There are many ways to prepare for the message, and we acknowledge that there is no formula set in stone. There are different perspectives, but there are abiding principles. We desire the gracious help of the Holy Spirit to give guidelines, principles, and a Scriptural overview on this important topic. I am alarmed and ashamed when pondering this subject, as I freely acknowledge my own failure.
We must observe that the vessel and the preparation are inseparably linked. God, in sovereignty, prepares the vessel, but the vessel is responsible to prepare for the message. The pattern for all preparation is the perfect Man, our Lord Jesus. Notice, “His delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psa 1:2). In Luke’s gospel, the Lord is the example in prayer life. Finally, in Matthew 9:36, we see that His love and compassion for souls is incomparable. In this threefold cord, He is unique and worthy of emulation.
The preparation must involve a careful reading of the Scriptures (Ecc 12:9). This is imperative! The consistent reading of the gospels is necessary, along with the Roman epistle and Acts. The one gives us the heartbeat of the gospel exhibited in the Christ; the other, the doctrine of the gospel, written by the greatest soul winner apart from Christ. The book of Acts is the demonstration of the gospel, its power and results. The study of these books is motivating in preparing the message. We must always remember that the reason for the preparation is not to acquire a reputation, but to declare the message.
The Word of God is incorruptible, infallible, God-breathed, and life-giving. It is, therefore, essential in preparation. Read to saturate your soul with its content and purpose. Read it for your own growth, and then for the presentation that follows. The Word has a sanctifying effect upon the soul, and produces a devotion to Christ which is the highest employment of grace, and also a true evaluation of self.
In preparation, there must be waiting upon God in prayer. Prayer ignites and inflames the heart in His presence, resulting in travail for lost souls in light of eternity (Gal 4:19). Time spent in secret, wrestling for lost souls, is the native air breathed by the soul winner. It is said of R. M. McCheyne that the walls of his chamber were witnesses of his prayerfulness.
Prayer is the secret and potent weapon in preparation. There is no substitute for this, my beloved brethren. I fear the modern ideas of preparation are light and empty. Even in this pushbutton, fast-moving, pleasure-seeking, time-consuming, computer-dominated age, there should be great sacrifices on the part of the preacher to be alone with God, alone where the voice of God and the call of sinners fills his soul. This will produce a solemnity and a softness in preaching. If God’s unconditional love for the world saturates the soul in His presence, it will have eternal results.
The late Frank Knox put it tersely. “Hide yourself before you show yourself, or you will make a fool of yourself.” There is the danger that we occupy ourselves with sermons and not souls, with the preaching instead of the perishing! Prayer is top priority! “We are weak in the pulpit because we are weak in the closet.” Isaiah saw the Lord in His holiness, then himself in his sinfulness, before he was sent to preach to others in their hopelessness (Isa 6).
The preparation is often colored by good reading material relating to the lives of those of past generations who were mightily used of God in their preaching, yet were men of like passions as we are. Some material from the pen of John Bunyan, Murray McCheyne, Jonathan Edwards, G. Whitefield, C. H. Spurgeon, the pioneers to the dark continent, the devoted men who pioneered in relation to the establishing of assemblies, and a host of others, will have tremendous effects in preparation for the message. This takes time and sacrifice. Perhaps the word “discipline” would be better. Good, wholesome biographies are useful tools. We have a great advantage in having the records of soul winners. These are helps to declare the glorious message.
There are three important ingredients that should fill the heart: 1) the centrality of CHRIST, 2) the conviction of SIN, and 3) the consequences of the LOST. This threefold cord should possess the soul in preparation for the message. When the message is preached, the listeners will recognize that this is “a man sent from God.” The message is warm, but searching. The message is clear, but solemn. The message is personal, but saving.
Why did the infidel, Hume, find himself under the powerful preaching of Whitefield at early morning? When questioned why he would go to hear such messages in their awesome power when he didn’t believe them, he retorted, “The preacher believes them!” Slothfulness in these matters is a tragedy. Take time to prepare. What has impressed us in private will be manifested in public. There is an earnest, awesome reality, when handling, as ambassadors, this heaven-begotten, Spirit-impressed, and soul-winning declaration of the message.
The preparation for the message is totally dependent upon the Holy Spirit of God. I have chosen this point last with the hope that it will be impressed more deeply upon all our hearts. There can be fluency of words without life. There can be form without power. There can be facts without feeling. The soul winner fears these negatives, and such give concern as he prepares to face sinners who will either be in heaven or in hell for all eternity.
The need of the hour is “prepared vessels” in the presence of God, who come forth with the divine flame of love for lost, perishing sinners. May our God reach all of our hearts with these weighty issues and raise up a band of younger men, vessels characterized by prayer, passion, practice, and vision.
We are humbled in the Lord’s presence when we see fields plowed, but no fruit, nets cast into the sea, but no fish, sermons preached, admired, and praised, but no results! This indicates that there has been weakness and powerlessness in private.
Let us conclude with a searching note. We need a revival in the closet. We need Holy Spirit preparation in secret. It may be that we haven’t failed in presentation, but in preparation. A little reviving among us in these matters would be much desired and longed for, but are we willing to pay the price?
The private is more important than the public. The price is demanding, yet rewarding. Love to Christ is priority. The instrument prepared is priority. The vision of lost souls is priority. The message vibrating in the soul is priority. Revival will follow!
The above has given deep exercise of heart in the consideration of this very vital and needful subject. The attitude of our hearts before God should be, “Lord, give us that love for souls in the secret. Prepare our hearts in the solitude of Thy presence. Help us to understand that the soul of another depends on the voice of another.” What mystery! What reality! What solemnity! Yet, what an honor to be a prepared vessel with a prepared message! We need men who will spend and be spent, who will labor and pray, who will watch and weep for souls.
I will conclude with the words inscribed on the memorial to George Whitefield, erected in the Newburyport Meeting House. “This servant prayed, studied, wept, travailed, and preached. In a ministry of 34 years he crossed the Atlantic 13 times and preached more than 18,000 sermons. As a soldier of the cross, humble, devout, ardent, he put on the armor of God, preferring the honor of Christ to his own interest, repose, reputation, or life. As a Christian orator, his deep piety, disinterested zeal, and vivid imagination gave unexampled energy to his look, actions, and utterance. Bold, fervent, pungent, and popular in his eloquence, no other uninspired man ever preached to so large assemblies, or enforced the simple truths of the gospel by motives so persuasive and awful and with an influence so powerful on the hearts of his hearers. He died of asthma September 30th, 1770, suddenly exchanging his life of unparalleled labors for his eternal rest.”