A Certain Sound through Preaching

How are we to answer the exigencies and anxieties of the hour? What tone of voice and approach should we assume when the world is crying out for answers? What dangers lie in uncertain speech, in mumbled sounds, as men and women hunger and thirst to know true reality? During this week I have been posting (here and here) on the danger of not articulating the gospel clearly, and not understanding the gospel lucidly, at a moment when so many of life’s props and stays are being taken away from those around us. I have been tracing some of the reasons for our hesitancy to answer openly, and suggesting that certainty in our theology (specifically a systematic understanding of God and our world) will lead to greater purchase in our ministry.

In this final post I want to hold up Martyn Lloyd-Jones as an example of how a refusal to accept the softening influences of society on the gospel, and a fundamental understanding of basic theology, combined to make him a powerful and prophetic voice when the world was coming apart at the seams. By focussing on his ministry during the Second World War we can understand something of his practice and its relevance for how we preach to our world during and after the Covid 19 crisis.

A man and a ministry on the brink
As the Second World War dawned Martyn Lloyd-Jones found himself in a precarious position personally and pastorally. As a recent addition to Westminster Chapel, the financial hardship which the war was bringing meant that the sustainability of his role was thoroughly uncertain. Offerings at the chapel, although initially sustained, soon began to ebb and the concept of either Lloyd-Jones or Campbell Morgan (the senior minister) being released from their positions was a reality. Added to this was Lloyd-Jones’ separation from his family, who had remained in the Wales during the early part of the war. The German aerial bombardment of London even led to disruption of the chapel’s services, with an air raid warning sign often cutting the preaching short. The numbers in the congregation had been drastically reduced, and some of the theological weaknesses among those who remained were now more evident with the cover of a large church gathering removed.

All of this is relevant to speaking with certainty in uncertain times, because Lloyd-Jones had every reason to soften the edges of his ministry, to excuse himself from the hard work of teaching the whole counsel of God. The hardships which he himself was enduring could have led him to equivocate at a personal level, and to hesitate at a pastoral level, to embody boldness in his content and approach. Instead, Lloyd-Jones saw that the pressing nature of a nation at war called him to self-examination and frank proclamation. In a letter to his wife he opened his heart,

This is a real test of our beliefs and our faith. Without a doubt, we have – all of us – been slack for various reasons, and the first call upon us is to repentance.

(MLJ, in a letter to Bethan Lloyd-Jones)

The certain sound that his preaching would represent in a city rubbled and ruined by fascist bombs, sprang from a conscience smitten by guilt for slackness in easier times, and a resolve to now so live and speak as to count for Christ among his fellow men. This, of course, carries resonance and relevance for us in our present contingencies. Our hardships do not compare with those of Second World War Britain, but they do put us to the same point as Lloyd-Jones faced. We can resort to self-therapy and self-excuse when lives are being lost and when the future is uncertain, we can enlist the postmodern hesitancy to speak clear truth as a tool to avoid the harder edges of gospel speech, all the while absolving ourselves from our heralding role because the times are hard. The example of Lloyd-Jones points us in another direction, that of repentance personally, and regrouping pastorally to fix and fire the canon of truth.

A mind and a ministry for the hour
The early preaching of Lloyd-Jones to the numerically and psychologically decimated congregation of Westminster Chapel is an example of what it means to make a certain sound in our ministry at an hour of great national need. From a pastoral perspective Lloyd-Jones understood that the hearts of people needed solace and comfort, and so he preached consolingly to those under the sound of his voice, understanding his call to help hurting hearts, as well as to break hard hearts,

I feel that there is a tremendous opportunity for preaching. At the moment what is wanted is the comforting note to help the people over the shock. But, following that, the need will be for the prophetic note to awaken the people.

That prophetic note would sound with rousing reality in a series of sermons from Romans 1, which later became the book The Plight of Man and the Power of God. It is here that we most clearly hear the clarion call of a man and a mind gripped by sound theology and anthropology, and where we realise that the need of every hour, and particularly of our darkest hours, is the deep diagnosis of the times and the hearts of men and women. The materials in these Romans 1 sermons was explosive and controversial, refusing to soften the edges of what God was saying to a people whose lives hung in the balance. This was penetrating preaching which set aside the idea that mere soft focus captures of the love of God might help people, demonstrating that grasping the wrath of God was the surest way to warn people of their desperate plight.

This sweeping and certain gospel rhetoric was grounded in the preacher’s core conviction that the Second World War was in part God’s judgement on men and women for not improving the lessons that sprang from the Great War, slipping instead into a casual atheism or Christianised complacency. Preaching in this way allowed Lloyd-Jones to break up the fallow ground that peace time had brought and allow men and women to feel and fear the awful reality of their own nature and God’s displeasure. To read such sermons today is enriching but also disarming. There is nothing of cosseting or dodging in these words, but frank answers to questions that people might more happily avoid, and a firm pointing to the fact of the judgement of God.

Such ministry was not confined to Lloyd-Jones’ treatment of Romans. One member of the church, Geoffrey Thomas, recorded the power and pathos of a sermon delivered on Matthew 11 which shook him to the core. Iain Murray recounts Thomas’ reflections at a later date on what the preacher said,

He gave no soft comfort, there was no alternative to repentance except ‘woe’…”Look at people in the air-raid shelters, with bombs falling! What are they doing? Are they prepared to meet God? No, they are singing ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘On with the Dance’. Woe to London”‘

Such ministry, Thomas averred, left him ‘more awe struck by some of the preaching than by the bombing’. (Murray, 1990, p.31)

Our moment, our ministry
The challenge from Lloyd-Jones is evident, but it may require some further definition. There is no sense in his ministry at this period that he was abrasive or harsh, or that he was courting controversy by being outrageous. His messages were principled, exegetical, and solidly theological, and permit nothing of histrionics or hardness to his hearers. These were an impassioned delineation of mankind’s dilemma, our need to repent, and the redemption that is plentifully to be found in Christ.

To recognise the fearfulness of mankind’s condition temporally (war or pandemic) and not to address its condition eternally is a dreadful dereliction of our duty. To allow the postmodern predilection for sophistry and subterfuge to waste our words into a shrivelled representation of God is to idolise our intellect and blaspheme the message of a holy God. To whisper answers in the absence of good biblical and theological understanding is to lay bare the fact that we have not packed ammunition in peace time which can be discharged at the moment of decision. If we are ministering solely therapeutically and not theologically and prophetically, then this hour will pass without a seizure of the opportunities that it presented to make Christ known when men and women might have owned their mortality.

We are, many of us, away from our pulpits and places of worship for now. When we return, however, will we solely sew the wounds of those who regather in the field hospital, while the enemy regroups to take them as prisoners of war, or will we also address the frontline with biblically articulated and theologically accurate heavy ordinance? Will we, as was the case with Lloyd-Jones, understand the times and fear our God to such an extent that we will speak his Word and will, issue his woes and warnings, and reveal to an unredeemed world the goodness and severity of the God whom we worship and serve?

Now is the time for a certain sound, let us lay aside the trappings of intellectual acceptability, the trammels of theological instability, and lift the trumpet to our lips for the lives and souls of those who hear us. There is much to do, there is much to say.

*The historical detail in this post comes from Iain H. Murray’s The Fight of Faith, published by Banner of Truth. His two part biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones is a treasure.

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