Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.
Overview: MacDonald wrote only five books of sermons: Unspoken Sermons, Series One (1867), Miracles of Our Lord (1870), Unspoken Sermons, Series Two (1885), Unspoken Sermons, Series Three (1889), and finally, The Hope of the Gospel (1892). I give the dates because there is a progression between them. MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons are profound, meditative, and exploratory; Miracles of Our Lord is more expository, systematic, and devotional; in his fifth and final book of sermons, it seems that MacDonald wanted to clearly delineate a theology of salvation while treating foundational Scriptures. Five of the texts are chosen from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
MacDonald was almost 70 when this book was published. While his views stayed the same through the years, they had grown firmer and are expressed most boldly here in The Hope of the Gospel.
Meat: MacDonald’s theology of obedience is preached or mentioned in almost all of his sermons—all his books, to be honest—but this book allows us to really chew on it; we see it here in relation to foundational concepts of the New Testament. The first two sermons develop this theology with special clarity.
(A quick summary: In MacDonald’s theology, all other aspects of salvation are subordinate to obedience. There is no “imputed” righteousness apart from obedience; there is no salvation apart from obedience. MacDonald doesn’t say that obedience causes salvation, but that it accompanies it.)
My favorites were “Sorrow the Pledge of Joy,” “The Yoke of Jesus,” and “The Salt and the Light of the World.” MacDonald is at home in the Gospels, and his comments on Jesus’ words here are illuminating and expository.
Bones: MacDonald is at his best, like any preacher, when he sticks to the text. And MacDonald at his best is quite fantastic. But in developing his theology of salvation, he is sometimes distracted by a chance to suppress interpretations that he sees as unspiritual and uninspired. In “The Hope of the Universe,” he spends nearly thirty pages grinding a theological axe about the immortality of animals, an idea which, even if I found it enlightening—and I don’t—is certainly secondary or tertiary to Paul’s discourse in Romans 8. (Certainly “the manifestation of the sons of God” is more important than the “earnest expectation of the creature,” whatever is meant by “creature”!)
For these reasons, I would rank any volume of Unspoken Sermons above The Hope of the Gospel; and I would put Miracles of Our Lord above them all for its tact and expository insight. As Roland Barthes said, it is when the author “dies” that the reader is most illumined. The same applies to preachers.
Quotes: “Joy is in its nature more divine than sorrow; for, although man must sorrow, and God share in his sorrow, yet in himself God is not sorrowful.” (“Sorrow the Pledge of Joy,” loc. 801)
“None but the pure in heart see God; only the growing-pure hope to see him.” (“God’s Family,” loc. 968)
“The relation of the Father and the Son contains the idea of the universe.” (“The Yoke of Jesus,” loc. 1303)
“Starts thy soul, trembles thy brain at the thought of such a burden as the will of the eternally creating, eternally saving God? ‘How shall mortal man walk in such a yoke,’ sayest thou, ‘even with the Son of God bearing it also?’ Why, brother, sister, it is the only burden bearable—the only burden that can be borne of mortal!” (“The Yoke of Jesus,” loc. 1357)
“Light unshared is darkness.” (“The Salt and the Light of the World,” loc. 1417)
Related: Unspoken Sermons, Miracles of Our Lord, God’s Words to His Children (posthumous), George MacDonald in the Pulpit (posthumous)