It might seem a bit strange to be pleading for a gentler, more compassionate element in preaching, at a time when ‘love’, ‘grace’ and warm, fuzzy notions of ‘community’ appear to be emphasised, above all else, in many contemporary pulpits.
Indeed, the doctrines of sin, judgement, and the necessity for repentance, are often excluded almost entirely from the majority of sermons. People have to be made to feel good about themselves, the argument goes. So, never has the need for a powerful declaration of biblical truth, both law and gospel, been more urgently required.
However, I have been disturbed recently by hearing the stories of several friends — Christians of long standing — who have left Reformed churches because of the severity and harshness of the preaching.
Worn down and crushed by many years of this kind of preaching, they have even, in some cases, come to doubt that they were ever saved at all. Unable to take any more, and broken in spirit, they have sought refuge in lively, contemporary churches, where they have felt loved and welcomed.
The worship style may not be quite to their taste, but they no longer feel beaten down by the sermons. These friends are amongst the truest and most genuine Christians I have ever met, and I am saddened that they have made such a choice. What characterises them all is a tender conscience that constantly examines itself for traces of sin, and an allied propensity to lack assurance.
In his book Spiritual depression: its causes and cure, Martyn Lloyd-Jones identified a category of people temperamentally more prone to this danger: introverts who can easily slide from self-examination into morbid introspection. But he also asserts that these are ‘quite often the people who stand out most gloriously in the history of the Church’, listing such luminaries as Jeremiah, John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, Martin Luther and Henry Martyn.
We need to be on our guard if we recognise ourselves to be this kind of person, says Lloyd-Jones, and, like David in Psalm 42, exhort our own hearts, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted in me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance’.
Tenderness and balance
But we could also do with some help from our pastors, especially when they are making sermon applications. J. C. Philpot, the famous nineteenth century ‘seceder’, according to his son, was one who needed to learn this lesson. In his earlier years as a preacher, Philpot senior had ‘not yet learnt to temper valiancy with discretion, nor to speak comfortably to the weaker brethren’ (J. H. Philpot, The seceders, Banner of Truth).
As a student of the puritans, I am struck by the balance in their sermons, as they demonstrate an awareness and sensitivity to the different types and stages of people in their congregations.
Along with direct challenge to sinners, and rebuke to the presumptuous and hypocrites, there was often too a particular application to those of ‘tender conscience’ or weak faith. Here there was loving encouragement and comfort for those who needed it.
Arthur Hildersham, for example, when expounding John 4:25-26, includes a ‘use’ or application for the comfort of ‘such as unfeignedly fear God, and desire nothing more than to know his will that they obey it’ (Arthur Hildersham, Lectures on the Fourth of John, 1632 edn, p.215). He saw that many of these people were often in ‘great doubts and perplexities’ and could not be certain of their salvation, so he directed a special application to them.
In the second part of his Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan introduces the character of Mr Fearing, a man of tender conscience whose ‘fear was about his acceptance at last’. Great Heart, the guide to the pilgrims, explained that ‘men of my calling [i.e. ministers of the gospel] are oftentimes entrusted with the conduct of such as he was’.
Great Heart willingly accepted this trust, ‘for my Master, you must know, is of very tender bowels, especially to them that are afraid’. And, he went on, ‘I never had any doubt about him [Mr Fearing]; he was a man of choice spirit, only he was always kept very low, and that made his life so burdensome to himself, and so troublesome to others. He was, above many, tender of sin’.
But remarkably, when Mr Fearing came to die, and cross over to the Celestial City, Great Heart reports that ‘the water of that river was lower at this time than ever I saw it in all my life’. God’s tender mercy to his fearing lamb extended to the end.
It is sad when tender lambs feel forced to find another flock where the under-shepherd is less harsh. It is sad too when pastors have no time for these lambs, regarding them as needy and requiring excessive pastoral input and constant encouragement.
But Christ’s commission to Peter to ‘feed my lambs’ must surely include the weak, tender and faltering members of his flock, as well as those of a more robust spiritual constitution.
Dr Rowe is an associate fellow in history at the University of Warwick, and author of The life and times of Arthur Hildersham: prince among Puritans (Reformation Heritage Books, 2013).
Editor’s note: Dr Rowe has bravely identified an issue that all Reformed preachers should reflect on. Is not part of the answer to, above all, preach Christ — in all his glory, fulness and love — rather than just the duties of the Christian life?