In this seventh installment in our series we come to another type of book that has been published through virtually the entire history of Christian publishing. In earliest Christianity biographies and autobiographies, books of church history and apologetics, and books on the Christian life began to make their appearance. So did collections of sermons. The great preachers of patristic Christianity published their sermons and many of them are available today in English translation. Sometimes the translations fail to convey the original passion and eloquence and we are left scratching our heads over an early preacher’s reputation for sublime oratory in the cause of the gospel. Reading John Chrysostom’s sermons in the stodgy Victorian translations of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers may well leave the modern reader wondering how this man got the nickname “Golden Mouth.” Read excerpts of his sermons, however, in J.N.D. Kelly’s magisterial biography – Kelly was a classicist of the first order and a great writer of English prose – and the original oratory leaps to life!
Through the ages many Christian books have been, in fact, the publication of sermons, often a series of sermons. Calvin published many of his sermons in his lifetime, some of which are now being brought into English for the first time. Many classics of devotion were born as series of sermons delivered from the pulpits of churches. For example, Thomas Boston’s masterpiece of Scottish Presbyterian devotion, Human Nature in its Fourfold State, was first a series of sermons Boston preached in his first pastorate at Simprin and then delivered in an updated and enlarged form in Ettrick. The Puritan pastor, William Bridge’s great work, A Lifting Up for the Downcast, was the publication of a thirteen-sermon series he preached on Psalm 42:11 at Stepney in 1648. Jonathan Edwards’ Charity and its Fruits, known and loved as a book by generations of well-read Christians, was first a series of sermons preached by Edwards to his Northhampton congregation in 1738. And so it goes and so it continues today. A modern classic, such as John Piper’s Desiring God, originated in sermons preached to his Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis in the fall of 1983.
Sermons, like preachers, come in many different forms. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was an expositor of the first order. He crept through biblical books paying careful attention to the progress of the biblical writer’s thought. It took him nearly eight years of Sunday mornings to make his way through Ephesians, sermons published eventually in eight volumes. To the Sermon on the Mount he devoted sixty sermons, a classic as soon as they were published in two volumes in 1959 and 1960. On Friday nights through twelve years he preached 372 sermons on Romans, now published in fourteen volumes. What you get in these sermons is consecrated biblical and theological argument of the old, strong kind. Alexander Whyte, many if not most of whose published works are likewise volumes of sermons first preached from the pulpit of Free St. George’s, Edinburgh, never preached an expository sermon in his life. His was an usual type of sanctified eloquence. Whyte will bring you down and lift you up like almost no other preacher, but there is little exposition of the Bible in his sermon. They are biblical but in another way. He preached on the Bible, of course, (if you can find them by all means read his profound sermons on The Walk, Character, and Conversation of Jesus Christ our Lord or his magnificent series on Luke 11:2, Lord Teach Us to Pray) but he also preached Sunday evening sermons on the characters who populate the allegories of John Bunyan, on the writings of Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Goodwin and others, and six years of Lord’s Day evening sermons on Bible Characters, studies more spiritual and psychological than truly expositional. I have read and acquired virtually everything Whyte published and have often thanked God for introducing me to the great preacher. He never disappoints, however much it must be said that he is no Lloyd-Jones!
Other preachers are more of a challenge but repay the hard work of a close reading. I suspect a number of well-read ministers as well as many experts in homiletics would agree with me that some of the most sanctified and elevated preaching of the 20th century is found in the three volumes of sermons by the Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder, published in English as Christ in his Sufferings, Christ on Trial, and Christ Crucified. Reading Schilder I assure you will be a challenge. One wonders if there is a congregation in America today who could hear such sermons with the sympathy, understanding, and appreciation with which they were received by their original audience of Dutch Reformed believers in the 1930s. This is reflection on the text of Holy Scripture and the history of redemption of a very high order. You will, as I did, think many thoughts about Christ and his suffering for the first time, but once you think them, you will not forget them. Schilder was also a representative of the redemptive-historical school of biblical preaching that typically frowns on application. In more than sixteen hundred pages of closely argued exposition you will find little to no application. Applying the text to the heart and the life, Schilder thought, was work for the Holy Spirit, not for the preacher!
My advice is to find the preachers who speak powerfully to you and then read them over and over again. A good sermon is worth “hearing” many times. Modern preachers – think of Bryan Chapell of our own Covenant Theological Seminary – are publishing volumes of valuable sermons and, of course, you can hear preachers viva voce on the internet. Try websites such as monergism.com (run by a fellow in our Intown Presbyterian Church in Portland) or Phil Johnson’s Bookmarks (Johnson is an associate of John MacArthur), a substantial website with links to many fine contemporary preachers both in the United States and Great Britain.
God himself has made preaching a primary instrument of his work in the hearts and lives of human beings both in the church and in the world. It is only to recognize and respect the divine will that Christians hear preaching, in person and with expectation, on the Lord’s Day and read or listen to preaching at home during the week. It is a wonderful privilege that we can have, through books and the internet, at least some of the blessing of sitting under the great preachers of the past and present. It is not, of course, the same as being there. When George Whitefield was asked if he would consent to have his sermons published, he replied, “I have no objection, if you will print the lightning, thunder, and rainbow with it.” A sermon delivered in God’s name, with divine authority, to a congregation of God’s people gathered to hear the Word of God will always be living communication to a degree that is not possible through the pages of a book or on a computer screen. But sermons can live again when published. So they certainly have in my heart and, I know, in the hearts of untold number of interested readers who could not be hearers.