The Waning Pulpit – J. Wilbur Chapman (historic sermon 1859-1917)
A message delivered to preachers at the beginning of the 20th century.
This is a day when the minister is under sharpest fire. By some his motives are questioned, his spirit is censured, and his failure to secure such results as came in days gone by, when the gospel was preached, is used as an argument against him. However, in the midst of such criticism it should not be forgotten that it is, by no means, as easy to preach today as in the olden times. The minister formerly was recognized as a man under authority; his words were generally received as the truth; now the genuineness of his message is sharply questioned, and even his authority is subject to criticism. When Mr. D. L. Moody preached the gospel and urged men to turn to God, his statements were accepted without question; but today all this is changed, and one must not only preach his sermon, but he must prove his authority and be ready to substantiate the integrity and genuineness of the Book on the basis of which his message is delivered. But a brighter day will come for the minister, and it is only necessary that he should be watchful in these troublesome times, have the approval of his own conscience in the matter of preaching, and also be sure that he has His approval in whose name he speaks and from whom he has received his call to preach.
As an illustration of the sharpness of the criticism it may be well to note the words spoken by a professor of law, in an Eastern university, in an address before a ministers’ conference:
“The waning power of the pulpit is one of the most lamentable signs of the times. The intellectual pre-eminence of the preacher has passed and gone. The pulpit no longer attracts the brightest minds, and theological seminaries swarm with intellectual weaklings. Pulpit deliverances of our day often lack every element of real oratory; they are largely dreary monologues and complacent soliloquy. The speaker’s wits, instead of being sharpened by adversity and defeat, are blunted by his unvaried weekly duel with an imaginary foe. Our present-day divines are not deficient in the arts of finished elocution, but they have dropped the old theme of salvation from an inherited curse of sin. But when the pulpit has moral earnestness, it rises to the loftiest elevation of eloquent expression. It was homely language of a country deacon speaking to a person who had prayed long and loudly for power…”
This opinion may or may not be correct; the one who gave it evidently thinks it is, and unquestionably he represents a certain element in the Church. Whether true or not, it is the sort of criticism facing the preacher today. It is claimed that we have failed to give sufficient emphasis to the importance of prayer, and we read that this was the secret of true greatness in the pulpit of other days. It is said we have lost our power because we have not given sufficient attention to Bible study; not Bible study in the preparation of sermons, but Bible study in the development of our own spiritual life. Unquestionably the secret of Spurgeon’s power was found just here. During the days of the week we must become saturated with the Scriptures so that on Sunday the message comes flowing forth like the current of a mighty river. Men tell us we have lost this, that we preach about God’s Word, but not the Word itself.
It has been said that we have given up personal work, and depend too much upon our pulpit efforts to turn men to God. “How do you like your minister?” said one of my friends to a plain woman in the mountains of Kentucky. She hesitated a moment and replied: “We don’t like him so very well. He preaches well enough, but he has the college habit, and studies so much that we do not see him except on Sundays,” “and,” she said, “you know a minister must speak to you out of the pulpit as well as in it if he is to influence you.”
We are told that we have also failed in the matter of direct preaching. The son of a minister told me that he had never in his life heard his father, when preaching, give a personal invitation from the pulpit to those listening to him to accept Christ. While this is, of course, the greatest exception to the rule, yet it seems strange that even one man feeling called to preach the gospel should not urge men at all times, in season and out of season, to turn to the Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as a Savior. I am quite persuaded that we would be able to meet and overcome these criticisms, whether they be just or unjust, had we firm convictions on the following essential points:
First, we must have a message to preach, not for the sake of preaching, but for the sake of convincing men of their sins, as the Spirit of God may lead us. When asked one day his opinion regarding sermons of ministers, Hon. William J. Bryan said: “I desire my minister to preach every Sabbath the simple gospel. The old, old story never wearies the average congregation, if it comes from a devout mind with preparation in the message. My ideal sermon is one which has an appeal to the unconverted and a spiritual uplift for the Christian. I want my minister to be abreast of the times on all new theological questions and research, but I do not want him to bring them into the pulpit. I have formed certain fixed views of Christ, His gospel, and the inspiration of the Bible from a careful reading of that Book of books and of the Shorter Catechism, and it will not make me a better Christian or profit my spiritual life to unsettle these views by a discussion in the pulpit of new theories of Christ and the Holy Scriptures. Finally, I want my minister to act on the belief that Christ’s gospel is the surest cure of all social and political evils, and that his best method of promoting temperance, social morality, and good citizenship, is to bring men into the Church. In a word, I want my minister to emphasize in the lifework the declaration of the most successful preacher, Paul: “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.”
Second, we must have an unwavering conviction that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. If we give any evidence of uncertainty at this point, the message we deliver will scarcely be received with enthusiasm, and it is inconceivable that it could be delivered with very much power. At the close of an editorial in the British Weekly was the following: “Whatever else is in the Bible or not In it, man is in it, and it is still the one supreme Book for finding the man in all men. But it will not yield its treasure except to the humble and the reverent, in whose soul the flame of inquiry burns as a lamp in the temple. Neither to the idolater nor to the iconoclast does divine truth appear, but to the praying worker who gives his best to both prayer and work.
“We believe there are signs of the preacher’s return to the Book. While giving science and literature their due place, the preacher will do well to become yet a man of one Book. It is inexhaustible, its phrase ever fresh, as the greatest masters have ever found. Who can forget the use Thackeray made in “Esmond” of one of its healing phrases? Who can forget the thrill of many of them on the lips of Doctor Parker, of Canon Liddon? They are still wanted amidst all the weariness of men in haste to be omniscient. And they are wanted to bring in a new era of deep conviction, And yet more than they, the spirit of the Book is wanted, for to it alone will the spirit of man everywhere harmoniously respond.”
When one is filled with the Word of God, when he loves it, when it profoundly moves him, every one with whom he comes in contact will take knowledge of him that he has been with Jesus, and whether he is in the pulpit or out of it, he will have power. “A perfumer bought a common earthen jar and filled it with attar of roses. Soon every atom of the substance of which the jar was made was saturated with the rich perfume, and long afterwards, when the jar was broken, the fragments retained the fragrance. So it is that a human life become filled, saturated with the Word of God, when one loves it and meditates upon it continually. One’s thoughts, feelings, affections, dispositions, and character become colored with the spirit of the Word of God. Such a filling of the mind and heart with the pure Word of God is the best way to prepare for any future of darkness into which he may pass. It is Uke hanging up a hundred lamps while the light of day yet shines in order that they may be ready to pour down their soft beams the moment the daylight fades.”
There must also be a clear presentation of the claims of Jesus Christ. I am told that in every German barrack there is a picture of the empress. What is that for? It was a decree of the emperor. While Her Majesty was traversing one of the gardens in Berlin, she was greeted in a rough fashion by one of the soldiers who knew her not. No royal salute, no response to Her Majesty’s salutation was given, and when she went home, and her royal husband heard of it, he said: “That will not occur again. Her Majesty’s face must be known by every member of the German army, in order that when she comes and goes, whether in royal attire or in plebeian costume, she will be honored.” And so, in the German army they say, “Do you know that face? That is the empress!”
Should it not be so with Christ? Up to this time He has not always been greeted with a royal salute. The nations were in darkness, bowing down to idols; they had forgotten the lessons God had taught them, and the instructions He had given them. When Christ came by they did not salute Him. His own people murmured and seemed to behold Him as through a mist. And Christ said: “Study Me. Know the lineaments of My face, so when I come by, in the visitation of national mercies, I may be greeted by a royal salute.” That is the first duty of the Christian soldier, to know Christ. From every pulpit His story must be told, else preaching will be vain.
It is a sad thing that it should ever be said of the minister that in his preaching, Christ is not presented. I am persuaded that those in the pulpit who forget Him are few in number as compared with the great army of preachers who sincerely love Jesus Christ with all their hearts. Then it should not be forgotten that the way must not be made too easy. General Booth says the chief dangers in the twentieth century are: Religion without the Holy Spirit; Christianity without Christ; Forgiveness without Repentance; Salvation without Regeneration; Politics without God, and Heaven without Hell.
The fires of criticism will soon burn lower than today. The minister may more and more, if he will, come to his own. If out of it all we come to a better likeness of Christ, with more of a passion for preaching, more of a love for souls, more of a desire to see lost ones turn to the Savior, then the fires will not have been in vain, and. the criticisms we have faced will have been helpful.