Friday, May 27, 2016

The beginnings of what could potentially become a series of posts based on selections from Alexander Maclaren

"The beginnings of what could potentially become a series of posts based on selections from Alexander Maclaren" It's not exactly the most riveting blog post title, but that's what this is.

I graduated from SBTS a year and a half ago, and, for about that long, I have been casually reading sermons by a pastor named Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910). I actually don't know if that's the proper way of spelling his last name, but that seems to be the most common usage. "MacLaren," with the capital L, is a popular spelling as well. Most of the books I've seen have his name printed in all capital letters, perhaps to avoid the issue altogether. In primary sources from the late 19th century, I found two different spellings — McLaren and M'Laren. Maclaren seems to be what has become the most common reference to him, so I'll go with that for now. But with the spelling of his name aside, he was the president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain twice, and, during his ministry, his sermons were almost as widely distributed and popular as his contemporary Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon was given the title, "the Prince of Preachers," and Maclaren, "the Prince of Expositors," because of his commitment to expository preaching. After their deaths, however, the trajectories of their notorieties couldn't be more different. Spurgeon's sermons are still thought to be the most widely read sermons in the world, while Maclaren's name has been all but forgotten. For a few decades, his works continued to be published. He has an expository sermon set on the whole Bible, and, while you can find them used, they are all out of print now. I originally found his sermons on the Kindle app because most of them are free, and I've become more and more drawn to all of his works, almost like a great band you find that nobody knows about.

To the point of this post — I, like Maclaren, believe very strongly in the power of expository preaching. It's God's Word, not a preachers word, that pierces the hearts of men, so preachers would be best served to prepare sermons that act as a magnifying glass and a bullhorn for the Word of God. Maclaren understood that and did that, and I've been blessed by his expositions. I want to take that blessing and pass it on, so I'm going to begin occasionally posting some devotional-type readings based on selections from his sermons. For this one, I'm not going to be using one of his sermons, but instead a [relatively long] selection from an address he gave about his preaching philosophy. The text below is from his presidential address, entitled "An Old Preacher on Preaching," given to the Baptist Union of Great Britain in 1902. Culture is always going to be at odds with the Church on various issues, and it's only with a commitment to the authority of Scripture that the Church will be able to stand firm against the moral influences of culture. Much of the modern Church has allowed itself to be swayed by those influences, so Maclaren's 114-year-old message still has incredible relevance to us today. When the Church, from a moral perspective, begins to look more like the culture, its purpose is diminished and its light becomes much more dim. This message was addressed primarily to pastors, but I believe it has wisdom for all of us.

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I supposed there are some 6,000 to 8,000 sermons delivered every Sunday by the ministers of our two denominations—and what comes of them all? We have covered the land with chapels, and yet do we even keep up with the growth of population? "Ye have sowed much, and brought home little;" and if so much seed yields so scanty of harvest, the sower may we ask himself Why? No doubt there are trends of thought and habits of life to-day which make the preacher's task eminently hard, but we have no such difficulties to face as the first messengers of the Cross had to encounter and overcame. Are the philosophical or scientific tendencies of to-day worse than the front which wisdom-seeking Greece presented to them? Are the habits of to-day more antagonistic to the gospel than was the corruption that honey-combed the luxurious sensualism of Asia? Is the secularising influence of trade and imperialism more hostile than was the self-centred pride of Rome, with its cult of the Emporer? Is the ignorance of our slums more dense than the darkness that wrapped "the regions beyond?" And yet the Message conquered. Why not now? The Message is the same; the Divine power that clothed the messengers is the same. "O thou that art named the house of Israel, is the Spirit of the Lord straitened? are these His doings?" Surely there can be but one answer to the twofold question—an answer which throws us back on ourselves, and bids us look to ourselves as the causes of the loss of power...

...Our message implies that sin is a universal reality, from which there is no deliverance but through Jesus. Has the fact of sin, its reality and its consequences, its due place in modern preaching? I for one very much doubt it. Modern theories of heredity and environment, modern laxity and moral fibre have taken many shades of blackness out of the black thing. Men think less gravely of sin and so they superficially diagnose the world's disease, and therefore they superficially prescribe the remedy. An inadequate conception of sin lies at the root of most theological heresies and Utopian schemes of reformation of society. It is fatal to the earnestness, the pathos and the power of the preacher's work. Unless we have our hearts and minds laden with the burden of men's sins, our voices will not ring out the vibrating notes of the good news of One who saves His people from their sins, because "Himself bare our sins in His own body." We must all confess that, yielding to the "Zeitgeist," the trend of opinion and feeling prevalent around us, and as children of the age, we have been tempted to think less severely, less pityingly of sin, and less solemnly of its certain result, death, than either our Master or His apostles did. We have too much shrunk from the plain speech on the guilt and the danger of sinners. And, just in exact proportion to our failure in these respects has necessarily followed our failure in ringing out the good news of the Christ, the propitiation for our sins and for the whole world...


...A certain minister once told a shrewd old Scottish lady that he was engaged to deliver an address on the power of the pulpit, and asked her what her views on the subject were. She answered, "The power o' the pulpit? That depends wha's in it." Which is a truth to be laid to heart by all preachers...


...The evangelist who is not a teacher will build nothing that will last. And not less one-sided, and therefore transient, will be the work of a teacher who is not an evangelist. He will give husks instead of the bread of life, notions that may rattle in skulls like seeds in dried poppyheads, but not convictions which burn all the more because they are light as well as heat. The true theologian brings his doctrines to bear on the emotions, and then on the will, and then on practice. That "theology" suffers under the imputation of being abstract, dry, remote from life is the fault of the teacher, not of the subject. The preacher is not to duplicate his part, like an actor who sustains two characters in a play, and to come on the stage at one scene as an evangelist, and in another as a teacher. He is to be both at once and to be both always. For the most advanced instruction that can be given or received does not leave the most initial truths behind; it only unfolds them...

...No Christian thought can ever travel beyond the Incarnation, the Sacrifice, and Ascension of Jesus Christ, the Indwelling Spirit, "the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting." To leave these behind is not progress but decadence. Not to get past, but to get more deeply into, these truths is the growth of the Christian life...

...The habit of prefacing a sermon with a text is, no doubt, a survival, and it is sometimes unmeaning enough; but it is a witness that the sermon's true purpose is to explain, confirm and enforce Scripture. Once, the text was followed by a sermon dealing with it. Would that it were always so now! Better to put new life into the old form, by making a text really what it is meant to be, than to break through it in a flight after something "fresh and unconventional."...

...If it was worth His while to give us the Book, it is worth our while to toil to fathom its depth, to saturate our thinking and feeling with its truths, and it is our highest function and office to interpret them to our brethren. We shall "shine as lights in the world" if we "hold forth the Word of Life." There are nebulae, as well as brilliant stars, in the firmament of the Word. It is for the preacher to show men that the stars are suns, and the nebulae are galaxies of light. How unworthy it is for him to direct his telescope from the heaven of the Word to the low levels of current topics...

...A preacher who has steeped himself in the Bible will have a clearness of outlook which will illuminate many dark things, and a firmness of touch which will breed confidence in him among his hearers. He will have the secret to perpetual freshness, for he cannot exhaust the Bible. No pulpit teaching will last as long as that which is given honestly and persistently to the elucidation and enforcement of Biblical truth...

...We have to do the work of Christian teachers under remarkable conditions. On the one hand there is a great ignorance of Scripture and of systematized Christian truth among our congregations, and we are perpetually in danger of over-estimating the amount of knowledge on which we may reckon. Otherwise well-educated men and women have but the vaguest notions as to Scripture facts, and the most confused apprehensions of Christian ideas. I for one believe that a considerable percentage in every congregation in the land is unaffected by our sermons because it does not understand what we are saying. We have to aim at simplicity, not to be afraid of being elementary...On the other hand, we have to speak to people who have considerable education, and some who think they have more than they really have, who have been fed on a miscellaneous collection of scraps, in magazines and handbooks, and it is hard to get an entrance for solid Christian truth into such minds...How are we to discharge our teaching work in the face of all this?...

...We must never forget that what we have to teach is no philosophy for the few, no system of doctrine for trained understandings, but the Gospel for the world...Some of our hearers are educated and can follow our highest flights, but many of them cannot. But all have the one human heart, with its deepest needs identical in all...

...What are we here for but to bring the principles of the Gospel to bear on all life?...

...We have heard would-be taunts which were really tributes, and turned into testimony, about "the Nonconformist conscience." It is the Christian conscience, and to be its voice is no small part of the preacher's duty. He has to direct the searchlight on individual sins, especially those prevalent in the class from which his hearers are drawn. He has to apply the measure of the sanctuary to worldly maxims which his hearers take for axioms, and to practices which they think legitimate because they are popular. He has to witness against the cancerous vices which are eating out the life of the nation. He has to bring national acts to the standard of Christ's teachings, and to insist that politics are but Christian principles applied to national life. A Church which has ceased to protest against the "world" suits the world's purpose exactly, and is really a bit of the world under another name. The true Church must always be remonstrant, protestant, a standing rebuke to the world, till the world has accepted and applied the principles of the Gospel to personal and social life. And the preacher who does not give voice to the Church's protest fails in one of his plainest and chiefest duties. We need brave men in the pulpit who shall speak with freedom what they have learned from God of the evils in the land...

...We need to keep clear of popular currents of thought and practice, suspecting always that truth does not dwell with majorities, and that what the multitudes acclaim, God is likely to condemn...

...But it will be no gain to the cause of Christian morality or of national righteousness if the ethical side of religion is presented exclusively or disproportionately to the other two which are its foundation. Let us have applied Christianity by all means—the more the better—but let us make sure first that there is a Christianity to apply. Let us preach Christ as the Regenerator of society, but let us not omit to preach Him as the Saviour of the soul from sin. Let us begin where the Gospel begins, with "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life,"— and then let us draw forth from the depths of that great word all the teaching which it contains, and all the ethics for single souls, for society and for the world, which flow from it...

...That which cannot be shaken will remain—and what cannot be shaken is the Gospel of the "Kingdom that cannot be moved," and its King, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. "All flesh is grass. The grass withereth, and the flower falleth: but the word of the Lord abideth forever." And this is the word which by the Gospel is preached.

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Our culture is a testament of our need to hold fast to the Gospel and to the authority of Scripture. However, the shrinking of the Church and the inconsistency of doctrinal soundness within the Church are testaments of our failure to have done so. I look forward to posting more, [and shorter], selections from Maclaren's sermons, and my prayer is that his commitment to expository preaching would yield fruit from the Word of God moving in my life and anyone who chooses to read along.