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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?


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."

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