Ferguson’s Ten Commandments (pt 3)September 11, 2007
More from Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent advice for preachers, The Preacher’s Decalogue.
5. Use your Imagination.
Does this not contradict the immediately preceding observations that the truth of the Trinity should not be thought of as speculative metaphysics? No. Rather it is simply to state what the preaching masters of the centuries have either explicitly written, or at least by example, implied. All good preaching involves the use of the imagination. No great preacher has ever lacked imagination. Perhaps we might go so far as to say it is simply an exhortation to love the Lord our God with all of our . . . mind . . . and our neighbor as ourselves.
Scripture itself suggests that there are many different kinds of imagination—hence the different genre in which the word of God is expressed (poetry, historical narrative, dialogue, monologue, history, vision and so on). No two biblical authors had identical imaginations. It is doubtful if Ezekiel could have written Proverbs, for example!
What do we mean by “imagination”? Our dictionaries give a series of definitions. Common to them all seems to be the ability to “think outside of oneself,” “to be able to see or conceive the same thing in a different way.” In some definitions the ideas of the ability to contrive, exercising resourcefulness, the mind’s creative power, are among the nuanced meanings of the word.
Imagination in preaching means being able to understand the truth well enough to translate or transpose it into another kind of language or musical key in order to present the same truth in a way that enables others to see it, understand its significance, feel its power—to do so in a way that gets under the skin, breaks through the barriers, grips the mind, will and affections so that they not only understand the word used but feel their truth and power.
Luther did this by the sheer dramatic forcefulness of his speech. Whitefield did it by his use of dramatic expression (overdid it, in the view of some). Calvin—perhaps surprisingly—did it too by the extraordinarily earthed-in-Geneva-life language in which he expressed himself. So an overwhelming Luther-personality, a dramatic preacher with Whitefieldian gifts of story-telling and voice (didn’t David Garrick say he’d give anything to be able to say “Mesopotamia” the way George Whitefield did?), a deeply scholarly, retiring, reluctant preacher—all did it, albeit in very different ways. They saw and heard the word of God as it might enter the world of their hearers and convert and edify them.
What is the secret here? It is, surely, learning to preach the word to yourself, from its context into your context, to make concrete in the realities of our lives the truth that came historically to others’ lives. This is why the old masters used to speak about sermons going from their lips with power only when they had first come to their own hearts with power.
All of which leads us from the fifth commandment back to where we started. Only immersion in Scripture enables us to preach it this way. Therein lies the difference between preaching that is about the Bible and its message and preaching that seems to come right out of the Bible with a “thus says the Lord” ring of authenticity and authority.
6. Speak much of sin and grace.
In his exposition of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Martin Luther insightfully used the words of Jeremiah’s call: “The sum total of this epistle is to destroy, root out, and bring to naught all carnal wisdom . . . All that is in us is to be rooted out, pulled down, destroyed, and thrown down, i.e. all that delights us because it comes from us and is found in us; but all that is from outside of us and in Christ is to be built up and planted.”
If that is true of Paul’s “preaching” in Romans, it ought to be true of ours as well. Sin and grace should be the downbeat and the upbeat that run through all our exposition.
But there are some cautions. Preaching on sin must unmask the presence of sin, and undeceive about the nature of sin, as well as underline the danger of sin.
This is not the same thing as hammering a congregation against the back wall of the “sanctuary” with a tirade! That requires little more than high levels of emotion. A genuine, ultimately saving, unmasking and undeceiving of the human heart is more demanding exegetically and spiritually. For what is in view here is the skilled work of a surgeon—opening a wound, exposing the cause of the patient’s sickness, cutting away the destructive malignancies, all in order to heal and restore to life.
Doubtless people need warnings against the evils of contemporary society (abortion, apostasy in the visible church, etc). But we cannot build a ministry, nor healthy Christians, on a diet of fulminating against the world. No; rather we do this by seeing the Scriptures expose the sin in our own hearts, undeceive us about ourselves, root out the poison that remains in our own hearts—and then helping our people to do the same “by the open statement of the truth” ( 2 Cor. 4:2).
There is only one safe way to do this. Spiritual surgery must be done within the context of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Only by seeing our sin do we come to see the need for and wonder of grace. But exposing sin is not the same thing as unveiling and applying grace. We must be familiar with and exponents of its multifaceted power, and know how to apply it to a variety of spiritual conditions.
Truth to tell, exposing sin is easier than applying grace; for, alas, we are more intimate with the former than we sometimes are with the latter. Therein lies our weakness.