Preaching: What's the Point?
- 2014 19 May
It was a couple of years ago now that I read George Marsden's great biography of Jonathan Edwards. As I read it I was often stopped short by Edwards' wisdom. Constantly surrounded by conflict, and often facing people who sought to undermine his ministry, Edwards had every opportunity to reflect on the task of a minister. One of these conflicts involved the question of whether sermons should primarily enlighten the mind or whether they should primarily stir the affections. Charles Chauncy, his opponent in this debate, believed that "an enlightened mind, and not raised affections, ought always be the guide of those who call themselves men; and this, in the affairs of religion, as well as other things." Chauncy, as with many men of his day, believed that the affections were closely related to the passions of one's animal nature and needed to be restrained by the higher faculty of reason. Intellect was on a higher plane than affection.
Edwards disagreed, teaching that one could not neatly separate the affections from the will. Both the intellect and affections are fallible and unreliable, he insisted, but both are given by God and ought to be exercised by the Christian.
Marsden points out an application of this. "Critics of the awakenings alleged that when people heard many sermons in one week they would not be able to remember much of what they had heard. Edwards countered, ‘The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by the effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.'" Marsden concludes, "Preaching, in other words, must first of all touch the affections" (Page 282).
I found this a great encouragement. Like every other Christian, I have often sat enraptured in church, having my mind filled and my affections stirred. But sometimes after arriving home I can barely remember a word that was said. The same is sometimes true of books, Bible studies and conferences. What was so meaningful at the time may be nearly forgotten only a short time later, leaving me to question if it was really so important in the first place. This is not to say that nothing sticks in my mind. Certainly I do remember a lot of what I hear and what I read. But when I consider a 500-page book or a series of eight addresses and compare what I read or what I heard to what I now remember, it can be awfully frustrating. It can be discouraging.
But, according to Edwards, if I were to worry in this way I would be placing too great an emphasis on intellect while downplaying the importance of affections. I independently reached a similar conclusion to this not so long ago, though unlike Edwards, my conclusions were based on necessity rather than being argued from Scripture. With the amount of conferences I attend and the number of books I read, I have had to have faith that God is working through them, even if I cannot remember the intimate details of a book or conference even only three short weeks after the fact. I've had to trust that the effort is not wasted, even if so much seems to fade away so quickly. I've had to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work behind the scenes, doing His work, even when I cannot easily measure any benefit. I've had to trust, and this has been a useful exercise to me.
The words of Edwards gave me confidence that the benefit of a book cannot be measured simply by how much I remember a week or two weeks or a month after reading it. The benefit of a sermon may be greater during the hearing of it than in the later reflections upon it. The benefit of a conference may be more in the hearing than in the recounting of it. God uses books, Bible studies, conferences and sermons not just to fill my mind, but also (and perhaps even primarily) to stir my affections, even if a frustrating amount of the benefit seems to fade away far too quickly.
I ran Edwards' quote through Google and found that others have discussed these words as well. I found one article particularly beneficial. Paul Lamey at Expository Thoughts applies them to taking notes during church. He also quotes Martyn Lloyd-Jones who wrote of Edwards, "The first and primary object of preaching is not only to give information. It is, as Edwards says, to produce an impression. It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently…. It is not primarily to impart information; and while you are writing your notes you may be missing something of the impact of the Spirit."
God was good to allow me to encounter these words. In the couple of years since I first read them, they have often resounded in my heart and given me confidence that the Spirit is at work when my affections are stirred and my heart longs for Him.
Tim Challies is a pioneer Christian blogger (www.challies.com) who serves as a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario, edits Discerning Reader and is also a co-founder of Cruciform Press.