The instrumentality by which the spiritual reforms of the eighteenth century carried on their operations, was of the simplest description. It was neither more nor less than the old apostolic weapon of preaching. The sword which the apostle Paul wielded with such mighty effect, when he assaulted the strongholds of heathenism eighteen hundred years ago—was the same sword by which they won their victories.
They preached everywhere. If the pulpit of a parish church was open to them, they gladly availed themselves of it. If it could not be obtained, they were equally ready to preach in a barn. No place came amiss to them. In the field or by the roadside, on the village-green or in the market-place, in the lanes or in alleys, in cellars or in garrets, on a tub or on a table, on a bench or on a horse-block, wherever hearers could be gathered, the spiritual reformers of the eighteenth century were ready to speak to them about their souls.
They preached simply. They rightly concluded that the very first thing to be aimed at in a sermon—was to be understood. They strove to come down to the level of the people, and to speak what the poor could understand. To attain this they were not ashamed to crucify their style, and to sacrifice their reputations for learning. They carried out the maxim of Augustine, “A wooden key is not so beautiful as a golden one, but if it can open the door when the golden one cannot, it is far more useful.”
They preached fervently and directly. They cast aside that dull, cold, heavy, lifeless mode of delivery, which had long made sermons a very proverb for dullness. They proclaimed the words of faith—with faith, and the story of life—with life. They spoke with fiery zeal, like men who were thoroughly persuaded that what they said was true, and that it was of the utmost importance to your eternal interest to hear it. They threw heart and soul and feeling into their sermons, and sent their hearers home convinced, at any rate, that the preacher was sincere and wished them well. They believed that you must speak from the heart—if you wish it speak to the heart, and that there must be unmistakable faith and conviction within the pulpit—if there is to be faith and conviction among the pews.
But what was the substance and subject-matter of the preaching which produced such wonderful effect in the eighteenth century? I will not insult my reader’s common sense, by only saying that it was ‘simple, earnest, fervent, real, genial, brave, life-like,’ and so forth; I would have it understood that it was eminently doctrinal, dogmatic, and distinct.
For one thing, then, the spiritual reformers of the eighteenth century taught constantly the sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture. The Bible, whole and unmutilated, was their sole rule of faith and practice. They accepted all its statements without question or dispute. They knew nothing of any part of Scripture being uninspired. They never flinched from asserting that there can be no error in the Word of God; and that when we cannot understand or reconcile some part of its contents, the fault is in the interpreter and not in the text. In all their preaching they were eminently men of one book. To that book they were content to pin their faith, and by it to stand or fall.
Furthermore, the reformers of the eighteenth century taught constantly the total corruption of human nature. They knew nothing of the modern notion that Christ is in every man, and that all possess something good within, which they have only to stir up and use in order to be saved. They never flattered men and women in this fashion. They told them plainly that they were spiritually dead, and must be made alive again; that they were guilty, lost, helpless, hopeless, and in imminent danger of eternal ruin. Strange and paradoxical as it may seem to some, their first step towards making men good—was to show them that they were utterly bad; and their primary argument in persuading men to do something for their souls—was to convince them that they could do nothing at all.
Furthermore, the reformers of the eighteenth century taught constantly that Christ’s death upon the cross was the only satisfaction for man’s sins; and that, when Christ died, He died as our substitute, ‘The just for the unjust.’ This, in fact, was the cardinal point in almost all their sermons. They loved Christ’s person; they rejoiced in Christ’s promises; they urged men to walk after Christ’s example. But the one subject, above all others, concerning Christ, which they delighted to dwell on, was the atoning blood which Christ shed for us on the cross.
Furthermore, the reformers of the eighteenth century taught constantly the great doctrine of justification by faith. They told men that faith was the one thing needful in order to obtain a saving interest in Christ’s work for their souls. Justification, by virtue of church membership; justification, without believing or trusting—were notions to which they gave no countenance. “Everything, if you will believe, and the moment you believe; nothing, if you do not believe,” was the very marrow of their preaching.
Furthermore, the reformers of the eighteenth century taught constantly the universal necessity of heart conversion and a new creation by the Holy Spirit. They proclaimed everywhere to the crowds they addressed, ‘You must be born again.’ “Sonship to God—by baptism; sonship to God—while we do the will of the devil” —such sonship they never admitted.
Furthermore, the reformers of the eighteenth century taught constantly the inseparable connection between true faith and personal holiness. A true Christian, they maintained, must always be known by his fruits. “No fruits—no grace,” was the unvarying tenor of their preaching.
Finally, the reformers of the eighteenth century taught constantly, as doctrines both equally true, God’s eternal hatred against sin—and God’s love towards sinners. Both about HEAVEN and about HELL they used the utmost plainness of speech. They never shrank from declaring, in plainest terms—the certainty of God’s judgment and of wrath to come, if men persisted in impenitence and unbelief. And yet, they never ceased to magnify the riches of God’s kindness and compassion, and to entreat all sinners to repent and turn to God before it was too late.
Such were the main truths which the English evangelists of those times were constantly preaching.