THE observations hitherto made on the composition and delivery of discourses have had respect to discourses generally, with little or no reference to the distinctive properties which ought to characterize one species of discourse as compared with another. There are specific differences which it is not unimportant to note, as on the proper observance of them not a little depends for the attainment of success in the several kinds. Not to speak of minor shades of distinction, there are at least four pretty distinctly marked classes, although these may at times approach indefinitely near to each other, and the same discourse may occasionally admit of being assigned partly to one class and partly to another.
I. Expository Discourses.—Discourses of an expository character, lectures, as they are usually designated in Scotland, can never fail to be at least occasionally delivered, where there is an evangelical ministry, animated by a just desire to have the people brought to an intelligent acquaintance with the word of God. But nowhere, perhaps, has the practice been so generally followed as in Scotland, where the custom has long prevailed of having one, and commonly the first, of two discourses on the Lord’s day of this description. As early as the times of the Commonwealth, this practice of expounding in order a few verses out of some book of Scripture existed as a recognised and established part of the ordinary church service; and some of the best remains of the pulpit literature of the period consist of the expository discourses so delivered. It is enough to name those of Leighton, Binning, Hutcheson, and Durham. These expository preachers, however, were but followers of other and in some respects still greater men, who preceded them in the same line. The more eminent Reformers were masters in this species of discourse, Calvin in particular, a large portion of whose published writings, bearing the name of commentaries, first took shape as expositions delivered from the pulpit; and not a few also of the freshest and most valuable of Luther’s works had the same origin. Indeed, we may ascend to a much earlier time still, even to the flourishing period of Patristic literature, which, if not to the same extent, yet in a very considerable degree, was distinguished for the regard it paid to expository preaching. The expositions of Augustine on the Psalms and on the Gospel of John, as well as the homilies, as they have been called, of Chrysostom on many of the books of New Testament Scripture, all originally addressed to congregations in the sanctuary, are, as a whole, decidedly the best specimens which have come down to us of the pulpit ministrations of those ancient times. In England the prevailing practice now, and for a long period, has been quite different: discourses of this description can scarcely be said to form a recognised and distinct class. For the most part, they are given very occasionally; so much so that Alford (Essays and Addresses, p. 12.) says, ‘the general neglect of this kind of preaching among them is lamentable,’ worse even than in Popish countries; for ‘any visitor,’ he tells us, ‘to Roman churches abroad will be deeply sensible of the loss which we thus incur in our influence from the pulpit.’ I confess I did not know that the balance in this respect lay so much on that side; but, certainly, one seldom hears from English pulpits discourses which take the form of an exposition of a particular passage of Scripture, still more seldom of an exposition in regular order of a particular book. And hence the comparatively small proportion which such works form of English theological literature.
From the greater scope allowed in expository discourses, the broader Scriptural basis assumed for them, and the wider compass of doctrine or duty embraced in them, an impression not unnaturally prevails, that they are more easily constructed than discourses on single texts, that it is a simpler matter to lecture than to preach. It, no doubt, may be so after a fashion. A kind of tolerable exposition of a passage may be given, some useful explanations thrown out upon its meaning, and just observations raised on its contents, with less expenditure of thought than would be required for the production of a connected discourse on a single text. But that very facility which is afforded by the nature of the discourse for making the necessary preparation too commonly proves a temptation to its being done in a much less effective and satisfactory manner than is both practicable and proper. And hence, probably, it is, that the expository discourse is so often relatively inferior to the sermon: the one presenting a regularly constructed whole, with clear arrangement, judicious selection of matter, an order and progression of thought such as the mind can readily perceive and follow with interest; while in the other, all is loose, rambling, undigested, no proportioning of part to part, no exercise of skill in bringing out the spirit and connection of the whole, much introduced that had better been omitted, and points of interest and importance overlooked which should have received careful consideration. And it is not, perhaps, too much to say, that a considerable number of preachers of average abilities and resources, have never got a sufficiently definite conception of what an expository discourse should be, at least have failed in any competent degree to realize it.
(1.) In throwing out a few suggestions upon the subject, it will not be necessary to dwell on what, in certain discourses, is a matter of some importance, the choice of the passage or subject; for, usually, the practice is to be preferred of proceeding in regular order through an entire book, or some considerable portion of a book of Scripture. There are obvious advantages connected with this method. In the first instance, it provides the preacher with a subject which he feels himself in a manner called in providence to handle; and so not only saves him from much wasteful expenditure of time in doubt and hesitancy, but also obliges him to give himself to the orderly and systematic study of Scripture. It also accustoms the people of his charge to somewhat of the same careful, continuous search into the meaning of Scripture, as the Book which is throughout given by inspiration of God for the instruction and guidance of faith; so that they come to know it, not in a few select and isolated fragments, but, in a measure, according to its variety and completeness. Besides, opportunities thus continually present themselves of directing attention to many things which call for correction or advice; but which are either in themselves of so delicate a nature, or so apt to give occasion in some quarters to offence, that one would rather, if possible, avoid the appearance of expressly choosing a text for the purpose of bringing them into notice. These, taken together, will be found practically no slight advantages connected with the method of a regular course of exposition through some portion of the word of God. And, as a general rule, it will be best to adhere to this method, yet without binding oneself down to a rigid uniformity, and losing the benefit of a little variety by occasionally turning to other pastures.
Still, with the adoption of such a rule, there is room for the exercise of prudence and discretion in the matter of selection. For, while all Scripture is profitable for instruction, it cannot be all handled with equal adaptation and advantage by the same individual. There are portions which, partly from their own nature, and partly, perhaps, from the relation in which they stand to his mental endowments and Christian experience, may be said to lie, in a measure, out of his beat for continuous treatment; and it is well to know that there are books, as well as texts in Scripture, which may suit one, but not another. Even what portions of Scripture the pastor does resolve at one period or another to overtake, it may be of importance to take in one order rather than another. Of New Testament Scripture, for example, the Gospels will almost uniformly be found better suited for a first course of exposition than any of the Epistles; and of the Gospels themselves, which ever may be first chosen, it should certainly not be that of John, which, with all its apparent, and also real simplicity, possesses a depth and fulness of meaning, a lofty grandeur and spirituality of thought, which cannot be successfully grappled with in a course of regular exposition without considerable maturity of Christian knowledge and experience, as well as exercised skill in the work of interpretation. The Epistles, also, differ considerably from each other, in respect to the comparative ease or difficulty which attends their successful elucidation; but no graduated scale can be applied to them; for a particular cast of mind, or a definite course of preparatory study, may render one or other of them more readily capable of fitting treatment by particular persons, than might be judged likely from the nature alone of the epistle. But in respect to the closing book of Scripture, the Revelation of St. John, I am inclined to say, that except in select portions, such as the three first chapters, and several very precious and pregnant passages which occur at intervals elsewhere, it is not adapted to a course of ordinary exposition; and if respect be had to the common mode of dealing with its prophetic symbols, I would say, not even for extraordinary. The manner in which some preachers rush into the popular arena with this book, and the readiness and confidence with which they apply its mysterious imagery to specific events in past and present times, is to me a source of unfeigned regret. The book undoubtedly has most important uses, important for the Church at large as well as for the retired student of Scripture; but these are scarcely for exhibition in a series of popular discourses before a general audience; and when so employed, the strain of exposition is extremely apt to run into what tends rather to gratify a love for the novel or the marvellous than to promote personal edification.
The Scriptures of the Old Testament are characterized by much the same kind of differences as those which are found in the New, only somewhat more variously and strongly marked. The portions best adapted, upon the whole, for a series of expository discourses are the historical books, the historical at least more than the prophetical; for, in consequence of the imperfect nature of the dispensation under which the prophets lived, and the comparatively obscure medium through which the things of God’s kingdom were presented to their view, passages are ever and anon occurring which are of difficult interpretation even to the most skilled interpreters, and which it is not quite easy to make perfectly intelligible to an ordinary congregation. Experience has brought me to the conviction that, in regard to most of the prophetical writings of the Old Testament, a course of exposition on select portions would be more satisfactory to the preacher, and more profitable to his hearers, than one that should aim at embracing every chapter and verse in each. But the book of Psalms, which contains prophetical as well as devotional and didactic elements, might be taken almost entire, and for the most part is well adapted to this species of discourse; only, from the poetical colouring that pervades it, and the manifold variety of life and experience it embodies, very few preachers will find themselves equally at home in all the portions of it; so that it may usually be most expedient to take it at intervals, and as much as possible in connection with the parts of Old Testament history on which it so often leans. It has been the practice also of some of our best expository preachers to alternate between the books of the Old and those of the New Testament, for the purpose of securing a greater variety to their ministrations, and getting an opportunity of explaining more fully the things pertaining to both covenants. But in such matters no one need bind himself to the method of another. Respect must be had to the circumstances of one’s own position, and to what may seem, upon the whole, best calculated to promote the spiritual good of the people entrusted to his care. (It is scarcely necessary to remark, that there are passages, both in the historical and prophetical books of Scripture, which, on the score of delicacy, are not suitable either for being read or expounded in a promiscuous assembly. All Scripture is profitable for instruction, but not necessarily as matter of public discourse.)
(2.) When the general subject for exposition has been fixed, the next thing demanding consideration is the proportion of text to be embraced in each particular discourse. This will very commonly, at least in the historical books, well-nigh determine itself; but it may also, both in these and other portions, call for some care and discrimination. It is easier, however, to say regarding it what should not be done than what should. A very lengthened portion should not usually be taken, as the topics in that case will be too numerous and varied to admit of that precision and individuality which are essential to the interest and usefulness of a discourse. On the other hand, a very limited portion, comprising not more, perhaps, than one or two verses, would commonly narrow so much the field of discussion, that the discourse would possess the characteristics of a sermon rather than of an expository lecture. Passages will occasionally, however, be met with, especially in the doctrinal parts of Scripture, so pregnant in meaning, or calling for so much in the way of explanation, that a single verse or two may be all that can be adequately handled at a time. But for the most part it is desirable that a passage of some extent should be included, though it should, if possible, be a passage presenting some sort of unity, or having such threads of connection between one part and another as to admit of the discourse based on it being something else than a succession of remarks that bear no perceptible relation to each other, a series of scattered observations rather than parts of a continuous discourse. In expository as well as other discourses, it must always produce a measure of dissatisfaction if two or three subjects altogether distinct are brought together for discussion; the mind, in such a case, has to pass too rapidly from topic to topic, and without being able to retain that continuity or progression of thought and feeling which it instinctively craves.
So much depends for the sustained interest and impression of a discourse upon a due regard to this internal unity and connection, that the neglect of it may justly be reckoned among the chief causes of failure. Even when the verses taken contain a manifestly related whole, this is often in a great degree lost sight of in the actual treatment given to them; they are gone over in a kind of loose, desultory manner, without any proper plan formed beforehand, or distinct order followed; little more attempted than the raising of a few general remarks or observations upon it. The parables of Jesus also, which, from their very structure, seem to invite a different treatment, are sometimes subjected to the same mode of dealing. Plainly, each parable should first be contemplated in its entireness, with the view of obtaining a clear and distinct apprehension of its general scope, so that afterwards the course of thought and illustration may be arranged in such a manner as may seem best fitted to bring out the main theme, and exhibit the bearing which the several parts have in regard to it. In doing this, however, whether in respect to the parables or to other portions of Scripture, it should not be deemed necessary to adhere to the precise order in which the topics present themselves on the sacred record. Sometimes it may be advisable to depart more or less from this, in order to secure a more natural progression or a better adjustment in the different parts of the discourse. Nor should it be held as at all essential that a formal announcement be made of the plan and order intended to be pursued; less so here than in the case of sermons founded upon a single text, where the mind is shut up to a narrower field, and requires to have the lines of thought more definitely marked out before it. In expository discourses, though this method may at limes be fitly enough adopted, yet it may also, and perhaps more commonly should be dispensed with, as the subject itself will often suggest an order to the preacher, and one that can quite readily be perceived by the mind of the hearer without the formality of a regular division.
(3.) To come now to the substance of the discourse; its distinctive aim and character, we should ever remember, is exposition; so that to explain the meaning of the words where any explanation is needed, to render clear and intelligible to all the mind of the Spirit conveyed in them, to explicate difficulties, and bring out with due prominence the principles of truth and duty involved, this must be taken as the more direct and primary object of the discourse. To do it properly will, of course, require some measure of exegetical talent, by which I mean, such a combination of taste and judgment as fits one for discerning the right in cases somewhat critical, weighing probabilities, tracing connections, distinguishing between what is extraneous or incidental and what is essential to the train of thought which forms the leading theme of discourse. Not the process itself, by which all this is to be done, should be laid open in the discourse, but the results of the process; the talent should appear in the work it accomplishes, not in the methods by which it operates. Anything like an exhibition of skill or a parade of learning must be out of place in a discourse which is professedly directed to the object of expounding the will of God for the spiritual enlightenment and comfort of men’s souls. Even in the treatment of passages which have some difficulty in them, on which a certain diversity of opinion has prevailed in the past, and may still perhaps be expected to prevail in the future, it is hardly ever advisable to go much into the contending views of interpreters, which is extremely apt to create bewilderment in the minds of a general audience, and possibly also to produce a painful sense of the darkness and uncertainty of Scripture. It is an easy method of consuming time and of giving an air of learning to a discourse, to tell what this commentator has said, and how the conceit of that other may be disposed of. But for the most part it is a far more excellent way, and greatly more serviceable to the flock, when the pastor takes time and pains in his own study to examine and weigh all these competing authorities; and though, perhaps, not concealing the fact that there are certain difficulties or diversities of opinion hanging around the subject, yet coming forth with a plain and intelligent exhibition of what has commended itself to him as the mind of the Spirit regarding it. If, after all his care and application, he should still find reason for hesitation, let him state candidly whence it arises; or if there should be more than one view which may justly be considered as somewhat probable, let this also be noticed. But such double interpretations should obviously be presented as rarely as possible; and with due pains beforehand, supposing that there is some fitness for the work with a few of the better exegetical helps at hand, and prayer continually made for a blessing on their use, they cannot be of very frequent occurrence. It is a good rule to mention no view from the pulpit which may not reasonably be supposed to have occurred, in their own meditations or reading, to some members of the congregation; to mention none simply for the sake of propounding and refuting it. Should, however, an incorrect view, however absurd, be understood to have gained currency, or should it be not unlikely to have occurred to some one on a superficial consideration of the passage, then it may most justly be noticed. At the same time, the clear and satisfactory exhibition of the true sense will commonly be found the best safeguard against false and shallow interpretations, and when thoroughly done will save the necessity of spending much time on what is only to be rejected.
In a number of cases in which some difficulty has to be encountered, the difficulty turns upon the precise meaning of the original words, and raises the question, whether the rendering of the Authorized Version gives a correct view of their import. If the matter is very clear as against this version, and anything of importance depends on the difference; or if by some slight variation a fuller, clearer, or more profound meaning could be elicited, in such cases there can be no impropriety in indicating what is entitled to the preference. Only, a certain prudence should be observed as to the manner of doing it, avoiding the appearance of seeming anxious to obtrude a piece of learning somewhat out of the way, but being concerned only about bringing out a just representation of the truth of sacred Scripture. The middle way here also is the best; on the one hand, to guard against the undue disparagement of the version, which to the great body of the people is the only form in which they know the word of God; and, on the other, to keep them in mind that it is still but a version, and must not be allowed to overshadow the original. (There are certain renderings fitted to mislead which should certainly be noted, such as ‘straining at a gnat;’ ‘eating and drinking damnation; ‘after Easter,” Act_12:4; ‘called to glory and virtue,’ 2Pe_1:6; also the changes undergone in the sense of certain words, such as ‘earing,’ conversation, nephews, take no thought.)
(4.) In regard, finally, to the hortatory, or more peculiarly practical matter of the discourse, this should nearly always form a pretty large portion of the whole, but it may be variously introduced. When the subject happens to be one that calls for a good deal of explanation, or consists of parts very closely related to each other, it may be best to reserve the chief application to be made of it for practical uses to the last. When the whole subject has been placed before the understandings of the people, then press home the lessons of duty it contains on their hearts and consciences.
But usually it will be found both more natural and more profitable to interweave the practical throughout with the expository, and make the improvement of the subject keep pace with its elucidation. For in this way the hearers have the subject as it proceeds brought into contact with the moral as well as the intellectual parts of their natures, and are never allowed to forget the aim to which all should be subordinated. Not only so, but the awkwardness is thereby avoided of needing to return back upon topics which have been discussed at an earlier stage, and have not quite recently been engaging attention. When this has to be done, a certain amount of repetition is inevitable, and this is apt to induce satiety or languor in the audience. On every account, therefore, it is advisable to intermingle the word of exhortation with the word of knowledge, while still the most prolonged or urgent of the practical appeals may fitly be reserved to the close.
II. Doctrinal Discourses.—By doctrinal discourses I mean such as have it for their more prominent and leading object to set forth some important truth or doctrine of the Bible, to commend it to men’s intelligent convictions, and work it into their settled and conscientious belief. As Christianity owes its primary distinction to the doctrinal truths which it unfolds, and by the belief of those truths seeks to accomplish all the present and eternal results it aims at, a very prominent and essential part of the calling of a minister of the gospel necessarily consists in what he has to do for the manifestation and defence of the same. The exposition in one aspect or another of saving truth must form the staple of his ministrations. But the precise form under which this is to be done may be infinitely varied, and must to a certain extent be modified by the circumstances of time and place. Even in the cast and structure of discourses which may, in a somewhat peculiar sense, be designated doctrinal, there may be a considerable variety; and, in particular, they may be made to assume sometimes more of a controversial and again more of a simply didactic character, according as the special object may be to vindicate and defend, or to explain and enforce the truth. It will rarely happen but that the faithful pastor will require to avail himself of the one mode as well as the other; for in present times at least he will scarcely find it possible to obtain a field of labour where the prevalence of doctrinal error, or the danger of some being misled into it, will not occasionally call for a defence as well as exposition of the truth. At the same time, even in those situations where the danger in question exists, discourses avowedly and predominantly controversial should not be of frequent occurrence; indeed, I would say, they should form rather an exceptional part of a pastor’s public ministrations. For, as they necessarily present a polemical appearance, their tendency is to beget an intellectual sharpness and combative zeal for orthodoxy, much more than to awaken earnest convictions and hearty love of the truth. And it should ever be remembered, that it is this latter and not the former, it is the doctrines of salvation, not simply as reasoned out and grasped by the intellect, but as embraced and loved in the heart, which alone fulfils the design of the gospel, and is also the only sufficient bulwark against the assaults of error. For the things of this description which prove real sources of danger are always such as fall in with some corrupt tendency of human nature, flatter its pride of reason, or allow freer scope to its fleshly inclinations and desires. Hence the faithful pastor must aim at something more than a mere speculative knowledge of the truth. He must seek to have the truth itself effectually lodged in the understandings and hearts of his audience; since, in proportion as this is done, the antagonistic forms of error will of themselves fall away or meet with a stout resistance. Keeping in view what has been said as to the general character and object of this species of discourses, I proceed to offer a few plain hints respecting them.
(1.) Whatever the particular doctrine may be which is to form the theme of discourse, care should be taken to have a text that is sufficiently clear and broad to bear the superstructure which is going to be reared on it. There should be no appearance of constraint or violence in the effort to adapt the one to the other, as this would inevitably raise distrust or suspicion at the very outset. The doctrine, it is true, may not be treated as if it rested for proof exclusively or even mainly upon the particular text from which the sermon is preached. There both may and should be a judicious use of other passages bearing on the subject introduced in the course of the discussion. But this will not lessen the propriety of having an appropriate text for the groundwork of the whole; for whatever afterwards may be brought forward by way of supplementing it in the minds of the audience, it will almost certainly be with the text itself that the doctrine will be chiefly associated.
(2.) Some discrimination also should be made between doctrines, not for the purpose of exempting any from discussion in the pulpit which have a place in the revelation of God, for it is the part of a minister to declare the whole counsel of God; but so as to give the chief prominence to those which are most vitally connected with the work of salvation and men’s spiritual progress. There are doctrines which may at particular times be brought formally into discussion, but which usually should be taken for granted rather than systematically and at length treated in the pulpit; such, for example, as the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of angels, or the doctrine of divine predestination. Many opportunities will present themselves in the regular course of exposition or preaching for referring to such topics, and bringing forth proofs in illustration of them, in a kind of informal and incidental manner. But it is scarcely possible to take them for the theme of an entire discourse without giving to the discourse somewhat more than is meet of a dry, theological, perhaps speculative turn. When such topics are handled, it should be as much as possible after the pattern of Scripture, that is, not abstractedly or metaphysically, but by means of known analogies, and in their bearing on the scheme of God and the spiritual well-being of men. So contemplated, they will be presented in a sort of concrete form, associated with what has an objective existence in men’s experience, and runs more or less into the lines of their present or future destiny. Take, as an example, the doctrine of election as exhibited in Scripture, which is not as a thing swimming in the air, but intimately associated with the safety and blessedness of believers, tending on the one side to humble them, as showing that they are indebted for all they receive to the sovereign goodness and mercy of God; and on the other to fill them with peace and comfort, as presenting whatever belongs to them of good in connection with the everlasting love and unchanging faithfulness of God. Thus exhibited, the doctrine will be received by believers with a heavenly sweetness and consolation; while those who are still strangers to the grace of God may have the salutary feeling awakened in them, that it were a happy thing for them if they could but attain to some comfortable assurance that they had personally to do with the things which pertain to it. Until they get into that better position, however, and with the view of helping them to do so, such persons should be reminded that they have primarily to address themselves to another class of God’s revelations, those, namely, which have respect to the guilt of sin, and the necessity of fleeing to Christ in order to escape from its deserved doom.
Indeed, both for the subjects of grace and for those who are still strangers to its power, the great themes of doctrinal preaching must be, not the darker, but the plainer things in God’s revelation, the reality, the deceitfulness, and the evil of sin; the way of salvation by Christ, Christ Himself in His adorable person, and perfect righteousness, and infinite satisfaction; His amazing condescension, His matchless love, the inexhaustible riches of His grace, the comforts of His Spirit, and the glory of His kingdom. Whatever besides may at times be exhibited of Christian doctrine, such topics ought ever to occupy the foreground; for they have the more fundamental place in the elements of the Christian economy, and they serve to keep the soul ever conversant with Christ, in connection with whom alone is to be found true peace and blessing.
(3.) I remark again, that in setting forth such topics as those now referred to, the utmost pains should be taken to have the leading positions laid down regarding them, what will usually be the heads of discourse enunciated in very clear and intelligible statements, such as every person in the congregation of ordinary intelligence can understand. The main part also of what is said in illustration should, if possible, be done in so lucid and orderly a manner, that only the wilfully ignorant and inattentive can fail to apprehend it. This, when it is in some good measure done, will save a great deal of needless verbiage and prolonged argumentation on points of some difficulty; for, as has been truly said, ‘a question well stated is half solved.’ But it can be so stated only when one has been at pains to get the particular subject clearly apprehended in the mind, and in the exposition of it to confine oneself to what has thus been properly mastered. Should the preacher attempt more than this, or be imperfectly prepared for what he does attempt, there will be sure to be found an indistinctness, a want of order or coherence, in his statements concerning it; his course will be, as it were, through a hazy atmosphere or with a halting and uncertain tread, in which comparatively few are likely to attempt following him. To know well, and to know also what it is one does know well, is indispensable to being able to discourse on it to the interest and edification of others.
(4.) Along with this distinctness and precision of view, there will always be required, as a further element to success in this kind of discourse, a real heartfelt sense of the importance of the doctrine handled, and a corresponding desire to have the knowledge and belief of it wrought into the minds of others. To a shortcoming in this respect, perhaps more than to an actual deficiency in the formal apprehension of the truth, is to be ascribed the defective interest that too frequently attaches to such discourses.
For the complaint which has been uttered on the subject by an English prelate, has its application to other sections of the Church: (Addresses to Candidates for Ordination, by the Bishop of Oxford, p. 54.) ‘How many sermons,’ says he, ‘seem to be composed with no better idea than that they must occupy a certain time prescribed by custom, and that they must be filled with the religious phrases current in this or that school of theological opinion! Hence we find in them prefaces of inordinate length, porches larger than the buildings to which they lead, truisms repeated with a calm perseverance of dull repetition which is almost marvellous, vague generalities about the fall and redemption, as if these awful mysteries were empty words, and not living, burning realities. We hear the sermon, perhaps wandering languidly over the whole scheme of theology; or we find the faintest and most general description of sinners, such as can reach no one in particular; mere outlines of men in the abstract, not portraits of individual men, amongst which each hearer shall find himself; empty general exhortations not to sin, not revelations of sin in itself, or sin in its deceitful working; cold, heartless, unreal words about Christ the healer, not the earnest, plain-spoken zeal of one to whom, because he believes, Christ is precious.’ All this, so far as it exists, comes from the want of a realizing sense in the preacher of the vital importance of the truths about which he discourses. He must go through his task, but there is no living warmth and energy in his mode of executing it; and the impression produced, faint at the first, soon vanishes away.
(5.) In regard, finally, to the practical improvement connected with the treatment of doctrinal subjects, this may, as in the case of expository discourses, be managed in two different ways. It may either be interspersed through the several parts of the discourse, or reserved mainly to the concluding portion. In Scripture itself we have examples of both these methods. The two largest doctrinal epistles or discourses in the New Testament are those addressed to the Romans and the Hebrews; and they are constructed respectively upon the two methods just mentioned. In the Epistle to the Romans, the first part, reaching to the close of Romans 11, is chiefly occupied with the discussion of the great doctrines of sin and redemption; and then, commencing with Romans 12 onwards to the close, there is a rich and varied application of the truth to the personal and social state of believers; a close and earnest dealing with the conscience in respect to the obligations resting on believers, one toward another, and toward those around them, in the different spheres and relations of life. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, on the other hand, each doctrinal topic, as it comes into consideration, has its practical bearing noticed and pressed home before it is dismissed; so that, throughout, the argumentative continually runs into the hortatory, and successive phases of doctrine are no sooner commended to the apprehension and faith of the readers, than they are turned into matter of counsel, warning, or encouragement to their hearts. With such examples of these diverse methods from the pen of inspiration itself, we may certainly leave the question undecided, which is the better of the two. Rather, perhaps, we may say that both are in themselves good; and that it will be the part of wisdom in the preacher to vary his plan, and make his discourse assume now more of the one, and again more of the other method. For the most part, however, it will be the more advisable, for the reasons already stated under the preceding division, to approximate more nearly to the second mode of distribution than to the first. For, if all is doctrinal in the earlier part of a discourse, and all practical in the later, it will probably seem to a certain portion of the audience allowable to relax their attention while the one or the other portion of the discourse is in progress of delivery. But, indeed, the two elements admit of being in a good degree combined together, as they are in the Epistle to the Romans; for, while the chief burden of the practical matter is reserved to the concluding chapters of the epistle, it is by no means wanting in the earlier portions. Nay, some of the most powerful and touching appeals are there; and the whole of that part which is more especially doctrinal, so far from possessing the character of a dry discussion, is instinct with the living warmth and earnestness of a soul penetrated to its inmost depths with the reality and greatness of the truths unfolded in it. When such is the spirit that characterizes the treatment of any particular subject, it will be comparatively of little moment how the more distinctly practical matter is introduced and distributed.
III. Experimental Discourses.—Experimental preaching may justly enough be treated as a distinct class, although in the general run of pulpit discourses the experimental element should not be wanting, and should rather appear in the tone and spirit pervading the whole, than as something existing apart. The revelation of God generally, and that part of it in particular which relates to the life and resurrection of Christ, with the present and eternal issues depending on them, cannot but powerfully affect, when seriously apprehended by men, their emotional natures, and deeply impress their feelings. To its wonderful adaptation in this respect the gospel owes much of its quickening and impulsive power. And the measure of the skill which any preacher possesses to awaken feeling along with believing thought in the minds of his audience, in connection with the great themes he handles, will also be, to a large extent, the measure of his success in getting into their bosoms, and winning them to the love and obedience of the truth.
There are subjects of discourse, however, which are in their very nature experimental, and which should from time to time be brought out for formal discussion. Such, for example, is the passage in Rom_7:9, ‘I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died,’ which, in both its parts, relates to experience; in the first, to the soul’s consciousness, its conceit, we should rather say, or false consciousness of life, while still ignorant of the spirituality and depth of the law’s requirements; in the second, to its consciousness of death, its stricken and prostrate condition, with an overpowering sense of guilt and danger when the law enters in its true meaning and commanding power. Such also, but with special reference to the grace and truth of the gospel, are Rom_8:15, ‘Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear,’ etc.; 2Ti_1:12, ‘I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him against that day;’ 2Co_5:14, ‘The love of Christ constraineth me,’ etc. Texts like these necessarily carry the thoughts inward to the state of the heart and the working of its affections, as wrought upon by the great truths and realities of the gospel. And if they are handled in a lively and earnest manner, the discourse must possess much of an experimental character; it will not simply describe how the things in question should operate on the feelings and affections of the soul, but so do it as to awaken and call forth somewhat of a corresponding frame of mind in the hearers. Can this be done unless the preacher himself has undergone what he describes? Can he preach experimentally without being a man of Christian experience? Or should his own experience be the measure and limit of what he attempts to work through Scripture into the convictions and feelings of his people?
Preachers require here to walk softly, and with a prudent step. It is one thing to set before a Christian audience a sort of picture, an ideal representation of the manner in which they should desire and feel on spiritual things, but another thing to make them properly sensible of the characteristics of a gracious work, to give them to know these as things which have been known in their real character, appreciated and felt. Yet there is nothing more common than, for preachers, young preachers more .especially, to mistake the one for the other, or to think that they are accomplishing the one when they are only doing the other. It were, perhaps, too much to say that no effect of a salutary and permanent kind is likely to be ever produced by a discourse in which the work of grace upon the soul and the actings of the soul as operated on by grace, have been drawn from the imagination merely of the speaker, or taken at second hand from the testimony of others; but assuredly very little of that description will usually be found to come of it. Grace, like nature, has its own look, its own tones, its own veins of thought and feeling; and discourses which, without any true or adequate participation of these, profess to lay open the secrets of the divine life in the soul, will be felt to be unsatisfactory by those who know the reality of that life, and will fail even to make much impression upon others. My advice, therefore, in regard to such subjects of discourse is, Let each one first try to ascertain what is his own spiritual state and temper in relation to them; let him, for the most part, be sure that he has at least the elements in himself of the gracious feelings and dispositions which he means to exhibit for the spiritual instruction and comfort of others; and if at times he should be led to go somewhat beyond what he has himself experienced, not, perhaps, having been placed in the circumstances which are needed to bring it into full operation, let it be done discreetly, and on the ground of results and testimonies which admit of no reasonable doubt. Where more than this is attempted, where at least the attempt is systematically made to strike a higher key, one of two results is almost sure to become manifest: either the preacher will fall into the style of some particular person or party, adopting a sanctimonious mannerism, which is always a defect and a misfortune; or his preaching will betray a false glow, a kind of pretentious unreality, will indeed be a preaching about the things of God rather than an actual and earnest grappling with the things themselves.
One point more may be noticed which has respect to the matter itself of such discourses, the subject, namely, of Christian experience. In so far as this is really the operation of divine grace, it must, as to all essential features, be the same in the true children of God; for it is the work of one and the same Spirit, and the work of that Spirit in applying the same great truths to the conscience, awakening the same convictions, desires, and hopes in the heart. But along with this general resemblance there may be individual characteristics; there certainly will be such in proportion as there are what the apostle calls ‘diversities of operations ‘in the Spirit’s work, as well as varieties of gifts. This arises primarily from the natural diversity which exists in people’s physical and mental temperaments, since here also the supernatural bases itself on the natural; and the manifold diversities also of place, and circumstance, and position in life, amid which, in different individuals, the work of grace is begun and carried forward, cannot fail to exercise a moulding influence on the particular hue and aspect of the religious character. Thus, while it is true of all who have really been born again of the Spirit, that they have been brought to know for themselves the fearful burden of sin, and have seen somewhat of its exceeding sinfulness, with persons of deep sensibility or sombre feeling there may justly be expected a greater perturbation of spirit than in others during such convictions, and at times even a tendency to sink into the depths of wretchedness and despair. A similar difference in respect to natural temperament or intellectual acuteness will also give rise to a corresponding difference in the measure of distinctness with which the successive stages of thought and feeling are marked in the spiritual history of individuals, which in some will be found more vivid and perceptible than in others; in some, again, more rapid and violent, in others more gradual and progressive. Preachers should therefore beware of representing the experiences belonging to the Christian life in such a manner as to give rise to the impression that not only every feature, but every line, as it were, of that feature, every shade and aspect of life which has developed itself in one Christian, must have its parallel in another. Besides, it is to be borne in mind that a distinction has often to be drawn between the experience of Christians and Christian experience. Whatever may justly be designated Christian experience is of the working of God’s word and Spirit upon the heart. But in the actual experience of Christians there is often found intermingling with that workings of the flesh, fears and hopes, joys and sorrows, and in these again heights and depths, which are either altogether the offspring of peculiarities in men’s natural constitution, or receive their distinctive colour from these, together, it may be, with certain discomposing influences derived from the circumstances of their condition. The holiest men are not free from the action of such merely physical or local influences on the atmosphere of their soul; as may be seen, for example, in the case of Brainerd, whose memoirs exhibit a great deal of what may justly be called unhealthy experience; the experience, no doubt, of a profoundly earnest, spiritual man, and an experience conversant throughout with the things of the Spirit, but still by no means a uniformly Christian experience, in many respects morbid and introverted, and, as a whole, reflecting too much the shady aspect of the law, too little of the genial warmth and gladsome light of the gospel. It was the natural consequence of his consumptive frame and sequestered position, with which he had to maintain a perpetual conflict of feeling, and should therefore be carefully distinguished from that profound lowliness of spirit, that sure and stedfast faith, self-sacrificing zeal, unwearied patience, heavenly elevation of soul, and burning desire for the glory of God, which were his grand characteristics as a missionary of the cross, and which have been rarely surpassed, seldom even equalled. And so as regards the case of many others.
I may add, however, that even in those cases which exhibit something peculiar, and require to be considered apart from the general run of Christian experiences, there still is a certain affinity with what others are conscious of; and if the descriptions given of such are drawn from real life, they will not be in vain even for those who are very partially cognisant of the things described. Hence the importance in this connection also of a minister’s familiar intercourse with his people, so as to become properly acquainted with their actual state and character, their misgivings and fears, their trials and perils and difficulties. He will thus be able to speak more directly to their bosoms; and even when, perhaps, speaking with a view to what may seem applicable to only one or two individuals, he will touch the hearts of a considerable number. For, as justly remarked by a German pastor, (Büchsel’s Ministerial Experiences, p. 37.) and by him gathered as the result of ministerial experience, ‘he who hits the case of one hits the case of a class; and, besides, whatever has the impress of truth and reality will interest even those who are not directly concerned in it.’
(4.) Ethical Discourses.—In mentioning ethical discourses, I am not to be understood as meaning what are simply or absolutely such; but discourses which have for their chief object the exhibition of some one of the moral obligations binding on Christians, and the duties of every-day life. Every discourse, as already stated, should have more or less of a bearing in this direction; it should be pervaded by a perceptible moral element, and at certain points should touch upon the things proper to be done, even though mainly occupied with those which are to be believed. But it will also be wise, occasionally at least, to discourse on particular branches of the dutiful behaviour and moral excellence which ought to distinguish the members of a Christian community, and to awaken a sense of shortcoming and guilt, where the good is not sought after or realized.
1. Now, in regard to such discourses, the first and most important direction which has to be given is, that while the moral or spiritual element must be made to predominate, it should never be allowed to stand alone. Precisely as doctrine should ever be set forth in its relation to practice, so when practice is the more immediate theme, its relation to doctrine should never be lost sight of; and that more especially for two reasons. First, because the moral precepts and obligations which believers are called to discharge, have much in their nature, and still more in their spirit, to do with the revelations of the gospel; and it is impossible to give, in connection with any department of Christian life and behaviour, a full representation of what believers should actually do, without bringing the subject into contact with the realities of the gospel. For, since the revelation of these has greatly elevated the position of those to whom the gospel has come, has placed them amid a clearer light, and invested them with other privileges and prospects than they could have known while living in a state of nature, so it has immensely increased their obligations to follow after righteousness, and provided them with means altogether peculiar for understanding the real nature and claims of righteousness. There is, however, another, and, if possible, a still stronger reason; for faith in the blessed truths of the gospel is the only vital root of the practical goodness which we would have people to exhibit in their walk and conduct; and one might as well expect to find fruitful trees growing where there has been planted no living germ, as to see a community adorned with the virtues of a pure, upright, and heavenly behaviour, apart from the believing reception of the truth as it is in Jesus.
In the present day it is scarcely necessary to give any special illustrations of this, as with all who are in any measure acquainted with the history of religion in this country it has passed into a generally received maxim. It is well, however, that the pastors, or such as are preparing to become pastors, of Christian congregations should remember some of the more striking proofs of it, which are known to have taken place in the past, that they may be saved even from the partial misjudgments and misdirected efforts into which they might otherwise be led. In the particular sphere of a single ministerial life, none perhaps can be found more marked and instructive than that of the case of Dr. Chalmers, especially as he himself has depicted it. Shortly after his removal from Kilmany to Glasgow, he published an address to his former parishioners; and in that address he referred to the change which had taken place on the character of his ministrations during the period of his residence in Kilmany, describing also the effect which this personal change produced on the results of his pastorate. ‘I am not sensible,’ he said, ‘that all the vehemence with which I urged the proprieties and virtues of social life had the weight of a feather on the moral habits of my parishioners. And it was not till I got impressed by the utter alienation of the heart in all its desires and affections from God; it was not till I got the Scriptural way of laying the method of reconciliation before them; it was not till the free offer of forgiveness through the blood of Christ was urged upon their acceptance, and the Holy Spirit given through Christ’s Mediatorship to all who ask Him, that I ever heard of any of those subordinate reformations, which I aforetime made the earnest and the zealous, but, I am afraid, at the same time the ultimate object of my earlier ministrations.’ Then, appealing to those who had latterly undergone a change corresponding to his own, and in consequence of it, he says, ‘You have at least taught me, that to preach Christ is the only effective way of preaching morality in all its branches; and out of your humble cottages have I gathered a lesson, which I pray God I may be enabled to carry with all its simplicity into a wider theatre, and to bring to bear with all the power of its subduing efficacy upon the vices of a more crowded population.’
Substantially the same contrast, but with reference to a much wider sphere, was drawn by Bishop Horsley in one of his charges, in which he gave a severe but faithful delineation of the kind of preaching which was prevalent among the clergy of the Church of England during the latter part of last century, contrasting it with the proper idea of gospel preaching. ‘The clergy of those days,’ he said, ‘had lost sight of their proper office, to publish the word of reconciliation; and made no other use of the high commission they bore, than to come abroad on one day in seven dressed in solemn looks, and in the external garb of holiness, to be the apes of Epictetus. A general decay, not merely of piety, but of all the fruits and excellences of a Christian life, was the natural consequence;’ and therefore he fitly concludes by indicating the right path: ‘Practical holiness is the end, faith is the means. The practice of religion will always thrive in proportion as its doctrines are understood and firmly received; and the practice will degenerate and decay in proportion as the doctrine is misunderstood and neglected.’ (On the negative side, practical illustrations of this may be found in the fruitlessness of Societies for the Reformation of Manners formed during last century (see Gillies’ Historical Collections), as compared with the results of evangelical preaching by Whitfield, Wesley, and others.)
This, however, may quite readily be admitted by persons in the present day, who yet, perhaps, are in danger of giving way to the same tendency in a somewhat modified and subtler form. There is a kind of refined morality and spiritualism, which partakes to some extent of a Christian character, and is all that certain ministers either know or preach; but which, as a scheme of instruction, wants the living warmth and quickening influence of true evangelism. A more favourable and instructive example of it could not well be found, than in the amiable and very estimable Henry Woodward, an Irish clergyman, not long since deceased, who himself relates the phase of things connected with his ministerial position and agency to which I refer. He had gone through a very remarkable, one might almost say, singular experience, several years after he became an ordained minister, the chief characteristic of which was an intense realization of spiritual and eternal things, which changed the whole tone of his mind, and rendered ministerial work a very different thing from what it had been before, yet without any special prominence being given to the subjects of sin and salvation. Before long, he removed to a neighbourhood where were some men of distinguished parts and good character in the Church, ‘whose agency tended to promote spiritual religion, with disconformity to the world; but upon the subject of the atonement there was somewhat of reserve. It was not denied, it was held as a part of Catholic truth; it was occasionally preached, but it was not prominently put forward.’ Falling in with this system of thought and teaching, Mr. Woodward says of himself, ‘My favourite topics from the pulpit, and from house to house, were such as, from my own experience, I could set my seal to: that sin is misery, and holiness is but another name for happiness; that the ways of religion are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace; that God is Himself the shield and the exceeding great reward of them that love Him; that Christ is the living bread which alone can feed the hungry soul,’ and so on. ‘He did not absolutely omit,’ he says, ‘to preach forgiveness through the blood of Jesus, and justification by faith in His righteousness; but this doctrine had not the prominence which is understood to characterize evangelical preaching; and it was only when he came to perceive the far more marked and blessed effects which flowed from preaching more distinctively evangelical, that he began seriously to consider the defects of his own, and gave that prominence to the doctrines of sin and salvation which they unquestionably have in Scripture. I saw,’ he states, ‘that God was pleased to bless this mode of preaching;’ and He does so, we must remember, just because it thoroughly meets the case of sinners, and, with the knowledge of the good, supplies the only effectual means and motives for their actually attaining it.
2. But to proceed to another point: while the moralities of the. gospel in discourses of this nature should ever be based upon its beliefs, in the mode of doing it some variety is advisable, so as to avoid a tame and mechanical uniformity. Suppose, for example, that humility were the subject of discourse, and the text 1Pe_5:5, ‘Be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility,’ it might be equally appropriate to begin with a delineation of the grace of humility, its thoughts and feelings with reference to self, its actings toward God, its outgoings of will and purpose towards others amid the intercourse and relations of life; and then to point to the spiritual root out of which it springs, and the manifold considerations presented in the gospel which are fitted to nourish and stimulate it. Or, reversing the process, bring forward first what grounds or reasons there are in Scripture, as well as in the nature of things, for the cultivation of a spirit of humility, and then show how, when these are properly apprehended and felt, they will of necessity prompt to the exercise of humility, dispose the believer, as it were, to clothe himself with it, so that it shall impart a distinctive tone and impress to whatever he does. In like manner, with regard to all the other graces of the Christian life, and the duties of moral obligation, it is immaterial whether the discussion of the duties or the exhibition of the truths and principles which should find their development in the duties have the precedence in the discourse; and not stringent uniformity, but rather variety of order and method is to be cultivated.
3. A still further direction may be indicated, namely, that care should be taken so to exhibit the moralities, or practical duties of the gospel, that these shall appear really practicable to the body of sound Christians. Representations are sometimes given of these, and of the obligations generally of a Christian life, which look too much like ideal pictures, and which, from want of adaptation to people’s circumstances, are fitted rather to discourage than prompt their zeal to the performance of what is required. ‘Our system of preaching,’ Mr. Cecil justly observes, ‘must be such as to meet mankind. They must find it possible to live in the bustle of the world and yet serve God.’ And this should lead, not only, as he suggests, to a prominent exhibition of Christian privileges, and the refreshing of men’s harassed spirits with the cheering manifestation of Christ’s truth and love, but also to such a statement of the way of holiness as shall not appear to overtax the energies of ordinary men, a truthful yet homely and reasonable view of the relative obligations and duties of life. This should especially be attended to when pressing duties of which the formal discharge must necessarily vary with the means and opportunities possessed, such as liberality to the poor, the expenditure of time and resources in the cause of Christ, the exercises of meditation and prayer. That the genuine Christian will always be characterized by a certain regard to such things, we must leave no room to doubt, and a regard that will always grow in proportion to the growth of Christian principle in the heart. But let hearers at the same time be reminded, that they have to do with a God who knows their frame, and sets the bounds of their habitations; so that while the spirit which animates all true followers of Christ must be the same, there cannot be for each the same formal rule and measure; and they may be liberal even in the highest degree, not by giving much, but by giving heartily according to their means, and by doing kindly; they may be meditative, and yet go through their daily taskwork of bodily labour; may be prayerful and yet without a closet to retire to, or hours of repose which they can consecrate to devotion. In all such cases let it be clearly understood that the spirit of the work done or the service rendered is the main thing, and that if the spirit but exist in sufficient strength, it will not fail to obtain scope for itself in appropriate forms of manifestation.