A review: “I Believe In Preaching” - John Stott

John Stott’s book I Believe In Preaching is one of a series of books examining various aspects of the Christian life and faith, including topics such as the church, evangelism, the Holy Spirit, the second coming, and the resurrection of Jesus. According to series editor Michael Green, “the aim of this I Believe series has been to take a fresh, biblical, positive look at some of the important areas of Christian belief and practice which have been neglected or minimized in modern times.” Stott definitely meets the expectations for this series, and the scope of his book is wide. He begins by tracing the arc of preaching through history, beginning with Jesus and the apostles through to the present day. Then he turns his focus to the contemporary objections to preaching, of which there are many, and offers his reply to them. The next chapters deal with the theological foundations for preaching, of preaching as building a bridge between the bible and the culture, the need for study, and some practical suggestions for sermon preparation. Stott’s final chapters examine the character of the preacher themselves, calling for sincerity and courage and humility.

The historical overview of preaching through the ages highlights the common theme and mandate of Christian witness through preaching. There is a commitment and dedication to the Word which is evidenced in every example of Stott’s great preachers. One particular example stood out, that of John Chrysostom. According to Stott, the main characteristics of Chrysostom’s preaching was that it was biblical, with a simple and straightforward interpretation of the Scripture. During that period of the early church, there was a school of interpretation that emphasized the use of allegory, which Stott calls “fanciful” . Chrysostom was more literal in his interpretation, and Stott commends him for it. Furthermore, Chrysostom was very down to earth in his applications, and was not afraid to tell it like it was. Stott characterizes him as “fearless in his condemnations.” Can we take a cue from Chrysostom as well? Perhaps we ought to be more straightforward and direct with our preaching, and not ‘pull any punches’ so to speak, but be down to earth and not afraid to speak the truth, even though it might be unpopular or painful. Stott’s brief history shows us that preaching has been accorded an important place throughout the history of Christianity, and that the testimony to its importance has been consistent from one era to the next.

However, preaching has and continues to come under attack. In his chapter on contemporary objections to preaching, Stott identifies the mood of anti-authority as one particular objection. People are unwilling to accept any kind of authority over them, and to them the preacher is merely another authority figure to be rejected out of hand. To be sure, many bad preachers merely contribute to their own bad image, and Stott gives a number of examples of preachers who are of no help to the cause. To counter this atmosphere Stott encourages the reader to remember a number of important points. First, be reminded of the biblical view of the nature of human beings. We were created to be morally responsible and free, and that freedom only can come in the context of some authority. Stott exhorts, “Freedom unlimited is an illusion. The mind is free only under the authority of truth, and the will under the authority of righteousness. It is under Christ’s yoke that we find the rest he promises, not in discarding it.” Secondly, we must remember the doctrine of revelation. Preaching is not the espousing of man-made ideals, not a convincing human argument, but it is God revealing Himself. We only know God through His own self-revelation. Thirdly, we must recall that the centre of authority does not lie within us, but with God and His Word. Furthermore, we must go one step further by demonstrating in our speech and behaviour that we are also under this authority and willing to submit to it. Fourthly, Stott reminds us of the relevancy of the gospel. The word must be close to life, not ‘ivory tower’ discourse with no connection to the listener’s life. In quoting Dr. Clement Welsh from his book Preaching in a New Key, he proposes as careful a treatment of the audience as the text itself; essentially, this is the exegesis of the audience. Stott’s final response to the anti-authority mood is to remind us of the dialogical nature of preaching. The sermon must ask the questions that the congregation is thinking, and dialogue with itself, so to speak. In this way, the listener is allowed to interact with the sermon, because you have done it for them. It legitimises their questions and objections to your points, and it demonstrates that you have given it thought and are not unaware of what they think and feel. As a result, the audience will be more apt to listen to what you have to say.

Stott characterizes preaching as ‘bridge-building’, spanning the distance both temporally and culturally between the Bible and the present day. The purpose is to connect the two so that there can be communication between the two sides, and that the faith of the ancient world can be relevant to people of the current era. There are, however, two traps one could fall into. The first is to be so conservative that we remain firmly on the Biblical shore, and never construct the bridge. While we may feel it safer not to venture over to the other side, to fail to do so is to be irrelevant. The other trap is that of being so swayed by the ever changing attitude and mood of the contemporary world that “all their sermons are earthed in the real world, but where they come from (one is tempted to add) heaven alone knows. They certainly do not appear to come out of the Bible.” While Stott admits that both examples are a bit extreme, he is very much on point. We notice these tendencies in our own experience, and to be reminded of the balance and the need to connect the two sides. The aim is to be relevant, but to challenge the suppositions of the contemporary world with biblical truth.

A book on preaching is likely to contain some guidance as to how to prepare a sermon, and Stott does not disappoint. His general outline is very similar to Haddon Robinson’s:

1. Choose your text
2. Meditate on it
3. Isolate the dominant thought
4. Arrange your material to serve the dominant thought
5. Add the introduction and conclusion
6. Write down and pray over your message

In each section, Stott gives advice that would be familiar to any Robinson devotee, however, there are a number of highlights. One concerns the meditation on a text, and Stott quotes Spurgeon, “…let us, dear brethren, try to get saturated with the gospel. I always find that I can preach best when I can manage to lie asoak in my text .... and then, after I have bathed in it, I delight to lie down in it, and let it soak into me.”

Stott also provides some direct advice on how to use words, and what kind of words to use. The preacher ought to keep her words simple, and not commit ‘verbicide’ (the murder of words), to use C. S. Lewis’ term. Words should be vivid, conjuring up images, and honest. Say what you mean, and do not over-inflate words by overuse of superlatives. C. S. Lewis’ advice: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’, otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

The concluding chapter of Stott’s book focuses on courage and humility. On courage, Stott highlights Phillips Brooks speaking out against being enslaved by popular opinion:

Courage is the indispensable requisite of any true ministry … If you are afraid of men and a slave to their opinion, go and do something else. Go and make shoes to fit them. Go even and paint pictures which you know are bad but which suit their bad taste. But do not keep on all your life preaching sermons which shall not say what God sent you to declare, but what they hire you to say. Be courageous. Be independent.

What encouraging words to the preacher! And what a challenge as well. We require the courage to speak the truth, and also the humility which combats pride. Lest we begin to feel arrogant, we must submit ourselves to God’s Word, we strive to achieve “visible invisibility” as we preach, and we depend on the Holy Spirit and His power. It is a fitting end to a book on preaching.