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The Holy Torment of Preaching

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . 17 So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Romans 10:13-15, 17 (ESV)

In his novel, Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope ridiculed preaching; he made a mockery of his main character, the Reverend Obadiah Slope, who fit the following description:

There is, perhaps, no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilised and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons. No one but a preaching clergyman has, in these realms, the power of compelling an audience to sit silent, and be tormented.1

Of course, it all depends on the sort of torment one means. If listeners are tortured by deadly dull, hopelessly abstract discourse meant to parade the preacher’s scholarship or sensitivity, protect him from criticism, or fill assigned space in the worship service, then Trollope has a point. But sermons can generate godly torment. In Acts 2, at Pentecost, those hearing Peter suffered the saving torment of being “cut to the heart.” In Acts 7, Stephen’s message tormented the Sanhedrin, and they stoned him. In Acts 19, Paul tormented the Artemis tradesmen, and they rioted.

God could have chosen to win souls by writing His gospel in the skies or on the sides of mountains. He could have inscribed His message of salvation on the human heart, just as He did the requirements of the law (cf. Rom. 2:14-15). But He chose to use preachers to convey “the word of Christ” and thus awaken faith (Rom. 10:17).

In Romans 1:16, Paul said the power was in the Word and not in the speaker. Romans 10:13-17 continues this theme. Faith comes by hearing the “word of Christ,” whether from the eloquent or the homespun, the pastoral or the prophetic, the scholarly or the untutored. All preachers must take care that nothing they do or say gets in the way of God’s Word. Yes, each will have his God-given personality and style, but none should suppose that personality or style is paramount.

This should be a great source of comfort to the preacher. If he is true to the Bible, then God will do His work. Like the rain, the Word of God is productive when it falls to earth (Isa. 55:10-11). Of course, some ground is particularly hard and rocky, inhospitable to germination (Mark 4:1-20), but some ground is fertile, and God will have His crop. Indeed, a fruitless preacher might well question the quality of his sowing or the generosity of his scriptural rainfall.

In all this, one must not lose sight of the fundamental fact that the preacher is but an instrument, that the Holy Spirit does the real work of conversion and sanctification. Preaching is necessary, but not sufficient, for Church renewal; unless God moves, the preacher’s words will bounce off hearts of stone.


Anthony Trollope, The Warden and Barchester Towers (New York: The Modern Library, 1936), 252.