The Preaching of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) was undoubtedly one of the best and most powerful preachers of the twentieth century. Despite a busy ministry with numerous responsibilities, for decades he consistently preached well, and often-virtually every Sunday morning and evening except during long vacations in July and August, and he also gave sermonic "lectures" on Friday evenings. Countless people concur that though his books (which usually consist of repackaged sermons) are very good, and the recordings of his sermons are even better, to hear him in person was most unforgettable.
What was it that made his preaching so memorable? I suppose a book could be written to answer this question. Here I would like to expound just three of Lloyd-Jones's outstanding preaching characteristics that we can learn from today for the contemporary pulpit.
Preaching the Glory of God
A defining characteristic of Lloyd-Jones's preaching was that his hearers came away feeling greatly reduced in their own eyes before the immense majesty of God in Christ. J. I. Packer remembers the Doctor as like "a lion, fierce on matters of principle, austere in his gravity, able in his prime both to growl and to roar as his argument required." Yet, personally, he was "delightfully relaxed . . . twinkling and witty to the last degree." His public arguments were "severe to the point of crushing, but always with transparent patience and good humor," even when people stupidly provoked him. He preached with all his energy, and with "the God-given liveliness and authority that in past eras was called unction."
Packer recalls hearing him preach in the winter of 1948-1949, noting that "I felt and saw as never before the glory of Christ and of his gospel as modern man's only lifeline and learned by experience why historic Protestantism looks on preaching as the supreme means of grace and of communion with God." Lloyd-Jones "never put on any sort of act," but always "spoke as a debater making a case" or "as a physician making a diagnosis." Like Isaiah, his preaching seized men who thought themselves great and God small, and lifted their eyes to see that they are small and God is great. His preaching always aimed at preaching Christ and Him crucified. Packer says as well in his Collected Shorter Writings, "I have never known anyone whose speech communicated such a sense of the reality of God."
In the second volume of his biography of the London preacher, Iain Murray repeats some counsel that Lloyd-Jones gave him over the phone when Murray had to prepare to speak on "Is Calvinistic Evangelistic Preaching Necessary?" The Doctor told him:
The superficiality of modern evangelism is not the result of an overemphasis on justification; it was because it did not preach the law, the depth of sin and the holiness of God. The gospel was being preached in terms of the offer of a friend and a helper. The characteristic of Calvinistic evangelism is that the majesty and glory of God is put first, instead of some benefit provided for man.
Lecturing to students at Westminster Seminary, Lloyd-Jones asked: "What is preaching? Logic on fire . . . theology on fire. . . . Preaching is theology coming through a man on fire." He also queried, "What is the chief end of preaching?" and answered, "It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence." He explained:
I can forgive a man for a bad sermon, I can forgive the preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he gives me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is inadequate himself, he is handling something which is very great and very glorious, if he gives me some dim glimpse of the majesty and glory of God, the love of Christ my Savior, and the magnificence of the Gospel. (Preaching and Preachers)
Preaching the Truth of Holy Scripture
Lloyd-Jones was well aware of the scientific advancements of the modern age. He was a brilliant medical doctor. Even after his calling into ministry, he continued to follow developments in the medical world. In a sermon on 1 Thessalonians 1, "Not in Word Only," he says that he hears the constant clamor of voices saying that "owing to the advance of knowledge, and particularly science, we are confronted by a situation such as never confronted the Christian church before in her whole great and long history." He goes on to explain that we are told that people don't understand theological words, such as justification and sanctification, so we must learn how to communicate with such modern people. As a result, even in the 1960s, the church was pressed to "learn the methods of big business advertising" and to "modernize everything."
Against this tendency and its imperative of so-called relevance, Lloyd-Jones asserts, "The problem confronting us is precisely the problem that has always confronted the Christian Church." The world "never varies," but always "hates God." It uses different terminology, but the differences are only on the surface. What varies, sadly, is the state of the church. But the indifference and hostility of the world are not "new or novel or unique." The apostle Paul arrived in Thessalonica with his little missionary team and faced a pagan society immersed in immorality and ignorant of biblical truth-very much like the modern world.
The apostle responded with the ministry of Word and Spirit: "For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance" (1 Thess 1:5). Lloyd-Jones maintained that this is exactly what the church needs today to evangelize the lost, "the message and the power of the Spirit upon it." The apostles did not come with anti-war protests, political agendas, or vague talk about inexpressible experiences of God. They came with doctrine. So must the church today, despite the sad reality that we live in an age when people dislike doctrine, theology, definitions, and clear and careful thinking, as Lloyd-Jones points out. But when have men ever liked the truth?
The message that pagans need to hear begins with God, as we see in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, quoted thus by Lloyd-Jones: "For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come." Even before we tell them about Christ and salvation, people need to hear about the true God. Lloyd-Jones warns: "We start with ourselves, our needs, and then we always want something to satisfy us. Christianity never starts with man. It always starts with God." Then, it moves on to Christ, His death and resurrection, and salvation.
He preaches: "We are in such a hurry. We say, 'Come to Jesus,' and the people do not come to Jesus. Do you know why? I can tell you. They have never seen any need of Jesus." They may look for emotional happiness, the healing of their bodies, guidance, or solutions to earthly problems, but without seeing the glory of God and His holy law, they will not come to Christ.
The way to preach doctrine that centers on God in Christ is to preach the Holy Scriptures. Lloyd-Jones sees a place for lectures, but preaching is not lecturing with Scripture verses attached. Preaching is "always expository," as he says in Preachers and Preaching. That is, it always derives its message and main points from a passage of the Bible.
The "golden rule" of sermon preparation, according to Lloyd-Jones, is that the preacher must deal honestly with the meaning of the text. He cannot seize an idea or a phrase from the Bible and then say whatever he wants. Nor may he give a scholarly report about the text while neglecting the "main thrust" of its "spiritual meaning." It is remarkable how men can avoid preaching Christ and His cross, and end up in a sideshow that neglects the real message of that Scripture in its context. A text such as 2 Timothy 2:8, "Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel," is twisted into an assertion of bare experientiality ("my gospel"-the only gospel that counts is the one that I have made my own). Meanwhile, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is neglected, if not denied outright. Preaching the true message of Scripture requires "spiritual perception" or "unction" from the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20, 27).
Lloyd-Jones became known for his expository series of sermons on books of the Bible, such as Romans, Ephesians, and 1 John, or on long passages such as the Sermon on the Mount. There is great wisdom in preaching through the Scriptures in a continuous fashion for the edification of the saints. However, it is less often appreciated that Lloyd-Jones always preached evangelistic sermons on Sunday nights. Generally, as Iain Murray has noted, each of these evangelistic messages expounded a Scripture text selected for the occasion without being part of a series.
Lloyd-Jones advocates quite a bit of liberty in selecting the text for the sermon, whether for evangelism or for edification. He warns preachers against mapping out in advance exactly what they will preach for the next six months and sticking rigidly to the plan. At times, a text will speak powerfully to the preacher's soul. When this happens, he advises, preachers should write down an outline and a few thoughts, and save them for a future occasion. Sometimes a number of texts will coalesce into a theme that the preacher can turn into a series, as Lloyd-Jones did with the sermons that became his book Spiritual Depression. The calendar, current world crises, or catastrophic events may provide opportunities to bring the Word of God directly to bear on what people are thinking about.
The preacher must be sensitive to the needs of his people. That includes not preaching a series that is too deep and too long for the congregation to follow. But whatever one preaches, it must be the Word of God. It is worth noting that Lloyd-Jones began his work in serial exposition with a relatively short and simple series of sermons later published as Expository Sermons on 2 Peter. He was content to begin that way, and so train his people for the more advanced kind of preaching found in the sermons on Romans and Ephesians.
Preaching with the Unction of the Holy Spirit
It is not enough to bring the Word; there must be the Spirit too. Lloyd-Jones says that when Paul wrote of the Word going out "in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance" (1 Thess 1:5), he was referring not merely to the experience of the listeners but also to the preacher. Paul preached "in the power of the Holy Ghost," as Lloyd-Jones specifies in "Not in Word Only."
Lloyd-Jones long stressed the necessity of preaching truth for doctrinal understanding. As he said in an interview with Carl Henry, "When I came to England, evangelicalism was non-theological, pietistic, and sentimental." However, Murray reminds us that in the 1960s, Lloyd-Jones also began to emphasize that those who embraced orthodoxy must not rest therein; they needed the work of the Holy Spirit in personal experience, and especially for assurance of salvation. The church needs both a clear understanding of biblical truth and a warm embrace of spiritual experience.
Experiential Christianity is not just a result of preaching; it is an essential qualification for the preacher. As Paul explained to the Thessalonians, he preached with purity of heart, not seeking to please men (1 Thess 2:3-5). Lloyd-Jones enjoyed humor, but in "Not in Word Only" he says, "I cannot imagine the Apostle Paul bouncing up on to a platform, cracking a few jokes to put the congregation at ease, and then entertaining them with flippancies in order just to play upon their feelings." On the contrary, he quotes 1 Corinthians 2:4: "And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power."
The same Spirit worked in Paul's listeners, so that they received the message not as the words of men but as the Word of God (1 Thess 2:13). As a result, they turned from idols to serve the living God with faith, hope, and love, even in persecution (1 Thess 1:3, 6, 9). Only the Holy Spirit can produce such a change; only He can convict of sin, illuminate the soul, and give life to the dead. This apostolic kind of gospel proclamation is preaching in the Holy Spirit, and it is an instrument of regeneration by the Spirit.
We must both preach the sovereign grace of regeneration and preach with faith, believing it ourselves. Lloyd-Jones once told Murray: "Modern evangelism pays lip service to regeneration, but it does not really believe in it. True Calvinistic preaching shows the complete helplessness of man and regards the humbling of man as the main part of its work. If that is left out, the true glory of salvation cannot begin to be measured."
Lloyd-Jones knew that preaching involves us in a mysterious partnership or cooperation with almighty God. For this reason, despite all his experience in writing and delivering sermons, he confessed in 1967 that "to me, preaching is a great mystery" (see Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions). At times, God grants a freedom and power that has little to do with our preparations and abilities. Yet, preaching always feels like "an impossible task." It comes with "the element of dread, of terrible responsibility"; there is "the sense of fear, the sense of awe." The preacher cannot be sent by himself. He is sent by God by means of the call of the church (Rom. 10:15). The Spirit-empowered preacher speaks, as Paul confessed in 1 Corinthians 2:3, "in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling." Great preachers, such as Paul or George Whitefield, did not slip easily into preaching. They were alarmed by their unworthiness and the solemn majesty of Christ.
Preaching is also a personal interaction between the preacher and the congregation. It is not at all true that the preacher disappears and only God is seen. Lloyd-Jones agrees with Phillips Brooks's statement that preaching is "truth mediated through personality." He says:
The whole man is involved in preaching. . . . It is not merely what the man says, it is the way in which he says it-this total involvement of the man; his body is involved, every part of him, every faculty is involved if it is true preaching, the whole personality of the individual; and, at the same time, as I said, the congregation is also making its contribution. Here are spiritually minded people, they have come prepared and they are under the influence of the Spirit, and so these two things blend together. There is a unity between preacher and hearers and there is a transaction backwards and forwards. That, to me, is true preaching.
Preaching is a spiritual triangle whereby God draws the preacher and the hearers closer to Himself and to each other. The Holy Spirit is at work, the preacher feels a holy "compulsion," and the people are "gripped and fixed" by the truth. This is a far cry from preaching only because it is Sunday and it's your job. It is a labor of love. Love moves us to study and to organize our thoughts. But Lloyd-Jones says that to dress up our sermons simply "to attract people" is not love, but "prostitution."
Preaching is delivering a "word from God," not in the sense of direct revelation, but as the result of studying Scripture and then speaking the truth of Scripture "in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Cor 2:4). The preacher is an agent of God, and he himself is "taken up" by God into "this realm of the Spirit, and God is giving a message through this man to the people." He is not tied to his notes or to following some perfect form, but speaks with a holy "freedom," often leaving "loose ends" or even interrupting himself in ways one would not expect in a polished theological treatise. God gives him insights and fire even in the act of preaching that he did not have before. As a result, the preacher may say: "I am preaching, yet not I, but I am being used of God; I am being taken up, I am being employed, and God is using even me to speak to these people. I am an ambassador for God, I am a sent one, I am aware of this great responsibility-but it is all right, I am enabled to do it because of His grace and the power that He is gracious enough to give me."
This is the divine mystery of preaching as Lloyd-Jones described it and as he experienced it through a lifetime of ministry in the pulpit. May God raise up more men like Lloyd-Jones who will preach His truth to His glory with the Spirit's unction to the salvation of the lost and the maturation of the saints in Christ.
This article originally appeared in Expositor Magazine, No. 10, Apr/Mar 2016