Preacher, how would your congregation describe the most recent sermon you preached? Would they say, “biblical?” “expositional?” “applicational?” On a good day, “powerful?”
Would they describe your preaching as “earnest?”
Earnest. It’s an arcane but still useful word. Its synonyms: sincere, serious, direct, grave, weighty. The New Testament authors use the Greek version of it to urge zeal, haste, and intensity in prayer, worship, and love (Luke 10:2; Acts 26:7; 1 Pet 4:8). To amplify it, people say, “blood-earnest.” It means, essentially, “to really mean it.”
Don’t misunderstand: Earnest sermons aren’t pushy or unkind. An earnest pulpit doesn’t berate the pew. To be earnest, the tone must fit the situation. Shepherds love and feed their sheep; the sermon is an occasion for a meal, not a slaughter. There is joy in earnest preaching, not dour solemnities.
Earnestness in preaching doesn’t look like a stony scowl but an open chest. It’s the heart of heaven poured through the preacher into the people.
There’s an intensity to an earnest preacher because he’ll say what needs to be said about life, death, and eternity. He will call out sins by name, apply balm to the open wound, and lay bare with clarity what everyone is thinking. He’s not there to impress. He’s not lighthearted, casual, or glib. He never says, “Take it or leave it.” An earnest preacher is a man in whom there is no guile, no pretension, and no airs, but whose every word is laced with a love that pleads with souls for Christ.
Is the preaching that your church hears earnest? Have you been “blood-earnest” with them from the pulpit? Do you tell it like it is, straight from the heart? Do you talk to your people? Do you peel back the veil over their heart and plead with them to deal with Christ right now? Do you wax theological, or do you grab them by the hand and say, “Come, let us reason together” (Isa 1:18)? Is your preaching earnest?
Earnestness has been the mark of true preaching from the beginning. The heralds of God in the Bible modeled earnest preaching: Moses (Deut 30:15-20), Ezra (Ezra 10:9-11), Peter (Acts 2:36-41), and Paul (Acts 13:36-52) dealt with men directly and without pretense. Jesus’ sermons are the model of earnest preaching (Matt 5-7). In church history, this same seriousness in addressing souls came from the lips of the most profound preachers. Whether it was Chrysostom, Luther, Whitfield, or Spurgeon, the gravity of their words matched the gravity of the eternal realities they preached. The greatest preachers in history always preached earnestly.
That’s the kind of preaching your people need—earnest preaching—because evasion and excuse come so naturally to our sinful hearts. Our spiritual lethargy will let hundreds of sermons pass over our ears and never penetrate our hearts, until we are arrested by a Spirit-filled man earnestly pressing spiritual realities deep into our souls. We’ve had enough chatting from the pulpit, enough smooth-talking Christian salesmen.
What our souls need is frank, arresting, honest, heart-piercing preaching about the weightiest truths in Scripture. We need earnest preaching.
So, what does earnest preaching sound like? How do you cultivate earnestness in preaching? What marks an earnest address to the souls of sinful men?
Certainly, we should go to Scripture and hear Paul plead, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). We should consider well the urgency of Moses’ last sermon, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deut 30:19). And could there be a more earnest appeal than Jesus’ wooing words, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28)?
Yet in the course of church history since the apostles, one brotherhood of preachers exemplifies earnest preaching perhaps more than any other: the founders of the Free Church of Scotland.
No era in the history of the church has seen earnestness in the pulpit quite like the 19th-century Scottish Evangelical revival. The most common word used to describe the 19th-century Scottish Evangelical revival preachers was “earnest.”
It was written of Thomas Chalmers, the spiritual father of the movement, that in his preaching “He was terribly in earnest.” Concerning the Scottish missionary to China, William Chalmers Burns, his converts said, “that they got their idea of what the Saviour was on earth from the holy calm, warm love, and earnest zeal of Mr. Burns’ ‘walk with God.’” Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s advice to a student put the matter bluntly: “Do everything in earnest.” In God’s kind providence, he stacked the Scottish Evangelical deck with a lineup of powerful, earnest preachers in the early 1800s whose impact is still felt today.
What made these men so weighty and grave in their preaching and dealing with souls? It may be helpful to get a little context to understand the spiritual battle that shaped them, and into which they poured earnest word after word. Then, we will hear from these preachers to catch the fire that made them so truly earnest.
A Brief History of the 19th-Century Scottish Evangelical Revival
Since the end of the Covenanting era in 1688, the Church of Scotland had begun to decline in its conviction and orthodoxy. The Patronage Act of 1712, which gave wealthy landowners (patrons) authority over pastoral appointments, reflected the spirit of the age. For the Church of Scotland, the 18th-century proved to be “about the deadest time in the history of the Church of Scotland since the Reformation.”
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, two established parties vied for control of the Church of Scotland: The Evangelicals and the Moderates. Distinct from 21st-century American evangelicalism, the Scottish Evangelicals were marked by their embrace of Reformation doctrine, their lively preaching, and above all their zeal for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Evangelicals wooed working-class Scots with their plain language and passionate demeanor in the pulpit. In contrast, the Moderates won favor with the upper crust of Scottish society with their eloquent intellectualism, literary rhetoric, and appeals for social change—a sharp departure from the Secessionists and field-preachers of the previous century. Moderate preachers emphasized “cauld morality,” behavioral reformation, and in most cases a gospel of works-based salvation. The lines in the Orkney sands were drawn.
As the Moderate party declined at the beginning of the 19th-century, the Lord set the stage throughout Scotland for the outpouring of His Spirit. News of several small, local outbursts of Evangelical zeal began to circulate in the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1811, Thomas M’Crie’s biography The Life of John Knox swept across the Scottish literary scene and piqued interest in Reformed doctrine. The lifeless preaching of the Moderates found an answer in the thunderings of Andrew Mitchell Thomson. His successor, Thomas Chalmers, would set the Scottish pulpit ablaze through the church and the academy, and so become the father of the Scottish Evangelical revival.
Though pockets of Evangelical passion had begun to affect individual congregations throughout the early 19th-century, the wider dispersion of revival would not come until 1839. On July 23rd, 1839, a young interim preacher named William Chalmers Burns preached in his father’s church at Kilsyth on Psalm 110:3, “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.” The day of power had come. Dozens of members of the congregation trembled, wept, and cried out for conversion. Dozens more would soon follow, and the small parish church would begin holding services nightly as mourning sinners crammed in to hear Burns’ Evangelical gospel pleading. Revival had begun.
Soon after the events in Kilsyth, religious awakening rapidly spread throughout Scotland. William Chalmers Burns returned to his interim post at St. Peter’s Church in Dundee, Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s parish, where revival broke out during the Thursday night prayer meeting. In Andrew Bonar’s words, “About a hundred remained… and all were bathed in tears.” When M’Cheyne returned, he and Burns continued to witness hundreds of souls converted to Christ under their gospel preaching, and they travelled to other churches to share about this outpouring of the Spirit. As they did, even more congregations experienced similar revivals, from Collace to Kelso to Strathbogie to Jedburgh to Perth. Eventually, Evangelical preaching would overtake Scotland’s two major cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, as well.
Islay Burns, a younger brother of William Chalmers Burns and first-hand witness of these events, records the unprecedented upheaval wrought by these revivals. His account is worth quoting at length for its prosaic beauty and remarkable description:
At the first outbreak of holy impression, it seemed as if the influence were universal. The hearts of thousands were simultaneously stirred with spiritual concern, and solemn awe and fear pervaded the community. There were inquirers, more or less anxious, in every street—almost, as it seemed, in every second house. Iniquity, as ashamed, hid its face; sinners in Zion became afraid, and the one thing needful became on all hands the one absorbing subject of thought and converse. Looming shops were turned into places of prayer, and factories into preaching stations. The church was thronged night after night for months together with eager and earnest worshippers, while prayer meetings, like water runnels swollen by winter rains, teemed and overflowed on every side.
Earnest preaching in the pulpit enflamed earnest worship in the pew, and in God’s kindness Scotland was overwhelmed by an outpouring of the Spirit of Christ.
Whole towns were converted to Christ, turned from wickedness on Saturdays to psalm-singing on Sundays. This revival eventually led to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland in The Great Disruption of 1843. Thomas Chalmers, flagged by his students and fellow Evangelical ministers, walked out of the dead General Assembly to form a church whose bells would ring with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At the center of it all beat the strong heart of prayerful, simple, earnest preaching. According to Islay Burns, “While prayer, as we have seen, is the spirit of a revival religion, the substance of a revival—the pillar and ground of all—is the sound, zealous, pointed preaching of Christ.”
What Made Them Earnest Preachers
So, what did this earnest preaching sound like that God was pleased to so use? And what fountain lay at its source?
In homiletical terms, the earnestness of Evangelical preaching at this time could also be seen in its unity. While the Moderate preachers prided themselves on widely ranging topics and diverse elaborations, Chalmers aimed for the exact opposite; he wanted to move his hearers with the simplicity of the gospel, repeated over and over again. He wanted one idea to ring clearly in his hearers ears as they left, so he preached unified sermons.
Following their mentor, the rest of the revivalists preached sermons with one obvious, central point as well. Though they commonly used “heads,” or outlines, to divide the components of the sermon, the revivalist preachers sought to subordinate each of those heads to one chief thrust. One listener “complained of [Chalmers] that he made no progress as he went on, but that he kept continually reproducing the same truth, only with added intensity of utterance and exuberance of illustration.” And so he intended to do. This fixed focus made the revival sermons intentional, plain, and accessible to every class of people.
And what singular points did these preachers press on their hearers that gave their preaching such an earnest tenor? Consider a few of the dominant themes in the preaching of the 19th-century Scottish revivalists.
The Nearness of Death
These Scots preachers were painfully aware of the brevity of life. Death surrounded them. Heaven and hell were always knocking. In full view of the end of all men, the scent of the grave hung about their preaching.
Nobody is light-hearted at the graveside; death has a way of teaching us earnestness.
So it is today, and so it was then. The threat of death put power into the Scottish pulpits, and it manifested in earnest pleading with men to repent before the reaper came.
Consider this example of death-conscious preaching from Thomas Chalmers:
You may remember the fond and unbroken tenacity with which your heart has often recurred to pursuits, over the utter frivolity of which it sighed and wept but yesterday. The arithmetic of your short-lived days, may on Sabbath make the clearest impression upon your understanding - and from his fancied bed of death, may the preacher cause a voice to descend in rebuke and mockery on all the pursuits of earthliness - and as he pictures before you the fleeting generations of men, with the absorbing grave, whither all the joys and interests of the world hasten to their sure and speedy oblivion, may you, touched and solemnized by his argument, feel for a moment as if on the eve of a practical and permanent emancipation from a scene of so much vanity.
Hear also the words of Chalmer’s student, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, as he considers the need for full dedication to God in light of the imminent grave:
Dearly beloved and longed-for, my heart’s desire for you, is to see you a holy people. How much longer my ministry may be continued among you, God only knows; but if God give me health and grace among you, I willingly devote my all to Him. No moment, no pleasure, no ease, no wealth, do I wish for myself. I feel that He has bought me, and I am His property. O come, give yourselves to the Lord with me! Bind yourselves to the horns of God’s altar. Time past is enough to have been the devil’s—the world’s—our own. Now let us be Christ’s alone. Are you willing? Lord, bear witness; seal it in heaven; write it in Thy book. Bear witness, angels, devils, stones and timber—bear witness, Jesus, Lamb of God! We are Thine now, and Thine forever. What have we to do any more with idols?
As the Lord would have it, M’Cheyne only preached for a few more years to the church in Dundee before being called into Christ’s presence at the age of 29. He preached with death on his mind and at his door. He was earnest to see eternity secured in his people because he knew they might enter it any day.
The Freeness of Life
This sense of the nearness of death also fueled the free gospel invitations that dominated Scottish Evangelical preaching throughout the 19th-century revival. They called all sinners to repentance and faith and did so with a fierce passion that leapt out of the pulpit. Their gospel proclamation was more than a rhetorical flourish; it was the recovery of a doctrine hotly debated a century earlier during the Marrow Controversy. They believed wholly in the doctrine of election and preached openly the gospel of grace to the world. Hugh Martin exemplified this urgent invitation when he preached,
The grace of God in forgiveness is as free and unfettered in its sovereignty, as absolute, unlimited and unconditional in its proposal, as his law is absolute in its authority… Untrammeled by any circumstances, unhampered by any conditions, it offers free and immediate, full and irreversible, forgiveness to every hearer of the gospel; and whosoever will, let him come!
Similarly, Thomas Chalmers called sinners to repentance in light of the doctrine of predestination,
We also feel ourselves warranted to say to one and to all of you, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and ye shall be saved.’ ‘Repent and be converted, and your sins shall be forgiven you.’ Return unto God, and He will be reconciled. If you do as we bid you, God's decree respecting your deliverance from hell, a decree which we have not the previous knowledge of, will be made known by its accomplishment. Again, we call upon you, our hearers, to compare your situation with that of the centurion and the soldiers. They were told by a prophet that they were to be saved; and when that prophet told them what they were to do for the purpose of saving themselves, they obeyed him. They did not say, ‘O it is all predestinated, and we may give up our anxieties, and do nothing.’
Likewise, Andrew Thomson demonstrates what revival pleading sounded like in his address to those who refused communion:
O, ye to whom this melancholy description applies… We would beseech you to stop short in your career of thoughtlessness and folly… And we would hold up to view the ordinance you have been disregarding as exhibiting, in the death and mediation of Christ, the only way by which you can return to God, and obtain eternal life; and as denouncing at the same time, through the sorrows and ignominies of the cross, that awful retribution which awaits those who reject the salvation of the gospel, and will not to have Christ rule over them.
It was said of Williams Chalmers Burns, whose preaching ignited the revival, that “With him the winning of souls was a passion; calm, but intense, consuming.”
Eternity ever in view, they called men to account with Christ at every opportunity.
The Furnace of Hell
Knowing the dire condition of their unconverted hearers, Scottish men of God were compelled to preach the terrors of perdition. Such revival preaching pressed hard on sinners with threatenings of judgment and appeals to conversion. In that vein, Robert Murray M’Cheyne once observed that “they that have most love in their hearts speak most of hell.” So it was among the revival preachers whose earnest speech dealt directly and vigorously with souls dangling over the fiery pit.
Thomas Chalmers plead with his listeners, saying,
The revealed things which we find there belong to us, and we press them upon you—‘Unless ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.’ ‘If ye believe not in the Son of God, the wrath of God abideth in you.’ ‘Be not deceived, neither covetous, nor thieves, nor extortioners, nor drunkards, shall inherit the kingdom of God.’ ‘He who forsaketh not all, shall not be a disciple of Christ.’ ‘The fearful, and the unbelieving, and the abominable, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.’ These are plain declarations, and apart from the doctrine of predestination altogether, they ought, and if they are believed and listened to, they will have a practical influence upon you. We call upon you not to resist this influence but to cherish it.
Similarly, Robert Murray M’Cheyne warned those who would resist the gospel call,
All unconverted souls are in the fire. You are in the fire for two reasons: You are condemned to the fire. 'He that believeth not is condemned already' (John 3:18). There is as it were a great pile of wood on which you are placed, and it is set on fire. The fire indeed has not yet reached you, though soon it will. Your hell is already begun. Just as the children of God have their heaven begun, so you have got your hell begun. You have burning lusts, and burning passions raging within you these are the beginnings of hell. But ah! brethren, those of you who have been brought to Christ are brands plucked out of the fire. Observe that Christ plucks the brands out of the fire, and grafts them into the living vine, that they may be made to glorify God by bearing fruit. You will be made to glorify God in one of two ways: either by bearing fruit, or by being cast, soul and body, into hell. 'The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil' (Proverbs 16:4). Oh! brethren, which do you choose? O brands in the fire! will you not cry to be plucked out of the fire?
In the best sense of the term, these were “fire and brimstone preachers.” They loved their people enough to warn them of the wrath to come. They didn’t hide from hard truths but dealt openly with the reality of hell’s open maw and heaven’s free offer. With tenderness and tenacity, Scotland’s pulpits told the whole truth to a people in need of an awakening, and through their preaching God had mercy on countless souls.
So, what made these Scottish preachers such earnest heralds? An eternal mindset. The common denominator in the earnest preaching of the 19th-century Scottish Evangelical revival was a mind set on things above, not things here on earth (Col 3:2). Like the Puritans before them, the Scottish Evangelicals preached with eternity always in view. Whether life or death, heaven or hell, they were gripped by the world to come. Future invaded the present through their earnest preaching.
As their hearts lived in heaven, so their sermons drew men up with them, earnest only for the things that last.
Brothers, these men were earnest in their preaching because they knew what was at stake. They saw with unobscured clarity the glories of heaven, the horrors of hell, the value of souls, and the radiance of Christ. They spoke to men with weightiness and sincerity for the sake of their eternal destinies. They stood between earth and heaven, between now and then, and ferried men across the river of death into the endless shores of glory. No gimmicks, no jokes, no beating around the bush. Just honest, earnest preaching of God’s Word to the world.
Oh, how we need their earnest example to set our pulpits ablaze today! When you stand up to preach this Sunday, may the voices of these Scottish preachers ring in your ears. May their blood-earnest seeking of souls echo in your church this week. May their vice grip on heaven tether your heart to reality. May you preach this week with a 19th-century Scottish accent—with the savor of Christ and a love for the lost. May you be earnest as they were earnest, and so be found a faithful minister of the eternal gospel of God.