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Toward the end of his Lectures on Eloquence, John Witherspoon warns against young persons, and young preachers in particular, exaggerating their exhortations to others.

He warns that we should not make virtue so high that no one can attain it and vice so dastardly that no one feels in danger of it.

But I have often observed with most regret upon this subject is young persons carrying the things that are really true and excellent to a certain excess or high pitch that is beyond nature, and does not tend in the least to promote conviction, but rather hinders it. When men speak of virtue or true goodness, they are apt to raise the description beyond the life in any real instance, and when they speak of vice and its consequences they are apt to draw the character so as it would apply only to a few of the most desperate profligates, and the miserable state to which they reduce themselves. This rather seems to fortify the generality of persons to whom these descriptions do not apply, in their careless and secure state.

Similarly, Witherspoon warns against being too slow to sympathize with sufferers and too quick to point them to heroic fortitude:

Once more I have often observed young persons frequently choose as their subject afflictions, of which probably they have had very little experience, and speak in such a high style as if every good man were, as the heroes of old, above the reach of every accident. And it is true that an eminent saint is sometimes made superior to all his sufferings; but generally speaking, we ought to be very tender of sufferers, till we ourselves have been in the furnace of affliction; and after that we shall not need be told so.

Read through these two paragraphs again, especially if you are a young minister. They will save you and your people a lot of unnecessary pain.

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5 thoughts on “Preacher, Be Realistic”

  1. Wesley says:

    Great words bro. This is one reason i rarely use illustrations from books or collections but try to draw them from my own life and experience. I find it does sometimes take a bit more thought but the result i think is a more authentic sermon/presentation of a truth when i talk about what i know/have experienced myself. I think some of what Witherspoon is saying to young preachers comes when they *are* young and preaching to older/more mature folks and they want to look more experienced/well travelled then they actually are. The result is likely rarely positive.

  2. RH says:

    Sometimes, I need the reminder to be exhorted to a higher calling. I’ve actually sympathized with congregant members that believe that exhortation to virtue instills in us all a higher calling. I, myself, know the difference from living on my own power, and in the power of the Spirit. It is truly possible. Not easy, but wonderful when in His presence. I need the preacher to compare my things of this world to the glorious riches of living for the kingdom of heaven. Of course, it can’t be all this. The Scriptures speak to the whole gamut of the truth of Christian experience. To faithfully maintain this balance, I’m sure is much difficult. Theologians to this day debate over Romans 7. And the emphasis on certain aspects of passages will always be thought over by pastors alike. I extend much grace to our young pastors who labor to do with what God has given them; and to all our pastors that strive to speak the text in all its truthfulness and love. As I write this, this is matter that I am convicted to prayer over. Thank you for the post.


  3. anaquaduck says:

    I am no preacher but I did wonder how realistic this quote was on Justin Taylor’s blog yesterday

    “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”—G. K. Chesterton

    I am not saying it’s not realistic but some things can go either way depending on the circumstances. With prayer even the young can become wise & there is so much to learn along the way. I saw an old tree yesterday that was bringing forth shoots of new fresh green growth. I learnt so much from my Ma in conversation. Take time to be Holy says the hymn.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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