Now, it is well that the nature of the work, its greatness and the hardness of it, should be fully realised and constantly remembered. There is always a danger of being misled by the shows of incomplete, or false, success. In no branch of service is this more true than in preaching. It is such a glorious thing to be able to gather great congregations; but even this may be done and the messenger fail. It is such a delightful thing to a preacher to watch a multitude waiting spellbound beneath his eloquence in rapt attention, or swept by waves of emotion; but that multitude may disperse, the great end of preaching still unwrought and the whole attempt a splendid failure. It is possible to attract people to your preaching, possible to win the crown of their approval, and yet come short of accomplishing the very results for which you were commissioned from on high. To please is one thing; to prevail against the heart of sin another.
And with the recollection of this much-to-be-remembered truth it will be well that a sense of the difficulty of the real task should abide continually with us. Some of these difficulties, we have already mentioned. The hardest to overcome are the obstacles within the mind and heart of the hearer himself. It is always finally the man who has to be conquered. This, we surely know through our own spiritual experiences. He is bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. Here is surely one reason why the Master sets men to preach to men: -- Because every preacher has been himself a rebel and knows the way rebellion takes in heart and brain. Ours also was once the stubborn will; ours the stiff neck; ours the evil heart of unbelief. We, as well as he whom we now assail for Jesus' sake, have said, "I will not have this man to reign over me." Once upon a time we, also, bore ourselves proudly and contemptuously. Never are we weary of thinking of the wonder that ever we were brought to ground our arms at the Master's feet. Will the winning of others be easier than was the victory won over ourselves? Now that we battle against what once we were and did, we should understand from memory the immensity of the task. Once realised, it should never be forgotten. There is no miracle in all the Gospel history greater than the miracle of a broken human will.
Yes, the preacher's work is at the best a supremely hard one. The sense of this hardness must get into his soul, or else all hope of success will be vain. Should there ever come to him a moment in which it shall appear an easy thing to preach, or when his knowledge of the congregation awaiting him shall seem to indicate that "anything will do," then let him, in that moment, consider himself in peril of missing the true end of his calling. Anything will not do. The very best will hardly do! Think of the hardness of the heart! Think of the arguments of the tempter! Think how fair and sweet sin often seems! Think of all the sacrifice and self-denial and self-surrender we are asking from men! Here is need for the utmost diligence; for the development of every latent power of persuasion; for the employment of every ounce of energy, of every resource of skill; for the expenditure of every volt of passion the soul can contain. We can only hope to capture the citadel when the utmost possibilities of attack are brought to bear upon it. Even then the garrison may hold out against us!
And the ultimate possibilities of attack are the ultimate possibilities of appeal. We speak of appeal as a quality that must pervade the whole of the sermon. We have heard counsels on preaching in which advice was given about "the appeal" or "the final appeal," whereby were meant certain perorative paragraphs; the remainder of the discourse being divided into "introduction," "exegesis," "argument," "illustration," "application." We remember some of these perorative paragraphs, and sometimes we have been tempted to ask whether the same note is struck in the preaching of to-day as was sounded forth in their stirring words. In spite of the homilists the sermon was generally better than their advice concerning its making and its form. The paragraph in question, though, perhaps, neither the preacher nor his adviser suspected the truth, was only powerful because it formed the climax of all that had gone before. It was the final assault following upon processes of sapping and mining, bombardment and fusillade. The appeal must commence with the first word of the sermon. The very introduction must be persuasive. The motif of the whole composition must be the wooing note. Obviously this note will need to be struck in many keys. The appeal will have many expressions; and in their variety and form the skill of the preacher will have such room for exercise and such need for it as no other duty of his life displays.
To mention some of the elements of this appeal, of which, again, the whole sermon is the expression: -- There is first, that gift, or endowment, or talent -- call it what you will -- which we speak of as Tact. In some men this power amounts almost to genius. Of such an one we say, "he has a way with him." He is the man to bring about "settlements." His very voice, his very manner, bring disputations to an end. In political conflicts, in social misunderstandings, in labour troubles he is invaluable. In the church he is a treasure. In the Sunday school his price is above rubies. In the pulpit he enjoys an immeasurable advantage. Happy the congregation whose preacher "has a way with him." We have known such men and envied them. Their gift defies analysis. It is an element!
Of men such as these there are, alas, comparatively few! They are born into the world with a genius for always doing the right thing in the right way. Most of us enter into life with a genius for doing everything in the wrong way, and we can only look enviously upon our more richly endowed brethren and learn from them to practise as an art what they do as the result of an inheritance. We can do this and, indeed, we must do it if it be any part of our life's work to influence men to courses against their minds. The sermon must be tactful or else, though it possess every other excellence, it will most surely fail. How often have we heard, as a criticism, the one word "tactless," which meant that the truth had been expressed in such language, or in such a manner as to accentuate, rather than allay, the opposition of the hearer; that, instead of getting round the prejudices of the congregation by a flanking movement, the preacher had assailed them by a frontal attack, and so called to the ramparts every sleeping power of opposition. Many a well conceived and convincing sermon fails from just this cause.
So then we feel inclined to urge that the cultivation of tactfulness should be reckoned an indispensable part of every preacher's training, for there is no prevailing with men without it. For this, among other things, he will require that thorough understanding of men of which we spoke in an earlier chapter -- an understanding which must include a familiarity with their tastes, their prejudices, their weaknesses and infirmities. To this understanding must be added the fruits of much self-study and criticism. To be able so to speak as to secure acceptance for the Word of Life is worth it all. The basis of appeal is conciliation. The instrument of conciliation is tact!
And having, through the exercise of this gift of tact, secured for himself and his message the toleration of the hearer, the preacher will proceed to make the best of the advantage thus obtained. He has made his man a listener but the great work still remains to be done, and again we say that it is of all work the hardest to accomplish. At once, let us acknowledge the impossibility of outlining a method that will be effective in every case. At once, too, let us say that in no branch of Christian service is so much left to the inventive and initiative faculties of the worker as in preaching. Still some principles there are which may well be named as worthy of remembrance in the day of action.
And the first of these may well be this: -- That the first assault should be made through the intellect. The sermon must contain, at least, a solid foundation of good reasoning. "Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord," was the prophet's invitation to Israel in the day of her rebellion. The preacher should see to it that he "render a reason." It is no compliment to an audience to fail to recognise its mental powers. It is something less than a compliment merely to pretend to argue, as is so often done. That is not only to fail to produce the result we desire but to estrange the hearer still further and so make his case more hopeless than before.
It is one of the many accusations made against the modern pulpit, that it has fallen into the habit of begging the question and basing its appeals upon assumptions. Men of mind come to hear the preacher and go away disappointed. The good man declaims, but makes no real attempt to prove the truth of his declamation, or to anticipate the mental difficulties into which his statements may lead the hearer. He makes statements, but does not substantiate them. How often we hear of the intellectual barrenness of the modern sermon! How often we are told that men are asked to take the most important steps, and make the most astounding sacrifices upon arguments which would not convince a seventh standard schoolboy. In speaking of a certain orator, some one said, "There was physical power, for the preacher shouted; ho(a)rse power, for in his roaring he fortunately lost his voice; water power, because he wept most copiously; everything but brain power." We cannot proceed on the exploded fiction that ignorance is the mother of devotion. The schoolmaster is abroad. More than this, the denier is busy, and, though his reasoning may be packed with fallacies, he can only be answered by arguments as sound as his are false. Perhaps there was never a time in which the literature of unbelief had so great and general a currency as it has to-day. It circulates in our workshops in unnumbered pages, for its special attack seems to be directed against our working men, especially the younger members of the class. Here, undoubtedly, is one of the causes of the apparent drift of the toiling masses from the churches. A preaching that is merely declamatory, visionary, emotional; that takes its stand upon tradition, the authority of great names the dim antiquity of its far-off past, failing, meanwhile, to recognise the eager questioning of the modern man, must be prepared for non-success, though there may come from certain quarters, even in the hour of its failure, the meed of popularity and applause.
Let this, therefore, be laid down: -- That the appeal of the sermon must at the beginning be the appeal of intellect to intellect. Let no one be made afraid by this statement. It is not contended that every sermon must be an elaborate argument of the case for the Christian demand. This would necessitate that every preacher be a specialist in theology and apologetics, which is obviously impossible. Happily, the situation, strained as it is, is not such as to render it needful that only experts should venture to preach the gospel. But it is needful that the sermon stand the test of common sense and, in that way, carry in it its own defence. It is needful that, as the preacher proceeds to develop his subject, the hearer shall find cause to assent to the positions taken up. Otherwise it will be useless to invite him to forsake his own ground in order to share that from which he has been addressed. Of course it must be conceded that even this modest demand will mean much study for the preacher and a careful preparation of the sermon. Surely, however, the end is worth the labour. In no work is proficiency gained without some taking of pains. That preacher who is afraid of a little toil in order that he may thereby improve his usefulness, and increase his success, should find proof in this fear of effort that his commission -- if ever he had one -- has expired. One thing is sure: -- That a sermon which fails to satisfy the intellect -- we do not say of the atheist or the agnostic, to whom, by the way, we are hardly ever called to preach, but of the average hearer -- will ask in vain for the surrender of men to God. It may be full of sentiment and overflowing with emotion; it holds no true appeal!
But the intellect is not the whole of a man. The sermon that contains no appeal to a hearer's emotions will fail, just as certainly as one that contains no address to his reason. If sermons are full of emotion, and empty of arguments, they are invertebrate and produce but transient effects. If the sermon be simply and solely an intellectual effort it will be cold and nerveless and ineffective. You may convince a man beyond all possibility of contradiction or protest, and at the same time utterly fail to bring him to the decision you desire him to register. Probably an analysis of most of our congregations would prove that so far as merely intellectual agreement is concerned the great majority of hearers are already on the preacher's side as a result of years of hearing while, as yet, undecided to attempt the path so plainly stretching away before them.
The preacher must address himself to all the emotions of the heart for any one of them may be the means of carrying his message to that innermost chamber whither he desires that it shall come. Fear and courage, doubt and confidence, all should be assailed, for the awakening of any one of them may bring to pass the accomplishment of the preacher's glorious purpose. Of course we have become familiar with all that is said by superior persons about what they are pleased to decry as "mere sentiment." We know, but too well, the man who at once, and invariably, characterises any preaching that touches the hearts of men as "playing to the gallery," -- the man whose one and only demand is for intellectualism. Him we know in his superiority to feeling, his scorn of smiles and tears. We know him and, thank God! we generally ignore him; as we must learn to do more and more. The city of Mansoul has many gates -- more, indeed, than honest Bunyan saw -- and happy may the preacher be if he can gain admission by any one of them!
Then, although the hearer is "a sinner," and must be approached as such, the sermon that will lead him furthest along the upward way will be one in which it is recognised that he is not so utterly depraved as to be without some lingering, or latent, good to which appeal may, and ought to be made. Find the good in a child and by the use of it lead him to the best, is a sound principle in the training of the young. It is equally sound as a rule for dealing with their elders. Find the good in a man if you would save him wholly and for ever.
For "good" there is, and that in the very worst of men. No doctrine of human depravity that theologians may teach can alter the fact, that, deep in the heart of man, may be found a starting point whence the highest heights may be gained if we have but the skill to lead him forward. We may speak of him as being sick in head and heart, as "full of wounds and bruises and putrifying sores." It is all true and yet, paradoxical as it may appear, there are still in him the power to love; some gift of gratitude; some sense of fair play; an elemental idea of justice. There is still some secret reverence for purity and modesty and truth. The preacher, notwithstanding all the schoolmen may tell him, must believe this, or else he will not effectively preach.
There is much to be gained by every one in believing the best of human nature. For the preacher such a belief will provide ways into the city, the inner fortress of which he means to capture for his Lord. He will call upon the best qualities in his hearer to help him as he pushes home the siege. There is a power of loving. Surely he will enlist the aid of this by reminding the wanderer of the love wherewith He has loved him. "We love Him because He first loved us," so wrote one whose will had been brought low what time his affection was entreated. There is a sense of gratitude. Surely this will be called to look upon that sacrifice on which the ages gaze! That sense of justice; that elementary instinct of fair play -- they, too, may be rare colleagues of the messenger, if he will but enlist them on his side. For this method of prosecuting his saving warfare he has precedent enough in the prophets: -- "And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt Me and My vineyard! What could have been done more in My vineyard, that I have not done in it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?" Here is an appeal to the inborn sense of equity which still lingered in the heart of the chosen people. The claims of honesty and chastity, of truthfulness and benevolence and gentleness will not always be in vain, if the preacher will remember that some reverence for these things still lingers in the heart of even the most abandoned of men and address himself thereto. He is the wisest of all campaigners who enlists the enemy against himself.
To all these elements of human nature, then, the preacher will address himself. He will do more: -- He will study times and seasons and events, for times and seasons and events often produce moods which infect a whole people. We have examples of this in the moral influence of the festivals of the Christian year. They were wise men who, for all futurity, connected with certain dates the outstanding events of the sacred history, the memory of great saints, confessors and martyrs. Probably we of the Nonconformist pulpits might here learn a lesson in homiletic tactics from our friends of the Roman and Anglican churches. There should only be one subject for Good Friday; one for Easter morn; one for Christmastide; one for the hour wherein the old year dies. It is not merely a tribute to convention to observe these seasons. It is strategically wise to do so. The preacher should use Whitsun as an opportunity of leading the Church to prayer for new pentecosts; harvest time to stir the slumbering thankfulness of men. He who neglects these ready-made chances throws away precious advantage for his appeal and misses the psychological moment.
So much for the seasons and their memories. We have experience, also, of the way in which the watchful and tactful preacher will profit from the occurrences of his time. In the events of the day much material for the pointing of appeal may often be found. The calamities which befall; the happenings which arrest the attention of the multitude and often hush a whole nation with the hush of awe -- he will find in these things an opening to be entered on behalf of the enterprise he has in hand. Very watchful must he be, for everything that touches the heart may mean "a way in" which it were a misfortune to miss. He must look for the very slightest change of mood in his people, for so his long-hoped-for chance may come. With all he may do; after every plea he may still find that the victory is unwon. He has gained the intellect it may be or moved the heart; but the stubborn will still holds out against him.
Yes, notwithstanding all he may do the will may resist him still, but this fact, instead of causing the preacher to give up in despair, should move him to still greater efforts. The more difficult the task, the greater the honour laid upon him who is sent to attempt it. This is the understanding of military life, and this should be the understanding of the preacher. He will not fail with all. Some there will be who will ground their arms at Jesus' feet; some who will give themselves to the living of the new life, who will accept the invitation to climb the hills of God. In every one of these the preacher will have ample reward for all his "work of faith and labour of love"; for he who "converteth a sinner from the error of his ways saveth a soul from death and hideth a multitude of sins." To know that he has done these things for one brother man will be better than the breath of popularity. Sweeter than all the compliments of men will be the far-echoing "Well done" of Christ in that day when the messenger lays his commission at His feet.