The Preaching Legacy of Isaac Watts / Dr. Matthew McKellar
by Dr. Matthew McKellar
Associate Professor of Preaching at SWBTS
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is known as the “father of English hymnody,” and for good reason. The author of at least 750 hymns, Watts left behind a remarkable legacy of theologically accurate hymn texts which incite valid religious affections. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World” are two of the more well-known texts which immediately come to mind. However, what often escapes notice is the fact that he was a pastor who preached faithfully for decades in an area that is now a part of inner London. After his education at the Dissenting Academy of Stoke-Newington, he immediately embarked on the path of faithful service in the local church as a pastor, preacher, and yes, prolific hymnist.
Just as he left behind a rich treasure of Christ-exalting hymns, I am convinced Watts has also bequeathed a veritable treasure in the style and content of his written sermons. From the following examples, consider the timeless appeal of Watts as preacher. After doing so, I suspect you will agree that the famous hymn writer could also “bring the heat” in the pulpit.
In a sermon from 2 Thessalonians 1 entitled “Christ Admired and Glorified in His Saints,” Watts takes a sweeping view of time and eternity, and the glory which will accrue to Christ. Commenting on the wonder of hopeless sinners being transformed into trophies of grace to the glory of Jesus, he queries: “Are not the most diseased patients the chief honours of the physician that healed them?”
Near the end of his text-driven appeal, he includes two gems of application. Directing attention to the all-encompassing worth of Jesus, he counsels: “Learn to despise those honours and ornaments in the world, in which Christ shall have no share in the world to come.” Then, making an inextricable connection between eschatology and ethics, Watts asserts: “You that shall be the glory of Christ in that day, dare not do any thing that may dishonor him now.” Here is a sermon which reflects the driving passion of Watts the preacher — the honor and exaltation of Christ. Unless this same passion is yours, you run the grievous risk of self-promotion rather than Savior-promotion. “Selfies” may be all the rage in social media, but they have no place at the sacred desk.
A second Watts sermon, based on Mark 9, invites closer scrutiny by the very nature of its title. When is the last time you heard a sermon on “The Eternal Duration of the Punishments of Hell” preached? Watts had no qualms about proclaiming clearly the terror-inducing realities of hell. In this sermon he offers sound advice to those who would impugn the character of God on the basis of His promises of wrathful judgment. Watts instructs:
“Let us cease then to murmur against the threatenings and the transactions of the great God, till we are become fitter judges of his perfections and their demands… Let us cavil no more against his conduct and government, till we can teach him how far his punishing and justice shall go in the execution of his threatenings, and till we can assign to him the point and limit where his goodness shall interpose and restrain that justice.”
Lest you think Watts is just another antiquated preacher who gets a charge out of preaching hell and judgment, consider his appeal to the ministry of Jesus and his profoundly balanced perspective in the closing portions of the sermon:
“Let us proceed then to preach the same terror which the blessed Jesus thought not unworthy of his ministry…To Jesus, who is the awful messenger of his Father’s terrors, and the prime minister of his love, be glory and honor to everlasting ages. Amen.”
Here is a sermon in which the preacher does not shrink from declaring “the whole counsel of God.” Your preaching must do the same. You must resist that subtle temptation to make your sermons more palatable to a populace that increasingly, to use the words of C.S. Lewis, attempts at every turn to “put God in the dock.”
A third sermon from the Watts archives speaks a timely word to evangelical Christians today. In his message entitled “Humility in the Character of St. Paul,” he uses Ephesians 3:8 to warn of “wretched self-flattery and foolish pride.” Expounding on the Apostle’s “low” estimation of himself, Watts makes this particularly compelling assessment:
“The man who has low thoughts of himself, is not ever in pain to publish his own excellencies, nor seeking to proclaim his own qualifications and honours…Place him on high, and displace him again, his constant business is to approve himself to God, and to remember that he is but a man.”
Later in the sermon, Watts drives the truth home with a question and penetrating observation: “How many are impatient of obscurity, and yet worthless of observation?…And surely if the vessel of the heart were not brimful of self, it would not be always running over at the top.”
Watts concludes with a reference to Proverbs 27:2 : “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth…” Watts understands that self-promotion and Savior-promotion are mutually exclusive. If you are preoccupied with garnering praise for yourself, you will mute the proclamation of praise that should thunder forth for Jesus alone.
The preaching of Isaac Watts addresses the honor of Christ, the horror of hell and the essence of humility. Your preaching should do the same. Why? No preacher answers the question better than Watts himself: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”