Rutherford for the 21st Century (Part IV)

Editor's Note: This is the final post in a four-part series on the life and relevance of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661).  Find previous entries here

Rutherford as a Preacher

There is no getting around the fact that Rutherford was an exceptional preacher. Historian Robert Wodrow even goes so far as to refer to him as "one of the most moving and affectionate preachers in his time, or perhaps in any age of the church." That makes it all the more fascinating that he is said to have had poor elocution and a voice that was "rather shrill." One of his friends (note, a friend, and not an enemy!) once described his preaching voice as "strange...a kind of skreigh [or, screech], that I never heard the like."

What is it, then, that made Rutherford's preaching so moving and memorable? There are at least two things that I think set his preaching apart. We would do well to learn from each of them and to apply them to our own contexts.

  1. Rutherford was a Christ-centered preacher.  

    By this I mean that Rutherford's preaching was focused upon Christ in a way that was unique in the seventeenth century. His sermons, more than those of his contemporaries, concentrated on communicating the overwhelming beauty of Christ. This is probably best seen in the story told by Wodrow of an English merchant who was once traveling through Scotland in the seventeenth century. Upon coming to Irvine, the merchant was able to hear David Dickson preach and described him as "a well-favoured, proper old man, with a long beard" who "showed me all my heart." Then in St. Andrews, the same merchant heard Robert Blair and described him as "a sweet, majestic-looking man" who "showed me the majesty of God." And after Blair, he heard Rutherford and described him as "a little, fair man" who "showed me the loveliness of Christ." It was this great concern for the loveliness of Christ that dominated Rutherford's preaching and that made it so appealing to his hearers.  

    If there is one thing that is missing from much 21st century preaching, it would seem to be this central theme that we find in Rutherford. The Evangelical church today seems to be full to capacity with "practical" sermons on topics like "how to improve your marriage" or "how to be a better parent" or "how to mange your money." However, there is precious little preaching that seeks to exalt the majesty of Christ and to open people's eyes to the sheer beauty of the precious Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

  2. Rutherford had an obvious unction in his preaching that flowed from his communion with Christ. 

    One need only read through Rutherford's Letters to see how intimate his communion was with Christ. He was a man enflamed with love for Christ, longing to be like Christ and to be with Christ. Over and over again he refers to Christ as "that soul-delighting, lovely Bridegroom," "the Rose of Sharon," "the fairest...sweetest...most delicious Rose of all His Father's great field," "the Chief among ten thousands," and "the fairest among the sons of men." This is what has kept his Letters in print ever since their original publication almost 400 years ago: they exude the aroma of Christ and communicate Rutherford's own passion for Christ to all who take them up. And this is clearly what comes through in his preaching as well. His preaching was simply an overflow or an expression of his own love affair with Christ. It was, according to Rutherford's contemporary Richard Baxter, a communication of his heart to the hearts of his hearers.

    This communication affected not only the content and the language of his sermons but also the manner in which they were presented to the congregation. The same friend that described the "strange" sound of his voice also said this about his preaching: "Many times I thought he would have flown out of the pulpit when he came to speak of Jesus Christ." Rutherford did not stumble upon a pulpit and lukewarmly acknowledge that he might or might not have a couple of things to say that the congregation might or might not find interesting. He was a man gripped by the overwhelming beauty of Christ and compelled into the pulpit by his longing to see others know Christ the way he did.

Before moving on, we need to pause and consider what lessons and encouragements we can glean from Rutherford's preaching. I find it interesting that Rutherford was regarded as an exceptional preacher and yet his elocution and his preaching voice were not what we would look for in a preacher of renown. This should be a lesson to us that elocution, the sound of our voices, and even our physical appearances (remember, Rutherford was said to be "little" and "fair," not tall, dark, and handsome!) will not determine whether or not we will be great preachers so much as our relationship with Jesus Christ. Eric Alexander once said that he used to read E.M. Bounds' Power Through Prayer at least once every year to remind himself that the power in his preaching and in his ministry stemmed not from his gifts and abilities so much as from prayer and his relationship with Christ. Rutherford seems to have understood this. Humanly speaking, our pulpits will be weak until and unless we understand it too.

In spite of Rutherford's exceptional preaching ability and his all-out efforts on behalf of Christ, he still saw precious little fruit during the first few years of his ministry in Anwoth. And I think that there is encouragement in this also for current and future preachers of the gospel. There will not always be visible fruit from our labors in pulpit ministry. In fact, there may be seasons in which we receive no visible confirmation of our ministry at all. And yet we will still be called on to pour ourselves out and to spend ourselves in service to Christ. Numbers of conversions is not our primary goal so much as faithfulness in our calling. Even if we see little or no fruit from our ministries, we should be encouraged to know that a great preacher like Rutherford also experienced times when he saw little or no fruit from his ministry. This should make us more reliant upon God, who alone brings the increase, and less reliant upon ourselves and our abilities.

The End

After the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, Rutherford again found himself at the center of controversy. His book Lex, Rex was declared to be "a book inveighing against monarchie, and laying ground for rebellion" and was, therefore, recalled and burned in Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Rutherford himself was removed from his positions in the university as a professor of divinity and principal of St. Mary's College, deprived of his pastoral charge in the church, divested of his stipend, and placed under house arrest. He was charged with treason and called to appear before parliament to respond to the allegation. Many of his friends feared he would face execution along with James Guthrie and Archibald Campbell, the Marquis of Argyll. Rutherford himself said that "he would willingly dye on the scaffold...with a good conscience." But before he could do so, he became ill and was prevented from answering parliament's summons by what he referred to as an earlier and more important "summons before a superior Judge and judicatory." His message to parliament was: "I behove to answer my first summons; and, ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings and great folks come."

Rutherford died shortly thereafter, near the end of March 1661. But he did not die without leaving one final exhortation for those who were gathered around his bedside. It was the same message that had consumed him in life that also consumed him in death—the loveliness of Christ: "He is the cheife of ten thousands of ten thousands! None [is] comparable to him, in heaven or in earth. Dear bretheren, doe all for Him; pray for Christ, preach for Christ, feed the flock committed to your charge for Christ, doe all for Christ. Bewarr of men-pleasing, ther is too much of it amongst us."

Guy M. Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He formerly served as Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.

This article was originally featured on reformation21 in February of 2009. Stay tuned next week for part four!

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Guy Richard