The Demise of Biblical Preaching
Who would deny that the following words are applicable to our age and to much of professed evangelicalism. They are in fact from a sermon preached at the ordination of Professor Dwight, in New Haven, 1861, when Dr Hawes of Hartford, Connecticut declared:
"Instead of coming right out in the strength of God, with the naked sword of the Spirit, to do battle with sin and error, it is too common for the preachers of our day to study to be ingenious, original, elegant ; to make literary sermons, great sermons, popular sermons, as one says. To this end, instead of confining itself within its proper commission, that of delivering God's message in God's way, it ranges abroad over creation to find novel and strange subjects ; and then it seeks to handle them in a new and original way; decking them out in tropes and figures, and all fine things ; just suited to make the whole exhibition elegant and popular, it may be, but utterly ineffective and powerless as to all spiritual impression.
But not to dwell longer on lesser, though really important matters, let us come at once to what is believed by many to be a chief cause of the diminished power of the pulpit — it is DROPPING from its inculcations the great distinguishing doctrines of grace; not stating, explaining, proving, and applying them as themes for sermons, but substituting for them essays and speculations about matters and things in general ; giving them a religious turn, but not aiming to break up the fallow ground of the hard, unregenerated heart by bringing to bear upon it the distinctive, searching, saving truths of the Gospel. Without admitting this to be true to the extent to which some carry it, it must be acknowledged that there is a tendency in this direction in the pulpit of the present day. The doctrines in question are not popular. The discussion of them is accounted dry and dull. The demand is for something more exciting, more entertaining and tasteful; and the modern pulpit is too much inclined to fall in with this demand ; to discuss literary and ethical questions, questions of social and moral reform, or other matters of curious and novel character, instead of bringing forward and giving prominence to the old, and, as some would say, worn-out doctrines of depravity, regeneration, sovereignty, election, justification, together with the character and work of a crucified, atoning Christ, as the great central point of all Gospel truth. It is rather rare, I think, that the people hear a thorough-going, out-and-out discussion and application of these and other kindred doctrines from the pulpit.
It is even boasted by the enemies of evangelical religion, as one of the favorable signs of the times, that the stern orthodoxy of a former day has been obliged, under the pressure of public sentiment and the increase of light, to soften down or conceal some of its more severe and offensive points, and to be more pliant and accommodating in its inculcations from the pulpit. This, I fear, is true to an extent which a due regard for the teachings of God's Word and the interests of religion would by no means justify. It is just what might be expected from the spirit of the times in which we live, that thorough, searching, humbling views of evangelical doctrine and duty should be unpopular. A luxurious, pleasure-loving, money-getting, skeptical age can have no liking for the plain, discriminating truths of God's Word. Its demand is rather for smooth things, for the prophesyings of deceits, and the holding forth of such views of God and his government, of the soul and its destiny, as are suited to soothe and flatter men in their worldliness and sins. I do not know whether the present is exactly the time which the apostle predicted should come, when men would not endure sound doctrine, but would heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears, and, turning from the truth, would be turned unto fables. But certain it is that there is much in the character of the present times which strongly resembles this. Teachers of all sorts are multiplied as they never were before, and they teach all sorts of things in the shape and name of religion, and great numbers are ready to run after them, carried about by every wind of doctrine, ever learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. In the meantime there is a growing demand to lower the standard of God's truth, to bring down the high and holy principles which constitute the vital power of the Gospel."
Quoted in "Hints and Helps in Pastoral Theology." By William S. Plumer. 1874