Monday, August 7, 2017

"Simplicity in Preaching" by JC Ryle: A Review

I fear a vast proportion of what we preach is not understood by our hearers any more than if it were Greek. (5)

As a pastor, I wear many hats, but perhaps none is more central than that of preacher. Preaching is a calling and an art that one must improve on throughout their ministry and I still have a lot to learn. Recently, Kevin DeYoung recommended the pamphlet by JC Ryle Simplicity in Preaching. I quickly bought a copy and devoured its content.

The book is short and can easily be read in one setting. The text starts on page three and ends on page twenty-two - too short to divide into chapters. Such brevity is purposeful. Ryle is clear in the introduction that this is a preaching book on a specific aspect of preaching made clear in the books title. He does not discuss exegesis, mannerisms, content, or the art of preaching common in most preaching books but exclusively sticks to the subject of preaching with simplicity.

The book is short enough that summarizing his content is unnecessary here. I will highlight a few points he makes that stick out to me. His first point is central: know your subject well. One cannot speak with simplicity unless you know the subject clearly. This is why the preacher must be willing to do the difficulty work of exegesis during the week. A congregation that things that preaching is easy or that the preacher should merely stand up with open Bible and bloviate whatever comes to mind confuses him with a radio talk show host, not with a prophet.

Ryle summaizes his point well when he says, " If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness." (7)

Secondly, Ryle criticizes the trend accommodating texts. By this he means making the text mean something it does not. As was common in his day and in ours, many preachers want to prove their wit and intellect by showing their people their ability to discover some hidden gem in the text that they themselves cannot discover. Ryle writes:
 Beware, for the same reason, of taking up what I call "fanciful subjects" and "spiritualizing texts" — and then dragging out of them meanings which the Holy Spirit never intended to put into them. There is no subject needful for the soul's health which is not to be found plainly taught and set forth in Scripture. This being the case, I think a preacher should never take a text and extract from it, as a dentist would a tooth from the jaw, something which, however true in itself, is not the plain literal meaning of the inspired words. The sermon may seem very glittering and ingenious, and his people may go away saying, "What a clever parson we have got!" But if, on examination, they can neither find the sermon in the text, nor the text in the sermon, their minds are perplexed, and they begin to think the Bible is a deep book which cannot be understood. If you want to attain simplicity, beware of spiritualizing texts. (8)
Simple preaching involves preaching the simple meaning of the text. The Spirit gave each text a clear meaning and intends on us to preach that precise meaning. The Holy Spirit does not need our creativity, but our obedience in the pulpit.

Thirdly, preach the gospel. Near the end of this short volume Ryle makes it clear that giftedness in simple preaching is useless unless the congregation is presented withe Jesus Christ and his saving gospel.
All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If 'Christ crucified' has not His rightful place in your sermons, and 'sin' is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe, and be, and do— your preaching is of no use! (21)
I could not agree more. The point of preaching in general and simple preaching in particular is to present Christ. All the art in the world is "of no use" if we miss this primary cause of preaching.

Overall, I believe this little volume is a must read for all preachers. The pulpit is not the place to prove our intellect. It is not a bully pulpit or a pundits chair. It is the sacred desk. It is the place where the under-shepherd leads his congregation to the Chief-shepherd and to do so we need to preach with simplicity.
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