Many make the mistake of thinking that the best preaching is that which is most eloquent or proficient. “Sermon tasters” may go further and discern what they think makes an exceptional sermon. We need preaching that has a lasting impact on our lives, however. Such preaching will be spiritually edifying. It must be solid and full of substance but also practical. To edify means to build up in faith, godliness and spiritual maturity. But how do we know whether a sermon does this?
James Durham believed that edification was the key to truly biblical preaching. In fact, he spoke of it as key to the ministry and everything that happens within the Church. A sermon on Ephesians 4:11-12 (only recently discovered in a manuscript) emphasises these points. We must seek to “excel to the edifying of the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12). Durham says that we need to aim mainly at edifying the body of Christ.
In every sermon, in every exercise of discipline, in every meeting together, in every word we speak in our meeting, in all the steps of our conduct, look to edify.
Durham shows how Paul identifies a fault among the Corinthians in the verse quoted above. They were taken up with gifts such as who could preach and pray best. Paul’s exhortation is that they must concentrate all of their gifts on the purpose of edification. They should “have them visibly for the good of God’s people”. This is true for all Christians but especially for ministers.
Preaching involves a giftedness to “express and bring forth, for the edification of others” what ministers have obtained from God’s Word through the help of the Spirit. Durham gives various rules that help to discern whether the content of a sermon is edifying. What follows is something of a paraphrase of these points in updated language.
1. Preaching Edifies When it Exalts Christ Most
Preaching edifies when it comes near to Jesus Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God (2 Corinthians 1:24). Edifying preaching commends Christ to the heart of the hearer. It brings them to be in love with Him and the main things of the gospel which are the foundation of religion and godliness. Other truths that do not come near the foundation are a little beside the text, or at least the main consideration of a minister’s work. When tested these may well be found to be hay and stubble that will not survive the fire (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15). [Durham is referring to the minister’s work of preaching being burned up because it mainly emphasised less foundational truths and therefore was less edifying].
2. Preaching Edifies When it Promotes Holiness Most
Paul instructs Titus to “affirm constantly that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works, these things are good and profitable to men” (Titus 3:8). Paul says that this is the opposite of contentious strivings about the law which were unprofitable and vain. But the doctrine of holiness serves to mortify sin and advance us in being conformed to Christ.
3. Preaching Edifies When it Penetrates the Heart and Conscience Most
Edifying teaching comes furthest into the heart and conscience of the hearer in a searching, convicting or comforting way. The apostle Paul refers to the doctrine commended to every man’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Corinthians 4:2). This teaching does not only put the Word on the table as bread, it also divides a portion to everyone’s mouth. Such a preacher is approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Generalised teaching will prove insipid if it does not come in upon the conscience in a convicting way.
4. Preaching Edifies When it is Most Clear
The clearest teaching which people have fewest prejudices against is the most edifying. This is the teaching which is most powerful and plain. The hearer has the door of their understanding open to this and their conscience convinces that such a sin is sin and such a thing is duty. There is no prejudice against that which is urged. The truth is not disputed and there is nothing but their affections to work upon. This is the readiest way to promote edification.
It is on this basis that the apostle wills rather to follow the doctrine that is acknowledged by all. He urges that on hearers and leaves other things that breed janglings and striving about words, which is opposed to edifying. It is God’s goodness to Scotland that “the mystery of godliness” is without all controversy (1 Timothy 3:16). The mystery of salvation and saving doctrine is kept among us without being controverted. The apostle Paul’s practice confirms all this. In dealing with Jews and others he lays down the principles they themselves did not controvert as the most suitable purpose for them.
5. Preaching Edifies in Dependence on Christ
Ministers should pursue all means and ways which may promote the edification of the body. These are a few general principles to help ensure these are more diligently and sincerely followed.
(a) Depend Much on Christ
We must depend much on our Lord Jesus Christ to help us forward. We must going about our work in the strength of He who has commissioned us not in our own. It must not be by the power of human gifts but “By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness, on the right hand and on the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7). It must be in the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:4), trusting more in this and the presence and Spirit of Christ going along with it than in what we have received. “If they had stood in my counsel and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned souls from their evil way and the evil of their doings” (Jeremiah 23:22). The reason why these prophets did no good is that they stood at a distance with God, and stole the word one from another. They were content to get the word of a prophet to fill up their preaching, but were ignorant of God.
Perhaps it is appropriate to mention a faithful man of God speaking of the ministers of his time. He said they were like servants who serving a good master had got a good stock of their own, but they were so taken up in trading with it, that they ignored their master. When ministers cease having regard to Christ and dependence on Him in exercising their gifts and graces and advancing His work committed to their hands, they cannot prosper in edifying His people.
(b) Depend on the Power of God
Ministers must “seek to excel to the edifying of the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:12) and “stir up the gift that is in them” (2 Timothy 1:6). They must give themselves “to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:13) and give themselves wholly to meditation and prayer (as the words that follow instruct) that their “profiting may appear to all”. But neglecting these things reveals our nakedness. Therefore, when Paul bids them to seek to excel to the edifying of the church, he adds, “Let him that speaks in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret” (1 Corinthians 14:13). There should be wrestling with God not only for gifts and content to bring forth, but that we may also profit and do good by it. We must be more earnest with God, that people may get some benefit by what is spoken, than for getting something to get us through.
(c) Be the Ministers of Christ
Ministers must be ministerial in all their conduct as the ministers of righteousness, bearing something of their Master’s authority and yet kind, sober, sympathising with all kinds under their charge. “Giving offense in nothing that the ministers be not blamed, but in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God” (2 Corinthians 6:3–4). When this is compared with 2 Corinthians 6:1 (passing over the parenthesis in verse 2), Paul makes his working with God an argument not to receive the grace of God in vain. In a word, it is not only to have conduct which none can speak against, but to speak, preach, pray, confer, converse with others, and in all things to carry ourselves as the ministers of Christ, and not as other men. This is greatly lacking amongst us. It may be prudence, some lost pride, self-seeking, or some carnal purpose with a mixture of carnal affections, makes us speak or forbear speaking or acting in some business. Yet to speak and act as to be ashamed for the work’s sake (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13) and as the ministers of Christ, is another thing.
Most of these themes are drawn out further in the booklet Penetrating Preaching by James Durham published by the Trust. This can be purchased from our online store or other retailers.
The text above has been adapted from a sermon transcribed by Naphtali Press. Durham preached this sermon on Ephesians 4:11-12 before the Synod of Glasgow, 5 October 1652. The manuscript was only recently discovered in a library in the USA. The edited version will appear in the Naphtali Press Collected Sermons of James Durham (later in 2016 DV). The full transcription can be read in the Confessional Presbyterian Journal Volume 12 (2016). We are very grateful to Naphtali Press for kindly supplying the edited text. They have fulfilled an invaluable role in recent decades in reprinting editions of James Durham’s writings and others from the Second Reformation.
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