Preaching Encouragement from Augustine

Preaching can be a disheartening labor. As Sunday approaches, the weight of the task at hand grows heavy. Pray. Study. Write. Pray. Write. Rewrite. Pray. Preach. Repeat. The process starts over every Monday morning and the enemy of our souls whispers into our ears that the labor is fruitless and that preaching is powerless. Discouragement can settle into the unguarded mind when our preaching does not break way into more immediate spiritual awakening. If there is not an obvious response, we often assume that there was no lasting impact. The power in preaching, however, is not predominantly characterized by one hit wonder sermons. The power is in the persistence. Feeding your child one good meal is a good thing, but its not enough to grow him or her into maturity. It takes a lifetime of nourishment, and so it is with the body of Christ who matures by feeding on the word of God.

Augustine’s Example

Augustine is a testimony to the long-lasting legacy of the word faithfully preached. He is often called the greatest Christian theologian since the apostles. Many refer to him as the Father of the Western Church.[3] His influence has persisted for over 1500 years. But why? What made Augustine so uniquely influential for such a long period of time? Interestingly, Augustine spent the second half of his life preaching the Bible. He was a man of the book, and he was gifted to teach what he found in the book. Augustine’s friend, Possidius of Calama, once remarked,

“Those who read what Augustine has written in his works on divine subjects profit greatly, but I believe that the ones who really profited were those who actually heard him and saw him speak in church.”[4] 

In his ministry at the Basilica Major, Augustine preached 124 sermons on the Gospel of John. He preached 10 sermons from 1 John and at least one sermon on each of the 150 Psalms. Around 386, Augustine began writing a book entitled Teaching Christianity. The whole aim of the work was to present sacred Scripture as the sole foundation for Christian life and teaching.[6]

Augustine believed that the church was nourished to health over time only through the preached word. On the anniversary of his ordination, Augustine explained,

“From what I feast on, that I feed you. I am a table servant, not the master of the house. From what I set before you, from that I too draw my life.”[8]

For Augustine preaching was more than just the distribution of knowledge gained through study. Preachers are spiritual conduits of God’s message that they have themselves drawn life from. Augustine insisted that preachers of the Bible begin their preparation with prayer even up until the moment they stand to speak. Augustine writes,

“Let him be a prayer before being a speaker. At the very moment he steps up to speak, before he even opens his mouth and says a word, let him lift up his thirsty soul to God, begging that it may belch forth what it has quaffed, or pour out what it he has filled it with.”[10]

Prayer, study of the Scripture, and even the personal life of the preacher was important for the act of preaching. Augustine argues that the manner of the preacher’s life carries even more weight than eloquence.[11] Augustine embodied these convictions and over a millennia later we are still being edified by his teaching.

Preach the Word

The cultural climate of American Christianity today has been infused with a kind of consumerism which has caused many church leaders to reconsider what is essential to the Christian gathering. It is falsely assumed by many that the way to grow a congregation is to speak in such a way that appeals primarily to felt needs of the audience. The sermon must be short, entertaining, and even comical.  Contemporary sermons are often deemed successful when they are easy to listen to and well attended.

But Augustine is called the most influential Christian theologian in history because he persistently preached the Bible to himself and to his church. Augustine’s world was no less pagan than the world of 21st century America, yet for Augustine the word of God rightly divided was the spiritual food needed to survive such a world. Augustine simply followed after the pattern of the early church. He devoted himself to the apostle’s teaching and so should we.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; 

The Apostle Paul, (2 Tim 4:1-2)

[1] McGrath, Historical Theology, 26.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, 47.

[4] William Harmless, Augustine In His Own Words (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 122.

[5] Ibid., 124–125.

[6] Saint Augustine of Hippo, John E. Rotelle, and Augustinian Heritage Institute., Teaching Christianity, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Part I, Books; v. 11 (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2013), 11.

[7] Ibid., 106.

[8] Harmless, Augustine In His Own Words, 156.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Augustine of Hippo, Rotelle, and Augustinian Heritage Institute., Teaching Christianity, 218.

[11] Ibid., 237.

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