I used to teach a class on homiletics. The first text I assigned was Preaching and Preachers by Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Based on lectures given in 1969, the book isn’t exactly ancient, but it’s old enough to sound a different note than recent preaching books. I found it helpful as a reminder of what’s changed and what hasn’t when it comes to preaching.
The reaction from students varied. Some loved it; others could see no value in trying to learn from someone as antiquated as Lloyd-Jones.
The more antiquated truths become, I’d argue, the more we need to remember them today.
A friend once told me that the job of a music leader in church is easy. “All they have to do,” he said, “is to find great songs and reintroduce them.” I’m not sure my friend had grasped all the complexities of that role, but I found myself thinking that the job of a preacher isn’t much different. All we have to do is to mine old truths and express them in fresh ways. We’re aided not only by the rich resources we find in Scripture, but by all the preachers and thinkers who’ve reflected on these Scriptures over the past two thousand years.
Every good preacher is part of the old truths project.
We benefit from mining the past for a few reasons.
First, it humbles us. We’re not innovators. We’re stewards of a message. Our job isn’t to invent anything new but to pass on what we’ve received to a new generation. In a minor way, we follow the tradition of Moses who stood on the border of the Promised Land and delivered old truths to a new generation before he faded from the scene. Transmission, not innovation, is our major responsibility.
Second, we’re rich. My father’s sister evidently lived like a pauper, but died with a significant amount of money she’d never spent. Her descendants shook their heads: why hadn’t she spent some of what she had? When we ignore what’s been passed down to us from those who’ve gone before, we’re not much different from my aunt. We have riches in the bank we could use, but we live in relative poverty. Unlike money, the church’s wealth is expanded, not depleted, as it’s used.
Third, whatever issue we face, someone has already thought about it and expressed truth about it better than we have. Take Charles Spurgeon, for instance. He lived fairly recently. Every time I try to express a truth beautifully, and then check to see how Spurgeon expressed a similar truth, he beats me. We do well to build on their work.
Finally, the work of those who’ve gone before helps us to deal with the pressures we face today. We need, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “the clean see breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” People who lived in previous times were also prone to error, but usually not to the same errors of our particular time. Reading them helps to correct the unique mistakes of our age.
Don’t innovate. Don’t prefer the new. Commit to being part of the old truths project: the lifetime task of benefiting from what we’ve received and expressing it in fresh ways for those who’ve never heard these truths before.