Christians have a message for the world. It pivots around the problem of sin and centers on Jesus as its only solution. However, our culture glorifies sin even while denying its reality. Attempts to define sin for what it is are rarely appreciated. Efforts to suppress it are disparaged as “puritanical.” This is ‘old hat.’ A brief look at four great British preachers from the 17th through 20th centuries well illustrates how common this collective unconsciousness of sin has been, even in times when sin ran rampant.
Richard Baxter (1615 – 1691)
Remember the Puritans? They were 16th and 17th century reformers who emerged through turbulent times out of the Church of England which needed much reforming. The great Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter, once said of his fellow preachers, “From the general strain of some men’s preaching, one would almost be ready to conclude that there were no sinners in their congregations to be converted.” The severity of sin and its consequences inspired Baxter to say, “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.” (from, Love Breathing Thanks and Praise). Indeed, the English Civil War (1642–1651) produced many dying men.
John Angell James (1785-1859)
Over a century later, John Angell James penned an inspiring classic titled, An Earnest Ministry, which every young minister should read. In it he asked, “How came the spirit of slumber over the church? Was it not from the pulpit?” James served one church for 55 years with a firm grasp on the severity of sin. This gave him a burning sense of mission and a life-long zeal for God’s grace. He astutely observed, “Men will care little about pardon, till they are convinced of sin.” Still, his preaching was even-handed: “If in one hand the preacher of the gospel carry the sword of the Spirit, it is only to slay the sin; while he holds forth the olive branch in the other, as the token of peace and life to the sinner.” James challenged his fellow preachers thusly, “He who does not supremely aim to bring sinners into friendship with God, falls short of the design of the sacred office.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834 – 1892)
The next generation brought Charles H. Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” to prominence. He served one London congregation for 38 years and preached to some 10,000,000 souls. He wrote, “You cannot preach conviction of sin unless you have suffered it. You cannot preach repentance unless you have practiced it. You cannot preach faith unless you have exercised it. True preaching is artesian; it wells up from the great depths of the soul. If Christ has not made a well within us, there will be no overflow from us.”
John R.W. Stott (1921 – 2011)
A 20th century witness to the power of Christian preaching comes from the late great British churchman John Stott. In his book, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century, Stott wrote: “A deaf church is a dead church… God quickens, feeds, inspires and guides his people by his Word. For whenever the Bible is truly and systematically expounded, God uses it to give his people the vision without which they perish.”
One More Sermon!
Illusions of innocence are not new. Jesus confronted Pharisees full of such illusions. In 1973, Psychologist Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? to affirm the reality of sin in a sin-denying culture. Christian preaching begins with the severity of sin and moves straight to Jesus, the one man whose claim to innocence was no illusion. He faced sin and death head on and emerged from that fatal (but not final) confrontation as the only real solution sinners can turn to for hope. The apostle John summed up Jesus’ mission thusly: “He appeared in order to take away sins;” (1 John 3:5).
The four great preachers above may have found fame preaching to millions, but they were well aware of how unpopular preaching could be. Spurgeon had some advice for those who ran away from real gospel preaching. He said, “Oh, what would the damned in hell give for a sermon, could they but listen once more.”