When renowned theologian JI Packer passed away in July, like countless Christians around the world, I paused to give thanks for Dr. Packer’s long life and influence upon the Church. Many others have written moving and comprehensive testimonies and I have nothing to add to those. But my mind did immediately think back to a small conference he spoke at in Savannah, Georgia in April, 1992. Organized by three historic downtown churches—Christ Episcopal, St. John’s Episcopal and Independent Presbyterian—Dr. Packer rotated between the three pulpits before leading a small pastors’ seminar on the last day.
I was in my last year with the U.S. Army, soon to head off to seminary with my wife, and it was a great privilege to be invited to this seminar. I took extensive notes, which to my knowledge are the only record of Packer’s teaching that day. The best part was the question and answer period. During one of his talks, Packer had mentioned that the finest preacher he had ever heard was Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of Westminster Chapel in London. The question was asked: what made Lloyd-Jones’s preaching great? Off the top of his head, Packer listed thirteen aspects to Lloyd-Jones preaching, that in his opinion, lent it such weight.
Even though I had not looked at this list in years, I recognized several of them instantly as those I had remembered from Packer’s answer and which I have tried to implement in my own ministry over the past twenty-five years. Here are Dr. Packer’s thirteen points in order, with some interpretations and additions on my part:
1) First, Packer confessed that he was fortunate to hear Dr. Lloyd-Jones in his prime, beginning in the 1940s. By then, Lloyd-Jones had already preached for more than a decade at a small Welsh congregation before taking the pulpit at Westminster Chapel. This is critical for young preachers to remember. Preaching may be a gift from God, but it is still one that must be practiced. As a new pastor, one of my mentors once told me that his children spent my sermons counting on their fingers the number of times I said, “um.” He said they ran out of fingers. I needed to know that.
2) Second, Martyn Lloyd-Jones believed that preachers were key figures in any nation. I don’t know whether he felt that more keenly as a citizen of the United Kingdom with its long Christian heritage. Either way, Lloyd-Jones believed that what he did mattered—immensely.
3) Packer described how Lloyd-Jones preached with a plain, flowing use of language. He did not try to be overly academic and understood that preaching should have a cadence and pace to it.
4) Lloyd-Jones let the Biblical text speak for itself. Clear enough!
5) As is well known, Lloyd-Jones read the Puritans—a lot. Packer did not expand upon this but as a fellow Puritan scholar himself, I assume Packer had in mind the Puritans’ intensity and comprehensive treatments. That clearly impacted Lloyd-Jones’s own sermons, and he became somewhat famous for the time he would spend in each passage, in no hurry to get to the next verse. His Expositions of Romans is 14 volumes long, with an astounding 72 sermons on Romans 8 alone. I will confess that this is one aspect of Lloyd-Jones’s preaching that I have intentionally not imitated. As powerful as his preaching was, the danger of spending so much time on just one or two verses is that it can in fact become a topical sermon, expounding a particular doctrinal truth, rather than a text as a whole. But of course, Packer was correct: that is exactly how most of the Puritans preached.
6) Packer then told us that George Whitefield was Lloyd-Jones’s model. I do not know whether Dr. Packer knew this from personal conversation or from another source, and he did not expand. I suspect Packer meant that both Whitefield and Lloyd-Jones brought a sense of drama as well as frequent invitations to faith and conversion in their preaching.
7) Lloyd-Jones’s applications were on point. In other words, what marks Biblical preaching – as opposed to mere scholarship – is the application of the Biblical text to the congregation.
8) Packer told us that Lloyd Jones first read the Biblical text, then introduced a societal problem, and then brought his message back to the text. He began and ended with Scripture, but also demonstrated how the text was relevant to the issues of the day.
9) Lloyd-Jones had a sense of drama about everyday life. He was able to show how little things had an ability to point us to heaven or hell, joy or distress, glory or decay. To my memory, this is where Packer became most animated, trying to convey to us the “realness” of his friend’s preaching.
10) In terms of his Puritan reading, Lloyd-Jones particularly read Jonathan Edwards; and like Edwards, he paced his exegesis of the text, unfolding it towards solving a problem introduced at the beginning of the message.
11) Packer then said that Lloyd-Jones would engage in something he termed an “Isaiahic Inversion,” which he defined as contrasting the way of the world with the way of God. Lloyd-Jones wanted to make clear that Christians were part of a holy, “called-out” community that would live in such a way that they stood out from their surrounding secular culture.
12) This next point was the one that perhaps stuck most with me. Packer said that Lloyd-Jones’s sermons would be approximately 40–45 minutes in length. That is probably too long for most preachers today who are not as gifted as Lloyd-Jones, but one thing we can imitate is what Packer said next. Lloyd-Jones would save his most important, most passionate point until about 7–10 minutes until the end of the message. This would bring maximum drama to the sermon. Lloyd-Jones would build up to the final point, which he would hold onto until close to the end in order to keep his congregation listening. This goes sharply against what many of us are taught, which is to tell our hearers what they are going to learn right at the beginning. That may be clearer, but it likely robs a sermon of its drama. On this, I have tried to be with Lloyd-Jones.
13) Finally, Packer said simply this about his friend. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was excited about the Gospel. Salvation comes by hearing and the Gospel is the power to save. That gives ministers a confidence and urgency about their preaching which no other form of public speaking can match.
That was Packer’s thirteen points he related about Lloyd-Jones’s preaching. Dr. Packer then added a few thoughts of his own. First, pastors must not try to teach too much at once to their congregations but pace their teaching—to be patient that a steady diet of God’s Word would do its work in time. Second, to carefully develop one’s own style, because once it is formed, it is hard to shake.
Great influence is born only of great pain and effort, leading to conviction
Packer then closed with this concluding quote about Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s ministry, which I can only think marked Packer’s life as well: “Great influence is born only of great pain and effort, leading to conviction.” That certainly marked both of these great servants of Christ’s Church. May it be so with each of us as Christ gives us strength.