Rhetoric to the Glory of God

The Christian speaker speaks unto God’s glory. His task is not simply to relay information; he is not simply sharing words with those who will listen to him. Instead, he is hoping to invoke a meaningful response from his listeners. This applies especially to the preacher, who has the “words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68). “Life and death are in the power of the preacher’s tongue,” explained J. C. Ryle.[1]

How is the Christian speaker generally and the Christian preacher more specifically most effective and persuasive in his speaking? In a previous essay, I considered non-verbal forms of communication. Here I’d like to investigate the discipline of rhetoric, which refers to speaking well. Rhetoric refers to “how one ought to speak.”[2] It is an important element for preaching, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that can produce real impact, change, and even transformation in the wills and lives of his hearers. How does the Christian speaker understand and utilize rhetoric effectively? We’ll consider two principles in answer to this question: (1) Instruct, delight, and move; and (2) use the imagination and word pictures.

Instruct, Delight, Move

Augustine explained that the speaker should aim to instruct, delight, and move. Previously, the great Roman orator Cicero had stated, “Instructing is a matter of necessity, delighting a matter of charm, and moving them a matter of conquest.”[3] Augustine, carrying forward that tradition, said,

The eloquent speaker should speak in such a way as to instruct, delight, and move their listeners. . . . When advocating something to be acted on the Christian orator should not only teach his listeners so as to impart instruction, and delight them so as to hold their attention, but also move them so as to conquer their minds. . . . The aim of our orator . . . is to be listened to with understanding, with pleasure, and with obedience.[4]

The reason for the instruct-delight-move function of public speaking is this: the Christian speaker, especially the Christian preacher, is not in the business simply of filling peoples’ heads with information. No, his message must also penetrate their hearts, shape their desires, and manifest itself in their lives.

The boring, monotone, rote-like transference of words does not lend itself to people wanting to listen, much less moved; it does not reflect the excellence of a majestic God. John Broadus, evidently following this Augustinian tradition, explained, “Eloquence is so speaking as not merely to convince the judgment, kindle the imagination, and move the feelings, but to give a powerful impulse to the will.”[5] Or to use Aristotle’s nomenclature, the speaker should have ethos (credibility), pathos (emotion), and logos (reason).[6]

The Christian speaker develops a style that doesn’t simply instruct but also delights and moves by practicing over and over and over. He may record himself and then ask whether he would want to listen to himself. He may make use of confidants who can help sharpen his dull edges. He may find excellent speakers from which to learn.

In addition, the Christian speaker should develop sincerity, which is then communicated. Sincerity is made manifest both through non-verbal and verbal cues. It comes forth through the speaker’s manner, his expressions, his tone, his words, and so forth. Sincerity is that quality that suggests that someone is honest and free from deceit. The sincere person can be trusted. He has ethos. The preacher, whose message is the difference between life and death, must work to cultivate a reputation of sincerity. His personal life and his preaching life should bear this out.

Sincerity swells from the well of desire. That which the heart desires makes itself known (Mt 15:18; Lk 6:45).[7] Haddon Robinson writes, “Effective delivery . . . begins with desires.”[8] As an example of this, he appeals to the pulpit ministry of Scottish preacher George MacDonald: After reading from Hebrews 11, MacDonald delivered “such a simple, heartfelt, and majestic manifestation of the man’s own faith in those unseen realities which are eternal, as to beget faith in the minds and hearts of all his hearers. His heart was in his work, and his delivery was effective because it rested back upon the genuine beauty of his own inner life.”[9] Thus, in addition to ethos, good rhetoric also has pathos.

In sum, the Christian speaker must believe what he says. He should constantly work to maintain his own devotional life through God’s revealed ordinary means of grace, both private and public, such as prayer, Bible intake, meditation, spiritual accountability, song, the ordinances, and others.[10] He must guard against the danger of apathy, complacency, and other traits that might otherwise eat away at desire.

Use the Imagination and Word Pictures

One of the most important elements in delighting and moving an audience is the Christian speaker’s skillful use of imagination. This comes forth in the words he uses, the sentences he constructs, and the pictures he paints through the organization and pace of his message. As that famous military leader Napoléon stated, “The men of imagination rule the world.”[11]

How can the Christian speaker develop imagination? In part, it results naturally from the development of rhetoric. As the speaker works to instruct, delight, and move those to whom he speaks through ethos, pathos, and logos, his imagination will be inspired and will therefore inspire. Broadus wrote, “Elegance of style is the product of imagination, alone or in combination with passion, and operating under the control of good taste.”[12] Imagination is thus relevant in the development of illustrations, as well as in the development and structuring of the sermon itself and in the words the preacher chooses to express his meaning. Thus Robinson writes,

Like an artist or a novelist, you must learn to think in pictures. . . . Your speech will become more vivid if you let nouns and verbs carry your meaning. Adjectives and adverbs clutter speech. And they keep company with weak nouns and verbs. . . . Strong nouns and verbs stand alone. . . . Be especially careful of qualifiers like very, so, quite, rather, too. They betray our failure to choose words of substance. . . . When choosing your verbs, use live ones. Finite, active verbs make a sentence go. The principle to follow is “somebody does something.” Too many passive verbs suck the life out of speech. . . . Verbs, like nouns, wake up the imagination when they are precise. . . . Your vividness also increases when you employ fresh figures of speech.[13]

How does the speaker learn to think with his imagination? He should cultivate the habits of listening to good speakers and of reading good literature. The Christian speaker is a lifelong student. He should cultivate the life of the mind and of the imagination. Augustine wrote, “Given a sharp and eager mind, eloquence is picked up more readily by those who read and listen to the words of the eloquent than by those who follow the rules of eloquence.”[14] Broadus spoke to the importance of “the study of language,” “the study of literature,” and “careful practice, in writing and speaking.”[15] Of literature in particular, he stated,

The study of literature perhaps contributes still more to the improvement of style, than the direct study of language. From reading we gain much in the knowledge of language, especially as to richness of vocabulary, fullness of expression. But more. It is chiefly by reading that we form our literary taste—a matter of unspeakable importance. . . . To bathe our minds in choice literature till they become imbued with correct principles of style, to nourish them with good learning till our taste grows healthy, so as to discern quickly and surely between good and bad, is a process surpassingly profitable in its results, and in itself delightful. . . . One who wishes to form a good style would do well to select his newspapers, secular and religious, with reference to this. . . . The important matter is, that one should not read at hap-hazard. . . . Besides the common ground of general literature, which no one, of whatever special calling, can afford to neglect, preachers may learn much from the great secular orators, even as lawyers and statesmen often diligently study the great preachers.[16]

The study of literature is just one example of the preacher’s need to read, listen, and learn throughout his life. He should learn from the great works of literature through the millennia, stay current with news and politics, study great leaders, learn from great speeches, and so forth. This is not something that happens over the course of an evening or a week or even a year. It is a lifelong pursuit.[17]


Augustine wrote, “Oratorical ability, so effective a resource to commend either right or wrong, is available to both sides; why then is it not acquired by good and zealous Christians to fight for the truth, if the wicked employ it in the service of iniquity and error, to achieve their perverse and futile purposes?”[18] The instruct-delight-move imperative is foundational to the discussion. A practical way to learn this imperative is by cultivating one’s imagination by reading after, listening to, and learning from those who do it well. Such practices result in impactful communication unto the glory of God.


[1]J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson, 2007), 356.

[2]John Albert Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, tenth edition (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1887), 25; see also 320.

[3]Cicero, Orator 69; in Augustine, On Christian Teaching, Oxford World’s Classics, trans. R. P. H. Green (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 117.

Broadus pointed to his “chief indebtedness” to the authors of classic rhetoric (x; see 31ff). These include, but are not limited to, Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Tacitus, and Augustine. In this paper, both Cicero and Augustine are especially appealed to. Other important authors and works, listed in chronological order, include:

Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004);

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Brutus or History of Famous Orators; Orator, or Accomplished Speaker (Miami, FL: Hardpress, 2010);

———, On the Orator, trans. E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948);

———, Rhetorica ad Herennium, Loeb Classical Library, trans. Harry Caplan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954);

Marcus Fabius Quintillian, The Orator’s Education: Volumes I-V, Loeb Classical Library, trans. Donald A. Russell (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); and

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Dialogue de Oratoribus, Cambridge Greek and Latin, ed. R. Mayer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[4]Augustine, 117, 119, 121.

[5]Broadus, 20.

[6]See Aristotle, Rhetoric, Bk. II.

[7]Lewis captured this reality beautifully in Mere Christianity:

We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are. This may sound rather difficult, so I will try to make it clear from my own case. When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards  those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats:  it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1980), 192.

[8]Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Preaching, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 151.

[9]Charles R. Brown, The Art of Preaching (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 170; in Robinson, 152. Robinson states further, “Sincerity, enthusiasm, and deep earnestness tear down barriers that allow the real person to break free” (152).

[10]See Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014).

[11]In Broadus, 396.

[12]Ibid., 380.

[13]Robinson, 144-45.

[14]Augustine, 102.

[15]Broadus, 325, 329, 334.

[16]Ibid., 329-32.

[17]The following books explain why and how to read a book well: Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading (New York: Touchstone: 1972); and Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

[18]Augustine, 102.

Author: Matthew Steven Bracey

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