Spurgeon’s Quest for Clarity: Five Ways to Grow In Your Preaching

by Matthew Perry November 4, 2021

Of the many gifts God gave Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), one was a conviction as to the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God. As such, his forty years of pastoral ministry were marked by a quest for clarity in proclaiming that authority and sufficiency.

Thou book of vast authority! thou art a proclamation from the Emperor of Heaven; far be it from me to exercise my reason in contradicting thee. Reason, thy place is to stand and find out what this volume means, not to tell what this book ought to say. Come thou, my reason, my intellect, sit thou down and listen, for these words are the words of God.

He did not take total umbrage in understanding the times (for he was quite adept at the practice), but insomuch as to help the church understand how to apply the gospel.

Be much with the silly novels of the day, and the foolish trifles of the hour, and you will degenerate into vapid wasters of your time; but be much with the solid teaching of God’s word, and you will become solid and substantial men and women; drink them in, and feed upon them, and they shall produce in you a Christ-likeness, at which the world shall stand astonished.

This quest differentiated him from other preachers of the day who seemed more concerned with impressing listeners with rhetorical and oratorical expertise, fueled by a desire to be seen as one with intellectual and academic dexterity.  The critique often levied toward the practice of academic writing and speaking is that it’s “confusing and dense, that it suffers from a lack of clarity and concision.” Spurgeon sought to communicate the lofty aspects of theological thought in a way that the one of average or below average intellect could comprehend. Spurgeon not only taught but exemplified a pastoral passion to provide the Scriptures clearly! Spurgeon practiced and equipped young pastors to preach clearly and persuasively.

1) Know your people

In order to provide clarity, a pastor must know his people in his church and the audience if outside his church

Try, dear brethren, to get such a style of speaking that you suit yourselves to your audiences. Much lies in that. The preacher, who should address an educated congregation in the language which he would use in speaking to a company of costermongers, would prove himself a fool; and, on the other hand, he who goes down amongst miners and colliers, with technical theological terms and drawing-room phrases, acts like an idiot. . . . Now the costermonger cannot learn the language of the College, let the collegian learn the language of the costermonger.”

Here, Spurgeon risked losing many-an academic, yet his commitment lay more in helping clarify the Scriptures for all rather than any personal accolades he would receive as an intellectual giant.

2) Know your calling

Spurgeon believed that the preacher’s ultimate calling was bringing people to Christ. The quest for clarity of content comes from the clarity of calling. He fervently sought to remind pastors and parishioners alike of this primary ministry:

Do you above all things aim at saving souls? I am afraid that some have forgotten this grand object; but, dear friends, anything short of this is unworthy to be the great end of a Christian’s life. I fear there are some who preach with the view of amusing men, and as long as people can be gathered in crowds, and their ears can be tickled, and they can retire pleased with what they have heard, the orator is content, and folds his hands, and goes back self-satisfied. But Paul did not lay himself out to please the public and collect the crowd. If he did not save them he felt that it was of no avail to interest them.

Spurgeon nails the problem in many pulpits—a desire to merely interest their listeners. Spurgeon’s perspective was vertical. Now, should he move toward looking horizontally, the aim was to bring them vertical rather than for the congregation to bring him horizontal. The focus of the “business of the church” is the business of the minister.

The business of the church is salvation. The minister is to use all means to save some; he is no minister of Christ if this be not the one desire of his heart. Missionaries sink far below their level when they are content to civilize: their first object is to save. The same is true of the Sunday-school teacher, and of all other workers among children; if they have merely taught the child to read, to repeat hymns, and so forth, they have not yet touched their true vocation. We must have the children saved. At this nail we must drive, and the hammer must come down upon this head always— If by all means I may save some, for we have done nothing unless some are saved.

3) Arrange your material clearly

Though Spurgeon only spoke briefly on this matter, he reminds the preacher of the necessity or orderliness of material.  In his Lectures to My Students, he warns, “It is possible to heap up a vast mass of good things all in a muddle. . . . Put the truth before men in a logical, orderly manner, so that they can easily remember it, and they will the more readily receive it.” Later in the Lectures, he noted, “Brethren, weigh your sermons. Do not retail them by the yard, but deal them out by the pound. Set no store by the quantity of words which you utter, but strive to be esteemed for the quality of your matter. It is foolish to be lavish in words and niggardly in truth.”

4) Speak plainly

“Had the teaching from the pulpit been more clear and decisive during the past twenty years we should not now be living in an age of uncertainty.” Spurgeon loved Christ and His gospel, so why muddy the homiletical waters? Again, he spoke in a manner that those with little to no education could understand the message. In his Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon reminded his students of the necessity for clarity. “However excellent your matter, if a man does not comprehend it, it can be of no use to him.”

While conventional wisdom dictates that the preacher speaks up to the rich and educated and down to the commoner, Spurgeon puts the conventional understanding of preaching on its head when he noted, “Go up to his level if he is a poor man; go down to his understanding if he is an educated person.” Go up to the poor man’s level? Go down to the educated person’s understanding? He explains in an 1869 sermon:

The Christian church ought to aim at the rich. The rich want the gospel, perhaps, more than any other class in the community. They seldom hear it, and what they do hear of the gospel is poor diluted stuff.  Their sins are not often told them to the face, neither are they rebuked as the poor are. They are to be sought for by the church, and though it is difficult to get at them, yet we have not done our duty till we have done what we can for them.

This insight is helpful for those who may find themselves intimidated by those who are rich and powerful: preach the Word all the more clearly, for due to their power and influence, they likely do not have any pushback or confrontation about their lifestyles. Yet, regardless of societal status, Spurgeon reminds his congregation of the task ahead: “Having, then, clearly before us what our work is—to publish and make plain to every creature the gospel of Jesus Christ… .”

No matter the age, preachers are tempted with preaching with eloquence first. Yet, eloquence is no substitute for substance. “Apollos teaches very eloquently; but still there is a lack about his teaching. He has not yet reached the full chord; he does not sound out the blessed music of the gospel to perfection.”

5) Rely on the Spirit for revival

Spurgeon longed for revival, seeing the hearts of England turn to the Savior. With higher critical methods and Darwinism working their way among academic circles, he soon saw a generation in the churches intoxicated with this new message. As a result, preachers could find themselves blaming the churches for not responding to the gospel and stifling the Spirit’s work of revival. Yet, Spurgeon brings needed perspective:

We too often flog the Church, when the whip should be laid on our own shoulders. We drag the Church, like a colossal culprit, to the altar; we bind her hands fast, and try to execute her at cone; or, at least, we find fault with her where there is none, and magnify her little errors, while we too often forget our own imperfections. Let us, therefore, commence with our selves, remembering that we are a part of the Church, and that our own want of revival is in some measure the cause of that want in the Church at large. I directly charge the great majority of professing Christians in these days—and I take charge to myself also, –with a need of revival of piety. I shall lay the charge very peremptorily, because I think I have abundant grounds to prove it. I believe that the mass of nominal Christians in this age need a revival.”

Both the preacher and parishioner alike must work together in partnership for the gospel, repenting of sin so the gospel would move clearly and with conviction in the hearts and minds of all. This is no mere work of men, but as Spurgeon knew, was ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit.

But I know, as Paul also knew, that all the human persuasion in the world will fall short of the mark without divine power. I never dreamed that my persuasion was of the slightest avail without the Holy Ghost. If the Holy Spirit will cause the persuasion to reach the inward ear, then it will prevail, and not else: if he will drive home the persuasion, so that it touches the heart which is encased in the fat of worldly pleasure, indifference, prejudice, and pride, then men will yield, and men will be persuaded indeed. But the Holy Spirit will do this! He has done it; he is doing it; he will dot it; and therefore we persuade.”

This reliance on the Spirit to convict and convert hearts gave Spurgeon confidence and freedom to preach and to teach other preachers to bring forth the biblical message with every tool possible in a quest for clarity. May we heed these lessons as well.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at Spurgeon.org and is used with permission.

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