Simplicity in Preaching

This coming Lord’s Day evening I will preach for the first time in six weeks. It’s been by far my longest stretch of not preaching since I was ordained in 2003. It’s been nice to listen to some great preaching the past six Sundays, but I’m looking forward to getting back in the pulpit. In preparation, I read something I’ve been looking forward to reading for a little while now: J. C. Ryle’s “Simplicity in Preaching.” It’s chapter three in The Upper Room, published by Banner of Truth (you can buy the book here or get it as a free PDF here). I’ve feel like I’ve always struggled with being too complicated a preacher; I love to study, I love Greek and Hebrew and Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology, I love big words and big ideas. Yet as Ryle reminds us in this article, “Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you.”

Ryle begins with four prefatory remarks. First, he says that simplicity is of the utmost importance to every minister who wants to be useful to souls. That almost goes without saying. He quotes Quintilian, “If you do not with to be understood, you deserve to be neglected.” Second, he warns us that attaining simplicity in preaching is difficult. It’s very easy to shoot over the heads of our people. It’s easy to make hard things seem hard, to use big words and appear very learned – “but to write what will strike and stick, to speak or to write that which at once pleases and is understood, and becomes assimilated with a hearer’s mind and a thing never forgotten – that, we may depend upon it, is a very difficult thing and a vary rare attainment.” Third, he reminds us that simple preaching is neither childish preaching nor condescending preaching. Fourth, he states that simple preaching is not vulgar preaching [by which Ryle does not mean speaking profanities, but a feigned illiteracy or stupidity] – “It is an utter mistake to imagine that uneducated and illiterate men and women prefer to be spoken to in an illiterate way, and by an uneducated person.”

Having introduced the subject of simplicity in preaching, Ryle proceeds to give five hints to attain simplicity:

1. Take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach. “If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness.” I don’t agree with all of Ryle’s comments in this section (he dissuades ministers from preaching about “predestination, free will, and the eternal purposes of God”), but his warning against preaching difficult passages without fully understanding them is wise. That’s why I haven’t preached from Ecclesiastes or Revelation yet! Ryle commends sermon divisions, and any reader of his commentaries sees how simple and clear his sermons were.

2. Try to use in all your sermons, as far as you can, simple words. This has always been a struggle for me, because I like big words, and there are times when a big word seems to be the most appropriate word. Trying to explain your sermon to your children comes in handy at this point. To be sure, the Bible contains big words that I want my children to learn and understand and be able to use. But I should do a better job of refraining from words that the majority of my people, much less the children of the church, don’t know and could care less about knowing.

3. Take care to aim at a simple style of composition. For those, like myself, who still write out a sermon manuscript, Ryle has some interesting pieces of advice under this head: “If you would attain a simple style of composition, beware of writing many lines without coming to a pause, and so allowing the minds of your hearers to take a breath. Beware of colons and semicolons. Stick to commas and full stops, and take care to write as if you asthmatical or short of breath. Never write or speak very long sentences or long paragraphs. Use stops frequently, and start again; and the often you do this, the more likely you are to attain a simple style of composition. Enormous sentences full of colons, semi-colons, and parentheses, with paragraphs two or three pages’ length, are utterly fatal to simplicity. We should bear in mind that preachers have to do with hearers and not readers, and that what will ‘read’ well will not always ‘speak’ well. A reader of English can always help himself by looking back a few lines and refreshing his memory. A hearer of English hears once for all, and if he loses the thread of your sermon in a long involved sentence, he very likely never finds it again.”

4. Use a direct style. That is, use “I” and “you” rather than the royal/pulpit “we.” Speak to the people of God as their pastor who comes “to talk of something that concerns your soul, something you should believe, something you should do.”

5. Use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. As I feel this to be one of the weakest aspects of my preaching, I greatly appreciated Ryle’s comments. Illustrations, he explains, are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” Though with his commendation he provides a caution: “You must be careful how you use color, lest you do as much harm as good. Do not put color by spoonfuls, but with a brush.”

In closing, Ryle gives four observations:

1. Beware sermons that people think are “beautiful,” “brilliant,” “clever”; rather, aim at preaching that which will do lasting good to souls. He writes, “Let us aim so to preach, that what we say may really come home to men’s minds and consciences and hearts, and make them think and consider.”

2. It doesn’t matter how simple you are if you’re not preaching Christ crucified “so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it.” Without mincing words, he exclaims, “If Christ crucified has not His rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe, and be, and do, YOUR PREACHING IS OF NO USE.”

3. It doesn’t matter how simple you are if your delivery is atrocious.

4. Simplicity is useless “without prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the grant of God’s blessing, and a life corresponding in some measure to what we preach.” He concludes with words that should be written over the doorframe of our ministries: “Be it ours to have an earnest desire for the souls of men, while we seek for simplicity in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, and let us never forget to accompany our sermons by holy living and fervent prayer.”

Lord willing, my preaching this Sunday will be simple. I’m preaching a difficult text (I Samuel 15:24-35), yet I hope and pray that I will heed Ryle’s counsel, and that God’s people will be the better for it.

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