Looking at our sin is an uncomfortable thing. Our natural impulse is to “love ourselves,” so when the preacher climbs into the pulpit to open the Word of God and to confront our sin through reproof, rebuke, and exhortation, we feel the discomfort (2 Tim 4:1-5). We’d rather not be reminded of our remaining sin. We’d rather accumulate teachers who avoid the topic of sin altogether. And they are easy to find nowadays.
But it is not hard to imagine how this itching-ears disorder effects the confidence of the Bible preacher. He feels the resistance from his congregation. “So,” he asks himself, “should I continue preaching about sin, or is it time to preach only gentler themes of the Christian life? Perhaps I have said enough, and they have heard enough, about sin?”
The notable Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte (1836-1921) wrestled with this question. He was faced with a crucial, ministry-defining, decision: continue preaching about sin, or leave the topic of sin and preach on the more gentle features of the faith? This moment of decision—a decision that would define the remainder of his ministry—is captured in G. F. Barbour’s classic biography. Listen to his description of Whyte’s struggle…
For ten days the loch and the late harvest-fields lay steeped in quiet sunshine, and the great hills towered higher in the faint haze. Twice within a week he disappeared for five hours, and on his return reported that he had walked some seventeen or eighteen miles over beautiful but mountainous roads. … It was on one of these walks—by the Strome Ferry road to where it overlooks Lochcarron, and then round by Plockton—that Dr. Whyte found himself wrestling with the question whether he should not, for the remainder of his ministry, preach more than he had been wont to do on the gentler and more hopeful aspects of Christian truth, and less on sin and its fruits. But, as he told his congregation when he returned to Edinburgh a fortnight later:
“What seemed to me to be a Divine Voice spoke with all-commanding power in my conscience, and said to me as clear as clear could be: ‘No! Go on, and flinch not! Go back and boldly finish the work that has been given you to do. Speak out and fear not. Make them at any cost to see themselves in God’s holy Law as in a glass. Do you that, for no one else will do it. No one else will so risk his life and his reputation as to do it. And you have not much of either left to risk. Go home and spend what is left of your life in your appointed task of showing My people their sin and their need of My salvation.’ I shall never forget the exact spot where that clear command came to me, and where I got fresh authority and fresh encouragement to finish this part of my work.” *
Whyte continued to show sinners their sin, in order to show sinners the saving grace of God.
Now fast-forward to a Sunday morning in 1921, just three days after Whyte’s death, and just two weeks before his 85th birthday. George Adam Smith stood in Whyte’s pulpit. During one section of his sermon, Smith recalled and commended Whyte’s imagination and creativity in describing the Christian’s ongoing struggle with indwelling sin. Smith said,
In Scottish preaching of the ‘seventies [1870s], sin had either with the more evangelical preachers tended to become something abstract or formal, or with others was elegantly left alone. But Dr. Whyte faced it, and made us face it, as fact, ugly, fatal fact—made us feel its reality and hideousness, and follow its course to its wages in death. He did this not only by his rich use of the realism of poetry, and fiction, and biography, but as we could feel through his experimental treatment of it, out of his own experience of its temptations and insidiousness, and of the warfare with it to which every honest man is conscript.**
Such a preacher like Alexander Whyte—faithful to persevere in preaching about sin until his dying breath—is, and always will be, a rarity. But if they don’t, who will? Without the reminder of our sin, how will we be reminded of God’s saving grace and who will push us each day to live under the shadow of the cross?
* G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte (Hodder & Stoughton 1924), pp. 531-532.
** G. F. Barbour, The Life of Alexander Whyte (Hodder & Stoughton 1924), p. 300.