written by: Warren Wiersbe
Mark Twain said that a “classic” was a book everybody talked about but nobody read. You can apply that definition to classic sermons, especially “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard people attack the sermon as “brutal”or “barbaric,” and then I’ve quietly asked, “Have you ever read it?” only to be told, “No.” The sermon is available in The Complete Works of Jonathan Edwards (Banner of Truth, 2 vols.) as well as in several sermon anthologies. Take time to read it, then get acquainted with the man Encyclopedia Britannica called “the greatest theologian and philosopher of American Puritanism.”
The Life of President Edwards by S. E. Dwight (1829) is a major biography. It’s found in shorter form in volume one of The Complete Works. A more recent study by Ian H. Murray is Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, also published by Banner of Truth. This is perhaps our best contemporary study. Your next step is to read The Spirit of Revival by Archie Parrish and R. C. Sproul (Crossway), a practical study of Edwards’ Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. Also, see if you can locate a copy of John Gerstner’s book Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell (Baker, 1980). The Supremacy of God in Preaching by John Piper (Baker, 1990) is a study of the preaching principles that guided Edwards in his pulpit preparation. This is not only an excellent book on preaching, but it will help you get a new vision of the greatness of our God. Every preacher ought to read it.
Moving to another part of the theological spectrum, Charles Grandison Finney: Revivalist and Reformer, by Keith J. Hardman, is an excellent introduction to another misunderstood preacher and revivalist (Syracuse University Press, 1987; Baker paperback edition, 1990). Charles G. Finney and the Spirit of American Evangelicalism by Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe (Eerdmansd, 1996) is another fine study. Both books will help you get a fresh perspective on what’s going on in today’s religious world, for one of the best ways to interpret the present is to understand the past. An abridged version of Finney’s Systematic Theology was published by Bethany Fellowship in 1976.
There has arisen a generation that knows not Harry Emerson Fosdick and the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy that was launched by his famous sermon “Shall The Fundamentalists Win?” which he preached on May 21, 1922 at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City. An edited version was printed and distributed to 130,000 ministers in the United States, all paid for by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and it became the “sermon heard round the world.” To get Fosdick’s side of the story, read his autobiography The Living of These Days (Harper, 1956). He prepared his sermon as “a plea for tolerance.” but it became a declaration of war. “If ever a sermon failed to achieve its object, mine did,” he confessed.
You will also want to read the official biography Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet by Robert Moats Miller (Oxford, 1985). His analysis of the “Fosdick approach” to homiletics is most interesting. I don’t agree with Fosdick’s theology – he once said he had never recited The Apostle’s Creed – but he was a gifted sermonizer and communicator, and his sermons are worth studying. Preaching As Counseling by Edmund Holt Linn (Judson Press, 1966) is a study of Fosdick’s philosophy of preaching.
Putting biblical theology to work in a changing world is one of the themes of Confessions of a Theologian by Carl F. H. Henry (Word, 1986). If you want to catch up on the recent past – the founding of Fuller Seminary, the Billy Graham Berlin Congress, the birth of Christianity Today, the ministry of World Vision and the development of “neo-evangelicalism” – then this is the place to start. Dr. Henry has been a newspaper editor, a seminary professor, the counselor of many Christian leaders, and one of our most dedicated Christian intellectuals. Dr. Henry is one of our leading Christian theologians and his books will influence thinking people in the church for years to come.
To get an overview of his thought, read Carl Henry At His Best (Multnomah, 1989), an anthology of quotations on many themes taken from his many writings. Some of them are longer and make great fodder for serious thought; others are brief and very quotable. Here are a few of the latter variety:
The apostle Paul is concerned lest we be asleep, when we ought to be on guard duty.
The final chapter of history is not in human hands.
We must confront the world now with an ethics to make it tremble and a dynamics to give it hope.
Traditional evangelical hand-me-downs are inadequate for this turning-time in history.
You will also want to read Dr. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (Eerdmans, 1947) and Evangelical Responsibility in Contemporary Theology (Eerdmans, 1957), two slim books (89 pages each) that carry a mighty wallop. Two other challenging books are The Christian Mindset in A Secular Society (Multnomah, 1983), a collection of strategic addresses, and Twilight of A Great Civilization (Crossway, 1988), a collection of sermons, articles and addresses. Chapter seventeen of the latter book is “The Uneasy Conscience Revisited.” If you sold your theology books after graduating from seminary and filled that opening on the shelf with videos, then confess your sins and give your mind something nourishing to chew on.
This next suggestion may startle you, but I’ll explain why I’m recommending it: God, Country, Notre Dame, by Theodore Hesburgh, with Jerry Reedy. From 1952 to 1987, Dr. Hesburgh was president of Notre Dame University (Ballantine Books, 1990) and played an active role in American life. No, I haven’t changed my theology, nor am I recommending that you change yours, but I must confess that this autobiography was hard to put down. Born in 1917, Dr. Hesburgh grew up in an America that some of us remember. During his long career, he seems to have known everybody who was anybody, including presidents, popes, educators, generals and religious leaders of all persuasions. His story is the panorama of American history from a unique and fascinating viewpoint. Dr. Hesburgh didn’t mince words but, like John the Baptist, laid the axe to the root of the trees. When asked what he thought the answer was to ghetto schools, he replied, “A bulldozer.” After fifteen years on the Civil Right Commission, he gave President Nixon his resignation because he didn’t agree with White House policies. It was from Hesburgh that I learned that the interruptions of life are often opportunities for the ministry the Lord has for us to do.
Now for a change of pace: Ordained of the Lord by E. Schuyler English, the biography of Dr. Henry (“Harry”) Allan Ironside (Loizeaux, 1976). This is a revised and expanded version of the original 1946 edition, also published by Loizeaux). Ironside belonged to the Plymouth Brethren fellowship but his ministry and Christian sympathies were very wide. He never had “official ordination,” hence, the title of the biography. He pastored Moody Church in Chicago from 1930 to 1948 and many of his messages have been published in his commentaries on the entire New Testament and many Old Testament books. He was called as “the Archbishop of Fundamentalism,” but his primary ministry was to teach positive truth rather than to attack other preachers and their beliefs. He had a remarkable memory and could quote entire chapters from Scripture. Toward the end of his life, he was almost totally blind, but it didn’t impair his preaching. Someone else would read the passage (often an entire chapter) and he would expound it verse by verse as though he could see the text before him. He rarely followed what we would call “a sermon outline,” but he always knew where he was going and he arrived there. His verse-by-verse expositions would probably be called “Bible readings” by our British friends, but they always had substance and were punctuated with unforgettable personal illustrations.
Dr. Ironside began his ministry with the Salvation Army, but in trying to live up to their views on sanctification, he experienced a breakdown and had to be hospitalized. While studying his Bible, he came to understand the difference between “positional sanctification” and “practical sanctification,” and he resigned from the Army, although he maintained a warm relationship with their leaders. His book Holiness: The False and the True came out of that difficult experience (Loizeaux, 1912). You need to get acquainted with Dr. Ironside if only to understand what was happening in the American church during the first half of the twentieth century.
It’s unfortunate that J. D. Jones of Richmond Hill Congregational Church in Bournemouth, is not better known today. He had a long and fruitful ministry (thirty-nine years in one church), maintained an even level of pulpit excellence, and left behind many books of sermons that still speak to the church today. He didn’t shoot off rockets but sustained a steady and bright light during some of England’s most difficult days. To get acquainted with him, begin with his own autobiography, Three Score Years and Ten (Hodder and Stoughton, 1940), and then read Arthur Porritt’s J. D. Jones of Bournemouth (Independent Press, London; 1942). The latter book contains a number of chapters from friends who discuss various aspects of his life and work, and it also has a short collection of sermons and devotionals from J. D. Jones.
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Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).