Preaching hard texts in hard times

In the second week of March 1941, Martyn Lloyd-Jones delivered a series of lectures in the Assembly Hall of the Free Church College, Edinburgh. His area of focus was Romans 1, with particular reference to diagnosing the spiritual condition of mankind, and the definitive remedy offered by the gospel. Recorded in print, with the addition of one final lecture, as The Plight of Man and the Power of God these messages have come to be viewed as classic Lloyd-Jones, with their biblical insistence and cultural incisiveness. What makes these messages all the more remarkable, however, is the context in which they were delivered.

Firstly, in March 1941 Lloyd-Jones was 41 years old and had been the pastor of Westminster Chapel for a comparatively short time. The selection of Romans 1 and his particular handling of it was an act of great courage, of almost psychological defiance given Lloyd-Jones’ cultural setting. The fact that he was capable of such a profound and erudite dissection of the human condition at this relatively early point in his ministry is evidence of the special way in which the Lord used him in his own generation.

Secondly, March 1941 was among the worst of times that the United Kingdom had faced as a nation in recent history. In the month before these lectures Manchester had been blitzed, with heavy damage sustained, and in the same week as they were delivered the Clydebank Blitz had claimed 528 lives, and seriously injured 617 people (rendering another 35,000 homeless). On the 15th March the Plymouth Blitz killed another 336 people. In our present age of rolling headlines it is all too easy for politicians and pundits to bandy about the phrase ‘existential threat’, but such a term would have been sadly appropriate in terms of the power of the Luftwaffe and the ideological force of fascism in 1941.

Into this world Lloyd-Jones decided to preach a hard text, filled with hard truths, about the human heart and about human society. This was not a mechanical resort to bland exposition, but a pointed and intentional decision on his part precisely because of the moment in history at which he found himself. In the prologue to his first lecture he laid out the logic of such an approach,

“Nothing could be more fatal than for the impression to get abroad that the one business of the Church is to soothe and to give comfort to men and women who have been rendered unhappy by the present circumstances…The ministry of comfort and consolation is a part of the work of the Church, but if she devotes the whole of her energy to that task alone as she did in general during the last war, she will probably emerge from this present trouble with her ranks still more depleted and counting for still less in the life of the people…She is merely palliating symptoms instead of dealing positively and actively with the disease. She is simply trying to tide over the difficulties, or, to change the metaphor, she is a mere accompanist instead of the soloist.”

The pressing question for Lloyd-Jones to address in these circumstances was ‘why is the world in its present condition?’. The need to minister to hurting people, to comfort and console was not lost on him, but he did not allow this to deter him from applying the curative scalpel of gospel truth to the fatally diseased human heart. Reaching beyond the symptomatic concerns of a people shocked by devastating attacks on home soil, he saw his calling as a preacher to sift through the debris of human sin which lay behind it, and to adequately account for what the gospel had to say to such fundamental issues.

More could be said in appreciation of the content of these lectures, but their context is so helpful to those of us who are called to preach amidst cultural turbulence. No one could feasibly claim that the challenges of recent years in Western Europe (and in the territories beyond) equate with what the Second World War brought to bear on society, communities and individuals. The manifestation of militant Islam, the social upheavals of shock election results, the constitutional issues faced by referenda, the economic slippage which continues to plague the public and private sector are the mere inconvenience of a common cold when set against the rabid destruction of cities and security at the hands of Hitler and his military.

Reasoning from the greater to the lesser, we can see that our calling is not to take a merely therapeutic approach to those who hear us and who are beset by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but to speak a biblically nuanced anthropology and soteriology to them at the very moment of their crisis. Our world is systematically dismantling the ‘triggers’ which might cause people personal or civil discomfort, but we must have the resolve to fasten those very triggers and allow God’s view of the world to be made known. If we merely comfort the concerns of the human heart without addressing the condition of the human heart, then we have become Jungian counsellors rather than heralds, muted accompanists rather than soloists who sound the full tonal range of the gospel to our world.

Sin is still sin and the departure from God that Romans 1 so painfully diagnoses is still at the very core of the human problem. We must of course know when to soothe with Psalms and the sweeter sounds of sovereignty, but we likewise must blast the trumpet and address the souls of those who need awakened from the stupor of materialism, hyper-sensitivity to any form of confrontation, and a paradoxical inoculation against the real danger that they face before a holy God. In the absence of a widely heard or widely held gospel in the United Kingdom, for instance, men and women will embrace the downward spiral that Romans 1 so fearfully portrays. Already we have replaced holiness with psychological wholeness, the Final Judgement with ecological cataclysm, purity with a burgeoning dietary asceticism which can cleanse the body but not the soul, and a corresponding distortion of heaven with a dystopian utopia of shared (and strictly enforced) ‘human’ values.

Our preaching should be seasoned with salt and offered with love, but it also needs to say the difficult things that Paul writes to the Romans, and that Lloyd-Jones spoke into the wreckage of a bombed out Britain. This will lead to difficulty, but such an experience has always been the stablemate of gospel fidelity, and the discomfort which telling God’s truth in such circumstances will bring is not to be compared to the cost which would attend a resort to smooth words and rounded gospel edges. The last word on this can be safely left with Lloyd-Jones himself,

“We must deal with the present position as it is. But the way in which we do so is of vital importance. And that is why I say that we must be prepared to ‘be cruel to be kind.’ If we are anxious to help and to speak the redeeming word, we must first of all probe the wound and reveal the trouble. That cannot be done without giving rise to pain and perhaps also to offence. And that, in turn, will lead to our being unpopular and disliked in a sense that can never be true of us if we are merely soothing the world, or else more or less ignoring it entirely, whilst we enjoy our own religion.”

6 thoughts on “Preaching hard texts in hard times

  1. A powerful and pertinent article Andrew. A young MLJ is here. May God continue to make you beacon in this darkness – as the great man said, may your preaching be theology on fire coming through the man in the pulpit who is on fire.

    Like

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