The Church's Neglected Treasures

What would you say to someone, who you knew to be a multi-millionaire, if you saw them living on the street (I am in no way drawing on an Eddie Murphy movie here)? Surley you would ask them why they were forsaking all of their unique privileges? After all, what multi-millionaire would rather rummage through trash cans than be served at bistros? Strange, and utterly unlikely, as this situation might be, it is actually a reality for many Christians today. Reflecting on the rich repository of truth which God has entrusted to His church, Sinclair Ferguson once creatively explained, “When truth gets into a hymnbook it becomes the confident possession of the whole church." While this is true with regard to hymnody; it is equally so with regard to the great sermons of church history. It could just as rightly be asserted, “When truth gets into a volume of sermons it becomes the confident possession of the whole church.” The sermons of the great preachers of church history (especially those committed to Reformed Theology) are some of most extraordinary treasures that God has placed within the church’s reserve; yet, at the same time, they are some of the most neglected. The neglect of such, in our day, leads to the malnurishment of many souls in the church; whereas an appreciation and use of them serves to deepen our love for Christ and our knowledge of His word. 

This neglect owes, in part, to a narcissistic approach to ministry and the Christian life. We mistakenly think that if the Scriptures are not being “made relevant” in a sermon (being viewed through the sociological lens of our cultural mores or current events) then they somehow have nothing to say to us today. The English Puritans are a fine example of those who produced time- and culture-transcending sermons that are just as "relevant" today as they were when they were first preached. It is rare to read a sermon by Thomas Manton, John Owen, Thomas Watson, John Flavel or Thomas Brooks in which you will find an exposition or application that is not relevant to those living in the 21st Century. (Of course, you will happen across those rare works such as Thomas Brooks' discourse on the great fire of London in 1666  - "London's Lamentation: A Serious Discourse Concerning That Late Fiery Dispensation that turned Our (Once Renowned) City Into A Ruinous Heap." Such time specific sermons or discourses are few and far between). 

Additionally, many neglect the reading of historical sermons because they simply do not know that they exist. The establishment of the Banner of Truth Trust in 1957, and resurgence of interest in Jonathan Edwards studies in the mid-20th Century, has been enormously helpful in reviving the church's knowledge of its great theologians and their sermons. Sinclair Ferguson helpfully explains this when he writes:

From a human perspective, it is probable that many...never would have discovered Reformed theology fifty years ago. The media through which we have learned it were almost non-existent. Reformed magazines and books were known to only a cognoscenti. Few pulpits, and fewer conferences, were marked by its convictions. We can rejoice in the outpouring of riches we have received.1

The resources available today make it possible for almost any believer to fervently mine the annals of church history in order to discover these spiritual riches. 

It seems to me that there are also a few personal challenges that keep many from mining the church's treasury. The first is that there is an overwhelming amount of printed material that we could potentially wade through in order to find the great sermons; and, the second is, the laborious work that it can take to plow through the antiquated wording and lengthy sentences in order to benefit from the point of the sermon. Here are a few helps to guide us past these challenges:

  • Familiarize yourself with sites like John Hendryx has done us a tremendous service by providing so many links to Reformed and Purtian sermons over the past decade. For instance, his "Puritan Library" section provides a good number of links to Purtian books and sermons. 
  • Make use of Google Books and Internet Archive to find and download PDFs of sermon volumes from theologians in church history. On these two sites you will find many pre-1923 sermon volumes from some of the greatest libraries around the world to download for free. For instance, you can find such volumes as The Works of Robert Murray McCheyneSamuel Davies Substance of SermonsThomas Chalmers Sermons Preached in the Tron Church, Charles Spurgeon's Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit volumes and B.B. Warfield's Faith and Life and The Saviour of the World
  • The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University has made almost all of Edwards' works and sermons availble. Among the other helpful resources there, you can search for many of his sermons according to their canonical arrangement. In addition, there are helps to guide you through the history and theology of these sermons. For instance, "East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards" is a podcast that was begun with that specific end in view. 
  • When you start reading a sermon in which the sentances are lengthy and the wording difficult, press through the sermon. Stay focused on the main point, and labor to see the connections. When we stretch our minds by reading those writings that we find more challenging we often find that we grow in our ability to process truth. 
  • If a portion of a sermon starts to weigh you down because of the difficulty of the language or content, skip ahead to the next paragraph. This approach has been a great help to me in reading both sermons and books. Don't allow the difficulty of one section keep you from benefiting from the whole. 

5 benefits of reading older sermons:

  • Reading older sermons helps us deepen our understanding of Scripture. When some of the greatest theologians and pastors in church history preach a sermon on a text they are bringing the amalgomated wisdom of their years of study and prayer to it. We, in turn, are the recipients of the benefits of their diligent labors. 
  • Reading older sermons yields rich historical citations and quotes. Some of the most well-known and well-loved quotes from church history are well-known and well-loved today precisely because there were cited in sermons of bygone generations. Equally, such sermons deepen our knowledge of other figures in church history. 
  • We generally find more careful exposition of Scripture in older sermons. Puritan pastors, for instance, will often spend some time explaining the meaning of a particular Hebrew or Greek word or phrase in their sermon and how that bears on the meaning of the text.  
  • Older sermons--in contrast to commentaries or other books--often have a healthy balance of biblical exposition and soul-searching application. There is a degree to which most of what we read today is merely theological exposition or merely pragmatic application. 
  • Older sermons usually have a pastor's heart behind them. They are not simply the product of a mind wishing to impart facts; they are the product of loving hearts that are seeking to carry their listeners on to glory. 

10 examples of theologically-rich sermons from the history of the church:

  1. Richard Sibbes, "A Heavenly Discourse Between Christ and Mary, After His Resurrection
  2. Jonathan Edwards, "The Excellency of Christ
  3. Samuel Davies, "The Divine Perfections Illustrated In The Method of Salvation, Through The Suffering of Christ
  4. Thomas Chalmers,' "The Expulsive Power of a New Affection"
  5. John MacLaurin, "Glorying in the Cross of Christ"
  6. Robert Murray McCheyne, "The Love of Christ"
  7. George Whitefield, "The Lord Our Righteousness"
  8. C.H. Spurgeon, "Altogether Lovely
  9. B.B. Warflied, "God's Immeasurable Love" (pg. 103 ff.)
  10. J. Gresham Machen, "Constraining Love

God invites you to eat at the finest bistros this world has ever known when He invites you to take up and read the great sermons from the annals of church history. The sermons of Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, McCheyne, Davies, Spurgeon and Whitefield are "the confident possession of the church," and, therefore, ought to be your and my confident possession. Make time to enjoy and familiarize yourself with these treasures. In doing so you will surely find that you will be filled by them and will long to bring others to feast on them with you. 

1. Sinclair Ferguson In Christ Alone (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009) p. 95