Signs Of The Times: 8 - The Four R's

In education, “The Three R’s” is a reference to the basic skills of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. There are other versions, such as Reading, Writing and Reckoning, or Reading, Reasoning and Reciting, and so on. However, in the foreword to John Ritchie’s “500 Gospel Sermon Outlines”, first published in 1910, we come across a reference to “The Four R’s”. I wonder: how many people reading this blog entry will know what he means?

We’ve been considering how the introduction to this book points up the contrast between what was expected of believers in that bygone age, especially of “all those who go forth in the service of the Lord”, and what we see in the so-called Christian church today. If you’re familiar with “The Four R’s”, you’ve probably been in one or more churches where all is not yet lost; or perhaps you’ve read widely and well; or perhaps, like me, you just happened to hear the expression in a recorded sermon by some conservative Christian preacher from over in America.

In effect, it’s an outline of the gospel, a useful guide to God’s plan of salvation. As in the case of “The Three R’s”, there are various versions. This is what Mr Ritchie has to say on the subject.

The four R’s of man’s ruin, Christ’s redemption, the Spirit’s regeneration, and the hearer’s responsibility should be clearly, fully, and constantly kept to the front, always making plentiful use of the words of Holy Scripture.

Compare that with the version that I first came across, from E. A. Johnston. He has the four as ruin, redemption, repentance, and regeneration. Are you able to compare and contrast these two versions, I wonder?

If there’s nothing new in all this, as far as you’re concerned, all well and good. If these terms sound strange, then perhaps you ought to investigate further. might be a good place to begin, and when you find Mr Johnston, type in the title “Four R’s of the Gospel: Ruin”, and that will take you to the first part of his short study of this subject. Highly recommended!

Returning to Mr Ritchie, and especially for those who are involved in preaching and teaching the Word of God, he has a number of interesting pieces of advice.

God’s own Word is more effectual than the clearest arguments, the most lucid reasonings, the simplest illustrations, and is the Word by which conviction is produced, the seed through which life is generated in the soul. Illustrations should be used carefully and sparingly; their use being only as the feather to the arrow. Incidents, stories, use only to elucidate, point, and press home the truth, never to amuse or raise a laugh. Avoid theological phrases; never use “slang”; do not make personal references to persons, places, or systems.

I would like to step back in time to hear Mr Ritchie speak. Did he follow his own advice, or was his approach rather more flexible? If I hear a preacher fulminating against “frivolity in the pulpit”, I sit back in eager anticipation: it usually means that there are some real rib-ticklers on the way, which he will, of course, pass off as pointing up a truth.

"Avoid theological phrases”? I remember one Elder using the word “theophany” several times in a sermon. He tried to tell us what it meant, but we were no wiser when he’d finished. As Clint Eastwood puts it, at the end of “Magnum Force”, “A man’s got to know his limitations” - and his audience, too. (Is that an illustration used “only as the feather to the arrow”, I wonder?) Oh, and “never use ‘slang’”? I’d say that that also depends on your audience, and on your definition of “slang”.

He concludes with the point about “personal references”. I’m not sure about references to “places, or systems”, but I do know from experience how unpleasant it is to find yourself being preached against from the pulpit. It’s happened to me several times; it may well have happened to some of you. Don’t do it: it’s like slapping someone who is gagged and tied to a chair.

Besides that, you never know what the victim may do, once they get loose…

To be continued.