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The Apostle Paul as a Preacher

by John A. Broadus (1827-1895)

 "Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should 
preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”  Eph. 3 : 8

Sermon as chaplain to the University of Virginia, May, 1857. 
Printed in pamphlet form at the request of many students and of the professors. 

NUMEROUS as were the functions of the Apostle Paul, he was, most of all things, a preacher of the gospel. The fact is prominent in his history, and was deeply felt by himself. Everything, with him, was made subordinate to this vocation. His whole life was wrapped up in it. Though often sad and weary, and not unfrequently (it would seem) desponding, he never turned aside from this great work. When difficulties and dangers gathered around, when foes were threatening and timid friends entreating, he could say, “ But none of these things move me; neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” 

And Paul was the greatest of all preachers. Of course, we omit from the comparison him who spake “ as never man spake.” There was in his preaching such a continual self-assertion, such a sublime and holy egotism, that in this, as in every other respect, his character is unique and peculiar, and we never think of comparing him with any mere man. 

There have been many gifted men, gifted by nature and grace, who have devoted themselves to the work of the ministry; God be thanked for them all, and God grant that there may be many more hereafter!  But in the estimation of every one who diligently studies his character and history, Paul must stand, among all preachers, unrivalled and alone. Thoroughly to analyze his great powers is a task for which I have no talent, and my hearers, under present circumstances, would perhaps have little inclination. I mean only to present some points in connection with Paul as a preacher, the consideration of which I trust may be blessed to our benefit. 

1. The first of these points is 'mentioned mainly because of its relation to what will follow. It is the remarkable adaptation of his preaching to the particular audience. He has himself stated the principle upon which he acted in seeking this adaptation: “ I am made all things to all men.” This saying has come to be grossly perverted, being constantly applied as a reproach to the fickle and time-serving. The apostle has just before said what perfectly explains it: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; them that are without law, as without law... that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” He elsewhere declares the same principle regulating his general conduct: “ Even as I please all men in all things, that they might be saved.” 

We have striking illustrations of this, in some of his recorded discourses. 

At Antioch, in Pisidia, he preached first in the synagogue, to Jews and proselytes. Here he conformed, as did Stephen in his address before the Sanhedrin, to the Jewish custom of commencing with a sketch of the national history. This would conciliate his audience, by bringing to mind facts of which they were all proud, and in which he and they had a common interest; and from one point or another of that history the speaker could easily and gracefully turn, as did Paul on this occasion, to the subject on which he wished to dwell. The promised seed of David he declared was come in the person of Jesus. He pointed out the fact that the condemnation, death and resurrection of Jesus were in fulfilment of prophecies which they all believed. He proclaimed to them through Jesus the forgiveness of sins, and that complete justification, to the believer, which could not be obtained through the law of Moses. He warned them not to neglect this proclamation, in language quoted from a prophet. All is from the Jewish point of view, and after the Jewish method; to the Jews he became as a Jew, that he might gain the Jews; and thus regarded, nothing could be more felicitous than the conduct of this address. 

At Lystra, when he had wrought a miracle of healing, and the astonished and ignorant pagans were about to offer sacrifice to him and Barnabas, as being “the gods come down in the likeness of men,” he spoke, to restrain them, a few words which contained the simplest truths of natural religion: “ Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways: nevertheless, he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” These truths were obviously appropriate to the occasion, and we learn that they sufficed to accomplish the apostle's object. But it is stated, concerning the same visit to Lystra, that “there they preached the Gospel,” and that when he had been stoned, “the disciples stood round about him.” We see then that his general preaching at that place was by no means confined to natural religion. 

At Athens, every one has been struck by the skill with which he sought to avoid offending the prejudices or violating the laws of his hearers. He began by complimenting them as in all respects an uncommonly religious people. He availed himself of an altar “ to the unknown god,” to speak of the true God without incurring the penalty denounced against the introduction of new deities. In a few brief sentences, he assailed, pointedly but courteously, several leading errors which prevailed among the Athenians, particularly their idolatry and their proud conceit of distinct national origin. He quoted, not inspired Hebrew prophets, but a sentiment found in the writings of two Greek poets, one of them from his native Cilicia. And he carefully delayed to the close his declaration of the fact, so important, yet so likely to be rejected, that Christ had been raised from the dead. Was ever any discourse more skilfully adapted? 

So, when standing before Felix, he did not directly denounce the tyrant's vices, for of course he would not have been heard for a moment, but he dwelt upon the opposite virtues. To a wicked man he spoke of righteousness; to an incontinent man, of self-control; to an unjust earthly judge, of the judgment to come. 

A similar skill in adaptation, and care to conciliate, is observable in the Apostle's letters. You can form a tolerably complete idea of the history and present condition of a Church, or of the character and circumstances of an individual, from his letters to such an individual or Church. And you see everywhere how observant he is of all courtesies and charities, how careful first to commend what he can in those who must on other accounts be censured, how anxious to win and save even amid his severest rebukes. 

The limit to this desire to please, the Apostle has clearly defined; as when he reminds the Thessalonians that he had not practiced any trickery in preaching, nor used flattering words, nor sought glory of men; “but as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts.” However great his disposition to conciliate, he would not sacrifice principle would never offend God, to please men. 

Now, with all this variety of adaptation to particular hearers, connect 2. His adhering constantly to the great central truths of the gospel. That cross, in which alone he “gloried,” which alone he “ determined to know,” is always before his mind. Widely as he ranges over the fields of truth and duty, he never loses sight of that grand central object; never ceases to feel himself in its presence. 

Every doctrine, and every precept, is presented in such a way that we feel it to have relation to the atoning work of our Saviour. For instance, servants are urged to be honest and obedient, “ that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.” Husbands are exhorted to “ love their wives, even as Christ also loved the Church;” and wives to “submit themselves unto their own husbands, as unto the Lord; for the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church.” When pressing upon the Corinthians the duty of giving for the relief of their poor brethren, he adds, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.” 

The example of Paul in this respect is not always followed. In seeking for adaptation, how often do men fail to adhere to these same great truths? Very anxious to make the sermon appropriate to the occasion, accommodated to the prejudices, or suited to the taste of the audience, they neglect to have it present the essence of the gospel to have it full of those truths which relate to sin and salvation. How much preaching, by able and earnest men, is thus comparatively lost, as to all the most important ends of preaching the gospel! Those men, and classes of men, who have been eminently useful as ministers, in actually converting sinners and building up believers, have been remarkable for constantly reiterating, in however various connections, and with whatever freshness of illustration, the same fundamental, saving truths. A glance at the history of the most successful preachers would show this to be true. 

It is true now of all the really useful among “ revival preachers;” and of many a plain man, whose extraordinary success it is difficult to account for, until we observe the constant recurrence in his discourses of the truths which belong to salvation. Surely the most gifted and cultivated ought to imitate this excellent peculiarity; surely right-minded hearers ought to prefer and encourage it. Let the preacher, like Paul, adapt, conciliate, please; but let him, also like Paul, bring everything into relation to our Lord and Saviour, for otherwise he is not preaching the gospel at all. 

3. Observe, again, the Apostle's simplicity and directness in presenting the truth. Every one is familiar with his defence, in the beginning of the first letter to the Corinthians, of his course in this particular. We know how he was complained of for the plainness of his mode of preaching, and how he resisted all the pressure, and would not practice the artificial rhetoric which was then fashionable. 

Indeed, we are unwilling to think of him as acting otherwise. Whether we consider Paul's personal character, or the fact of his inspiration, it is felt to be inappropriate and unworthy that he should be searching after mere prettinesses, should be seeking to heighten the simple loveliness of heavenly truth, by the meretricious adornments of a would-be eloquence. And there is significance in this strong, instinctive feeling. If it would have been wrong for Paul, how is it right for others, who, though humble and uninspired, are yet proclaiming the same divinely-given truths, and should be keeping in view the same sublime object, to save men's souls? 

At the same time, all know that the Apostle's speaking and writing possess much of real beauty. It need not be misunderstood if we say that Paul is an eminent example of the right use of imagination. Among his remarkable combination of mental qualities, it is clear that he possessed imagination of a high order. It is not shown by elaborate and multiplied figures for mere ornament. Occasionally we meet with an unobtrusive image of exquisite beauty; as when, in the address at Athens, he represents men as groping in their blindness after an object that is near: “That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us.” But his power of imagination is seen mainly in the shaping of his thoughts in general; in the clear and delicate outline given to each particular thought, whether argument or precept, as it came moulded from his mind. It is in the same way that we find the finest imagination employed by all the men who have been most truly eloquent, by Demosthenes and Daniel Webster, by Chrysostom and Robert Hall. They could not have been eloquent without possessing this faculty in an eminent degree; but they have used it, not to send off mere fireworks of fancy, but to heat into a glow the solid body of their thought. The beautiful is thus by no means abjured, but subordinated. The gratification of our aesthetic sensibilities may render great service, as auxiliary to the instruction, conviction, persuasion, which are the great objects of preaching the gospel; but it must always be held auxiliary. The poet and the novelist aim to please, and incidentally to instruct; the preacher to do men good, and to please only as contributing to this higher end. 

I have a practical object in saying all this, which may justify what would else be perhaps out of place. Not a little of the preaching done by good men is weighed down by rhetoric, falsely so-called. The evil is widespread and well known. Its existence and continuance are not wholly due directly to those who preach, but result in some measure from the wrong taste of the people. The preacher is very naturally led astray by this. 

He sees that the people for a time flock to hear, and loudly praise, those who speak in this fashion. He cannot do them good by his preaching unless they will hear him. It seems necessary to yield to what appears to be the popular taste, though known to be false. Especially where one possesses more imagination than sober judgment, such a process of reasoning is very likely to convince him. Some little allowance, therefore, may commonly “be made for those who show this ambitiousness of style, this effort after eloquence. 

The evil must be corrected, partly by preachers themselves; but those among them who perceive and deplore it, are able to accomplish comparatively little except in their own case. It is so easy to break the force of the most unanswerable argument, coming from them, by a sarcasm, as that they only oppose that style of preaching of which they do not happen to be masters. The cure must come mainly from intelligent men who are not preachers. They can powerfully influence public sentiment, and they ought to speak their mind. There can be no question as to what all such men think on the subject, but they are often restrained from strongly expressing their opinion by a false delicacy, a mistaken respect for the ministerial office. In our age and country the relation of preacher and hearers must be freely discussed, like everything else. And the half-cultivated are everywhere doing this. The merits, not so much of different modes of preaching as of different preachers, form a prominent topic of conversation in many circles. 

That bad taste which forms the most erroneous opinions on the subject is also boldest in expressing them. Thus the evil is greatly augmented by loud voices of praise or blame. Cultivated men must exert themselves to correct it, though the task should sometimes painfully conflict with their reverence for the sacred office. They must freely commend or condemn, not only general methods, but individual examples. I call upon those who have, and those who soon will have, influence over public opinion, as they value God's great appointed means of converting the world, to do what they can towards correcting the popular taste; to take every opportunity and means of showing the people what good taste requires, what alone is appropriate to the most solemn of all earthly positions, that of the man who stands up to preach the gospel. 

4. Observe, in the next place, the Apostle's tenderness as a preacher. Hear him speaking of false professors: “ For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ.” Hear his farewell words to the elders of the Church at Ephesus: “ And remember, that by the space of three years, I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears'' What a scene was that this great and inspired man, speaking to the people both “ publicly and from house to house,” warning them with tears; telling them of God's amazing love, and his tremendous wrath; of their guilt, their helpless condemnation, and the one way of salvation. Christians, too, he warned of the false teachers that should enter from without, like grievous wolves into the fold, and that should rise up among themselves; and he would weep as he entreated them to hold fast the truth as it is in Jesus, to adorn their profession, to live for the salvation of men and the glory of God. 

Thus, night and day for three years, he ceased not to warn every one with tears. 

And why should not Paul weep? and every preacher and every Christian weep? See the condition of our fellow-men, our friends, our kindred, as depicted, not by our wild fancy or morbid fears, but by the calm teachings of the Word of God. They are “condemned already,” “ the wrath of God abideth on them,” their “ steps take hold on hell.” Can we half realize what is meant by these fearful sayings, and not weep? But worse. We tell them of the Saviour, who died that we might live, and who ever lives to save; we tell them of free pardon, of full salvation, to every penitent believer in him; of his redeeming love, his gracious invitations and precious promises. We tell of eternal bliss and eternal woe, of their own imminent and increasing danger. 

We urge all that is terrible in God's wrath, all that is moving in his mercy. And they listen as calmly, they turn away as unconcerned, as though it were all a trifle or a dream. O, where is our pity, where our love, that we do not weep tears of blood? that we do not say with the Psalmist, u Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law?” 

It is well that the gospel induces tenderness, since the preacher has to speak such awful truths. It is no light thing to look into the eyes of one you know, and respect, and love, and charge him with being a vile sinner charge selfishness, and pride, and pervading ungodliness, upon what he accounts his best actions; to warn him of the wrath to come; to bid him tremble lest he receive deserved damnation, and reflect now what will be his unavailing remorse if “ in hell he should lift up his eyes, being in torment.” It is well that the gospel, which, along with its promise of salvation to the believer, requires us to say, “ He that believeth not shall be damned,” should also inspire that feeling of tenderness with which the painful duty ought to be performed. 

But let us look again at the Apostle's tears. Why should Paul weep as he warned? He feared that his warning might be in vain; and often it was in vain. With all his abilities and inspiration, men often heard without heeding; and all his exhortations in many cases failed to restrain even professed believers from shameful sin, from utter apostasy. Need we be surprised that the same thing happens now? 

5. The remaining point of which I would speak is, the disadvantages under which Paul labored. This greatest of all preachers appears to have had some serious physical disqualification. Let us consider the evidence of this fact, and the lesson it teaches. 

In the second letter to the Corinthians, he quotes the disparaging language of his enemies: “ For his letters (say they) are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” Making allowance for the exaggerations of a hostile spirit, it is yet plain, even from this, that his presence was not commanding, not impressive, but rather the opposite. 

In the course of his letter to the Galatians, he seeks to revive their personal affection for himself (which the Judaizing teachers had endeavored to destroy), by reminding them of the time when he commenced his labors among them. Notice his language: “ Ye know how, through infirmity of the flesh, I preached the gospel unto you at the first.” The word through must be here taken to mean on account of the original naturally conveys this sense, and will hardly bear another so that we understand him to say: “ Ye know how, on account of bodily infirmity, I preached the gospel to you at the first.” When he first arrived in Galatia, he did not propose to tarry there; but some bodily infirmity making it necessary to remain, he began to preach the gospel to them. He adds: “ And my temptation (trial) which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.” The physical affection before mentioned, he here calls his trial. 

He had evidently feared that on account of this physical trial they would contemptuously reject him and his message; and he sets in strong contrast with that expectation the fact that they had received him with the greatest possible respect and reverence. 

In Second Corinthians, again, he speaks of certain remarkable visions with which he had been favored, above fourteen years before, which would be soon after his conversion, adding: “ And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” 

Nothing could be better calculated to humble a preacher, in danger of being elated on account of his extraordinary privileges, than to suffer from some grievous bodily affection some marked distortion, it may be, of form or feature which destroyed all impressiveness of appearance, which made him continually fear lest men should “despise” and “reject” him. If it were a mental defect, or a fault of character, he might hope in some measure to correct it. But this physical disqualification, which he is utterly unable to remedy, must be a constant source of distress and humiliation. The apostle deeply felt it, and prayed earnestly for the removal of the affection. “ For this cause I besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” The distressing disadvantage was not removed. He was taught that under all disadvantages Divine grace would be sufficient to uphold and prosper him, for the strength of the Lord attains its perfect manifestation when exercised through feeble instruments. And he had learned by this time to endure patiently his infirmity, as useful for his own humbling; yea, he had learned to exult in it, as conclusively showing that his great successes were due to no human influence, but to Divine power. “Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in mine infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then am I strong.” 

All men appreciate the great advantage, to a preacher as to any other public speaker, of a commanding and engaging appearance. We feel the effect of it, as soon as such a man arises to address us. And if the speaker's presence be not merely unattractive, but painfully and ridiculously peculiar, it inevitably diminishes the impressiveness of what he may say. Yet, be it well observed, and forever remembered, that the most useful preacher that ever lived, was in this respect signally lacking. God's strength is indeed made perfect in weakness. Let the man who truly desires to preach the gospel, and who mourns that he does not possess those physical gifts which seem almost indispensable to eloquence, take to himself with humble joy that blessed assurance, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” 

My hearers, one word more. The same glorious gospel which Paul preached has been handed down to us. However feebly presented, it is “the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth.” Paul felt himself but a vessel of clay, bearing the precious treasure of the gospel. That same precious treasure is offered to you. O, reject it not I beseech you I warn you. O, believe on that Saviour, whose ministers labor awhile, and one after another pass away, but who is himself “the same, yesterday, and to-day, and forever.” 

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