Earnestness: Its Marring and Maintenance (Part 1)

C.H. Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students, Second Series, Lecture 8. (Editor’s note: Paragraph breaks have been added to ease reading.)

If I were asked—What in a Christian minister is the most essential quality for securing success in winning souls for Christ? I should reply, “earnestness”: and if I were asked a second or a third time, I should not vary the answer, for personal observation drives me to the conclusion that, as a rule, real success is proportionate to the preacher’s earnestness.

Both great men and little men succeed if they are thoroughly alive unto God, and fail if they are not so. We know men of eminence who have gained a high reputation, who attract large audiences, and obtain much admiration, who nevertheless are very low in the scale as soul-winners: for all they do in that direction they might as well have been lecturers on anatomy, or political orators.

At the same  time we have seen their compeers in ability so useful in the business of conversion that evidently their acquirements and gifts have been no hindrance to them, but the reverse; for by the intense and devout use of their powers, and by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, they have turned many  to righteousness. We have seen brethren of very scanty abilities who have been terrible drags upon a church, and have proved as inefficient in their spheres as blind men in an observatory; but, on the other hand, men of equally small attainments are well known, to us as mighty hunters before the Lord, by whose holy energy many hearts have been captured for the Savior.

I delight in M’Cheyne’s remark, “It is not so much great talents that God blesses, as great likeness to Christ.” In many instances ministerial success is traceable almost entirely to an intense zeal, a  consuming passion for souls, and an eager enthusiasm in the cause of God, and we believe that in every case, other things being equal, men prosper in the divine service in proportion as their hearts are blazing with holy love. “The God that answereth by fire, let him be God”; and the  man who has the tongue of fire, let him be God’s minister.

Brethren, you and I must, as preachers, be always earnest in reference to our pulpit work. Here we must labor to attain tile very highest degree of excellence. Often have I said to my brethren that the pulpit is the Thermopylae of Christendom: there the fight will be lost or won. To us ministers the maintenance of our power in the pulpit should be our great concern, we must occupy that spiritual watch-tower with our hearts and minds awake and in full vigor. It will not avail us to be laborious pastors if we are not earnest preachers. We shall be forgiven a great many sins in the matter of pastoral visitation if the people’s souls are really fed on the Sabbath-day; but fed they must be, and nothing else will make up for it.

The failures of most ministers who drift down the stream may be traced to inefficiency in the pulpit. The chief business of a captain is to know how to handle his vessel, nothing can compensate for deficiency there, and so our pulpits must be our main care, or all will go awry. Dogs often fight because the supply of bones is scanty, and congregations frequently quarrel because they do not get sufficient spiritual meat to keep them happy and peaceful.

The ostensible ground of dissatisfaction may be something else, but nine times out of ten deficiency in their rations is at the bottom of the mutinies which occur in our churches. Men, like all other animals, know when they are fed, and they usually feel good tempered after a meal; and so when our hearers come to the house of God, and obtain “food convenient for them,” they forget a great many grievances in the joy of the festival, but if we send them away hungry they will be in as irritable a mood as a bear robbed of her whelps.

Now, in order that we may be acceptable, we must be earnest when actually engaged in preaching. Cecil has well said that the spirit and manner of a preacher often effect more than his matter. To go into the pulpit with the listless air of those gentlemen who loll about, and lean upon the cushion as if they had at last reached a quiet resting place, is, I think, most censurable. To rise before the people to deal out commonplaces which have cost you nothing, as if anything would do for a sermon, is not merely derogatory to the dignity of our office, but is offensive in the sight of God.

We must be earnest in the pulpit for our own sakes, for we shall not long be able to maintain our position as leaders in the church of God if we are dull. Moreover, for the sake of our church members, and converted people, we must be energetic, for if we are not zealous, neither will they be. It is not in the order of nature that rivers should run uphill, and it does not often happen that zeal rises from the pew to the pulpit. It is natural that it should flow down from us to our hearers; the pulpit must therefore stand at a high level of ardor, if we are, under God, to make and to keep our people fervent.

Those who attend our ministry have a great deal to do during the week. Many of them have family trials, and heavy personal burdens to carry, and they frequently come into the assembly cold and listless, with thoughts wandering hither and thither; it is ours to take those thoughts and thrust them into the furnace of our own earnestness, melt them by holy contemplation and by intense appeal, and pour them out into the mold of the truth.

A blacksmith can do nothing when his fire is out and in this respect he is the  type of a minister. If all the lights in the outside world are quenched, the lamp which burns in the sanctuary ought still to remain undimmed; for that fire no curfew must ever be rung. We must regard the people as the wood and the sacrifice, well wetted a second and a third time by the  cares of the week, upon which, like the prophet, we must pray down the fire from heaven. A dull minister creates a dull audience.

You cannot expect the office-bearers and the members of the church to travel by steam if their own chosen pastor still drives the old broadwheeled wagon. We ought each one to be like that reformer who is described as “Vividus vultus, vividi occuli, vividae manus, denique omnia vivida,” which I would rather freely render — “a countenance beaming with life, eyes and hands full of life, in fine, a vivid preacher, altogether alive.”

“Thy soul must overflow, if thou
Another’s soul would reach,
It needs the overflow of heart
To give the lips full speech.”

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TylerR's picture


Spurgeon wrote:

The failures of most ministers who drift down the stream may be traced to inefficiency in the pulpit. The chief business of a captain is to know how to handle his vessel, nothing can compensate for deficiency there, and so our pulpits must be our main care, or all will go awry. Dogs often fight because the supply of bones is scanty, and congregations frequently quarrel because they do not get sufficient spiritual meat to keep them happy and peaceful

Seminaries can't teach somebody how to preach. At best, an MDiv graduate will preach less than 10 sermons to his peers and receive some feedback. That isn't enough, and it isn't the Seminary's job. It's the local church's job.

How can a church ordain a man to preach, if he can't actually preach? If he can't teach and preach his way out of a wet paper bag, then he cannot be ordained. If the church isn't trying to mold and mentor a man to grow his gifts (assuming he has them), then it's failing. I've seen many men ordained who couldn't teach. Spurgeon is right, and the responsibility falls onto the local churches.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Aaron Blumer's picture


I started to write a lengthy comment on this, then went to brush a bit of fuzz off my screen and the touch screen decided that meant "return to previous page and wipe everything out."

Short version: class work is no substitute for field work in learning to preach. Much more to say about this, so maybe it will be an article. The best time to start training a skilled preacher is when he is six (or if you have to, sixteen). When that isn't possible, there will be catching up to do -- very doable, but some deliberate steps are necessary and the traditional classroom work won't do it.

Bert Perry's picture

I wonder if Spurgeon is, in effect, responding to the phenomenon of using the pastorate in Anglican circles as something of a sinecure for the less motivated younger children of the aristocracy.  The reason I say this that I rarely see pastors who are not earnest (maybe I'm just lucky), but I often see pastors who should have learned a little bit more in seminary--to become a little more interested in these academic facts, more or less.

Or maybe today we do have a plague of listless, unmotivated pastors.  I'm just glad I don't know many of them if that's true.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture


He seems to have a pretty broad sense of "earnestness" in mind. In places, he equates it with thorough preparation, and at times is more focused on genuine concern for the hearers. 

Probably would be fair to say that what he means by earnestness is "taking it seriously" both during prep and during delivery.

Evidence of undervaluing the pulpit work is, unfortunately, not all that uncommon. One of them is the trend of pouring a ton of resources into music and drama followed by a 15 minute casual chat... Followed by more music and drama (everybody has to leave feeling good).

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