When Simple Gospel Preaching Doesn’t Seem to Cut It

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 2 Timothy 4:3

I’ll admit that in my darker moments and dumber times this verse is discouraging to me. Or perhaps I should say the painful reality of this verse is discouraging to me. Permit me a bit of foolishness for a moment, so that I can show the amazingness of the gospel and it’s power later. That verse is difficult because what it means is that in certain seasons those who preach a truncated gospel will have tons of results, while those committed to sound teaching will feel like they are preaching to posts.

It’s a simple principle that John Newton also observed. When there is great spiritual decline in the land simple gospel preaching will be seen as dull:

To the healthy man, plain food is savory—but the [taste buds], when [spoiled] by sickness, becomes picky and [choosy], and hankers after [diverse foods] and [luxurious food]. Likewise, when the sincere milk of the gospel, plain truth delivered in plain words, is no longer pleasing—but a person requires curious speculations, or the frothy eloquence of man’s wisdom, to engage his attention, it is a bad sign. For these are suited to nourish, not the constitution—but the disease.

This is why it is incredibly tempting to try to adorn the gospel with something more appealing to the flesh. Before his conversion, John Cotton was one who knocked it out of the park in “frothy eloquence of man’s wisdom”. He was one of those seminary students who everybody assumed had a great future ahead of him. His speaking skills were dynamic and ornate.

Cotton also had to endure the preaching of the Puritan William Perkins. Perkins’ gospel preaching was simple and unadorned but it brought to Cotton’s soul a great sense of conviction. But he “resisted and smothered those convictions through a vain persuasion, that if he became a godly man ‘twould spoil him for being a learned one.” (Sibbes, xxxvii)He had so hardened his heart against Perkins that he actually secretly rejoiced when he heard the bell toll for Perkins’ funeral.

But the Hound of Heaven would not allow Cotton to escape his grasp. For three years Cotton found himself in great despair. He knew that he was not converted but he kept preaching (and preaching in the lofty and eloquent fashion of the day). He began sitting under the preaching of Richard Sibbes. Sibbes was the pastor of a congregation much smaller than that of Cotton. His gospel preaching was simple and sound. Eventually Cotton came to know Christ through the preaching ministry of Sibbes.

John Cotton became a faithful disciple of the ways of Richard Sibbes. His preaching changed from the fancy and fashionable preaching of the day to the simple style of Dr. Sibbes. Cotton was mocked for this. On one particular occasion Cotton preached one of these simple sermons knowing that he would be mocked, would hear no applause, and would disappoint his hearers. He prayed before, “Lord, I have counted the cost, let me count it loss for Thee.”

After preaching these simple sermon Cotton was greatly disappointed by the results. His simple preaching moved him from one of the most popular preachers of the day to a laughing stock. One of those who had come to laugh at the simple Cotton was a young man named John Preston. He, a student at the college, came to mock the plain style of preaching. After preaching this particular sermon Cotton returned to his room in a gloomy state. But his spirits were soon lifted when John Preston stood at his door under great conviction.

So Perkins and Sibbes, simple preachers, had been used by God to convert John Cotton who was then used by God to reach John Preston who was used by God to reach many others.

Simple sermons matter.

God doesn’t need a home run out of the man behind the pulpit. He uses simple and faithful preachers of the Word. It doesn’t mean that you’ll pastor the next mega-church or even see much results. But it will be worth it. Keep preaching those simple gospel-centered sermons and God will use them to convert the Cotton’s and Preston’s among you.

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