Book review by Sherman Isbell
John Kennedy, The Saviour. 1992, xiv and 115 pages, paperback. Published by Reformation Press, 11 Churchill Drive, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis PA87 2NP, Scotland. Distributed in the United States by Gospel Mission, Box 318, Choteau, MT 59422, telephone 406-466-2311.
John Kennedy of Dingwall (1819-1884) was a champion of the Reformed faith in the Scottish Highlands one hundred years ago. A new publishing firm, Reformation Press, has begun a planned series of reprints of Dr. Kennedy's works, starting with seven sermons on the person and work of Christ. These sermons are models of a discriminating evangelistic presentation of Christ by a Reformed preacher. This is what it means to bring the precious truths of the Westminster Confession into the pulpit. This material would be highly appropriate for a Sabbath afternoon reading, or of enormous help in teaching a man how to preach.
The first sermon is on Matthew 1:21, "Thou shalt call His name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins." Kennedy explains that God has a purpose to save only his elect people, and then applies this to the Gospel call (p. 21). Kennedy is of the conviction that the doctrine of election should be used evangelistically. "Do any of you think that the view which has been presented of Jesus' people as an elect people is one that should be kept out of sight? Why do you think so? Is it because you think it tends to discourage souls? But why should it discourage any truly earnest seeker of Jesus? The fact of a doctrine being discouraging is no proof of its not being true. . . . But to a truly anxious sinner, what is so encouraging as to be presented in Him . . . with a salvation that has all the steadfastness of the covenant, and all the freeness of the Gospel? What is so encouraging as to be told that grace is free, because it is sovereign, finding in the good pleasure of God the only reason of its exercise; and that it is only because of this that salvation is within his reach at all?"
The same preacher strikes at the conscience of those who make divine sovereignty an excuse for their unbelief (p. 56). "There are some among you who excuse their listlessness by referring to the sovereignty of divine love, and the utter helplessness of the fallen sinner. It is only to abuse them, by making them excuses for your sinful neglect, that you take to do with those doctrines at all. Have you come to Christ to ask Him if there was room in His love for you? Have you ever been pained by a sense of your helplessness because it came between you and reaching Him? If not, what right have you to refer to the election of God, or to your own ruin by the fall, as an excuse for remaining at ease in Zion? Only a madman could so act. A man with any measure of wisdom would consider that what seemed to exclude him from the bosom of Christ was so awful that to sleep in front of it would be utterly impossible."
Kennedy skillfully presents the duty of the sinner to believe, and the warrant God has given to a sinner to commit his case into the hands of Christ: "Let none of you forget that, in dealing with the call of the Gospel, you have nought to do with the secret purpose of God, except in so far as it gives assurance of the certainty and grace of the Gospel salvation. You should realise that you are under the government of God. You should think of yourself as a rational being under obligation to do what He requires. You should fix your eye on the view of God's character revealed in the cross of Jesus. You should give ear to the voice of God calling you now, and as you are, to His Christ. You should be content with that as your warrant of faith. And coming, because called, you should commit your whole case into the hands of Him who, in your nature, is Jehovah, the Saviour from all sins."
Hear the encouragements with which this Reformed preacher calls sinners to come to Christ (pp. 22-23): "Friends, Jesus has this power of salvation. He has it now. He has the name which His Father gave Him just because it is His office (as it must be His delight) to exercise this power. And do not think that there is no concurrence of the Father and of the Holy Ghost in the gladness wherewith Jesus will deliver you thus if you come to Him. He cannot deny Himself, He cannot repudiate His name, He cannot cast aside His office, He cannot (for He will not) repress His love, He will not be unfaithful to Him who sent Him. Therefore He will in no wise cast you out if you come to Him for redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins."
In the same sermon Kennedy also seeks to undermine a false assurance (pp. 25-26). "There are some of you, when pressed to seek Jesus, who hesitate not to say that you have found Him. There is a yesterday to which you look back, as the time when you found salvation and peace. But what about today and your present feeling towards Christ? There is no trace of present brokenness of heart. A sense of danger was somehow got rid of, and this is all you cared to have. A broken heart because of indwelling corruption, a lowly lying at the feet of Jesus, the needy's cry for help, the prayerful spirit and weary walking, where are these? Alas! these are awanting. Friend, do not trust to a yesterday Jesus. Don't rest on any attainment of the past. You may have been deceived in your experience. Your peace may have been a false one. . . . Verily, deceived you are if not now poor and needy seeking the Jesus of today."
Kennedy likewise speaks of the present usefulness of God's law in the life of the believer (p. 51): "And while the Holy Ghost carries on His secret renewing work in the soul of the sanctified, He employs the Word in this work of transformation. He uses it as the mirror in which the Church can see its need of being sanctified. This use of the Word, in the demands of the holy law, in the example of Christ, and in the recorded attainments of the saints, cannot be dispensed with."
The efficacy of Christ's love is unfolded in a sermon on Ephesians 5:25-27. Kennedy gives three answers to the question, "Why is there such an aversion to thinking of the love of Christ as love to the Church, and not as love to all?" He warns of the delusion which in our generation is so often created by the undiscerning proclamation, "God loves you." Says Kennedy (p. 46): "With what intense readiness will a sinner who has become uneasy under a sense of danger receive the statement that "God is love," as implying that He certainly loves him even as he is, and now. He very eagerly substitutes this aspect of God's character for that which the law presented. And he will open all his old heart, under the sway of its selfishness, to receive an assurance of love instead of a fearful looking for of judgment, if his mind is so benighted and his conscience so unfaithful as to allow him to do so. And what a sudden change such faith as this will effect on his soul, though it be faith in a lie! What gladness now is his, when a fancied love hides from him the stern aspect of wrath! And under the impression thus produced there may appear in his exercises a counterfeit of all the graces of the Spirit, which may not be exposed till the midnight cry is heard and the door is shut." The sermon is concluded with moving application to those who "go away from the embrace of Christ's love" (pp. 54-57).
The discourse on Zechariah 13:7 has a poignant reflection on the relationship of God the Father to Christ the sin-bearer (pp. 64-67), and a telling illustration of the demanding mission assigned to our Shepherd (p. 61). Kennedy closes another sermon by threatening Gospel wrath against those who despise Christ by acting as if he were not (pp. 40-41).
The sermon on the words "It is finished" (John 19:30), is a masterful exposition of the Saviour's sufferings upon the cross, his satisfying rest upon completion of his work, his shout of victory, and the security afforded to Christ's people. On the pain endured by Christ, Kennedy writes (pp. 76-79): "Neither his own divine supremacy, nor the infinite love of the Father to Him as His Son, placed any fence between His consciousness as the man Christ Jesus and the full flood of divine anger. . . . How much in Jesus' experience of divine wrath must be utterly unknown to us! But of three things implied in it we may be quite assured. Firstly, He had a perfect appreciation of the awfulness of divine anger. Secondly, He was perfectly assured that it bore on Him as the Surety of the unjust. And, thirdly, He actually came in contact with the flaming fire of the expression of that wrath in all the sensitiveness of His perfect holiness."
The final sermon is a response to "the new styles of preaching" which lay aside Pauline preaching in favor of "a more unsystematic mode of presenting the truth," or "what they call practical preaching, by which they mean preaching which is not doctrinal, for they dislike to be made to feel how ignorant they are of the divine scheme of grace. This is preaching which (taking it for granted that all are Christians) deals out its counsels to all indiscriminately; and which, coming down to the everyday cares and anxieties of life, tends to cheer men in their daily toil by comforts which are furnished by reason rather than by Scripture, comforts which never flowed from the fountain of living waters through Christ crucified." This sermon, on I Corinthians 1:23, insists on those themes which must be sounded from a Pauline pulpit.
We give a last example of how this Reformed evangelist presents the offer of Christ in the gospel (pp. 110-111): "If anyone says that, as the love of God commended in the gift and death of Christ is sovereign love to a people whom he elected to everlasting life, he therefore has no encouragement to appeal to or approach it, let him be told that he has nothing to do with the secret purpose of God, as a rule of faith; that the elect are by nature children of wrath even as others; that it is as love to sinners that His love to them was revealed and commended; that no way of expressing His love to them could be suitable except as it bore on them as sinners; that the love of the cross, expressed in blood shedding, must have been love to sinners; and that this is the aspect which the love commended through Christ crucified presents to us. Let him be told that God is to be known according as He revealed His name, and not according as He has formed His purpose; and that therefore His love, having been expressed as love to sinners, each one who hears the Gospel may be assured that God will act according to His name towards every sinner who comes to Him through Christ crucified, as preached to every creature."
Here is preaching which self-consciously stands in the Reformed confessional tradition, which has a strong framework of systematic theology, combined with a warm and discriminating treatment of the conscience. For many years these sermons have been virtually unobtainable in their original printing. The reprinting of them by Reformation Press is a great service to the church of Jesus Christ. If this manner of preaching were restored to American Presbyterianism, there would be a revolution in the spirituality of the churches.