For all the hubris of its title, The Best Method of Preaching (Reformation Heritage Books, 2013) is actually a very humble—and humbling—little book. Petrus van Mastricht, a 17th-century Dutch preacher, found huge manuals of sermon preparation to be unhelpful, so he wrote what in its original Latin folio edition came to 12 pages of indispensable instruction for those who want their congregations to flourish. A joint project with the Dutch Reformed Translation Society, Reformation Heritage’s English edition (the first ever translated) runs 60 pages. With the logical acumen characteristic of its era and a tightly packed condensation of material rare for any era, van Mastricht’s work will greatly benefit anyone who wants to apply the Word of God to his own soul.
The method is this: First, read the text. Then exegete it—that is, dig out its meaning. Look first and always to context. The teaching of the entire Bible, and the immediate context, will be your surest guide in determining what the passage is talking about. This done, think about it doctrinally—what truth does this text teach? Van Mastricht warns that you must always and only look to the text: The doctrine “should certainly be in the text,” because God does not want His children to draw out “just any word of God, but precisely the particular word that is in [t]his text.”
Finally, take the truth you just found and apply it to yourself (and your hearers). The Best Method of Preaching spends almost half its time on application—and for its author, application is not limited to conviction of sin. It can be for comfort, building up the distressed; “nouthetic,” for changing one’s view of sin; “exploratory,” for praising goodness; or “paranetic,” the straightforward moral exhortation often associated with application.
Preaching exists to change lives, so does van Mastricht’s manual.
C.S. Lewis famously wrote a book of instruction to a junior tempter from his “affectionate uncle,” the demon Screwtape. It was a clever idea, and the host of imitators has just added another member with Andrew Farley’s Operation Screwtape: The Art of Spiritual War (Baker Books, 2013).
Where Farley really shines is his uncanny ability to make theological minutiae almost insanely practical. A real-life professor of applied linguistics at Texas Tech University and a pastor in West Texas, Farley sort of claims he translated Operation Screwtape from a mysterious computer file. Thankfully, he drops this backstory almost instantly and moves into the real meat.
The book is carefully arranged around the devil’s triple mission—steal, kill, and destroy (cf. John 10:10)—and though its author clearly did a great deal of work, his prose hums along so fast that the result could be described as a theological thriller stuffed with genuinely sound doctrine.
Two themes come up repeatedly. The first is the diabolically clever lose-lose scheme that Satan loves: If he can get you focused on yourself and your own efforts, then whether you “succeed” or “fail” doesn’t matter—you lose either way. Pride or despair, self-righteousness or blatant wickedness, secret self-satisfaction or open scandal—they’re all the same to him. The second theme is the reality that Jesus paid it all. You are in Christ, and therefore forgiven, free, and loved. The Spirit brought you in, and He keeps you in.
With compelling imagery, Farley scores his best shots against the false teaching of the let-go-and-let-God variety. Stop obsessing over whether you have given control of your life over to God. He’s been in the driver’s seat the whole time, and the car doesn’t have two steering wheels.
Coming from a demon, Operation Screwtape has some awfully good advice.