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McGarvey's Sermons

McGarvey published only one book of sermons. He seemed a little indifferent about the project, and even started the preface with the awkward statement, "I have no partiality for volumes of sermons; for I have derived from them comparatively little benefit." According to his statement, it was the idea of the Guide Publishing Company ( publishing arm of the Apostolic Guide of Louisville) to retain a stenographer to record McGarvey's sermons during his temporary pulpit engagement at the Broadway Christian Church over the summer vacation of 1893. Even with the perspective of a few years, he spoke of the volume with only mixed praise: "They have proved very helpful to many young preachers and to others who are fond of that kind of literature." (Autobiography, p. 44
 
Perhaps McGarvey's somewhat iconoclastic nature led to this approbation; in his youth he had turned down an opportunity to apprentice with an older preacher because he feared it would make him "a mere imitator." (Autobiography, p. 17) Even his admirers noted his lack of rhetorical flourish: "That which most distinguishes him as a writer and speaker is clearness; there is never the slightest confusion in his ideas. He has very little imagination, and relies almost exclusively on facts for effect." (W.T. Moore, Living Pulpit of the Christian Church, 1871, p. 325-326, quoted in James L. McMillan's "John William McGarvey") It is likely, of course, that it is his very lack of Victorian verbosity that makes his sermons still quite accessible now, over a century later.
 
For the complete e-text of this volume, visit http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/jwmcgarvey/sdlk/SDLK00.HTM.
 
I am adding links to my recordings of McGarvey's Sermons as they are complete:
 
 
McGarvey approaches the topic from the internal evidence, noting the usual arguments from the consistency between the Bible writers, and the moral influence of the Bible; but his exploration of what the Bible does not say--e.g. the scanty references to the early youth of Jesus, the lack of apology for the misdeeds of major characters, the matter-of-fact tone in the treatment of miracles--is the most interesting to me.
 
This is a two-part mini-series preached on one Sunday. McGarvey very frankly addresses some of the major philosophical and moral questions about the doctrine of eternal punishment. His experience debating Universalists during his early preaching career in Missouri is evident, and if his opponents did not like his answers, they at least had to admit that he did not dodge their questions. Interesting side issues are his references in the 2nd sermon to some form of Millennialism, and also to an apparent belief in life on other planets (interesting, though hardly a major point in the address). The terms of argument in this subject have not changed much since his day, nor are they ever likely to, and this is still very thought-provoking. I was constantly reminded during the 2nd sermon of Job 40:8, "Will you condemn Me, that you may be justified?"
 
 
Having established the problem of sin in the preceding sermons, McGarvey now turns to God's answer, under two major headings: 1) How did God pardon sin without minimizing its seriousness? 2) How did Christ's death on the cross make that pardon effective? On the question of pardon, he again delivers a volley against Universalism, claiming that it would make sin of no consequence at all, and also against Calvinism, claiming that it makes God either unwilling or unable to extend His pardon to all those who seek it. On the second question, McGarvey comes to a rather surprising conclusion. He dismisses the idea that Christ's death on the cross was simply an example of self-sacrifice (not nearly a serious enough motive), but also disputes the idea that Christ bore the punishment for our sins. Some of his arguments: 1) If the punishment for sin is eternal death, how could a temporary death suffice? 2) If Christ paid the full debt owed for sins, wherein is the Father's grace? The sins were not forgiven, but rather their consequences paid by another. I think he may be off the mark in that point, but I appreciate his candor in concluding, "I don't know. I just don't know." It reminds me of C. S. Lewis's statement in Mere Christianity, "The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work." He also suggested that, "no explanation will ever be adequate to the reality."
 
McGarvey equates "remission" simply with "forgiveness," and examines the similarities and differences between human and divine forgiveness. He next addresses the critical question, "How can I know I am forgiven?" Most of his argument is spent against the Wesleyan concept of a "conversion experience." Both from rational argument and from practical experience, he posits that a "felt" proof of forgiveness is subject to human error because of human frailty: it is possible that the desire of forgiveness might fabricate the feeling of it, or that a natural relief from a period of mourning for sins might be mistaken for it. McGarvey insists that the only certainty we  have of forgiveness comes from what God has promised in Scripture, based on our acceptance of His promised grace.
 
McGarvey addresses his subject in a narrative form, beginning with Jesus' promise that Peter would hold the "keys to the kingdom," through Peter's preaching of the first gospel sermon on Pentecost. He then examines the relationship between grace and the conditional nature of humanity's response to the gospel.

Sermon 7: "Faith."
 
The sermon begins with an examination of Hebrews 1:1, the definition of faith. McGarvey argues that the KJV and English Revised had translated it poorly, and refers to the work of Edward Robinson for a different view. It is instructive to compare more recent translations on this verse:

KJV, NKJV: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
ASV: "Now faith is assurance of [things] hoped for, a conviction of things not seen."
RSV, ESV: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
NIV: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

McGarvey then examines his conclusions in light of the first four examples of faith given in Hebrews 11: Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham. These make excellent examples of the relation of faith to works.

Sermon 8: "Repentance."
 
McGarvey seeks to separate the definition of repentance from the "godly sorrow" that preceeds it, and the works of obedience that follow it. He then looks at the problem of moving people's hearts to repentance, and what may or may not have effect.
 
Sermon 9: "Baptism."
 
If you had never heard the word "baptism" before, and had no concept of such a rite, what would you do? McGarvey asks the listener to imagine this mindset, then seeks to clarify what baptism is, and what it means, through examining each passage in which it occurs in the New Testament. (Not literally each passage, since he skips duplications, and stops after the book of Romans; but it's enough to make his point.)
 
 
McGarvey begins a mini-series of lessons examining cases of conversions given in the Acts of the Apostles. In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, he particularly compares the conversion experience of this man to the conversion experiences recounted by many modern Christians. What is the role of the miraculous in conversion, in distinction from the natural? What is the role of the Holy Spirit, and of the written word?
If Cornelius was such a good man, as proven by his reverence for God and his good works to his fellow human beings, why did he need to be saved? This strikes to the root of much of current popular religious thought. Also, what was the meaning of the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit in Cornelius before he was baptized? McGarvey makes a strong argument regarding the special nature of this incident, citing multiple instances of miraculous intervention and raising the critical question of the purpose of the Spirit's visible manifestation in this case.
What does Acts 16:14 mean when it says of Lydia, "the Lord opened her heart?" McGarvey examines the role of the Holy Spirit in the conversion of Lydia, particularly examining the hand of Providence hidden in the geographical details of Luke's narrative.
McGarvey examines the classic question of Saul's conversion to Christianity: Was he saved on the road to Damascus, or was that just the beginning of his process of coming to Christ? This is a classic example of the necessity to put together all that the Bible has to say on a topic; McGarvey notes that in addition to Luke's narrative account in Acts chapter 9, Paul retold the story on two other occasions, in Acts 22 and and Acts 26. Only when we look at the complete story do we understand what happened in turning Christianity's greatest foe into its greatest evangelist. 
Antonius Felix, procurator of Judea from 52-58, may have been as unlikely a prospect for conversion to Christianity as any that Paul ever addressed. McGarvey gives some background to the man, his likely motivation for hearing Paul (expectation of raising a ransom from the churches), and then analyzes Paul's message to him and its results. Though the words of this sermon are not recorded, the main ideas are given, and Paul daringly confronted Felix's immoral behavior, even though the procurator had the power of life and death over him. Felix's obvious conviction of his sins, yet unwillingness to face up to the cost of repentance, is a tragedy often replayed today.
Agrippa II (c. 27/28-c. 93/94) was the last of the Herodian kings: great-grandson of Herod the great, murderer of the children of Bethlehem, nephew of Herod Antipas who executed John the Baptizer and mocked Christ, and son of Agrippa I who executed the apostle James, brother of John. The apostle Paul had an opportunity to address this man alongside Festus, the new procurator of Judea, with the supposed objective of establishing the charges on which he would be tried in Rome. Typically, Paul took the opportunity to preach the gospel. McGarvey makes an interesting case for the psychology that may underlie Paul's argument, carefully wooing Agrippa's Jewish background and dividing him from the pagan Festus. Paul had once, like the Herods, opposed Christianity with violence, and his attempt to create sympathy with his hearer plays on this point.
 
 
Taking Galatians 6:7-8 as his text, McGarvey establishes the moral principle of cause and effect. A life spent in pursuit of spiritual things leads to a spiritual blessing, eternal life, but a life spent in pursuit of the desires of the flesh leads to the ends of the flesh, death and decay. Elijah's prophecy against King Ahab in the incident of Naboth's vineyard, and its fulfillment despite all Ahab's efforts to evade God's judgment (1 Kings 21-22), is used as an example of the futility of mocking God.

McGarvey does not mention that Ahab repented at the time of Elijah's prophecy, and that God postponed the complete fulfillment of this prophecy until the next generation; at the time Ahab died, he still had a son on the throne. Nonetheless Ahab had backslidden from his repentant attitude at the end of 1 Kings 21, and went into battle against Ben-Hadad in defiance of Micaiah's prophecy against him. He was daring God to do what He said, and God's delay of his punishment was nullified.
This is a beautiful study of the personalities and motivations behind the Biblical account, with an emphasis on the unseen hand of God in bringing about the salvation of His chosen nation from a famine, while simultaneously refining the characters of the men who would be the founders of the 12 tribes.

An important observation here is that God only intervened in a miraculous way, that we know of, on two occasions--the two occasions when He gave Joseph the interpretations of others' dreams. Everything else was a perfectly natural chain of "coincidences."
Esther is a perennial favorite because it has such vivid characters: Ahasuerus, the willful, careless (and too often drunken) king; Mordecai, the dignified, stern statesman with a heart of gold; Haman, the sniveling, insecure, implacably spiteful poser; Vashti, the exiled queen who lost her position and her husband but not her self-respect; and of course Esther, the orphan girl raised to the throne, who reminds us that courage is doing what must be done despite how terrified you are.

McGarvey's folksy story-telling style is at its best here, but I think his strongest point comes right at the end: God's name is never mentioned in Esther, and His working in the story is not explained, because we are meant to figure it out for ourselves upon reflection--just as we must do in our own lives.
 
The church in Jerusalem was the first congregation of the Lord's church, and in its 30+ years of existence (from Pentecost to the destruction of the city in 70 AD) it was almost continually under the guidance of one or more apostles. McGarvey examines it as an example for today, in devotion to Scriptural teaching and practice, in unity despite racial and cultural differences, in benevolence, in discipline, and in evangelism.
 Sermon 20: "Church finances."
This sermon is really about personal giving, rather than about the financial practices of the congregation's leadership. He assumes that the deacons are responsible for financial matters, and the elders for spiritual things, following the lead of Acts 6. His discussion of giving "as you have been prospered" and "cheerfully" is thought-provoking.

One recommendation that is really quite radical-sounding today, is to submit your financial situation to a deacon, or a group of deacons, and ask them to set the amount you should give. McGarvey believes this would help us avoid stinginess in giving, and relieve our consciences if we are unsure that we are giving enough. I know this was done in some congregations back then, but I have never heard of a congregation practicing that today. It is a challenging idea--if not something like this, then what is better?
 
McGarvey describes the scene of the aged John on the island of Patmos, and his vision of Christ bringing messages to the seven churches of Asia. His focus is on the message to the Ephesians, a church that had accomplished much but along the way had "lost its first love." This is such a timely message, in a day when the torch is being passed from one generation to another in the church, and when so much is said of "change" and "church renewal." Many (perhaps most) congregations do need to change, but into what? We dearly need to re-examine the fundamentals.
 
 
McGarvey traveled to the Holy Lands in 1879 in preparation for his book Lands of the Bible (1881). He frequently referred to Bible geography in his sermons to suggest solutions to perplexing passages, and to enhance understanding of the significance of certain events. After a general survey of the Jordan valley, McGarvey focuses on the area of the Israelites' crossing under Joshua, tying it together with Elijah and Elisha, and considering the development of "crossing Jordan" as a symbol both of reaching the consummation of our spiritual journey.
 
 
This is a good counterpart to McGarvey's earlier sermons on Divine providence, a subject that obviously fascinated him. The text of the sermon is James 5:16, "The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." McGarvey first examines the qualified nature of this statement--"fervent," "righteous," and "much." He then proposes that the effectiveness of such prayer may not always be apparent in the way we expect. The remainder of the sermon examines the prayers of Elijah at the beginning and end of the period of drought described in 1 Kings 17-18.
 

McGarvey illustrates the sermon text, 2 Thessalonians 2:11, through an examination of the fate of the unnamed young prophet in 1 Kings 13, who mistakenly accepted the word of the unnamed older prophet instead of sticking to the orders given him directly from God.
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