Cambridge, England near the bus station stands Emmanuel College. Stone walls
surround the college, but inside is a courtyard manicured like a golf course.
In 1705 William Law entered that college. The fourth of eight children, William
grew up in a Christian home, experienced death because four of his siblings
died, and learned about human nature from his father who worked as a grocer.
I imagine him as a young man walking the streets of Cambridge one Sunday, on
the way to church to hear the preaching of God’s Word.
studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and the Scriptures. He became a preacher of the
Gospel in the Anglican Church in 1711. He wrote books which influenced the lives
and preaching of preachers like John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield.
He wrote his most significant work in 1728: A Serious Call to a Devout and
Holy Life.1 The book set forth the importance of God’s
call, the holiness of life in Christ, and the virtue of humility as basic to
Christianity. Law’s work contributes to the life of a preacher, too. His work
overviews four elements to prepare the preacher’s heart for preaching.
to preach in the spirit of devotion.
Law calls for the servant of God to ‘be everywhere in the spirit of devotion,
with hearts always set towards heaven” (p. 41). Finding a text in preaching
often proves the preacher’s most daunting task. In the context of selecting
a Biblical text, the preacher does two important things: possesses a spirit
of devotion to Christ; sets the heart toward heaven. In the spirit of devotion
the preacher seeks God’s face.
tendency might be to think of earth: financial troubles; family struggles; issues
of grief; news of war; stock market ups and downs; and job lay offs. Law commends
the preacher’s preparation by focusing upon God’s work and heaven in the Biblical
the heart and mind before preaching.
preached and formed his theology in a day of moral collapse. He denounced sin
as a destructive force in the heart, in the family, and in society. Forever
the preacher’s task calls for denouncing sin and declaring Christ as the liberator
from sin. Where does such preaching begin?
Law maintained that the first task of God’s servants does not require lexicons,
Greek studies, commentary work in textual analysis for preaching, or an understanding
of human nature for application. The preacher’s first task is to look within
the preacher’s own heart before preaching. He says the preacher must endeavor
“to subdue, root out of his mind all those passions of pride, envy, and
ambition which religion opposes. . .” (p. 105). Power in preaching comes
long before the act of preaching takes place. It comes in preparation of the
preacher’s own heart through confession of sin and a cleansing of the mind.
How often do you prepare your heart for cleansing in preaching’s preparation?
down to preach: Pray, Read
preacher knows that preaching requires speaking at a pace which hearers can
understand. Preachers work for years to develop a good rate of speech to make
it easier for the listeners to understand what is preached, say, approximately
150 words a minute. Do preachers, however, pace the soul in preparation for
preaching? Do they slow down to listen to God?
Law asserts “…how poorly must they perform their devotions, who are always
in a hurry; who begin them in haste and hardly allow themselves time to repeat
their very form with any gravity and attention!” (p. 155). Law’s advice
to the preacher is to slow down; listen to God; take preaching seriously and
pay attention to God’s voice in His Word!
advises two key elements in the listening phase of preparation: prayer and spiritual
reading. Law sustains preaching through prayer: “The devout Christian must
at this time look upon himself as called upon by God to renew his acts of prayer,
and address himself again to the throne of grace” (p. 184). Prayer creates
renewal in the preacher’s soul and a nearness to God. Law observes, “Prayer
is the nearest approach to God and the highest enjoyment of Him that we are
capable of in this life” (p. 146). Prayer guides our interpretation of
the Biblical text. It also tills the soil of the preacher’s soul.
reading, or lectio divina as the ancients called it, also speaks to the preacher’s
soul. William Law says the preacher “must continually be reading”
and gleaning from all spiritual authors. He asks the question in the context
of reading, “And is it not reasonable for him who desires to improve in
the Divine life, that is, in the love of heavenly things, to search after every
strain of devotion that may move, kindle, and inflame the holy ardor of his
soul?” (p. 164).
spiritual books open the preaching mind to new ideas. Novels open the preaching
eye to human nature. Commentaries open the preacher’s voice to a clearer understanding
of Biblical passages. John Wesley once lamented, “Either read or get out
of the ministry!” Reading speaks to the heart of preaching. It improves
preaching. It serves as one way to listen to the Divine (divina) voice. Prayer
and spiritual reading overflow from the sermon to hearers when the sermon is
never removes its eyes from the cross.
the preacher speaks eye contact with the hearers becomes essential to good communication.
While the preacher makes eye contact with the congregation, the preacher never
forgets the cross of Christ. A devotion to Christ precedes a devotion to preaching.
William Law concurs, “The Christian’s greatest conquest over the world
is all contained the mystery of Christ upon the cross.” Law notes the preacher’s
challenge: to unlearn many things in seeking Christ and to surrender to Christ
in the spirit of humility (p. 194). A serious call to devout and holy preaching
requires a serious cry for the cross.
the words of one of Cambridge’s most devoted preachers, “There is nothing
that so powerfully governs the heart, that so strongly excites us to wise and
reasonable actions, as a true sense of God’s presence” (p. 290). Devotion
to Christ electrifies the preacher’s heart with God’s presence. Devotion changes
the preacher’s heart. Devotion challenges the listener’s heart. Devotion comforts
the listener’s heart with God’s presence.
a world of pain and war, of the NBA tip off for a new season and gambling addictions,
of marital strains and economic uncertainties, the cross of Christ invites people
into God’s presence; in from the swirling storm and into a harbor of peace that
passes all understanding (Philippians 4:7). Why not dedicate yourself to the
serious call to a devout and holy life of serving and preaching the Christ of
John D. Duncan
is Pastor of Lakeside Baptist Church in Granbury, TX.
1 William Law,
A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (New York: Vintage Books, 2002).
The book is a reprint in the Vintage Spiritual Classics series. The page numbers
in this article come from Law’s work in the Vintage Spiritual Classics Edition.