Stephen J. Tracey
Pulpit Aflame: Essays in Honor of Stephen J. Lawson, edited by Joel R. Beeke and Dustin W. Benge, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016, 188 pages, $25.00, hardcover and ePub.
Our Larger Catechism asks in Q. 158, “By whom is the Word of God to be preached?” and answers, “The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.” I often find myself chewing on the phrase “sufficiently gifted”—usually with regard to myself, and usually on a Saturday evening, or Monday morning. The contributors to Pulpit Aflame are gifted preachers, and in seeking to improve the gift of preaching it is profitable to listen to their reflections on preaching. These reflections are clouded only by the inclusion of a chapter by the late Iain D. Campbell, bringing to mind our grief for him and the grief caused by him.
This is a beautiful little book. The hardcover edition is beautifully produced on quality paper with an excellent binding. Of course, the binding may be a reflection of the fact that it is a collection of essays in honor of someone: a cheaply produced recycled paper edition would not reflect much honor. But the true beauty of the book lies not in the binding, nor even the honor it pays to Mr. Lawson (though I am sure that is deserved), but instead lies in the honor it gives to the place of preaching in the life of the Christian and the church.
Following a foreword by Ian Hamilton, Dustin W. Benge outlines the ministry of Steven J. Lawson. The remainder of the book is divided into four parts, dealing with the mandate, meaning, motivation, and method of preaching. Part 1, “The Mandate of Preaching,” has essays by John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, and Joel Beeke. Part 2, “The Meaning of Preaching,” contains essays by R. Albert Mohler Jr., Derek W. H. Thomas, and Sinclair B. Ferguson. Part 3, “The Motivation of Preaching,” includes essays by Robert Godfrey, John J. Murray, and Michael A. G. Haykin. Concluding the volume, Part 4, “The Method of Preaching,” has essays by Iain D. Campbell, Geoffrey Thomas, and Conrad Mbewe.
Sinclair Ferguson’s reflections on Preaching as Worship provide the marrow of the whole matter. “Through the ministry of the Spirit, preaching is worship and also evokes worship” (89). Expanding on this, he reflects on two points: first, Christ’s role in preaching and worship, and second, the implications of this for the preacher and his preaching. The implications are telling. “No one sits ‘under’ my preaching more than I do if I am the preacher” (98). Furthermore, “Worship is the expression of the whole person, and thus, to a great extent, involves the affections” (99). This reveals something of the power of his own preaching, and his improving of the gifts given to him.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. has a powerful chapter on Preaching as Exposition. He argues that “the preaching that is central to Christian worship is expository preaching” (62). He means that “preaching must always derive its message from a passage of the Bible” (62). I would have thought that was obvious, but alas, Mohler demonstrates the lamentable fact that the “therapeutic concerns of the culture too often set the agenda for evangelical preaching” (62). The proclamation of the Word of the living God to people who would rather hear stories about themselves is an issue of life or death.
Geoffrey Thomas, having preached from the same pulpit for over fifty years, begins “Building the Sermon” with a reminder that our task is to build up the people of God, “in fact, to make every effort to excel in gifts that build up the church (1 Cor. 14:12)” (159). He draws a vivid picture of preaching as the way to bring people into the building. Starting with the path that leads to the house of God (the preacher), he takes us to the door (the text), the hallway (the introduction to the sermon), the living room (the place where people are dealt with personally), and finally to the dining room (“where together affectionately we eat”). It is a beautifully written chapter, with the insights of a gifted and faithful preacher. Most moving is his brief description of the last occasion Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached in Wales. Thomas says, “It was all over too soon, an hour disappearing like a watch in the night. And then we sang with all our hearts a great Welsh hymn tune” (167). I wish I had been there. God was there. Such is the power of the preached Word.
Conrad Mbewe reflects on “Delivering the Sermon” by asking the question, “What is it about the delivery of the sermon that makes it so powerful and puts it in a class of its own when compared to all other forms of live audio communication?” (173). The answer, of course is the Holy Spirit. Yet the Holy Spirit chooses to work through the preacher: our emotions, voice, gestures, and eye contact. Delivery is important: there must be earnestness, and the responsible use of our body in the service of the King. God can work freely without these things, and often does. I periodically remind myself that God can speak through a donkey. Yet we are more than that. God gives gifts to preachers and then gifts these preachers to his church. We are to improve our gifts by using them; by conscientiously remembering “to fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Tim. 1:6).
I hope these few points are enough to whet the appetite for this book. I expected that this would be a book to be read once, and then shelved. I was wrong. The contributors are themselves aflame with a passion for preaching. The sparks from their passion are infectious and encouraged me to keep fanning the flame. All praise to God.
Stephen J. Tracey is serving as the pastor of Lakeview Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Rockport, Maine. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2017.