Overview: This three-volume shows the breadth of MacDonald’s theological thought. MacDonald wrote these sermons in such a way that the conclusion of one introduces the next—but the topics are only vaguely connected. He focuses especially on themes like the Fatherhood of God, the meaning of suffering, and obedience to the two greatest commandments. C. S. Lewis wrote about Unspoken Sermons:
“My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith.”
Incidentally, many of the thoughts in C. S. Lewis’ writings that are thought to be innovative or controversial were gleaned from these sermons. In Lewis’ anthology of MacDonald quotes, 257 of the 366 selections are from this little set of 36 sermons. (I am working on an article comparing Lewis’ most famous quotes with MacDonald’s sermon material.)
Meat: MacDonald’s strength in all his books is his stubborn insistence on God’s goodness. His spiritual writing is dense with thought, like that of Oswald Chambers. These sermons are a literary mix of highly abstract and clearly practical. There are many favorites. Lewis often hearkened to “The Hardness of the Way” in his books, such as Mere Christianity. “The Eloi” is a wonderful reflection on divine silence. “Life” is a fantastic exploration of divine suffering, and undoubtedly the most moving thing I have ever read outside the Bible. John Ruskin said that the first volume contained “the best sermons—beyond all compare—I have ever read.”
The other prominent point about MacDonald is his “theology of obedience.” MacDonald places great weight on John 7:17: “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” He says in almost every sermon that obedience is “the opener of eyes” and “the only way forward.” This theology is probably most clearly expressed in “Love Your Neighbor” and “The Hardness of the Way,” although MacDonald’s next sermon set, The Hope of the Gospel, deals with this theology of obedience almost exclusively.
Bones: The long trains of thought make it difficult to read the sermons piecemeal; you really need a large cup of tea and an hour (or two) to spare. And some of the sermons are very heady and abstract. I recommend trying “The Way” and “The Hardness of the Way” since they are foundational and straightforward.
The bone that most readers choke on, though, is MacDonald’s universalist tendencies, seen most strongly in “Consuming Fire.” Suffice it to say, MacDonald was strongly countercultural in the context of a stolid Scottish Calvinism, and found himself searching far and wide for more satisfying expression of God’s heart. But most reviewers agree that these sermons “bring everyone who reads them into the very presence of the Living God,” and MacDonald was far more concerned with heart-obedience than systematic theology.
Quotes: “Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it.” (vol. 2, “Life”)
“The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his.” (vol. 1, “Consuming Fire”)
“Do at once what you must do one day.” (vol. 2, “The Last Farthing”)
“Had he done as the Master told him, he would soon have come to understand. Obedience is the opener of the eyes.” (vol. 2, “The Way”)
“I believe that no teacher should strive to make men think as he thinks, but to lead them to the living Truth , to the Master Himself, of whom alone they can learn anything, who will make them in themselves know what is true by the very seeing of it.” (vol. 3, “Justice”)
Related: Miracles of Our Lord, God’s Words to His Children, The Hope of the Gospel, George MacDonald in the Pulpit