In the last year, I reviewed another of John Stott’s books called Understanding the Bible and was rather mixed in my opinions about its contents. In the first review there were aspects that were good and there were others that were less sound. In this book, I feel that John Stott is on much stronger ground, There are times when he quotes a person with approval and you find yourself agreeing with the quote and then reeling back in surprise when you realise it has come from that particular source. If you can get past these occasional quotes, which really ought to be prefaced, then I think the book can be ready with a real measure of profit.
My job is in teaching and it should be said at many of the lessons contained within this book could equally be given to trainee teachers, as they are designed to be directed at trainee ministers. When he gets to practical advice about the way to prepare, engage an audience and deliver a topic then he is both pithy and wise. Stott fills the pages with anecdotes, many of which are amusing and quite a few are original for books of this type.
He starts with a section on the Glory of Preaching and reaffirms that preaching is central to evangelism and draws its authority from the Bible. He shows how the ancient world was Christianised by the use of preaching. Men, such as John the Bishop of Constantinople, gained the surname Chrysostomos or ‘golden-mouthed’ for his pulpit oratory. Stott points out that the surviving works of this great orator show that his preaching was biblical and systematic (he preached through the books of the bible in order and showed how the truths linked together). His preaching was simple and straightforward, he followed the Antioch school for literal exegesis rather than the Alexandrian school for allegorization – and having sat under FP preaching that at times has strayed from a simple literal and straightforward approach I am strongly in favour of the Antioch approach. His preaching was morally applied to his circumstances in an equally down to earth fashion and it was also fearless in who he condemned (ultimately, this led to his exile). Stott shows how the same vein of preaching flowed through Calvin, Luther and the English Reformers, like Hugh Latimer. Latimer preaching on his release from the Tower of London took as his theme the preacher as a sower and drew heavily on his experiences of farming with his father in Leicestershire. He bewailed ministers who spent time in business and pleasure ‘lording and loitering so that preaching and ploughing were clean gone’. Latimer warming to his theme asked who is the most diligent preacher and prelate in all England – I will tell you – it is the Devil. He is never out of his diocese, he is never unoccupied, he is resident at all times; you never find him out of the way; call for him when you will he is ever at home. He is the most diligent preacher in all the realm, he is ever at his plough, no lording or loitering can hinder him; he is ever applying his business; you will never find him idel, I warrant you.... Learn of the devil: to be diligent in doing your office... If you will not learn of God, nor of good men, to be diligent in your office, learn of the devil.
Stott continues with the Puritans and shows that above all else, they were preachers. The same tone is found with American Puritans, such as Cotton Mather, who said ‘The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher are to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men; to display in the most lively colours, and proclaim in the clearest language, the wonderful perfections, offices and grace of the Son of God; and to attract the souls of men into a state of everlasting friendship with him.’. Stott then clearly distances himself from any modern views against the centrality of preaching and shows how this tendency to reduce preaching is counterproductive. He argues against the idea that modern communication, such as television, has affected our ability to absorb the spoken word, but shows how television has altered people in making them more physically lazy, intellectually uncritical, emotionally insensitive, psychologically confused and morally disordered .
Stott takes the theological foundations for preaching as his next section and follows this will another on the importance of preaching as bridge-building. He then tackles the importance of study, starting by quoting Calvin that ‘None will ever be a good minister of the Word of God unless he is first of all a scholar’. He then gives an example by citing Billy Graham saying if he had his ministry again he would make two changes, he would study three times as much as he had done and take on fewer engagements, as he had preached too much and studied too little, and the second change would be to give more time to prayer. Sadly, Stott at this point develops some aspects of an openness in study that leave me a little uncomfortable in their breadth.
The sixth of his eight sections deals with preparing sermons which begins with an account of a country clergyman who failed to prepare and would preach extempore putting his trust in the Holy Spirit for guidance. One day, he found the bishop in his congregation and welcomed him and took care to explain his vow to preach extempore. Half way through the sermon the bishop left and after the service a scribbled note from the bishop lay on the vestry table – ‘I absolve you of your vow’ Or the American Presbyterian minister who boasted that the only time he needed to prepare was the time it took him to walk to the church from his manse next door. His elders, bought him a new mans five miles away! Stott then gives his views on the importance of preaching through books of the Bibles as they draw you into a whole range of topics. He tries to get the preacher to focus on the main theme of the sermon and the emphasis of the text and ensuring that the balance of the sermon reflects this. He gives advice on structure, including a few simple heads that follow the theme developing – advising against the pattern of Richard Baxter who once reached ‘sixty fifthly’, as if anyone would remember the sixty four preceding heads. He stresses the importance of simple clear English rather than longer complex sentences – reminding us that JC Ryle advised to ‘preach as if you were asthmatic’. He develops the importance of illustrations without stepping over into fanciful allegories. He encourages the preacher to write his sermon out and says that without a script the great majority degenerate into a type that is fairly described by the world as a windbag. Jonathon Edwards wrote and read his sermons, but was not bound by what he wrote. An alternative to a full pulpit script is to reduce it to a set of key notes and this bound with prayer tends to commit the entirety to memory. Adding it is a good idea for younger ministers to have a full script and graduate to a lower dependency when they have honed their ability to deliver a structured and clear sermon.
His next section deals with sincerity – this is a good chapter which I thoroughly enjoyed and I will remember the quote about David Hume, the deistic philosopher who was found hurrying along a London street to hear George Whitefield preach. He was asked ‘you don’t believe what Whitefield preaches do you?’ ‘No, I dont’ answered Hume, ‘but he does’
The book ends with a section tackling the twin need for courage and humility. Overall, this is one of the best practical books I have read on the importance and place of preaching – it is packed with good solid practical advice. I pray for a resurgence of good strong preaching throughout this realm.