A Letter to Young Preachers

 |  May 16, 2018

NOTE: J. M. Pendleton was a leading 19th century Baptist preacher, pastor, educator, and theologian. See Thomas White. Selected Writings of James Madison Pendleton, 3 vols. (Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006). Here is one of his letters, rich with insight for preaching.

Dear Brethren,

You must ever consider it a sacred duty to bestow diligent care on the preparation of your sermons. You are not at liberty to go into the pulpit without having something to say to the people.

The days of inspiration are past. I am aware the fact is sometimes referred to that the Savior commanded the Apostles not to think beforehand what they should say when brought before kings and governors. It may be safely assumed that this language is inapplicable to ministers of the gospel now.

You will probably ask what I mean by preparation for the pulpit. I mean that you must understand the subjects you intend to discuss and that the method of discussion must be distinctly arranged in your own minds. If this is not the case, though you may say a great many good things, you will say them in a disjointed miscellaneous manner, and will not in fact deliver sermons. What you say will not be suggested by your texts.

Nothing deserves to be called a sermon which does not grow out of the text. One of the chief excellences of sermonizing consists in an exhibition of the natural connections between the subject and the discourse founded thereon. If such a connection is not shown, why have a subject at all?

The reproof once administered by an old minister to a young one was very severe: He said, “If your text had had the smallpox the sermon would not have taken the infection.”

This was a strong method of saying that the text and the sermon had no connection with each other. Who has not heard discourses of this kind? And they may be considered very good by the unthinking, but they can never satisfy intelligent hearers.

Andrew Fuller, when he had selected a text, was accustomed to ask, “What? Why? What then?”

His first inquiry was, what is the doctrine of the text, or what does it teach? Secondly, what considerations show this to be its import? Thirdly, what follows, or what concern have my hearers in these things? This plan of preparing for the pulpit is very suggestive. There is a vast amount of common sense in it.

I do not say, however, that it can be properly adopted in every instance. Sometimes the “why” may be omitted as it will be virtually obvious to the hearer once the text is exhibited, the preacher may at once make his transition to the “what then.”

It is far too common for young ministers to make points in their discourses unauthorized by their texts.

Allow me to illustrate: A young man once preached from this text: “God commands all men everywhere to repent.” The first point made was, there is a God, and he adduced very conclusive proofs of the divine existence. This division was gratuitous and unjustifiable. Paul did not employ the language of the text to prove the existence of God. He assumes that there is a God and says this God commands all men everywhere to repent.

The young man might have made a subject-sermon deducing from the words a theme like this, “Repentance, a universal duty,” and by adding a second division, such as this, “God requires the performance of this duty,” he might have made a text-sermon. But no good sermonizer would ever select such a text to prove that there is a God.

Having given an example of objectionable sermonizing from a young minister, I now present one from an old herald of the cross, among the best preachers I ever heard. It was said, “Homer sometimes nods.” The sermon had this text as its basis; “If any man serve me him will my Father honor.”

The divisions were the four following: 1) Jesus Christ has a rightful claim to the services of men, 2) the services he requires, 3) men are so depraved that without a divine influence they never will serve Christ, and 4) the honor the Father confers on those who serve his Son.

Now I submit to all the preachers in Christendom that the text does not justify the third division. There is not the shadow of authority for it. Still the proposition it contains is an unquestionable truth—a truth so important and fundamental that without its recognition there cannot be an adequate understanding of the gospel. But it is not a truth taught in that text.

Young ministers, in forming their habits of sermonizing, must be careful not to deduce from a text that which does not belong to it. This is more important than many suppose.

*A version of this article originally appeared on drdavidlallen.com and is used here with permission.

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