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A Word to Those Who Preach the Word

It has been a couple of months since I’ve had the privilege of preaching, and I am looking forward to stepping into the pulpit again a couple of weeks from now. It is always a joy and always a weighty responsibility. In reading Kent Hughes’ commentary on Isaiah I was challenged by his “Word to Those Who Preach the Word”—his preface to the Preach the Word commentary series for which he serves as general editor. It’s a powerful meditation on the pleasure of God in preaching.

There are times when I am preaching that I have especially sensed the pleasure of God. I usually become aware of it through the unnatural silence. The ever-present coughing ceases and the pews stop creaking, bringing an almost physical quiet to the sanctuary—through which my words sail like arrows. I experience a heightened eloquence, so that the cadence and volume of my voice intensify the truth I am preaching.

There is nothing quite like it—the Holy Spirit filling one’s sails, the sense of his pleasure, and the awareness that something is happening among one’s hearers. This experience is, of course, not unique, for thousands of preachers have similar experiences, even greater ones.

What has happened when this takes place? How do we account for this sense of his smile? The answer for me has come from the ancient rhetorical categories of logos, ethos and pathos.

The first reason for his smile is the logos—in terms of preaching, God’s Word. This means that as we stand before God’s people to proclaim his Word, we have done our homework. We have exegeted the passage, mined the significance of its words in their context, and applied sound hermeneutical principles in interpreting the text so that we understand what its words meant to its hearers. And it means that we have labored long until we can express in a sentence what the theme of the text is—so that our outline springs from the text. Then our preparation will be such that as we preach, we will not be preaching our own thoughts about God’s Word, but God’s actual Word, his logos. This is fundamental to pleasing him in preaching.

The second element in knowing God’s smile in preaching is ethos—what you are as a person. There is a danger endemic to preaching, which is having your hands and heart cauterized by holy things. Phillips Brooks illustrated it by the analogy of a train conductor who comes to believe that he has been to the places he announces because of his long and loud heralding of them. And that is why Brooks insisted that preaching must be “the bringing of truth through personality.” Though we can never perfectly embody the truth we preach, we must be subject to it, long for it, and make it as much a part of our ethos as possible. As the Puritan William Ames said, “Next to the Scriptures, nothing makes a sermon more to pierce, than when it comes out of the inward affection of the heart without any affectation [pretence].” When the preacher’s ethos back’s up his logos, there will be the pleasure of God.

Last, there is pathos—personal passion and conviction. David Hume, the scottish philosopher and skeptic, was once challenged as he was seen going to hear George Whitefield preach: “I thought you do not believe in the gospel.” Hume replied, “I don’t, but he does.” Just so! When a preacher believes what he preaches, there will be passion. And this belief and requisite passion will know the smile of God.

The pleasure of God is a matter of logos (the Word), ethos (what you are), and pathos (your passion). As you preach the Word may you experience his smile—the Holy Spirit in your sails!

R. Kent Hughes