SIMPLICITY IN PREACHING*
J. C. Ryle
King Solomon says, in the book of Ecclesiastes, “Of making many books there is no end” (Eccles. 12.12). There are few subjects about which that saying is more true than that of preaching. The volumes which have been written in order to show ministers how to ‘reach are enough to make a small library. In sending forth one more little treatise, I only propose to touch one branch of the subject. I do not pretend to consider what should be the substance and matter of a sermon. I purposely leave alone such points as “gravity, unction, liveliness, warmth,” and the like, or the comparative merits of written or extempore sermons. I wish to confine myself to one point, which receives far less attention than it deserves. That point is simplicity in language and style.
Before entering on the subject, I wish to clear the way by making four prefatory remarks.
(a) For one thing, I ask all my readers to remember that to attain simplicity in preaching is of the utmost importance to every minister who wishes to be useful to souls. Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you. It was a true saying of Quintilian, “If you do not wish to be understood, you deserve to be neglected.” Of course the first object of a minister should be to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but “the truth as it is in Jesus.” But the next thing he ought to aim at is, that tlis sermon may be understood; and it will not be understood by most of his hearers if it is not simple.
(b) The next thing I will say, by way of prefatory remark, is, that to attain simplicity in preaching is by no means an easy matter. No greater mistake can be made than to suppose this. “To make hard things seem hard,” to use the substance of a saying of Archbishop Usher’s, “is within the reach of all, but to make hard things seem easy and intelligible is a height attained by very few speakers.” One of the wisest and best of the Puritans said two hundred years ago, “that the greater part of preachers shoot over the heads of the people.” I fear a vast proportion of what we preach is not understood by our hearers any more than if it were Greek. When people hear a simple sermon, or read a simple tract, they are apt to say, “How true! how plain! how easy to understand!” and to suppose that any one can write in that style. Allow me to tell my readers that it is an extremely difficult thing to write simple, clear, perspicuous, and forcible English.
(c) Let me observe, in the next place, that when I talk of simplicity
in preaching, I would not have my readers suppose I mean childish preaching. If we suppose the poor like that sort of sermon, we are greatly mistaken. If our hearers once imagine we consider them a parcel of ignorant folks for whom any kind of “infant’s food” is good enough, our chance of doing good is lost altogether. People do not like even the appearance of condescending preaching. They feel we are not treating them as equals, but inferiors. Human nature always dislikes that. They will at once put up their backs, stop their ears, and take offence, and then we might as well preach to the winds.
(d) Finally, let me observe, that it is not coarse or vulgar preaching that is needed. It is quite possible to be simple, and yet to speak like a gentleman, and with the demeanour of a courteous and refined person. It is an utter mistake to imagine that uneducated and illiterate men and women prefer to be spoken to in an illiterate way, and by an uneducated person. People only tolerate vulgarity and coarseness, as a rule, when they can get nothing else.
Having made these prefatory remarks in order to clear the way, I will now proceed to give my readers five brief hints as to what seems to me the best method of attaining simplicity in preaching.
I. My first hint is this: If you want to attain simplicity in preaching, take care that you have a clear view of the subject upon which you are going to preach. I ask your special attention to this. Of all the five hints I am about to give, this is the most important. Mind, then, when your text is chosen, that you understand it and see right through it; that you know precisely what you want to prove, what you want to teach, what you want to establish, and what you want people’s minds to carry away. If you yourself begin in a fog, you may depend upon it you will leave your people in darkness. Cicero, one of the greatest ancient orators, said long ago, – “No one can possibly speak clearly and eloquently about a subject which he does not understand,” – and I am satisfied that he spoke the truth. Archbishop Whately was a very shrewd observer of human nature, and he said rightly of a vast number of preachers, that “they aimed at nothing, and they hit nothing. Like men landing on an unknown island, and setting out on a journey of exploration, they set out in ignorance, and travelled on in ignorance all the day long.”
I ask all young ministers especially, to remember this first hint. I repeat most emphatically, “Take care you thoroughly understand your subject. Never choose a text of which you do not quite know what it means.” Beware of taking obscure passages such as those which are to be found in unfulfilled and emblematic prophecies. If a man will continually preach to an ordinary congregation about the seals and vials and trumpets in Revelation, or about Ezekiel’s temple, or about predestination, free will, and the eternal purposes
of God, it will not be at all surprising to any reasonable mind if he fails to attain simplicity. I do not mean that these subjects ought not to be handled occasionally, at fit times, and before a suitable audience. All I say is, that they are very deep subjects, about which wise Christians often disagree, and it is almost impossible to make them very simple. We ought to see our subjects plainly, if we wish to make them simple, and there are hundreds of plain subjects to be found in God’s Word.
Beware, for the same reason, of taking up what I call fanciful subjects and accommodated texts, and then dragging out of them meanings which the Holy Ghost never intended to put into them. There is no subject needful for the soul’s health which is not to be found plainly taught and set forth in Scripture. This being the case, I think a preacher should never take a text and extract from it, as a dentist would a tooth from the jaw, something which, however true in itself, is not the plain literal meaning of the inspired words. The sermon may seem very glittering and ingenious, and his people may go away saying, “What a clever parson we have got!” But if, on examination, they can neither find the sermon in the text, nor the text in the sermon, their minds are perplexed, and they begin to think the Bible is a deep book which cannot be understood. If you .want to attain simplicity, beware of accommodated texts.
When I speak of accommodated texts, let me explain what I mean. I remember hearing of a minister in a northern town, who was famous for preaching in this style. Once he gave out for his text, “He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation, chooseth unto him a tree that will not rot” (Isa. 40.20). “Here,” said he, “is man by nature impoverished and undone. He has nothing to offer, in order to make satisfaction for his soul. And what ought he to do? He ought to choose a tree which cannot rot, even the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – On another occasion, being anxious to preach on the doctrine of indwelling sin, he chose his text out of the history of Joseph and his brethren, and gave out the words, “The old man of whom ye spake, is he yet alive?” (Gen. 43.27). Out of this question he ingeniously twisted a discourse about the infection of nature remaining in the believer, – a grand truth, no doubt, but certainly not the truth of the passage. Such instances will, I trust, be a warning to all my younger brethren. If you want to preach about the indwelling corruption of human nature, or about Christ crucified, you need not seek for such far-fetched texts as those I have named. If you want to be simple, mind you choose plain simple texts.
Furthermore, if you wish to see through your subjects thoroughly, and so to attain the foundation of simplicity, do not be ashamed of dividing your sermons and stating your divisions. I need hardly say this is a very vexed question. There is a morbid dread of
“firstly, secondly, and thirdly” in many quarters. The stream of fashion runs strongly against divisions, and I must frankly confess that a lively undivided sermon is much better than one divided in a dull, stupid, illogical way. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that can preach sermons which strike and stick without divisions, by all means let him hold on his way and persevere. But let him not despise his neighbour who divides. All I say is, if we would be simple, there must be order in a sermon as there is in an army. What wise general would mix up artillery, infantry, and cavalry in one confused mass in the day of battle?
My first point, then, if you would be simple in your preaching, is, that you must thoroughly understand your subject, and if you want to know whether you understand it, try to divide and arrange it. I can only say for myself; that I have done this ever since I have been a minister. For forty-five years I have kept blank manuscript books in which I put down texts and heads of sermons for use when required. Whenever I get hold of a text, and see my way through it, I put it down and make a note of it. If I do not see my way through a text, I cannot preach on it, because I know I cannot be simple; and if I cannot be simple, I know I had better not preach at all.
2. The second hint I would give is this: Try to use in all your ‘sermons, as far as you can, simple words. In saying this, however, I must explain myself. When I talk of simple words, I do not mean words of only one syllable, or words which are purely Saxon. Whether the words are Saxon or not, or of two or three syllables, it does not matter so long as they are words commonly used and understood by the people. Only, whatever you do, beware of what the poor shrewdly call “dictionary” words, that is, of words which are abstract, or scientific, or pedantic, or complicated, or indefinite, or very long. They may seem very fine, and sound very grand, but they are rarely of any use. The most powerful and forcible words, as a rule, are very short.
3. The third hint I would offer, if you wish to attain simplicity in preaching, is this: Take care to aim at a simple style of composition. I will try to illustrate what I mean. If you take up the sermons preached by that great and wonderful man Dr. Chalmers, you can hardly fail to see what an enormous number of lines you meet without coming to a full stop. This I cannot but regard as a great mistake. It may suit Scotland, but it will never do for England. If you would attain a simple style of composition, beware of writing many lines without coming to a pause, and so allowing the minds of your hearers to take breath. Beware of colons and semicolons. Stick to commas and full stops, and take care to write as if you were
asthmatical or short of breath. Never write or speak very long sentences or long paragraphs. Use stops frequently, and start again;
and the oftener you do this, the more likely you are to attain a simple style of composition. Enormous sentences full of colons, semicolons, and parentheses with paragraphs of two or three pages’ length, are utterly fatal to simplicity. We should bear in mind that preachers have to do with hearers and not readers, and that what will “read” well will not always “speak” well. A reader of English can always help himself by looking back a few lines and refreshing his mind. A hearer of English hears once for all, and if he loses the thread of your sermon in a long involved sentence, he very likely never finds it again.
Again, simplicity in your style of composition depends very much upon the proper use of proverbs and epigrammatic sentences. This is of vast importance. Here, I think, is the value of much that you find in Matthew Henry’s commentary, and Bishop Hall’s Contemplations. There are some good sayings of this sort in a book not known so well as it should be, called Papers on Preaching by a Wykehamist. Take a few examples of what I mean: “What we weave in time we wear in eternity.” “Hell is paved with good intentions.” “Sin forsaken is one of the best evidences of sin forgiven.” “It matters little how we die, but it matters much how we live.” “Meddle with no man’s person, but spare no man’s sin.” “The street is soon clean when every one sweeps before his own door.” “Lying rides on debt’s back.” “It is hard for an empty bag to stand upright.” “He that begins with prayer will end with praise.” “All is not gold that glitters.” “In religion, as in business, there are no gains without pains.” “In the Bible there are shallows where a lamb can wade, and depths where an elephant must swim.” “One thief on the cross was saved, that none should despair, and only one, that none should presume.”
Proverbial, epigrammatic, and antithetical sayings of this kind give wonderful perspicuousness and force to a sermon. Labour to store your minds with them. Use them judiciously, and especially at the end of paragraphs, and you will find them an immense help to the attainment of a simple style of composition. But of long, involved, complicated sentences always beware.
4. The fourth hint I will give is this: If you wish to preach simply, use a direct style. What do I mean by this? I mean the practice and custom of saying “I” and “you.” When a man takes up this style of preaching, he is often told that he is conceited and egotistical. The result is that many preachers are never direct, and always think it very humble and modest and becoming to say “we.” But I remember good Bishop Villiers saying that “we” was a word kings
and corporations should use, and they alone, but that parish clergymen should always talk of “I” and “you.” I endorse that
saying with all my heart. I declare I never can understand what the famous pulpit “we” means. Does the preacher who all through his sermon keeps saying “we” mean himself and the Church? or himself and the congregation? or himself and the Early Fathers? or himself and the Reformers? or himself and all the wise men in the world? or, after all, does he only mean myself, plain “John Smith” or “Thomas Jones”? If he only means himself, what earthly reason can he give for using the plural number, and not saying simply and plainly “I”? When he visits his parishioners, or sits by a sick-bed, or catechises his school, or orders bread at the baker’s, or meat at the butcher’s, he does not say “we,” but “I.” Why, then, I should like to know, can he not say “I” in the pulpit? What right has he, as a modest man, to
speak for any one but himself? Why not stand up on Sunday and say, ‘Reading in the Word of God, I have found a text containing such things as these, and I come to set them before you”?
5. The fifth and last hint I wish to give you is this: If you would attain simplicity in preaching, you must use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. You must regard illustrations as windows through which light is let in upon your subject. Upon this point a great deal might be said, but the limits of a small treatise oblige me to touch it very briefly. I need hardly remind you of the example of Him who “spake as never man spake,” our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Study the four Gospels attentively, and mark what a wealth of illustration His sermons generally contain. How often you find figure upon figure, parable upon parable, in His discourses! There was nothing under His eyes apparently from which He did not draw lessons. The birds of the air, and the fish in the sea, the sheep, the goats, the cornfield, the vineyard, the ploughman, the sower, the reaper, the fisherman, the shepherd, the vinedresser, the woman kneading meal, the flowers, the grass, the bank, the wedding feast, the sepulchre, – all were made vehicles for conveying thoughts to the minds of hearers. What are such parables as the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the ten virgins, the king who made a marriage for his son, the rich man and Lazarus, the labourers of the vineyard, and others, – what are all these but stirring stories that our Lord tells in order to convey some great truth to the souls of His hearers? Try to walk in His footsteps and follow His example.
Let me add to all this one plain word of application. You will never attain simplicity in preaching without plenty of trouble. Pains and trouble, I say emphatically, pains and trouble. When Turner, the great painter, was asked by some one how it was he mixed his colours so well, and what it was that made them so different from
those of other artists: “Mix them? mix them? mix them? Why, with brains, sir.” I am persuaded that, in preaching, little can be done except by trouble and by pains.
I have heard that a young and careless clergyman once said to Richard Cecil, “I think I want more faith.” “No,” said the wise old man; “you want more works. You want more pains. You must not think that God will do work FOR you, though He is ready to do it BY you.” I entreat my younger brethren to remember this. I beg them to make time for their composition of sermons, to take trouble and to exercise their brains by reading. Only, mind that you read what is useful.
Read good models, and become familiar with good specimens of simplicity in preaching. As your best model, take the English Bible. If you speak the language in which that is written, you will speak well. Read John Bunyan’s immortal work, the Pilgrim’s Progress. Read it again and again, if you wish to attain simplicity in preaching.
(a) I will only say, in conclusion, that whatever we preach, or whatever pulpit we occupy, whether we preach simply or not, whether we preach written or extempore, we ought to aim not merely at letting off fireworks, but at preaching that which will do lasting good to souls. Let us beware of fireworks in our preaching. “Beautiful” sermons, “brilliant” sermons, “clever” sermons, “popular” sermons, are often sermons which have no effect on the congregation, and do not draw men to Jesus Christ. Let us aim so to preach, that what we say may really come home to men’s minds and consciences and hearts, and make them think and consider.
(b) All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not His rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe, and be, and do, YOUR PREACHING is OF NO USE.
(c) All the simplicity in the world, again, is useless without a good lively delivery. If you bury your head in your chest, and mumble in a dull, monotonous, droning way, like a bee in a bottle, so that people cannot understand what you are speaking about, your preaching will be in vain.
(d) Above all, let us never forget that all the simplicity in the world is useless without prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the grant of God’s blessing, and a life corresponding in some measure to what we preach. Be it ours to have an earnest desire for the souls of men, while we seek for simplicity in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, and let us never forget to accompany our sermons by holy living and fervent prayer.
*Extracts from a longer paper.