt if it had a pastor who didn’t delight in the ministry of the word, in prayer, in caring? I’ve got two reasons.

One is that a pastor can’t give what he doesn’t have. And if he doesn’t give gladness, he’s not preaching the gospel, and he’s unworthy of the pulpit. You can’t give what you don’t have. A pastor who guts out his work in gladless “obedience,” transmits that life to his people, and there’s a name for it: it’s called hypocrisy or bondage or legalism — not the freedom of the easy yoke and the light burden. Can you hear Handel’s “His Yoke Is Easy” from The Messiah? I remember just listening to that hour on end in Germany, because the music says the message so well. “His yoke is easy and his burden is light.” The music flies like the pastor should fly.

Here’s a second reason why you will hurt your people if you’re not happy in the work and in your preaching: You can’t glorify God if you’re not happy in his service. You can’t make God look glorious if knowing and serving him is burdensome. That’s the point of 1 John 5:3–4, which we won’t take time to look at. A bored and unenthusiastic tour guide in the Swiss Alps is a dishonor to the mountains, a contradiction to the cliffs.

Enjoy the Work

So, Phillips Brooks, a hundred years ago, here in Boston, was absolutely right when he said,

It is essential to the preacher’s success that he should thoroughly enjoy his work. Its highest joy is in the great ambition that is set before it: the glorifying of the Lord and the saving of souls of men. No other joy on earth compares with that. As we read the lives of all the most effective preachers of the past, or as we meet the men who are powerful preachers of the word today, we feel how certainly, how deeply the very exercise of their ministry delights them.

So, the gladness of preaching is biblically essential, if you would love men and glorify God. What I’m trying to get across this week is that those are the two aims of preaching: to make men glad in God to his glory, you must be happy. But there is a world of difference between the glib smiles and jokes of contemporary pastoral leadership, and the joy of a Jonathan Edwards. And one of the reasons there is is that the strands of joy are not woven together with the strands of gravity that you find in this man.

Brokenhearted Joy

Listen to this quote from Edwards’s Religious Affections. I think if I had to choose one passage from the Religious Affections that was my favorite, it would be this one,

All gracious affections, that are a sweet odor to Christ, and that fill the soul of a Christian with an heavenly sweetness and fragrancy, are brokenhearted affections. A truly Christian love, either to God or men, is a humble brokenhearted love. The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires: their hope is an humble hope; and their joy, even when it is “unspeakable, and full of glory,” is a humble, brokenhearted joy

Isn’t that great: “a humble brokenhearted joy”? There is something about the sheer weight of my sin, about the sheer holiness of God, and the momentousness of our calling that should give a fragrance of weight and humility and brokenness to all that we say in the pulpit.

Gravity in Preaching

Now, why stress gravity if we have seen that gladness is so essential to success in the ministry? Are we striving against ourselves here, if I devote the rest of this talk now to gravity, earnestness? Let me give the reason, and then I’ll move through an explanation and defense of it, and then close with about seven suggestions for how to cultivate a biblical interweaving of gladness and gravity in your ministry.

The reason that I think gravity must be stressed and is essential is that preaching is God’s appointed way or appointed means for the conversion of sinners, for the reviving of the church and for the preserving of the saints; and therefore, at each one of those three stages, heaven and hell are at issue. And heaven and hell are the greatest realities in the world, and mistakes are simply terrible every time you undertake to preach the word of God.

Salvation of Souls

Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. (1 Corinthians 1:21)

It pleased God through the folly of preaching to save those who believe. God saves people everlastingly through the ministry of preaching, and that’s awesome. To think that on a Sunday morning, through the ministry of the word of a human being, someone would pass from darkness to light, from death to life, from hell-bound destruction to heaven-bound glory is simply staggering on Saturday night. How anybody can watch television on Saturday night, who plans to preach on Sunday morning, is beyond comprehension to me — or to go to a party or anything like that. I mean the things that are at stake in a few hours are so momentous that to gather yourself away from the mammoth influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil; and to try to get in close enough to God so that you are purged (at least partly) and brought into a frame of mind and heart that is worthy of the momentousness of the occasion seems essential. Paul when he thought about this said,

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:15–16)

He just was struck with awe that in his own ministry, the word and his own demeanor created an aroma that for some would catch their gracious olfactory nerves and lead them to glory; and for others it would be reprehensible and send them to destruction. Ad as Paul moved through the Mediterranean world like a cloud of the aroma of God, he saw people falling away on the sides. This is awesome what this man felt about his ministry and what Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Chalmers and the like felt in their blood-earnestness.

If a person is not made earnest and grave by this fact that people are saved through preaching, then the congregation will learn unconsciously that not much is at stake on Sunday morning; and therefore, it’s a social gathering: you get a little lecture about religious things, and the whole atmosphere is fairly chatty and homey and friendly and insignificant. Ralph Turnbull said, “No man can give the impression that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.” John Henry Jowett put it like this, “We never reach the inmost room of any man’s soul by the expediencies of the showman and the buffoon.”

And yet today, it seems that the stock-in-trade of preachers is to be cute and clever and funny, at least to get things rolling the way they should. I have seen congregations where it appears that the pastors actually fear the seriousness of their people. I have seen a holy hush fall upon a church in a moment of truth and watched pastors, as though not knowing what to do, break it with a pun or a witticism, as though they are utterly out of their element at that moment. “Come on, let’s laugh. I don’t know what to do; we’re not happy anymore.” Laughter seems to have replaced repentance as the goal of preaching. Laughter means people feel good. It means people like you. It means you have moved them. It means you’ve got a measure of power. It seems to have all the marks of successful communication — if the depth of sin and the holiness of God and the danger of hell and the brokenness of hearts is left out of account.

Revival of the Church

I am literally amazed these days as I go to certain conferences where revival is being spoken about, and I watch men cry out in their prayer sometimes, “Lord, send revival. We need revival!” and then watch them to proceed to cultivate an atmosphere where it would be absolutely unthinkable and impossible for the Holy Spirit to fall in revival fire — namely, through jokes and flippancy and levity.

I’ve been reading recently Lectures on Revivals by William Sprague because I’m burdened for revival in my own church. You get invited to places like this, you know, and everybody has the impression, “Whoa, success, great church.” You don’t know the half of it. You don’t know the burdens and the failures in a church that lacks so much.

Asahel Nettleton, I’ve been reading. Anybody heard of Asahel Nettleton? You ought to have heard of Asahel Nettleton before you’ve heard of Charles Finney, because they were contemporaries and Nettleton did it right, I think. Well, I’ve been reading these two people, Sprague and Nettleton, and here’s what I’m learning, and I believe it’s confirmed in Scripture: both of them teach that before and as a part of every deep and abiding spiritual awakening, God sends into a community a sense of spiritual seriousness upon the people. Let me quote from Nettleton’s memoirs:

Fall of 1812; South Salem, Connecticut — His preaching produced an immediate solemnity on the minds of the people. The seriousness soon spread through the place, and the subject of religion became the engrossing topic of conversation.

Spring, 1813; North Lime — There was no special seriousness when he commenced his labors, but a deep solemnity soon pervaded the congregation.

August, 1814; East Granby — The effect of his entrance into the place was electric. The schoolhouse was filled with trembling worshipers. A solemnity and seriousness pervaded the community.

When you read Sprague’s chapter on the means that God uses to bring revival, the very first one he lists is seriousness. Listen to this quote:

I appeal to any of you who have been in the midst of a revival whether a deep solemnity did not pervade the scene. And if you at such a time had wished to be gay, have you not felt that that was not the place for it? It were worse than preposterous to think of carrying forward such a work by any means which are not marked by the deepest seriousness, or to introduce anything which is adapted to awaken and cherish the lighter emotions, when all such emotion should be awed out of mind. All ludicrous anecdotes and modes of expression and gestures and attitudes are never more out of place than when the Spirit is moving upon the hearts of a congregation. Everything of this kind is fitted to grieve him away because it directly contradicts the errand on which he has come — namely, the convincing of sinners of their guilt and the renewing of them to repentance.

And in spite of this historical evidence and manifest common sense, you find, all over the place, people bemoaning the absence and the withholding of revival conjoined with levity. It’s a strange thing; it’s a strange thing in my tradition. Levity — that’s good negative word, and I want to contrast it with something positive, lest you get a wrong impression, and I’m going to use Spurgeon as an example of robust humor, which is not negative, though it can be misused. Spurgeon used humor to great effect. Some have thought him a funny preacher, but that’s not the case, according to Robertson Nicoll who read all 63 volumes of the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit. Robertson Nicoll said of Spurgeon three years after he died,

Evangelism of the humorous type may attract multitudes, but it lays the soul in ashes and destroys the very germs of religion. Mr. Spurgeon is thought by those who do not know his sermons to have been a humorous preacher. As a matter of fact, there has been no preacher whose tone was more uniformly earnest and reverent and solemn.

Spurgeon is especially helpful here because he had a deep appreciation for the proper place of laughter and humor. I recommend so highly Lectures to My Students by Charles Spurgeon; get it and read it. It was the first book I read after becoming a pastor and found it tremendously helpful, especially the chapter called, “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” which means depression and discouragement. It’s mighty; it’s a great, great chapter. Here’s what he said about humor:

We must conquer — some of us especially — our tendency toward levity. A great distinction exists between holy cheerfulness, which is a virtue, and that general levity, which is a vice. There is a levity which has not enough heart to laugh, but trifles with everything; it is flippant, hollow, unreal. A hearty laugh is no more levity than a hearty cry.

And surely it’s a sign of the age that pastors today are far more adept at humor than they are at tears. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:18 says of sinners,

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.

And unless we can recover that weeping, there never will be a revival and there never will be any abiding renewal in the churches. Let me ask you, just rhetorically: Would there not come upon the congregation of your church (no matter how flippant they might be ordinarily on Sunday morning) a sense of sweetness and love and conviction and earnestness, if a pastor stood up on Easter Sunday morning, and instead of beginning with a little story or a joke, would use some of his own words with deep earnestness or the words of John Donne to his congregation one Easter, when he said (I hope, by the grace of God, with tears)

What sea he could furnish mine eyes with tears enough, to pour out, if I should think, that of all this congregation, which looks me in the face now, I should not meet one, at the resurrection, at the right hand of God.

Even if tears don’t roll down your eyes, if they roll down your heart, people will know; there would come upon the church a tremendous power.

Keeping the Saints

If we had time to develop it, I would move to this third point in more detail. Not only is gravity appropriate because preaching saves souls, not only is gravity important because preaching is intended to revive the church, but here’s something that is so little understood (it seems at least in my tradition): gravity is important because preaching is intended by God to preserve — to enable to persevere — the saints. Second Timothy 2:10 says,

I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

In other words, labor for the elect is not icing on the cake of their eternal security; it is a means to their eternal security. This is so misunderstood by many people. Eternal security, in biblical thought, is a community project. Hebrews 3:12–13:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Exhortation in the Christian community is not icing on the cake of eternal security; it is the appointed means by which the Holy Spirit will preserve the elect, and if we abandon the means, we have no warrant for thinking anybody in this church will persevere; and therefore, preaching on Sunday morning is of eternal proportions, not because there might be an unbeliever in the crowd merely. Which is the way so many pastors think: “I might be able to save one person here today.” My conception is: I’ll save everybody, every Sunday, because my exhortation from the pulpit is one of the biblically appointed means by which God ordains to cause his people to persevere.

If you believe that you must evangelize in order for the elect to be converted (and I hope none of you is a hyper-Calvinist, but only a biblical Calvinist), if you believe that the word of preaching is necessary for the begetting of faith, then it is no problem for you to believe that the word of preaching is necessary for the preservation of faith. And if you believe that not going to preach will allow people in a hidden people or an unreached people group to drop into eternity without Christ, it is not inconsistent for you to look out upon a congregation of professing believers and think that if you abandon a faithful exercise of the ministry of the word, they could drop into perdition.

It is so crucial to conceive of what happens on Sunday morning in these ultimate terms, so that preaching is not viewed as a kind of optional icing on the cake of all these people who are home free, though as by fire, if they’re carnal. Oh, what a devastation that has done to the blood-earnestness of the pulpit: that notion that because of some decision you made in the past, that you’re home free to glory without the perseverance of your faith.

  • Colossians 1:23: We shall be saved “if indeed you continue in the faith.”
  • 1 Corinthians 15:1–2: “You are being saved, if you hold fast to the word.”

This has tremendous import for preaching, if you believe these things.

Seven Suggestions to Cultivate Gravity and Gladness

So, let me repeat my thesis again and move to the concluding application and suggestions for your practical cultivation of these things. The thesis is that: gladness and gravity should be woven together in the life of pastor and preaching, in such a way as to sober the careless, and to sweeten the burdens of the saints. Or: love for people does not make light of weighty realities, hence gravity and love for people does not burden them with obedience, without lifting the finger of grace to make that joyful and light.

Seven suggestions for how to cultivate such an interweaving in your life.

1. Strive for holiness.

Strive for a practical, earnest, glad-hearted universal holiness in every dimension of your life. Don’t strive to be a preacher; strive to be a person. We’ve seen enough preachers recently who were not the persons they claim to be. One of the reasons that you can’t be something in the pulpit that you aren’t during the week is that it just won’t cut it. When you try to be in the pulpit something you aren’t, the people see the difference; they will eventually at least, if they don’t at first.

For example, if you try to be blood-earnest in the pulpit and flippant at the deacon meeting, it will not work. If you try to be solemn and somber in the pulpit and are “Mr. Flip-and-Glib” at the dinner meetings, something will be ajar in the life of your people. There needs to be a universal striving to be a kind of person that weaves together a gladness and a gravity that the people can kind of smell as the aroma of God — universal holiness, not just pulpit demeanor.

2. Constantly commune with God.

Make your life, and especially your study, a life of constant communion with God — constant communion with God. And I say especially your study. Richard Cecil, one of these old evangelical Episcopalians or Anglicans in England said,

The leading defect in Christian ministers is the want of a devotional habit.

We are called to the ministry of the word and prayer, according to Acts 6:4. Without prayer, the God of our studies will be the unfrightening and insipid God of academic gamesmanship. Fruitful study and fervent prayer live and die together.

There’s a great story from B.B. Warfield — I just loved this when I read it. I read it in Mark Noll’s book on The Princeton Theology. B.B. Warfield was approached one time by an indignant anti-intellectual type who said, “I think ten minutes on your knees will teach you more of true and deep knowledge of God than ten hours over your books,” and Warfield had the greatest response I can imagine. He braced himself, and he said, “What! [More] than ten hours over your books, on your knees?” Which is exactly right, exactly right.

And the same should be true of the preparation of your sermons. Cotton Mather’s rule was so good, and I chastise myself again and again for how incredibly vulnerable I am to the spirit of prayerlessness in the preparation of sermons; and therefore, Cotton Mather’s rule, I commend it to you. His rule was to stop at the end of every paragraph that he wrote and to pray and examine himself and fix his heart on some holy impression of his subject. When I get rolling in my sermons, I’m flipping around in commentaries and the Bible and I realize two or three hours into this, I haven’t talked to God or asked his help at all in the framing of a sentence, in a logical link, in the choice of an illustration. He’s gone; he’s just out of mind. I’m churning out my sermon. That’s awful. I want so bad to live in the constant communion of God, as I write or outline or note my sermons.

3. Read authors who bleed Bible.

Read books that are written by men and women who bleed Bible. That’s what Spurgeon said of Bunyan, that if you prick him anywhere, he bleeds Bible.” Read books by people who bleed Bible, and who are blood-earnest about the truths that they talk about. Find some books like that. Now Lewis Smedes, out at Fuller, told us, in an ethics class my senior year, to find a great evangelical theologian and become his peer by reading everything he wrote and getting inside his skin.

I thought that was a great idea, and so I’ve read Jonathan Edwards almost every month for the last 17 years and it would be hard to overstate the impact of that man’s life and writing upon my own heart and mind. And through him, I find my way to Calvin and Luther and Bunyan and Burroughs and Bridges and Flavel and Owen and Charnock and Gurnoll and Watson and Sibbes and Ryle and others. These are the sorts I mean by men who bleed Bible and are blood-earnest about what they talk about. Read them because they will shape you. If you read bland stuff, you will feel bland at the end of the book.

4. Contemplate death frequently.

It’s absolutely inevitable for every one of you in this room. I serve a church with a lot of old people. At the end of every year, in our annual report, we list the people who’ve died, and that number is invariably between 12 and 15 for the last seven years. As I stand before the church and read the names, I just look out over them and I say, “Which 12 of you will not be here next year?” There will be 12 gone; it’s never failed. Edwards, in his resolutions as a young man, said things like this:

Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.

Resolved, to endeavor to my utmost to act as I can think I should do, if I had already seen the happiness of heaven, and the torments of hell.

I can’t imagine anything more fruitful in a life than to let your imagination be engaged to put yourself on your hospital bed with terminal cancer, with your family gathered around in the last days of your life, and ask yourself what you would regret. And if you’re pastors, you won’t have to use your imagination very hard, because you would have been there and listened. And you know that the things you would regret, you should avoid, and the things that we would long for, you should start doing. And the meditation upon your death is one of the great powers of changing your life into earnestness and seriousness.

I’ve done more funerals now than most pastors do in a lifetime. I did a funeral every three weeks for the first year and a half of my ministry because of the kind of church I took. Every time I sit behind a coffin, in a funeral home or in the church, I picture myself in that coffin, or my wife or my son Karsten or Benjamin or Abraham or Barnabas, and the tears generally roll down my cheek. I don’t sometimes even know these older people or people who are associated with our church. But the tears roll down my cheek as my imagination lets myself take leave of my family or one of them take leave from me, and I try to think what life would be like. And you become serious.

There’s nothing like terminal diseases and death to cause the fog of triviality to be blown away from your life. I mean death has a way of clearing the air remarkably. Don’t run from it in the ministry. Let your mind dwell on your own dying and reflect upon the dying of others, so that you will know that this all-important reality is serious and makes everything leading up to it serious.

5. Remember you will be judged strictly.

Consider the Biblical teaching often that you will be judged with greater strictness than other people.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Hebrews 13:17)

I wonder how many pastors dwell on that on Saturday night: that if I were to die at noon tomorrow, I would have to give an account for that message: how I preached it, whether I cared, how earnest I was. Acts 20:26–27: Paul to the elders in Ephesus:

I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.

Which implies, evidently, that if you don’t fulfill your ministry with the full and faithful counsel of God, the blood of people will be upon your hands — and that’s serious; that’s grave; that’s earnest.

6. Consider the example of Jesus.

He was as kind and tender and gentle as a righteous man could be, but he was not morose. John the Baptist might have been; he was accused of having the demon. Jesus was the glutton and a winebibber and a friend of tax collectors and sinners in the popular mind. John the Baptist might have been morose, but not Jesus Christ. He had the reputation of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He wasn’t involved in any psychopathic tendency toward being a killjoy. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

He never preached a careless sermon. There is no evidence or record of any flippant word. He never told a joke as far as we know, though I wouldn’t want to rule it out. He was blood-earnest about the truth, even when that sword was sheathed in biting irony or humor. Jesus is the great example of preachers: The crowds heard him gladly. The children sat in his lap. Women were honored in his presence. And nobody in all the Bible spoke of hell more often or in more horrid terminology. So be like Jesus.

7. Know God.

Get to know God. Strive to know God. Don’t be content to lead your people about in the foothills of his glory; rather, become a mountain climber on the cliffs of God’s majesty, and let the truth overwhelm you: you will never exhaust the heights of God. Every time you climb up over a rim of insight into the character of God’s infinite being, there stretches out before you another range of glory a thousand miles, as far as the eye can see, disappearing into the clouds. Let it hit you that endless ages of discovery in the infinite being of God will not be able to weaken your gladness in his glory, nor diminish the intensity of your gravity in his presence.