Theory Of The Message Chapter

The Effectiveness of the Message arises from the Completeness with

which it Meets the Needs of Men. We believe that the Measure of the

Gospel is the Measure of Man's Spiritual and Moral Necessity, and we

plead for a Full Statement thereof in order that it may Prove its

"Power unto Life."

What are the Essential Notes of the Message?


br /> The Note of Accusation.

In a purely heathen country the first business of the preacher must

naturally be concerned with the publication of the great historical

facts upon which the Christian faith is based. In such a land as ours,

where these facts are already the subject of common knowledge, his

first service to every soul to whom he is sent is to bring home the

truth of that soul's condition and necessity. It is not a pleasant

task. It is not an easy one. It forms a duty from which we

instinctively shrink, but no ministry is complete in which it is

neglected. No ministry that is incomplete can be effective and


Now an examination of the history of preaching will reveal to us that

all the great preachers have been examples of faithfulness concerning,

not only the softer, but also the sterner portions of their message.

Before us are the Hebrew prophets. By them was Israel arraigned at the

bar of God. Could anything be more fearful than the indictment they

laid? Kings, priests, councillors and commoners--against them all was

the testimony maintained. "Art thou he that troublest Israel?" asks a

conscience-stricken monarch of the seer from Mount Gilead. Troublers

of Israel they were, exposing, denouncing, declaring judgment against

evil doers. Such was their mission. Troublers of Israel, they were

sent to be.

After the prophets, when, at last, the fulness of time began to dawn,

he appeared who was to be the great herald of the Redeemer. "In those

days came John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and

saying, Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." John, too,

was an accuser. Hark, how he addresses the Pharisees; how he speaks of

"the axe laid at the root of the tree!" Once more did Israel hear of

her rebellion and transgression. Again was the veil torn from her

heart, the trappings of ceremonialism, the rags of hypocrisy. Again

were men made to tremble by warning of the doom about to break.

Wonderfully effective this ministry seems to have been--"Then went out

to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan,

and were baptized of him in Jordan confessing their sins." To the

preacher came martyrdom, and that as the direct consequence of his

faithfulness. It is dangerous to play the accuser at the foot of the

throne, and for this, in the lone dungeon of Machaerus, the Baptist

dies, but not until He whom he announced, and of whom the law and the

prophets did speak, has lifted up His voice to preach to the nations

and the ages. To the world came Jesus also as an accuser, and such

accusations were His as men had never heard--accusations founded upon

an infinite knowledge of mankind, on an infinite hatred of sin, on a

perfect vision of the end of all wrong-doing. To convince and convict

the world--for this first of all was He made flesh. Over the land

His "Woe unto you" rang out as the thunder of a divine sentence,

blanching the cheek and smiting the soul with shame and fear. For this

testimony He died.

And after He had ascended up on high the apostles carried on this

accusing work. Knowing "the terrors of the law" they persuaded men.

As Paul "reasoned of righteousness, temperance and judgment to come,

Felix trembled." To him the prisoner of that memorable day spoke as

the representative of outraged deity. In his voice the hardened Consul

heard the echo of his own disregarded conscience, and was reminded of

his "more perfect knowledge of that way" which would one day make all

the deeper the blackness of his condemnation. The joints of his

harness were undone.

And so in that time of beginnings was set forth for all after years on

the stage of that Eastern land the pattern of Gospel preaching, and its

great copyists in all subsequent generations have come forth bearing,

as their first word to men, the message of accusation. "All have

sinned and come short of the glory of God;" such has been their opening

announcement. Sin is rebellion against God; such has been their

all-embracing definition. "The soul that sinneth it shall die;"--this

"certain fearful looking for of judgment" they have held up before

mankind. "Thou art the man!" has been the constant challenge of the

Christian ambassador. It would be an interesting employment to journey

back across the past and listen for this note as it fell from the lips

of the great preachers of bygone ages. Our own Connexional fathers,

however, as the figures most familiar to our minds, may remind us how

faithful the pulpit used to be in the execution of this hard task.

Some of us are old enough to remember as common, a phrase which now we

hear only occasionally and in the out of the way corners of our Church.

It was the expression "black sermon" as descriptive of a discourse in

which the sterner side of the revelation was enunciated. Such sermons

in those days formed part of every preacher's armoury. They were

sermons of accusation; sermons about sin; sermons diagnostic of the

state of the human heart. In these discourses the sinner was assailed

through the gateway of his fears. The old preachers believed there was

such a place as Hell, and said so,--sometimes with a great wealth of

staking, figurative language which was perhaps used less symbolically

than literally. They believed in a final and general judgment in which

the dead, small and great, with such as shall be then living upon the

earth, will be called to stand before the Great White Throne to give an

account of the deeds done in the body. Clearly did they see this

coming day and clearly did they proclaim that at any time its terrors

may break upon a careless and prayerless world. Some of them gained

celebrity by the vigour and colour of their descriptions. In the North

of England they still speak of the sermon with which Joseph Spoor

transported multitudes into the circumstances of that awful hour. Hugh

Bourne, it is well known, gave himself to this kind of preaching to a

degree which has made his name the more to be remembered on its

account. His language was literal indeed! To our mind, at the moment

of writing, returns something of the emotion with which in the days of

boyhood we listened to a sermon on "The Pale Horse and his Rider" from

a local preacher not long since passed to his reward. Another

discourse on "The Swellings of Jordan" has been with us vividly, though

forty years have flown since we heard it in a tiny chapel among the

Northern hills. We can remember, too, an expression now used no more,

but which we have often heard as part of the final appeal with which

such sermons were wont to close. "My friends," the preacher would say,

"I have cleared myself this day of your blood." Sometimes this

declaration would be followed by a challenge in which the ungodly of

the congregation were called to meet the preacher, "on that day when

the books shall be opened and the secrets of all hearts shall be

disclosed," there and then to bear witness of his guiltlessness as to

their damnation. It was very terrible, no doubt, very harrowing, and

often as unpleasant to listen to as to utter, but such preaching was

justified by its results. Many a sinner trembled as his heart was

opened before him. Many a strong man broke into cries and tears as he

saw himself a rebel against divine justice and mercy. Many an one

smote upon his breast in terror as the veil of the future was lifted,

and he saw himself standing guilty before the last tribunal, and

praying for the mountains to fall and hide him from the eyes of an

angry God. In our time, however, such preaching has become a

tradition. It might be centuries since it was a fashion in the land,

for hardly does its echo reach our ears to-day. And concerning this

fact there emerges a curious thing. Confessedly the effect of such

preaching was often the offending of the hearer. It has ever been

so--was so, as we have seen, with the prophets; the apostles; the Lord

Himself--and yet there is complaint when accusation and warning are

withheld, and that, strangely, from the very people who would probably

protest the most against it. It is said, even by these very people,

that nowadays the preacher does not hurt; that he fails to find the

conscience. The fact is, there exists in the heart of man an

instinctive expectation that the messenger of God will do these things.

It is one of the criticisms of to-day that sternness has died out of

theology. The preacher is no longer the representative of a judge;

no longer in God's stead the accuser of men. In every age the Church

displays favouritism in her doctrinal attachments. In our time it is

the doctrine of the divine Fatherhood of which the most is heard. This

were well if the whole truth were told; but what manner of fatherhood

is that of which we all too often hear? A fatherhood of colossal good

nature, of blind, of foolish, indulgence; a conception of paternal

wisdom and affection against which the conscience of the thoughtful

instinctively revolts. The man in the street is not satisfied, and

never will be satisfied, with a merely sentimental God. Some day,

perhaps, it may be discovered that he is outside the churches, not

because preaching, asking too much, has made him afraid, but because

preaching, asking too little, has left him contemptuous.

And how has the change come to pass? Some say that the lack of the

hour is a sense of sin. This sense, they tell us, has been lost as a

result of our theorising about the origin of moral evil. There are

some, indeed, who talk as if the tragedy of sin was not really a

tragedy at all, but actually a blessing in disguise. We have been

assured that the only hope for humanity lay in a moral fall which had

to come to pass that the race might achieve its destiny through its

experience of what is only called "wrong-doing," and of the suffering

resulting from it. Only by this rugged and shadowed road, so are we

informed, can we ever come to perfection and reach the golden age for

which our hearts are sighing. Others see in sin a proof that man is

struggling to be better. They regard his transgression as a hopeful

symptom of divine discontent. Many do see tragedy in it all, but the

blame lies otherwhere than with the transgressor. Sin grows less

terrible, but more hopeless, as they talk about heredity, as they

transfer the responsibility from the criminal to his circumstances, his

education, the conditions of his life or the state of society. Not a

sentence of punishment but a vote of sympathy should crime evoke if all

that is said along such lines be true.

But not in any one of these things, nor in all of them put together,

lies the whole reason of our modern tenderness in dealing with sin.

Even preaching has its fashions, and he is a bold man who dares to

disregard the prevailing mode. The convention of the time may decide

that it is not quite "the correct thing" to lay too much emphasis on

the harder teaching of the Christian belief. Whether unpopular with

the people or not, this teaching may be unpopular with the preachers.

We do not speak of these unpleasant things, for why be singular in

direful prophecy? Of some preachers, to summarise, we will say that

their need is a recovery of the sense of sin; of others that a deepened

consciousness of every man's power to triumph over his inherited

tendencies, his circumstances, his training and the temptations of his

age, must precede the return of success. To others we would venture a

reminder that the preacher might, perhaps, be all the better for a

little more personal independence, and for the realisation that he is

not responsible only to men for the manner in which his work is done,

but to Him who sent him out to preach the whole message of His heart.

The thing for the preacher to do is to learn the truth and tell it,

even though it be bitter to the hearer and bitterer to himself; even

though it make short work of social respectability and conventional

religiosity, bringing the blush of shame to the cheek and setting the

pulses throbbing with the fear of the lightnings of God.

Faithfulness, then, is essential to the completeness of the

message--faithfulness as to the true condition of the soul and its

position in the sight of God. As Samuel stood before Saul in that

fateful hour when the king, having disobeyed the commandments of the

Lord, had brought of the sheep and of the oxen which he should have

utterly destroyed; as the prophets, the apostles, the Master alike

lifted up their witness against a corrupt and stiff-necked people, so

the preacher of to-day must bear his testimony against the sins of men;

must pronounce the penalties of ungodliness. A revelation of the

transgression of the individual, of the lost state of every soul out of

Christ, are part of the Word received from Him who sent him. This

declaration must not concern the individual alone. To the age, also,

he has a message of kindred truth. The pulpit is erected as a witness

against the generations as they come and go. It is by the preacher

that Jesus Christ speaks to successive centuries. He is the true

oracle of God. Against the carelessness, the covetousness, the

debauchery and corruption of the nations, God would speak through him.

Against the oppression of the poor, the robbery of the widow, the

exploitation of the savage; against the crimes of the empires, the

Almighty, through his lips, would make His anger known. He has done so

often and often. Again and again has the preacher turned back the

tides of national iniquity, again and again prevented the wrongful

purpose upon which a people had set its heart. The need is with us

still. This warning and accusing note of sternness must be regained.

To tell men of their sins and that they are lost unless God delivers

them; to tell the age of its iniquities and that the sure end of

national vice is national destruction--here is our work to-day.

So there needs something in the nature of a reversion to the methods of

days that are no more. Yet a full return to the mode of our fathers

is impossible. Let this be acknowledged frankly and fully and at once.

Those "black sermons" to which we listened forty years ago can never be

preached again. The day has gone, at least within the area of

civilisation, for painting flaming pictures of hell, for realistic and

horrible descriptions of the tortures of the damned. That kind of

thing has had its day and can be done no more. Preachers could not do

it; hearers would not hear it. The misfortune has been that the

passing of our fathers' methods has not been followed by the discovery

of others in which the truth they conveyed could be expressed in forms

more suitable to different times. Even the man outside the Church has

left behind him the literal understanding of those old figures of

speech. Few now think of heaven as our grandsires thought of it; few

imagine hell as they imagined it. Yet is there still a heaven; yet is

there still a hell.

And, hard as it is to write it, it is to the preaching of hell that we

must return--the hell of degradation and of loss and of sure

retribution. That hell is the latter state to which every path of

wrong-doing leads with the inevitability of eternal law. Sin is hell

in the making. Hell is sin found out, perhaps, alas, too late. This

word is needed in our churches this very day.

It is needed, it was recently suggested to us, especially by our young

people. With good reason the churches are all anxious as to the young

people, so many of whom, alas! show a disposition to leave the temples

of their fathers. It cannot be said that the Church has not done her

best along certain lines to keep the coming generation at home. Older

men and women have been heard to murmur that too much has been done for

the young person's sake, too many things sacrificed. Religion has been

made very easy--too easy, it is said. Unpleasant demands have been

kept, it is suggested, too much in the background. We all know parents

who confess that their children are permitted to do things at home of

which they, the parents, disapprove, lest they should go elsewhere and

do worse. It is alleged that the same thing often happens in the

Church for the same reason. Ah! you must be careful what you say lest

you offend the young! This is an indulgent, a good-natured, a

compromising time. Behind this solicitude the best reasons lie, but is

there no danger to these young people in all this amiability? Is it

quite impossible for a young man to be put in peril by our very

anxiety to save him?

Yes, there is such a possibility. It arises when we shrink from that

plainness of speech which is, after all, friendship's best service. Is

it not better to offend, even to wound deeply, than to speak only the

smoother things, however kindly the intent, and, so speaking, fail to

produce that great renunciation, that strengthening of bands, that

strong grasp of the Eternal which alone mean safety in future years?

We know that the whole question is encompassed with difficulties. It

is hard to write it, but the best friends of the young are not always

those preachers who are most tender concerning their feelings.

And not for the sake of the young only is this note of sternness

needed. It may be recalled that, some time ago, the columns of a

well-known religious weekly contained a discussion as to which are

morally the most perilous years of a man's life. The conclusion

reached therein was startling, but bore the test of reflection. We

have generally assumed that "the dangerous years" are those of early

manhood, the years that lie between leaving school and marriage. In

those years the youth has probably left the Sunday School behind him,

probably hangs only loosely to the Church. He feels the vigour of his

young manhood stirring within him. He is drinking his first draughts

of the wine of life. Restraints are being relaxed and companionships

are being formed, while there is a sense of freedom almost intoxicating

in its exhilaration. These are the days that we have commonly

described as the most perilous of life.

Probably, however, we have been wrong in this conclusion. In the

discussion referred to it was contended, perhaps established, that the

period of greatest moral and spiritual danger lies a score or more

years further along the road. From forty to fifty, and nearer fifty

than forty, was maintained to be the fateful age. Youth has innocence,

ambition, enthusiasm, ideals. Youth has generous impulses, has not yet

been soured by disappointments, has not yet found out the cynicism of

the world, has not become infected by the canker of covetousness. It

has made no enemies, is not corrupted by success, is not daunted by

failure. A score of years later some or all of these things will have

happened to a man. Harder has become the world, fiercer the battle in

which he is engaged, lower burn the fires of life; enthusiasm has faded

as grey hairs have come. These are the perilous years.

There is one thing the preacher must never forget:--That the men and

women before him go in constant peril from temptation. Not of the

avowedly non-Christian only is this true, but of all. Yonder man,

known for his respectability, his regular attendance at the sanctuary,

falters, perhaps, this very day on the crumbling edge of a moral

precipice. Ever and anon some one is missed from the means of grace.

Where is he? Hush! Tell it softly and with tears. He has fallen who

but recently bade so fairly to carry his cross to the summit of the

hill. Can it be that he fell because in the House of Prayer no voice

warned him? Can it be that he has committed the greater sin because no

reproof was whispered in his ear concerning the beginnings of

transgression? Was there no message committed to the preacher for that

man as he drew near the parting of the ways? Did the messenger

suppress the truth because it was hard to utter?

What, then, is it that is asked? Not, of course, a ministry of

continual denunciation, of constant reproach, of endless

accusation--not that, but a ministry in which the witness shall be not

one-sided but complete. Let us hear, if you please, of the sweeter

things; tell us again, and again, of that divine Fatherhood in which

must be our final trust; whisper in our cars of the gentleness of God

and the infinite tenderness of His Son; but tell us all, for so

wayward are we, so presumptuous, so prone to go astray that we need to

hear of chastisement as well as mercy. We must be reminded that "the

way of transgressors is hard" as well as of the blessing that the Lord

has in His heart for us.

To the preacher, then, we would say:--Here is a task which must not be

neglected however hard it be. The word should be a hammer to break, a

sword to pierce, an arrow in the heart. Here is something for us all

to do:--To cultivate the arts of the counsel for the prosecution. In

the exercise of those arts all our knowledge of human nature, all

possible learning in the word will be needed to their very last

syllable. It is not true that any one is qualified to wave the lamp

that shall reveal the pitfall in the path of the over-confident

disciple. He must be a wise physician who has to diagnose the sickness

of the soul. He must be a lawyer learned in the law who has to explain

the position of the rebel before his flouted Sovereign. He must have

larger skill than most who has to bring home the broken will of God to

the soul. A reflection, more important still, has yet to be suggested.

For this work the preacher will need to be a man of holiness, for,

though he speak to his brother only as a fellow-sinner saved by Grace,

he must speak as one who has escaped from bonds. Thus comes character

into the business. "Woe is me," said the prophet, called to witness

against the transgression of Judah, "for I am a man of unclean lips."

Only by prayer, by the cleansing of the fountain, by sustaining grace

shall we be sufficient for these things. For this manner of preaching

one man alone can ascend into the hill of the Lord:--"He that hath

clean hands and a pure heart, and hath not lifted up himself unto

vanity, nor sworn deceitfully."