How is Preaching Effective?
“And 3,000 souls were saved” (Acts 2:41) . . . “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom.” (I Cor. 1:21, 25)
Every preacher, at one time or another, wonders what sort of sermon it must have been that had power to convert 3,000 people at the same time. We wish that some formula or technique could repeat such every week. Richard Cecil, a friend of George Whitefield, John Newton, and John Wesley, once wrote: “I once said to myself, in the foolishness of my heart: ‘What sort of sermon must that have been which was preached by Peter when three thousand souls were converted at once?’ What sort of sermon? Such as other sermons. There is nothing to be found in it extraordinary. The effect was not produced by eloquence, but by the mighty power of God present with the Word.”
Alexander Whyte analyzed the preaching of John Wesley in a way that may surprise you. “To begin with,” he noted, “and strange as it may sound to some, there was little or nothing that could be called popular either in the matter or in the manner of Wesley’s preaching. There was little or no imaginative power in this preaching, there was little or no dramatic power, there was little or no power of illustration, there was next to nothing of those wonderful pulpit qualities that made Whitefield’s contemporaneous preaching so commanding.” Wesley’s sermons, thought Whyte, were hardly powerful and suitable for common gatherings and common people.
Whyte, a great preacher himself, continued:
And how such preaching took such a hold of those classes will be a mystery to you as you read his Journal and his sermons. If you take Wesley’s famous sermon which he preached, first at St. Mary’s, Oxford, before the University, and so often repeated in very different places, and compare it with Spurgeon’s sermon on the same text, you will at once admit that the Tabernacle sermon has all the elements of popular power that Wesley’s sermon was almost wholly without. There is a surge and a sweep of passion in Spurgeon that has no parallel in Wesley. There is a thrill of pathos in every sermon of Spurgeon’s that you seldom or never meet with in Wesley.”
Alexander Whyte is wise to note that all preachers are different. Each has different abilities and emphases. Spurgeon was a rhetorical genius—always eloquent. Wesley was simple and more dispassionate in presentation. Spurgeon has been described as compact “pulpit compassion.” Whyte continues to note the contrast in style as below.
Wesley’s Oxford sermon is not to be compared with Spurgeon’s London sermon. There is a richness, a fullness, a fascination, and a heart-winningness about Spurgeon that Wesley, to my mind, never came near. Why, then, you will ask, Wesley’s unparalleled success? That, gentlemen, is your problem as young preachers; a problem which you are, with all your might and before you are much older, to work out for yourselves. Only, take this key and try the lock with it: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord. And this: Paul may plant and Apollos water, but it is God who gives the increase.
Similarly, the American puritan Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in his own congregation to no special effect. He preached the same sermon later in Enfield, Connecticut and people shrieked and held on to the pillars for fear of slipping off into hell. That is what God can make his Word do, no matter the preacher, no matter the sermon. Fact is, Peter preached many sermons like this one with much less visible effect. Humanly speaking, of course, there is that in this sermon likely to increase its effect: Peter’s boldness and conviction must certainly have been powerful.” As Spurgeon once said, listeners “will be unmoved by any man who is unmoved himself.”
As a result of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, three thousand souls were added to the church.
I concluded a recent sermon with this episode from the life of George Whitefield, an outstanding evangelist in the early 18th century. On several occasions, he would preach to coal miners. In the 1730s, coal mining was a very dangerous, bone-breaking, and difficult business, and some of the workers would be underground for days on end. And when they would eventually emerge, their faces would be blackened by the soot. On one occasion as they emerged from the mines George Whitefield was preaching a sermon, a sermon full of Christ, as Peter’s was on the Day of Pentecost. The description of what happened is a very moving one, because as these coalminers listened to George Whitefield preach about Jesus, tears came down their cheeks. Eyewitnesses recorded this touching description of hundreds upon hundreds of coalminers with these white streaks down their faces, their blackened faces, as the tears gushed forth as they hear the message of the gospel, and were added to the church.
I concluded by pointing out that such is the kind of preaching on which God builds his church for the future, as he did in the past. May we be “cut to the heart” often, as the Spirit moves among us. Not by might, nor by power, but by God’s Spirit.