Thursday, May 24, 2007


James S. Stewart's Walking With God, (Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, 2006) is one of the best books of sermons I've read.

Evangelical Scottish Presbyterian James Stewart was voted in a survey conducted by as #1 English-speaking preacher of the Twentieth Century. I’d agree. I’ve listened on audio-tape to his most famous sermon ‘The Wind of the Spirit’ and been enthralled. I’ve also read several of his books on preaching (eg. Heralds of God), and his theological tome A Man in Christ. All brilliant.

You can use this combination of qualifiers for James Stewart: Scottish, Presbyterian, Evangelical, Scholar, Saint, erudite, marvellous communicator, humble, very human. Know many others do you know like that?

He was a ‘saint’. A colleague, Professor Thomas Torrance wrote: ‘I will never forget the day when, after some bitter words by one of our colleagues in criticism of others, we saw the tears rolling down Jim Stewart’s cheeks; the silent, gentle, but powerful rebuke of a saintly man of God’ (p.10). ‘The first duty of a minister,’ Stewart wrote in a hand-written letter to a friend in 1984, ‘is to be a real man of prayer. Nothing one can do for God or man is so important as that.’

He was evangelistic. That is, he called for a commitment. Like this: ‘In this solemn hour of a dying year, [here’s] an urgent question. If you haven’t ever quite settled it, will you not, before this year is gone, look into Christ’s eyes and settle it – now? You have your choice. ‘O friend’, cried Augustine, ‘join thy heart to the immortality of God’ (p. 41).

He was pastoral. See, for example is beautifully sensitive sermon on Life’s Handicaps (pp. 203 ff).

He was conservative: he castigated the ‘newest of new theologies trying to define the image of God in ways quite alien to the Fatherhood revealed by Jesus’ (p. 96). He didn’t like commentators who ‘explain away’ Jesus’ compassion for children, for example. He put them on his knee ‘not because he wanted to teach his disciples a lesson (just fancy! There are some pedantic witless commentators on the Gospels who tell us solemnly that Jesus took the children to his arms in order to impress the disciples, to make a theological point! I think not’ p. 100). And he was sometimes old-fashioned (sexist language, old hymns, KJV, phrases like ‘John Bunyan’s pilgrim hirpling along…’ etc.)

He was evangelical but not ‘hard Reformed’. For example he advocated the use of one’s imagination in prayer: ‘Don’t be suspicious of that. It is God’s gift to you, and you are meant to use it.’

He was very wise: ‘The fact that a soul can be concerned about [the sin against the Holy Spirit], can be worried and troubled about it, is an absolutely infallible proof that that soul has not committed it… Nothing, no blackest, shamefulest shape of sin need stand unpardoned… (Would Jesus, who bade Peter forgive seventy times seven do less himself?)’

He loved the great hymns of the church: in every second sermon he quoted from them.

He used varying structures: occasionally he’ll have a I, II, III format, often not.

Very occasionally he’d be alliterative (eg. the character/cause/courage/confidence/crown of thanksgiving, from Psalm 138).

He was sometimes graphic: ‘A great open plain where an army bivouacked beneath the stars. All around the camp, before darkness descended, a line of sentries was drawn; and now through the darkness there are steady eyes gazing out into “no man’s land” beyond…’ (See pp. 71 ff. for the rest of the story!). Or this story: ‘I remember reading of a hero of the Chinese rice-fields during an earthquake [tsunami]. One day he saw from his hill-top farm the ocean suddenly receding, like an animal crouching to leap, and he knew the leap would be a tidal wave. And his neighbours working in the low fields would then be swept away. Without a second thought he set fire to his own rice-fields and furiously rang the temple bell. His neighbours saw his farm on fire and rushed up to help him. Then, from that safe height, they saw the swirl of waters over the fields they had just forsaken and they knew their salvation and its cost. So Christ, our watchman, has given us salvation by his sacrifice, and life by his death.’

And he loved using illustrations, which as every novice preacher is told, ‘are like windows: they let the light in’. Most of them are from the Bible itself; many are quotes or stories from the literary classics. He assumed in his congregations a knowledge of the Bible which we can’t take for granted any more.

Great sermons: if you want to read first those I reckon are the best, go to ‘Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land’, ‘The Challenge of Life’, and ‘What is the Sin against the Holy Ghost?’

Some quotes I marked to return to:

‘Those who have entered into fellowship with God have entered a new eternal quality of being; and for those who have entered into eternity, death is simply an irrelevance’

‘The God of our joys is the God is the God of our sorrows too. The God who was so near to you that day when the world was radiant and your heart was singing, and it was good to be alive, is the same God [who is with you] when the foundations of things have been knocked to pieces… The God of the hills is the God of the valleys too’

‘”This,” cried Perpetua, one of the loveliest, fairest souls of the Early Church, just in her twenty-second year, when they led her out to die in the Carthaginian arena – “This is the day of coronation”… And there was that great shout the Grassmarket in Edinburgh heard when James Guthrie had climbed the scaffold – “This is the day the Lord has made: I will rejoice and be glad in it… ”

“Ah,” said the great artist Dore, looking at a picture of Jesus he had just finished, “I would have painted him better if I had loved him more.”

Said Alexander Pope: ‘Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they will never be disappointed’.

“These Christians,” growled Nietzsche, “these Christians must show me that they are redeemed, before I will believe in their Redeemer.”

‘Wordsworth, in his poem “Intimation of Immortality”, declared we all come at the first “trailing clouds of glory from God who is our home”. (Stewart quoted this at least twice in these sermons).

‘The Indian mystic Rabindranath Tagore: “Here is a violin-string, lying on my table. In a sense , lying there, it is quite free. Only – it is not free to sing. But look! I take that string, and fix it into my violin. I tighten it up. Now it is bound. It is not free any longer. But now for the first time, it really is free – because it is free to sing”.’

‘It is not the Word of God that is on trial: it is the man who reads it. And if he can’t find God speaking there, it is not the Bible he is judging: it is himself. He has nothing to draw with and the well is deep…. Jesus never said “Blessed are the critics, for they shall find God in the Bible.” He said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”.’

‘There are three distinct experiences [in the life of faith]: emotional… intellectual… moral.’

‘You’ll search the Gospels in vain for any record of a woman who ever failed [Jesus] – there wasn’t one.’

‘Before the scientist can get going at all, he has to postulate two tremendous hypotheses – one, the rationality of the universe he is investigating; the other, the reliability of the mental processes he is using…And what are these twin postulates but just faith – faith at its most splendid and most daring…. Faith is not credulity. It is unbelief that is the credulous thing, the ultimate irrationality.

A book worth reading slowly (it took me a month to linger here and there as I read it).

Rowland Croucher

May 2007.


RjM said...

I am just reading "teach yourself to preach" written by JSS it was called 'Heralds of God" i picked it up for 50cents at a mission store .What a jem!!!

Heshimu Colar, Pastor said...

Stew has blessed me in grace and Christ.