A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Ryan Speck
After noting Steven Lawson’s exemplary, passionate, and careful biblical preaching, John MacArthur wrote of this book: “With great precision, like that of a skilled surgeon, Lawson cuts directly to the heart of the issue of preaching in this generation. With pinpoint accuracy, he gives the correct diagnosis of the pulpit ailment that plagues so many churches in this day. Lawson rightly concludes that there is certainly no shortage of preaching. Rather, the problem lies in the anemic substance and lack of power in the evangelical pulpit” (p. 9).
Preface: The Greatest Need of the Hour
In this Preface, Lawson describes how he preached a sermon from 1 Corinthians 2:1-9 across the world in 2011-2012, enjoying unusual power from the Spirit and warm reception from audiences. He interpreted this blessing as arising from fact that this sermon addressed the greatest need of the hour—true preaching. Consequently, his publishers asked him to write this book based upon that sermon, recognizing the importance of this message. For, as Lawson wrote: “As the pulpit goes, so goes the church. Never has this been more true [sic] than it is in this present hour. The fact remains, no church can rise any higher than its pulpit. The spiritual life of any congregation and its growth in grace will never exceed the high-water mark set by its pulpit” (16).
Chapter 1: Everything Except the Main Thing
Lawson openly acknowledges that there is no lack of preaching today. However, “[t]here is the kind of preaching that God blesses, and there is that which He abandons” (p. 19). What Donald Grey Barnhouse warned has come to pass, namely, that churches would be full of people but “Jesus Christ would never be preached” (p. 21). As Michael Horton put it, we have “Christless Christianity” today (p. 22).
Lawson explains (p. 23):
In many pulpits, there is compelling communication that captivates the attention of the listener. There is logical thought with a coherent flow. There is a well-structured outline, an attention-grabbing introduction, and excellent exegesis. There are spellbinding illustrations and relevant applications. There are insightful observations and perfect cross-references. There is even a dramatic conclusion.
Yet, however well he crafts his message and speaks, if the preacher does not exalt Christ, he has missed the one thing necessary, the main thing. Preachers must not simply preach Christ as a “life guru” or a “coach,” but must preach the “unrivaled lordship of Jesus Christ and the redeeming work He accomplished on the cross” (p. 24). The preacher certainly “must proclaim the full counsel of God. Every doctrine in Scripture must be delivered. Every truth must be taught. Every sin must be exposed. Every warning must be issued. And every promise must be offered” (p. 25). Yet, he must preach the full counsel of God by showing how all doctrines “intersect at this highest pinnacle—Jesus Christ and Him crucified. . . . This must be the heartbeat that throbs in every pulpit” (pp. 25-26). As Charles Spurgeon once said, “‘I take my text and make a beeline for the cross’” (p. 32).
Chapter 2: Slick Schtick
Yet, given our modern world, shouldn’t preachers change the method while retaining the message? Times have changed. Audiences are used to entertainment. Why not preach the message by an entertaining method? 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 makes clear that God cares both about what is preached as well as how it is preached: “the medium does affect the message” (pp. 40-41).
The Apostle Paul faced tremendous pressure to conform his preaching to the rhetorical flourishes famous in Corinth and craved by the Corinthians. Yet, the Apostle Paul adamantly declares that he did not come to Corinth with such “excellence” of speech. Why not? Wouldn’t such methods be effective? “A reliance upon fleshly methods is out of bounds for those whom God commissions. This substandard manner of delivery is unequivocally forbidden to all servants of God. The blessing of heaven will not accompany the preaching that is done in a worldly manner” (p. 42). Packaging the Gospel in worldly clothing denies the will and power of God. As James Montgomery Boice put it: “‘Instead of trying to do God’s work in God’s way, [evangelicalism today] is trying to build a prosperous earthly kingdom with secular tools’” (pp. 53-54). That is not acceptable or honoring to God. “It matters to God what is preached. And it matters to Him how it is preached. No man is free to preach whatever and however he so chooses. Every divinely appointed messenger is under a strict mandate to present the truth in a manner that squares with what Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 2:1-9” (p. 55).
Chapter 3: One Master Theme
“From every pulpit there must be one dominant note that resounds . . . . Christianity is Christ” (p. 57). Does that mean a preacher should only preach and re-preach one sermon in essence? No. Rather, it means: “Every area of divine truth revealed to [the Apostle Paul] was rooted and grounded in the primacy of Christ crucified” (p. 59).
If we would experience a new reformation, pulpits must “return to making Christ the focal point of all preaching” (p. 62). Will this attract people? Will this be effective in our modern world? Lawson answers that a preacher is a herald: “Being a herald is entirely different than being an orator. A herald is judged solely on the basis of faithfully delivering the message exactly as it has been entrusted to him. He is not responsible for the response of the listener. Rather, his job is to faithfully dispatch the message” (p. 63). The preacher, therefore, must examine himself only in these terms: “If you please God, it does not matter whom you displease. And if you displease Him, it does not matter whom you please” (p. 68). The cross was a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks, but Paul was determined to know nothing else in his preaching. For, he was intent upon pleasing God, not man.
Chapter 4: Strength in Weakness
“The kind of preaching God blesses is inherently paradoxical” (p. 73). How so? “No man is too weak for God to use, only too strong” (p. 76). To illustrate the point, Lawson tells the proverbial story of the young preacher, fresh out of seminary, ascending to the pulpit filled with self-assurance, only to fail completely in the task of preaching, descending in embarrassment with his pride utterly crushed. “As he exited the pulpit, an older deacon approached him and, putting his arm around him, said, ‘Pastor, if you had gone up into the pulpit the way you came down, you would have come down the way you went up’” (p. 74). A preacher must preach in humility, recognizing his own weakness, entirely dependent upon the power of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:4). As Martyn Lloyd-Jones stated: “‘If there is no power it is not preaching. True preaching, after all, is God acting’” (pp. 83-84).
Thus, true preaching must be passionate. “With fire in his bones, divine energy pulsed through [the Apostle Paul’s] heart as he preached” (p. 85). As R.C. Sproul put it, “‘Dispassionate preaching is a lie’” (p. 85). The preacher who relies upon the power of the Spirit of God will be passionate in proclaiming the truths of God.
Chapter 5: A Sovereign Wisdom
The kind of preaching God blesses exalts the sovereign wisdom of God, which is suffused throughout 1 Corinthians 1-2. “For Paul, the cross was the greatest display of God’s sovereign wisdom” (p. 97). The only thing man contributes to salvation is his sin. Therefore, the faithful preacher proclaims by the power of the Spirit the sovereign wisdom of God displayed pre-eminently in the cross of Jesus Christ. As Lawson explains:
God looks favorably upon the pulpit that boldly declares His unalterable eternal purposes in the cross. He bestows power to the preacher who proclaims His supreme right in predestination. Such preaching acknowledges that He bestows grace on whomever He pleases (Romans 9:15-18). This is the message that should resound from every pulpit today. Such high truth magnifies God and humbles man, crushes pride and promotes praise, lowers the creature, and elevates the Creator. Such preaching declares the unrivaled, unhindered authority of God over all. (p. 106)
Chapter 6: Marching Orders
While there is an art to preaching—so that different men will preach differently, according to their personalities and gifts—there is also a science to preaching—so that men ought to interpret passages the same way. The preaching differs in personality but not in interpretive method and subsequent message.
That message must be Trinitarian. The preacher proclaims the cross of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit, to the glory of the sovereign wisdom of God the Father.
Lawson highlights two such preachers, Robert Murray M’Cheyne and Andrew Bonar, who were close friends. M’Cheyne died young, and Bonar outlived his friend “for more than another half-century” (p. 123). Why did Bonar live and preach for so long? To proclaim Christ and Him crucified. “This is why we, as heralds of the gospel, are allowed to remain alive. It is so that we may sound forth God’s message to a lost and dying world. This is the highest purpose we can ever attain to” (p. 124).
Lawson’s book insightfully explains and applies 1 Corinthians 2:1-9 to modern-day preaching. There is nothing new under the sun. What the Apostle Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 2 is precisely what modern-day preachers must follow in order to preach as those blessed by God. God does care about both the method (“excellence”) and the message (“wisdom”) of preaching. Preachers are not free to package their message however they will, and the cross must be central. This little, easily accessible book is very refreshing and comforting for those following this truth and a wake-up alarm for those who are not. If we would have blessed preaching, we must honor God’s method and message.
However, I also found this book somewhat repetitive and, at times, confusing. For example, Lawson both calls modern-day proclamation “preaching” (e.g., p. 19) but also denies it is “real” preaching (pp. 85, 87). What exactly does that mean? Likewise, Lawson agrees with Lloyd-Jones that, if there is no power in it, it is not preaching (pp. 83-84). What does he mean by “power”? When Isaiah preached to Israel until it was utterly desolate, was his preaching powerful (Isa. 6:11-13)? Further, Lawson maintains preachers must not change the packaging of the Gospel (e.g., p. 55), but he allows for some differences in “the packaging and presentation” of preaching (p. 115). None of these statements are irreconcilable, I think. However, Lawson could have provided clearer definitions and further explanations to prove how these truths fit together.
Nonetheless, throughout the book, Lawson embedded gems of valuable illustrations, historical quotations, and succinct statements that I plan to use in my preaching ministry. I found his book to be insightful and profitable. I can see why God blessed this sermon, which Lawson then committed to writing. Therefore, I would recommend this little book as a gift for any pastor and as an edifying and useful read for any congregant.
Ryan Speck is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Columbia, MO, and Review Editor for Theology, Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
THE KIND OF PREACHING GOD BLESSES, by Steven J. Lawson