What is Wrong with Preaching Today?

In 1980 the President of Westminster Theological Seminary sent a letter to various senior pastors/theologians asking for their views on what were “ten serious failures of the Christian pulpit.”  One of the respondents was John R. de Witt then of Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson.  His response was also published in the Banner of Truth Magazine (210, March 1981).  A number of the points he raised are of vital importance and as relevant today as they were in 1980.

De Witt’s first observation is that “the pre-eminent failing in the evangelical pulpit is a misunderstanding of the nature of preaching.”  His point here is that many preachers fail to recognise that the preacher is not to speak his own words – in the act of preaching he stands as an ambassador of Christ and should be speaking Christ’s words.  De Witt explains, “If we regard the sermon as the vehicle through which the Lord Jesus himself speaks – if, that is today, we hold that preaching in the biblical sense of the word is the principal means by which God addresses himself to sinners – this conviction cannot help but exercise a transforming influence on what we who are ministers do in the pulpit, and on how we do it.”  To me Dr de Witt’s observation here strikes a real cord.

De Witt’s second point is that he had observed “a want [lack] of ministerial earnestness”  Few preached “as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  The causes he identified were a false view that everyone in the congregation is saved, a failure to hold together “in tension” the truths of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the influence of the spirit of the age “with its tendency to undervalue the awful consequences of sin and impenitence.”  Again, I can only say that De Witt’s observation is true.

The fourth point De Witt covers (I’m not going through each of his points) is a lack of “warm, pointed, applicatory preaching” perhaps due to an over emphasis on the redemptive-historical approach to scripture [not the principle itself].  Again as someone who has spent a lot of time reading old Reformed/Puritan sermons one of the main differences that jumps out at you is the sheer volume of application relative to modern sermons.  Good, helpful, edifying application is hard work, much harder than giving a “lecture” but it is surely central to any biblical conception of preaching.

Related to the area of application De Witt’s seventh point is that “in many Reformed churches preaching is insufficiently direct.”  Perhaps, de Witt posits, this is due to ministers assuming everyone before them is saved and therefore don’t need the direct preaching of the gospel.  For de Witt this is simply wrong.  “The gospel should be preached regularly to every congregation.  Covenant children must be told what their own covenant position means for them … They have to know they dare not take their position for granted.  Those born in Christian families are to come to Christ.  My own great homiletics teacher, Dr Henry Blast, used to tell us that we were to assume nothing with respect to the spiritual situation in our congregations.  And the longer I live and the more I preach the greater is the degree of my agreement with him.”

De Witt’s eleventh point (yes he overran!) is the demise of the “prophetic element in preaching.”  By this he meant the demise of the authority of the pulpit.  He stated “I grow weary as I think about the number of times, for example, when I have heard a minister beginning his sermon by saying there was something he wanted to ‘share’ with us from the Word of God.  I believe that the word ‘share’ in this context is singularly inappropriate.”  Instead of sharing “The minister must come from God, bearing God’s message, speaking God’s Word, standing in a sense even in God’s place, addressing us with that which in no way rests on his own authority.  The minister is a herald, and his sermon is that Word which he speaks in behalf of the One who sent him.  That, after all, is the meaning of the word ‘to preach’.  The relational, psycologizing, soul-bearing so-called preaching of the present time is in no way reflective of the biblical concept of the sermon.”

De Witt also highlights helpfully the need to pay attention to the form or aesthetic quality of the sermon, the importance of appropriate illustrations, how the general decay in classical learning is harming the pulpit, how congregations often push ministers to spend their time on other things detracting from the great work of preaching, and the necessity of a minister to be godly.  All helpful but I don’t have time to comment on them here.

So it suffices to say that I think de Witt is substantially correct in his analysis.  And if anything I would imagine in the intervening 30 years things have got worse not better.  But there is no cause for despair – there are still many who are workmen who have no need to be ashamed, who rightly divide the word of truth.  And the Lord of the harvest is able to send many more into his harvest field.


4 Responses to “What is Wrong with Preaching Today?”

  1. What’s Wrong With Preaching Today? « Heidelblog Says:

    […] October 11, 2008 in Preaching the Word, Reforming Evangelicalism | Tags: application, evangelicalism, preaching Apparently the same things as troubled evangelical preaching in 1980. […]

  2. thomasgoodwin Says:

    “No pointed, applicatory preaching!”

    So true!

  3. Steven Carr Says:

    Thanks for “sharing” that with us. De Witt’s second point of the want of earnestness is so true of today’s preaching. I just started reading John Angell James’ An Earnest Ministry; his book should be required reading for all pastors and students.

  4. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Yes, sharing 🙂 I’ve not read An Earnest Ministry – I’ll need to take a look at it.

    Every blessing

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