There is a class of preacher who is considered a good “expositor” and yet he knows nothing of use. His sermon is the text, an explanation, an illustration — and for all that the information remains inert. It may be true, it may be delivered in an emphatic and/or colorful manner, but it has little effect. Such a sermon may be like a doctor waving medicine before the face of patient but never failing to either diagnose the patient or deliver the medicine.
These sermons consist of an exhortation (and we will assume that it is true) and perhaps an “application” which is something you should do. It is a sermon on prayer which says true things about prayer, such as it is important, and the tells you do it — and you have no excuse otherwise.
William Taylor, in his lectures delivered at Yale and Oberlin (which demonstrates how much some places change) and published in 1876 as The Ministry of the Word, explains the place where the disconnect between information and effect takes place:
Another prerequisite to success in the pulpit is a good knowledge of the human heart. The physician must understand, not merely the nature of the remedies which he is to employ, but also the symptoms and workings of the diseases which he desires to cure. (35)
This matter of exegeting the heart of the hearer is one of key elements of effective preaching — or as one could say it, sermons which do not bore. So where will such information derive? First, the preacher must know his own heart (this, of course, is a great benefit of effective biblical meditation), for, as Taylor explains, what is in your heart will be found in the heart of others:
Hence, he who wishes to become an efficient minister, will be a diligent student of men. Begin here with yourselves; for “as face answereth to face in a glass, so doth the heart of man to man.” There are distinctive peculiarities, indeed, in each individual, but in their great outstanding characteristics, men everywhere are very much alike. Therefore you may safely take it for granted, that what you find in your own hearts, exists also in those of others. The burden of guilt which weighed so heavily on your consciences, will be found pressing also upon theirs, if only you can succeed in bringing them to that knowledge of God’s law by which you were awakened to a sense of your sinfulness. The blood of Christ which cleansed you from your iniquities, will be as efficacious also in their cases, if they will apply it to themselves in simple faith. The struggle which you have continually to carry on with the evil principles that are yet within you, must be maintained also by them, and whatever is felt by you to be helpful in that holy war, will be welcomed, you may be sure, by them. (36)
This will demonstrate a further motive to the “soul’s conflict with itself”, for not only will such conflict give rise to sanctification, it will disclose to the preacher the nature of his own heart (and thus the heart of others):
Thus alike in the matter of warning and in that of consolation, you will find that a strict watch over your own hearts and histories will give you signal power. The conflict with, and conquest over, one single bosom sin, will give you here an influence which you will seek in vain from any other quarter. Peter could never have written his first Epistle, which is so full of comfort to them who “are in heaviness through manifold temptations,” if he had not himself known what it was to hang through days of darkness on the memory of his Master’s loving look. And those are ever the most effective preachers to others who are speaking from their knowledge of their own hearts. (37-38)
Thus, if we are going to “preach to the heart” of any other person, it will be the case that a preacher must preacher to his own heart. I can say from experience that Taylor’s admonition and conclusion matches the facts:
On the day on which I was licensed as a preacher of the gospel, my father, who was then suffering from the disease of which he died, repeated to me a sentence which fifty years before he had heard in the charge given at an ordination by an old pastor to the newly-installed minister. It was to this effect: “Preach to the hearts of your hearers, and that you may do and whatever you find there, charge home upon them.” Perhaps the circumstances in which this advice was repeated to me, tended to give it more importance than it really deserves. Yet, I am free to say, that it has very seldom been absent from my thoughts when I have been preparing for the pulpit; and sometimes, when some one of my hearers has alleged that I was preaching most pointedly at him, I was, in reality, preaching most solemnly to myself; while on other occasions, I have been made the messenger of consolation to many, when I was seeking most earnestly for my own comfort. (38)
Taylor continues to explain that God prepares his servants for service by exposing their own heart in the light of God (as Calvin explains, all our knowledge comes from knowing God and knowing ourselves before God — without that reference point, we cannot truly know anything aright):
Have you observed how when God has called His greatest servants to some signal service, He has begun by giving them a thorough revelation of themselves, through the unveiling of Himself to them? …The knowledge of his own heart, through and along with an experimental acquaintance with Christ — these are the mightiest elements of the preacher’s power. I have seen a housemaid in one of our great hotels, take a skeleton-key and pass into every chamber in a spacious corridor, laying open-the contents of each, and setting to work on its purification. Now, such a skeleton-key is the knowledge of his own heart to the minister of Christ. It enables him to unlock the hearts of his hearers and enter into them, and turn out their hidden things, so that they cry, “Who told him all that? he seems to be reading out the innermost secrets of my soul.” Who told him? It was Jesus, in the day when His divine light flashed into his soul, and let him see himself! (39-40).
We must also learn from the examples and explanations of Scripture, from works of literature (he particularly recommends Shakespeare) and from our own experience.
In his discussion of knowing the heart to expose it and apply the truth, Taylor speaks like a counselor — this is one of the saddest failures of the modern pastor, that counseling & preaching are considered separate tasks and their own specialities and that a faithful preacher has no need to counsel; this is one of the great failures of the modern pulpit — a reason for so much of the boredom in sermons, or the false “authenticity” or dull showmanship, or all the rest is the lack of knowledge on this central point:
To this then, gentlemen, give yourselves with all your earnestness. There is a way to every man’s heart if you can only find it. Study him, therefore, until you discover it, and then enter in by it, and take possession of him for your Lord. Let him feel and knowthat you come to assist him in his conflict with himself; that you are in alliance with those aspirations after something higher and nobler than he is, which are the strongest yearnings of his heart; that you are desirous of helping him to withstand those temptations with which every day he has to contend, and you will gain not his ear only, but his heart, almost before he is aware of it. (46)
We will end our review of Taylor by considering an objection raised by many so-called “preachers” who consider themselves “faithful” after they have dropped a mountain exegetical data and demanded some “application” in needlessly bellicose terms (these sorts reach a crescendo of demand and volume, not because they are honestly excited — there is a necessary place for excitement, but it must be because one is honestly excited, not because they are a bad actor — but because they think that the “heart” is hard of hearing and that with enough volume they will crack it open and compel its movement):
For I do not think that merchants, or indeed, for that matter, any class of busy, struggling men or women, receive nearly as much sympathy, encouragement, or j assistance from the pulpit as they ought. The discourses they hear may be good enough as theological discussions, or as moral essays, or as beautiful illustrations of some little facet of truth, but they do not, nearly so often as they should, touch the inner histories and experiences of men, living as we are doing now, and the reason is because the preacher is too frequently a respectable recluse, knowing little or nothing of the battle which human souls are daily fighting, in their homes, in the streets, or in their stores. Study men, therefore. Find out the.” weights” by which they are hindered in their daily race, and the dangers to which they are most liable. Then preach so that the wave of your speech shall flow into their hearts and lift them up above the sandbanks on which the work of the week had left them stranded, and you will never be without their attention. Nay, as the week advances, they will long for the recurrence of the Sabbath that they may be strengthened through your ministry once more, and when the service is ended they will retire with the feeling that in spite of the down-dragging influences that are depressing them, there is something worth striving for after all, and with the resolution that they will begin anew to live for Christ. (48)