By Cecil Willis
In this excellent series of articles on Gospel Preaching, I have been asked to present a few thoughts concerning Paul’s earnest plea to the Ephesian brethren that they remember to pray that he might “speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” The usage of the word “ought” brings the message and manner of gospel preaching into the realm of ethics. Indeed, some modern philosopher-theologians might also call this ethical injunction a “categorical imperative” (Immanuel Kant) or a “divine imperative” (Emil Brunner). Moral “oughtness” puts the manner of preaching in the realm of ethical duty, and behooves us to consider what is implied in preaching “as I ought to speak.” This presupposes that the manner of preaching is prescribed (2 Tim. 4:2; Acts 4:29-31; 28:31).
Our Savior was the only perfect preacher (Heb. 1:1,2; 4:14,15). Jesus always said the right things to the right audience at the right time in the right manner. He never preached a false doctrine (Jn. 17:17; 8:32). He never left anything unsaid that needed to be said. He never misjudged an audience. He never said or did anything to hinder a sinner’s salvation (Lk. 19:10; 1 Tim. 4:16). Not so of many of us modern preachers. Forty years ago, when I was a student at Florida College, I quizzed a fellow-student about how his Lord’s Day preaching appointment had gone. He replied, “terrible.” Of course I asked why so. He replied, “Have you ever tried to preach on ‘What Must One Do To Be Saved’ to nine saved people?” Our Lord never had such problems. The venerable W.W. Otey told me once that he had never preached a sermon with which he was completely satisfied one hour after he preached it. It always lacked “head-power” or “heart-power” or something else. With my own sermons, the dissatisfaction usually begins while singing the invitation song. I always think of something which I had intended to say, or something which I had not intended to say, and now wish I had left unsaid. Not so with the Galilean! Consider with me a few points included in preaching “as I ought to speak.”
As in every realm, the “Lord of Glory” is our example in faithfulness to the Father’s will. He once said, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me” (Jn. 4:34). Later he said, “I am come down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (Jn. 6:38). Again he said, “I do always the things that are pleasing to him” (Jn. 8:29). And remember that beautiful expression voiced just before the Cross: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine be done” (Lk. 22:42). The Messianic Psalmist David prophesied of him: “Lo, I am come . . . to do thy will, O God” (Psa. 40:6, quoted in Heb. 10:7).
When I was yet in my teens, and doing my best to fill Sunday appointments at four different churches here in Trinity County, Texas (where I was born and now live once again), the beloved Luther Blackmon once felt the need to caution me after I had preached here in Groveton: “Get one thing forever settled in your mind, if you are going to preach: ‘Who am I trying to please?'” (Gal. 1:10; 2 Tim. 2:4) I have never forgotten the advice, nor ever shall I forget it! Preacher, if you want to hear the “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21), remember to preach the word faithfully. The powerful preacher Jeremiah said it like this: “. . . he that hath my word, let him speak it faithfully” (Jer. 23:28). I often have said that all the qualifications of a gospel preacher are encompassed in 2 Timothy 2:2: “And the things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” Define correctly ‘faithful men, ” and “able to teach, ” and you have encompassed all the credentials necessary to be a gospel preacher. Peter expressed our duty as preachers in these words: “ministering it among yourselves, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God,- if any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:10,11). Paul expressed this duty even more succinctly: “moreover, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2).
Faithful preaching entails the recognition that the message (“preach the word”), the manner (“reprove, rebuke, and exhort”), and the moment (“in season and out of season”) are all prescribed (2 Tim. 4:1,2). There is a temptation on the part of preachers to be well-received by their hearers. It has ever been so (Lk. 6:26). There is little praise from men when the Word is faithfully preached, but God will supply the ample blessing (2 Cor. 12:9). The preacher therefore must avoid hobbies, obscurities, oddities, speculations, and pointless eloquence (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
Another requisite of preaching as one ought is recognition that the Gospel must be fully proclaimed. To do otherwise is to subvert and pervert the powerful Message (Gal. 1:6,7). Six hundred years before the Messiah’s birth, God told the preacher Jeremiah: “all the words which I command thee to speak unto them; diminish not a word” (Jer. 26:2). Moses already had been told: “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it” (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6). A similar injunction is found in the New Testament (Rev. 22:18,19). Paul was free from the blood of all men because he had declared to them “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). In fact, Paul could draw much satisfaction that from Jerusalem unto his remotest preaching field (Illyricum), he had “fully preached the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:19). At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had taught: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). At the end of his earthly ministry, the Master instructed: “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). Indeed, “every Scripture” is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16). We must be ready to preach like Cornelius was ready to hear: ready to declare “all things that have been commanded thee of the Lord” (Acts 10:33).
My brother, this is a frightening injunction, especially when one considers the many things contained in the Word. One must handle the Word aright, and then preach the whole counsel of God! One must be careful that he not leave out anything taught in the Word. Brethren, to do this requires an enormous amount of study. I have always been a peacher that required an enormous amount of preparation. As I grow older, it seems I now require more study than ever before. I guess that is because I now know how much it is that I do not yet know. Reflect upon the many topics to be found in Scripture. Then remember, you must teach them all, including both “meat” and “milk” (Heb. 5:11-14).
The man who preaches the gospel wields great power, but he must be certain that he remembers that the power is in the gospel; not in the preacher (Rom. 1: 16; Jas. 1:2 1; 2 Tim. 3:15). God put his power in his Word! The gospel is the only power on earth that can turn a sinner into a saint. The Hebrew writer said that the Word is “quick and powerful” (KJV), or “living and active” (ASV) (Heb. 4:12). Seven hundred years before Christ came, Isaiah had said: “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and declare unto my people their transgression, and to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isa. 58:1).
I am not quite sure that Christians should have favorite verses; all God has said should be considered reverently. But there is one verse which I find myself reciting more often than any other. It is that wonderful passage where Paul calls gospel preaching a “grace” (Eph. 3:8,9). A grace is an undeserved privilege. Thus the privilege of preaching is called an underserved favor. When the gospel preacher thus looks upon his ministry, he will do the work as ably as he can. In Romans 1:14, Paul said it like this: “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you also that are in Rome.”
As many of you know, I have three brothers and two sons who have been preachers. Like the gloating parent, I have had difficulty being modest about the ability and work of my brothers and sons. Since I am the oldest, perhaps I should be accorded that privilege. But I am not in a preaching contest with my brothers or sons. I only have to preach “as much as in me is.” I must do the best I can do to preach the gospel.
Apollos must have been a great preacher. The Scriptures tell us that he was “an eloquent man,” “mighty in the Scriptures,” “fervent in spirit,” “instructed in the way of the Lord,” and spoke “boldly” (Acts 18:24-28). All will remember that he needed some further instruction, which was provided him by Priscilla and Aquila. And then properly prepared in all areas, we are told that “he powerfully confuted the Jews, and that publicly, showing by the scriptures that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:28). Let each preacher determine to preach as forcefully as he can. It should be our highest desire to change men in belief, status, and life. To do so, our preaching must cut to the heart (Acts 2:37; 5:33; 7:54), and it must be personal, since sin and damnation are personal. Indeed, we must blast people out of their deadly complacency, if we are to them any lasting good.
Very closely related to the previous point is that fact that one must also preach fervently. In fact, everything one does as a Christian should be done fervently. Paul expressed it like this: “whatsoever ye do, work heartily, as unto the Lord, and not unto men” (Col. 3:23). Remember Apollos was “fervent in spirit” (Acts 18:25), and in Romans 12-11 Paul adds that every Christian must likewise be “fervent in spirit.” Because of the importance of our work, there must be urgency in it. Paul said preaching as one ought to preach requires that one be “urgent in season, out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). 2 Corinthians 5:11 states, “knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men.”
Brethren there must be fire in the pulpit! And I am quite sure that all attentive listeners will admit that we are becoming woefully short of it. I have heard men preach with all the enthusiasm that one could muster if he were reading Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, or an ancient Sears and Roebuck Catalog. And that is a shameful disgrace. Our Lord’s gospel should receive our finest effort. In trying to be persuasive during the singing of an invitation song, I have often heard Rufus Clifford say: “You may think this preacher is beside himself, but I know what the issues are that are involved: Life or Death! ” Such occasions demand our most fervent effort.
It takes a man of considerable courage to be a faithful gospel preacher. His very work is the duty to tell men what they really do not like to hear. In order for Christians to grow, their shortcomings must be made clear to them. The sin of King Saul lay in the fact that “he feared the people and obeyed their voice” (1 Sam. 15:24). The parents of the man born blind were reticent to acknowledge Christ as healer “because they feared the Jews” (Jn. 9:22). A warning is sounded for all would-be servants of Christ: “And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Paul stirs up Timothy’s courage by telling him: “For God gave us not a spirit of fearfulness; but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7). There is another passage the fearful preacher must remember: “But for the fearful, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, their part shall be in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstrone; which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). Unless one fears man more than God, the above passages should settle the fear question. Paul said, “woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16).
Preacher-friend, if you are having difficulty preaching “as you ought to preach,” do as Paul did. Enlist the help of some of your close friends to pray to God with you that you might preach as you ought to preach. And then if you cannot find it in your heart to preach as you ought to preach, it would be best if you gave up preaching altogether. We already have too many who will not preach as they “ought to preach.”
Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 3, pp. 92-94
February 6, 1992