Richard Fuller, Pt. 2 — His Preaching

Richard Fuller, Pt. 2 — His Preaching

Don Whitney

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Fuller as a Preacher

Fuller’s dying words ["Who'll preach Jesus?"] bear testimony to what he lived for–to preach Jesus. His biographer contends that “As a preacher of the gospel and a good minister of Jesus Christ, he must rank with the foremost of this or of any age.”[1] W. T. Brantly, Fuller’s successor at Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore and the preacher at Fuller’s funeral added, “And the glory of his preaching was that Jesus was the constant theme. . . . Whether the text was selected from the prophecies or the histories, the proverbs or the epistles, the psalms or the gospels, the sermon was always fragrant with the precious odor of Christ.”[2] Cathcart’s Baptist Encyclopedia says of his Christ-centered proclamation, “Dr. Fuller as a preacher had but few peers.”[3]

Perhaps Richard Fuller’s distinction in the pulpit can best be seen in the influence of his preaching at the annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention. He had already addressed the last two meetings of the old Triennial Convention when he was asked to preach the very first annual sermon of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1846. “In the subsequent meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention,” writes Cuthbert, “it was generally understood that Dr. Fuller was to occupy on Sunday morning the pulpit of the church with which the body met. There were many able and devoted men present equal to any occasion; but they, as well as the community, were anxious to hear Richard Fuller. It was not unusual in this way for him to preach in the evening as well as in the morning of the great day of the feast.”[4] And as far as I have been able to tell, Fuller did preach at one time or another at every annual meeting of the SBC at least until the meeting at Raleigh in 1872, totaling upwards of twenty-six consecutive years of preaching to the gathered messengers of our denomination. Some men said they traveled to the convention for the sole purpose of hearing Fuller preach.

The Importance of Preaching

He also spoke on behalf of needy Southern Baptist causes. Two of his most influential appearances before the convention were on behalf of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, then at Greenville, S. C., and for the Home Mission Board. When the convention met in Macon in 1869 a newspaper gave this report of his appeal: “He loved the seminary, because they there teach the students to preach Jesus. The Bible is written in other languages; and we Baptists should see to it that we have men able to interpret them, and to state and defend our particular views. . . . How important that these mighty interests should not be committed to ignoramuses!”[5] In Raleigh in 1872 he spoke of being touched by the need of home missions the day before when he had walked among the graves of soldiers from the recent war. In what must have been an emotional moment he asked, “Will we not send the gospel to their widows and orphans?” He went on to appeal for more missionary work among the former slaves.

In addition to his preaching before the convention, we should not forget his other denominational service. Fuller was the third president of the SBC, chosen twice as the man to lead the convention in what may have been the most difficult terms of office ever, 1859-1861 and 1861-1863. The Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists records his role in this little-known fact. “He was leader of the Provisional Board in Baltimore, which carried on foreign missions work during the Civil War when the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond was cut off from communication with missionaries in China and Africa, and funds from the South were not available.”[6]

He loved our denomination and worked for it, but preaching was Richard Fuller’s first love in the ministry and it was to this Work that he gave his best and longest hours. This is not to imply that he was a great preacher who stayed aloof from people. He once admonished an inexperienced pastor, “Young man, don’t you know you can’t succeed anywhere without visiting?”[7] But the heartbeat of his ministry was the proclamation of the Word of God. And though he was unusually gifted by God, one should not conclude that Fuller coasted into pulpit effectiveness. Commentator William Newell said of him at Harvard that “His brilliant talent was united with great power of work, with close and indefatigable study.”[8] Of his later ministry Newell observed, “He was certainly a gifted and powerful preacher, whose success, however, was due quite as much to his full and elaborate preparation of thought for his subject as to his readiness of speech.”[9]

Fuller gave three days’ preparation to his messages. “Monday morning by nine o’clock,” he use to say, “I have my texts for next Sunday. I am at work on the morning sermon until Thursday: the rest of the week I give to the second, Then, if something occurs to you in the pulpit, say it.”[10] Cuthbert adds at this point, “Some of his own happiest sentences were in this way strictly extemporaneous; but they came with him, as they must with every one, from the momentum of a previous and thorough preparation.”[11] His preparation was so thorough that in the latter part of his ministry he preached without a single note.

Applicatory Preaching

It is impossible to appreciate fully the preaching of Richard Fuller, without focusing specifically on his masterful use of application. As part of my my doctoral studies I examined the use of application in the sermons of ten well-known Southern Baptist preachers–five living and five deceased. One of those whom I studied was Richard Fuller. I discovered that, in terms of the sheer number of applications of the text in his messages, Richard Fuller consistently ranked higher than any other preacher I studied. This includes some modern men who are considered unusually relevant and practical preachers by today’s pragmatic standards.

We need to learn from Richard Fuller how to be doctrinal preachers who clearly demonstrate the application of the doctrines we preach. Fuller’s sermons were heavy with theology on one side, and equally weighted with the practical outworkings of that theology on the other. Notice the doctrinal titles of some of his sermons:[12] “Predestination,” “The Law and the Gospel,” “The True Christian,” ‘The Judgment,” “Mortification of Sin.” Richard Fuller preached the deep things of God, yet he always showed the difference these doctrines make and how we should respond to them. For instance, there are no less than thirteen practical applications in his sermon on predestination. In one of these applications he said, “Let us pray for grace that we may acquiesce in all the mysteries of God’s sovereignty, and yet hold inviolate all the strenuous activities of the life of faith. . . . Take prayer, for example. God promises to answer prayer, and we know he does answer prayer. Let us not perplex ourselves by curious speculations as to the manner in which our petitions can be granted, and how the prevalence of our supplications can consort with God’s unchangeableness.”[13] Fuller teaches us that no matter how well we explain a doctrine, we do not preach it until we apply it.

What Fuller did is true of all great preaching. His younger contemporary, John A. Broadus wrote, “The application in a sermon is not merely an appendage to the discussion or a subordinate part of it, but is the main thing to be done.”[14] Broadus then quotes Spurgeon’s statement, “Where the application begins, there the sermon begins.”[15]

Methods of Application

Fuller used four different methods of applying his message to the lives of his listeners. The method he used most often we may call the principial method. This means he applied the text in terms of a principle. In a lengthy application in his sermon, “Fellowship in Christ’s Sufferings,” Fuller makes his point by setting forth biblical principles on suffering:

‘We all suffer by the will of God;’ it is plain that he means us to pass through this ordeal. A single fact is conclusive on this point; it is, that in our bodies, minds, hearts there are exquisite capacities for pain as well as pleasure. God intends that we shall experience sorrow and anguish, or he would not have opened this source of bitterness in the very centre of our being. As man, Jesus was ‘made perfect through suffering;’ and it is through the same austere discipline that we are to reach the true dignity and glory of our nature–to ‘come unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ’. . . . The religion of Jesus is designed to confer upon us a good far superior to any present enjoyment. To secure this good, afflictions are indispensable. And therefore in the Gospel system our sorrows are preferments; chastisements are the expressions of God’s love. Afflictions are indeed the only blessings bestowed without being asked for–so necessary are they. And what the Bible declares is confirmed for every child of God. He feels that afflictions are distinctions. For him there is in sanctified suffering an alchemy which turns everything into gold.[16]

These statements, in principal form, on Philippians 3:10 cause us immediately to identify with the implications of this verse.

A second method he used in applying the Scriptures is the directive method. This method is more straightforward. By it Fuller tells his hearers what action they should take. Regarding predestination he asks, “What are we to do? It is evident that there is only one hope left us. We must confess our absolute blindness, and procure a guide who comprehends all the dark intricacies; one in whom we have perfect confidence; who can and will conduct us safely; and we must surrender ourselves to him.”[17]

Then there is the illustrative method of applying the message. This is the use of an illustration not necessarily to clarify the explanation of a text, but to clarify its application. Fuller does this in his sermon, “Danger to the Soul from Lawful Things”: “God gives us temporal blessings ‘richly to enjoy;’ but to set our affections upon any earthly objects so as to make them essential to our highest happiness, this is at once a mistake and a sin. An impatient restlessness to possess them; a pining after them as if they were our life, in the temper of Rachel when she exclaimed, ‘Give me children, or I die;’–this shows clearly that our hearts are given up to idolatry; and unless mercifully withheld, such objects will cause our souls to come to grief, and to sad experience.”[18]

A fourth method, which Fuller employs less frequently than the others but with great effect, is the interrogative method. By asking one or more questions he presses the truth of Scripture right into the heart of his hearers. Near the end of his sermon on predestination he says to the unconverted in his congregation, “if you are bent on self-destruction–if no entreaties from God . . . no solicitation of the Spirit, . . . no fears of your Saviour can stop you–at least do not insult Heaven by pretending that you are waiting for more effectual influences. This plea admits that you feel some strivings of the Holy Ghost; why do you not comply with these? Why resist these, and desire more powerful movements? What is this, but openly to proclaim that you . . . are resolved to strive against your Maker, to yield nothing to him willingly, to defy him as long as you can, and only to submit to a sad necessity when be shall compel you? Is there any thing in Revelation–do you seriously think there is any thing in the secret counsels of eternity–to justify the hope that God will thus be appeased? What, my beloved friend, what can you expect from such deliberate , unrelenting opposition to the Sovereign of the Universe?”[19]

A further point to be noted about Fuller’s use of application is his tendency to apply a text throughout the sermon as well as at the end. He knew that if he did not begin showing the text’s relevance in his introduction and continue to do so throughout the message, there might not be anyone listening by the time he came to apply it all at the end.

Lloyd-Jones argued for continuous application in his classic work, Preaching and Preachers: “But as you have presented your message in this way it is important that you should have been applying what you have been saying as you go along. There are many ways of doing this. You can do so by asking questions and answering them, or in various other ways; but you must apply the message as you go along. This again shows that you are not just lecturing, that you are not dealing with an abstract or academic or theoretical matter; but that this is a living matter which is of real concern to the people in the whole of their life and being. So you must keep on applying what you are saying.”[20]

However, in the great tradition of the Puritans and later of Lloyd-Jones himself, Fuller often had a separate section of application at the end of his message. Many of the Puritan preachers would say they had finished expounding the doctrine found in their text, and now they had come to its “uses.” Fuller sometimes made a similar formal transition to a separate part of his message devoted exclusively to application. Near the end of his sermon, “The Law and the Gospel,” he announced, “I have now finished the discussion of this subject. Many reflections are suggested.”[21]

Lloyd-Jones practiced and encouraged the same approach: “When you have ended the reason and the argument, and have arrived at this climax, you apply it all again. This can be done in the form of an exhortation which again may take the form of a series of questions, or a series of terse statements. But it is vital to the sermon that it should always end on this note of application or of exhortation.”[22]

Concluding Lessons

What lessons can be learned from the preaching ministry of Richard Fuller? At least three immediately suggest themselves.

First, good preaching requires devotion to application. Fuller’s preaching was powerful because it was practical. It was mighty because it mattered. He never assumed that people would automatically understand the possible applications of a text to their situations. He knew that for the nails of Scripture to be well-driven he should use the hammer of application to fix them into people’s lives. Broadus said it tersely: “If there is no summons, there is no sermon.”[23]

Secondly, good preaching requires devotion to Christ-centered declaration. When Paul reminded the Corinthians of the focus of his initial ministry among them, he described it this way: “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Cor.2:2). Apostolic preaching–which Fuller exemplified–centered on the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Everything the apostles preached was in some sense an expression or extension of that same message.

Thirdly, good preaching requires devotion to preparation. As uniquely gifted as Richard Fuller was, everyone agreed that it was his study and preparation that distinguished him as a preacher. Thomas Armitage acknowledged this as well: “As a preacher Dr. Fuller was appreciated throughout the nation, for he found but one answer to the question, How can a man preach with power? He believed the word of God with all his soul and walked with its Author continually. . . . To this he added the most painstaking study to ascertain by every form of help what the Scriptures required him to preach. Aside from the dutiful visitation of the sick and sorrowful, and other indispensable duties, his mind was bent upon the divine results of the coming Sabbath.”[24]

At his funeral it was said of Fuller, “Great gifts were not used by our brother as a substitute for diligence in his calling, As a workman for Christ he proved himself a great man. From early manhood up to threescore years and ten, he led a life singularly laborious.”[25] His usefulness over many years came through the discipline of intentional, life-long diligence in study.

In a day when preaching is being increasingly judged as irrelevant, and many who make a start in the ministry do not finish there, Richard Fuller’s legacy provides a much needed challenge. May God raise up men of like faith and diligence in our own generation.