Samuel Davies on Preaching

Anyone who knows me, knows that one of the great pursuits of my life has been researching and writing, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia. Even if you have heard about Davies and think you know a lot about his ministry, I think you would enjoy  reading that biography—if   you like biographies; if you like reading about revivals; and, if you hunger for a revival of Christianity in our day. One minister in Vanguard read it in 4-5 days, bought 40 more copies to give away and later bought another 20 copies. Davies was America’s greatest ever preacher and there are many things we can learn from him. There are various documents by Davies that remain unpublished or forgotten to our modern world. One of those is a sermon he preached to the Presbytery of New Castle on October 11, 1752, when he was three weeks short of 30 years of age. It remains one of the best shorter works on preaching that I have ever read. Herein, I am going to give you snippets of the most important points of that sermon because I believe that preaching remains the greatest means for the awakening of a nation that the Lord has given His church. Not everyone can be a great preacher—or even a good preacher—but every minister can preach according to the ideals that Davies sets forth in this sermon. And every preacher can prepare his sermons with Davies’ ideals in mind.

In his sermon to the Presbytery of New Castle, Davies laid it down as his first principle that ministers are to be diligent students. They are to prepare their sermons carefully and well by engaging in both general study and “proper Preparations for our publick ministrations.”[1] Inasmuch as God blesses our industry rather than our slothfulness, it is especially important that young ministers should acquire a relish for intellectual improvements in every area related to the preaching of the gospel. There are many “domestic and secular cares” that will always demand a portion of a minister’s time, but those cares must never reduce them to “earthly groveling worms” and they must not allow “the affairs of this life to engross their Time and Thoughts.”[2] It is a very real temptation that every minister must face and overcome if he is to be successful in his calling. Thus, every preacher must learn to husband his time in such a way that all irrelevant or unimportant matters are lopped off. He must give himself to those things that are truly important. As Davies stated:

If any in the sacred Character are capable of so much Meanness, they will prove a Disgrace to their Function; and they will have the Mortification of seeing themselves excelled by Persons inferior to them in Parts and Education; for a barren Genius, diligently cultivated, will produce more useful Fruits, than the wild spontaneous productions of a luxurious Genius, suffered to run waste; and the best foundation of Learning laid in Youth will soon become a Scene of Desolation and Ruin, unless the Structure be carried on, and the Wastes of Time repaired, by diligent Study during our After-life.[3]

Both D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and W. G. T. Shedd recommended that ministers especially learn to not waste their mornings if they are going to give themselves to such diligent study. I would encourage every minister to read both Preaching and Preachers by Lloyd-Jones and Homiletics and Pastoral Theology by W. G. T. Shedd. Both books lay out a reading program for ministers to ensure that they are growing in grace and knowledge. Lloyd-Jones comments are very important:

But turning to certain specific matters, the preacher’s first, and the most important task is to prepare himself, not his sermon. Any man who has been any length of time in the ministry will agree whole-heartedly with me concerning this. It is something that one has to learn by experience. At first one tends to think that the great thing is to prepare the sermon—and the sermon, as I have been saying, does need most careful preparation. But altogether more important is the preparation of the preacher himself.[4]  

The failure to cultivate the heart is one of the chief problems for the pulpit. Davies, therefore, believed that the “best Way to remedy this Evil, and to reap the Advantage of Preparations for the Publick, is to diffuse a Spirit of Devotion thro’ our Studies, to direct them to proper Objects, and to avoid Extremes. . . A warm Heart has always a fruitful invention; and will spontaneously suggest Sentiments more striking to the Populace, and even to hearers of Taste, than our premeditated and laboured Thoughts.”[5] Lloyd-Jones suggested what is called devotional reading to prime the preacher’s pump (i.e., his heart) and put him into a right spirit before he begins his studies. Also, the preacher’s reading of Scripture must always be for his own growth in grace and not just to find texts from which to preach. With Davies and Lloyd-Jones, Shedd certainly agreed:

The foundation of influence in parochial life is in the clergyman’s character, and the root of clerical character is piety. . . Every clergyman ought to be able to say to his congregation, with the sincerity and the humility with which St. Paul said to the Thessalonians, ‘Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly and unblameably we behaved ourselves among you.’[6]     

Next to diligent study diffused with a spirit of devotion, the selection of those subjects on which to preach is taken up by Davies. It was his conviction that ministers should choose “those Subjects that are purely evangelical, or peculiar to the Religion of Jesus, as best adapted to the great Ends of our Ministry.”[7] This is a matter which is not carefully enough considered by most preachers, in my opinion. A friend in Riga, Latvia once told me how he was an unconverted Lutheran minister for many years. He preached the Bible, so to speak, in terms of the moral demands of Christianity, but was blinded to those evangelical truths that comprise the gospel. There are many ministers who think they are preaching the Word, but they are really just preaching works salvation under the guise of preaching the Word. They are preaching the duties of the Christian life, but not the gospel. Certainly, the Scripture teaches us, as the third Shorter Catechism question and answer succinctly states, “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.” Yet, the duties God requires of man can only be fulfilled by those who have first believed in Jesus. Once Christ rose from the dead, the Apostles had new eyes given to them and they were able to understand all the promises of the Old Testament in their evangelical relationship to Christ. Their message was never, “Do this and live!” Rather, they approached even the demands of the moral law in this way: “Live by faith in Jesus Christ and, therefore, do these things.” The true minister of the gospel must be able to do the same. If the law is preached, preach it evangelically. Preach it as a call to faith and repentance. Preach it as having been fulfilled in Christ who is now the Lord our Righteousness if we believe. Preach it as the way we express our love to Jesus for His great work of salvation in our behalf. A failure to preach the Scripture evangelically is, I believe, the greatest failure of the modern pulpit. As Davies stated concerning the minister’s responsibility to preach on purely evangelical subjects:

Let us lay open the present Degeneracy of human Nature in all its naked Deformity; alarm the secure Conscience with the Glare of Conviction; awaken hardy Impenitents by the Terrors of the Lord; overturn, overturn, overturn their presumptuous Confidences, and sweep away their refuges of Lies, and wound them, that they may give a welcome Reception to the Physician.

Let us then bring them into the glorious Light of the Gospel. Let us open up the Method of Salvation by free Grace alone, thro’ the Mediation of our great Redeemer. Let us exhibit the blessed Jesus to a guilty World in all the Glories, and in all the Sufferings of his mediatorial Character; the infinite Dignity of his Divinity, and the Innocence of his Humanity, and the infinite Merit of his Obedience resulting from both these Sources.[8]  

There are so many matters that have caused trouble and confusion for the modern church that would never have been given any notice if those who fill the pulpits truly believed that the gospel of Christ is the only saving message for the world. Can preaching on social justice, which is the message of Marxism, ever accomplish anything? The so-called social gospel was the message preached from the pulpit of the United Methodist congregation I attended in my youth. More than 50 years later, that same false message has been repackaged in a new way but it is still as powerless to affect any real change because it is not the gospel. Yet, there are confused ministers in various denominations who have bought into the lie that this new emphasis on social justice is the gospel. No, that is not true. Social justice is just another emphasis on the message of the law and much of this modern message is simply Marxist propaganda in promoting class warfare. So-called social justice is being used to tear down our society, but once it is torn down do not expect those in power to follow through with their promises to make everyone equal. You can look to the past or present Marxist countries for abundant illustrations that social justice is a utopian dream that is sold to dupes so that power hungry leaders can oppress everyone equally. That is why social justice is not the gospel. The true revival of Christianity and the true preaching of the gospel alone have been the means for true and lasting social change. Those changes came as a by-product of people becoming Christians and living out their Christian faith. Arnold Dallimore in George Whitefield details how the emphasis on social change in the early 18th century all across Europe and Great Britain had no positive effect at all until the Great Awakening came to the British Isles. France, which did not experience that revival, remained unchanged or even grew worse. The message of social justice has never accomplished anything because it is not the gospel and only the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Man does not need a new morality or a new message. The great need of mankind is the need for the power to be able to change. That power is not within a man. It is in the gospel, though. That is why, as Davies stated, preachers must choose those subjects that are evangelical—or gospel oriented—for their sermons. Sinners need what Thomas Chalmers described as “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Sinners need power—not mere knowledge. They need the gospel—not the law.     

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL. Please send donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.

[1] Samuel Davies, A Sermon Preached before the Reverend Presbytery of New-Castle, October 11, 1752 (Philadelphia: B. Franklin and D. Hall, 1753), 8.  

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 8-9.

[4] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), 166.  

[5] Davies, Ibid. 10.

[6] W. G. T. Shedd, Homiletics and Pastoral Theology (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 282-3.

[7] Davies, Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid., 12-13.

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