A Historical Survey of Preaching
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A Historical Survey of Preaching

From Series: The Pastor's Study, Volume 2

Selected Scriptures  (ID: 2156)

From the early church to the present day, many great men have dedicated themselves to communicating God’s Word so that people can understand its meaning. Alistair Begg walks us through the history of preaching, which shows us that such faithful ministers succeeded by remaining grounded in Scripture, focused on Christ, and devoted to the glory of God. Today’s pastors will be well served if they avoid the peril of man-centered preaching and instead examine the past triumphs of preaching oriented to the Gospel.


Sermon Transcript:

Now, let’s just turn to 2 Corinthians for a moment, and then what I’m going to do, again, is not attempt any form of exposition but essentially attempt a historical survey—fairly scanty, but yet, nevertheless… 2 Corinthians 4, just to set our minds in the right direction:

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

Good. I picked up something last evening that I had meant to share with you, and I want to give it to you just as a PS before we go forward. In a book called Preaching the Living Word, which I think was created as a tribute to Dick Lucas, Packer gives five reasons—five factors in there—as to why there is an absence of expository preaching. We said there were three last night, which you will have already have forgotten. I know I have, which is why I’m not gonna try and reiterate them. But he gives five, and I thought you might just like to have his five.

Number one, he says, “The prevalence of non-preaching … has eroded [any] awareness of what true preaching is.” We kind of said that, but we didn’t articulate it in that way. But “the prevalence of non-preaching … has eroded [any] awareness of what true preaching is.”[1] Secondly, that “topical as distinct from textual preaching has become common.”[2] Thirdly, that the “low expectations” which people bring both to the preaching and to the listening to the preaching, “low expectations become self-fulfilling.”[3] We expect little, and we get little. We expect to give very little, we give very little. Fourthly—and I’m sure he got this one from Martyn Lloyd-Jones—powerful speech has “become suspect.”[4] If you remember in Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones mentions the feature of Stanley Baldwin, I think it is, who was a very poor speaker. And he used that in his political campaign to say, “You know, I’m not one of these powerful speakers, who are very suspect; I’m just a poor, meager speaker, and so you should trust me because I can’t speak rather than trusting him because he so clearly can.”[5] And that, of course, is not uncommon.

And fifthly, he said, “spiritual issues” are by and large regarded as “irrelevant.”[6] Spiritual issues are regarded as irrelevant. And the implication being, Why would you teach the Bible and come, for example, to the importance of propitiation, or the nature of the substitutionary atonement, or the importance of dying to self, or living in the power of the Spirit—why would you bother with all these extraneous and irrelevant pieces of information—when folks are only concerned about how they can have a meaningful relationship with their wives or how they can prevent from kicking the cat in the morning when they get up because they’re upset with things? And I think that fifth one is more striking than maybe even some of the others. And that’s why we have to not start with the questions that people are asking, but we have to start with the questions that the Bible is posing, so that the people will be confronted by the questions the Bible is asking rather than that we will be confronting the Bible with the questions they’re asking.

Our basic presuppositions as to the nature of real preaching will largely determine both the character and the style of our proclamation.

Well, that was a PS to yesterday. Now we come to this matter of a brief historical survey of preaching. This is one of those occasions when I look at much of this material and I say, “Goodness, I must have plagiarized this dreadfully, because this is really quite good,” in sections, and yet I’ve got no real knowledge of exactly where it’s come from. So if at the end you can come and tell me exactly where I stole it, then we will all be able to benefit from it, and we can put it on the tape, at least on the outside.

I’m doing this this morning because I thought about last evening, and I said, “You know, there may be somebody who says, ‘It’s really quite unfair of you to cast around in that way. And perhaps this is not so different today from the way in which preaching has been approached in the past.’” I want essentially to point out to us this morning that our basic presuppositions as to the nature of real preaching will largely determine both the character and the style of our proclamation. The presuppositions that we bring to the task pretty well determine how we will engage in the task. There’s nothing brilliant about that; it’s a fairly obvious thing. But I like to state the obvious. I find it helpful, and sometimes others do as well.

Now, in light of that, let’s look just very briefly at preaching as we find it in the Bible and in the early church. And again, I’m gonna make some sweeping jumps all through here, and I’ll give you this as your homework to go away and fill in the blanks.

Preaching in the Bible

But when we read the Bible, from the very beginning, even before the establishment of a formal priesthood, you discover in the Old Testament Scriptures that the priestly function is fulfilled by the father in the home as he expounds the mercy of God’s covenant to his children. He has his own little flock, if you like, and he recognizes that under God he must instruct them in the ways of God.

I don’t think that’s surprising in light of the fact that in 2 Peter, Noah is regarded as, or referred to as, “a preacher of righteousness”[7]—that he was actually a preacher. Of all the other ways in which he may have been designated, he was defined in that way. When the elders are appointed in the time of Moses, we discover that they prophesied. And in the King James Version it says, “They prophesied,” and they “did not cease.” Numbers 11:25. In the NIV it says they prophesied and they did cease. Which is a real nuisance, isn’t it? Especially when someone in your congregation says, “Why does it say that?” And then you have to stumble and bumble all around. Well, I’ll leave that with you to talk about over coffee. But the fact is that how long they went on or when they stopped, we do know that the elders appointed in the time of Moses prophesied.

And what we discover in the Old Testament is that there is a pattern which emerges, and it is one essentially of prophetic teaching. Now, prophetic teaching in this sense: that man is dispatched by God to proclaim the living word of God to his day and generation. So that the man of God is given the living word of God to bring it to bear upon his day and generation. And if I use the phrase “prophetic dimension,” that is exactly what I have in mind in utilizing it. I know that others deal with it differently, but that is what I have in mind.

When you consider, for example, those who were appointed in the time of Jehoshaphat, which is in 2 Chronicles—and I won’t bother you with a lot of references—but in 2 Chronicles 17, and I think it’s about verse 9. We have this big, long list of names in verse 8, which I’ll leave you to practice with your wife sometime. Verse 9, what were these individuals doing? “They taught throughout Judah, taking with them the Book of the Law of the Lord; they went around to all the towns of Judah and taught the people.”

Now, this is fairly straightforward stuff. I make no apology for it. I want simply to establish the fact that when we think about what God was doing in raising up individuals, he was making perfectly clear that they would be moving around with the Book of the Law of the Lord. And they would have said to him, “There come the people with the scrolls. Let’s go and listen to the fellow with the scroll. Give us something from the scroll.” They did not anticipate that he would have anything much to say apart from the scroll which he held in his hands. He was not an expert about all matters sociological and political and so on, but he was somebody who had given himself to the Book of the Law, and he realized that his reason for going around the towns of Judah was in order that he might make it known.

When you get to the postexilic period, you have probably the classic illustration of this task—and let’s go just to Nehemiah and remind ourselves of that, and the wonderful picture there of Ezra being call out. And you remember in Nehemiah chapter 8, you have this amazing description of Ezra “on a high wooden platform.”[8] The reason he stood on a high wooden platform was in order that he might be seen and that he might be heard. And, of course, you’re well familiar with this. If any of you have had the privilege of Eric Alexander’s exposition of Nehemiah chapter 8, you’ll know that none of us should really do very much with it at all except take it and reread it to each other.

But Ezra read from the Book of the Law, verse 3, “aloud from daybreak [until] noon”—quite a long sermon!—and “as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of … men, [and] women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.” And you have this picture of him standing up there on this high place, and the others joining with him in multiplying the impact of the Word in verse 8: “Read[ing] from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear, … giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” As we anticipate our next session, that is essentially expository ministry, isn’t it? Without making it any more complicated than that: they read from the Book, they made it clear, they gave the meaning, so that the people would be able to understand it and apply it to their lives. Indeed, this ought to be the great test of all of our teaching: Is it from the Book of God? Have we made it clear? Did we establish the meaning? And do the people understand?

Spurgeon, in his lectures to his students, in relationship to the instructive nature of preaching, says,

Unless we are instructive preachers, and really feed the people, we may be great quoters of elegant poetry, and mighty retailers of second-hand windbags, but we shall be like Nero of old, fiddling while Rome was burning, and sending vessels to Alexandria to fetch sand for the arena while the populace starved for want of corn.[9]

Now, when you track through this, we begin to understand that Calvin’s view of preaching really is very helpful—and, I would want to say, very biblical too—in that when you read Calvin’s view of preaching, you discover that R. S. Wallace—in his book Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life, Grand Rapids, 1961, page 143—accurately reports Calvin when he says that Calvin viewed the preaching of the Word as belonging to the creation institutions of marriage and government—that God had given preaching right within the framework of a creation ordinance. Calvin saw “in the prominent place given to the preaching and hearing of the Word of God … a restoration of the true order of nature.” Said Calvin, “We were given the power to communicate [with one] another ‘not simply to buy boots and shoes and bonnets …,’ but to use our mouths and ears to lead each other to the faith [that] rises heavenward[s] to the contemplation of God Himself.’”[10] And the reason that our mouths have been given is, he says, just in terms of the general populaces, in order that we might do this. To the extent that that may be true, then clearly the preacher’s responsibility is to ensure that God is glorified.

Now, jumping just immediately into the New Testament, it is clear that the ministry of Jesus is steeped in Scripture, from the very outset of his ministry. If you go to Mark’s Gospel and the opening chapter, after Jesus has been involved in this wonderful evening of healing and the relieving of the demons from those who had been possessed, “the whole town,” according to verse 33, is “gathered at the door,” Jesus has “healed many who had various diseases,” driving out the demons, and “very early in the morning,” he gets up while it’s “still dark,” and he leaves the house, and he goes “off to a solitary place” to pray.[11] Just challenged by that: how quickly I can get up in the morning, go off to a solitary place to read the New York Times, instead of going to a solitary place to pray. And then verse 36: “Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’” Essentially, they’re saying, “Jesus, this is absolutely terrific. What you’ve started here is really brilliant. And I think if you just keep it going the way you’re going, we’ll have this kingdom ushered in in no time at all.” And then, of course, you have the response of Jesus in verse 38: “Let us go somewhere else.”

They say, “Go somewhere else?”

“Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages.” Why? “So [that] I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” And so they “traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.”

When we find him in the synagogue at Nazareth, in Luke chapter 4, what is he doing? He’s taking the word of God in the prophecy of Isaiah, and he is saying that “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”[12] On the Emmaus Road, in Luke chapter 24, he deals with the two disconsolate trackers, and he begins with the Scriptures, and he explains to them all the things in the Bible concerning himself.[13]

He’s just doing expository ministry, if you like. And he is establishing a pattern, then, that the apostles will follow. There may be times when he had to say to them—and there were—“Have I been so long with you, and still you do not understand?”[14] He must have looked at them and said, “You know, it’s going in one ear and flying out the other. There is so much that they’re missing, and I really, I’ll have to give them another course in this, and mercifully, the third member of the Trinity is going to come and fill in all the gaps here.” And how he must have rejoiced as he looked from the vantage point in heaven and saw Peter stand up—Peter, of all people—and just launch into a tremendous expository sermon in Acts chapter 2. Just goes right back into the Bible and starts to expound the Scriptures. And what do you find? The same pattern all the way throughout the Acts of Apostles.

Now, foundational in all of that is the fact that the preaching—and we’re just looking at preaching in the Bible—that the preaching was grounded in Scripture, it was focused on Christ, and its great end was the glory of God. You see, what we’re saying is, it would appear that preaching in our day is in the shadows; the church does not believe in it.[15] “Wait a minute,” says somebody, “are you sure that you have a valid basis for reflecting in that way? Have you really considered the state of preaching, if you like, throughout the ages?” Well, what I’m suggesting is, yes, we have. And when we look at the Bible, we discover that this kind of preaching is there, both as an expression of the work of Jesus and his followers, and also as a pattern for us.

So it is the Scriptures alone which provide the yardstick by which authentic Christian preaching in every age may be assessed. I mean, the real issue is not whether you or I think that this is good preaching or bad preaching or whatever else it is. The real question is whether all of our preaching as assessed by the plumb line of Scripture stands up true to the line. So that we want to ask of ourselves and what we’re doing, “If the kind of preaching that we find in the Bible is grounded in the Scriptures, is focused on Christ, and is to the end of the glory of God, as I approach this coming Sunday, do I have these things in mind? Am I going to bring my people to the Scriptures? Am I going to create within my people a genuine hunger for the Scriptures? Am I going to take them to Jesus?”

The Scriptures alone provide the yardstick by which authentic Christian preaching in every age may be assessed.

For the Bible is a book about Jesus, right? You know it from Sunday school: In the Old Testament, Jesus was predicted. In the Gospels, Jesus was revealed. In the Acts, we have Jesus preached. In the Epistles, we have Jesus explained. And in the Revelation, we have Jesus expected. Am I bringing people to Christ? You think about some of our sermons: they can be Christless. We’ve really done nothing till we’ve brought people to Jesus. We may have informed them of various esoteric little pieces of information that are not harmful to them in any way, but we have not… You wonder why it is that they go away with a notebook and a sense of… It’s because it is “’Tis what I know of thee, my Lord and God, that fills my [heart] with [praise], my lips with song.”[16]

The Preaching of the Early Church Fathers

Well, if the Scriptures alone provide the yardstick by which authentic Christian preaching can be assessed, what about the preaching, then, from the time of the New Testament through the early church fathers? “Oh,” you say, “this takes us back a bit, doesn’t it?” Yeah, I think I’ve got some old notes from LBC [London Bible College] here somewhere—and not very good ones either, because I didn’t take particularly good ones. And those of you who are church historians will find the flaws and be able to fill in the gaps, and that’s fine. Don’t whisper too loudly to your friends.

In the early days, the pattern that was followed by people like Ignatius, when he writes to Polycarp, he is referring to the homilia, the homily. In the Second Epistle of Clement—and you got that around, what, 135 or so—you find the same thing. Justin Martyr’s Apologia is an example again of a commitment to wrestling with the Scriptures and proclaiming them. And what you discover when you go back and read all that old stuff is that guys like Clement of Alexandria and “Origon,” essentially—or I think you call him “Origen”—built a bridge of proclamation that held all the way through until the time of Chrysostom and Augustine. And you can say, “Well, it was good, or it was bad, or it was different,” but it was essentially there. But all the time that this was going on, other influences were at work to undermine a commitment to a kind of preaching that is grounded in Scripture, focused in Christ, and its great end is glorifying God.

What kind of influences were at work? One, the impact of allegory. The impact of allegory. When you go back and you read your old lecture notes, you remind yourself that there was a period of time there in those early centuries where the real trick seemed to be to bamboozle your listeners by making sure that everything must mean something else, so that the listeners know that this can’t possibly mean what it says; it definitely means something else. And that contributed largely to the notion that the Bible is a box of tricks; therefore, it took a magician to get the cat out of the bag or the rabbit out of the hat, and many people were prepared to step up and perform the magician’s role. That, of course, takes us to where we were last evening, and we needn’t go back to that again. Everything must mean something else.

And there is, of course, a kind of preaching which loves to intrigue people by just twisting it ever so marginally so as to make it appear as though the average person in a congregation would never be able to understand the Bible, were it not for the magician who comes along regularly in the morning and the evening. What that does is it creates a priest again and puts us back into the realm with Roman Catholicism, where the poor souls are out there just waiting until they’re fed the scraps from the wisdom of the one who knows, and he’s the only one who knows, because everything must mean something else, and he’s the only one who can tell you what it means. We want to be saying to our congregations, “Listen, if you’ve got an eighth-grade education, you can really become a wonderful Bible student. If you can read the English language, and you read your Bible carefully, then I’m fully convinced that you can discover all the main and plain things in the Bible with about an eighth- or a ninth-grade education—and probably with even less.” So don’t let’s set ourselves up to a position of exaltation. All right?

So, allegory was working against it. The other thing was, there was a focus on rhetoric, which was working against it. And this, of course, was not unique to this time; it remains so even in our day. And that is an approach that sought to appeal primarily to the seats of learning. Okay? That sought to take it up a couple of notches and say, “You know, we really are quite brilliant about everything, and we want you to know just how brilliant we are.” Which, of course, is antithetical to Paul walking into Corinth—he himself who was actually brilliant but determined to set aside his brilliance in order that he might proclaim the foolishness of the cross: “I determined [to know nothing] among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”[17]

And every time we’re invited to go and speak to one of these august bodies, we need to remind ourselves of this, don’t we? I get invited every so often to go down to Case Western University, where there are a tremendous number of people with what Dick Lucas would refer to as “size 12 brains.” And they’re there, and there they sit, lost in their intellect, and… you know, they scare me to death, quite honestly. And I have to just drive along in my car. I usually have someone with me; we just try to pump one another up: “Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Don’t let’s fall foul of trying to take them on at their own game.”

So, working against it was the development of allegory, the focus on rhetoric, and thirdly, the development of liturgy. Now, these things are not unique to the time. I mean, they still work against expository preaching today. I was just in Oxford three weeks ago. Sunday evening, we went to Christ Cathedral in Oxford for evensong. A beautiful choir and a lovely sort of … you know, it was really terrific. But the Bible was never proclaimed. It was never proclaimed. And indeed, it never needs to be proclaimed in the course of evensong. So I say to my good evangelical Anglican friends, “Take your evensong, and put the Bible into it.” The evensong’s a wonderful service; I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I just wish someone would have said, “Now, let’s take one of these Bible passages that we just read, and let’s understand the meaning. Let’s ground it in the Bible, let’s focus it on Christ, let’s do it to the glory of God, and let’s send us on our way with some food for Monday morning.” But instead, all the people went away saying, “My, that was wonderful, wasn’t it? The choir sang very nicely.” And they did! But the development of liturgy squeezes out expository preaching—or can, and needs to be fought against.

Okay, that takes us to Augustine. Does it? You say, “Well, if you say so, it does.” Reminded of the guy who determined to preach his way through the whole Bible in one sermon. And after some time, he said, “Now we’ve come to Isaiah; what shall we do with him?” And the fellow said, “Well, he can have my seat, because I’m leaving.” So now we’ve come to Augustine. What shall we do with him? Someone said, “Well, why don’t I go get a coffee, and you let me know when I come back.”

The Reformation and Preaching

From Augustine to the Reformation, it’s kind of dark in that period, isn’t it? Dark. In fact, I’m just gonna leave that as dark. There was light, but the factors mentioned above—namely, rhetoric and allegory and liturgy—were all so interwoven then with all of the speculative tendencies of the logic of Aristotle, and it all got mangled up during that time and essentially strangled, in the main, biblical and God-glorifying preaching. That was why the Reformation had to come.

And so, in the Reformation, we get into familiar territory, and there we get Calvin and Zwingli and Bullinger and Wycliffe and Hus and all the rest. And what do they do? They essentially look back to Chrysostom, they look back to Augustine, they look back to the apostolic pattern, and they say, “Now, we must ground our preaching in the Scriptures.” And once again, they make it clear—something that we are tempted to overlook and yet was helpfully a reminder to us in Rick’s prayer—that the message, and not the messenger, is of decisive importance. The issue is what is proclaimed, not the proclaimer.

And also, since God speaks to man in the proclamation of the Word, no one, irrespective of their level of maturity or of their theological insight, is ever in a position of no longer needing or submitting in obedience to the ministry of the Word of God. None of us are ever beyond our need to sit under the teaching of Scripture. And one of the great dangers—and we’ll come to this as we finish on Wednesday—one of the peculiar dangers that is represented for us in our task and calling is that of professional listening. So that instead of really listening with all the ears of our hearts when any humble servant endeavors to lead us to Christ and to ground us in the truth of the Bible, we tend to listen with only half an ear, saying, “Well, you know, I understand all that, and this will be good stuff for Brother George,” or whoever else it is. If in preaching God speaks to men, then none of us—no matter how mature, how theologically adroit we may be—we are never in a position of no longer needing or submitting in obedience to the Word.

Says Calvin, “None may think that he has advanced beyond the necessity of hearing preaching because he is able to interpret the Bible for himself.”[18] And this addresses, incidentally, the home Bible study thing, where the key to the church is home Bible studies, and we basically don’t need pastors, because, after all, “We all have an eighth-grade education—we heard you saying that, Pastor—and now we’re just gonna go with our eighth-grade education, we’re gonna study the Bible for ourselves.” Wrong. Half a truth! It’s leading you up the left. None of us may advance beyond the necessity of hearing preaching, because God has ordained that the Word of God is to be preached. And there is no church without the preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, the exercise of church discipline, and so on. So we’re not free to turn the church into forty-five little home Bible studies and say that’s it. It is essential that the congregation gathers to attend upon the preaching of the Word of God. And the pattern, I’m suggesting to you, of that is well established in the Old Testament Scriptures and then throughout all of history.

Preaching after the Reformation

Now, when you come to the Post-Reformation era, which is vast, then we find that the same thing is taking place. In the best of preaching—if you like, the preaching… well, so many who we could add, but, I mean, the preaching of Edwards and of Whitefield, the Wesleys, Charles Simeon, Spurgeon, Roland Harris, and so on. In all of that wonderful preaching, what do you find? It is grounded in the Scriptures, it is focused upon Christ, and its ultimate end is the glory of God. That, I think, is the key to the success of these men.

None of us are ever beyond our need to sit under the teaching of Scripture.

Philip Ryken, in a really helpful book, Discovering God in Stories from the Bible, says in page 124—or quotes another fellow on page 124, a boy by the name of Jack Miller, whom I don’t know. If you’re here, welcome. And this is very helpful stuff. But writing concerning the preaching of these individuals, this is what he says:

I am convinced that what gave evangelists in the eighteenth century remarkable power was the Whitefield-Wesley confidence in the supreme authority of Christ. Jesus acted in and through them not because they were powerful persons, but because they were empty vessels needing grace. He was the one who forgave and cleansed them; He was the one who sent them with the gospel; and He was the one who opened the hearts of hardened people to a very humbling message. By contrast, believers today typically serve a much smaller Christ.

And then, in one further brief quote, talking about the source of power in evangelism, he says,

The leaders of the Great Awakening had extraordinary power in evangelism and renewal. They followed an omnipotent Christ, the divine warrior, and He anointed them with His missionary presence. But this power was poured out on those who knew that they were inherently powerless without a constant dependence upon the working of God’s grace in their lives.[19]

Now, there is a fundamental principle in that that we need to keep coming back to again and again, don’t we? And when we survey the sort of history of preaching from fifty thousand feet, if you like, and we begin to drop down on the preaching of individuals, where it is effective, all that I am saying again and again is this: that these essential elements—irrespective of personality, context, time frame—these essential elements are found again and again. Now, what ought to be the encouragement in that for us? “God, we can do that. With your help, we can do that. Because I know,” we say, “that I am empty and inherently powerless.”

If the objective of God is that we would depend upon him, then weakness is an advantage. If dependence is the objective, then weakness is the advantage. Which is so antithetical to our day! Because we go to events like this, and even sitting next to the fellow next to us, we’re tempted, as soon as we start to talk about whatever it is we’re involved in, we want to make sure that everybody knows how wonderfully powerful and effective everything is that we’re doing. Oh, we want to couch it in the right kind phraseology, you know, with a little bit of litotes, and back off on the hyperbole and everything, and say “not a few have” rather than “a whole ton have,” you know, and so on. But essentially, it’s inherent in us. Certainly inherent in me! I don’t mean to do a despite to any of you.

Now, it was the kind of preaching that magnifies God that J. W. Alexander describes in this way: “The great end of preaching,” he says, “is to glorify God, and bless man, by bringing sinners to the ‘obedience of faith’ in Christ, … promoting their sanctification, their knowledge, love, and adoration of God.”[20] Now, at the risk of sounding like a broken gramophone record: gentlemen, brothers in Christ, we have to be asking ourselves, doing the postoperative study in relationship to what we’re doing on a Sunday, in a series, whatever else it is, “Is the great end of preaching, my preaching here, at this point in time, glorifying God, blessing man, bringing sinners to obedience in faith in Christ, promoting their sanctification, deepening their knowledge, their love, and their adoration of God?” Now, I suggest to you that if we set that as the great, all-consuming goal, one, we will never be done; two, we will never think of ourselves more highly than we ought; three, we will always have sermon material; and four, we will be kept away from dropping down into giving our congregation what they think they need, which is really what they want, which isn’t what they need at all. And we’re gonna have to hold out for this in this generation.

In Timothy’s day, says Handley Moule, the church, from a human perspective, trembled on the brink of annihilation.[21] Look at the wholesale defection of the church in Asia after the tremendous revival that had taken place there. Paul says, “Everyone in Asia has deserted me. I’m about to die; my life is ebbing away. I’m already being poured out like a drink offering.”[22] So you’ve got the death of the mighty apostle, you’ve got the defection of the church in Asia, you’ve got this little whippersnapper Timothy, who’s coming along as next in line. He’s got a dreadful problem with his stomach; that’s why he has to drink wine for his stomach’s sake.[23] He’s naturally timid; that’s why Paul has to write to the Corinthians and say, “Make sure that you put Timothy at his ease.”[24] He’s chronologically too young: “Let no man despise [your] youth.”[25] And people look at him and say, “Do you think there’ll be a church in another generation? I don’t think so! It’s finished. Let’s just sit back and let it die.”

Humanly speaking, the church trembled on the brink of annihilation. God said, Jesus said, “I will build my church; … the gates of hell [will] not prevail against it.”[26] Therefore, through the likes of Timothy, he picks it up and goes on. Today the church in America trembles on the brink of capitulation—capitulation to the mores and philosophies and notions of our day. And that’s what I think makes this whole thing so tremendously telling and vitally important.

I don’t think that any other kind of preaching other than that which is owned by the Spirit of God, which is anointed by the Spirit of God, which exalts Christ, which is grounded in Scripture, can look to see God really bless it. And we’re not going to assess blessing in terms of numerical things, per se. But I don’t think that there is much question that if a young man will take the Bible, and will take his life, and will lay his life down before Christ, and put his nose in the Bible, and his knees on the floor, at least in the silence of his own room, and cry out to God for help, that he will see remarkable things happen. Because, remember, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to make much of Christ: “He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears …. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.”[27] That was his promise to the apostles. When God is the great overshadowing object of our message, then we have reason for confidence in going into the pulpit.

Final Quotes and Illustrations

Now, let me just finish by giving a couple of quotes, I think, and maybe a couple of illustrations. I see some of you have got the Preaching and Preachers around with you already, having bought the book. And Eric Alexander, referring to the preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, said this:

Those of us who have had the privilege of hearing him will not easily forget the sense of awe which came upon one’s soul as he was gripped by the glory of the gospel, and God spoke with such power through him. Yet it was not the man who lingered in the mind, nor was the lasting impression one of human gifts or intellectual ability, or personal magnetism. Rather, it was the power of truth, the greatness of God, the poverty of man, and the glorious relevance and authority of Holy Scripture which left an indelible mark on his hearers.[28]

Now, listen: how would it ever be that any of our listeners would go away being struck by a sense of the greatness of God, the poverty of man, the glory of the gospel, and the authority of the Bible? Remember what we said at the outset: our presuppositions regarding preaching will determine the way in which we preach and what we preach. And our families, who know us best, and our congregations, who begin to know us very well, will know whether we are possessed of these passions. They won’t have to be geniuses to figure it out. Do they have a sense that their pastor has a consuming longing for God to be glorified in what takes place? Or does he, quite frankly, have a great longing to be glorified himself? For God will not share his glory with us.[29] You know? So go ahead and glorify yourself, but that’s it!

It’s like what he says to the Pharisees: “I hope you’ve enjoyed your reward,” when the people said, “Oh, there’s ‘old praying Gregory,’ you know. Oh, what a great pray-er Gregory is.” Jesus says, “Well, I hope you enjoyed the fact that everyone’s saying what a great pray-er you are, because you’ve had it. You’ve had your reward. There’s nothing else. And I hope you enjoyed it when you were putting your money in and everyone said, ‘My, my, look at the way they’re putting the money in!’ Because you’ve had it, and there’s nothing else.”[30] And he comes to me and he says, “Well, I hope you enjoyed it when everybody says, ‘My, my, that was terrific!’ and how good that was, because you’ve had it, and there’s nothing else.” For the Day will bring our work to light—wood, hay, stubble, gold, silver, precious stones. “The Day will bring it to light.”[31]

Surely that’s what Paul has in mind when he says, “I don’t care if I’m judged by you or by anybody else.”[32] He’s not being dismissive of people’s interest in him or their concern for him, but he’s saying, “If you think I’m scared of you, you got rocks in your head! Because I have got an appointment with God Almighty, to whom I have to give an answer for every word I’ve spoken. And if you think that you’re gonna unsettle me, don’t lose a wink of sleep over it. Because I don’t really care.” It wasn’t because he was dismissive of people; it was because he cared so much about the fact that the Day would bring it to light: “I fear, lest having preached to others,” he says, “that I myself should become a castaway.”[33]

On another occasion, when Eric Alexander had as a young man been leading the service at which Martyn Lloyd-Jones was preaching, Lloyd-Jones had preached for about an hour and fifteen minutes, and he sat down; he came down the steps, and he sat down and just fell into the seat next to Eric Alexander. Someone else had gone up to conclude the service. And Eric, overawed by the event that had just taken place, said to the Doctor, he said, “How do you feel?” And the Doctor said, “Tired.” And he followed it up boldly by asking the question, “In what way?”—which probably annoyed him intensely. But he turned to him, either then or immediately after the conclusion of the service, and he said this: “I think that in doing what I have just done, this is the one occasion when a man comes closest to the experience of travail and childbirth.” That was his answer.

Why? Because the sense of the oracle of God, or the burden of God, being given to an individual to discharge, that weighs upon the individual’s shoulders and soul and mind and heart and has to be pushed out, if you like—in all the joy of pushing it out and seeing life come to bear, in all of the pain that’s involved in pushing out, and in all in the aftermath of it in pushing it out. Which is one of the reasons why it’s so hard to greet people, isn’t it, after you’ve really tried to preach? And then the people decide whether you’re a nice guy or not. Because you just had a baby, you know, and now you’re supposed to go around and go, “Oh, yes, hello, uh, yeah.” You try that with your wife: soon as she has her baby, say, “Hey, let’s go up the corridor and greet a few people, you know. Say, ‘Well, hey, good morning, nice to see you, yeah, yeah! Oh, sure, tell me about your camper. I’d love to hear about your camper. No, don’t worry about this. This is not a problem. No, no. No, no, I’ll be fine.’”

“Well if the pastor’s not shaking hands, then I’m not going back to that church.” Fine. Fine! Fine! And we have to say that to our people. But first they have to understand that we’re not up there giving a talk behind a box. We’re having babies—provided we go in with a sense of burden! But, you see, our presuppositions. That’s why the “go get ’em” camaraderie can never be related to a sense of burden, for the guy who’s going, “Hey, go get ’em!” doesn’t understand what you’re going to do.

You see, if preaching were simply a man giving spiritual advice to his religious inferiors—which is what people sometimes regard as preaching—then there would be no surprise. Says Baxter,

Whatever you do, let the people see that you are in good earnest. … You cannot break men’s hearts by jesting with them, or telling … a smooth tale, or [patching up] a gaudy oration. Men will not cast away their dearest pleasures [upon a] drowsy request of one that seemeth not to mean as he speaks, or to care much whether his request be granted.[34]

So we wonder why it that our congregations do not “cast away their dearest pleasures.” I want to assume that it’s the stubbornness of their hearts, but it may be on account of my drowsy requests, and that I make drowsy requests in such a way as to create the impression that I don’t mean what I say, and frankly, I don’t care much whether they do anything with it at all.

Let me give you one final illustration, from the seventeenth century in Scotland. Those of you who have gone to Scotland—and I hope all of you will before you die, so that you can complete your education—will probably drive on the M8 between Glasgow and Edinburgh. When you drive out from Glasgow on the M8, you will be confronted by various bits and pieces, but eventually it will be impossible for you to miss a church up on your right-hand side, which is called Kirk O’ Shotts. Shotts is the name of the place, and O’ is “of,” and it’s the “Church of Shotts.”

In 1630 the minister there was a man by the name of John Livingstone. He was preaching at a Communion season. In other words, he was preaching the week preceding the Communion, that led up to Communion on the Sunday. And his preaching that particular week was accompanied by an unusual sense of God’s presence. And so the elders extended it by a day, asking Livingstone to preach once again on the Monday. Very unusual; it never had happened before. They had preached for a complete week, they had come to the Sunday, the Communion was supposed to be the consummation of things, but the elders said, “No, we think you should preach again tomorrow evening.”

Livingstone was a “very modest … godly … humble man” and was fearful of the responsibility. It’s recorded that “he spent most of the night struggling,” some of the time in prayer—“could find no peace” of soul “until in the early hours of [the] Monday morning God gave him a message and [also] an assurance … that his preaching would be attended with great power.”[35] So he preached on that particular passage on the Monday evening, and the result was that five hundred individuals professed faith in Christ and “were added to the churches in [the] locality. It was a tremendous day, an overwhelming experience of the outpouring of the Spirit of God.”[36] God’s glory was revealed, and it never happened before, and it never happened again in his ministry.

What’s the lesson? Well, the lesson is that he wasn’t preaching at Kirk of Shotts in the forlorn hope that God would come and in some special visitation and he would save dramatic numbers of people. But he was preaching faithfully Sunday by Sunday in a way that was grounded in Scripture, focused in Christ, exalting the Father, and God chose to just come along and go, “Hey! There you are, Livingstone. There’s a wee encouragement for you.” And then next Sunday, business as usual.

For most of us, it will be business as usual. God may never give us such a Sunday or a Monday. Well, there is a kind of preaching which exalts man and dethrones God; there is a kind that magnifies God and puts man in his place. And I want us to be about the latter.

One final quote from R. A. Finlayson, who was the professor of the Free Church College. It’s coffee time; thanks for being so patient. This is worth the price of this book; it’s called Reformed Theological Writings. (You can find all these books in our bookstore at 20 percent discount… which as I told you, pains me to say.)

Let me give a word of personal testimony. It is that in a ministry of 50 years, in many hours of conscious weakness and inadequacy, and indeed of well-nigh despair, in going to deliver my message I felt strengthened and indeed emboldened by the consciousness that if I was in the will of God at the task that He entrusted to me I was fulfilling the eternal purpose of God to some soul in my audience, and that even through my inadequacy it would prove the power of God unto salvation to that soul by the grace and wisdom of Him who when He appointed the end also appointed the means. That, brethren, was where I fell back right gladly on the sovereignty of divine grace and the certainty that His eternal purpose of mercy must receive fulfillment. It was the warrant of my office and the sheet anchor of my authority and confidence.

That’s the kind of conviction that we’re talking about.

I lay all of this down as foundational, lest, when we come to the issue of expository preaching, we get ourselves all tied up in knots thinking about methodology. We’re not talking about methodology here, and we’re not talking about style. We’re talking about an approach to the people, and an approach to the Bible, an approach to the sinfulness of our own hearts, that is that such as we’ve just outlined in this brief historical survey.

Father, we pray now that the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts may be acceptable in your sight. O Lord, you are our strength and our redeemer.[37]

We thank you for those who have been working so hard behind the scenes and just putting things together on the tables and providing meals and coffee and everything else. What a wonderful ministry they have to us. What a reminder it is to those of us who stand up and hold the tiller of the craft that so many other members, in the preparation of the vessel for voyage and in the trimming of the sails, are absolutely vital. And so we commend to you our congregations and those who are the unsung heroes of our churches. May they not grow weary in doing good,[38] and may you bless them today. And bless us as we have this time of fellowship together. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


[1] J. I. Packer, “Some Perspectives on Preaching,” in Preaching the Living Word: Addresses from the Evangelical Ministry Assembly (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1999), 30.

[2] Packer, 32.

[3] Packer, 32.

[4] Packer, 33.

[5] See D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 40th anniversary ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 19.

[6] Packer, “Some Perspectives on Preaching,” 35.

[7] 2 Peter 2:5 (NIV 1984).

[8] Nehemiah 8:4 (NIV 1984).

[9] C. H. Spurgeon, “Sermons—Their Matter,” in Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), 72.

[10] Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (1959; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 143–44. Only the internally quoted words come from Calvin; the remainder is Wallace’s summary of Calvin’s viewpoint.

[11] Mark 1:33–35 (NIV 1984).

[12] Luke 4:21 (NIV 1984).

[13] See Luke 24:13–27.

[14] John 14:9 (paraphrased).

[15] W. E. Sangster, The Craft of Sermon Construction (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1951), 11.

[16] Horatius Bonar, “Not What I Am, O Lord, but What Thou Art” (1861).

[17] 1 Corinthians 2:2 (KJV).

[18] T. H. L. Parker, The Oracles of God: An Introduction to the Preaching of John Calvin (London: Lutterworth, 1947), 61. The quoted words are not Calvin’s own but rather Parker’s commentary of Calvin’s viewpoint.

[19] C. John Miller, Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless, rev. ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 4, quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Discovering God in Stories from the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999), 124.

[20] [J. W. Alexander?], “The Matter of Preaching,” British and Foreign Evangelical Review (London, 1857), 6:94.

[21] H. C. G. Moule, The Second Epistle to Timothy (London: Religious Tract Society, 1906), 18.

[22] 2 Timothy 1:15; 4:6 (paraphrased).

[23] See 1 Timothy 5:23.

[24] 1 Corinthians 16:10–11 (paraphrased).

[25] 1 Timothy 4:12 (KJV).

[26] Matthew 16:18 (KJV).

[27] John 16:13–14 (NIV 1984).

[28] Eric Alexander, foreword to The Cross: God’s Way of Salvation, by Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1986), vii.

[29] See Isaiah 42:8.

[30] See Matthew 6:1–2, 5, 16.

[31] 1 Corinthians 3:13 (NIV 1984).

[32] 1 Corinthians 4:3 (paraphrased).

[33] 1 Corinthians 9:27 (paraphrased).

[34] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Preacher (1655; repr., Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 81, https://ccel.org/ccel/b/baxter/pastor/cache/pastor.pdf.

[35] Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 333.

[36] Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 333.

[37] See Psalm 19:14.

[38] See Galatians 6:9.

Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.