The One-TWO-Three of More Urgent Preaching
Preaching should have a sense of urgency to it. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones stated to students in his classic work Preaching and Preachers, “You are not simply imparting information, you are dealing with souls, you are dealing with pilgrims on the way to eternity, you are dealing with matters not only of life and death in this world, but eternal destiny. Nothing can be so terribly urgent.” Sadly, too often preaching, especially Reformed preaching, can have that sense of information imparting rather than soul and eternity dealing. How can urgency be encouraged in preaching?
One observation about urgent preaching can be made, with an encouragement then given to help to that end. Simply put, preaching that is earnest and forceful contains more second person sentences than lecture, teaching style preaching. (A second person sentence has "you" for its subject, either given or implied, with an imperative verb.) For consider the following two examples of the most famous sermons in the Bible.
The first example is the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. In the ESV Bible, this sermon contains 109 sentences.* Of those, 4 are in the first person, 39 are in the third person, and 66 are in SECOND person! Well over half of the Sermon on the Mount is directed right at Jesus' listeners. In addition, many of the technically third person sentences are filled with second person pronouns, such as this one: "So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness" (Matt. 6:23-24). The subject is not properly you in this compound sentence, but "your eye" or "your whole body", still giving a sense of direct address. Many of His third person sentences are illustrations of a command He had just issued. That is why when you read this sermon your heart is moved, for your Lord in many ways is telling you to get moving into action!
The other example is Peter's sermon at Pentecost, a much shorter address as recorded. Taking the sentences found in Acts 2:14-36 along with the other recorded words of the preaching found in verses 38-40, we find 22 verses. 4 are in the first person, 11 in the third person, and 7 in the second person. Though not as dramatic a statistic as the Sermon on the Mount, and the structure of the sermon with its quotes is building to its dramatic conclusion with its gospel call, still it is worth noting that a third of the sentences are in the second person. Perhaps then a good rule of thumb is that preaching should seek to be in the range that these two examples give us, with a third or more of the message in second person.
Now for the encouragement that follows from this simple observation. An exercise I give my student preachers is to take either their sermon manuscript if they have one or listen to a recording to monitor their use of the second person. They can mark their manuscripts with 1-2-3 in front of each sentence, or have a sheet with 1-2-3 at the top and keep a tally if they are listening. Then as I have done above gauge how much of their sermon is in the second person. I find that many dry sermons have 10% or less second person sentences. Working at addressing the congregation more directly is an important skill to have as a Biblically urgent preacher.
Objections will arise to this approach (my students have tried!). "This will lead to moralistic and legalistic messages." Not if you ground sermons in the gospel of grace, express love for your listeners, and seek to persuade. "I don't have the authority like Jesus or Peter did to speak so directly." Ask Jesus for such authority, for the gospel is to be heralded. "It makes me sound arrogant." Preach it first to yourself, then word it humbly and bring humility with you into the pulpit.
Ultimately, the preacher must lay his objections aside. He must seek to preach more like his Lord, using the second person to speak directly to God's people.
*For the purpose of this exercise, I excluded the Lord's Prayer found here as it serves as an example for prayer. Interestingly, each of the petitions is not a second person sentence directed toward the hearers of the message, but at the Father! We need second person urgency in our prayers as well as our preaching!