The lack of effectiveness of modern-day preaching to either convert souls or call the church to separate itself from the sinful world around it compelled me to take up a study of the sermons of past centuries. During those days sinners were reported to have fallen to their knees at their seats weeping or even running to the altars to be saved. It seemed to me that those old-time preachers must have had an understanding that we do not have and I was determined to find out what it was.
For years as a revivalist, I used 1 Corinthians 14:3 as my foundation to promote Biblical balance in preaching: “But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.”(NKJV) However, as I researched the old-time revivalists, I found that a great cultural shift has taken place in this country and around the world in the last century, effectively “dumbing down” the true meaning of the word “exhort.” Some modern transliterations of the scripture have interpreted the word to mean, “to encourage.” If that were true, it would change the original Greek word to mean a very soft peddled and unassertive, “It sure would be nice if you did such and such.…”
Many nineteenth-century preachers would not have had access to multiple translations of the Bible. For instance, when they saw the admonition of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:3 to edify, exhort and comfort in a King James translation, they would have looked to the dictionaries of that day for the understanding of the word exhort. Following what I believe was a tug from the Holy Spirit, I found a library with dictionaries from that time period. I discovered that back then, the word “exhort” meant, to admonish, charge, challenge or rebuke. Vine’s Expository Dictionary states that the verb “parakaleo”, Greek for exhort, means “to call a person to the side, to admonish” and describes it as in contrast to the word “comfort.” In most of the times that it is used in the Bible, it means, as 19th-century dictionaries state, to charge, challenge or rebuke. Therefore, that is what preachers of that day did, preaching strong messages that warned of God’s judgment, the torments of Hell, and the wickedness of sin.
Ezekiel 36:26b declares, “I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”(NKJV) If nineteenth-century preachers saw themselves as archers, the arrows they used were designed to penetrate hearts of stone. They would have prayed that God would use their sermons to soften sinners’ hearts, transforming them into pliable and tender hearts of flesh. My study of old sermons revealed to me that preachers often used arrows of admonition and rebuke to open the eyes of the blind to their sinful condition, producing repentant weeping over sin. This sincere repentance came about due to the proper understanding of the word “exhort”, by both preacher and congregant.
Today’s preachers have a two-fold problem that many are unaware of. Both the preachers in America and the people of this nation have been seductively and effectively indoctrinated to believe in the philosophies of humanism. Humanism’s basic mantra is that “Man is basically good, although some turn out bad,” while the scripture clearly teaches that “Man is born into sin, is a sinner at birth, and can only ever become good through deliberately choosing to receive the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Tragically, our humanistic beliefs have created stony hearts of a very unique hardness, a degree of hardness, which has never had to be dealt with before in history. Unfortunately, to most people, everything seems “good!” What humanism is doing, however, is to cause the “archers of our day” to use soft, cozy, rubbery arrows to try to penetrate uniquely hard hearts. It is not working and never will work.
Preachers of America, re-evaluate your preaching. Begin to teach the Biblical meaning of the word “exhort.” Then begin to use the Word of God to evaluate the condition of the human heart. The target has changed. Once you change your arrows, then the fruit of your ministry will change!
Rev Nolan J Harkness is the President and CEO of Nolan Harkness Evangelistic Ministries Inc. since 1985. He spent most of his adult life working in youth ministry. He also felt the calling of Evangelist/Revivalist and traveled as the door was open holding evangelistic meetings in churches throughout the Northeast. His website is www.verticalsound.org.