By Elmer Ellsworth Shelhamer
HOW TO PREACH THE GOSPEL
By Charles G. Finney
"He that winneth souls is wise" (Prov. 11:30).
All preaching should be practical.
The proper end of all doctrine is practice. Any thing brought forward as doctrine, which cannot be made use of as practical, is not preaching the gospel. There is none of that sort of preaching in the Bible. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." A vast deal of preaching in the present day, as well as in past ages, is called doctrinal, as opposed to practical preaching. The very idea of making this distinction is a device of the devil. And a more abominable device Satan himself never devised. You sometimes hear certain men tell a wonderful deal about the necessity of "indoctrinating the people," by which they mean something different from practical preaching; teaching them certain doctrines, as abstract truths, without any particular reference to practice. And I have known a minister in the midst of a revival while surrounded with anxious sinners leave off laboring to convert souls for the purpose of "indoctrinating" the young converts, for fear somebody else should indoctrinate them before him. And there the revival stops. Either his doctrine was not true, or it was not preached in the right way. To preach doctrines in an abstract way, and not in reference to practice, is absurd. God always brings in doctrine to regulate practice. To bring forward doctrinal views for any other object is not only nonsense, but it is wicked.
Some people are opposed to doctrinal preaching. If they have been used to hear doctrines preached in a cold, abstract way, no wonder they are opposed to it. They ought to be opposed to such preaching. But what can a man preach who preaches no doctrine? If he preaches no doctrine, he preaches no gospel. And if he does not preach it in a practical way, he does not preach the gospel. All preaching should be doctrinal, and all preaching should be practical. The very design of doctrine is to regulate practice. Any preaching that has not this tendency is not the gospel. A loose, exhortatory style of preaching may affect the passions, and may produce excitement, but will never sufficiently instruct the people to secure sound conversions. On the other hand, preaching doctrine in an abstract manner may fill the head with notions, but will never sanctify the heart or life.
A minister ought to know the religious opinions of every sinner in his congregation. Indeed a minister in the country is inexcusable if he does not. He has no excuse for not knowing the religious views of all his congregation, and of all that may come under his influence. How otherwise can he preach to them? How can he know how to bring forth things new and old, and adapt truth to their case? How can he hunt them out unless he knows where they hide themselves? He may ring changes on a few fundamental doctrines, Repentance and Faith, and Faith and Repentance, till the day of judgment, and never make any impression on many minds. Every sinner has some hiding place, some entrenchment where he lingers. He is in possession of some darling LIE, with which he is quieting himself. Let the minister find it out and get it away, either in the pulpit or in private, or the man will go to hell in his sins, and his blood will be found on the minister's skirts.
Sometimes he may find a people who have been led to place great reliance on their own resolutions. They think they can consult their own convenience, and bye and bye they will repent, when they get ready, without any concern about the Spirit of God. Let him take up these notions, and show that they are entirely contrary to the Scriptures. Let him show that if the Spirit of God is grieved away, however able he may be, it is certain he never will repent, and that bye and bye, when it shall be convenient for him to do it, he will have no inclination. The minister who finds these errors prevailing should expose them. He should hunt them out, and understand just how they are held, and then preach the class of truths which will show the danger of these notions.
So on the other hand he may find a people who have got such views of Election and Sovereignty, as to think they have nothing to do but to wait for the moving of the waters. Let him go right over against them, and crowd upon their ability to obey God, and show their obligation and duty, and press them with that until he brings them to submit and be saved. They have got behind a perverted view of these doctrines, and there is no way to drive them out of the hiding place, but to set them right on these points. Wherever a sinner is entrenched, unless you pour light upon him there, you will never move him. It is of no use to press him with those truths which he admits, however plainly they may in fact contradict his wrong notions. He supposes them to be perfectly consistent, and does not see the inconsistency, and therefore it will not move him, or bring him to repentance.
Another very important thing to be regarded in preaching is that the minister should hunt after sinners and Christians wherever they may have entrenched themselves in inaction. It is not the design of preaching to make men easy and quiet but to make them ACT. It is not the design of calling in a physician to have him give opiates and so cover up the disease and let it run on till it works death; but to search out the disease wherever it may be hidden and to remove it. So if a professor of religion has backslidden and is full of doubts and fears, it is not the minister's duty to quiet him in his sins and comfort him, but to hunt him out of his errors and backslidings and show him just where he stands and what it is that makes him full of doubts and fears.
I have been in many places in times of revival and I have never been able to employ precisely the same course of preaching in one as in another. Some are entrenched behind one refuge and some behind another. In one place the church will need to be instructed; in another, sinners. In one place, one set of truths; in another, another set. A minister must find out where they are and preach accordingly.
If a minister means to promote a revival, he should be very careful not to introduce controversy. He will grieve away the Spirit of God. In this way probably more revivals are put down than in any other. Look back upon the history of the church from the beginning and you will see that ministers are generally responsible for grieving away the Spirit and causing declensions, by controversy. It is the ministers who bring forward controversial subjects for discussion.
When Christians are revived they are not inclined to meddle with controversy, either to read or hear it. But they may be told of such and such "damnable heresies" that are afloat till they get their feelings enlisted in controversy, and then farewell to the revival. If a minister, in preaching, finds it necessary to discuss particular points about which Christians differ in opinion, let him BY ALL MEANS avoid a controversial spirit and manner of doing it.
The gospel should be preached in those proportions that the whole gospel may be brought before the minds of the people and produce its proper influence. If too much stress is laid on one class of truths, the Christian character will not have its due proportions. Its symmetry will not be perfect- If that class of truths be almost exclusively dwelt upon that requires great exertion of intellect without being brought home to the heart and conscience, it will be found that the Church will be indoctrinated in these views) will have their heads filled with notions, but will not be awake and active and efficient in the promotion of religion. If, on the other hand, the preaching be loose, indefinite, exhortatory and highly impassioned, the Church will be like a ship with too much sail for her ballast. It will be in danger of being swept away by a tempest of feeling where there is not sufficient knowledge to prevent their being carried away with every wind of doctrine.
It is of great importance that the sinner should be made to feel his guilt and not left to the impression that he is unfortunate. I think this is a very prevailing fault particularly with printed books on the subject- They are calculated to make the sinner think more of his sorrows than of his sins and feel that his state is rather unfortunate than criminal.
A prime object with the preacher must be to make present obligation felt. I have talked, I suppose with many thousands of anxious sinners, and I have found that they had never before felt the pressure of present obligation. The impression is not commonly made by ministers in their preaching that sinners are expected to repent NOW. And if ministers suppose they make this impression, they deceive themselves. Most commonly any other impression is made upon the minds of sinners than that they are expected now to submit.
Sinners should be made to feel that if they now grieve away the Spirit of God, it is very probable that they will be lost forever. There is infinite danger of this. They should be made to understand why they are dependent on the Spirit, and that is not because they cannot do what God commands, but because they are unwilling; but that they are so unwilling that it is just as certain they will not repent without the Holy Ghost, as if they were now in hell, or as if they were actually unable. They are so opposed and so unwilling that they never will repent unless God sends His Holy Spirit upon them.
Use words that can be perfectly understood. Do not, for fear of appearing unlearned, use language half Latin and half Greek, which the people do not understand. The apostle says the man is a barbarian who uses language that the people do not understand. And if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?" In the apostle's days there were some preachers who were marvelously proud of displaying their command of language, and showing off the variety of tongues they could speak, which the common people could not understand. The apostle rebukes this spirit sharply, and says, "I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue."
The illustrations should be drawn from common life, and the common business of society. I once heard a minister illustrate his ideas by the manner in which merchants transact business in their stores. Another minister who was present made some remarks to him afterward. He objected to this illustration particularly, because, he said, it was too familiar, and was letting down the dignity of the pulpit- He said all illustrations in preaching should be drawn from ancient history, or some elevated source, that would keep up the dignity of the pulpit. Dignity indeed! Just the language of the devil. He rejoices in it. Why, the object of an illustration is to make people see the truth, not to bolster up pulpit dignity. A minister whose heart is in the work does not use an illustration to make people stare, but to make them see the truth.
The Savior always illustrated His instructions by things that were taking place among the people to whom He preached, and with which their minds were familiar. He descended often very far below what is now supposed to be essential to support the dignity of the pulpit. He talked about the hens and chickens, and children in market places, and sheep and lambs, shepherds and farmers, and husbandmen and merchants. And when He talked about kings, as in the marriage of the king's son, and the nobleman that went into a far country to receive a kingdom, He had reference to historical facts, that were well known among the people at the time. The illustrations should always be drawn from things so common that the illustration itself will not attract attention away from the subject, but that people may see through it the truth illustrated.
I once heard a remark made, respecting a young minister's preaching, which was instructive. He was uneducated, in the common sense of the term, but well educated to win souls. It was said of him, "The manner in which he comes in, and sits in the pulpit, and rises to speak, is a sermon of itself. It shows that he has something to say that is important and solemn. That man's manner of saying some things I have known to move a whole congregation, when the same things said in a prosy way would have produced no effect at all."
A minister must anticipate the objections of sinners, and answer them. What does the lawyer do when pleading before a jury? Oh, how differently is the cause of Jesus Christ pleaded from human causes! It was remarked by a lawyer, that the cause of Jesus Christ had the fewest able advocates of any cause in the world. And I partly believe it. Does a lawyer go along in his argument in a regular train, and not explain anything obscure, or anticipate the arguments of his antagonist? If he did so, he would lose his case, to a certainty. But no. The lawyer, who is pleading for money, anticipates every objection which may be made by his antagonist, and carefully removes or explains them, so as to leave the ground all clear as he goes along, that the jury may be settled on every point- But ministers often leave one difficulty and another, untouched. Sinners who hear them feel the difficulty, and it is never gotten over in their minds, and they never know how to remove it, and perhaps the minister never takes the trouble to know why such difficulties exist, and yet he wonders why his congregation is not converted, and why there is no revival. How can he wonder at it, when he has never hunted up the difficulties and objections that sinners feel, and removed them.
A minister should address the feelings enough to secure attention, and then deal with conscience, and probe to the quick. Appeals to the feelings alone will never convert sinners. If the preacher deals too much in these, he may get up an excitement and have wave after wave of feeling flow over the congregation, and people may be carried away in the flood, with false hopes. The only way to secure sound conversions is to deal faithfully with the conscience. If attention flags at any time, appeal to the feelings again, and rouse it up; but do your work with conscience.
Before the gospel can take general effect, we must have a class of extempore preachers, for the following reasons:
(1) No set of men can stand the labor of writing sermons and doing all the preaching which will be requisite.
(2) Written preaching is not calculated to produce the requisite effect. Such preaching does not present truth in the right shape.
(3) It is impossible for a man who writes his sermons to arrange his matter, and turn and choose his thoughts, so as to produce the same effect as when he addresses the people directly, and makes them feel that he means them.
We shall never have a set of men in our halls of legislation, in our courts of justice, and in our pulpits, that are powerful and overwhelming speakers, and can carry the world before them, till our system of education teaches them to think, closely, rapidly, consecutively, and till all their habits of speaking in the schools are extemporaneous. The very style of communicating thought, in what is commonly called a good style of writing, is not calculated to leave a deep impression on the mind, or to communicate thought in a clear and impressive manner. It is not laconic, direct, pertinent. It is not the language of nature. It is impossible that gestures should be suited to the common style of writing. And consequently, when they attempt to gesture in reading an essay, or delivering a written sermon, their gestures are a burlesque upon all public speaking.
We can never have the full meaning of the gospel, till we throw away our notes.
A minister's course of study and training for his work should be exclusively theological.
I mean just as I say. I am not now going to discuss the question whether all education ought not to be theological. But I say education for the ministry should be exclusively so. But you will ask, Should not a minister understand science? I would answer, Yes, the more die better. I would that ministers might understand all science. But it should all be in connection with theology. Studying science is studying the works of God. And studying theology is studying God.
We learn what is revival preaching. All ministers should be revival ministers, and all preaching should be revival preaching; that is, it should be calculated to promote holiness. People say, "It is very well to have some men in the church who are revival preachers and who can go about and promote revivals, but then you must have others to indoctrinate the church." Strange! Do they not know that a revival indoctrinates the church faster than anything else? A minister will never produce a revival, if he does not indoctrinate his hearers. The preaching I have described is full of doctrine, but it is doctrine to be practiced. And that is revival preaching.
The bishop of London once asked Garrick, the celebrated play-actor, why it was that actors, in representing a mere fiction, should move an assembly, even to tears, while ministers, in representing the most solemn realities, could scarcely obtain a hearing. The philosophical Garrick well replied, "It is because was represent fiction as a reality and you represent reality as a fiction." This is telling the whole story. Now what is the design of the actor in a theatrical representation? It is so to throw himself into the spirit and meaning of the writer, as to adopt his sentiments, make them his own, feel them, embody them, throw them out upon the audience as living reality. And now, what is the objection to all this in preaching?
When a vacant church is looking out for a minister, there are two leading points on which they commonly fix their attention: (1) That he should be popular, (2) That he should be learned. That is very well. But this point should be first in their inquiries, "Is he wise to win souls?" No matter how eloquent a minister is, no matter how pleasing and popular are his manners, if it is a matter of fact that sinners are not converted under his preaching, it shows that he has not this wisdom, and your children and neighbors will go down to hell under his preaching.
But if there be ministers who are doing no good, who are feeding themselves and not the flock, such ministers deserve no influence. If they are doing no good, it is time for them to betake themselves to some other profession. They are but leeches on the very vitals of the Church, sucking out its heart's blood. They are useless, and worse than useless, and the sooner they are laid aside, and their places filled with those who will exert themselves for Christ, the better.
Finally: It is the duty of the Church to pray for us ministers. Not one of us is such as he ought to be. Not one of us is such as we ought to be. Like Paul, we can say, "Who is sufficient for these things?" But who of us is like Paul? Where will you find such a minister as Paul? They are not here. We have been educated, all of us. Pray for the schools and colleges and seminaries; and pray for the young men who are preparing for the ministry. Pray for ministers that God would give them this wisdom to win souls.