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Ferguson’s Final Two

September 25, 2007

Its the final pair of Sinclair Ferguson’s Ten Commandments for Preachers. Thanks to Reformation21 blog for the original posts, found here and here. So what are the two final commands? Learn how to transition and love your people.

9. Learn how to transition. There is a short (2 pages) but wonderful “must-read” section for preachers in the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Public Worship of God. Inter alia the Divines state that the preacher “In exhorting to duties . . . is, as he seeth cause, to teach also the means that help to the performance of them.” In contemporary speech this means that our preaching will answer the “how to?” question. This perhaps requires further explanation.

Many of us are weary of the pandemic of “how-to-ness” we find in much contemporary preaching. It is often little better than psychology (however helpful) with a little Christian polish; it is largely imperative without indicative, and in the last analysis becomes self and success oriented rather than sin and grace oriented. But there is a Reformed and, more importantly, biblical, emphasis on teaching how to transition from the old ways to the new way, from patterns of sin to patterns of holiness. It is not enough to stress the necessity, nor even the possibility, of this. We must teach people how this happens.

Years ago I took one of our sons for coaching from an old friend who had become a highly regarded teaching professional. My son was not, as they say, “getting on to the next level.” I could see that; but no longer had (if I ever had!) the golfing savoir faire to help. Enter my friend, and within the space of one coaching session the improvement in ball-striking was both visible and audible (there is something about the sound of a perfectly struck drive—or home run for that matter!).

This is, in part, what we are called to effect in our handling of the Scriptures—not “this is wrong… this is right”—but by our preaching to enable and effect the transition.

But how? For all its criticism of the pragmatism of evangelicalism, Reformed preaching is not always skilled in this area. Many are stronger on doctrine than on exegesis; and often stronger on soul-searching than on spiritual upbuilding. We need to learn how to expound the Scriptures in such a way that the very exposition empowers in our hearers the transitions from the old patterns of life in Adam to the new patterns of life in Christ.

How do we do this? To begin with by expounding the Scriptures in a way that makes clear that the indicatives of grace ground the imperatives of faith and obedience and also effect them. This we must learn to do in a way that brings out of the text how the text itself teaches how transformation takes place and how the power of the truth itself sanctifies (cf. Jn. 17:17).

This usually demands that we stay down in the text longer, more inquisitively than we sometimes do, asking the text: Show me how your indicatives effect your imperatives. Such study often yields the surprising (?) result: depth study of Scripture means that we are not left scurrying to the Christian bookshop or the journal on counseling in order to find out how the gospel changes lives . . . no, we have learned that the Scriptures themselves teach us the answer to the “What?” questions and also the answer to the “How to?” question.

Do we—far less our congregations—know “how to”? Have we told them they need to do it, but left them to their own devices rather than model it in our preaching?

Some years ago, at the end of a church conference, the local minister, whom I knew from his student days, said to me: “Just before I let you go tonight, will you do one last thing? Will you take me through the steps that are involved so that we learn to mortify sin?”

I was touched—that he would broach what was obviously a personal as well as pastoral concern with me; but perhaps even more so by his assumption that I would be able to help. (How often we who struggle are asked questions we ourselves need to answer!) He died not long afterwards, and I think of his question as his legacy to me, causing me again and again to see that we need to exhibit what John “Rabbi” Duncan of New College said was true of Jonathan Edwards’s preaching: “His doctrine was all application, and his application was all doctrine.”

The ministry that illustrates this, and that understands what is involved in how preaching transitions its hearers from the old to the new, will have what Thomas Boston once said about his own ministry, “a certain tincture” that people will recognize even if they cannot articulate or explain why it is so different and so helpful.

10. Love your people. John Newton wrote that his congregation would take almost anything from him, however painful, because they knew “I mean to do them good.”

This is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study; it means that my preaching will have characteristics about it, difficult to define but nevertheless sensed by my hearers, that reflect the apostolic principle:

What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4:5)

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)

In Jesus Christ, the church’s One True Preacher, message and messenger are one. He is the Preacher, and also the message. That is not true of us. But, in union with Christ (and we preach “in Christ” as well as live and die “in Christ”) a coalescence of a lesser sort takes place: the truth of the message is conveyed by the preacher whose spirit is conformed to the grace of God in the message. How can it be otherwise when preaching involves “God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor. 5:20)? “A preacher’s life” (wrote Thomas Brooks) “should be a commentary upon his doctrine; his practice should be the counterpane [counterpart] of his sermons. Heavenly doctrines should always be adorned with a heavenly life.”[1]

A “Preacher’s Decalogue” might be helpful; but at the end of the day we are nourished not by the commands of law but by the provisions of God’s grace in the gospel. It is as true of our preaching as of our living that what law cannot do, because of the weakness of our flesh, God accomplishes through Christ, in order to fulfill his commands in us by the Spirit.

May it be so for us! Then we will be able truly to sing:

Happy if with my latest breath,
I might but gasp his Name
Preach him to all, and cry in death
Behold, behold the Lamb

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5 comments

  1. “9. Learn how to transition.” This 9th point is very well made, and points to a real weakness in much contemporary preaching I think. I remember well giving someone a lift home from church after a sermon on “forgive the brother who sins against you” and the person said to me, “I have been trying to do this for years, and still do not know how…”

    It is quite ironic then, that the least clear part of this part of the ‘preacher’s decalogue’ is the “how to”! What would make this 9th point really, really helpful would be to add a couple of examples of handling texts in the way that he suggests.

    “expounding the Scriptures in a way that makes clear that the indicatives of grace ground the imperatives of faith and obedience and also effect them” is exactly what we should hear preached. Maybe a couple of links to sermons whch you consider successfully achieve this aim would be a useful addition to a good posting?

    I have heard few achieve this recently more coherently than Tim Keller.


  2. That’s a fair comment. I’ll see if I can find some examples, and I invite other readers to do the same. Who are some of our contemporary preachers who both explain AND apply the text well with specificity?


  3. Colin, thanks for this great series from my mentor, Sinclair Ferguson. On this point of clear application, one of the best around today, in my opinion, certainly in UK, is Steve Brady of Moorlands Bible College. His ministry at Keswick this year i available on DVD and was superb for this very point. This last weekend he ministered at Harper Memorial’s Anniversary services and again excelled in this very area. These services are available at http://www.harpermemorial.net/blog/?page_id=74.


  4. […] Unashamed Workman has just completed posting Sinclair Ferguson’s Preacher’s Decalogue – 10 Commandments for Preachers.  I know I’m biased towards anything from this particular exiled Scot, but this material really is good.  Here,  here and here […]


  5. 1 Thes. 2:8 was replaced by a smiley because of 8) :-)



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