Ensuring Usefulness in Preaching
Samuel Miller's Lectures on Preaching (Part 2)
A man sincerely entering into ministry desires to be a blessing to his congregation. He wishes to offer services that will benefit the flock under his charge. If this is not the case, one would wisely suspect the validity of his call. Correspondingly, for those that desire to be useful, there is scarcely anything more deflating than the feeling of uselessness—that one’s labors are not doing any good. That is a conclusion that all preachers should wish to avoid, if possible. Although we are well aware that such utility is ultimately the work of God, we also know that God uses means. Are there things that we can do to ensure, as far as is possible with us, that we may be useful pastors? Samuel Miller thought so. At the graduation services of 1847, Miller offered a few parting counsels to his graduating students “of vital importance to your public character; and your official usefulness.” In this address, Miller spoke of three things that we will briefly consider together.
The Necessity of Piety
Miller begins by arguing that, from a human vantage point, our usefulness depends very much on the maintenance of our own piety. He goes further, “Without piety a minister is nothing. Everything else may be dispensed with rather than this. Without this he is not prepared to begin his work.”
Well, what is piety? We often hear this sort of language but I am not convinced we always understand it. Miller simply defines it as “fervent love for the master and an ardent zeal for his honor and for the salvation of souls.” This makes perfect sense. How can we possibly honor Christ in our ministry without love for him? We may speak with the tongues of men and angels but if we have not love (for Christ or his people) we are nothing more than noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1Cor.13:1). Likewise, how can we expect to be useful in moving our flock towards communion, growth, and maturity in Christ if we fail to exhibit the very same growth ourselves. I am reminded of the Catholic priest who, a few years ago, told his congregation not to read the Bible because he didn’t! If we do not have sincere piety—love for Christ and his people—how can we possibly expect God’s blessing? An absence of piety, Miller maintains, is like tasteless, bland food. However, vital piety seasons all of our preaching and makes it savory. Of course, God can use a graceless man, but this is scarcely the norm. Nevertheless, a pious man doesn’t necessarily make a useful preacher. More is required.
Unceasing and Faithful Preaching of the Pure Gospel
Next, Miller reflects both on the manner and the message of preaching that ensures utility. In the first place, Miller suggests that the manner is of secondary importance. God has used very different men with very different methods to do tremendous good throughout the history of the church. Nevertheless, the sermon most designed for utility should contain the following ingredients. It must be plain, simple, and colloquial. Preaching is communication. If the audience cannot understand the point, a significant purpose of the sermon is left unmet. The clearest sermon is designed to be the most useful. We must learn to speak clearly, in the language of the people that is faithful to the language of Scripture.
The sermon must also be powerful, persuasive, and impassioned. Miller was a strong proponent of the Belles Lettres, an educational and rhetorical movement that emerged in the eighteenth century which argued that orators must take into account the proper style effective communication. In short, this means we should use the general lessons of rhetoric to speak more convincingly. In our preaching, we must aim to persuade and to employ all of the skills granted to us to achieve that end. Furthermore, we must speak from a heart impassioned with zeal for the glory of the Lord. If God has not first moved upon us with His truth, it is unlikely that our preaching will powerfully persuade others.
Nevertheless, the commitment to the manner of preaching must be secondary to the content of preaching. Speaking to aspiring Reformed preachers, Miller urged that they insist in every sermon on the doctrines of grace. Make it perfectly clear, he argued, “to every intelligent and attentive hearer” that you are a “plenary believer in the doctrine of the entire depravity of human nature,” and in the belief that redemption lies solely in the “free and sovereign grace of God” by his perfect sacrifice and imputed righteousness. He concludes, “The more simply, clearly, and strongly this is done the better. God has promised to bless the truth; and he has not promised to bless anything else.”
Having committed ourselves to preaching clearly and powerfully the truth of God in Christ, we are much more likely to be used by the Lord. However, still more is required. We conclude with one final ingredient to a useful preacher.
Dependence upon the Power and Grace of the Holy Spirit
Miller states, “Never forget that the success of all your labors depends on the sovereign power and grace of the Holy Spirit.” Pastors must operate out of a “deep and habitual sense of absolute dependence on the Holy Spirit’s influence for all spiritual good.” Not a word can be spoken faithfully without His influence. Preachers have absolutely no ability to change a heart, or lead a sinner to repentance. We dare not enter the pulpit without full awareness of our limitations. Without the Spirit of God accompanying our preaching, we are but a sail without wind! Without the blessing of the Spirit, our preaching will be but water spilt upon dry ground—a crying out to dry bones!
Miller urged his students that they make their ministrations demonstrations of complete and utter reliance upon the power and grace of Christ. The same exhortation applies to us. Let prayer precede your preaching; let it also follow your preaching. Constantly, zealously, and passionately plead with the living God to empower your preaching with full assurance that it will only be useful if He does so. And in every demonstration of usefulness, return thanks to the Lord for accompanying your labors.
Every godly minister wishes to be useful. Certainly, we enter the study every week and labor with hopes of blessing our congregations. Perhaps then, we should heed the advice of a Presbyterian forefather and dare not enter the pulpit without fervent love to Christ and his church. May we commit to exhaust all the resources at our disposal to communicate clearly, powerfully, and persuasively while allowing nothing but the truth to come from our mouths. May we be keenly and prayerfully aware of our utter dependence upon the grace of the Holy Spirit. If we have entered our pulpits in such a way, we can rest assured that we have done all in our power to ensure utility and leave our efforts in the sovereign hands of God.