Posted on November 18, 2015 by firstname.lastname@example.org
Lately I’ve been studying some of my favorite preachers: Martyn Lloyd Jones, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon. All three saw revival in their own days and were known globally for their powerful, biblical preaching.
Since I’m a narratology nerd, I decided I’d listen carefully to the way each of them structured their sermons. I found something stunning:
Each of them structured their sermons the exact same way.
Now there is some variety, especially with Spurgeon. But part of me wonders if Spurgeon and Lloyd Jones didn’t actually get this sermon template from Jonathan Edwards himself, who was very meticulous about it (read his sermons, and you’ll see they’re labeled into three sections). Both were big fans and avid readers of Edwards’ work, and are fairly consistent on this sermon template.
I also wonder why I’ve never read anything about this structure. Maybe it’s because it sets itself against just about all the preaching advice we pass around these days. The structure goes something like this:
All three preachers refuse to begin their sermons with cute anecdotes or even any sense of “hook”: they all begin their sermons simply by examining the exegetical context of their passage. They give historical, grammatical and literary background to the text. There’s no promise of practical help, no catchy story, no curious questions raised. They simply lay out the pieces of the text, in order to better allow their listeners analyze the sermon.
From what I can tell, this seems to be common fair for the puritan context. As I read through puritan Thomas Adams’ sermons this week, I found the same.
To me, this is a rebuke of two types of preachers: the one who spends much of the sermon laying out exegetical facts – to these men, this was not preaching. It was the preface to preaching.
The second is the pragmatic preacher, who makes worldly promises in the name of biblical truth. These preachers would not and could not do this, because they see preaching as a confrontation with man, not a help along the road to success.
The second part of the sermon, which Edwards calls “doctrine”, is essentially a tracing of a single theme from the passage throughout scripture. This “doctrine” could in fact be an application: for example, Edwards considers the principle of ‘seeking God’s kingdom with our whole heart’ a doctrine, which he traces throughout the Old and New Testament. He’s a master at employing symbols from the natural world to illustrate his theological points.
Lloyd Jones takes a more systematic approach. For example, he preaches a whole sermon on Romans 1:1 by simply tracing the history of the word “Apostle” and defining its meaning. There’s very little color here, but he is strikingly clear.
Spurgeon typically takes examples from the Old Testament, Hymns, Puritans and culture and meshes them together. If you know Spurgeon for his “three point preaching”, you’ll note that his first point is typically theological.
Again, this is a rebuke to modern preaching. All of these men preached theologically. They did not believe that faithfulness to the text meant staying within the text – to them, this was unfaithful to the whole counsel of God. For these men, the hinge point of every sermon was a vision of God which, once again, confronts us. It is this vision of God which provided the basis for their application afterward. Producing this vision was, to Edwards, sanctification itself.
After establishing the doctrinal principle, these preachers worked that doctrine out into life. It’s important to note that “application” for all three men looked nothing like application of today: “5 Steps to a Better fill-in-the-blank.” It would be more comparable to what we might call “argumentation.” This is especially true of Edwards and Lloyd Jones, who made application in ways more appropriate to their secular contexts (though we typically think of Edwards’ Northampton as a place burgeoning with Christian piety, the truth was before Edwards and his grandfather, it was a secular wasteland).
So, Edwards and Lloyd Jones’ approach to application was dialectical, much like the Apostle Paul. They anticipated objections to the doctrine presented, and they carefully refuted them. This, for Edwards and Lloyd Jones, occupies the majority of sermon work. After engaging the imagination, they would address the mind, the heart’s final defense.
Spurgeon was the most exhortative of the three, typically using his second point to give practical advice on piety and the Christian life, stemming from the doctrine established previously. However, he includes dialectical elements typically in his first point, on doctrine.
The takeaway is: we haven’t preached until we’ve argued. Yes, I stand by that: I believe preaching is confronting man with their view of God, and that means arguing the truth into people’s hearts. This was the climax of these men’s sermons, and if we leave it off, we’ve stopped short of all preaching can be.
This was the Christ-centered end for which each of these men aimed: an invitation to be “born again” and to join God’s kingdom. For Edwards, this was the aim of most of his application: he was arguing against people’s objections to conversion. So in a way, he’s the most explicit of the three.
Spurgeon makes it most explicit in his structure: his third point is always an invitation to belong to Christ.
Lloyd Jones is the least explicit of the three, often leaving off the invitation in his Sunday morning sermons and being more explicit during his evangelistic Sunday nights.
This, to me, is a rebuke to many of us in the reformed movement. God’s choosing of men to believe ought never to prevent us from inviting them. The Apostles made this a practice. Although it need not (and should not) look like hand-raising, aisle-walking and magic-prayer praying, it is nevertheless necessary to call people to “repent and believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It’s no coincidence that these men were at the head of true spiritual revivals: they didn’t simply pray toward these ends, but invited men and women toward them passionately, intelligently, imaginatively and explicitly.