Discover more from Faith for Living with Dr. Michael A. Milton
Finding Your Voice by Seeking Your Faith
Preaching (and any Gospel truth-telling) in the Secular Age must not be concerned about a shift in social meta-constructs, meta-narratives, outworn literary forms, or the theater of the absurd. We are aware of such forces. We neither fear nor flatter such things. The Gospel of Jesus Christ shines through the thickest smoke of pretense, posturing, or repudiation and seizes the human soul. Thus, preaching may be studied for the remarkable components that support its activity, such as sacred elocution and other divisions of homiletics. Yet, of far more consequence is the soul of the one who preaches. For a perfectly prepared and performed homily in the soul of a human untouched by the Gospel that he preaches is of some value (the efficacy of the Gospel not being dependent on anyone or anything, but a word of God alone), but the unrefined but faithful message of a man who believes can change the course of history. Preaching is about a sacred fire that has consumed a preacher, and people come, like Benjamin Franklin to George Whitefield, to see him burn alive. Any message without the incarnational presence of the Second Person of the Trinity will lack the beauty, depth, and divinity—thus, the potential for our restored humanity—so essential to have the message activated by the Holy Spirit. For it is biblically revealed, the Spirit bears witness to Himself.
After you read this article, consider viewing the presentation that my students study. You can access the site here: https://faithforliving.live/1sermonsite
I deal with this matter in my recent essay on “every preacher has one sermon.” The piece is available in a PDF white paper.
THE BIBLICAL CASE BEFORE US
The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:12-17 NKJV):
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason, I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
We need more preachers with hwyl. Hwyl has been said to mean the canvas of a ship’s sail. True enough, but it is more of the wind in the sail: “Catching a hwyl.”1 However, the usage of hwyl in Welsh (in my experience) is most associated with preaching. A minister is said to have hwyl when there is a demonstration in the spirit of a sacred anointing. The preacher has hwyl because his sermons carry an authority born not of ecclesiastical office but of time with God. In my mind’s ear, I can hear the instruction— in hushed and reverent tones: “Hwyl means there is a “sacred fire” an ethereal burning in the preacher’s soul, a fire from the very altar of the Almighty.” I remember preaching at a church in South Wales where “the Doctor” preached in the 1960s during evangelistic tours of Britain. Explaining the visit, my host pastor remarked with a whispered wonder, ”O, my dear boy, you should have been there: Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached with such hwyl.” He meant “unction,” “anointing.” That is what I mean when I say we need more preachers with hwyl.
Every preacher reading my words can preach with hwyl. Hwyl, viz., the anointing of God, is demonstrated, never contrived, and never used for display or narcissistic manipulation. The preacher with Hwyl is noted by a humble authenticity signifying the presence of God in a most personal visitation. “This preacher has been with God,” says the one who hears the anointed message. So, each of us who is called to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ can preach with Hwyl if we preach out of our own changed life through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hear me carefully: I am not advocating a sort of Charles Finney-esque approach to preaching. Far from it! I am urging for the sake of the Gospel in our time that our preaching and all of our ministry be forged from our experience with the risen Christ.
Any message without the incarnational presence of the Second Person of the Trinity will lack the beauty, depth, and divinity—thus, the potential for our restored humanity—so essential to have the message activated by the Holy Spirit. For it is biblically revealed, the Spirit bears witness to Himself. — M. A. Milton
Let me put it this way. My premise is that every preacher possesses one sermon given by God. This unique "voice" provides a compelling authenticity to every Bible message preached. It is important to clarify that your "one sermon" does not refer to a manuscript you carry around, although being prepared to preach anytime is advisable. Rather, the "one sermon" represents the Spirit-shaped anointing, known as "hwyl ” in Welsh, as in This method is based on Paul's example to Timothy in 1 Timothy 1:12-17. Paul, after introducing himself and summarizing the problems in Ephesus (verses 1-11), shares his testimony. In this deeply personal turn, Paul demonstrates that as Christian shepherds, we best practice ministry by revealing Christ within us. This should be done without excessive self-centeredness or self-aggrandizement. By following the Apostle Paul's example, we can identify our unique "voice." Paul's method of personalizing ministry has three salient features. When employed with a prayerful and humble spirit, these three components of our relationship with Jesus Christ bring unparalleled authenticity to our ministry, especially in preaching. So, what are these three components that shape the "preacher's voice" or the "one sermon?”
The preacher's voice, or the "one sermon," is formed through a personal encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Paul exemplifies this feature in verses 12-15, which adds pathos to his voice and authenticity to every utterance on behalf of God. "Christ Jesus our Lord... enabled me and considered me faithful... appointing me to the ministry." The placement of Paul's conversion and call to Gospel ministry in this passage is not coincidental. Like a rich mahogany undertone in an old Flemish Master painting, this encounter with Jesus gives resonance to Paul's voice. Likewise, Timothy, by applying this feature to his own life and ministry, will be equipped to face the challenges of ministry. Encountering our Lord Jesus Christ, having met with Him and been called by Him, is an irreplaceable dynamic that causes others to remark, "This person has been with God!" It is important to note that this feature cannot be manufactured. It is a reality permanently embedded in the preacher's life, as recognizable as one's fingerprints. However, the call to you, my dear colleague in ministry, is to let this encounter shine. If there is no shimmer to shine, and you have not experienced the living Christ in your life, then do not proceed further with this instruction. Acknowledge your situation, fall to your knees, and cry out to the Lord of life for forgiveness, guidance, and the experience of His resurrected presence. Even if alive, your ministry is anemic without this vital first component.
“I PREACHED THE GREATEST SERMONS IN CHURCH HISTORY . . .”
You might find solace in confessing, as the late Dr. D. James Kennedy did, "In my first years in ministry, I preached the greatest sermons in the history of the Church—Whitefield’s, Spurgeon's, Luther's, Wesley's, Calvin's..."
I remember a conversation I had with the late Dr. Tim Keller. Tim told me that one of his greatest concerns in his Gospel work was that younger preachers were using the fruit of his ministry not merely as a model but as a sort of replacement for their own ministries and voices. “If you are a pastor in rural Iowa, your ministry cannot reflect the realities I face in urban Manhattan.”
Tim Keller found his voice. Dr. Kennedy found his voice, his "one sermon," when he began to preach out of his encounter with the risen Christ. I did the same, and so must you.
Secondly, the preacher's voice, or the "one sermon," is shaped by an extraordinary aspect of the minister's life: a personal theological centering dynamic. Again, St. Paul demonstrates this active agent within him—the unseen but real theological nuclear energy—the personal application of God's grace to Paul. The doctrine of grace captivated Saul of Tarsus, just as the blinding light on the Damascus Road did. Of course, grace is not "amazing" to Paul alone. Every believer is a recipient of God's grace. However, God’s grace came to Saul in the shape of his greatest need. Theological fission is a sub-atomic splitting of time in the preacher's soul, producing an inexhaustible source of power from on high to propel him through the vast reaches of experience. For Paul, it was like this: This unstoppable internal spiritual fission, where grace releases immeasurable spiritual energy fueling Paul's ministry, brought depth, timbre, and authority to his voice. Peter and James recognized it as Barnabas brought the transformed persecutor to them for approval (Acts 9:26-31; Galatians 1:18, 19), i.e., ordination, to preach among the Church in Jerusalem. Dr. Luke testifies that wherever Paul preached among the believers, they were edified (Acts 9:31). The supernatural force of God’s truth so shapes the preacher’s life that when the truth is proclaimed, it enters the human soul of the hearer with an unseen but real iridescent light from heaven that will accomplish the mission of God: “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11 NKJV).
Like Paul, you and I must have theological fission to produce power in the pulpit and perseverance in the parish.
Theological fission is a sub-atomic splitting of time in the preacher's soul, producing an inexhaustible source of power from on high to propel him through the vast reaches of experience. – M. A. Milton
I think of theological fission as the next layered undertone on a masterpiece, the Grisailles that gives depth to the Rubens (1577-1640) or Van Dyke (1599-1641). It is the incomparable power of divine truth alive in Paul’s molecular structure—applied in delicate undertones by the very finger of God. What is the theological centering point in Timothy's ministry? And in your life? The answer lies within you, your testimony, and, since Christ captured your being, your very person. “But can people really change?” Lloyd-Jones said that if it is not so, we have no power to preach. The question is, “Did Christ rise from the dead?” Czeslaw Milosz spoke for us all when he lectured at Berkley: “‘Christ is risen.’ Whoever believes that should not behave as we do.”
The "discovery" of God's sovereignty not only transformed my soul and set me on a lifelong adventure of knowing God but also allowed me to find meaning in my life. I was born into a painful situation characterized by cruelty and abuse. The tragic circumstances led me to become an orphan. I questioned God, asking why such things happen and why He would allow such evil and needless pain. When I read Francis Schaeffer's response and delved into his source material—the Westminster Confession of Faith—I received the answer to my soul's cries. The fallenness of our broken world and the sinfulness of humanity reflect God's permission for moral choice and do not, cannot, diminish His attributes of perfect light, goodness, and benevolence toward His creatures. God causes all things, even bad things, to work for the good of those who love Him and are His called-out ones (Romans 8:28). Through this understanding, I found freedom in sovereignty. This fundamental truth forever shapes my voice. The same applies to you—at the intersecting point of the truth (viz., theological doctrine) and experience. There is a governing doctrine that freed you, comforted you, or renewed you. The shape of the doctrine follows the contours of your pain, need, or hopes. In other words, the theological centering point in your life is that biblical truth that most challenged you, changed you, and freed you from the shackles of the world, the flesh, and the devil. You carry it within you. The river flows within you. Following Paul's example, allow that truth to guide you. Let it flow freely.
THE CROSS OF CHRIST
Thirdly, the preacher's voice, or the "one sermon," is shaped by the cross of Christ. Paul explains in verse 16 that the very things that sought to destroy him became the means of his salvation. "However, I received mercy for this reason: that in me, as the foremost sinner, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who would believe in Him for eternal life." Paul became a model or pattern for others who were on a path of self-destruction and judgment. They could witness the power of the cross—the instrument of horror transformed into the insignia of hope, the sign of shame turned into the symbol of salvation, and the place of torture becoming a place of healing. Similarly, each of us experiences the Gospel paradox of Golgotha in our lives. The call to Timothy, as well as to you and me, is to take up the cross and minister out of the poetic paradox of the cross. How has the Lord helped you identify with the cross? Let us echo Paul's words:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible, I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:7-11).
The ruling motif of the cross, the life of Christ, is at work in you—shaping your faith, sanctification, prayer life, and sacramental life. Preach out of the cross motif that is etched in your spirit and mind.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) reflected on his life and ministry with uncommon wisdom, "I only asked for wonder," and God granted it.This is the substance of divine mysteries unveiled. Wonder is our business. The final acts of artistry in the old masters’ painting process were the translucent glaze that creates the vibrancy of color and the application of details that lift the painting off of the canvas and into the viewer’s mind. Similarly, the cross in our lives serves as an accessible (that is to say, a transcendent yet imminent) motif for those being saved. The cross in your life brings resurrection to your ministry. The cross of Christ at work in your life brings irreducible color to your preaching and spiritual vibrancy to every area of your ministry.
SPONTANEOUS DOXOLOGICAL COMBUSTION
And the culmination of the tripartite "one sermon" evokes spontaneous doxological combustion. The sudden shift from instruction to praise reminds us that praise is never a non-sequitur. True faith yields authentic ministry. Authentic ministry bursts into a divine service of worship now and throughout eternity.
The "one sermon" is your voice in preaching—a divinely- tuned resonance that reverberates through all the transitions in your ministry. This voice ultimately leads to doxology, transforming not only your life but also the lives of those who receive your ministry in Christ's name. That is your one sermon.
And that will preach.
Czeslaw Milosz, “Six Lectures in Verse, Lecture V,” Selected and Last Poems: 1931-2004 (United Kingdom: Penguin, 2017), 208-209.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology (USA: Crossroad Publishers, 1983).