Evangelical preaching

From Mark Noll’s The Rise of Evangelicalism:

The preaching that occasioned these conversions represented something new because its practitioners were intending to work directly on the affections and were aiming directly at life-transforming results. This preaching was sometimes provided by itinerants (Whitefield, Howell Harris and soon many imitators), sometimes by settled ministers (Daniel Rowland, Jonathan Edwards) but in all forms it sought not simply intellectual communication but also the responsive engagement of the whole person. The power of evangelical preaching lay in its depiction of a severe divine law and a capacious divine gospel.

This description is of the preaching that was beginning to take hold in England in 1739 and thereafter. What strikes me about this description is how we tend to divide the two things that Noll observes were joined. The very notion of a severe divine law is deeply contested today and often overtly criticized. It was so in the 18th century as well, at least to a degree. Wesley complained frequently about preachers who were all gospel and no law.

Have you heard preachers hold law and gospel together with skill and power? Is it needed today? Would it yield results?


10 thoughts on “Evangelical preaching

  1. Have you heard preachers hold law and gospel together with skill and power?
    Is it needed today?
    Would it yield results?
    If it is done intelligently …yes.
    At no time in history has the layperson had more information at their disposal then they have today.
    Every word can be analyzed. Every statement of fact can be checked. Every answer given can be critiqued.
    The lazy days of preaching is over. Just because a statement is made by a man or woman of the cloth does not, in today’s environment , mean it will be accepted as truth.

  2. Well, now, this one has me thinking as I prepare a service and message for this Sunday that has everything to do with the Good News, specifically as it relates to who to invite to luncheons and dinners (Luke 13: 1-14). I see this as an opportunity to demonstrate the openness of the Communion table.

    I don’t see grace as “cheap”. I see it as scandalously free. But I do understand the Spirit to be a convicting agent in the preaching of the Word and the need to include this part of the equation. But is not the law now fulfilled in Jesus Christ? and where it was once a stiff metal rod it has now been bent beautifully into a curve that better connects us with our creator? Take for example the laws of the Sabbath that Jesus specifically addresses in these passages of Luke that we have been dealing with by way of the lectionary for the past couple of weeks. The law remains, but in a different understanding.

    I confess that I preach more from the Gospel side and less from the law side. There are some motivating factors for this that can be explained another time. But as one who always finds the Good News in any passage I appreciate the reminder that comes with your post that there is another side to this that can not be ignored.

    1. I remember Paul’s frustration with the church in Romans 5:12 and Luther’s words .

      Know then, that the Old Testament is a book of laws, which teaches what we are to do and not to do and, in addition, gives examples and stories of how these laws are kept or broken, just as the New Testament is a Gospel or a book of grace and teaches whence one is to get the strength to fulfill the Law. But in the New Testament, along with the teaching about grace, many other teaching, laws, and directions for the ruling of the flesh are given, since in this life the spirit is not perfected and grace cannot rule alone.
      Introduction to the old testament (1523)

       Therefore, he who would correctly and profitably read Scripture should see to it that he finds Christ in it; then he finds life eternal without fail. On the other hand, if I do not so study and understand Moses and the prophets as to find that Christ came from heaven for the sake of my salvation, became man, suffered, died, was buried, rose, and ascended into heaven so that through Him I enjoy reconciliation with God, forgiveness of all my sins, grace, righteousness, and life eternal, then my reading in Scripture is of no help whatsoever to my salvation. I may, of course, become a learned man by reading and studying Scripture and preach what I have acquired; yet all this would do me no good whatever.
      Preached August 5, 1545,

      Luther saw Christ on every page of scripture, Old and New Testament.
      I think Wesley would agree.

    2. Blair, thank you for taking the time to comment and interact here.

      I hear everything you say. I often post and read things as much to remind myself as anything. Preachers always preach to themselves first, I think it is said.

      Wesley is helpful to me on this when he makes distinctions about audience. Among those who had never heard Methodist preaching, he suggested putting more emphasis on law with the gospel offered as a promise. For those converted and pressing on toward holiness, he said more gospel emphasis made sense to draw them onward, but never forgetting entirely the law.

      One thing about Wesley that I admire was how thoughtful he was about speaking to the needs of the people who heard him — not the “felt needs” but the spiritual needs. It is something I have a long way to go on.

  3. Blair, as you preach about grace and welcome to the table, it is also important to include the need to CHANGE and to live a holy life in response to the sacrificial love of Christ. Too often people simply leave it at “I’m OK and You’re OK”. That is NOT OK for a Christian, Wesleyan preacher.

    1. I have been studying a lot of Wesley’s writings and Luther’s writings on Law & Grace the last few weeks and comparing the two.
      What I walk away with is knowing these two men really got it. They understood.
      Kiss the philosophers good bye. 🙂

  4. My concern with the Anselmian gospel
    in which the problem is God’s perfectionism and not our self-justification is that it doesn’t seem to save us from putting on a performance of our piety analogous to the Pharisees in Matthew 6. When worship God’s severity, we come to identify holiness with severity and tend to measure the strength of our faith according to the distastefulness of the gospel we’re able to accept, which then becomes the badge of honor we wear. God’s law is a good law, not just good in the sense of being infinitely demanding but good in the sense of being infinitely benevolent. The question is whether goading people with the weight of God’s law is the best way to get them to despair of their self-sufficiency and throw themselves on the mercy of God. I’m not sure that Luther’s paradigm of despair and surrender is the only route to trusting in Jesus. Is it okay to preach a gospel that resonates with the fears and sensibilities of 21st century people if it gets them to the same place of trust and self-emptying? Because the point is not to become severe worshipers of a severe God. The point is to renounce “boasting” (self-justification) by putting our trust fully in Christ and being crucified together with Him so that we can become dependent vassals and dependable vessels of mercy (c.f. Romans 3:27-28, 1 Cor 1:27-29, Eph 2:8-10, James 2:12-13).

  5. What I have discovered, which is but a humble example, is the irony that postmodern audiences THIRST to hear the sin-condemning passages read and preached. And then to hear the REMEDY, as well. Without the one, the other doesn’t make historical sense.

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