The Benefits of Expository Preaching
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

The Benefits of Expository Preaching

From Series: The Pastor's Study, Volume 3

2 Corinthians 2:12  (ID: 2244)

What makes Bible-centered preaching so timeless and effective? Alistair Begg helps us see the many benefits of expository preaching, reminding us of the sufficiency, authority, and supremacy of God’s written Word. Expository preaching demands consistent consideration of the whole Bible. Pastors, therefore, must be learning continually as they help their congregations study the Bible in an orderly way. God is glorified when His words—not man’s ideas—are given priority.

Topics:

Sermon Transcript:

Two Corinthians 2:12–17, just to set something of a framework for what I’ve been asked to do this morning. Once again, as yesterday, I’m charged with the responsibility not of expounding Scripture but of actually talking about the benefits of so doing. I’m not sure which I like best, but anyway…

Two Corinthians 2:12:

“Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them and went on to Macedonia.

“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.”

Few of us need new revelations. Most of us need careful reminders of what is basic to our task. I wouldn’t want to be outlandish in this, but I think there are compelling arguments as to why expository preaching, when it is done properly, gives to us benefits that are not immediately afforded by approaching the Bible in other ways. So let me just go through a number of them before we go to lunch.

Expository Preaching Glorifies God

First of all, to say this: expository preaching gives glory to God, which ought to be the ultimate end of all we do. First of all, expository preaching gives glory to God.

The psalmist says in Psalm 138:2, “You have exalted above all things your name and your word.” Spurgeon, in his first lecture to his students, on page 55 of volume 1, says, “True preaching is an acceptable adoration of God by the manifestation of his gracious attributes.”[1] So in every realistic sense, when the Bible is truly preached, then God is really glorified. And indeed, the preaching of the Bible is an act of worship itself, inasmuch as it is declaring the mighty acts of God.

Now, clearly, a kind of preaching that begins with the text of Scripture will establish immediately the focus upon God by our people. And before any other considerations of how they may be feeling or what they may be hoping for, the preacher, by turning to the Bible and setting it up, as it were—up on the table in order that all of us may come and eat—immediately puts the priority there in the minds of the listening group. And ultimately, we affirm the place of preaching not on the grounds of our own personal interest in it but because it pleases God. And I think we could argue safely that a congregation that has accepted this and is beginning to learn the implications of it will actually be markedly different from one in which sermons constantly find their origin in the felt needs of people.

Ultimately, we affirm the place of preaching not on the grounds of our own personal interest in it but because it pleases God.

Just as an aside: this applause business in the American church, if you’ll forgive me, is really quite shameful. And if you listen to it at the average conference, the points at which the applause tends to come in the average monologue are really the wrong points, you know. They’re things that, you know, make you laugh or make you cry or whatever. But if ever the congregation should stand up, as it were, and just by their silence applaud, it is when they have made a fresh discovery of the truths of who God is and how glorious he is. And even the way in which we welcome people to the task of preaching immediately denudes it of a sense of God’s glory: “And here he is, and here’s what he’s done, and here’s where he’s been, and here’s where he’s going, and here’s what he’s written.” We could be forgiven for thinking that the real issue is who he is rather than what it is that he has been given to say. And the best welcome that a congregation can ever give to a preacher is not the sound of their hands clapping together but is the sound of the pages of the Bible turning as they’re opening up to say, “Bring out the Book. We want to hear concerning this.”[2]

Expository Preaching Requires Study

Now, that’s straightforward. Secondly and equally straightforward, expository preaching makes the preacher study God’s Word. Makes the preacher study God’s Word. Expository preaching demands that the preacher himself becomes a student of the Bible. After theological studies, it’s not uncommon to hear of people who have gone to a church; they have mugged up a few sermons and managed to battle their way through them, and once they feel that they’ve exhausted all that they’re able to do, then they move on to another congregation to give them the benefit of all these dreadful sermons that they should have thrown in the bin long ago and started all over again. And every so often, you find somebody who’s actually quite proud of this: “You know, I have a series on this, and a series on this, and a series on this, and I preached it in Atlanta, and I preached it in Connecticut, and I’m thinking I’ll maybe go preach it another couple of places.” And you get the impression that the reason they’re moving on is the hope that somewhere along the line somebody will actually benefit from this preaching, but it certainly wasn’t their first congregation.

Now, by contrast, when a pastor is committed to the systematic, consecutive exposition of the Scriptures—the SCEOTS, if you like, S-C-E-O-T-S, systematic, consecutive exposition of the Scriptures—when a pastor is committed to that, that individual will never exhaust his task. He will never, ever come to the point where he says, “You know, I think I’ll need to move on now, because I’ve pretty well done all that I can do.” Well, unless he has been of such tremendous capacity that he’s preached his whole way through every verse in the Bible, then he presumably still has a little to do before he goes.

And therefore, it is imperative that as pastors we are learning. Constantly learning. If we’re not learning, we’re not growing. And if we are stuck, then we can be certain that our congregations will be stuck with us. And therefore, it is incumbent upon us constantly to be coming to the text of Scripture in the spirit of discovery. Learning to look, if you like, for the surprises in the passage. Not assuming that we understand just because we’ve spent time in the passage before. Bringing to the study of the Scriptures a necessary agnosticism, an honest sense of saying, “I’m not truly certain what this means.” Especially if you have preached on the passage before and reread your notes, you know that you weren’t particularly certain, because you’ve seen some of the non sequiturs in your attempts at logic. And so, setting it aside, we come back to it, as it were, on our knees and praying in the hymn,

O teach me, Lord that I may teach
The precious things thou dost impart;
And wing my words, that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.[3]

And of course, the first heart that God’s Word needs to reach is the heart of the preacher. For there will be little benefit to our people from expository preaching that is just completely cerebral, unless we ourselves have been impacted by the Scripture as we are preparing to preach it. It is imperative that as we are dealing with the biblical text, that the text is actually dealing with us—that we feel ourselves to be under the burden of it, although we may be taking it apart and doing our best to do the kind of detailed analysis that has just been so helpfully provided for us in this earlier session. All of that is vitally important. But eventually, it must be that we come to the matter on our knees.

Is it in Between Two Worlds that John Stott says that he likes always to bring the preparation for his preaching down to one place? And that is in his study, to a chair, on his knees. And he says that he physically takes his Bible and his notes and lays them down and kneels on the floor as he reads through the material for the final time, praying that God would make his physical posture the posture of his heart in order that he might first have the text imbued within him so that he may then go forward from there.[4]

John Owen spoke of this necessity; you can read it in volume 16 of The Works of John Owen, published by Banner of Truth, 1968. It’s on page 76. He says, “A man only preaches a sermon well to others if he has first preached it to himself. If he does not thrive on the food he prepares, he will not be skilled at making it appetizing for others. If the word does not dwell in power in us, it will not pass in power from us.”[5]

Expository Preaching Enables Learning

Thirdly, expository preaching enables the congregation to learn the Bible in the most obvious and natural way. Expository preaching enables the congregation to learn the Bible in the most obvious and natural way. You wouldn’t expect a university professor to teach from a textbook on human anatomy by picking out parts of sentences at random and using them for his lecture. Rather, we would expect—and rightly so—that he would work through the material in an orderly fashion in order to ensure that his students come to understand how the pieces fit together.

And I think, incidentally, this is one of the places where the average engineer gets off the trolley in relationship to many of our sermons. He is used to thinking clearly through a process that is conveying information to him. And he sits and listens, and he says, “You know, I don’t think this fellow has a grasp of what he’s talking about at all. He seems to be bouncing around here and there and all over the place.” And the passion or excitement that we may seek to bring to it to cover up for that will be inadequate, at least for those who are thinking properly.

Now, I don’t mention engineers particularly, except that engineers tend to think fairly logically. They’re supposed to be. That’s why in civil engineering they can build bridges that don’t fall down—most of them, at least. And they expect us to be able to build bridges that don’t fall down as well.

And then, if we’re going to do that, then, in the exposition of Scripture, we will be helping all the members of our congregation to follow that through. There are plenty of people who are capable of delivering excellent orations, producing touching illustrations, uttering stirring exhortations, all of them based on scriptural material, but in terms of being expositors of Scripture, they are patently ineffective.

It is imperative that as we are dealing with the biblical text, that the text is actually dealing with us.

I mentioned something of this yesterday. I had a piece in my notes from R. W. Dale, who, in giving lectures on preaching to the faculty and students of Yale—that was “Dale at Yale.” You can imagine it, if the marketing boys had only been smart enough in the nineteenth century, how they would have been able to put the posters together: “Come hear Dale at Yale.” But anyway, he was there in 1876, and in the nine lectures on preaching that he delivered—published by Hodder and Stoughton, actually, in 1877, on page 127—Dale had this to say:

I always think of the tricks of those ingenious gentlemen who entertain the public by rubbing a sovereign between their hands till it becomes a canary, and drawing out of their coat sleeves half-a-dozen brilliant glass globes filled with water, and with four or five gold fish swimming in each of them. For myself, I like to listen to a good preacher, and I have no objection in the world to be[ing] amused by the tricks of a clever conjurer; but I prefer to keep the conjuring and the preaching separate: conjuring on Sunday morning, conjuring in church, conjuring with texts of Scripture, is not quite to my taste.[6]

Now, one of the things that will safeguard against that kind of conjuring is by being committed to the exposition of the Scripture, so that our people themselves know, “Listen, you read these verses; you’re supposed to be talking about these verses. And we’re supposed to be making progress in our understanding of it.” And such preaching will help the congregation.

Spurgeon says something similar concerning human anatomy. It’s probably… in fact, it’s doubtless where I got my earlier thought, as I look at my notes. He says,

I believe the remark is too well grounded that if you attend to a lecturer on astronomy or geology, during a short course you will obtain a tolerably clear view of his system; but if you listen, not only for twelve months, but for twelve years, to the common run of preachers, you will not arrive at anything like an idea of their system of theology.[7]

You could take a group of twenty preachers and lay them end to end, and they couldn’t reach a conclusion.

So by our preaching, we either help or hinder our people in the task of interpreting the Bible. If, as I said yesterday morning, we merely show them the results of our study without at least to some degree including them in the process, they may be blessed but will remain untaught.

I’m not suggesting that the tailor brings all of the extraneous fabric and threads and bobbins and needles and scissors and everything to the final trying on of the suit for his client. We’re not talking about that. We’re not talking about someone who hasn’t studied the Bible during the week and decides just to study it while his congregation is present in the morning, so everything is very, very fresh indeed, you know. You get the impression that he just discovered that—and the fact is, he did. We’re not talking about that. But we’re talking about being able to come to the text in such a spirit of humble dependence upon on it and to say, where it is legitimate, to our people, “You know, when I came to this last Tuesday, I was thinking in this way, but when I read this through and considered a and b and c, it seemed to me that the only way to understand this was in light of this.” Now, in doing that, we are helping our people to become students of the Bible, at least in part, for themselves, so that they will then learn not only how to eat but also how to cook. So that when they’re on their own, they will then be able to study the Bible.

So, it helps the congregation.

Expository Preaching Treats the Entire Bible

Also, it demands treatment of the entire Bible. It demands treatment of the entire Bible. Expository preaching—more than any other, I think—prevents the preacher from avoiding difficult passages or from dwelling on his favorite texts. I mentioned something of this yesterday, and how various preachers are known for their emphases: someone on the Higher Life, or someone on the risen life of Christ, someone on flights of eschatological fancy, and some for this and some for that. And what happens is that over a period of time, congregations then only come to expect that for which the preacher is known. And he defaults to it all the time. One of the ways to arrest that is to make sure that he treats the entire Bible.

In England for a while—and I’m in England, not Scotland. You wouldn’t find this kind of thing in Scotland. But in England… Forgive me. You know the Scotsman who was traveling in England, and he was giving a lecture. And somebody asked him if he would ever leave Scotland, since he extolled its glory so much. He said, “Well, I was born a Scot, and I live as a Scot, and I will die as a Scot.” And an English voice was heard at the back to say, “You know, some people have no ambition at all.” Yeah.

But I’m sure this happened all over the place. You would get somebody who at a conference would seek to intrigue the listeners by announcing the fact that this evening, he was going to preach just on one word, you know. Sidlow Baxter used to do this kind of thing. “My text this evening is just one word,” he would say. “My beloved”—he came from Lancashire, you know, if you’ve heard him up in Santa Barbara, you know—“I’m going to speak this evening on ‘If.’” You know that kind of stuff, don’t you? When I was a kid, I was going, “This is amazing! Number one, it’s gonna be short. Number two, it’s gonna be clear.” And of course, it was none of the above. ’Cause it had nothing to do with if at all. The only if was if he should have even mentioned it in the first place.

Now, I have it on good authority that what I’m about to share with you actually happened. An Englishman in the southern states, before the transcontinental impact of slang reached the headquarters of the old British empire, coming across the Atlantic divide, and he came to a place in America, and he announced his plan was to speak on simply one word. And he gave out his text: he said, “My text this evening is 2 Kings 5:1: ‘Naaman was a mighty man of valor, but he had leprosy.’” And he said, “I’m going to speak this evening on one word: ‘But.’” He said, “Let me give you the outline of my sermon. My first point is this: Everyone has his own particular but. Secondly, no man’s but is quite the same as another man’s. Thirdly, we can’t see our own but; others can.” And then he built to a glorious crescendo with his point of application: “And so, may I ask you this evening: What are you going to do about your but?” Now, of course, you know that there was a tremendous demand for that sermon, don’t you? “Could I have the ‘But’ sermon, please?”

Now, when that kind of thing begins to permeate a man’s approach to the teaching of the Bible and you disengage the text from any points of application, then you can just go anywhere you want—and frequently do. And I suggest to you that our painstaking commitment to be imaginative and creative and lively and effective in our study of the Bible and in our conveying it will ensure that our congregations, then, are experiencing a treatment of the Bible that is entire. And thereby, we will not be denying our congregations the opportunity to wrestle with all kinds of things. The doctrine of election. Many congregations have never examined the issue of spiritual gifts. Most have stayed away from controversial subjects like homosexuality, or the role of women, or the future of Israel. And the only way to ensure that eventually we will have to tackle all of these things, unless we go at them in a piecemeal fashion, is to commit ourselves to the exposition of Scripture—an exposition that is systematic in its pattern, thereby enabling both the congregation and the preacher to avoid these pitfalls.

Expository Preaching Provides a Balanced Diet

Then we should say that expository preaching assures the congregation of enjoying a balanced diet of God’s Word. I mean, this is simply to advance that thought. If I can quote Dr. Kaiser here: he wrote in one place,

It is no secret that Christ’s Church is not in good health in many places of the world. She has been languishing because she[’s] been fed, as the current line has it, “junk food”; all kinds of artificial preservatives and all sorts of unnatural substitutes have been served up to her. As a result, theological and Biblical malnutrition has afflicted the very generation that has taken such giant steps to make sure its physical health is not damaged by using foods or products that are … harmful to their … bodies. Simultaneously a worldwide spiritual famine resulting from the absence of any genuine publication of the Word of God … continues to run wild and almost unabated in most quarters of the [evangelical world].[8]

Now, when we were children in Sunday school, if we had good teachers, they helped us to understand that the Bible was the Bible—that it combined in Old and New Testaments. And we learned things, like, our teachers told us that “the Bible is a book with the answers in the back,” they would say, to try and help us understand the way in which the development of thought would go. Somebody else would have told us that the Bible is like a two-act drama: that if you come in on the second act having missed the first, then you constantly find yourself saying, “Who’s this, and why is he here?” If you attend only the first act and you leave, then you annoy your wife when you go home saying, “How did it finish, and what happened to character X or Y?” And so our teachers told us, “You need to view it in its wholeness.” In the same way, they told us that in the Old Testament, Jesus is predicted; in the Gospels, Jesus is revealed; in the Acts, Jesus is preached; in the Epistles, he is explained; and in the Revelation, he is expected. And those kind of frameworks never left us as we progressed as students of the Bible. And we want to be bringing them before our congregation to ensure that in the way in which they view the Bible, they are ensuring for themselves a balanced diet. And such frameworks, and others like them, help us to navigate our way through the Bible, and consequently, they have value.

But let me return again to what I said yesterday morning, because I’m not sure I made the point very well, and I want to reiterate it. There is a danger that our framework is more substantial than it needs to be. And instead of the text of Scripture dictating to the framework—whether it is a dispensational hermeneutic, or a covenantal hermeneutic, or whatever it is—the danger is that we allow the tail to wag the dog.

Sometimes the framework is a product of denominational distinctives that create an almost inevitable imbalance. Let me suggest to you what I mean with two straightforward illustrations as a result of just moving around and having the privilege of sitting under the teaching of other people. I was worshipping with my family in a church in South Carolina where the pastor was doing a series of studies from 1 Timothy. This was a Baptist church somewhere in South Carolina. That way you won’t be able to track it down—because there are quite a few in South Carolina. And a few of them are actually talking to each other! Sorry…

The passage for that morning was the first thirteen verses of the third chapter of 1 Timothy—which, of course, you know well. In opening up the text, the pastor said something like this: “The first seven verses have to do with elders. But since we are Baptists, we don’t have them. So let’s go directly to verse 8.” No lie! No lie. “Let us go directly to verse 8, which deals with deacons.” That’s unacceptable, right? Come on, you Baptists. You say amen, don’t you?

Okay, now let’s go to the Dutch Reformed and have a go at them. I was coming back from Lake Michigan, and I stopped on a Sunday morning to a church in Grand Rapids, and the pastor was dealing with the subject of communion. And I very quickly lost track of how many times he urged me to consult the copy of the Heidelberg Catechism that was before me in the pew. Indeed, when he announced his text, he announced not only his text from the Bible, but he also announced his page from the Heidelberg Catechism. And quite honestly, loved ones, it was pretty difficult to tell whether the Heidelberg Catechism was dictating to the Bible or whether the Bible was actually dictating to the Catechism. Now, what he was doing in part was, of course, seeking to catechize his people, and I understood that perfectly. But I wished just for a moment that he would leave the Heidelberg down for a while and set forward the sufficiency of Scripture to affirm what it was he was saying.

I suggest to you again that it is exposition which then constantly affirms the priority and the sufficiency of the text. And it prevents that kind of imbalance from taking place. Of course, there is a risk. And the risk, at least in part, is being regarded at times as being less than precise on our systematic theology. But take the risk! We should not be more precise than the text of Scripture allows.

Teaching the Bible in this way shouldn’t mean—needn’t mean—a lack of variety. In fact, the very variety that is inherent in the Bible itself will be present in our preaching. And expository preaching need not be limited to exhaustive and exhausting studies through books of the Bible. You know that great quote, again from Spurgeon in his lectures to his students, where he talks about sitting as a boy under a series of expositions on the Hebrews. And he basically says, “It had very little interest for a young gentile boy like me. I didn’t know what he was on about in relationship to the Hebrews, or even who they were, but it certainly passed me by.”[9] And there are a number of congregations that are just dying under the weight of exhaustive and exhausting exposition. There shouldn’t be a heaviness about it. There should not be a sense of simply bringing our wheelbarrow up and, you know, just tipping it over the congregation on the average occasion. And this sort of painstaking Bible study that just runs verse by verse through things that has become a sort of classical expression of expository preaching should at least be interacted with in our minds.

Ninety percent of what we do at Parkside is the careful study of particular Bible books. I freely confess that. But we also turn to different things: to character studies, a series on the parables on Luke, key Christian doctrines. We tackle each of them in an expository form. So that, for example, if we were preaching on the matter of temptation, we would probably want to go and expound the first half of James 1 rather than pull together material from all over the Bible. And we serve our people best when we make clear that we are committed to teaching the Bible by teaching the Bible.

And I think the way in which some of us lead with our framework, because we’re so determined to get our people where they need to be, actually works against the very conclusion we long for. And if this framework really emerges from the text, then presumably, in the faithful preaching of the text, our people will be coming to us saying, “Hey, doesn’t this seem that man is just totally depraved?” You say, “Well, where did you get that from, for goodness’ sake?” “Well, I got it from your preaching the other night.” “Well, that’s wonderful.” You understand, of course, where we’re going from there.

Expository Preaching Eliminates “Saturday Night Fever”

Well, expository preaching—I just have maybe one more point, two. Expository preaching also eliminates “Saturday night fever.” Expository preaching liberates the preacher from the pressure of trying to figure it all out on Saturday nights. Where it is systematic and consecutive in its pattern, it means that the congregation is not approaching the church building saying to themselves, “Well, I wonder what the minister will preach about today.” And the pastor simultaneously is freed from facing the same question with painful, relentless regularity as the week progresses.

And from a completely pragmatic perspective, I believe in the systematic teaching of the Bible. When I began in Hamilton twenty-five years ago, I began with the book of Philippians, ’cause I knew it only had four chapters. Frankly, that’s about all I knew about the book of Philippians when I began. But it was a journey and a discovery, and I just started at verse 1, and I kept going. It never occurred to me to do anything else. I really didn’t think of any other way to go at it—largely as a result of the influences that had been upon me, but I was not raising a flag for a certain approach to the Bible. And so that’s what I did, and it was a tremendous liberation. Because when you come back to it first thing on Monday morning, you know where you are. You’re at the next verse. You’re at the next section. And it is forcing that kind of continual study, and helpful to our people as well.

The man that I had the privilege of being assistant to, Derek Prime at Charlotte Chapel, would often take a break in the middle of a long series. If he was going through 1 Corinthians, he would break away and do something else. Going through John’s Gospel, he would do a mini series on something else, thus giving himself and the congregation a purposeful pause, and then allowing the congregation to return to the main and overarching series with a fresh sense of expectation.

On a limited number of occasions, I think each of us have had occasion to interrupt a series because we feel it is imperative to address a subject that has gripped the congregation or the nation. For example, the destruction of space shuttle Challenger. Probably good to stop whatever you’re doing, especially if you’re wading your way through the book of Leviticus, and acknowledge the fact that everyone in the congregation is asking, “Why in the world would this ever happen? And what is the doctrine of providence?” and so on. That’s a grand-slam, home-run opportunity there, which a commitment to systematic exposition is gonna cause you to miss, unless you’re prepared to interact with your own methodology. The death of Lady Diana. The announcement of Magic Johnson that he had AIDS. The disclosure of Ellen DeGeneres regarding her overt homosexuality.

It’s like when a bird flies in a window and you’re preaching. I know there are those who have possessed of the capacity just to keep going, you know. “Head down and steam along,” you know. Many of them are oblivious to the fact that they even have a congregation. That’s part of the point. You say to them, “Do you know there are people out there?” “Oh, sorry!” But if you’re alert to what’s going on, you know that every kid in the class is watching the pigeon to see if he’s going to come in and lay something on the minister’s head. So you’d better have a verse for including a pigeon in your sermon, you see. Because the mind of the congregation is gone. The children are all looking out of the classroom to find out why it is that the fire brigade just arrived in the playground. So we need to deal with that.

It’s like the guy who said, you know, “I was preaching through the Bible”—he wrote to his bishop, he said, “I was preaching through the Bible, and frankly, hardly anyone is coming at all. We had a dreadful flood the other week in our town, and man,” he said, “I just decided to preach on why the flood came to Jonestown.” And he said, “The church was absolutely packed. The following week I went back to my expositions, and it was back down to the same paltry crew. Dear Bishop, what do you think I should do?” The bishop wrote back, and he said, somewhat sensibly, “If you preach your way through the Bible, you can always be sure of material to preach on. If you want to wait for a flood coming to Jonestown, then you’re probably gonna be somewhat limited in your expectations.” So we’re not saying that.

But my heart goes out to the minister who is sitting with his hair sticking up on end, if he’s got any of it left, on a Saturday evening, with balls of paper, you know, all crumpled up on his study floor. He said, “There’s an outline; don’t like that one. There’s another outline; don’t like that one.” His wife comes in: “How are you doing, honey?” His hair’s all over the place. “Oh, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. I don’t know if this is the right word. I don’t know if that’s the right word.” She says, “Okay, didn’t God give you the Bible?” He said, “Yes.” “Why don’t you just take a verse in the Bible or a piece of the Bible? Do something with the Bible, for goodness’ sake, and let’s go to our beds!”

Who was it was saying this? Let me tell you who it was: Mrs. Spurgeon! Isn’t it amazing that that was Spurgeon? Huh!

Now, you say, “Oh, I love Spurgeon’s sermons.” Can you imagine what it would have been like if Spurgeon had systematically, consecutively expounded the Scriptures? Those volumes would have been priceless. I mean, his material’s good. Listen to him: “To me still,” he says, “I must confess, my text selection is of very great embarrassment …. I confess that I frequently sit hour after hour praying and waiting for a subject, and that this is the main part of my study.”[10] Fortunately, he was as brilliant as he was, you know, and had been reading his Bible a lot. His problem wasn’t “Do I have something to preach?” His problem was that he had so much to preach. And he was waiting for this existential, you know, angel on the shoulder to tell him which of the crumpled balls of paper he was supposed to pick up and then preach that outline. What a tyranny, for goodness’ sake!

Incidentally, I wish I could find those balls of paper, don’t you? You know, I love that one, you know:

There once was a preacher called Spurgy,
Who really detested li-tur-gy,
But his sermons are fine,
And I use them as mine,
And so do most of the clergy.

He said, “That … [was] the main part of my study; much hard labour have I spent in manipulating topics, ruminating upon points of doctrine, making skeletons out of verses, and then burying every bone of them in the catacombs of oblivion.” Whoo! Wouldn’t you like to write a sentence like that once in your life? We’d say, “I come up with a few ideas, and then I trash them.”

… and then burying every bone of them in the catacombs of oblivion, [sailing] on and on over leagues of broken water, till I see the red lights, and make sail direct to the desired haven. I believe that, almost any Saturday in my life, I [make] enough outlines of Sermons, if I felt [the] liberty to preach them, to last me for a month, but I no more dare to use them than an honest mariner would run to shore a cargo of contraband goods.[11]

The best of men are men at best.

Spurgeon was unique. Spurgeon was really a genius. Therefore, we’re not going to allow his pattern to overturn, I hope, the points that I’ve labored to make. But if you choose to, then give me a call some Saturday evening. I’d love to talk with you.

All we need to acknowledge is that God does not come upon methods but upon men—even when our methods may not give the appearance of being the wisest or the best. And so it is to this high and sacred calling, this task of expository preaching, that we are called. We are to be men of spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel. We must each have a genuine experience of the power of the truth we proclaim. It is incumbent upon us to be able to divide the Word of God correctly and to feed the sheep as we discern their condition by spending time among them. There must be about us a zeal for the glory of God and a compassion for the souls of men. (I’m just reading my notes now, ’cause I’m done with this—I don’t know about you—and I’m just trying to move to the end.) And yet, do we not find ourselves exclaiming, “Who is equal to such a task?”

The awesome sense of wonder and privilege described above must have captured the mind of James [Henley] Thornwell, who wrote,

Depend upon it, that there is but little preaching in the world; and it is a mystery of grace and of Divine power that God’s cause is not ruined in the world, when we consider the qualifications of many of its professed ministers to preach it. My own performances in this way fill me with disgust. I have never made, much less preached, a sermon in my life; and I am beginning to despair of ever being able to do it.[12]

And those of us who have the works of Thornwell on our shelves and have read them to tremendous profit say, “If Thornwell feels that way, I need to take a look at things.”

So, to Lloyd-Jones. After preaching for thirty years and judged by many to be the greatest preacher of Reformed theology, at least in the United Kingdom in the twentieth century, Lloyd-Jones himself sounded remarkably like Thornwell when he reflected—and this is Preaching and Preachers, page 99: “Any man who has had some glimpse of what it is to preach will inevitably feel that he has never preached. But he will go on trying, hoping that by the grace of God one day he may truly preach.”[13]

And so, as we go on trying, there is no prayer that ought to be more constantly on our lips than that of Charles Wesley:

O thou who camest from above,
The pure celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
[On] the mean altar of my heart.

[And] there let it for thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze.[14]

And so we say, “Lord, hear our prayer, and let our cry come unto thee.” Amen.


[1] C. H. Spurgeon, “Our Public Prayer,” in Lectures to My Students (1875–94; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 55.

[2] See Nehemiah 8:1.

[3] Frances Ridley Havergal, “O Teach Me, Lord, That I May Teach” (1872).

[4] John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 257.

[5] The Works of John Owen, vol. 16, The Church and the Bible (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 76.

[6] R. W. Dale, “The Preparation of Sermons,” in Nine Lectures on Preaching (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877), 127.

[7] Spurgeon, “Sermons—Their Matter,” in Lectures to My Students, 78.

[8] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 7–8.

[9] Spurgeon, “On the Choice of a Text,” in Lectures to My Students, 106. Paraphrased.

[10] Spurgeon, “Choice of a Text,” 93.

[11] C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Compiled from His Diary, Letters, and Records, by His Wife and Private Secretary, vol. 1, 1834–1854 (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1897), 219.

[12] Benjamin Morgan Palmer, The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond, VA: Whittet and Shepperson, 1875), 315.

[13] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 99.

[14] Charles Wesley, “O Thou Who Camest from Above” (1762).

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.