R. C. Sproul has built an international ministry of writing and teaching through Ligonier Ministries, based in Orlando, Florida. A graduate of Westminster College, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and the Free University of Amsterdam, Sproul also serves as professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Reformed Theological Seminary’s Orlando campus. Author of many books and a frequent preacher in pulpits across America, Sproul recently visited with Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: One of your most recent books is entitled Doubt and Assurance. In our own day, doubt is one of the most pervasive senses that people have in this culture. How do you describe the work of the preacher in helping people deal with issues of doubt and providing assurance?
Sproul: You may remember the Congress on the Bible that was held several years ago in San Diego. I had been asked to give the wrap-up message that night and I spoke on the assurance of salvation. I did that because I had come to the conviction that the single most important issue in strengthening the Christian’s personal spiritual growth, development and sanctification is his assurance of salvation. The Bible commands us to make our calling and election assured — we are not to be wavering and tossed to and fro. Over the years I’ve thought a lot about that — personally, existentially and theologically. Unless I get that settled in my life as a Christian — that I am truly in a state of grace — I am open to every kind of paralysis that can afflict me. I have spent most of my ministry teaching not only theology but also apologetics, and as a Reformed theologian the question I get all the time is: “If you believe that election is something that’s established from the foundation of the world, why would you even bother with apologetics? Why waste any time on it — if a person is elect, they’re going to come to faith; and if they’re not, they’re not — so why should you be out there arguing for the truth of the Christian faith?”
The value of apologetics goes way beyond evangelism. It’s a real ministry to the Christian because the Christian lives his or her whole life echoing the apostolic words, “I believe Lord; help thou mine unbelief.” Our faith is never without the dross mixed in and it’s never pure. We are assailed by doubts from all different areas and it’s a daily thing.
So when the people gather in church on Sunday morning, their confidence level of faith is on a sliding scale, vacillating up and down. One of the key responsibilities of preaching is to strengthen faith, to encourage the believer, to bring them afresh before the Word of God and the comforting assurance that comes with the presence of the Spirit with the Word. So I think ministering to people’s doubts in preaching is a very important element.
Preaching: How do you see a pastor weaving apologetics into the total preaching ministry? In a few weeks many pastors will preach Easter sermons offering evidences for the resurrection — that is certainly a use of apologetics in the pulpit –but how do you move beyond that?
Sproul: I don’t know that there’s one ‘canned’ technique that can be used here but I can look at a couple of models in church history that I find helpful. Let me begin with an anti-model. You mentioned the Easter experience. We sing a hymn, “You ask me how I know He lives? … He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me … You ask me how I know He lives. He lives within my heart.” Well, if that’s the only reason I know He lives I don’t have any knowledge whatsoever, because the basic affirmation of the Easter message is that Christ lives apart from in my heart — He lives outside my heart; He really is alive. It’s not just the subjective feeling that makes my heart flutter now and then. It’s the reality. That reality, before it can ever move and stir the heart, first of all has to be grasped to some degree by the mind. So now we have the role of apologetics.
Look at two models from two great preachers. I would consider Jonathan Edwards the greatest preacher this nation has ever produced. Edwards had a standard pattern to his sermons; he would do basically three things in each of his sermons. The first part of his sermon was vigorous and thorough exposition and exegesis of the text from which he was preaching. That’s the central thrust of Edwards’ preaching: the text. But then he would always have a section on what we would call natural reason, which was corroborative for Edwards.
For example, when he wrote his masterpiece on original sin, he went through an exposition of the biblical texts that teach original sin. Then when he’s done with that he said, “Let’s suppose there was no Bible, How could we account for the universality of evil in the world? Nature itself reveals that there had to have been some kind of fall because sin is universal.” He would then give arguments from reason showing that he was not just appealing to a specific religious authority.
The third segment of his sermons was always practical application in which he would drive home the truth that he had just been developing. That’s Edwards and he’s usually considered out-of-date, archaic, anti-quated, and so on. Maybe that’s why great awakenings are anti-quated.
The other great preacher that I see who wove apologetics frequently into his preaching was Paul of Tarsus. His preaching began principally in the marketplace where he debated and dialogued every day, proclaiming Christianity. In the midst of it he would be giving the reasons why he believed. He would quote the Scriptures, as he did before Agrippa. He was preaching there when he was giving his defense; he appealed to the prophets before Agrippa, then he appealed to his own eye-witness experience. 1 Corinthians 15 is a masterpiece of the combination of an appeal to the Bible and an appeal to a logically reasoned case for the position he was describing. In this day and age we’ve become schizophrenic; logic is something that the devil does, logic is something that the unbeliever leans on, as if it’s unspiritual to think or reason. This is an anti-apologetic age. I live it every day.
Preaching: Edwards worked within a culture in which, though many of the people in the congregation may have been unconverted, there was a basic acceptance of at least the validity of Scripture. There was an appreciation, an honor and respect for Scripture. That is increasingly no longer present in American life.
Sproul: We can’t assume there’s a basic acceptance, that’s right.
Preaching: How does that impact on the particular approach that one takes in preaching, not simply in approaching the text but perhaps in the use of natural reason? Based on the kind of cultural setting in which we’re now working, how would you update Edwards’ approach?
Sproul: What I have done and what I would recommend is to look at the cultural situation in which we find ourselves. I recognize that it’s passe to appeal to reason and it’s also passe to appeal to the authority of the Bible. The image of Billy Graham standing up and saying “the Bible says … the Bible says … the Bible says” is considered useless in this day and age. Preachers are looking acutely at the current trends in the culture and trying to adjust our techniques and methods of communication to that culture in ways relevant to the modern situation.
In my judgment we’re living in the most anti-intellectual period in the history of the church. I don’t mean anti-science; I don’t mean anti-technology; I mean anti-mind. Preachers and others don’t want to engage the mind. We’re almost pathologically programming people to this anti-intellectual method through the use of television and other impressionistic media. Many spokesmen are saying you have to adjust to that situation, and that the worst approach to people today is a rational appeal or even a pure exegetical admonition from Scripture.
I’m going to be bold enough to say straight out, “Hey, I’m old enough, I’m ready to die, I don’t care about my reputation!” People respond to my preaching and I break every rule I’ve just mentioned and I’ll tell you why I do it. I don’t care what the culture is like. I know two things: that God made us with minds, and He made the mind as the chief organ of receiving information, analyzing that information, and responding to it. To accommodate our preaching to a temporary fad of mindlessness is to deny the very nature of divine creation.
If there’s any secret to preaching today, I think it would be that the preacher who will appeal to the mind is the one who is going to get a much greater and broader hearing than the one who seeks to play “catch up” with this crazy cultural direction. Cultural trends and attitudes and views of the Bible vascillate enormously but the power of the Word of God hasn’t changed — it’s transcendant — and the preacher who preaches that faithfully and consistently and boldly sees incredible results from such preaching. People’s basic makeup does not change — their biases change, their tastes change — but their constituent makeup doesn’t change from culture to culture or from generation to generation, and the Word of God doesn’t change either. That’s where I am.
Preaching: The power in the Word inherently transcends whatever the cultural situation may be?
Sproul: What I’m saying is that if Jonathan Edwards walked into a church today and preached, in three years they’d have a mega-church and everybody would wonder why we quit preaching like Edwards in the first place!
Preaching: Do you believe that some of the contemporary trends in worship are actually feeding that kind of mindlessness? What do you think of some of the more current worship styles?
Sproul: I have ambivalent feelings — but the deepest feeling I can isolate is grief. When I say I have ambivalent feelings, on the one side I’m excited that there are people courageous enough to challenge traditions that have been accepted uncritically, people who are obviously motivated to find ways to communicate the Gospel to our contemporary society and are willing to challenge traditions that may be barriers to expressing that.
When I look at the motives for that, as I discern them in people I talk to who are on the cutting edge of these new techniques and so on, I’m excited by their creativity and by their passion. When I see some of the directions in which it is going, however, that’s the other side of the ambivalence.
Phrases like “Seeker-Sensitive Worship” scare me to death. In the first place, being Reformed in my understanding of the Bible, I don’t believe anybody seeks after God until after they’re converted. The Bible I read tells me that no one seeks after God — none — and that “seeking God” is the business of the Christian. And so this idea that there are people out there searching for God — as though God is hiding and they can’t find Him — is as foreign to the Bible as I can imagine. I agree with Thomas Aquinas that people outside of Christ are definitely seeking something. They’re seeking happiness, they’re seeking peace of mind, they’re seeking relief from guilt, they’re seeking meaning to their lives — all of that. They’re seeking for the benefits that only God can give them; but they’re not seeking for God, they’re running from God. No, I’m not interested in accommodating worship to the unbeliever.
There is one period of time during the week when the family of God, the people of God, the body of Christ is to come together to be nurtured and fed as believers. That experience of worship is absolutely vital to the Christian life and in a very real sense it’s not for the unbeliever. The unbeliever is a spectator to that. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying — I love the aggressive emphasis on evangelism but don’t bring it into the worship service, because to encourage an unbeliever to participate in worship is to encourage him to be involved in blasphemy because it’s not honest worship. It’s not worship in spirit and in truth.
As for the techniques that are used to bring them in — I had an astute theological observer say to me that the new move toward liberalism and unbelief will not come through defections in theology but it will be carried by methodology, by this burning desire to be relevant.
It’s easy to stand there and say, “I don’t like that.” Still, we have seen the failure of the traditional format to hold people in the life of the church. I’m involved in a little church in Orlando where we are committed to a more classical, liturgical form of worship, and I realize how that can become endless repetition — meaningless repetition, vacuous, empty, formalism. Yet, when meaning, and the people become alert to it, it can be so, so rich. What I hear is that people are expressing a hunger and a wistful sense about the lack of a meaningful experience of worship.
Preaching is not to be the center of Sunday morning worship. As much as I’m committed to preaching, when God developed a tabernacle and a temple, it was first called the house of prayer. Preaching and teaching is something that took place in the synagogue. We saw what happened in the development of the Roman Church when the liturgy became vacuous and obscured the message of the Gospel; with the Reformation we wanted to restore the Word to the center of the Christian life — and I think it should be the center of the Christian life — but now preaching and teaching is in danger of eclipsing worship.
So you have one group trying to make worship more relevant by finding contemporary modes and means, while other people are looking to the past to find a rich liturgy. They’re both searching for the same thing. They’re searching for a meaningful worship experience. We have to be reawakened to a sense of the presence of God and the majesty of God. Unless we have that sense of the presence of God, there’s nothing for the soul to relate to.
Preaching: Tell me about your own approach to preaching.
Sproul: When I was a young man, I wrote out all my sermons and memorized them. Then I came under the influence of Robert J. Lamont, the former pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh. Lamont talked to me about extemporaneous preaching. It was a fateful day in my life because it was the day my digestive system was destroyed.
Lamont told me that he preached without notes but what he meant by spontaneous preaching was not winging it. He immersed himself in the text, studied all the commentaries, thought about the text from every different angle, existentially got involved in the text. In other words, he tried to put himself in the life situation from which the text came — let that text get into his mind and then into his bloodstream. He would think about it during the week and think about concrete life illustrations that would communicate the basic message he was trying to give. He would think in terms of his opening and where he was trying to go, select a couple of key illustrations, and that was it. Then he went into the pulpit trusting his mind and his ability to articulate and to get into a kind of a zone of communication with his people.
We do this all the time when we’re talking with each other. We don’t have notes in front of us. We call upon our normal vocabulary patterns and our minds to think ahead of our mouths. He encouraged me to preach like that — and it was terrifying! That’s what I did.
I speak anywhere from 300 to 500 times a year. I sometimes think of how dreadful it would be if I had to write every one of them down; and not having a manuscript — not even a printed outline — evokes in me all kinds of anxiety. That’s what I meant when I said Lamont’s advice to me literally destroyed my digestive system. I don’t think I’ve properly digested a meal in thirty years because of losing the security of having that manuscript.
Teaching has been an enormous help, because teaching theology in the classroom for thirty years has provided a reservoir of content and concepts to draw from when I’m dealing with texts.
Preaching: I find more and more preachers are avoiding notes altogether. And for those who do it well, it improves communication.
Sproul: Notes are a terrible barrier to communication. I had a pastor come to me and say, “I would really like for you to help me with my preaching by critiquing it.” The Sunday afterwards, while listening to him preach from a full manuscript, I performed a simple exercise: every time he broke eye contact with us, I made a hash-mark on a paper. We met afterwards and he asked, “Well, what about it?” I replied, “Let me ask you a question. How many times in your 22-23 minute sermon did you break eye contact with the congregation and look at your manuscript?” He said, “Well, maybe eighteen times.” Then I turned the paper over and showed him the hash-marks: 162 times. He just about died! I continued, “Just as soon as you would start to communicate to us, you would interrupt the communication by looking down.
“Just once, preach without that manuscript. You’ll forget some things you wanted to remember; there are some trade-offs here, obviously. You’ll have less confidence. But I want you to try it just once,” I advised.
Well, he was terrified — but he did without his manuscript. The first time he did, the people didn’t realize why they sensed a difference but there was a quantum leap in communication and the response of the congregation overwhelmed him. Now he never uses a manuscript. I’ve seen this happen again and again and again — but a price is paid for it.
Preaching: If you had just one or two messages for preachers who are struggling to communicate the Gospel in this age, what would you share with them?
Sproul: Two things. One, focus your preaching on the character of God. Two, preach at least 75 percent of your sermons from the Old Testament, for three reasons: first, the Old Testament’s primary achievement is revealing the character of God — God the Father; second, the Old Testament gives you the most incredible narratives (I’m big on preaching from narratives because people will listen ten times as hard to a story as they will to an abstract lesson); and third, the Old Testament provides a scenario of interaction between God and real people and it’s eminently contemporary. There’s just a wealth of application in that arena.