Ministering the gospel in a godly way is not just difficult but impossible. To the Thessalonian Christians, Paul spoke of himself as like a nursing mother (1 Thess.2:7) and also like a father (1 Thess.2:11). His language was very strong: ‘So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us’ (1 Thess.2:8). Yet there is an utterly wrong way of trying to be authentic. In 2 Corinthians he states: ‘For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake’ (2 Cor.4:5).
One of the most enduring descriptions of preaching has come from the Episcopalian priest (and bishop of Massachusetts for the last two years of his life), Phillips Brooks (1835-1893). A rather shy man who spoke rapidly and made little eye contact with his congregation, somehow he captured the minds and hearts of many preachers in his Lectures on Preaching, delivered at Yale in 1877. His oft-repeated refrain was ‘preaching is the bringing of truth through personality.’ ‘Truth through Personality is our description of real preaching … It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being.’ A key word became ‘transparency’, and the preparation for ministry was to be ‘nothing less than the making of a man’.
There are always dangers on every side, and the cult of transparency and authenticity can slip over into a cult of personality. All is open (2 Cor.4:2), yet the worst kind of preaching is that which preaches the preacher. The church at Corinth was prone to divide over which preacher it ought to follow. Some said: ‘I follow Paul,’ others ‘I follow Apollos,’ others ‘I follow Cephas,’ and yet others ‘I follow Christ’ – the last one being perhaps Paul’s own intervention, or, more likely, the most pretentious of the four groups (1 Cor.1:12).
The great Greek orator, Demosthenes, was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, and his reply was ‘Delivery’. He was then asked about the second rule, and again he replied, ‘Delivery.’ And it was the same for the third. This was, he thought, necessary for a statesman in Athens of the fourth century B.C. Paralleling this, Augustine was asked for the first precept of the Christian religion, which led to his reply: ‘Humility.’ The second precept was also Humility, as was the third. Negatively, this means that we do not proclaim ourselves.
Rather, our proclamation is Jesus Christ our Lord. There is a man, Jesus, who is also the Messiah (the Christ), the anointed one as prophet, priest, and king. He is also Lord, the One who rules over all creation. Because of who He is, Christ must be preeminent in everything (Col.1:18). As Charles Wesley then put it: ‘My heart is full of Christ, and longs its glorious matter to declare!’ Christ is to be the content of our preaching and our praises. A narcissist does not belong in the pulpit. We cannot focus on self and on Christ.
With such a view of life, Paul could adopt the stance of a servant – indeed a slave – for the Corinthians for Jesus’ sake. To the Philippians, Paul praised Timothy as unique in being genuinely concerned for their welfare and for the interests of Christ, as opposed to the natural rule of self-interest (Phil.2:20-21). The secret is to lose oneself in order to find self. In achieving something of this, we could not preach ourselves without repenting of it, for there would a strong inner compulsion given by the Holy Spirit to serve Christ’s people by proclaiming their Saviour. That, surely, is what true preaching is.
With warm regards in Christ,
Rev. Dr Peter Barnes Moderator