Reading books from earlier generations is helpful in evaluating the proclivities and overemphases of our own generation. Reading Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones Preaching and Preachershas reminded me of that truth this week. For in his classic work on preaching, the good doctor reflects on the condition of preaching and its primacy within the Christian church. Informed by the timeless wisdom of the Scriptures, he speaks to many cultural trends sweeping through evangelicalism today. In particular, he addresses emergent tendencies to exchange preaching for dialogue and the evangelical left’s push to advance social justice, environmental care, economic revision, and other secondary matters to the forefront.
Considering the manner in which we speak about God, Lloyd-Jones recalls Moses encounter with God at the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6), and he says, “our attitude [in how we approach God] is more important than anything we do in detail as we are reminded in the Epistle to the Hebrews, God is always to be approached ‘with reverence and with godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire’ (47). The eminent pastor goes on to explain:
To me this is a very vital matter. To discuss the being of God in a casual manner, lounging in an armchair, smoking a pipe or a cigarette or a cigar, is to me something that we should never allow, because God, as I say, is not a kind of philosophic X or a concept (47).
While surely not denying the place of Christian conversation about the things of God, Lloyd-Jones admonition to preach the Word with fear and trembling is forceful. He challenges preachers seeking to rightly divide the Word to also faithfully present the Word as a divinely authorized message from God himself. The manner is as important as the means. Explication of the Scriptures devoid of proper gravity minimizes divine authority. In Lloyd-Jones estimation, this kind of preaching fails to convey the seriousness of the message we preach. This raises a series of questions for budding preachers to consider:
What kind of message does it send when a sanctuary is converted into living room? Or what is the effect on the church when pulpits are replaced with bar stools? Or how is the message of God perceived when the preacher dons a pair of sandles and a hawaiian shirt? Surely, these things have little bearing on the content of the message, but might they distort the seriousness of the Scriptures? The good doctor thinks that such mishandling of God’s Word is a case of malpractice.
Lloyd-Jones book also confronts another modern issue, namely the promotion of a socialized gospel. In an age where evangelicalism sees to be splintering and the evangelical left calls for renewed attention to matters of society and culture, Lloyd-Jones words remind us of Christ’s central mission and the church’s singular purpose–to proclaim the gospel of salvation. Lloyd Jones writes:
Take all this new interest in the social application of the Gospel, and the idea of going to live amongst the people and to talk politics and to enter into their social affairs and so on [Read: incarnational ministry and missional church]…The argument was that the old evangelical preaching of the Gospel was too personal [i.e. individual], too simple, that it did not deal with the social problems and conditions. It was a part, of course, of the liberal, modernit, higher-critical view of the Scriptures and of our Lord….The very thing that is regarded as so new today, and what is regarded as the primary task of the Church, is something that has already been tried, and tried with great thoroughness in the early part of the century (33).
Lloyd-Jones reminds us that a socially-minded gospel, fueled by liberalism, has “already been tried.” Not surprisingly, the idea of socializing the gospel, incarnating the church into the clothes of the culture, is not new. Though emerging churches and leftist evangelicals may think of themselves as cutting edge, Lloyd-Jones replies in the words of Solomon “there is nothing new under the sun.” He continues:
I have not hesitation in asserting that was largely responsible for emptying the churches in Great Britain was the ‘social gospel’ preaching and the institutional church. [Why?] The people rightly argued in this way, that if the business of the Church was really just to preach a form of political and social reform and pacifism then the Church was not really necessary, for all the could be done throught the political agencies (34).
Lloyd-Jones’ warning here is that when Christians fail to uphold the central message of the Bible, the message of forgiveness and eternal life purchased on the cross of Christ, the church is undone. When emphases are on this world only, and fail to consider the eternal realities of heaven and hell; or when the exclusive message of Jesus salvation is broaden to some kind of pluralism or universal inclusivism, as are growing among even evangelicals today, then the long-term result will ultimately be empty churches. He offers a better, more biblical way.
My objection to the substitution of a socio-political interest for the preaching of the Gospel can be stated more positively. This concern about the social and political conditions, and about the happiness of the individual and so on, has always been dealt with most effectively when you have had reformation and revival and true preaching in the Christian church. I would go further and suggest that it is the Christian Church that has made the greatest contribution throughout the centuries to the solution of these very problems. The modern man is very ignorant of history; he does not know that the hospitals originally came through the church… The same thing is true of education…The same is true of Poor Law Relief and the mitigation of the sufferings of people who were enduring poverty (35-36).
My argument is that when the Church performs her primary task these other things invariably result from it…The other people talk a great deal about the political and social conditions but do little about them. It is the activity of the Church that reallys deals with the situation and produces enduring and permanent results. So I argue that even from the pragmatic standpoint it can be demonstrated that you must keep preaching [the gospel:God, man, Christ, response] in the primary and cental position (36).
May we hear the words of this faithful preacher, evaluate our own commitment to gospel proclamation by them, and go forth preaching with greater boldness and clarity.