Martyn Lloyd-Jones on “Preaching Other People’s Sermons”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

“I hesitated about making any reference at all to the next point–preaching other people’s sermons. I feel that I must mention it because I am assured that it is a not uncommon practice. I have but one comment to make about this–it is utterly dishonest unless you acknowledge what you are doing. I never have understood how a man can live with himself, who preaches other men’s sermons without acknowledgment. He receives the praise and the thanks of people, and yet knows that it is not due to him. He is a thief and a robber; he is a great sinner. But, as I say, the amazing thing to me is that he can possibly live with himself.

There are some odd aspects to this matter which are of interest. There is, for example, the famous story about Spurgeon and one of the students in his college that was brought to him to be reprimanded on one occasion. This was the story. This young man had been preaching in different churches on Sundays, and reports concerning his preaching had been coming back to the college. Some said that his preaching was very good, but adverse criticisms began to come in to the effect that this young man was repeatedly preaching a sermon of Mr. Spurgeon’s. The Principal of the college had of course to deal with this; so he sent for the young man. He said to him ‘I hear that you are going round and preaching one of Mr. Spurgeon’s sermons. Is this true?’ The young man replied, ‘No, sir, it is not true.’ The Principal pressed him but he still persisted in saying that it was not true. This went on for some time so at last the Principal felt that the only thing to do was to take the young man to Mr. Spurgeon himself. So they went together and the case was put before Mr. Spurgeon. ‘Well now,’ said Mr. Spurgeon, ‘you need not be frightened. If you are honest you will not be punished. We are all sinners, but we do want to get at the facts. You have been preaching a sermon on such and such a text?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘And you have divided up the subject as follows?’ ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘And you say that you have not been preaching my sermon?’ ‘That is so, sir.’

This questioning went for some time, until at last Mr. Spurgeon was beginning to feel somewhat impatient; so he said to the young man, ‘Well, are you saying, then, that it is your sermon?’ ‘Oh no, sir’ said the young man. ‘Well, then, whose sermon is it?’ ‘It is a sermon of William Jay of Bath, sir’ said the student. Jay was a famous preacher in Bath in the early part of the last century and some of his sermons had been printed in two volumes. ‘Wait a minute,’ said Spurgeon, and turning to his library, he pulled out one of the volumes and there was the sermon, the exact sermon-the same text, the same headings, the same everything! What had happened? The fact was that Mr. Spurgeon had also preached William Jay’s sermon and had actually put it into print with other sermons of his. Mr. Spurgeon’s only explanation was that it was many years since he had read the two volumes of Jay’s sermons and that he had forgotten all about it. He could say quite honestly that he was not aware of the fact that when he had preached that sermon he was preaching one has convinced me that I am a child of God, that I am saved by grace, that all my sins are forgiven, that I am called to the ministry; and I am ready to go back to preach again.’ His own sermon through the lips and the mouth and the tongue of the lay-preacher had done that for him. That is, I think, about the only justification for this sort of thing.

But let me warn you to be careful. I crossed the Atlantic in 1937 with the dear old saint and evangelist Mel Trotter of Grand Rapids. After a life of sin and shame he had been converted in a glorious manner and had become the superintendent of a great Rescue Mission Hall and work. He told me the following story with great relish. He had been working very hard one week, speaking, organising the work and counselling many people in trouble. He was not a studious man, and he had not had time to prepare properly for the Sunday. He had prepared his Sunday evening sermon, but he simply could not think of anything for the morning service. He had had to go to bed on the Saturday night in that unhappy state, without a Sunday morning sermon. So he got up very early on the Sunday morning, but still nothing would come, and he did not know what to do. At last in desperation he decided that he would have to preach one of his friend Dr. G. Campbell Morgan’s sermons. So he went into the pulpit and conducted the service in the usual manner-hymn, scripture reading, prayer, etc. As they were just finishing the hymn before the sermon Mel Trotter saw a door at the back of the building opening, and to his utter dismay in walked Campbell Morgan and sat at the back! There was nothing to be done, and Mel Trotter preached the sermon. At the close of the service Campbell Morgan went on to him and thanked him warmly for the sermon. ‘What, man,’ said Mel Trotter ‘do you not recognise one of your own children simply because it has my suit on it?’

In the year 1936 on the second Sunday in August we were as a family on holiday in the west of Wales. The only church there was the Anglican church, so we went there with the farmer and his wife with whom we were staying. When eventually the vicar went up into the pulpit to preach his sermon and gave out his text, my wife nudged me because that was actually the first text on which I had ever preached in Westminster Chapel on the occasion of my first visit there on the last Sunday in 1935. Because of that, I suppose, and because I was a stranger to London pulpits, that sermon of mine had been printed in two or three religious journals and papers; and my wife having read these knew this sermon fairly well. The vicar gave out that text and then began to preach. I regret to say that he attempted to preach my sermon; and there was I listening to him. He did not know me, and had never seen me before. I did my best to avoid meeting him during the following week but our farmer host brought him into our room one day and introduced us. Though I was not impressed by the way in which he handled my sermon I had to award him full marks for the way in which he handled the situation I Without any apparent embarrassment he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I am glad to meet you, as I have often heard of you. If I had only known that you were here I would have asked you to read the lessons in the service.’ ‘Verily they have their reward’; and I did not betray him. But that is what may happen to you if you preach another man’s sermon.

My wife has a story which illustrates another possible danger. Two preachers came on two successive Sundays to preach in the chapel of which she was a member, and preached the identical sermon. The question was, which of them was the author? The probable answer was-neither. The probability is that they had both borrowed it or rather, stolen it. But that is how you are caught out. A further comment-changing the text is not enough! Any discriminating listener will always be able to detect what you are doing. To add a few of your own illustrations or stories does not cover it either. I knew a man who said that his method was to read a Spurgeon sermon three or four times a few days before the Sunday and then preach it. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘I am not really preaching Spurgeon’s sermon; it has just passed through my mind!’ So we try to rationalise our sins, but succeed only in showing the kind of mind we have.

Just one further word about this. If you must preach somebody else’s sermon, if you are really in desperation on some occasion and feel there is nothing else to do for the sake of your people, avoid doing what a poor preacher I knew once in South Wales did. I am probably stating the literal truth when I say that he had probably never been outside Wales at all, not even to England, let alone anywhere else. This man one Sunday morning read out his text and then began his sermon with these words: ‘As I stood the other day at the head of the Wyoming Valley .. .’! In other words, learn what to leave out. If the clergyman who preached my sermon had had a little sense he would not have started with my first sentence. He actually did. I still remember it, because he fixed it in my mind. It was, ‘A very good subject for discussion in a church fellowship meeting .. .’ The vicar never held a church fellowship meeting. I did, and so I naturally introduced my subject in that way. Avoid things like that if you feel at any time that you must preach someone else’s sermon. But to put yourself altogether in the right, tell the people about your indebtedness to the other man.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 293-97