“For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance, as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:5).
Of all the catastrophes known to man, few evoke scenes of greater horror in the hearts of God’s people than the prospects of a famine of the Word. Preaching holds an indispensable place in God’s economy. Believers know that their spiritual vitality depends on the food delivered from the pulpit by God. In Christ’s words: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4b).
But not all preaching provides the same level of spiritual nourishment. Indeed, some of what passes under the name of preaching bears little discernable resemblance to God’s prescription. A great diversity exists from place to place and from one period of time to another. God alone gives both the ordinance of preaching and the gift of preachers to his church. And in select seasons of history, he has bestowed extraordinary blessing on both his ministers and their message.
One such time and place includes the Highlands of Scotland during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. God raised up a small galaxy of men, in a remote region of the world, who knew the majesty of God and the worth of immortal souls. They bore all the marks of deep piety, fought and won through the exercise of their souls in the secret place and through immersion in the Scriptures. Out of those resources, they ascended their pulpits and delivered the Word in the power of the Spirit. And no one could deny it. The Lord raised the spiritually dead to newness of life in Christ. Converts were soaked in the Word of God until it permeated every crevice of their lives, pouring out of their minds and mouths all day long. God wooed them into the depths of Christian experience and intimate acquaintance with himself. This powerful preaching left an indelible stamp of God’s presence upon them. One Scottish Highland minister, Rev. Alexander MacColl, affirmed, “For myself I would like that minister who had been scorched by the Law, melted by the Gospel, and much sifted by the temptations of Satan.” Since the history of the church displays the works of God, we would do well to study this period.
Rev. John Kennedy of Dingwall (1819–1884), the most eminent Highland minister of his day, lived at the tail end of this spiritual legacy. He exhibited in his own life and ministry the biblical patterns he received from those who had gone before. But he could also see the tide receding at the end of his life. He foretold of a day fast approaching when the Highland congregations would no longer be numbered in the thousands and hundreds, but rather in the tens. And so he raised the torch, desiring that it might yet illuminate a rising generation. In his most well-known book, from which the excerpt below is taken, he chronicled the spiritual history of his native Ross-shire, a Highland county in the north of Scotland. It served as both a defense of the old paths and as a commendation to those in the future. He left this permanent record with hopes that men in ensuing years would read, remember, and most of all, recover the biblical religion that many had abandoned.
The last section of the excerpt below describes the biblical characteristics of faithful preaching and distinguishes it from its many counterfeits. There is only one appropriate response. We must pray earnestly for preachers and their preaching. “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified . . .” (2 Thess. 3:1). And we must pray that God would once again raise up an army of spiritually eminent ministers in the present generation. “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38).
— Robert D. McCurley
But the ministry in Ross-shire furnishes no exception to the rule, that on the man whom He makes eminent in His Church the Lord bestows excellent gifts, as surely as an unusual measure of grace. Among them were men of distinguished talent; a few of them were men of genius; and the lowest of them stood at least on a level with the average ministry of the Church, in point of literary acquirements. If they earned no fame for mere talent and learning, it was because, having once cast their gifts and acquirements at the feet of their Master, they cared not to bear them aloft for the admiration of their fellows; arid because they occupied places, in a quiet portion of the Church, from which they were not called to the construction or defence of the outworks—the service in which the lustre of talent and of learning finds most occasion to appear. They were allowed to devote themselves almost exclusively to the more spiritual duties of their calling; and they had learned, in that sphere, to dispense with “excellency of speech and of wisdom.” Each one of them would have been distinguished as a Christian, though he had never been a minister. There are ministers who find all their Christianity in their office, having had none of it before in their hearts. Far otherwise was it with the godly fathers in Ross-shire. With two exceptions, they had all been Christians before they were office-bearers, and some of them from their earliest years. Nor were they ordinary Christians. Their deep experience of the work of the Spirit, their clear views of the doctrines of grace, their peculiar nearness to God, and their holy watchfulness, would have made them eminent among the godly, though they never had a place among the clergy. Each of them had his own peculiarity of experience, but all of them were deeply exercised in a life of godliness; each had his favorite department of truth, while lovingly embracing the whole, but all of them were “skillful in the word of righteousness;” some of them were favored with more intimate communion with the Lord than the others, but they were all “a people near unto Him” – each one was distinguished by some peculiar grace, but they all lived “soberly, righteously and godly in a present evil world.” In every respect they differed from each other, but in their common resemblance to their Father in Heaven; but, owing to this, they were all recognized, even by the world, as brethren in the Lord.
As preachers, they were all remarkable. There are some who preach before their people, like actors on the stage, to display themselves and to please their audience. Not such were the self-denied preachers of Ross-shire. There are others who preach over their people. Studying for the highest, instead of doing so for the lowest, in intelligence, they elaborate learned treatises, which float like mist, when delivered, over the heads of their hearers. Not such were the earnest preachers of Ross-shire. There are some who preach past their people. Directing their praise or their censure to intangible abstractions, they never take aim at the views and the conduct of the individuals before them. They step carefully aside, lest their hearers should be struck by their shafts, and aim them at phantoms beyond them. Not such were the faithful preachers of Ross-shire. There are others who preach at their people, serving out in a sermon the gossip of the week, and seemingly possessed with the idea, that the transgressor can be scolded out of the ways of iniquity. Not such were the wise preachers of Ross-shire. There are some who preach towards their people. They aim well, but they are weak. Their eye is along the arrow towards the hearts of their hearers, but their arm is too feeble for sending it on to the mark. Superficial in their experience and in their knowledge, they reach not the cases of God’s people by their doctrine, and they strike with no vigor at the consciences of the ungodly. Not such were the powerful preachers of Ross-shire. There are others still, who preach along their congregation. Instead of standing with their bow in front of the rank, these archers take it in line, and, reducing their mark to an individual, never change the direction of their aim. Not such were the discriminating preachers of Ross-shire. But there are a few who preach to the people directly and seasonably the mind of God in His word, with authority, unction, wisdom, fervor, and love. Such as these last were the eminent preachers of Ross-shire.