The Power of Simplicity in Spirit-filled Preaching
by Thomas Lindberg
The apostles were not sophisticated or educated men. They were, however, filled with the Spirit. When Peter and John were arrested for preaching and brought before the Sanhedrin, the common consensus was “they were unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13).1 The apostles were simple men.
This simplicity carried into their preaching. Paul asserted this when writing to the Corinthians. The city of Corinth was proud, mighty, influential, and educated. Yet Paul wrote in reflection of his first visit: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1,2).
The reference in this verse is to what was known as the Corinthian words. The philosophers and orators of Corinth were known for their words of human eloquence and brilliant rhetoric. They were masters of what today is termed crowd psychology. Paul would have none of this. He preached a simple message — Christ and Him crucified. Simplicity, however, is not a description of the content of Paul’s sermons. Paul had to chide the Christians at Corinth: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Corinthians 3:2).The apostle to the Gentiles desired to dig deeper into biblical truth, but the carnality of the church hindered him. The simplicity in which the apostles preached had nothing to do with their content, but described their words and delivery.
Paul speaks again of simplicity: “Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul contrasted himself with other teachers known to the church at Corinth. But his primary point is that through his visit and teaching, the people embraced Christ. The Corinthians were converted and a church was born. Second, Paul was also their father by the way in which he taught them. The father image suggests simplicity.
No earthly father desiring to teach his children how to fly a kite buries them with a mountain of information on aerodynamics. He simply demonstrates how to construct a kite, attach the string, and allow the wind to carry the kite high into the sky. In like manner, a good preacher presents his material with simplicity.
Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15). This was a reference to the ministry Peter was charged to carry out among the people of God. Food for lambs must be placed low so they can reach it. Those who raise sheep say food for young lambs must be nourishing, but given to them simply.
The simple preaching of the apostles brought tremendous results. Through his simple sermon on the day of Pentecost, Peter the fisherman saw 3,000 people saved (Acts 2:14–41).The next chapter of Acts also reports amazing results. Peter, a second time, delivers a simple sermon and 5,000 people are brought into the kingdom of God (3:12 through 4:4).2
Apostolic preaching was simplistic in style and simplistic preaching is needed today. It is easy to become too complicated and muddle the message. Soren Kierkegaard complained that when he asked philosopher Georg Hegel for directions to a street address in Copenhagen, he received a verbal map of Europe.
Preaching is presenting God’s Word.3 It must be done with clarity and simplicity. The Bible records of Jesus’ preaching “the large crowd listened to Him with delight” (Mark 12:37).
Matthew, a 4-year-old boy, was eating an apple in the backseat of a car. He asked, “Daddy, why does my apple turn brown after I bite it?” His father answered, “Because after you remove the skin, the meat of the apple came into contact with the air, which caused it to oxidize. This changed its molecular structure and turned it a different color.” There was long silence. Then Matthew asked softly,“Daddy, are you talking to me?”
The common people of Jesus’ day understood Him. They also understood the apostles. People today have every right to ask their pastor what Matthew asked his dad: “Are you talking to me?” Haddon Robinson calls for simplicity: “Simple words contribute to a clear style. … Any citizen who has battled with an income tax return wonders why the Internal Revenue Service cannot say what it means. Lawyers assure themselves of a place by embalming the law in legalese. Scientists keep the little man at bay by resorting to symbols and language only the initiates understand. Theologians and ministers too seem to keep themselves in jobs by resorting to language that bewilders ordinary mortals.”
Then Robinson issues a warning: “Beware of jargon. Specialized vocabulary helps professionals within a discipline to communicate, but it becomes jargon when used unnecessarily. While it takes 3 years to get through seminary, it can take 10 years to get over it. If a preacher peppers his sermons with words like eschatology, angst, pneumatology, exegesis, existential, Johannine, he throws up barriers to communication. Jargon combines the pretentiousness of big words with the deadness of a cliché, and it is often used to impress rather than inform an audience.”4
The great preachers throughout church history had expansive minds, but they preached with simple words. Martin Luther is an example. It is well known that Luther spoke and wrote colorfully. He knew the common man’s mind and urged preachers to know it also.
People are captivated more readily by comparisons and examples than by difficult and subtle disputations. They would rather see a well-drawn picture than a well-written book.5
When Luther wasdiscussing preaching with Rector Bernard von Dolen,minister in Herzberg, Luther and von Dolen agreed wholeheartedly that preaching should be simple. Luther said: “Cursed be every preacher who aims at lofty topics in the church, looking for his own glory. … When I preach here [Wittenburg] I adapt myself to the circumstances of the common people. I don’t look at the doctors and masters, of whom scarcely 40 are present, but at the 100 or the 1,000 young people and children. It is to them that I preach, to them I devote myself, for they need to understand. If the others don’t want to listen, they can leave.”6
In the spring of 1540, Luther was asked what style a preacher should take to deliver his sermon. Luther used Jesus as his example: “Christ could have taught in a profound way, but He wished to deliver His message with the utmost simplicity so the common people might understand. Good God, there are 16-year-old girls, women, old men, and farmers in church. They don’t understand lofty matters. … Accordingly, he is the best preacher who can teach in a plain, childlike, popular, and simple way.”7
Martin Luther practiced what he urged on others. In one of his sermons on salvation he used simple words that all could understand: “If salvation could be attained by working hard, then surely horses and asses would be in heaven! Just going to church will not insure heaven; dogs wander into church and go out again just the same as they came in — dogs!”8
John Calvin was not as clear and down-to-earth as Martin Luther, but he did preach with simplicity. Calvin had a massive intellect. He wrote his Institutes at age 27. Yet the common man in Geneva came to hear him preach. A month before he died, Calvin said goodbye to some friends and summarized his preaching: “I have not corrupted one single passage of Scripture, nor twisted it, as far as I know. … I have always studied to be simple.”9
The wise and useful preacher knows the mind of man is not a debating hall, but a picture gallery. The preacher must speak to be understood. Some ministers preach to impress.
I have a friend who, after his seminary training, served a church in Boston. On one of his early Sundays, he read his New Testament text in Greek. He wished to impress the congregation. Instead, he lost his listeners that morning and was greatly embarrassed. Some in the church never let him forget that foolish act.
The pastor must preach to express, not to impress. Shooting over the heads of the enemy has never helped an army win a war. Preaching over the heads of the people has never helped a minister build the church or expand the kingdom of God.
Dwight Moody was a 19th-century preacher who presented his sermons in simple, clear ways. Thousands in Great Britain and America, came to hear Moody. Many were saved. Just as the common man gladly heard Jesus, the common man gladly heard D.L. Moody.10 Billy Graham is also an example of a preacher who speaks with simplicity, yet he sees great results.
A preacher’s task is to take the great themes of theBible and present them to people in accurate, simple words. It is easy to complete Bible training and approach preaching with words like hypostatic union, over-realized eschatology, prevenient grace, and kerygma. R.C. Sproul is correct when he writes about a hard to understand university professor: “There are many possible reasons why a communication gap exists between the student and a professor. … One possible reason, however, is not often considered. He may not understand his material himself and disguises the fact by conveying an unintelligible mass of technicalia. … He is transferring information, not translating it.”11 What Sproul says about university professors can apply equally well to preachers.
Any preacher can lose himself and his congregation in a theological fog. It takes hard work, a first-class mind, and a great understanding of the man on the street to make complex Bible themes clear and simple.12 This is not to suggest that the preacher needs to avoid biblical topics because of their depth and profundity. Historic Christianity has firmly believed in the verbal inspiration of Scripture. Each word and theme must be preached with simplicity.
Simplicity can be achieved by using common understandable words. This will not diminish the power, effect, or beauty of one’s preaching. Seventy-three percent of the words in Psalm 23, 76 percent of the words in the Lord’s Prayer, and 80 percent of the words in 1 Corinthians 13 are one-syllable words. These are memorable, powerful verses of Scripture loved byall Christians, yet the words used are simple in these great passages.
One of Billy Graham’s most effective campaigns was heldin the Summer of 1969 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. I have 10 selected sermons from that crusade. Calculations show that, on an average, 76 percent of Graham’s words were one syllable.13 Every preacher can learn a lesson.
Storytelling greatly enhances the simplicity of a sermon. Good stories create and hold interest. They make a truth clearer and lift the haze from a cloudy thought. A story gives the listener’s mind a rest and allows him to say unconsciously, “Oh, I see now what the preacher is trying to say.” No wonder Jesus used so many stories and parables.
Storytelling can be overdone. A good sermon is not a string of cute stories held together by a biblical text. The messenger of God is called to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2). At his ordination the minister is handed a Bible, not the Reader’s Digest. The listener needs to go away from a message knowing what the preacher’s text meant, what it means to him today, and what appropriate response he must make to obey the Scripture.14
When does a preacher need to use a story or an illustration? After he has presented an abstract truth to his congregation. Most people do not think in abstractterms. People usually think in concrete terms. They appreciate understandable comparisons that help clarify hard-to-understand ideas. After a preacher has argued his case or presented a truth in abstract, slippery ideas, he must nail it home with a concrete story or illustration. Paul does this in Romans 3 and 4. He declared “man is justified” (3:28). Then in chapter 4 he gave the story of Abraham to clarify his point. This brings simplicity.
The godly preacher does not preach to other preachers or to his seminary professors. He preaches to people in the throes of life who are longing for a word from God. He needs to forget about his own intellectual accomplishments, prizes, awards, and degrees. He must focus his energy on one issue: communicating the gospel to people in accurate and understandable ways. Any man can make easy things hard to understand. A preacher’s task is to make hard things easy to understand. Let the words of Augustine be the final word on this issue of simplicity: “A wooden key is not so beautiful as a golden one, but if it can open the door when the golden one cannot, it is far more useful.”15
1. Stanley Horton, The Book of Acts(Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1981), 64. Stanley Horton’s insightful comments help clarify what Luke meant when he recorded that the apostles were “unschooled, ordinary men.” Horton asserts that the apostles were “uneducated in the sense of not having attended a rabbinical school or having sat under a great rabbi like Gamaliel.”
Horton rightfully argues that the apostles were not totally unschooled. “They had gone to the synagogue schools in their home towns, but they were not professional teachers or trained speakers like the scribes and lawyers.” Horton summarizes by saying that what the priests marveled over was “ordinary laymen did not speak with authority like this.”
2. Some scholars argue the 5,000 in Acts 4:4 is the aggregated number of all believers in Jerusalem to this point and not a head count of conversions on that given day. Whichever way one views the number, we must acknowledge the miraculous results from simple preaching.
3. Donald K. McKim, “What Can We Learn From Luther the Preacher?” Christianity Today, 11 November 1983, 42. Martin Luther’s comments are helpful here. Luther clearly saw God speaking in the preached word: “Yes, I hear the sermon: but who is speaking? The minister? No, indeed! You do not hear the minister. True, the voice is his, but my God is speaking the Word that he speaks.”
4. Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 182. A few pages earlier Robinson quotes Poincare, the brilliant French mathematician: “No man knows anything about higher mathematics until he can explain it clearly to the man on the street” (p. 179). The same can be said of a preacher. He knows nothing of theology and the Bible until he can explain it clearly to the man in the pew.
5. McKim, “Luther the Preacher,” Christianity Today, 43.
6. Martin Luther, Table Talk, ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 235f. Three hundred years later, Charles Finney gave a lecture to students on “How to Preach So As To Convert Nobody.” The sermon had 42 points. Finney’s fourth point was, “Let your sermons be written with a high degree of literary finish. Let your style be flowery, ornate, and quite above the comprehension of the common people. Give your sermons the form and substance of a flowing, beautifully written, but never to be remembered essay so that your hearers will say, ‘It was a beautiful sermon,’ but can give no further account of it.” Finney said by this method the preacher will be certain to convert nobody. See C.G. Firiney, “How To Preach So as To Convert Nobody” Ministry Magazine, November 1982, 8f.
To add to this, our district recently invited Lloyd Ogilvie to address its pastors at our institute. He spoke of the need for simplicity in preaching. Through his years of ministry, Ogilvie has had some contact with leading stage and screen stars. He related how he studied voice with some of these masters. Yet he explained that when he relied primarily on these human techniques, the lasting power of preaching was not as effective as when he preached a simple gospel message in reliance on the Holy Spirit.
7. Luther, Table Talk, 384. Luther did recognize the need to fit the occasion. On that same day he said, “When it comes, however, to academic disputations, watch me in the university. There I’ll make it sharp enough for anybody and will reply, no matter how complicated he wants to be.”
8. In McKim, “Luther the Preacher,” 43.
9. John Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 128.
10. Stanley Gundrey, Love Them In The Proclamation Theology of D.L Moody (Chicago: Moody Press, 1976), 55. Moody’s simplicity in preaching is well‑known and well-documented. He was so simple in the presentation of the gospel that some critics charge Moody was opposed to training. Such is not the case. Listen to Moody’s own words: “Some of you think I oppose theological seminaries. I want to say I believe we want thoroughly trained men. I don’t think we have enough trained men. At the same time, we want some men to stand between the laity and the ministers — I don’t know what you would call them — gap men. We want men to stand in the gap.” Without a doubt, Gundrey’s book on Moody is the best and fullest to appear since Wilbur Smith’s massive work in 1948.
11. R.C. Sproul, “The Whole Man,” in The Preacher and Preaching ed. Samuel Logan, Jr. (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986), 122.
12. John Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons rev. Jesse Weatherspoon (New York: Harper and Row, 1944), 243. Broadus says of C.H. Spurgeon, “He mastered three languages: the language of John Bunyan, that of the King James Version of the Bible, and that of the man in the street.” Those who have read many of Spurgeon’s sermons could add a fourth language he mastered: the language of the hymnal. No wonder thousands flocked to the Tabernacle to hear him.
13. Billy Graham, The Challenge Sermons from Madison Square Garden (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1969).
14. For a fine discussion of storytelling in the sermon, see Jay E. Adams, “Sense Appeal and Storytelling,” The Preacher and Preaching.
15. John Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 92.