It is most probable that no gift, no pains a man takes to fit himself for preaching, shall ever do good to the people or himself except a man labour to have and keep his heart in a spiritual condition before God, depending on Him always for provision and the blessing. Earnest faith and prayer, a single aim at the glory of God and the good of people, a sanctified heart and bearing, shall avail much for right preaching. There is sometimes somewhat in preaching that cannot be ascribed either to the matter or expression, and cannot be described as to what it is or whence it cometh, but with a sweet violence it pierceth into the heart and affections and comes immediately from the Lord. But if there be any way to attain to such a thing, it is by heavenly disposition of the speaker.
A man should especially read the writings, and labour to follow the gifts, of those whom God hath, in the most eminent manner, blessed in the converting and confirming of their hearers, rather than those who seem to have rare gifts for learning without such success. It is very needful that a man prudently discern what is the nature and extent of the gift that God hath given him, so that in attempting to imitate others he does not stretch beyond his own line, but only correct the defects of his own gift, and labour to improve and stimulate what is good therein.
It is very fitting that a man have plenty and variety of words that, as need requires, he may vary his expression. And sometimes the enforcing of the same thing with other words to the same purpose hath its own use, especially to a dull auditory; and so we find that often in the Prophets and Psalms and poetic Scriptures, the same thing will be twice expressed, only in different words. But a custom of multiplying synonymous words and expressions and sentences to the same purpose is very unsavoury to an understanding hearer that seeks matter and not words; it would appear to proceed from scarcity of matter and a desire to fill the hour any way.
The light of nature, which is a spark of the will of God, hath taught many useful rules, even to pagans, about the right way of making solemn speeches before others. Most of these are, with due discretion, to be applied to preaching, so that what is thought unseemly in the one is to be avoided in the other. But the best rules are taken from the preachings of Christ, of the Apostles and Prophets.
Directions and Mistakes in Preaching
1. A mean should be kept, so that there is not too much matter in one sermon, which only overburdens the memory of the hearers and would seem to smell of ostentation; and, on the other hand, that there be not too little, which hungers the auditory, and argues an empty gift.
2. The matter should not be too exquisite and fine, with abstruse learning and quaint notions which go beyond the capacity of ordinary people, and also savours of ostentation, nor yet too common and such as most of the auditory might themselves devise; for it procures careless hearing and despising of the gift.
Moreover, these faults should be shunned:
1. Too many particular points reckoned, as eight or ten, which loads the memory, and too few is flat. 2. Too exquisite a method, and none almost at all. 3. Too much should not be left to assistance in the time, and yet not all should be premeditated. 4. Ordinarily do not go beyond the hour. 5. Not too much Scripture cited, nor too little. 6. Not to insist long in proving clear doctrines. 7. Not too few doctrines, nor too many. 8. Not to insist on points that may be spoken to on any text. 9. Neither too many similitudes, nor none at all.
1. Not too fine, nor too common. 2. Avoid many synonymous words and sentences.
Utterance and Voice: 1. Not like singing. 2. Not long-drawn-out words. 3. Not affecting a weeping-like voice. 4. Not too loud, or too low. 5. Not to speak too fast, or too slow. 6. Not to interrupt with frequent sighing.
1. Reprinted from Select Biographies, vol 1, Wodrow Society, Edinburgh, 1845, pp 287-9. Livingstone was the famous minister of Covenanting times whose preaching was so much blessed on the Monday of a communion season at Kirk of Shotts.